WHO WERE PETER SMITH’S PARENTS and OUR ANCESTORS?
Prior to 1663
The Smiths who settled into Westmoreland County, Virginia had to have some resources available that allowed them to move into a wealthy neighborhood including the likes of Washington, Lee, Custis, Madison and Monroe. These families were the predecessors of the great names in American history. Some arrived here with acquired wealth and some ascertained it with hard work, shrewd deals and some serious skills. A man could work hard, acquire land, nurse profits from the lucrative tobacco trade and maintain a comfortable estate. Those who made use of the head right system were able to gain 50 acres of land for every person they brought to Virginia. There are recorded deeds in which a man gained 8000 acres for transporting 160 people to the New World. The investor paid the cost of each immigrant’s journey to the new world. The incoming migrants did not necessarily arrive on the same ship. Each ship’s manifest (list of passengers) was maintained as a document which recorded the investor’s headright claim. Each of the passengers then had an obligation to pay the investor for the cost of their journey. The investor often became the master in a master/servant relationship. The headright system and indentured servant formalities were thus entwined.
In Early Virginia Immigrants (1623-1666), by George Greer, p. 303, Peter Smith is identified as an immigrant coming into Virginia whose cost of transport was covered by Thomas Thornbrough. This event is also referenced in Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, 1623-1666. Vol. 1 by Nell Marion Nugent. On March 25, 1651, Thornbrough was granted 700 acres of land in Northumberland County, Virginia. His property was identified as: “Abutting Sly. upon a branch issueing out of Nomeny Riv., Ely. upon a small br. of sd. Riv. towards the land of James Hare.” One often needs an interpreter to make sense out of these primitive descriptions. It is no surprise that the language in many deeds led to disputes. Claims frequently ended in court room drama and could remain unsettled over the course of centuries. We have enough information here to develop a general idea as to where this Thornbrough property could be found. And more importantly, it leads to locating a Smith family homestead.
We do not know if Thornbrough developed his homestead on this Northumberland site. There were land speculators who acquired properties with the intent of flipping them, selling them for a quick profit. These speculators may have remained in England and never ventured across the ocean to see their acquisitions. The laws prevented a person from sitting on the land for too long. In fact, if a property sat for three years with no development occurring, the land was escheated, removed from the landowner’s possession and offered for sale to others. The entire system of headright procedures and patents of land (deeds) replete with escheat, was designed to develop a population, communities, commodities and an economic system that would become vibrant and profitable for the Crown of England and the London Company. In the first decade following the disasters in Jamestown, Edwin Sandys ordered that London Company investors be paid in acres of land, as there was no other profit to be found.
Thomas Thornbrough covered the cost of transport for 14 people including Peter Smith. Thornbrough’s property was located on the banks of the “Nomeny River” in Northumberland. This area was soon to be incorporated into Westmoreland County (created in 1653). We do not know if Peter was indentured to Thomas or if he found another way to cover the cost of his transport. If he was indentured we do not know the length of service. We also know there were no other Smiths on board the ship. Peter arrived without the company of an immediate family. Either his parent(s) were already in Virginia or he was at ‘the age of majority’ and acted as an adult looking for a new life and opportunity.
If this Peter arrived as an adult, he is not the Peter Smith identified in so many family trees as ‘Peter Smith of Swallowfield, born 1641.’ That Peter would have been ten years old in 1651. Youngsters did make the voyage and some times alone. Some twelve year old girls were married at this point in life and on board the ship destined for motherhood. If Peter is a grand father in our tree, and ten years old at the time of arrival in 1651, then a number of property acquisitions made in the 1650’s and credited to Peter Smith of Swallowfield are erroneous. A Peter Smith, born in 1641, would not have been legally granted land until age 21 in 1662. The property deeds of the 1650’s and a number of other mid-century transactions do seem to lead to ‘grandfather’ Peter (b.1663) and our great uncle James Smith. So we will ‘follow the money.’
We will call the guy who arrived in 1651 Peter Sr., assume he wasn’t ten when he arrived and treat him like an early member of our family. He got off the boat in 1651 and went to work in the very neighborhood that became the homestead of our known ‘great’ grandfather Peter Smith (1661-1741). It appears the land immigrant Peter Sr acquired was handed down to his children, our fathers. However, it also appears that properties of Nicholas Smith, Robert Smith, Richard Smith, William Smith and others are also found in the neighborhood of Peter of Yeocomico. We do not have Immigrant Peter’s last will and testament to help us solve the riddles at hand.
In order to proximate Peter of Yeocomico’s homestead, I had to study a number of Westmoreland (post-1653) and Northumberland (pre-1653) deeds and wills. I had to translate the language found in deeds. I had to use Google Maps to identify rivers, streams, marshes, hills and churches. I had to make sense out of abbreviations and the various spellings of geographic features. I had to know that rivers possessed a variety of names and spellings of those names over the course of time.
