Thomas Smythe (died 1625)
He 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, where there is a beautiful monument to his memory. 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. 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 he 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. When the East India Company was formed in October 1600, he was appointed its first governor by the charter dated 31 December, though at this time he held the office for only four months.
In February 1600/1 Smythe, now serving as 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 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. His imprisonment was for but a short time; and on 13 May 1603, on the accession of James I, he 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.
In 1604 he was appointed one of the receivers for the Duchy of Cornwall, and, in June, to be 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 himself would seem 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 he obtained a grant of new privileges for the company, and in the spring went on to Moscow, whence he returned to Archangel and sailed for England on 28 May 1604.
In 1603 he 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 which time the company's trade was developed and established. In January 1618–19 he 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. His 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, and his name, as given by William Baffin to Smith's Sound, stands as a memorial to all time of his enlightened and liberal energy.
Smythe financed numerous Elizabethan era trade ventures and voyages of exploration during the early 17th century. In 1609 he obtained the charter for the Virginia Company, of which he was the treasurer until he resigned in 1620 after being charged with enriching himself at the expense of the company. The charges against him, which were urged with great virulence, were formally pronounced to be false and slanderous, though Smythe was not held to be altogether free from blame and the renewed inquiry was to continue until his death.
Smythe died at Sutton-at-Hone in Kent on 4 September 1625 and was buried in the local church, where there is an elaborate monument to his memory. The charges against him had met with no acceptance from the king; to the last he was consulted on all important matters relating to shipping and to eastern trade, and for several years was one of the chief commissioners of the navy, as also governor of the French and Somers Islands companies.
Smythe amassed a large fortune, a considerable part of which he devoted to charitable purposes, and, among others, to the endowment of 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 three times married. The first two wives must have died comparatively young and without issue. He was already married to the third, Sarah, daughter of William Blount, when he was sheriff of London. By her he had one daughter (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 and had issue, including 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 rather 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).
- "Sir Thomas Smythe". Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition.
- "SMYTHE, Sir Thomas (c.1558-1625), of Philpott Lane, London and Bounds Place, Bidborough, Kent". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
- engraved in Gent. Mag. 1835, i. 257
- '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
- Stevens, Court Records of the East India Company, 1599–1603
- Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1601–3, 13, 18, 24 Feb.
- ib. 11 April
- Cal. State Papers, Dom. 8 Jan. 1619, 6? Dec. 1624
- "Portrait of Sir Thomas Smythe from Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth". Sarah, Countess of Essex, 1825.
- Cal. State Papers, North American, 16 July 1622, 20 Feb., 8 Oct. 1629, 23 April, 13 May, 15 June 1625
- Cal. State Papers, Dom. 11 Dec. 1624
- Dietz, Brian (2004). "Smythe , Thomas (1522–1591)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/37985. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Morgan, Basil (2004). "Smythe , Sir Thomas (c.1558–1625)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/25908. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Wadmore, J.F. (1887). "Thomas Smythe, of Westenhanger, Commonly Called Customer Smythe". Archaeologia Cantiana XVII. London: Mitchell & Hughes. pp. 193–208. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Lee, Sidney, ed. (1898). "Smith, Thomas (1558?-1625)". Dictionary of National Biography 53. London: Smith, Elder & Co.