SMYTHE, Sir Thomas (c.1558-1625), of Philpott Lane, London and Bounds Place, Bidborough, Kent

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Constituency

Dates

31 Mar. 1604

Family and Education

b. c.1558,1 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of Thomas Smythe† (d.1591) of London and Westenhanger, Kent; bro. of Sir John I* and Sir Richard*.2 educ. Merchant Taylors’ 1571.3 m. (1) by 1586 (with £1,000), Judith, da. and h. of Richard Culverwell, Mercer of London, s.p.;4 (2) 21 Apr. 1588, Joan, da. and coh. of William Hobbs, Draper of London, s.p.;5 (3) 20 Dec. 1594, Sarah (d. 12 Mar. 1655), da. of William Blount of London, 3s. incl. Sir John III* (2 d.v.p.) 1da. d.v.p.6 kntd. 13 May 1603.7 d. 4 Sept. 1625.8 sig. Tho[mas] Smythe.

Offices Held

Freeman, Skinners’ Co. by 1580, Haberdashers’ Co. 1580, master 1583-4, 1588-9, 1599-1600;9 member, Merchant Adventurers’ Co. by 1598-d., E.I. Co. 1599-d.;10 dep. gov. Muscovy Co. (jt.) by 1600-7, (sole) 1607-20;11 gov., Levant Co. 1600-5, E.I. Co. 1600-1, 1607-21;12 member, Spanish Co. 1605;13 treas. Virg. Co. 1607-19;14 member, French Co. 1611;15 gov. N.W. Passage Co. 1612,16 French Co. by 1614-at least 1618,17 Somers Is. Co. 1615-21, 1624-d.18

Capt. militia ft., London by 1588-1601;19 vestryman, St. Alphage, London Wall by 1594; common councilman, London 1595-9;20 treas. St. Bart.’s hosp. 1597-1601;21 alderman, London 1599-1601, Jan.-Feb. 1604;22 sheriff, London and Mdx. Sept. 1600-Feb. 1601;23 j.p. Kent 1603-d.;24 collector (jt.) loans from merchants, London 1604;25 commr. oyer and terminer, the Verge 1606, London and Mdx. 1613, sewers 1606, lic. emigrants, port of London 1607-8, 1611, subsidy, Kent 1608, 1621-2, 1624, piracy, London and Mdx. 1609, London and lower Thames 1614-d.26

Amb. to Muscovy 1604-5;27 treas. (jt.) suppression of piracy 1618-19;28 commr. Navy 1618-?d.;29 commr. govt. of Virg. 1624.30

Biography

Smythe (as he consistently signed himself) is not always easy to distinguished from (Sir) Thomas Smith†, clerk of the Privy Council from 1587 to 1605. A younger son of the wealthy ‘Customer Smythe’, this Member traded in partnership with Nicholas Crispe as a member of the Merchant Adventurers, the Muscovy and Levant Companies, and was a founder member of the East India Company. He rapidly progressed up the municipal hierarchy in London, but his tenure as sheriff unhappily coincided with the 2nd earl of Essex’s rising of February 1601, when, having ‘forgotten himself in his duty and loyalty to Her Majesty’ by consorting with the earl on the eve of the rebellion, he was removed from office, imprisoned, and fined.31

Like many of Essex’s associates, Smythe was quickly rehabilitated after James’s accession: following the attainder of the earl’s prime enemies, the 11th Lord Cobham (Henry Brooke†) and Sir Walter Ralegh† for their role in the Main Plot of 1603, he was given the congenial task of appraising their property. He declined reinstatement as a London alderman, but expanded his trading interests to include the Spanish, French and Virginia Companies, and for much of James’s reign he served as governor of the East India and Virginia companies, and deputy governor of the Muscovy Company.32 He was also appointed a magistrate in Kent, though his property holdings there remained modest until he purchased Bounds Place from Sir Thomas Berkeley* a few years later.