Leafing through deeds replete with references to various trees as property landmarks reminded me of an old Irish joke my father loved to repeat:
An American couple stopped in Donegal to ask a farmer for directions to Murphy’s Tavern. The wizened old gentlemen took one drag off his pipe and started by saying, “You go down this road to the right until you come to where the widow O’Connell passed and from there you go north to where the old Sycamore tree once stood. Head easterly till you see the grove of poplar and southerly to what once was Sully’s Meadow.”
While researching digital files in an electronic text entitled Cavaliers and pioneers; Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants 1623-1800, I came across a lead that became intriguing over a period of time. On page 117 of the deed book, transaction 174 reveals:
“Peeter Smith, 500 acs. in Petomeck freshes, N.Ely. upon a creek above Col. Speakes land & S. Ely. upon land called Gosnells land. 15 July 1657.”
Note the spelling: Peeter Smith. Was the additional ‘e’ a typo? Had the name been copied incorrectly on the deed or in the editions that occur over the years? Perhaps, and not unlikely. I find many variations of names in our family tree. But the unresolved issues of Peter Smith’s birth year (1641) and the series of 1650 deeds going forward hankered me. I am not the first person to puzzle over such discrepancies. But I have not found anyone conversing online about this particular spelling, “Peeter.” Was it a clue or an anomaly? I assumed it was a meaningless spelling error.
The Mormon Church (LDS) offers an online service. The LDS family search site allows researchers to dig into the massive LDS genealogical files. I plugged in the following descriptors: “Peter Smith, Swallowfield, Berkshire, England” and established the parameters for the time period as 1620-1650. Among the few Peter Smith’s that appeared on the monitor screen was information regarding ‘Peeter Smith.’ This Peeter was born in January, 1627 and baptized at St. Giles church in Reading, Berkshire, England. This ‘Peeter Smith’ would have been 24 years of age in 1651 if he arrived in the company of Thomas Thornborough’s transport. He would have been 30 years of age when ‘Peeter Smith’ purchased 500 acres in the Petomeck freshes; a purchase made possible by his transport of 10 immigrants. Perhaps the Peeter Smith recorded in the 1657 ‘Petomeck’ deed was spelled correctly and pointed toward the ‘Peeter’ born in Berkshire in 1627, and baptized in Reading. Reading is less than five miles north of Swallowfield, the village many point to as the homeland of Peter of Yeocomico.
Moving forward in time there is a certain logic to my hypothesis that this Peeter Smith (b. 1627) fits into our tree. My ‘guess’ also makes sense when working the tree backward in time from Peeter’s Baptism at St. Giles church into the middle ages and the reign of Henry the VIII. But the truth is simple: We do not have the paperwork, the documentation, to prove beyond doubt that my theory or anyone else’s conjecture holds baptismal water. I am okay with that. This ‘Peeter Smith’ (1627) may have died at the hands of Archbishop Laud in the 1630’s or Oliver Cromwell in the 1640’s. He may have never left Berkshire. He may have never seen a ship. Perhaps some day a scrap of paper will surface that reveals a vital link. The fact is, every family that ‘grows’ a family tree is eventually grounded by the ‘brick wall’ through which the roots can’t pass. And we ‘can’t know’. Life goes on! We will come back to St. Giles Church at a later date.
A man could also acquire wealth via marriage and this may have explained the rise of the Smith plantations in Virginia. This was a common practice in Europe. An arranged marriage could bring power, property and payola to both parties in a marriage. We find examples in our tree where men married into money and, via a wife’s dowry, acquired a stake in her father’s fortune. There is no indication that either Immigrant Peeter Smith, or Peter of Yeocomico (b. 1663) married into great wealth. Evidence indicates that each may have married into well established families that circulated among the landed gentry of colonial Virginia, but nothing extraordinary. Peter Sr of Swallowfield appears to have married a Jane Barnes. Peter of Yeocomico may have married Mary Bayley, daughter of Stephen Bailey. I know nothing about Peeter (1627) marital status at this time. I do know he had a father in Berkshire named John.
Was our Peter of Yeocomico born in Westmoreland or did he come over on the boat? Before we speculate further on his parents and ancestry let’s look at what we don’t know about these early Smiths. We do not have any document recording the birth of Peter Smith of Yeocomico in Westmoreland or in England. There are Peter Smiths born in both locations but the timing of their births does not jive with the timelines in our ancestor’s lives. We do not have a Baptismal Record from any of the Cople Parish churches for Peter (1663). We do not have the will of Immigrant Peter at the time of his death in 1691. Therefore, we do not have an accurate record of his children, spouse, relatives, neighbors or properties. There are several Peter Smiths arriving in Virginia via transport agreements but their arrivals do not jive with the known Immigrant (1651) Peter Smith timelines.
The records of the Church of the Latter Day Saints point to a Peter Smith in Swallowfield, England as the father of our Peter Smith. While such records are some times wrong it is the best lead we have. As I have been looking for a long time, I have chosen to pencil in the name of Peter Smith Sr. as a popular choice of the masses as the ‘immigrant ancestor,’ and father of Peter Jr. (b. 1663). Whether it is Peter (b.1641) or (Peeter b.1627) I do not know. I have simply written Peter Sr. into the tree as a great grand father.
