Sir Thomas Smythe (ca. 1558–1625)


Sir Thomas Smythe was an English merchant who served as the first of three treasurers of the Virginia Company of London. Although his surname is sometimes rendered Smith, he always spelled it Smythe. Like his father, he was a successful haberdasher and investor in trading companies, including the East India Company. He was briefly imprisoned after a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I, but was knighted by King James I in 1603 and appointed royal ambassador to Russia. In 1609, in conjunction with the company’s second charter, he became treasurer (essentially chairperson) of the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company that funded the English colony at Jamestown. Smythe’s administration was tumultuous and ended with the election of his rival Sir Edwin Sandys as treasurer in 1619. Four years later the Crown opened an investigation into the company for mismanagement and in 1624 revoked its charter. Smythe died in Kent in 1625.

Early Years and Success as a Merchant

Seal-die of the Muscovy Company

Smythe was born about 1558, one of twelve surviving children of Thomas Smythe and his wife, Alice Judde Smythe. The elder Smythe was a prominent haberdasher and merchant whose primary property was Ostenhanger (later Westenhanger) in the county Kent. He was known as “Mr. Customer Smythe” for his position as collector of the petty custom at the port of London. Alice Smythe’s father, Sir Andrew Judde, was the lord mayor of London in 1550 and a founding member of one of England’s first joint-stock companies, the Muscovy Company, chartered in 1555 to trade with Russia.

Smythe might have been educated at Oxford. Like his father, he worked as a haberdasher, or a seller of men’s clothing. He quickly became a wealthy and successful merchant, and historians are sometimes unclear which Thomas Smythe, the elder or the younger, is referred to in Elizabethan-era records. (The elder Smythe died on June 7, 1591.) By 1580, the younger Smythe was a member of the Skinners’ Company and the Haberdashers’ Company, the latter of which he led from 1599 to 1600. In 1581, either father or son helped to found the Merchants of Levant (sometimes called the Turkey Company), which traded in the Mediterranean and in India. In 1588, the younger Smythe may have lent the queen £31,000 toward her effort to meet the threat of the Spanish Armada. A few years earlier he also invested in Sir Walter Raleigh‘s efforts to establish the Virginia colony at Roanoke. He received a share of Raleigh’s profit in 1589. During the decade that followed he provided food for English troops in Ireland.

Sir Walter Raleigh

In June 1596, according to the historian Alexander Brown, Smythe and his brother Simon Smythe joined Raleigh on his daring raid against the Spanish port city of Cádiz. Simon Smythe was killed, but Thomas Smythe and another future Virginia Company member, Thomas Gates, were both knighted for gallantry by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex (a honor that, for Gates, at least, was later royally confirmed). Other histories do not connect Smythe and Cádiz, however. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Essex’s secretary was also named Thomas Smith, although he is not known to have traveled to Cádiz.

In 1597 Smythe was elected to represent Aylesbury in Parliament, as had his father and older brother, John Smythe, before him. In 1596 and 1598 he served as a commissioner negotiating trade with the Dutch. He succeeded his father as the collector of customs for London, and also served as auditor (1597–1598) and alderman (1599–1601). He became sheriff of London on November 6, 1600.

By 1600 Smythe had become one of London’s most powerful merchants. Already a member of the Company of Merchant Adventurers and a governor of the Muscovy and Levant companies, he became the first governor of the East India Company, which received its royal charter on December 31, 1600. Except for a short break (1605–1607), he retained the title until 1621.


Queen Elizabeth

In 1601, Essex led a failed uprising against Queen Elizabeth, and Smythe, while not implicated, was, in the words of one historian, “compromised.” Writing in volume 53 of the National Dictionary of Biography (1898), the British naval historian Sir John Knox Laughton sketched the scene with great drama. On February 8, the night before Essex’s attempted revolt, Laughton wrote, the earl rode to Smythe’s house on Gracechurch Street in London in hopes that Smythe, who served as captain of the city’s militia, would raise the troops on his behalf: “Smythe went out to him, laid his hand on his horse’s bridle, and advised him to yield himself to the lord mayor. As Essex refused to do this and insisted on coming into the house, Smythe made his escape by the back door.”

