Thomas Smythe was the second son of a Clothier from rural Wiltshire. Despite his modest beginnings, through a judicious marriage, hard work and boldness in business, he become a wealthy and respected merchant in London, and his pre-eminence in the realm of customs collection led to his nickname of ‘the Customer’. He was a friend and associate of major figures of Elizabethan England.
Through his own success, and the success of his children (three sons were knighted), his descendants can be found as the Viscounts of Strangford, the Baker Baronets of Sissinghurst, the Viscounts Hatton, the Tyrrell Baronets, the Viscounts Fanshawe, the Fanshawe Baronets of Donamore, and the Fanshawe Baronets of Dromore.
Thomas Smythe was most likely born in Corsham, Wiltshire. He was the son of John Smyth, a Clothier, and Joan Brounker. The Visitation of Kent in 1619 recorded that Thomas Smythe was the son of John Smyth of Corsham, Wiltshire. Thomas' sister, Elizabeth (Smythe) Horspoole, was recorded In the Horspoole pedigree in the Visitation of London in 1568 as the daughter of John Smyth of Corsham, Wiltshire.
The date of birth of Thomas is unknown, but based on the details recorded on his own memorial in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Ashford, Kent, Thomas was probably born around 1522.
In the will of his father, the will made and proved in 1538, Thomas was noted as the second son. His elder brother was John, and his younger brothers were Henry, Robert and Richard. He also had three sisters; Anne, Jane and Elizabeth.
Wadmore stated that Thomas received a farm in the hundred of Amesbury, Wiltshire, from his father. This does not appear in the will of John Smyth of 1538 and Wadmore did not provide a source for this information.
Thomas married Alice Judde, daughter of Sir Andrew Judde of St Helen Bishopsgate, City of London. The date and place are unknown but the marriage was probably around 1553, and most likely in London.
Thomas appears to have married very well as his father in law, a leading member of the Company of Skinners and a Lord Mayor of London in 1550/1551, was a wealthy London merchant. Alice would have received a substantial marriage portion from her father. Moreover, both her brothers died shortly after her father and hence Alice may have been the principal beneficiary of her father's estates. Thomas Smythe was later recorded as Lord of the Manor of Ashford, Kent, a manor that came from the estate of Sir Andrew Judde and in possession of the Manor of Barnes, Surrey, also from Sir Andrew Judde, though not before a legal case brought against Alice's stepmother, Dame Mary Altham.
In the will of Sir Andrew Judde in 1558 it was noted that one of Sir Andrew's properties on Gracechurch Street in the parish of All Hallows (i.e. All Hallows Lombard Street) in the City of London was occupied by Thomas Smythe, Haberdasher.
In the Visitation of London in 1568 Thomas was recorded as the husband of Alice, daughter of Sir Andrew Judde, and father of 11 children. Two further children [Simon and Elizabeth] were born after this time.
Of the 13 children of Thomas and Alice, 11 were baptised at All Hallows, Lombard Street, City of London, a short walk from their house on Gracechurch Street. The names of the parents were not recorded with the baptisms, but the names of the children baptised and their sequence would indicate that these were the children of Thomas and Alice. It is presumed that the children were born in London, but it is possible that they were born elsewhere and baptised in London.
The children of Thomas and Alice were Mary (1554); Ursula (1555); Andrew (1556); John (1557); Thomas (1558 or 1559); Joan (1560); Katherine (1561); Henry (abt 1563); Alice (1564); Richard (abt 1565); Robert (1567); Simon (1570) and Elizabeth (1573).
Twelve of his thirteen children survived Thomas, only Andrew, the first born son, dying before achieving adulthood (no burial record has been identified).
As a consequence of his marriage to Alice Judde, the children of Thomas and Alice were recorded in the Stemmata Chicheleana, a pedigree of the Chichele family the Chichele line being derived through Alice's great grandmother Philippa Chichele.
It is not known when Thomas left Corsham for the City of London but it is presumed he left as a young man, perhaps aged 14-16, and presumably to became an apprentice with the Haberdashers' Company.
