Eight years with Sir Thomas Smith

That someone with Smith’s reputation was available just at the time that it was necessary to find a safe place and a good tutor for the Oxford heir must have seemed most fortunate to all concerned (except perhaps the four-year-old himself).  Smith’s teaching credentials from Cambridge and Eton, his mastery of Latin, of Protestant theology and Civil Law, and in fact, of most of the subjects deemed appropriate for a noble child to study,  would have been on a par with his reputation for loyalty, sobriety, and “uprightness of dealing.”  Equally important at the moment perhaps was the fact that his home was close to Windsor Castle, the most heavily fortified and so the safest of all the royal palaces.  And, unlike most other qualified Protestants, Smith was on the good side of the Marian regime.

While four-and-a-half might seem to us too young to be taken from home and family and placed with strangers, it would not have seemed at all unusual to his contemporaries. That emotional “bonding” between parents and children or between siblings was a good or necessary thing would not be a factor in anyone’s thinking for centuries, in fact, quite the opposite (Stone Family 106-12).  More often than not throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, noble children were raised outside the home by other family members, trusted retainers, patrons, or tutors.  Most children weren’t sent out until seven or eight, but where such evidence exists, it shows that they were sometimes boarded out as young as three or even two (McFarlane 245).

One hears little about Sir Thomas Smith today, but in his own time, and for generations after, he was widely renowned in the worlds of Court and University as England’s leading Reformation scholar and statesman. Born to yeoman sheep farmers in the small Essex town of Saffron Walden, not far from Castle Hedingham, center of the Oxford earldom, Smith’s accomplishments were partly due to his own brilliant intellect and partly to fortune, for he lived at a time when men of sterling character and intellect from humble backgrounds could find a place in the burgeoning English Reformation.

Having dedicated himself to reading from age four (Dewar 11), it must have been a local patron who sent him to Cambridge at age eleven, where he began his astonishingly quick rise to prominence at Queens’ College. Greek Orator by age 20, first appointee to the Regius Chair of Civil Law by 27, by 30 Smith was Vice Chancellor of the University where his managerial instincts resulted in important gains for the dons. Still in his early thirties, in 1547 his association with the Cambridge-based tutors of the young King, Edward VI, resulted in a call to serve as Master of Requests to the King’s Uncle, the Duke of Somerset.

Rising within a few months to the post of Principal Secretary to the King, Smith was one of the handful of thinkers, theologians and activists responsible for the English Reformation. Within the six short years of Edward’s reign, the steps taken to change from the Catholic Mass to a Protestant service, to establish it in all the parishes of the nation, and to establish a network of grammar schools based on a curriculum designed by Erasmus, moved with surprising swiftness.

Of course this did not go smoothly.   Historians tend to gloss over the violence, the burning of the rood screens and precious carved statues, the smashing of stained glass windows and melting down of gold and silver chalices and candlesticks, the imprisonment, torture and burnings of resistent priests and parishoners.  But this was not Smith’s department.   Working closely with the nation’s top clergyman, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Smith was the Crown’s point man in charge of getting into print the book that would become the cornerstone of the Anglican Church, the Book of Common Prayer.

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men . . .

Alas, so quick to rise, Smith was equally quick to fall.  Though certain in moving to establish the Reformation, Somerset’s grasp of other situations was weak and irresponsible.   Not Catholics alone, but many in his own party were alarmed by his greed and his mishandling of the riots of 1549.   So when John Dudley, Earl of Warwick took Somerset down in a government coup, Smith fell along with him, and, after a few months in the Tower, found himself back in private life, where he would remain for thirteen long years, eight of which were spent tutoring de Vere.

During the first half of this hiatus he was only one of the many Protestants out of power as Queen Mary Tudor and her ministers strove to return the nation to Catholicism. In his renovated Priory at Ankerwycke on the Thames just south of Windsor, he served briefly as Provost of Eton, gave sanctuary to his old Cambridge tutor John Taylor, Bishop of Lincoln, and began his tutoring of little Edward de Vere, heir to the Oxford earldom. He planted gardens, drew up horoscopes, created medicines in his private laboratory, rode to hounds, and, as he wrote to his former Cambridge student, William Cecil, relaxed by “now and then looking on a book,” one of four hundred he would accumulate by 1566.

His marriage in 1554 to widow Philippa Wilford brought him a large manor, Hill Hall on 1,000 acres in central Essex, which at some point c.1557-’59 (Drury 46) became his new base of operations.   In 1558, as Mary’s health began to fail, Smith began making arrangements with Cecil and other members of her brother’s former council to create the second Reformation government under their sister Elizabeth.   When Mary died in November, de Vere was placed at Smith’s alma mater, Queens’ College, so Smith could join Cecil and others in planning the move to Protestantism known as the Elizabethan Settlement.

Smith’s former student and understudy, William Cecil, having advanced to a place of leadership in the Protestant community at home (most having fled to the Continent during Mary’s reign) was now the new queen’s closest advisor.   As Cecil’s long time confidante and advisor, Smith expected to have a place on the new Privy Council.   When it went instead to Nicholas Bacon, Cecil’s brother-in-law, Smith found himself once again back in Essex.  With little to do but act as a local JP, mustering militias, and seeing to it that the Book of Common Prayer was installed in every parish church, he became restless and angry with Cecil.

Smith’s break finally came four years later when de Vere, then 12, was placed by the Court of Wards with Cecil in London, freeing Smith to take over as Ambassador to France as the English struggled to smooth relations with that turbulent neighbor.   After four years without success, followed by five more years out of office, in 1572 he finally achieved once again the top spot on the Privy Council as Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, where his first task was to bring down the Duke of Norfolk for treasonably attempting to marry the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.

Smith’s most notable effort during his final years at Court was his attempt to create an English Protestant colony in Northern Ireland.   Having been granted by the Queen a large piece of land in Ulster, he created an elaborate plan for its organization and government.   Although the project ended in failure––and in tragedy for Smith, his natural son, young Thomas, having been murdered by an angry Irishman––the plan itself would become one of the founding documents for later and more successful efforts to colonize North America (and one of the primary sources for Shakespeare’s The Tempest).

Forced to retire in 1576 from a tumor in his throat that made it difficult to speak, Smith spent his final months struggling, though with little success, to find and finish the works he’d written over the years.  Following his death in 1577, copies of these began providing historians with much of their material on the period.  In recent years Mary Dewar and others have managed to prove his authorship of some of them.   That he was the true author of A Memorandum for the Exchange (Dewar 1965), and The Discourse of the Common Weal (1966) is now generally accepted.   That he was probably also the author of “The Device for the Alteration of Religion” and was chiefly responsible for the wording of the Book of Common Prayer remains to be proven.

2 thoughts on “Eight years with Sir Thomas Smith

  1. Perhaps I have missed this in one of the previous articles, but did the sixteenth Earl hire Smith? E. g., was it a happy coincidence that Cecil picked Smith to continue the lessons when the sixteenth Earl died?

  2. Smith’s accomplishments were partly due to his own brilliant intellect and partly to fortune, for he lived at a time when men of sterling character and intellect from humble backgrounds could find a place in the burgeoning English Reformation.
    And yet Shakspere’s accomplishments?!?

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