That few today recognize Smith by name is one of those sad cruelties of Fate, for Sir Thomas was as famous in his time, and for a century or so after, as any of the friends and colleagues whose names continue to ring loud today in histories of the period. In his own time he ranked in reputation and importance above or on a par with his Cambridge colleague John Cheke, his students Roger Ascham (pronounced Ask/am), William Cecil, Walter Haddon and Richard Eden, his fellow antiquarians Matthew Parker and John Dee, his fellow geographer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, or his Court colleague Sir Francis Walsingham. That Smith was Queen Elizabeth’s active and diligent Principal Secretary for four years from 1572 to 1576 is often overlooked by historians, whose interests focuses first on Burghley, then on Walsingham, men whose terms in office lasted longer and embraced more dramatic events.
In some ways Smith has been a victim of his own modesty. Most of his writing was done for private circulation, what today we might term internal policy papers, so although the work itself has survived as an important contribution to the thought and history of his time, it is often known as the work of others. It has only been recently that his authorship of several seminal documents has been recognized (Dewar 4), and more remains to be done.
However she may have deserted him later, Fortune was kind to Smith at first. From humble beginnings as the second son of a poor farmer, his Cambridge career rocketed him to intellectual stardom: King’s scholar at thirteen, Fellow of Queens’ College at nineteen, Greek orator at twenty, first Regius Chair in Civil Law at twenty-seven, Vice Chancellor of the University at thirty. It was Smith’s good luck to arrive at Cambridge at a time in its history when, due to the clash between the old traditions and the Reformation, enrollment was at a low point in its history. Its subsequent rise would be credited largely to Smith and to those who followed in his footsteps.
By thirty-four Smith had found his way to Court, acting first as personal Master of Requests to the true ruler of England at that time, the Duke of Somerset, and, shortly after, as Principal Secretary to the young king himself. During his time at Court he was tremendously active; his finger was in every pie. Yet however fast and far he rose, Smith was soon to fall just as fast and almost as far. With the overthrow of Somerset in October 1549, Master Secretary fell too. He would rise again years later, but never to such heights. It must have been a bitter blow to one whose career trajectory until then had been so swiftly upward.
Nevertheless, despite the humiliation of seeing his former Cambridge student, William Cecil, succeed him as the king’s secretary (Dewar 27, 51), by 1555 Smith must have realized that losing his office when he did had saved him from the terrible suffering that so many of his friends and former associates were about to undergo. For despite his leading role in the Protestant regime, Smith was treated surprisingly well by Mary. Although she was forced to replace him at Eton with a Catholic, he was compensated with a lavish (for the time) £100 annuity.
Historians have found this surprising, but the reason seems clear. As Dewar explains, the Marian regime having inherited serious financial problems from Somerset, Bishop Gardiner, trusting Smith from their years together at Cambridge, and perhaps made aware by Cecil of Smith’s work for Somerset on the currency, had him write a policy paper on the currency. She makes the case that the annuity was in gratitude for his response, although nothing would be done to stabilize the currency until Cecil took the reins under Elizabeth.
Smith would not be called again to important public service for thirteen long years. A creative, energetic man, still in his thirties, he put a good face on his rustication, writing to Cecil that he passed the time “with hunting and hawking and now and then looking on a book” (Dewar 78).
Eton and Ankerwycke
Shortly before having a falling out with Somerset in July of 1549, Smith had been appointed Provost of Eton, the prestigious grammar school just across the Thames from Windsor Castle. At about the same time he had acquired, through Court connections, the former priory of Ankerwycke, an old nunnery located not far from Eton on a bend in the Thames southwest of London. Originally a sinecure, now the Eton post gave him something worthwhile to do. With Eton so near, he quickly turned to dismantling the old priory and with the stone created an up-to-date twenty-room manor house. As was always his way, he surrounded it with orchards and gardens filled with flowers and medicinal herbs.
His diary reports that work on Ankerwycke began in 1550 and was finished in 1553. With his marriage to Philippa Wilford in 1554 he would acquire a much grander property in Essex, but Ankerwyke would remain in the Smith family for generations. It was handy to both Eton and Windsor, a half-hour’s ride to the north, and to Greenwich, a one day ride to the east. Following his removal to Essex a few years later, Smith would pass Ankerwycke on to his brother George, though he continued to maintain rooms there, sanguine no doubt that it would be handy to Windsor when, hopefully sooner than later, he’d be reinstated at Court.
According to Mary Dewar:
When John Taylor, Bishop of Lincoln, specially aroused Mary’s wrath and was evicted from his bishopric in March of 1554, Smith offered him a home at Ankerwycke where he died in December. At the same time Edward de Vere, only son of the Earl of Oxford, Mary’s Great Chamberlain, was placed in Smith’s household. (77)
There is a pleasing symmetry to the idea of Smith opening his door to both the old man who had launched him on his own career at Cambridge and to the boy he would be tutoring for the next eight years––the one nearing the end of his life, the other just beginning.