Peter Smith of Swallowfield, England
I will treat Peeter (1627) and Peter (1641) as one person, Peter Sr. Was Peter Sr an aristocrat? A middling yeoman? A peasant youth plucked off the streets by the Press Gang and shipped to the New World to rid England of another destitute punk rocker? Was he a young Royalist fleeing the heavy hand of Oliver Cromwell? The timing was right for that escape. Many Brits, loyal to King Chuck, fled the island after the King gave his head for his country. Did he arrive at a later date as a Roundhead fleeing the revenge of Royalists? Were his parents heavily involved in the British Civil War and did they all flee for their lives, arriving on various ships at opportune moments? Questions regarding his family’s political and religious mindset are important. Many of the families in the Smith’s Westmoreland neighborhood did flee persecution at the hands of Cromwell’s forces when the Puritanical Parliamentarians drove King Charles I and his Anglican cronies from his throne and beheaded him in 1649. Folks who supported the King were called ‘Royalists’ and were hunted down; their lands seized and wealth confiscated. A family with the means to do so would gather up what they could and grab the next flight out to the backwaters of Virginia. The Smith’s first neighborhood on the banks of the Potomoc near Kinsale was a veritable Who’s Who of renegade Royalists lathered up and ready to protect their new digs. It is conceivable that Peter Sr. or his father had been a part of one or more rebellions.
Where Does our Research Go Next?
I am hungry. So I will suggest we pause here and head down to Clancy’s Stone Lion Inn for a Guiness, a Redbreast Whiskey and one of their fine corn beef briskets. It is as Irish as one can get in Central Wisconsin. Clancy played Rugby and Ice Hockey as a youngster and his mug and frame reveal the scars he earned as a warrior. I am going to guess the crease across his face was earned in a friendly game of hurling. The walls of his pub are lined with pictures of mates and trophies earned on the pitch. His gait indicates that he took a few hits for the cause and his eyes twinkle when he recalls a moment from the day back then back when, when men were men and women wore skirts. When the brisket is gone and the Guiness downed we will tackle a bit of his wife’s bread pudding, soaked in Jameson. We will savor every bite and it will put me over the top for driving home.
After lunch, which will carry us into the evening at Clancy’s, we can come back here and take one of several tracks: 1) We can go back in time from the year of Peter of Yeocomico’s death in 1741 or 2) we can move forward in time from the birth of Immigrant Peter somewhere between 1620 and 1641. Or 3): We can do both. This procedure will cause us to converge on the decade of 1680 when the lives of the two men merge and are each engaged in legal transactions in the same neighborhood. Sorting through which man is buying and selling each property becomes entertaining; sort of like unraveling Christmas tree lights on a frigid night, while perched on the uppermost wrung of a wooden ladder that should have become firewood long ago. A recent hip replacement prohibits me from climbing the ladder this year, so I will throw another log in the fireplace and pretend I am disappointed that I am not out there freezing my arse off right now.
We know that Peter Jr. died in 1741 and we know the day the will went probate (4/28/1741). We know he was an adult when he acquired land in 1684. In that transaction James Smith sold 100 acres to Peter Smith, my brother of Yeocomico.” He had to be ‘of age’ to engage in a recorded, legal purchase. Therefore, Peter was at least 21 years of age in 1684, pushing his birth year back to at least 1663. But was this the Immigrant Peter Sr of Swallowfield or Peter Jr of Yeocomico?
A land deal cut on July 6, 1672, also begs the question: Which Peter is involved here? A deed carries the signature of “wit: Peter Smith and James Gaylard.” A Peter Smith was also a witness when Vincent Cox of Yeocomico in Cople Parish sold land to George and Hannah Lamkin. The land is identified as “on the branch of Nominy River, on Francis Clay’s line.” The document further notes that the land was part of an original patent of 665 acres dated September 27, 1667. Cox and Lamkin are names that appear in our family tree.
The previous deeds validate our assumption that two Peter Smiths were living in Cople Parish of Yeocomico, Westmoreland County, VA. The deeds identify their neighbors and some relatives. The 1672 documents require that Peter (d. 1741) be at least 21 in 1672. This would push his birthday back to 1651 and his age as 90 when he died. While we do have numerous ancestors in the Smith line who lived to an old age this is pushing the upper limits of that possibility. In all likelihood the 1672 transaction is that of Peter Sr, The Immigrant.
The names of immigrants migrating to Virginia in the 17th Century were, by law, recorded for several purposes. Not only the immigrant’s name, but the year of arrival, the name of the ship, the ship’s captain and often the age of the immigrant. In checking those passenger manifests we find several Peter Smiths arriving in Virginia over the course of the 1600’s. One Peter Smith, age 25, departed from Gravesend, England on July 4, 1635, on board the ship Transport of London, captain Edward Walker in charge. The record further indicates that all aboard the ship signed an affidavit required by Archbishop Laud, indicating that they conformed to the orders and discipline of the Church of England. An examination of the manifest provides an interesting insight: of the more than one hundred immigrants on board, a large majority were between the ages of 18 and 30, male and single. There were very few surnames that were shared by passengers indicating that siblings or spouses were not likely to be on board.