An early record for Thomas as a merchant is a letter from the Privy Council on 30 Sep 1551: "A letter from the Kinges Majestie to the Scottishe Quene, praying her to graunte a salf conduit to Thomas Smith and Rowland Browne, Londoners to trafficque in to the parties of Scotland, joyntly or a part, with owt any empechement, according to the auntient custome and to the last Treatie of Peace betwixt his Majestie and that realme".
Thomas Smythe and Rowland Browne were both members of the Haberdashers’ Company and clearly remained good friends until Rowland’s Browne death in 1571 or 1572. In the will of Rowland Browne made on 18 Jul 1571 and proved on 27 Oct 1572 the Testator bequeathed to his dear and loving friend Mr Thomas Smythe Esquier and “farmer of the custome and subsydie nowe of the porte of London”, his gold ring with his seal of arms. He also bequeathed to every one of Mr Thomas Smith’s household at his house at Barne Elmes and his house at London, one spire cake or spire bunne. He nominated his “welbeloved and assured ffrend & Mr [Master], Mr Smith” to be his Overseer.
Indeed on 26 Sep 1591, Alice, the daughter of Rowland Browne married Henry Smith the nephew of Thomas Smythe at St Gabriel Fernchurch, City of London. Both were recorded as ‘Servants’ in the house of Mr Thomas Smith, Customer .
Thomas Smythe was also concerned with trading in metals. On 19 Oct 1552 the Privy Council wrote to Thomas Gresham as follows: Thomas Smith of London acknowledgeth hym sellf to owe to the King, our Soveraigne Lorde, the summe of Jc li of lawfull mony of England, to be levied of his goodes and cattelles, &c. The condition of this recognisaunce is suche that if the sayd Thomas Smyth shall truly, and withowt any manner fraude or covyn, delyver or cause to be delivered at Andwerpe to Thomas Gresham, the Kinges Majesties Agent in the Base Contries of the Emperour’s, eightene fodder of leade carried owt of the Porte of London, receiving so muche redy monny for the same leade of the sayd Thomas Gresham as it shalbe at the arrival thereof commonly worth in Andwerpe, saving and recuping for every fodder of leade xls, to be prested to the sayd Thomas for the Kinges Majesties use , and to be repayde at the thirde monnethes ende in London; that then this recognisaunce shalbe voyde or elles, &c. Provided, neverthelesse, that if the sayd Thomas Gresham can not or doo not within x days after the arryvall of the sayd leade to Andwerpe make redy payment for the same, excepting the sayd summe of xls upon every fodder, that then it shalbe laufull to the sayd Thomas Smith or his factour to make sale of the sayd leade to his best advauntage, forseing allweyes that he delyver the sayd summe of xls upon every fodder to the sayd Thomas Gresham by way of lone to the Kinges Majesties use.
In Jul 1558 Smythe became Collector of the subsidy of tonnage and poundage on all wares brought into the Port of London, receiving annual fees of £149 23s 4d for collecting the subsidy and £78 6s 8d for the customs. This role was that of a civil servant, indeed that of a senior civil servant, but it is presumed that he also continued his own mercantile activities.
Thomas made his fortune primarily as the Farmer of her Majesty's Customs.
As his business would have been largely in London it seems that he would have been resident mostly in London with visits to his holdings in Kent and Wiltshire.
Wadmore stated as follows "on the 26th of May 1585, at the Court of St. Margaret's, Westminster, her Majesty directs her faithful councellor, Jacob Croft, to prepare a grant of the royal manors Eastenhanger and Westenhanger in the county of Kent, to Thomas Smythe, Esq., his heirs and assigns, with all and singular the rights and customs, mills, houses, workshops, and fisheries lately belonging to her Royal ancestors, Edward VI. and Henry VIII., to hold by military service, at an annual fine of £3 8s. 6 1/2d.
