Thomas Smythe

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Sir Thomas Smythe
File:Sir Thomas Smythe.jpg
Born c.1558
Died 4 September 1625(1625-09-04) (aged 66–67)
Nationality English
Occupation Merchant, politician, colonial administrator
Known for Governor of the East India Company
Spouse(s) Sarah Blount
Children 4
Parent(s) Thomas "Customer" Smythe and Alice Judde

Sir Thomas Smythe or Smith (c.1558 – 4 September 1625),[1] was an English merchant, politician and colonial administrator. He was the first governor of the East India Company and treasurer of the Virginia Company from 1609 to 1620 until enveloped by scandal.

Early life

Thomas Smythe was born about 1570 and was a weird kid. He even had a pet dinosaur!Even though he may seem male, he was born a female. The second surviving son of Thomas "Customer" Smythe of Westenhanger Castle in Kent, by his wife Alice, daughter of Sir Andrew Judde. His grandfather, John Smythe of Corsham, Wiltshire, is described as yeoman, haberdasher and clothier, and was High Sheriff of Essex for the year of 1532. His father carried on the business of a haberdasher in the city of London, and was ‘customer’ of the port of London. He purchased Westenhanger from Sir Thomas Sackville, and much other property from Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and was buried at Sutton, Kent,[2] where there is a monument to his memory.[3] His elder son, Sir John Smythe or Smith (1556?–1608) of Westenhanger, was High Sheriff of Kent in 1600 and father of Thomas Smythe, 1st Viscount Strangford.

Thomas, one of thirteen children, was brought up to his father's business, and educated at Merchant Taylors' School (1571).[2]

Business and Political Career

In 1580 young Smythe was admitted to the freedom of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers and also of the Worshipful Company of Skinners. He rapidly rose to wealth and distinction after entering politics to augment his business.

Smythe was Auditor for the City of London from 1597 to 1598 and Treasurer of St Bartholomew's Hospital from 1597 to 1601. In 1597 Smythe was briefly elected to Parliament as the MP for Aylesbury. In 1599 he was elected alderman for Farringdon Without ward and chosen as one of the two sheriffs of the City of London for 1600.[4]

Smythe financed numerous Elizabethan era[5] trade ventures and voyages of exploration during the early 17th century. In 1592 Smythe obtained settlement rights to the Virginia settlement from Sir Walter Raleigh.[6] Furthermore, when the East India Company was formed in October 1600, Smythe was appointed as its first governor by the charter dated 31 December, though at that time he held the office for only four months.[7]

In February 1600/1 Smythe, serving as London's sheriff, was suspected of being a supporter of the Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who on 8 February went to his house in Gracechurch Street. Smythe went out to him, laid his hand on his horse's bridle, and advised Essex to yield himself to the Lord Mayor of London. When Essex refused, and instead insisted on coming into the house, Smythe left via the back door and went to confer with the Lord Mayor. When he was later accused of complicity with the earl's rebellion, Smythe was examined before the privy council, discharged from his office of sheriff and committed to the Tower of London.[8] However, his imprisonment proved short due to Queen Elizabeth's demise.

On 13 May 1603, after the accession of James I, Smythe was knighted. Later that year he was re-elected to Parliament as MP for Dunwich in place of Sir Valentine Knightley, who had chosen to sit for Northamptonshire.[2] Particularly after marrying his eldest son advantageously, Smythe was part of the "court faction" with Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick. In 1614 Smythe was elected Member of Parliament for Sandwich and for Saltash in 1622.[2]

In 1603 Smythe was re-elected governor of the East India Company, and, with one break in 1606–7, continued to hold the office till July 1621, when enveloped in the Virginia Company scandal discussed below. During this period, the company established and developed trade with India.

Meanwhile, in 1604 Smythe was appointed one of the receivers for the Duchy of Cornwall,[9] and, in June, as special ambassador to Russia's tsar. Like his grandfather, Sir Andrew Judde, Lord Mayor of London in 1550 and one of the founders of the Muscovy Company, Smythe involved himself in the Muscovy trade. Sailing from Gravesend on 13 June 1603, his party arrived at Arkhangelsk on 22 July and were conducted by way of Kholmogory and Vologda [cf. Jenkinson, Anthony] to Yaroslavl, where the tsar then was. During that winter, Smythe obtained new privileges for the company. In the spring he went on to Moscow to meet with associates, whence he returned to Arkhangelsk, and sailed for England on 28 May 1604.