What did we just learn from the manifest? A young man left England at the age of 25 in the year 1635. The man was born circa 1610. Therefore, if this is our Peter Smith of Westmoreland, he established a world record for longevity, dying 131 years later! So, the immigrant Smith, arriving in 1635 is not our ‘Peter Smith of Yeocomico’. Maybe a father to our gentleman. But that would make the Immigrant Peter 52 years of age when Peter of Yeocomico was born in 1663. Not likely. The average settler was dead by age 50. The more I examine the line of Smiths coming into the colony from 1607 to 1665 the more I become convinced that some are linked directly to others as descendants, cousins and shirt tail relatives. Patterns emerge not only in terms of their homesteads and purchases, but also in terms of the company they keep, the attorneys and clerks they encounter and the neighbors they maintain from generation to generation and parish to parish. Finding the evidence for a direct tie is difficult.
The best Immigrant named Peter Smith arriving by boat is the one everyone has chosen as arriving on Thornborough’s credit card. It appears Peter of Yeocomico was born here in the colony and his parents or grandparents came over, from somewhere in the British Isles, or Kingdom including Barbados and Bermuda.
Peter may have migrated from New England. That did happen from time to time as folks residing in the northern colony tired of cold winter weather, politics or religion. Several classic examples of our ancestors moving south include the illustrious name from the Pilgrim’s Plymouth Colony: Isaac Allerton (1627-1702), son of Isaac Allerton and Fear Brewster. Isaac was born in Plymouth and died, a wealthy man, in the neighborhood of Peter Smith in Westmoreland County, Va. Isaac established a southern plantation replete with slaves, tobacco, wharves and warehouses.
Peter Smith, Swallowfield Manor, Berkshire, England
We believe the Smith family name came to the New World in the soul of a man named Peter Smith and that LDS records point toward Swallowfield, England as the village in which Peter’s family lived. Let’s go with that but not rule out other possibilities.
The history of Swallowfield Manor is archived online and I have read the literature from cover to cover. The surname Smith doesn’t show up very often in Swallowfield history and when it does the characters wearing the name are a part of some fascinating history. Let’s personalize this and make it more pertinent to present day descendents of Peter Smith of Yeocomico. Whether we are the child of J.D., Bill, Bob, or Marge Smith Jacobs, we are the progeny of opinionated, well educated deep thinkers who dedicated their lives to public service and believed deeply in the principles of democracy. Each of our parents believed in public education, inclusion of all in the political process, enfranchisement of the masses, civil rights, etc. Those are traits found in the generations that have descended from the Eyota, Minnesota clan. The power of public speech was not only espoused by Uncle Bill, but practiced by his brother Robert Raphael Smith (Bob) as President of the San Francisco State University campus during the crusade for Civil Rights. It was put to work by J.D. (Don) as a classroom teacher and chair of the community Civil Rights Commission in West Chicgao and Marge as a classroom teacher and devout Catholic with a big heart. We all have our opinions, our need to resolve issues through communicative processes and our interest in political activity and religious principles. These character traits evolved through the ages in our family tree. I urge you to continue reading and enjoy the history of a small, pastoral village that gave birth to much more than a large family brood. Swallowfield made history happen.
Swallowfield, Berkshire County, England
The village is 5 miles south of Reading and St. Giles church. It is 1 mile north of Berkshire’s county boundary with Hampshire. The location of the village is important in understanding the character of the man, Peter Smith. The man who came to America brought with him not only the DNA that infuses the physical body of his descendants, but the character traits and moral fiber that filtered through the generations as well.
Swallowfield lies 35 miles to the west of London. The village of Swallowfield lies within the civil parish of Swallowfield and the Borough of Wokingham. The parish and borough includes nearby villages of Riseley and Farley Hill. Riseley and Farley Hill are within two miles of Swallowfield villaage. We are talking about an area no greater than four miles square. That is a small amount of land. From those four miles square emerged a foundation stone in the creation of republics and democracy as we know it today. Peter Smith was a product of a political culture that shaped Swallowfield, transformed the nation of England and the growth of American colonies. That is not hyperbole, but the conjecture of English historian Patrick Collinson.
In his seminal research, Elizabethans (c. 2003) and essays (The Monarchial Republic of Queen Elizabeth I) Collinson discusses The Articles of Swallowfield (1596) and their impact on the transition from rule by monarchs to rule by the people. While we have all been exposed to the Magna Charta (1215) and the American Constitution (1787) we have never heard of the Articles of Swallowfield (1596). There is a reason for that. The articles were hidden for 400 years in the pages of the Ellesmere Manuscripts in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. In 1984, during his tenure as a Mellon Fellowship scholar, Collinson combed through the archives and found a “scruffy little manuscript” tucked away in a volume of papers relevant to British history. How the articles got from England to sunny California is anyone’s guess.
