SMITH, Sir Thomas (1513-77), of Theydon Mount, Essex.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Oct. 1553

Family and Education

b. 23 Dec. 1513, 2nd s. of John Smith (d.1557) of Walden by Agnes, da. of one Charnock of Lancs. educ. Queens’, Camb. 1526, BA and fellow 1530-47, MA 1532, LlD and DCL 1542; travelled abroad (France, Italy) 1540-2. m. (1) 15 Apr. 1548, Elizabeth (d.1552), da. of William Carkeke of London, s.p.; (2) 23 July 1554, Philippa (d.1578), da. of John Wilford of London, wid. of Sir John Hampden of Theydon Mount, s.p.; 1s. illegit. b.1547, d.1573. Kntd. 1549.

Offices Held

Reader in nat. philosophy and Greek, Camb. 1533-50, public orator 1533, regius prof. civil law 1540; vice-president, Queens’, Camb.; vice-chancellor, Camb. 1543-4; chancellor to bp. of Ely Jan. 1545; rector, Leverington, Cambs. 1545-9; dean of Carlisle 1548-54, from 1559; provost, Eton 1547-54; sec. to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset 1547; clerk of PC 1547-8; envoy to Antwerp 1548, France 1550, 1562-6, 1567, 1571-2; principal sec. 1548-9, from 1572; PC from Mar. 1571; chancellor of the Garter 1572; keeper of privy seal 1573.

J.p. Bucks., Essex from c.1559; commr. subsidy, Essex 1570.


During Mary’s reign Smith was deprived of his offices, but he was not obliged to flee the country, and retired to his house near Eton. Within a month of Elizabeth’s accession he was appointed to the committee to consider ‘all things necessary for the Parliament’ of 1559, to which he was returned for Liverpool. It would be logical to find Smith in charge of such bills as that for the recognition of the Queen’s title, and indeed a Mr. Smyth was appointed to this, 11 Feb. 1559, and to other committees in February and March. The clerk frequently failed to differentiate between a knight and plain Mr., but the fact that he has Sir Thomas Smith as such introducing a bill to improve the quality of woollen cloth, 2 Mar. 1559, points to the Member on these other committees being Christopher Smith. Later in the year Sir Thomas sat on at least two inquiries into the religious settlement, and in October he was asked to attend the King of Sweden’s son while he was in England seeking the royal hand. But these were hardly duties suitable for a former secretary of state and Smith’s letters made plain the frustration he felt at this time. In 1561 Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, ambassador to France, urged the Privy Council to send Smith to join him. Smith left in September 1562 and was away for nearly four years. This was a crucial period in his life, and it cannot be said that he came out of it with an enhanced reputation. From the start there were differences between him and Throckmorton, culminating in a dramatic encounter when they drew their daggers against each other and had to be forcibly restrained. After the Treaty of Troyes in 1564 Throckmorton was permitted to return home in triumph, but Smith, to his chagrin, had to remain in attendance on the peripatetic French court for two more years. His despatches and private correspondence were filled with complaints of the hardships and illnesses which he endured until in April 1566, he was allowed to return home, having lost the respect of Elizabeth and the Council.

After a brief visit to France in April 1567 to make the formal request for Calais which had been agreed to in the Treaty, Smith returned to his country house and his books, no doubt imagining that his days in office were over, especially after an abortive attempt to secure the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster. Sir William Cecil, however, whom Smith had known since the days of Edward VI, was in 1571 in need of a reliable colleague to whom he could delegate some of his work, and his elevation to the peerage had removed his guiding hand from the Commons. The upshot was that Smith was made a Privy Councillor a month before being returned to Parliament as knight of the shire for Essex.2 As a government spokesman in the Commons his task was to restrain the religious extremists and secure a subsidy. He helped to administer the oaths to all Members at the opening of the session, and was soon involved in the debates on the bill for coming to church and receiving communion. He urged support for this measure, but his suggestion that the bishops should be consulted was rejected by the House at the instigation of William Fleetwood I. He spoke on the treasons bill, and, as Privy Councillor, sat on numerous committees. He was specifically named to those dealing with church attendance (6, 21 Apr.), fugitives (24 Apr.), the order of business (26 Apr.), religious bill B (28 Apr.), dispensations granted by the archbishop of Canterbury (4 May), the bill against bulls (10 May), cloth workers (17 May), corrupt presentations (25 May) and barristers’ fees (28 May). For much of the summer and autumn of 1571 Smith was concerned in the examination of many connected with the Norfolk plot. Here he seems at last to have been effectively employed and to have earned royal gratitude, though he refused to torture two prisoners.