Thomas Smythe did have involvement with Westenhanger (also known as Ostenhanger) prior to this as there is a record  of 04 Nov 1578: "A letter concerning unseemly speeches by a Doctour Nemson preached in the parsonage of Saltwoode, Kent, against Mr Customer Smithe touching an inclosure of a parcel of ground within his manor of Oster Hanger which the Doctour pretendethe to be common. Sir Thomas Scotte, Mr Thomas Wottn and Mr Haymon, esquires to assemble and to prove the complaint or that the Doctor was mistaken."
How long Thomas was connected with Westenhanger is not known but it appears unlikely that any of his children would have been born there.
Upon his death, Westenhanger passed to his eldest surviving son, Sir John Smythe and from Sir John Smythe to his son, Thomas Smythe 1st Viscount Strangford.
Thomas Smythe acquired the property which is now Corsham Court, Wiltshire, in 1575. "After purchasing Corsham, Customer Smythe rebuilt the house at a cost of £4,000 and the date 1582 is still to be seen on the south front of the house".
Corsham Court passed to his third surviving son, Henry Smythe, who sold the property in 1602 to Sir Edward Hungerford, the Hungerfords then sold to the Methuens, the current owners.
It is known that Smythe commissioned Cornelius Ketel to paint head and shoulders portraits of himself, his wife and children.
In the will of his daughter in law, Sarah the Dowager Countess of Leicester (wife of his son Sir Thomas Smythe), the will made on 02 Feb 1655/1656 and proved on 13 Mar 1655/1656 she made a bequest as follows: "I doe give and bequeath unto my nephew John Smith of Highgate in the Countie of Middlesex Esquire fourteene pictures … Customer Smith and his wife and of their sixe sonnes and sixe daughters". As John Smith (a grandson of Customer Smythe) died around the same time as his Aunt it is unclear if the paintings were delivered to John or his surviving son. The paintings were later in the possession of the descendants of the Viscounts of Strangford.
A number of these paintings were purchased in 2016 by the Company of Skinners in London from a private collection. The painting of Thomas Smythe himself in the collection is a copy of the earleir Ketel painting.
A copy of a portrait of Thomas Smythe is on display at Corsham Court in Wiltshire.
A half length portrait of Thomas Smythe exists in a private collection.
The attached portrait of Thomas Smythe is at Queens College Cambridge.
Thomas Smythe received a grant of arms in 1579, described as:
“per pale or and az., a chev. arg. betw. three lions passant guardant counterchanged”
NB There is no evidence that Thomas was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I, contemporary documents refer to him as simply Thomas Smith/Smythe or Thomas Smythe esquire.
His date of death of 07 Jun 1591 is recorded on the memorial in Ashford Church. His place of death is not known, but may have been in either London or Kent. Given the delay between his death and the burial at Ashford it seems most likely he died in London.
"Thomas Smyth esquire, Lord of this Town of Ashford" was buried on 30 Jun 1591 in St Mary the Virgin, Ashford, Kent.
An impressive memorial to Thomas Smythe and his wife, Alice, exists in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Ashford, Kent. The following is a translation made by the Rev. A. J. Pearman, of the latin inscription on Smythe's monument.
Sacred to memory. Here, in the certain hope of a blessed resurrection, is interred the most illustrious man Thomas Smythe, Esq., of "Westenhanger, who, on account of his tried fidelity and obedience towards his Sovereign, was deemed worthy to be set over the duties of the Customs in the Port of London, which dues he afterwards purchased of the Sovereign by the payment of an annual rent of £30,000, and he presided over them with singular liberality towards those of higher rank, and love towards the trading interests. He expended the means with which an Almighty and Merciful Providence had blessed him freely and willingly, in relieving the poor to the Glory of God, in cherishing the professors of true religion, in promoting literature, and, for the advantage of the State, in fitting out ships for long voyages, in discovering new countries, and opening copper mines. And now, full of years, when he had completed his sixty-ninth year, and brought up six sons and also six daughters, by his dearest wife, herself sixty years of age, daughter and heiress of Sir Andrew Judde, Knt., Lord of the Manor of this Town of Ashford, who are placed by marriage in families of some distinction, he departed this life in firm faith in Christ on the 7th of June in the year of grace 1591.