Collinson was interested in the nature of 16th century British political and religious institutions. The two (church and state) were inextricably and dramatically interwoven during the age of the Reformation and Tudor Dynasties, including those of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The impact of the Protestant Reformation on our family history is extensive. The Swallowfield Articles and Collinson’s work focuses attention on the impact of economic conditions, social structure and civil unrest in the lives of our British ancestors and in particular folks like the Smyths of Swallowfield. These conditions provided compelling motivation for our ancestors to flee the European scene and risk everything to start new lives in North America.
The death of Henry VIII in 1547 catapulted the peasant class of England into the depths of one of many ‘risings’ that litter British history. The Rebellions of 1549 were numerous across England and included the Prayer Book Rebellion in Cornwall, Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk and the Oxfordshire Rebellion in the county of the same name. These rebellions spanned a distance of three hundred miles in a time when television, internet and radio contact were at a minimum. While local in nature, there was common ground for each of these separate revolts:
- The Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and newly anointed King Edward VI were forcing all citizens to use one standard Protestant prayer book. This was a kick in the ass for Catholics and Protestants who preferred something other than the Church of England.
- The Parliament and King were taking open and arable farmlands away from use by the commoner. Open land was being sold off and enclosed by aristocrats.
- Commoners were also being removed from public forests and no longer allowed open access to hunt formerly public lands.
Enclosure was the legal process in England of walling in a number of small landholdings to create one larger farm. Once enclosed, use of the land was restricted to a new owner and no longer available for community use. Open fields ceased to exist. The English countryside was fenced off (enclosed) and deeded to one land baron or a syndicate of owners. Enclosure could be accomplished in one of two ways: 1) buy the rights to properties or 2) pass laws forcing enclosure. The latter process of enclosure was sometimes accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed and remains among the most controversial events in the agricultural and economic history in England. It is not unlike the Bolshevik seizure of Kulak farms in Soviet Russia under Lenin and Stalin.
The new owners constructed rock walls around their turf and fenced out previous occupants. Many peasant farmers and their families were cut off from their food source and joined with catholics who were enraged by the protestant king’s efforts to force the Church of England on all citizens of Great Britain. Tens of thousands of the King’s army including many German mercenary troops waged war against one hundred thousand peasants, rural farmers and laborers alike armed with sticks, stones and pitchforks, in village streets across the countryside. Tens of thousands died, their corpses left to litter the landscape. Mass executions made a statement: “Don’t mess with the King!”
The Rebellions of 1549 brought to a head the vary issues that remain unresolved in the world today. How do men of different faiths live one with another? How is wealth distributed? How are resources consumed? Who owns what? What do we do to bring relief to the impoverished? One of the issues that we see surfacing in 2015 is an issue that confronted Swallowfield in 1595: Who gets to participate in community decision making? Whose voice should be heard? Present efforts to require voter identification are nothing more than an attempt to disenfranchise minorities and the impoverished. We find our ancestors embroiled in the same controversies four hundred years ago.
The Swallowfield Articles of 1595 laid down, in writing, some principles for community business meetings. In a nation governed by the top down rule of the Queen Elizabeth one might be surprised to find elements of local control exercised by community activists. While the monarch relied on the input of a Privy Council in the privacy of her chambers, she determined whose voice would be heard on that Council and who might face execution at Smithfield if they overstepped their bounds. While the British did have a Parliament, the members of Parliament could also face the wrath of the King or Queen and die in a variety of horrible ways. Parliaments were suspended, disbanded and basically squashed at times. Battles between King Charles I and Parliament (Oliver Cromwell) fed the fire of a British Civil War in the decade of 1640, forcing a number of our ancestors to retreat to America.
Kings and Queens also controlled the lands of their empire. They appointed Barons, Lords, and a variety of other titled positions. With those titles they granted lands and castles to those they counted as allies and removed those who failed to earn their trust. Our ancestors (Whittingtons, DeSpencers, Grenvilles, Hawkins, Butlers and numerous other royals) moved in and out of castles over the period of one thousand years of British rule. These Lords of the land were responsible to the King and Queen. They raised armies and taxes to support the monarch and rule the countryside. This layer of upper crust managers was supported, in turn, by those who were delegated to run a manor system in which the middling class, yeoman, laborers, artisans and peasant class would live firmly under the rule of the monarchial system. Swallowfield was a manor placed in the hands of a variety of royals over the centuries.
Prior to Collison’s discovery of the Swallowfield Articles it was assumed by scholars that top down management ruled the land in 16th Century England. The Swallowfield Articles revealed a local, grass roots effort to govern the neighborhood. The manor and accompanying neighborhood was an important structure in the medieval European society. Most people lived their entire lives in one small community where interaction took place among life long neighbors. If the youngsters chose to grow up and move away, they moved to a new, similarly styled neighborhood and often moved with siblings, cousins or childhood friends. This pattern of moving, en masse, continued in America as our ancestors moved from the Coastal shoreline through the Appalachians and into the Great Plains and Deep South. And no. My Uncle Bill wasn’t the first Smith to land in the Deep South. Centuries before him, Peter Smith’s five sons picked up everything and settled in Spartanburg, South Carolina. From there cousins drifted off to Indiana, Alabama, Texas, Missouri and Europe.