Smythe was returned to the Commons for Dunwich on 31 Mar. 1604, shortly after the start of the parliamentary session. He replaced Sir Valentine Knightley, who chose to sit for Northamptonshire and whose nephew Richard Knightley* had been his ward since 1599.33 He is not recorded as having spoken during any of the five sessions, but he was named to a large number of committees, beginning with one to prepare for a conference with the Lords on religion (19 Apr. 1604). On the following day he attended a conference with the king about the Union, while on 3 May he was the first Member named to a committee to consider a bill to allow the English-born children of foreigners the status of denizens.34 His mercantile interests explain his nomination to the committee for the free trade bill immediately after its chief proponent, Sir Edwin Sandys (24 Apr.), although he may be presumed to have opposed this measure, as one of its chief targets was the Muscovy Company. He was also named to the committee for the bill to prevent abuses in the customs (5 May). The last committee to which he was named concerned the bill against clerical pluralities (4 June).35

Smythe missed the final weeks of the 1604 session because he was sent to Russia on a diplomatic mission. His post in the Muscovy Company made him a natural choice, while he was also recommended as ‘a religious and discreet gentleman ... likeliest to respect both His Majesty’s honour and the good of your trade’. He received his instructions at Greenwich on 10 June in the presence of Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, and embarked at Gravesend three days later. His arrival in Russian territory coincided with the Polish invasion that inaugurated the Time of Troubles, while on his way home at Archangel, he learnt of the mysterious death of Tsar Boris Godunov and the installation, under Polish auspices, of a crypto-Catholic pretender. He had returned to England by 24 Sept. 1605, empty-handed except for some sensational stories of Russian barbarity, which were snapped up by the booksellers, although swiftly eclipsed by the Gunpowder Plot.36

Smythe’s brief moment of celebrity may help to explain the large number of committee nominations he received during the 1605-6 session. A few hours after the Plot was discovered, he was the first MP appointed to the committee for a bill for the better execution of the penal laws against Catholics (5 Nov.), and he was later among those ordered to recommend further legislation against recusants (21 Jan. 1606) and to consider a bill to punish crypto-Catholics who attended church but failed to take communion (5 April).37 On 10 Feb. 1606 he was added to the committee of inquiry into the Spanish Company, to which he belonged. He was named to the committee for the wine import bill (7 Mar.), a bill repealing the 1566 statute regulating the Muscovy Company (17 Mar.) and another for the revived free trade bill (3 April). He was among those appointed to consider the repeal of a clause in the Tunnage and Poundage Act (28 Jan.) and the impositions’ bill (19 Mar.), and he helped to draft the subsidy bill (10 February).38 He was included on numerous committees for legislation related to London, including bills to regulate the building of tenements (24 Jan.), for relief of small debtors in London (28 Jan.), to bring a new supply of water to the capital (31 Jan.), for the paving of Drury Lane (19 Mar.), and to improve the navigation on the upper Thames (17 April).39 His loyalty to the late earl of Essex doubtless prompted his inclusion on committees for the bill for the 3rd earl’s marriage settlement (13 Mar.) and the restitution of Rowland Meyricke* (1 April). At the end of the session he was among those charged with the distribution of the Benevolence collected from Members for the officers of the House and the relief of the poor (27 May).40

At the start of the next session, Smythe was appointed to the committee considering the Instrument of Union (27 Nov. 1606), but he left no further trace on the debates about this subject, though it dominated the parliamentary agenda.41 Instead, most of his committee nominations concerned London and trade, including the revived bill to regulate the building of tenements (8 Dec.), to investigate the search of a Levanter by a Spanish squadron (28 Feb. 1607), the bill to modify the 1604 Thames Watermen’s Act (13 Mar.), the New River bill (1 May), a bill to regulate mariners (1 May), the bill to confirm the charitable endowments of the London livery companies (4 May), and the bill to make mercantile debts negotiable (5 June).42 He was also named to the committee for the bill to restrict the extent to which puritan ministers could be required to conform to the 1604 Canons (11 Dec. 1606), and another for the endowment of poor church livings (15 May 1607).43