At first Queen Elizabeth expressed her gratitude to Smythe, but suspicions arose about his connections to Essex. First, the queen relieved Smythe of his position as sheriff. And then, on February 14 she ordered him taken into the archbishop of Canterbury’s custody. On March 2 Smythe was transferred to the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned for more than a year. After paying a large fine, he was released. Essex was beheaded on February 25, 1601.

Smythe married three times. His first and second wives, Judith Culverwell and Joan Hobbs, died childless. His third was Sarah Blount. They were married by 1600 and produced one daughter and three sons.

East India Company and Virginia Company

King James I

On May 13, 1603, James I knighted Smythe, and in March 1604 appointed him ambassador to Russia. Smythe traveled there in 1604 and negotiated new trading privileges for the Muscovy Company. After his return, Smythe immersed himself in the activities of the various companies he ran. The historian Basil Morgan wrote: For two decades Smythe’s house in Philpot Lane was the centre of the [East India] company’s activities: its general assemblies were held in the great hall, which was hung with an Inuit canoe, and one room was specially fitted as a strongroom [for the storage of money and valuables]. The building was often thronged with sailors seeking recruitment or pay arrears and, when fleets were at sea, with their wives, often to Smythe’s great discomfort.

The company controlled a monopoly on British trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope (near the southern tip of Africa) and west of the Straits of Magellan (near the southern tip of South America). The company struggled largely because of competition with the Dutch East India Company, although some investors blamed Smythe for involving himself in too many enterprises.

Merchants of Virginia

Smythe also invested in the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company chartered to plant a colony in the Chesapeake Bay. Smythe’s cousin, Mary Goldinge, was married to one of the venture’s primary recruiters, Bartholomew Gosnold. Other investors included former followers of the earl of Essex, including Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers, both of whom had fought with Essex in Ireland. The king appointed Smythe to His Majesty’s Council for Virginia, the company’s governing board, and in 1609, on the occasion of a second charter, the council elected him the company’s first treasurer.

Smythe’s tenure was a tumultuous one, reflecting the fortunes of the Virginia colony. Raising funds became difficult as the English public learned about the wreck of the Sea Venture, which had been transporting the colony’s first governor to Virginia, and the horrors of the Starving Time. In 1612, the company abandoned the joint-stock financial model in favor of a series of lotteries; and then, in 1618, the company instituted the headright system, which induced settlers to pay their own way to Virginia with the reward of land. Smythe also helped reform the company, democratizing its governance and opening its books to scrutiny, but his reputation, especially among colonists in Virginia, was in tatters. Too many settlers were dying and profits were scarce. In the meantime, Smythe was serving as governor of the East India Company, the North-West Passage Company (beginning in 1612), and the Somers Isles Company (beginning in 1615). Some Virginia Company investors worried he was overextended and suggested the possibility of conflicts of interest. In 1618, the company prohibited its treasurer from holding the same position in another company. (The Somers Isles Company, which governed the Bermuda Islands, was excepted from this rule.)

Sir Edwin Sandys

The company was riven by factions, and in 1619 Sir Edwin Sandys led an alliance of investors that unseated Smythe. But Sandys encountered his own problems, and in 1623, the Privy Council launched an investigation into the company’s management. The king revoked its charter a year later.

In addition to his election in 1597, Smythe sat in three more Parliaments, representing Dunwich in 1604, Sandwich in 1614, and Saltash in 1621. He was appointed commissioner of the navy in 1618 and took charge of British attempts to defeat the Barbary pirates. In 1619, he was appointed to serve on the treasury commission, acting as an important liaison between the Crown and merchants.

Smythe died on September 4, 1625, at Sutton-at-Hone, in Kent, probably of the plague. He is buried in the Church of Saint John the Baptist at Sutton-at-Hone, in Kent.

