SMYTHE, Thomas II (c.1558-1625), of Fenchurch Street, London and Sutton-at-Hone, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. c.1558, 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of Thomas Smythe I of Westenhanger, Kent by Alice (d.1593), da. of Sir Andrew Judd; bro. of John I and Richard. educ. Merchant Taylors’ 1571. m. (1) Judith, da. and h. of Richard Culverwell, s.p.; (2) Joan, da. and h. of William Hobbs, s.p.; (3) Sarah, da. and h. of William Blount, 3s. 1da. Kntd. 13 May 1603.2
Freeman, Skinners’ Co. by 1580, Haberdashers’ Co. by 1580, master, Haberdashers’ 1599-1600; customer of London, auditor 1597-8, alderman 1599-1601, sheriff Nov. 1600-Feb. 1601; capt. of city trained bands; treasurer, St. Bartholomew’s hosp. 1597-1601; trade commr. to negotiate with the Dutch 1596, 1598, 1619, with the Empire 1603; member of Merchant Adventurers; gov. Muscovy Co. by 1600; member of Levant Co., gov. by 1600; gov. E.I. Co. 1600-1, 1603-5, 1607-21; gov. North West Passage Co.; treasurer, Virginia Co. 1609-19; gov. of Somers Is. Co. 1615-d.; ambassador to Russia 1604-5; jt. receiver of duchy of Cornwall Apr. 1604; receiver for Dorset and Somerset May 1604; commr. for navy reform 1619.3
In the 30 years ending with the death of James I, Smythe was overseer of virtually all the trade which passed through the port of London. He had two outstanding examples: his maternal grandfather, Sir Andrew Judd, was a leading city merchant and lord mayor in the middle of the sixteenth century, and his father, Customer Smythe, whose shrewd judgment and financial acumen brought him a fortune in the city, and a position among the county families of Kent. Still, it is not easy to follow his career in the years before the turn of the century. As well as his father, who died in 1591, there was at least one other London merchant of the same name. It is clear, however, that he was already well established in his own business during his father’s lifetime, presumably with the latter’s financial backing. By the end of the century he had three strings to his bow. He occupied a prominent position in the city; he took the lead in the new trading and colonizing companies which were becoming such a marked feature of the commercial life of the period; finally, as his list of offices shows, he put his experience to use in the government’s service.4
In 1597 Smythe had his first experience of the House of Commons when he was returned for Aylesbury, a seat previously occupied by his father and his elder brother, through his family’s long-standing friendship with the Pakingtons. He was named to a committee on the poor law, 22 Nov. 1597, and could have served on one about the highways near Aylesbury, 11 Jan. 1598. Others of his committees included those concerned with maltsters (12 Jan.); two alien merchants (13 Jan.); the sale of the lands and goods of one John Sharp—presumably a merchant—to pay his debts (20 Jan.); and the reformation of abuses in wine casks (3 Feb.).5
In the midst of his many successes, Smythe’s career nearly came to an abrupt and fatal halt: he found himself deprived of the shrievalty of London, after being in office for only three months, and in prison under suspicion of being implicated in Essex’s abortive coup d’état of February 1601. On the 14th of that month the Privy Council informed the lord mayor that Smythe had ‘forgotten his duty to her Majesty’ and that the city would have to elect a new sheriff. On the same day he was placed in the custody of the archbishop of Canterbury and a fortnight later, on 2 Mar., he was put in the Tower. The principal evidence against him related to Essex’s visit to his house in Fenchurch Street on the morning of Sunday, 8 Feb., the day on which the Earl attempted to seize power. When examined, several of Essex’s followers claimed that the Earl expected Smythe, using his position as captain of the trained bands, to raise the city in his support. Sir Christopher Blount, later executed for his part in the plot, reported that Essex had received sympathetic messages from the city on the previous evening and that he, Essex, had often mentioned that Smythe could bring him 1,000 loyal men when he needed them. It was claimed by other witnesses that Smythe visited Essex House on the evening of the 7th, that he had also reiterated his loyalty to the Earl through Edward Bromley, and that he knew of the rising by 5 o’clock on the Sunday morning at the latest. A number of people saw Essex’s arrival at Smythe’s house and observed them talking in the street outside. Some of these claimed that the sheriff urged Essex to go and seize Ludgate and Aldgate, where he would send him arms very shortly. Clearly there was much for Smythe to explain. His defence was a complete denial of the charges against him. He said that he had had no communication with the Earl for nine years until the day in question. He denied the conversation with Bromley and disclaimed prior knowledge of the plot. When pressed about the meeting with Essex at his house—an incident witnessed by many—he told them that he merely passed on a message from the lord mayor and then left home by the back door. It is surprising that he escaped with a period in prison and a heavy fine.6
With the new reign his return to favour was rapid. Knighted in May 1603, he was shortly afterwards employed as ambassador to Russia. As well as recovering his position as governor of all the important trading companies, he played a leading part in new trading ventures in Virginia, in Bermuda and in search of the North West Passage, and financed several voyages of exploration. He was also a leading adviser to the government on commercial and naval matters. His activities during these years, both in furthering trade and in encouraging the foundation of colonies, has led one historian to allot to him a ‘unique position among the founders of the Empire’. He eventually retired to an estate he had purchased at Sutton-at-Hone, Kent, where he died 4 Sept. 1625.7
Ref Volumes: 1558-1603
- 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
- 2. Arch. Cant. xx. 76 seq.; Nichols, Progresses Jas. I, i. 120.
- 3. DNB; Arch. Cant. xx. 82 seq.; G. E. Cokayne, Ld. Mayors and Sheriffs of London, 1601-25, pp. 4-5; Beaven, Aldermen, ii. 47; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 72; 1603-10, pp. 93, 112, 114; CSP Col. ii. 238; W. Scott, Jt. Stock Cos. to 1720, ii. 250, 257, 262; HMC Hatfield, xvi. 185-6; xvii. 69, 433; APC, 1618-19, pp. 174, 434; Voyages of Wm. Baffin, ed. Markham (Hakluyt Soc. lxiii), intro. ii-ix.
- 4. Camb. Hist. British Empire , i. 75; APC , xxvi. 451-2; DNB; HMC Hatfield , x. 236, 329; CSP Col. ii. 100, 117; APC , xxx. 732; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 72.
- 5. D’Ewes, 561, 577, 578, 579, 583, 592.
- 6. APC , xxxi. 155, 157, 158, 196; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, 1601-3, passim; SP12/278/57, 58, 59, 60, 68, 75, 83, 93; 279/3, 8, 10, 30, 58; HMC Hatfield , xi. 48-9.
- 7. Camb. Hist. British Empire , i. 75.