In 1607 Smythe was reappointed governor of the East India Company, a post he had forfeited after the Essex rebellion, ‘with the promise that the Company expect no further of him at courts or otherwise than his other affairs will admit’. This was a necessary proviso since he combined the office with similar responsibility in the Muscovy and Virginia Companies. Even as a part-time chairman, he was thought worthy of a bonus of £650 in 1609, ‘but he utterly refused to take the oath of governor until the Company took back £250’. King James attended the launch of ‘a goodly ship of above 1,200 tons’ ordered for the East India trade in January 1610, when he ‘graced Sir Thomas Smythe, the governor, with a chain in manner of a collar, better worth than £200, with his picture hanging at it, and put it about his neck with his own hands’.44

The 1610 parliamentary sessions were dominated by the Great Contract and impositions. Smythe was one of the large delegation who attended the conference at which lord treasurer Salisbury (Sir Robert Cecil†) outlined his plans for fiscal reform (15 Feb.), but he played no recorded part in these debates thereafter.45 Commercial interests can be detected in other committee nominations: the bill for ‘venting commodities’ was probably hostile to the interests of the chartered companies (16 Mar.); while he was also named to the committee for the revived wine import bill (22 March).46 Other nominations included the committee for the bill to restrict clerics from holding benefices in plurality (19 Feb.), and another for the general naturalization of children born in embassies abroad (27 April). On 12 July he and Nicholas Fuller were appointed collectors of the Benevolence for the officers of the House. Smythe left no trace on the poorly reported autumn session, but he presumably acted as one of the collectors of the Benevolence on that occasion, too, as at the start of the 1614 Parliament he asked the House for directions over £12 5s. remaining in his hands.47

Smythe’s epitaph indicates the global reach of his business ventures:

From those large kingdoms where the sun doth rise,

From that rich new-found world that westward lies,

From Volga to the flood of Amazons,

From under both the Poles and all the zones,

From all the famous rivers, lands, and seas,

Betwixt this place and the Antipodes,

He got intelligence what might be found

To give contentment through the massy round.

His London household was multi-racial, with two Virginia Indians and a homesick Kaffir boy, who was eventually returned to the Cape.48 He engaged in negotiations with the Dutch over commercial rivalry in the Spice Islands and the Greenland whaling trade. He sent out an expedition to Senegal, and he was ‘the prime undertaker (in the year 1612) for that noble design, the North West Passage’.49 At the general election of 1614 Henry Howard, earl of Northampton nominated Smythe to the corporation of Sandwich as his second choice following their rejection of Sir George Fane*.50

Smythe played a more active part in the Addled Parliament. Near the start of the session, he was named to three important committees, for privileges, for expiring laws, and another specially appointed to search for precedents for allowing attorney-general Sir Francis Bacon to a seat in the House (8 April). He was also one of the large delegation appointed to attend the conference with the Lords about the place of the Elector Palatine’s children in the succession (14 April).51 At the second reading of the bill to prevent the export of ordnance, on 11 May, he desired that the customs farmers might be sent for to explain abuses in the export of ordnance, while he was later named to the committee for the bill to avoid the extortions of their employees (25 May).52 On 16 May, Smythe advised the Commons not to amend the bill to endow the Monmouth charities of William Jones, a ‘somewhat pettish’ fellow Haberdasher, ‘lest it might divert him from the further good he intended’.53

At the start of the session, the East India directors accepted ‘the necessity of the governor’s daily presence in Parliament to answer imputations upon the Company’; but it was Smythe’s other interests that bore the brunt of attacks on the London-dominated trading companies. On 20 Apr., when Sir Edwin Sandys accused the French Company of being a monopoly, Smythe, as Company governor, offered to bring in its patent, which he did on 3 May.54 He subsequently presented a petition from the Virginia Company, and moved the House to allow a public hearing about the colony’s desperate straits (12 May), which was granted on 17-18 May.55 The Muscovy Company was dragged into debate on 6 June, when Sir Ralph Winwood* cited the demand of the new Tsar, Mikhail Romanov, for £50,000 ‘if we intended our merchants should have any trade in his country’, as a reason for a prompt grant of supply. Smythe observed that while some of the Muscovy merchants might raise this sum from their private fortunes, the Company’s stock was not worth that much. He also warned that if it were not paid, ‘the Hollanders labour to get that trade to them, and where they made attempts they would hardly fail’. By means of this circuitous reasoning, he reached the conclusion that the House should ‘presently fall to the king’s supply’. However, his motion had no impact, and the Parliament was dissolved the next day.56