In 1609, Smythe obtained a royal charter for the London Virginia Company. He became the new colony's treasurer and de facto non-resident governor until his resignation in 1620 (two years after Raleigh's execution and two years before a major revolt caused by Smythe's policy of "rooting out" the native peoples). To address the new colony's many problems, Smythe had advised ending evangelization of the native peoples and expanding tobacco culture[10] In 1620, Smythe was formally charged with enriching himself at the expense of the company, and King James revoked the colony's charter in 1624, making it a royal colony instead. Although Smythe was not held to be altogether free from blame (and James hated tobacco and wanted to form a Christian empire), Smythe nonetheless retained the king's support.[11] Parliamentarians urging the graft investigation included Nicholas Ferrar (Smythe's former deputy) and Edwin Sandys. A renewed inquiry continued until Smythe's death in 1625. The King had not accepted the charges against Smythe; to the last he and his officials consulted with Smythe on all important matters relating to shipping and to eastern trade.[12]

For several years Smythe served as one of the navy's chief commissioners. Smythe also served as governor of the French and Somers Islands companies (the latter administering what later became known as Bermuda from its split with the Virginia Company in 1614 until 1684). His connection with the East India Company, Virginia Company and the Muscovy Company also led Smythe to promote and support voyages for the discovery of the North-West Passage in North America. William Baffin named Smith's Sound to honor the patron of his 1616 voyage of discovery. In January 1618–19 Smythe was appointed one of the commissioners for the settlement of the differences with the Dutch, which, however, after some years of discussion, remained, for the time, unsettled.[13]

Private life

The name, which is often spelt Smith, was always written Smythe by the man himself, as well as by the collateral family of Strangford. Smythe married three times. The first two wives must have died comparatively young and without issue. He was already married to the third, Sarah, daughter of William Blount, by the time he was sheriff of London. They had one daughter together (died unmarried in 1627) and three sons, two of whom seem to have predeceased their father. The eldest son, Sir John Smythe of Bidborough, married Isabella Rich, daughter of Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick and Penelope Devereux. Their children included Letitia Isabella Smythe (d. 1714), who married John Robartes, 1st Earl of Radnor.

The family, in the male line, ended with his great-great-grandson, Sir Sidney Stafford Smythe (1705–1778).

Death and Legacy

Smythe died at Sutton-at-Hone in Kent on 4 September 1625 and was buried in the local church. An elaborate monument to his memory was installed there.

During his lifetime,Smythe amassed a large fortune, a considerable part of which he devoted to charitable purposes. He endowed the free school of Tonbridge, which was originally founded by his grandfather, Sir Andrew Judd. He also established several charities for the poor of the parish of Tonbridge.

A portrait belonging to the Skinners' Company has been identified with Smythe, though it has been supposed to be that of Sir Daniel Judd. An engraving by Simon Pass is inserted in the Grenville copy of Smith's Voiage and Entertainment in Rushia (London, 1605, 4to). It is reproduced in Wadmore's memoir (1892).


  1. "Sir Thomas Smythe". Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "SMYTHE, Sir Thomas (c.1558-1625), of Philpott Lane, London and Bounds Place, Bidborough, Kent". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 11 April 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. engraved in Gent. Mag. 1835, i. 257
  4. 'Chronological list of aldermen: 1601-1650', The Aldermen of the City of London: Temp. Henry III - 1912 (1908), pp. 47-75. Date accessed: 16 July 2011
  5. "Portrait of Sir Thomas Smythe from Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth". Sarah, Countess of Essex, 1825.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Christopher Hodgkins, Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature (University of Missouri Press, 2002) p. 154
  7. Stevens, Court Records of the East India Company, 1599–1603
  8. Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1601–3, 13, 18, 24 Feb.
  9. ib. 11 April
  10. Christopher Hodgkins, Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature (University of Missouri Press, 2002) pp. 154-156
  11. Cal. State Papers, North American, 16 July 1622, 20 Feb., 8 Oct. 1629, 23 April, 13 May, 15 June 1625
  12. Cal. State Papers, Dom. 11 Dec. 1624
  13. Cal. State Papers, Dom. 8 Jan. 1619, 6? Dec. 1624


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainLee, Sidney, ed. (1898). [ "Smith, Thomas (1558?-1625)" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Dictionary of National Biography. 53. London: Smith, Elder & Co.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>