Shortly before the end of the year Smith was again in France as ambassador, helping Francis Walsingham in the negotiations for a possible marriage between Elizabeth and Anjou; reporting fully to the French on the Norfolk plot; and concluding a commercial and defensive treaty. Walsingham let Smith take the lead in the negotiations and the reports he sent home were detailed and witty. He soon realised that Anjou’s religious views were too rigid to permit of a satisfactory marriage agreement and he began to press the claims of the younger brother, Alençon, ‘not as tall perhaps, not so fair as his brother, but on the other hand, not so obstinate or so papistical and, if rumours were true, more apt for the getting of children’. The treaty signed at Blois (19 Apr. 1572) was quite a triumph for Smith (even though all its provisions were not applied in practice), and marks the peak of Smith’s prestige under Elizabeth. The tone of his last letters home is very different from those he wrote towards the end of his 1562-6 embassy. The Queen approved his ‘plain and circumspect usage’, and the marks of approval which had evaded him for so long at last began to materialize. He was appointed chancellor of the order of the Garter at £100 p.a., and on 13 July 1572 regained the office of secretary he had held 23 years before. He was again returned to Parliament for Essex, having written to Burghley expressing his desire to be elected, even though he was abroad. He asked Burghley to pass on his request to Lord Rich and to the sheriff of the county, even suggesting that a letter from the Queen might help. However, as Smith was still involved in negotiations with Catherine de Medici on 18 June 1572 it is highly unlikely that he attended the session of Parliament that ended on the 30th of the month.

At this time the office of secretary of state was still only as important as the man holding it. An examination of the correspondence of the years from 1572 to 1576 reveals few instances of Smith having any influence on policymaking. He complained constantly of the Queen’s delays and refusal to sign documents, even on minor topics, when Burghley was not at hand to be consulted. Until the Queen had signed he durst ‘never adventure to affirm anything, for fear of contrary winds, the which is no news in this court’. For much of the time he was mediating between Burghley, the Queen, the Privy Council and foreign ambassadors. He was now in his sixties, in ill health, and demoralized by the death of his only son in Ireland in 1573. Walsingham’s appointment as secretary in 1573 no doubt eased his last few years in office. His last attendance at a Privy Council was in March 1576. Before he retired, however, Smith had to get through another session of Parliament, and, though he did not speak, he did a fair share of the fetching and carrying of bills to the Lords and of committee work generally. He was named to committees on the following: bastardy (15 Feb. 1576), the coinage (15 Feb.), days and pistols (17 Feb.), butlerage and prizage of wines (21 Feb.), schools and colleges (2 Mar.), grants by Norwich dean and chapter (2 Mar.) and cloth (9 Mar.). He sent a number of bills to the Lords on 10 Mar., and more on the 12th. His last recorded task on the afternoon of 13 Mar. was to be one of a large committee of Members to hear the observations of counsel for the goldsmiths on the bill which was to receive its third reading the next day.3

Smith suffered for the rest of his life from an increasingly painful disease, probably cancer of the throat. In September 1576 he was at Bath taking the waters, but returned home shortly afterwards, dying 12 Aug. 1577 at Hill Hall, his second wife’s house, which he had rebuilt. A fine monument is still to be seen in Theydon Mount church, within the grounds of the estate which his brother’s family still occupies. His will, dated 18 Feb. 1577, includes the gift of a gilt cup with the ‘seven planets’ for the Queen ‘as most worthy, having all the good gifts endowed of God which he ascribed to the seven planets’. He left his fine library of some 350 books to Queens’ College ‘because I see that none of these which shall succeed me of long time are learned’. Smith was a scholar, an author of wide interests, and a conscientious statesman of the second rank.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: M.R.P.


This biography is largely based upon M. Dewar, Sir Thomas Smith, a Tudor Intellectual in Office. See also Archaeologia, xxxviii. 98-127.

  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 2. N. M. Sutherland, Massacre of St. Bartholomew, 273-4.
  • 3. For Smith’s parliamentary activities the sources are Neale, Commons, 225; Parlts. i. 195-6, 215, 229; Trinity, Dublin, anon. jnl., ff. 6, 15, 36; CJ, i. 54, 55, 56, 58, 83, 85, 86, 87, 88, 90, 92, 93, 106, 107, 110, 112, 113, 114, 115; D’Ewes, 155, 157, 159, 160, 165, 168, 176, 178, 179, 180, 181, 182, 183, 184, 186, 188, 189, 190, 241, 247, 248, 250, 251, 252, 253, 254, 257, 258, 260, 262.