Smythe apparently remained silent during the debate of 20 May 1614 about Alderman Sir William Cockayne’s plan to replace the Merchant Adventurers with a rival company; but in the following year, with the new Company causing chaos in the cloth trade, he briefed Secretary Sir Ralph Winwood* about the shortcomings of this project. His criticisms were apparently so strong that Winwood watered them down in a debate with lord treasurer Suffolk, but the king found the arguments contradictory and unconvincing, and Cockayne’s scheme was allowed to continue.57 In 1617-18 Smythe was more successful in a dispute with Hull and King’s Lynn merchants over whaling rights in the Arctic, one of the few profitable enterprises then run by a subsidiary of the Muscovy Company. After several hearings before the Privy Council, the rival ventures had restrictions placed upon their trade.58 At the same time, Smythe helped to raise contributions from the trading companies towards the dispatch of a squadron to deal with the depredations of North African pirates.59

On 18 Apr. 1619 Smythe granted the Skinners’ Company an annual sum of over £60 to be employed partly in augmenting the salaries of the staff of Tonbridge School, his grandfather’s foundation, and providing a university scholarship for ‘one of the most forward and towardly scholars’, and partly to distribute a weekly allowance of bread to the poor of Tonbridge and Speldhurst ‘according to a course which I have already settled in the parish of Bidborough’.60 His generosity is the more creditable since his business affairs were in sharp decline at the time. The need to buy out Cockayne’s Company had left the Merchant Adventurers heavily in debt to the Crown; the North-West passage had proved a delusion; while Dutch competition had reduced the Muscovy Company to a deplorable condition and eroded his investment of nearly £20,000 in East India stock.61 Meanwhile, in 1619 Smythe was ousted as treasurer of the Virginia Company (a position equivalent to that of governor in other companies) in a takeover mounted by Sandys and the 3rd earl of Southampton, who complained that he had run the Company into serious debt. Smythe resolved not to stand for re-election, using his recent appointment to the Navy Commission as a pretext for retirement, but he retained the governorship of the Somers Islands Company, the other English tobacco importer.62 The latter venture was controlled by the 2nd earl of Warwick (Sir Robert Rich*), who had his differences with Smythe over the management of this colony. These were compounded in November 1618 when Warwick’s daughter married Smythe’s only son, Sir John Smythe III*, without his father’s permission; yet Smythe was quickly reconciled to this prestigious match, and settled a generous annuity upon the couple.63 In July 1619 Sandys attempted to oust Smythe as governor of the East India Company, only to be foiled by the king, who declared that Smythe’s experience in negotiations with the Dutch rendered him indispensable. However, in the following year, James failed in his attempt to foist Smythe or several other candidates on the Virginia Company in preference to Sandys, who secured the election of Southampton in his stead.64

Tensions in the trading companies thus ran high when a fresh general election was called in October 1620. Despite his age and poor health, Smythe decided that he must defend himself against Sandys in Parliament. He applied, as in 1614, for a seat at Sandwich, where he was challenged directly by Sandys, who lived nearby and mounted a vigorous campaign among the local puritans. Sandys took the senior seat, and Smythe was defeated; but his brother procured him a duchy of Cornwall seat for the Cornish borough of Saltash.65 Smythe left little trace on the records of the third Jacobean Parliament, though he may have lobbied behind the scenes. He even missed the corporate communion of 11 Feb. 1621, but was included on the sub-committee ordered to prepare an address for the better execution of the penal laws (27 February).66 In the committee of grievances on 25 May, ‘matter of tyranny was laid against Sir Thomas Smythe’ over the government of Virginia, in an eloquent speech by the courtier Sir Thomas Jermyn; but the motion found no supporters. Smythe made his only recorded speech on 2 June, when he proposed a committee of six to keep an eye on the conduct of the warden of the Fleet prison during the recess.67

