Thomas Smythe

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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 was treasurer of the Virginia Company from 1609 to 1620.

Sir Thomas Smythe

Early life[edit]

Thomas Smythe was born about 1558, 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 was educated at Merchant Taylors' School (1571).[2]

Business career[edit]

Thomas, one of thirteen children, was brought up to his father's business. In 1580 he 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.

He 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]

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 this time he held the office for only four months.[5]

In February 1600/1 Smythe, serving as sheriff of London, 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 him to yield himself to the Lord Mayor of London. As Essex refused to do this and insisted on coming into the house, Smythe made his escape by the back door and went to confer with the Lord Mayor. Afterwards he was accused of complicity with the earl's rebellion, was examined before the privy council, discharged from his office of sheriff and committed to the Tower of London.[6] His imprisonment was for but a short time; and on 13 May 1603, on 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]

In 1604 Smythe was appointed one of the receivers for the Duchy of Cornwall,[7] and, in June, as special ambassador to the tsar of Russia. Like his grandfather, Sir Andrew Judde, Lord Mayor of London in 1550, who was one of the founders of the Muscovy Company, Smythe appeared to have been very interested in the Muscovy trade. Sailing from Gravesend on 13 June 1603, he and his party arrived at Archangel on 22 July and were conducted by way of Kholmogori and Vologhda [cf. Jenkinson, Anthony] to Jaroslav, where the tsar then was. In the course of the winter, Smythe obtained a grant of new privileges for the company. In the spring he went on to Moscow to meet with associates, whence he returned to Archangel and sailed for England on 28 May 1604.

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. During this period, the company's trade with India was developed and established. 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.[8] Smythe's connection with the East India Company and the Muscovy Company led him to promote and support voyages for the discovery of the North-West Passage in North America. His name, as given by William Baffin to Smith's Sound, stands as a memorial to his leadership.

Smythe financed numerous Elizabethan era[9] trade ventures and voyages of exploration during the early 17th century.

In 1609 Smythe obtained the charter for the London Virginia Company, of which he was the treasurer until he resigned in 1620. At that time, he was charged with enriching himself at the expense of the company, but the charges were formally pronounced to be false and slanderous. Although Smythe was not held to be altogether free from blame, he retained the king's support.[10] A renewed inquiry continued until his death in 1625.

In 1614 Smythe was elected Member of Parliament for Sandwich and for Saltash in 1622.[2]

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. The charges against him had not been accepted by the king; to the last he and his officials consulted with Smythe on all important matters relating to shipping and to eastern trade.[11] For several years Smythe was one of the chief commissioners of the navy. He was also governor of the French and Somers Islands companies (the latter administered what is known as Bermuda until 1684).

Private life[edit]

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.

Smythe was 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). The name, which is often spelt Smith, was always written Smythe by the man himself, as well as by the collateral family of Strangford.

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. 
  2. ^ a b c d "SMYTHE, Sir Thomas (c.1558-1625), of Philpott Lane, London and Bounds Place, Bidborough, Kent". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 11 April 2013. 
  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. ^ Stevens, Court Records of the East India Company, 1599–1603
  6. ^ Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1601–3, 13, 18, 24 Feb.
  7. ^ ib. 11 April
  8. ^ Cal. State Papers, Dom. 8 Jan. 1619, 6? Dec. 1624
  9. ^ "Portrait of Sir Thomas Smythe from Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth". Sarah, Countess of Essex, 1825. 
  10. ^ Cal. State Papers, North American, 16 July 1622, 20 Feb., 8 Oct. 1629, 23 April, 13 May, 15 June 1625
  11. ^ Cal. State Papers, Dom. 11 Dec. 1624