The Smythe Family of Essex, 1500-1600


In the 1500s and 1600s there were several Thomas Smiths of lasting note: father and son of Essex, father and son of Wiltshire, and a lesser-known father and son of Berkshire. This page had carried a text that combined the lives of five of these six partly contemporaneous Thomas Smiths into one man. October 2000 it has been updated to remove the information that does not relate to Smythe of Essex. Unfortunately, that involves the loss of the descendant charts here since they were of another family. Thomas Smythe of Essex did not have children from either of his marriages.

To summarize: Thomas Smythe of Essex was one of the most upright statesmen of his era and a noted scholar, rivalling Cheke. He had an illegitimate son also named Thomas who was placed in charge of a colony in Ireland. The elder Thomas Smythe of Wiltshire was a businessman - a merchant and entrepreneur - who became known as "Customer Smythe" after leasing the farm of the customs in London. He had a son, Sir Thomas, who was centrally involved in international trade and colonization, being key to the early management and survival of the Virginia colony and being one of the Moscovy Merchants. The Smiths of Berkshire are treated briefly at the end of this page. While the common name, and the fact that all were in powerful circles and sometime resident in the London area (Westminster, for Thomas of Essex), has led to confusion, a little investigation reveals quite different careers among these men of such fascinating and active lives: the protestant Cambridge classical scholar, prolific writer, legal expert, M.P. and privy councillor who was born and died in Essex but traveled widely and attempted a colony in Ireland; the Oxford scholar and M.P. whose life seems to have been spent all in England (Berkshire, Oxford, London, Westminster, Rutland); the entrepreneurial London merchants and financiers with roots in Wiltshire, acquired estates in Kent, and hearts and minds in foreign trade.

Note that the Dictionary of National Biography spells the surname Smith in every case here; the y and e are simply archaic spellings, not a modern distinction.

Sir Thomas Smythe (1513-1577) - Thomas Smythe was born at Saffron Walden, Essex, 23 Dec 1513, the eldest son of John Smith (d. 1547) and Agnes Charnock (b. Lancashire; d, 1547). His father was wealthy; served as sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire in 1538/9; and had the grant of arms confirmed to him in 1545. Thomas enjoyed reading, writing and painting from a young age. Before May 1525 he "was placed under the care of Henry Gold of St. John's College, Cambridge." Thomas Smythe entered Queens' College, Cambridge in 1526, was appointed King's scholar the following year, was elected fellow on 25 Jan 1529/30, and graduated M.A. in 1533. He then lectured on natural philosophy and Greek. In May 1540 he went abroad, visiting Paris and Orleans before studying in Padua. Back home, he sought to restore the correct pronunciation of Greek, quite a controversial matter at the college, in which Cheke sided with him; and he also wrote a tract advocating extending the English alphabet to include 10 vowels.

His university career advanced in 1544 when he was appointed regius professor of civil law and served as vice-chancellor of Cambridge. He also became chancellor to the bishop of Ely, Goodrich; he was ordained priest in 1546; and claimed to have received a prebend in Lincoln Cathedral. Smythe was early a protestant, "had distinguished himself in protecting reformers at Cambridge from Gardiner's hostility," and retained moderate protestant views all his life. After Edward VI's accession, he entered the service of Protector Somerset, to whom he always remained loyal, in February 1546/7, and later that year became provost of Eton and dean of Carlyle. He and Sir William Petre were made the two principal secretaries of state in April 1548, succeeding Paget. The next summer Smythe was sent on a special mission to Flanders, negotiating for mercenaries and for support against France, but it didn't go well. That fall he worked on the English feudal claim over Scotland. In 1549 he was knighted.

After serving on the commission to deal with Bonner in September 1549, he was with Protector Somerset at Hampton Court and accompanied him to Windsor where Smythe lost his major offices: the council, the post of secretary, and his professorship at Cambridge. He was imprisoned in the Tower for close to five months. Shortly afterwards, summoned as a witness against Gardiner, he seems to have used his influence rather in Gardiner's favor - which stood him in good stead in Mary's reign. May 1551 took Smythe back to France, accompanying Northampton on his embassy to the court. Most of this year and the next he was at Eton, where he had a hard time with the other fellows until Northumberland stepped in on his side. Then in 1553, after Mary's accession he was summoned before her commissioners, but Gardiner protected him and he even obtained an indulgence from the pope.