During the session, the offer of Virginia lands to the Somers Islands stockholders on preferential terms allowed Southampton to supplant Smythe as chairman of the latter Company without a contest (2 May).68 After the House adjourned for the summer, Southampton and Sandys were detained by the Privy Council, which probably explains why Smythe, ‘pressing his own weakness of body’, chose this moment to retire from the East India board (4 July). His successor as governor, William Halliday, is unlikely to have had any affinity with the Southampton-Sandys clique, as his widow became Warwick’s second wife a few years later.69

Smythe is not known to have sought election to the 1624 Parliament, but shortly before it met, and with royal support, he was re-elected as chairman of the Somers Islands Company. Despite the efforts of his adversaries, the Virginia Company was dissolved later in the year, and, to the dismay of some of the colonists, he was appointed to the governing council which took over the defunct Company’s affairs thereafter.70 On 22 Apr. he appealed to Secretary Sir Edward Conway I* to intervene over a petition from ‘Mr. Bargrave’ then being considered by the Commons’ grievances’ committee. This petition - presumably concerning an unspecified project relating to Virginia which Capt. John Bargrave was touting later in the year - was scheduled for consideration by the Commons on 22 May, but failed to reach the floor of the House before the prorogation.71 Later in the year, Conway expected Smythe to support the Persian ambassador’s proposals for a revival of the East India Company’s Anglo-Persian trade; but he was disappointed.72

Failing health probably explains Smythe’s inactivity during the final years of his life. By the time he drafted his will, on 31 Jan. 1622, he had purchased Otford Park from the duchy of Lancaster and other property in Kent. He appointed the Skinners’ Company as trustees for his existing charities, and left £100 to the London hospitals, £100 to build churches in Virginia and the Somers Islands, and £500 to the Muscovy Company for payment of debts. Bequests to family and friends exceeded £500, while his servants were each to receive £1 for every year in his service. Later in the year he bought himself a moiety of the manor of Sutton-at-Hone, Kent, where he spent his final years.73 ‘Having judiciously, conscionably, and with admirable facility managed many difficult and weighty affairs to the honour and profit of this nation’, Smythe died on 4 Sept. 1625, and was buried beneath a sumptuous memorial in the church at Sutton-at-Hone. The epitaph descends to prose for a full record of his Company and official posts, and for the voyages that he sponsored, but ignores his parliamentary service. His widow married Robert Sidney†, 1st earl of Leicester, in the following year.74