The Swallowfield neighborhood was part of the manor system and subject to the rule of the monarch, the Barons and Lords of the manor. The Lord was responsible for the manor and the welfare of the people. The Lord maintained a Justice of the Peace who enforced the laws, maintained the peace, resolved conflicts and insured that norms and mores of the community carried forward each day. All of this went to Hell in a Hand Basket in Swallowfield in the 1590s, despite the firm rule of a strong monarch in London, 35 miles away. So what happened to motivate the locals to boldly meet in a formal, public meeting in 1596?
The system literally broke down. English court records reveal that several manors failed in old England and failed miserably in the latter decades of the 1500s, in the aftermath of the Rebellions of 1549. Swallowfield was one of those manors that fell victim to a Lord’s neglect. The history of Swallowfield manor is detailed in an online, archived manuscript that covers a one thousand year history dating back to the rule of William the Conqueror. Our focus on Swallowfield manor will relate only to the 16th and 17th century in which the Smith tree is engaged and we do find Smyths in that history.
Like all other manors and castles in England, Swallowfield bounced from the custody of one family after another depending on the whim and relationship of the King or Queen. Swallowfield did pass through our ancestral families including Arundels, Allyns and DeSpencers in previous centuries.
In 1464 Swallowfield was owned by the wife of King Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville. At Edward’s death in 1483 Swallowfield was transferred by the new King Richard III who granted ownership to Sir William Tyrwhitt for life. The granting of a property “for life” often shows up in these grants of ownership, but is considered meaningless. The King could easily end your life at any time, or simply let you live and turn the land over to someone else “for life.”
King Richard III had his own life cut short two years into his term (d.1485) when King Henry VII (7th) rose to power on the Battlefield of Bosworth. In 1485 the new King Henry VII granted Swallowfield to his mother-in-law and the former Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, “for life.” A year later King Henry VII took Swallowfield away from his mother-in-law and he gave it instead to his wife, Elizabeth “for life.” The mother-in-law was shipped off to an Abbey up the road where she dawdled off to die in 1492. All of these transactions illustrate a key point: the Monarch controlled the property. Land ownership was a fleeting thing, as was life itself if one crossed whoever occupied the throne.
Enter the Smyth family name
It is at this point in the history of Swallowfield that the Smyth family name enters the scene. Richard Smyth of Swallowfield was identified in the records of the time as the Yeoman of the Robes to Elizabeth of York, wife of King Henry VII. With her attainment of the Swallowfield estate, Richard is elevated to a new title and additional responsibilities. He is named “Yeoman of the Robes” and “Parker and Paler of the Manor of Swallowfield.” In modern parlance: he was responsible for the Queen’s wardrobe and he was bailiff for the buildings and surrounding forest of Swallowfield. Being responsible for the forest was no small task. Kings and Queens cherished their royal parks and forests. Robbers and thieves sought refuge in the maze of woodlands. Squatters risked life and limb trying to eke out a survival living off the land. When King Edward VI moved against public use of forest lands, men like Richard Smyth assumed greater risk in the performance of their jobs.
In 1487 Richard received a commendation and a grant that loosely reads:
“in consideration of the true and faithful service which our well-beloved Richard Smythe, Yeoman of the Robes with our dearest wife, the Queen, hath done unto us, and during his life intends to do, of the herbage and pannage of the park of Wedgenock (County Warwick), during the minority of Edward, Earl of Warwick, to his own proper use, without therefore paying anything to the King.”
As the man responsible for the Queen’s fashions, Richard insured that she was always dressed in the finest of garments and dazzled the King and his Court, as well as the general public whenever she made a grand or less than grand appearance. The ledgers that recorded Richard’s purchases identify some of the many purchases the man made as he kept the lady in the finest threads. There are numerous silks and satins bought by Smythe “for the use of the lady, the Queene,” and a variety of other items that are enumerated in olde English and require a Shakespearean Scholar to decipher. As an example Richard purchased “tymbres of whole ermyns,” “pane of ermyns,” and “purfylle of ermyns” and the same of “large and small menever” as well as “menever leteux.” It gets better and even more puzzling. He buys “furrures of bise,” and “sables and martrons,” “skins of bogy” and “panes of boge” as well as “furrure of shanks of bogy” as well as “pampliones of bogy.” It is clear that the guy was buying fur including ermine and martin. A bogy is defined as lambskin with the wool dressed outwards.
In June of 1502 the expenses of the Queen include payments to Richard Smyth in “reward for bringing a fawne from the parke of Swallowfield to the Queen at Richemount” and on the 6th of July “to the underkeepers of Swallowfield for the bringing of three bucks from Swallowfield and Windsor.” On September 28th in 1502 “Richard Smyth, Yeoman of Robes” is paid for land he purchased and a shirt he made “for the childe of her Grace (the Queen) at Reading.” Reading is a few miles north of Swallowfield and home to a second manor in the custody of the Queen.
