WITHOUT FURTHER PROOF

Without further proof it would be wrong to assume that we the living are descended from Richard Smyth, via Peter Smith.  It would be also be wrong to assume that Richard Smyth (Yeoman of the King’s Robes) is directly descended from the Smyths of the West Country of England. But historians of previous centuries have contributed a whole lot of literature and research indicating these are strong possibilities. When I reach a dead end in tracing family history I need to be honest enough to point out the dead ends, and yet, adventuresome enough to suggest to future researchers the avenues that could lead to lost ancestors. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of knowing oneself as Socrates pointed out long ago and knowing one’s roots.  We are nothing more than a blip on the radar screen of life, a dot in the matrix. But, it is important for humankind to connect the dots if we are to escape the grasp of past patterns and elude the fault lines that litter the tectonic plate of life.

The Smyths of Swallowfield arrived, over time, in the Berkshire community from three different locations: the West Country, Yorkshire and London.

In 1600, the CFO for England’s initial efforts to colonize the New World, Sir Thomas Smyth, maintained a residence in Swallowfield. His family enjoyed the pastoral escape from the London scene and prospered in Swallowfield. He was raised in the hill country around Swallowfield. When the pressures of micromanaging a multinational conglomeration (the East India Company, Muscovy Company, London Company, Bermuda Company and Virginia Company), harboring furs from Muscovy and sending boatloads of migrants to America became too much for Smyth he would enjoy a brief respite in the woodlands of the Berkshire hills. He could pretend to enjoy a great hunt in the woods, skewer a lamb on the barbie and connive his way through the demands of London’s top shelf investors. If kissing the ass of the King or Queen became too much Smyth could always find relief in Swallowfield.

When you peruse the man’s resume and read the history of the decades in which he ruled the British economy you find yourself thinking: he didn’t know what in hell it was like to slow down for even a minute.  I doubt that he enjoyed a commute from the Berkshire hills. But he did maintain a residence there and one I am sure his family enjoyed. If nothing else the place probably provided his kids an escape from the idiosyncratic behaviors of a British bean counter bent on controlling the universe.

Thomas Smyth understood world trade, shipping on the high seas and marketing.  He was a wheeler dealer of the highest caliber. His skills were legendary. He established England’s trade relationships with Russia and India, vast distances across the globe.  He purchased Sir Walter Raleigh’s rights to actually own ‘Virginia’ (aka: America).  He invested large amounts of time and energy in his corporate effort to develop this new world holding.  He attracted a number of corporate investors to that cause but initial attempts in Jamestown were colossal failures. Profits were hard to come by and Smythe’s strategies called into question. He saw no need to bring Christianity to the Native Americans (as the monarch hoped to do), just kill them. This tactic led to continued bloodshed as attacks and counter attacks eventually resulted in the near annihilation of Jamestown in 1622. It also went along way toward irritating the hell out of Captain John Smith who understood military power, but preferred diplomacy in a New World strategy. Captain John had no idea how many Natives could be living out there in the hills.  Thomas Smyth preferred genocide for the masses. This conflict in policy led to Smyth’s demise as a corporate head. That and impending scandals related to his fiscal operations exposed him to a series of charges until his death in 1625.

“Like father, like son,” they always say. And Thomas was a chip off the old block. His father was also a major player in the London market place. Thomas ‘Customer’ Smyth. His nickname, ‘Customer’, implied that he was the collector of customs in London. He was the tax collector. I would imagine he was despised.  You can find the account of his rise and fall as an entrepreneur online. He and his son had remarkable, yet tragic success.  They each paid a price for the wealth they accumulated. Important to this narrative is the fact that Customer Smyth was born of John Smyth and raised in the Berkshire hills. Specifically, his father John was a yeoman and clothier in Corsham, Wiltshire.  Father, John, left a 100 acre farm in Amesbury, Wiltshire to young Thomas when Thomas was all of 16 years of age. Thomas Smyth left the hill country at about that same time of his father’s death and joined the haberdashery guild of London. From that point forward he made the right connections, married into the Lord Mayor’s family and made his fortune, created his scandals and died miserably drained of his wealth by Queen Elizabeth. Thomas Smyth had thirteen children, including 6 males, all of whom reached adulthood, married and had children.

West Country Residents

West Country Residents

Folks claiming the Smyth moniker arrived in Swallowfield from the West Country in a gradual, yet compelling manner, over the centuries. The Smyths went from peasant sheepherders to landed aristocracy and major players in the woolen textile industry. In the 15th and 16th century they were engaged as clothiers, men who made fine garments for the aristocracy of England and Europe.  One doesn’t have to be jacked up on arabica coffee to follow the steady evolution from sheepherders to weavers to textile manufacturers and clothiers to Richard Smyth, Yeoman of the King’s Robes and Thomas Smyth, haberdasher turned shipping magnate and world trade tycoon.

In 1902 the Reverend Compton Reade, wrote in his volume on the history of St. Mary’s of Oxford:

“John le Smyth was a member for Chard, co. Somerset, in 1327, and probably the first of his name in England to acquire social distinction….. Of his blood is assumed to be Robert, Mayor of Exeter in 1469, who had the honour of entertaining King Edward IV, with his Consort, during his year of office. Between 1469 and 1553, when William Smyth was mayor, there are no traceable family links, but inasmuch as they were wool-staplers in the chief towns of Devonshire and Dorset, from whose ports the wool was shipped to Flanders, the probabilities are in favour of the Smiths holding a commanding position in the trade. The Flemish merchants in the later middle ages were paying such large prices for English wool, that men of the highest social status, such as the Dormers and Grenvilles, embarked in the trade. At all events we note, about the Reformation period, that the Smiths of the West, while retaining their connection to Exeter, had already advanced from being mere yeoman to become large and influential landowners. Wool indisputably was the source from whence their wealth accumulated, and it is affirmed that already they had begun to manufacture cloth on their own account. This may be; but a profitable and extensive export trade was the making of the West, and incidentally of its notable manufacturers , the Smiths.”

Family crests and seals used in transactions were symbols important in identifying people and families in olde England. The merchant’s mark found on the seal of William Smyth in 1436 links him to the family wool trade, either as a merchant or manufacturer of cloth. William resided in the English community of Devizes. The village of Devizes is a scant 45 miles to the west of Swallowfield and we find William only two centuries prior to the birth of Peter Smith. Devizes was and is a part of Wiltshire County. Swallowfield was, at one time, subject to the governance of Wiltshire County.

Again, it has been recorded that merchants in Devizes were exporting their manufactured goods, identified as “cloth of Ghent” to the French village of St. Omer. Also found in these ancient records is evidence that the Smythe and Covyntre families were closely aligned in the Devizes  community, Corporation and Church of St. Mary. During the time of Henry V, one Robert Smyth served as Mayor in 1417-18. Terms for officials, be they mayors, constables, or members of Parliament were short: no more than a year of two. During his stint on earth, Robert is noted as a major benefactor of the church. Deeds indicate that he donated a large chunk of land to the St. Mary’s parish. That would have made my Grandmother Mary proud to know that her husband, Leb’s, family had made such a notable contribution to her namesake’s church. This pattern of a Catholic family playing a significant role in the church, community and clothing industry carried forward to Richard Smyth of Swallowfield and King Henry VIII’s court.

Keep in mind that we are merely talking in general terms about possible ancestors and the evolution of a family heritage. No specific evidence of linkage from one generation to the next has been found. The patterns are interesting to note and worthy of further exploration.

Chapter 4: Other Ancestral Possibilities for Peter Smith