ca. 1558
Thomas Smythe is born. He is the second surviving son of Thomas Smythe of Ostenhanger (later Westenhanger) in County Kent and his wife, Alice Judde Smythe.
Thomas Smythe is a member of the Haberdashers' and Skinners' companies.
Thomas Smythe is a founding member of the Merchants of Levant, or Turkey Company, which trades in Turkey and India.
Thomas Smythe possibly lends £31,000 to Queen Elizabeth I to help meet the threat of the Spanish Armada.
March 7, 1589
Sir Walter Raleigh disperses his interest in the Virginia colony, "saving only the fifth part of gold and silver ore," to a group of London merchants, gentlemen, and planters.
Thomas Smythe serves as a commissioner negotiating trade with the Dutch.
June 1596
An English fleet under the command of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex; Charles Howard, baron of Effingham and England's Lord High Admiral; and Sir Walter Raleigh sacks the Spanish port city of Cádiz.
Thomas Smythe is elected to represent Aylesbury in Parliament, a seat held before him by his father and his older brother, John Smythe.
Thomas Smythe serves as an auditor in London.
Thomas Smythe serves as a commissioner negotiating trade with the Dutch.
Thomas Smythe serves as an alderman in London.
Thomas Smythe serves as master of the Haberdashers' Company.
October 1600
The East India Company is formed with Thomas Smythe as its first governor.
November 6, 1600
Thomas Smythe is appointed sheriff of London.
December 31, 1600
Queen Elizabeth I issues a royal charter to the East India Company, formed to trade with the East Indies.
February 14, 1601
Thomas Smythe, under suspicion for involvement in an uprising against Queen Elizabeth led by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, is remanded to the custody of the archbishop of Canterbury. He is removed from his position as sheriff of London.
March 2, 1601
Thomas Smythe is transferred to the Tower of London, where he will be imprisoned for more than a year for his suspected involvement in an uprising against Queen Elizabeth led by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex.
1603—July 1621
Sir Thomas Smythe retains the position of governor of the East India Company, excepting the period from 1605 until 1607.
May 13, 1603
Thomas Smythe is knighted by the new English king, James I.
Sir Thomas Smythe is elected to Parliament representing Dunwich.
March 19, 1604
Sir Thomas Smythe is appointed to be special ambassador from King James I to the czar of Russia, then Boris I.
April 11, 1604
Sir Thomas Smythe is appointed to be a receiver for the Duchy of Cornwall.
June 13, 1604
Sir Thomas Smythe, the new royal ambassador to Russia, and his party sail from Gravesend bound for Russia.
July 22, 1604
Sir Thomas Smythe, the new royal ambassador to Russia, and his party arrive at the city of Arkhangelsk in the northern part of European Russia. From there, they travel overland to the city of Yaroslavl, where he meets the czar, Boris I. He later travels to Moscow.
May 28, 1605
Sir Thomas Smythe, having obtained a grant of new trading privileges for the Muscovy Company, begins his return journey to England.
April 10, 1606
King James I grants the Virginia Company a royal charter dividing the North American coast between two companies, the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, overseen by the "Counsell of Virginia," whose thirteen members are appointed by the king.
November 20, 1606
King James I appoints Sir Thomas Smythe a member of His Majesty's Council for Virginia, the governing board of the Virginia Company of London.
May 23, 1609
The Crown approves a second royal charter for the Virginia Company of London. It replaces the royal council with private corporate control, extends the colony's boundaries to the Pacific Ocean, and installs a governor, Sir Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, to run operations in Virginia.
July 26, 1612
King James I grants the North-West Passage Company a royal charter to facilitate finding a route to Japan and China and facilitating trade with them. He names Sir Thomas Smythe its governor.
Sir Thomas Smythe is elected to Parliament from Sandwich.
June 29, 1615
King James I grants the Somers Islands Company a royal charter to facilitate colonization of and trade with Bermuda. He names Sir Thomas Smythe the company's governor.
Sir Thomas Smythe is appointed commissioner of the navy.
January 1619
Sir Thomas Smythe is appointed to the treasury commission and assigned to negotiate differences with the Dutch, then in the midst of the Eighty Years' War (1568—1648).
April 28, 1619
Sir Edwin Sandys takes over as treasurer (essentially chairman) of the Virginia Company of London.
Sir Thomas Smythe is elected to Parliament representing Saltash.
January 30, 1621
Sir Thomas Smythe writes his will. He will add a codicil to it on the day of his death.
May 1623
The Privy Council launches an inquiry into the administration of the Virginia Company.
May 24, 1624
Following a yearlong investigation into mismanagement headed by Sir Richard Jones, justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the Crown revokes the Virginia Company of London's charter and assumes direct control of the Virginia colony.
September 4, 1625
Sir Thomas Smythe dies at Sutton-at-Hone in Kent, England. He is buried at the church of Saint John the Baptist.
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APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Sir Thomas Smythe (ca. 1558–1625). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/smythe-sir-thomas-ca-1558-1625.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Sir Thomas Smythe (ca. 1558–1625)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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