This Richard Smyth comes off as a devout guy, dedicated to his church. In 1493 he belonged to a Guild founded by one Henry Kelsall, a clothier of Reading. The Guild, ‘the Brethren of the Mass of Jesus,’ made generous contributions to the church. Smyth laid out some serious coin from time to time for the care and maintenance of St. Lawrence Church in Reading. Again, church records reveal a number of fine cloth garments and items laced with gold and silver. Smyth’s position as the Yeoman of the Queen’s Robes would certainly require that he be well versed in not only knowing fine threads and fashion, but also designing and tailoring the garments of her wardrobe. The guy knew his stuff and made a nice living.
His wife was also a generous soul and took a strong interest in the St. Lawrence church. She was at the forefront of a church celebration in which the gift of a tenor bell, gifted by Kilsall, was consecrated and put in place. She is also identified as the contributor of a canopy of “Crimson velvet embroidered with gold flowers and the Holy Lambe in the mydle.” She is, in all likelihood the ‘Misses Smyth’ buried at St. Lawrence Church, Reading in 1522-3.
Queen Elizabeth of York, wife of King Henry VII, to whom Swallowfield was granted in 1486 died in 1503. A marriage that began as an arrangement made only for political and financial reasons, ended in a long lasting royal love affair. King Henry VII, not given to emotions during his reign, was devastated by his loss and was described as depressed and reclusive. It is believed he died of heartbreak a few years later in 1509. With his passing the power of the throne transferred to his son, Henry VIII and Swallowfield was granted by the new King Henry VIII to his first wife Catherine of Aragon ‘for life’. We all know the history of Henry the VIII and his many wives!
Richard Smythe, who had served as Bailiff in Swallowfield and Yeoman of the Queen’s Robes apparently impressed the Queen’s son, young Henry VIII. Junior added another promotion to Smythe’s resume making him the Yeoman of the Robes to the King and Keeper of the Park at Swallowfield. He was also identified as the Bailiff, Paler and Collector of the Lordship. He was also named Steward of Caversham, and Customer and Collector of dues for weighing wools and fleeces in the town of Calais. In other words, Henry VIII showed him respect but tripled his workload, not an uncommon practice in the corporate world of today. Richard did not endure the workload for very long. He died in 1511. He was succeeded by his son Richard (Junior) as Yeoman of the King’s Robes and Bailiff of Swallowfield. Richard Junior also took dad’s place as a Burgess for the Borough of Reading.
Richard Jr married Mary, the daughter of John Bucklande of St. Lawrence. The son emulated his father’s benevolence in terms of contributions to the Church of St. Lawrence. Church records enumerate several pricey items including two illustrated books gilted in silver weighing five pounds each and two basins of pure silver weighing three pounds. In the area of vestments for the priest and assistants, young Smythe updated the entire wardrobe for the year with the finest of fabrics: black velvet, satin and red damaske. Richard Smythe was the last Roman Catholic who was placed in possession at Swallowfield. The next bailiff, appointed in 1522, was a Protestant whose job it was to dispose of the all church properties in Swallowfield.
As indicated previously, King Henry VIII granted Swallowfield to the first of his many wives in 1509. With the departure or passing of each wife he moved the property into the hands of the next wife or victim depending on your view of Henry’s many failed attempts at conception and marriage. With Henry’s death in 1547 the control of all manors belonged to King Edward VI. Edward granted the Swallowfield Manor to one Christopher Lytcott in 1553 and Lytcott promptly died in 1554. His son John took ownership and immediately mortgaged the property, sold the property, regained the estate, mortaged the estate, sold portions of the estate to investors, and mortgaged it again. For 25 years, 1575 through 1600 the manor fell victim to neglect as John Lytcott found himself floundering between debtor’s prison and foreclosure. Ownership of the manor was a subject of court and royal debate. The local aristocrats lost confidence in the chain of command at the local level.
It appears Samuel Backhouse took possession of Swallowfield in 1581. Had it been true it would have been a blessing to those who called Swallowfield home. The Backhouse family would eventually provide stable leadership. But his acquisition did not have the Queen’s immediate approval and Lytcott forced matters into the court system for years on end. Matters were finally resolved in 1588, but Samuel was a bit of an absentee Lord, maintaining a highly successful haberdashery in London. While an improvement of sorts, a void remained at the local level.
Please recall that in 1549 much of Great Britain had been rocked by ‘Risings,’ a British term for rebellion. During his nearly fifty years as King, Henry VIII had forced the closure of many rural churches, closed Catholic abbeys, monasteries and churches, executed Catholic priests, monks, bishops and cardinals. He had confiscated church lands and sources of income. KIng Edward exasperated conditions with his policies of enclosure and Prayer Book manifesto. Counties Berkshire and Wiltshire felt the threat of the peasant uprising. Berkshire County provided soldiers for the King in the royal effort to suppress the rebellion in Cornwall. One hundred thousand peasants had gathered near Lancaster with petitions, not arms, airing their concerns. From Cornwall to Norfolk tens of thousands of people had died in protests launched against religious tyranny and the enclosure of common farmlands. It was shortly after these traumatic events that the governance of Swallowfield fell into chaos under the mismanagement of the Lytcott family.