John Smythe, his eldest son, most sorrowfully erected this monument to the best of fathers and the most beloved of mothers as a memorial of his duty and affection, and a record to posterity, the other sons and daughters joining in his grief.”
In his will made on 22 May 1591 and proved on 29 October 1591 he was recorded as Thomas Smythe of London esquire.
His will was to be buried in the parish church of Ashford, Kent, and he requested that a tomb be made for him there by his executors.
He willed that his debts should be paid, and in particular those to the Queen should be paid in reasonable and convenient time. To speed the payment of his debts he willed that the Leases of Munckton and Thorndon Wood in Kent should be sold.
He bequeathed to his wife, Alice, for her natural life, his Lease and interest in his house in London which he inhabited, along with all the household stuff and implements.
He bequeathed £1,500 to his daughter, Elizabeth. To his other children as yet unadvanced (not named) he willed that they should have that portion of his goods and cattells in accordance with the ancient and laudable custom of the City of London.
To his daughter Mary Davye wife of Robert Davye esq. he bequeathed £500, and a further £500 was bequeathed to her children John Davye and Alice Davye, the sum to be divided between them.
To his grandchildren Alice, Thomas, William and Katherine Fanshawe, the children of his daughter Joan and her husband Thomas Fanshawe esq., and to Henry and Walter the sons of Thomas Fanshawe by his late wife Mary, £500 to be equally divided between them.
To his grandchildren (not named), the children of his daughter Katherine and her husband Sir Rowland Hayward, £250 to be equally divided between them.
To his grandchildren (not named), the children of his daughter Alice and her husband William Herrys esq., £250 to be equally divided between them.
To his grandchildren (not named), the children of his daughter Ursula and her husband William Butler esq., £250 to be equally divided between them.
He bequeathed to each of his daughters £40.
He bequeathed to his sons: John, plate to the value £100; Thomas, £100; Henry £100; and Richard £100.
To up to three children which his son Henry may have in the future he bequeathed £50 each.
To his ‘brother’ [brother in law] Horsepoole and his wife, £250.
To each of his brothers and sisters (not named) a gold ring of 5 markes.
He bequeathed £20 to his servant and kinsman Henry Smithe and £10 to his brother Richard Smithe.
He bequeathed £5 to each of his household servants.
To his cousin William Bronker esq. he bequeathed £20.
To his friend Thomas Owen Serjeant at Law he bequeathed £100 and to Richard Langley his servant, £20.
To his friend Christopher Teldervey gent, £200, for his great care of the Testator’s affairs.
To his friend Mr Thomas Aldersey £20; and to his good neighbour Peter Houghton esq., £20.
In terms of charitable donations he bequeathed £40 to the poor of Ashford, Kent; £10 to the poor of the parish of Fanchurch [St Gaberiel Fenchurch, City of London]; £10 to the poor of Cosham [Corsham, Wiltshire]; and £40 to the poor prisoners of London.
He appointed Sir Rowland Hawyard, his son John Smythe, Thomas Fanshawe esq. and Mr Thomas Aldersey as his Executors, and Mr Serjeant Owen as his overseer.
In 1568 Thomas was an Overseer of the will of his uncle, Henry Brouncker esq of Erlestoke and Melksham, Wiltshire.
Thomas was a beneficiary of the will of his son in law, Simon Hardinge, citizen and Salter of London (the first husband of his daughter Ursula), his will made on 09 Apr 1580 and proved on 05 Jan 1581/1582.
Buckler, Benjamin. Stemmata Chicheleana (Oxford Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1765)
Locating the Queen's Men, 1583-1603: Material Practices and Conditions] edited by Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme, Andrew Griffin; Page 70
Title: Dictionary of National Biography, Volumes 1-20, 22
Title: The history of the Fanshawe family. Fanshawe, H. C.. The history of the Fanshawe family. Newcastle-upon-Tyne England: A. Reid and Co., 1927.
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