In September 1553 Smythe was Member of Parliament for Grampound, Cornwall. He spent the rest of Mary's reign in private study, but returned to public life on Elizabeth's accession. He was again M.P. in 1558/9, this time for Liverpool. Smythe was a member of the ecclesiastical commission reviewing the Book of Common Prayer, and their meetings were held in his house in Cannon Row, Westminster. In 1562, during the struggle between the Guises and the Huguenots, Smith went to France in the role of Ambassador. Sir Nicholas Throgmorton was joint ambassador, an unhappy arrangement as there was jealousy between them and some mistrust from Elizabeth. This was a difficult assignment, given that Elizabeth was interested in helping the Huguenots, and also used the occasion to seize Le Havre; Smythe was even imprisoned at Melun for 3 weeks in 1563. He stayed in France two years beyond the signing of the peace of Troyes in April 1564, returning to England in May 1566.

Having failed to obtain the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster, he spent the next three years in retirement in Essex. March 1570/1 saw him readmitted to the privy council. In April 1572 he was made chancellor of the order of the Garter, succeeding Burghley, then was elected knight of the shire for Essex, and in July appointed secretary of state. That year he persuaded Elizabeth to send help to Scottish protestants. In his last years, besides much official work, he was involved in establishing a colony at Ards, county Down, where he left his illegitimate (and only) son in charge, only to lose him quickly, in 1573. All parties lost their investments as well. His health declined in earl 1576 and he died at home at Theydon Mount, Essex, 12 August 1577. He was buried in the parish church. By his will, his library went to Queens' College.

Smythe was an accomplished "physician, mathematician, astronomer, architext, historian and orator" whose friends included the leading scholars of his time. His more notable work - of many - was De Republica Anglorum; the Maner of Governement or Policie of the Realm of England, called "the most important description of the constitution and government of England written in the Tudor age." There is a portrait of him by Holbein at Theydon Mount, and a portrait at Queens' College, Cambridge.

Marriages and Children

Smythe was twice married:
15 Apr 1548 to Elizabeth, daughter of William Carkek / Carkyke. Born 29 Nov 1529, she died childless in 1552.
23 Jul 1554 to Philippa, daughter of John Wilford of London, widow of Sir John Hampden of Theydon Mount, Essex (died 21 Dec 1553). Philippa outlived her husband (she died 1584) but they had no children.

Thomas had an illegitimate son, Thomas (born 1547, just a year after the father took priest's orders!), who accompanied him to France and then was placed in charge of the father's colony at Ards. He was killed by the Irish 18 Oct 1573. He had no children. Thomas Sr.'s principal heir was his nephew William (died 1626), son of his brother George, a London draper. William had a son Thomas who was created baronet in 1661, ancestor of the present baronet who spells the name Smijth.

The third pair of Thomas Smiths

The third pair, of Berkshire, involves a son whose life was also mixed into the previous text here. That father was mayor of Abingdon in 1584; his son born there about 1556 was knighted at Greenwich in May 1603 - exactly one week after the knighting of Thomas son of Thomas of Wiltshire! - and died 27 Nov 1609 at his residence later known as Peterborough House, Parsons Green, Fulham. He married Frances Brydges, daughter of the fourth baron Chandos. Their only son died underage and their only daughter, Margaret, married Thomas Carey. This younger Smith's widow lived until 1663 and took a second husband, Thomas Cecil, first earl of Exeter. Thomas Smith the younger of Berkshire graduated M.A. in June 1578 from Christ Church, Oxford, and like our Thomas Senior of Essex after graduation became a public orator. He soon became secretary to Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, and in 1587 became clerk of the privy council. He was M.P. in 1588/9 for Cricklade, in 1593 for Tamworth, and in 1597/8 for Aylesbury.

Sources to consult

Dictionary of National Biography
Dictionary of National Biography Missing Persons, Oxford Univ Press, 1993
Life of Sir Thomas Smith, Strype, first published 1698, is about Thomas of Essex
Archæologia Cantiana vol. 32, 1892, Stocker's 'Pedigree of Smythe of Ostenhanger'
Archæologia Cantiana vol. 27, 1887, J.F. Wadmore's 'Thomas Smythe of Westenhanger, Commonly Called Customer Smythe'


The original information on this page was supplied by Vaughn Baker. The page has been rewritten October 2000 by Pat Patterson, removing the acts and relations of other Thomas Smiths; further information on Thomas Smith of Essex was added from the Dictionary of National Biography, which has very useful and detailed articles for each of these men.