The ‘risings’ fueled concerns among the property owners, the landed gentry, the gentlemen of England, our ancestors in Berkshire. These men of wealth were threatened by the revolt of the masses and they supported the Monarch’s efforts to suffocate the rebellion, execute the rebel leaders and annihilate their armies. At the slightest sign of revolt, the local gentry were empowered by the Monarch to execute anyone who appeared to contest the will of the Monarch. It was in this atmosphere that the landed gentry of Swallowfield gathered in 1596 to deal, head on, with the issues that threatened their very lives and livelihood. They were, in part, a vigilante group empowered by the Queen and a town hall meeting organizing a Committee of Public Safety.
“The Chief Inhabitants” of Swallowfield expressed concern about the complete collapse of their manorial courts due to the Lord’s failure and the lack of nearby Justices of the Peace. Who were “the Chief Inhabitants” of Swallowfield? They were the landed gentry, people of property and wealth, the “Haves” as opposed to the “Have Nots.” The word “Chief” meant the important, significant people of the manor and county. The “Chief Inhabitants” were concerned about the peasant class, the impoverished, the unemployed, the vagrants…. They were concerned about: “illegitimate children, provision of the poor, suppression of pilferers, backbiters, hedgebreakers, mischevious people, and the proud, dissentious and arrogant.”
The ‘chief inhabitants’ were not interested in sharing their power, or podium in their meeting house with the ‘have nots’. The village poor were to be put in their place, muzzled, and respectful of the well to do. If they spoke at a meeting they were to be considered out of line and prosecuted as “common disturbers of the peace.”
The landed gentry, the Smyths among them, were royals. That is to say they supported the monarch. They benefitted from their connections with the King or Queen; in this case Queen Elizabeth I. The men who gathered on December 4, 1596 were not declaring their independence, they were not establishing a republic or renegade state. The Ellesmere Manuscript is a written record of the Articles that were recorded by those in attendance. The assembly laid down some principles for meeting together in order to run the parish. In the absence of a Lord, a Manorial Court, a Justice of the Peace, these guys were going to put their heads together and engage in some problem solving. They were a corporation, a company joined together to serve the monarch and dominate their peasant neighbors. They chose to work together “to the end we may be better and more quietly serving of her majesty when we meet together.”
The Articles were drawn up to guide them
“in good love and liking one another. None of us shall disdain one another, nor seek to hinder one another by words nor deeds, but rather to be helpers, assisters, and counselors of one another, and all of our doings to be good, honest, loving and just; as a strong bundle of sticks that cannot be broken.”
The authors of the Articles pledged to maintain records and not to sue each other at law without first attempting to resolve the matter amongst themselves. They stressed participation and the elimination of contention. It was written:
“None should do anything one against another or against any man by word or deed upon affection or malice, in our meeting, nor to be discontented, since none of us is ruler of himself, but the whole company or the most part is ruler of us all.”
They were to be
“helpers, assisters, and councellors of one another, and all our doings to be good, honest, loving and just to one another.”
The bylaws of Swallowfield illustrate participatory traditions at the heart of English social and political life. These traditions arrived in the New World along with the men and women who embarked on the great American journey toward independence. There are significant lines within the bylaws that sadly did not survive in the American Congress of 2015. As an example the gentry of Swallowfield agreed
“No man shall scorn another man’s speech but that all shall be spoken may be quietly taken and heard by all.”
In a nation in which the leading candidate for President in the Republican Party, Donald Trump, gains greater support each time he holds a fellow party member up to ridicule, one can see how far we have fallen from a sense of decency and respect in this nation. Before I set the folks in Swallowfield too high on a pedestal I need to remind the reader that the authors of the Articles were writing bylaws that governed their interaction one with another. They did not grant such respect to the impoverished masses that squabbled for decent living conditions and wages. They were to be kept in their place and made mindful of their station in life. That too would be a characteristic that followed the landed gentry to the New World. It would only be generations later that Smiths would be born of poverty and rise to speak on behalf of the downtrodden in this land.
Despite the class differences made clear in the Articles one can find important historical evidence that English citizens in small, remote villages were taking strides toward greater civil engagement in matters of local governance. The folks in Swallowfield made it abundantly clear to the Queen that they were not acting in a manner to interfere with her right to govern. They were, in fact, seeking to aid in the monarch’s effort to control the destitute masses, and end a nearly century long series of rebellions that ignited with the Protestant Reformation.
It was out of these difficult times and conditions that Peter Smith was born, nearly one half century after the Articles of 1595 were drafted and put into effect. The decade of his birth is significant in English history. He was either an infant Peter (1641) or a young man Peeter (1627) when the protestant Roundhead, Oliver Cromwell seized control and ruled England with an iron hand and a will to destroy.