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Peter Lefevre

Notes

  • 1. Jacobean Commissions of Enquiry ed. A.P. McGowan (Navy Recs. Soc. cxvi), 229.
  • 2. Vis. Kent (Harl. Soc. xlii), 113-14.
  • 3. Reg. Merchant Taylors’ Sch. ed. C.J. Robinson, i. 18.
  • 4. Vis. Kent, 114; Arch. Cant. xx. 77; PROB 11/69, f. 10; Soc. Gen. Boyd’s London Citizens, 15498.
  • 5. Arch. Cant. xx. 77; St. Michael Bassishaw (Harl. Soc. Reg. lxxii), 117; PROB 11/63, f. 346v; Soc. Gen. Boyd’s London Citizens, 35024.
  • 6. Vis. Glos. (Harl. Soc. xxi), 24; Vis. Kent, 114; St. Michael Bassishaw, 119.
  • 7. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 109.
  • 8. C142/429/154; Arch. Cant. xx. 99.
  • 9. G.E. Cokayne, Ld. Mayors and Sheriffs of London, 4; A.B. Beaven, Aldermen of London, ii. 47.
  • 10. CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 72; CSP Col. E.I. 1513-1616, p. 100
  • 11. Remembrancia ed. W.H. and H.C. Overall, 11.
  • 12. Select Charters of Trading Cos. ed. C.T. Carr (Selden Soc. xxviii), 31-2; A.C. Wood, Levant Co. 255; CSP Col. E.I. 1513-1616, pp. 109, 126, 155; 1617-21, p. 435.
  • 13. Spanish Co. ed. P. Croft (London Rec. Soc. ix), 96.
  • 14. Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.M. Kingsbury, i. 212; iv. 4; CSP Col. W. Indies, 1574-1660, pp. 8, 24.
  • 15. Select Charters of Trading Cos. 64.
  • 16. CSP Col. E.I. 1513-1616, p. 240.
  • 17. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 117; APC, 1618-19, p. 224.
  • 18. W.R. Scott, Constitution and Finance of Jt.-Stock Cos. ii. 262, 275, 285, 290.
  • 19. HMC Foljambe, 39.
  • 20. F.F. Foster, Pols. of Stability (R. Hist. Soc. Studies, i), 73.
  • 21. N. Moore, Hist. St. Bart.’s Hosp. ii. 225-6.
  • 22. Beaven, ii. 47; CLRO, Reps. 26/1, ff. 256v, 269.
  • 23. List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 205; APC, 1600-1, p. 157.
  • 24. Cal. Assize Recs. Kent Indictments Jas. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 1, 158.
  • 25. CLRO, Reps. 26/2, f. 472r-v.
  • 26. C181/2, ff. 13v, 19v, 33, 101, 214, 339; 181/3, f. 176; C193/6/167, 177, 230; SP14/31/1; C212/22/20-3.
  • 27. Handlist British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 224.
  • 28. APC, 1618-19, p. 386.
  • 29. Jacobean Commissions of Enquiry, pp. xix, xxiv; C231/4, ff. 182v, 188v.
  • 30. T. Rymer, Foedera, vii. pt. 4, p. 146.
  • 31. HP Commons 1558-1603, iii. 407; APC, 1600-1, pp. 158, 196, 487.
  • 32. C181/1, f. 172; CLRO, Reps. 26/1, ff. 256v, 269.
  • 33. DUNWICH; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 363.
  • 34. CJ, i. 178a, 180a, 197a.
  • 35. Ibid. 183b, 199a, 220a, 231b; SP14/8/59.
  • 36. Sir Thomas Smithes Voiage and Entertainment in Rushia (1605); G. Vernadsky, Russia, v. 227-9.
  • 37. CJ, i. 257a-b, 294b.
  • 38. Ibid. 261a, 265b, 266b, 279a, 285b, 287a, 292b; Bowyer Diary, 81; Croft, 2, 96.
  • 39. CJ, i. 259b, 260b, 262b, 287a, 300a.
  • 40. Ibid. 283b, 292a, 313b.
  • 41. Ibid. 326b.
  • 42. Ibid. 328b, 344b, 352b, 365b, 336a, 379b.
  • 43. Ibid. 329b, 374a.
  • 44. CSP Col. E.I. 1513-1616, pp. 155, 187; Chamberlain Letters, i. 294.
  • 45. CJ, i. 393b.
  • 46. Ibid. 412a, 414a.
  • 47. Ibid. 396b, 422a, 448b; Procs. 1614 (Commons), 20-1.
  • 48. Arch. Cant. xx. 99; St. Dionis Backchurch (Harl. Soc. Reg. i), 212.
  • 49. Voyage of Nicholas Downton ed. W. Foster (Hakluyt Soc. n.s. lxxxii), 2; HMC Buccleuch, i. 130, 132; CSP Col. E.I. 1513-1616, pp. 238, 290.
  • 50. E. Kent Archives Cent., Sa/AC7/32.
  • 51. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 33-5, 82.
  • 52. Ibid. 201-2, 207, 339.
  • 53. Ibid. 257, 263.
  • 54. Ibid. 112, 117, 127; CSP Col. E.I. 1513-1616, p. 290.
  • 55. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 218, 221, 275-9, 282-5.
  • 56. Ibid. 429.
  • 57. Holles Letters ed. P.R. Seddon (Thoroton Soc. Rec. ser. xxxi), 69.
  • 58. Scott, ii. 52-8; APC, 1616-17, p. 344; 1618-19, pp. 40-1, 45-6; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 503.
  • 59. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 444.
  • 60. Arch. Cant. xx. 96-7; London Skinners’ Co., Letter Bk. 1619-49, ff. 2-3, 7v, 11v.
  • 61. Scott, ii. 56, 103-4.
  • 62. Ibid. 266-70; Virg. Mag. Hist. and Biog. lxxiv. 259, 263; Chamberlain Letters, ii. 236; Recs. Virg. Co. i. 212; W.F. Craven, Dissolution of the Virg. Co. 81-91.