It seems John Taylor was Smith’s tutor when he first came to Cambridge at age eleven (1524) while Taylor was still a teaching Fellow and Proctor at Queens College (Dewar 12). In 1538 Taylor was appointed Master of St. John’s by Henry VIII, whom he was serving as Chaplain by 1543, and who then appointed him Dean of Lincoln. A passionate reformer (of the Lutheran rather than the Genevan sort), he was appointed Bishop of Lincoln by Northumberland in May 1552. History caught up with him in October 1553 when he was imprisoned in the Tower by Mary probably for walking out of mass during her first parliament. Pardoned in January, he was deprived of his See in March and died at Ankerwycke in December. John Foxe has a good deal to say about him, while Fuller accords him “the merriest and pleasantest wit” (DNB).
Nevertheless, we do not know exactly what Dewar means by “at the same time.” The same week? The same month? Within the same twelve-month period? As for the date, December 1554, although the letter she cites fails to support it, she is specific enough that we may consider it partial, if not definitive, evidence, perhaps based on information in a letter or other document that she failed to note at the time for later citation.
Dewar cites Smith’s letter to Cecil of April 25, 1576 (77), in which he states that de Vere was “brought up” in his household (77). Although this is specific enough to prove that Oxford spent a fair amount of time with Smith, it doesn’t support her claim that he came to him “at the same time” as John Taylor. Even so, that he came to him in December 1554 is supported by enough other factors that, until something turns up to question it, we can certainly regard it as a fact. (For more on this, see Evidence for Oxford’s childhood with Smith.)
From what we know of Bishop Taylor’s circumstances, he could have come to Smith at any time after March, but it’s unlikely that de Vere would have come before July, when Smith was married to Philippa Wilford (a second marriage for them both). It’s unlikely that so young a child would have been placed in a bachelor’s household. Though no longer in need of a nurse, a four-year-old would still require the attentions of a woman and her female entourage. In fact, it’s worth considering that Philippa’s marriage to Smith was part of a package deal that included the care and tutoring of the Oxford heir.
That Smith had de Vere in his care for so long has been questioned because, despite his usual meticulous record-keeping, so far there is no record, either in Smith’s books or the accounts of the sixteenth earl, of payments for his eight years of care, feeding and tutoring of Edward. There can be no argument that Edward was “brought up” by Smith, as this is stated in a personal letter to Cecil. The question is, how was Smith recompensed for eight years of childcare and tutoring?
Although it will probably always remain in the realm of conjecture, what seems most likely is that, following the accession of Mary in 1553 and the fears that followed that autumn, Cecil, in exchange for Smith’s agreement to take on the care and tutelage of the heir to the Oxford earldom for as long as was necessary, arranged his marriage to the recently widowed Philippa Wilford Hampden, a marriage that brought Smith an important property in his home county of Essex at a time when, due to the downturn in his fortunes and the probability that he would not be mending them anytime soon, he could hardly have expected to acquire such a windfall.
If, as part of the bargain, Cecil had promised to get him a post with the next Protestant regime, it would help to explain the “bickerings” that arose between them during his rustication, a tension that disappeared overnight in September 1562, following the death of the 16th Earl in August, de Vere’s removal to Cecil House in September, and his own immediate appointment as Ambassador to France two weeks later.
Cecil was well-positioned to arrange such a marriage in early 1554. Both Cecil and Smith would have been acquainted with Sir John Hampden from their days at the Court of Edward VI, as he was the son of Elizabeth Sidney, the King’s governess. Smith had not been closely involved at Court for several years, but Cecil had only just recently terminated his involvement (sometime between August and October 1553), and even so would remain throughout the Marian regime in touch with his own and his father’s former friends at Court, the kind that last through Court upheavals. These would have been quick to inform him of Hampden’s death and the availability of his now wealthy widow. With a property like Hampden’s and a bride unencumbered by children, this juicy plum would not last long.
On the face of it, it seems unlikely that Smith could have arranged this advantageous marriage purely on his own, considering his poor prospects at the time. Also, that the widow of a man so closely connected to Court circles would have been completely free to choose for herself seems questionable. Marriages among the upper levels of Court society were as carefully arranged as were treaties between governments, the principals often playing only minor roles in the negotiations. As the daughter of a second son, one who as yet had few connections (or at least, none recorded), it have been that, unless she was unusually attractive, poor Philippa may have been little more than an appendage to Hampden’s property.
A political pawn
In any case, the reasons for thinking that Dewar’s statement is essentially correct has to do with a number of factors, chiefly de Vere’s importance to his community and the dangerous political climate at that particular time. As the sole heir to one of the oldest names in English history and to an earldom of immense prestige, little Edward’s importance extended far beyond his immediate family. Until his father’s death his parents could have produced another son or two, but they did not, so until he was well into his twenties, his life was regarded by his overseers as too precious to risk in any situation that was potentially harmful to his health or well-being, a concern that would have been most intense during his vulnerable childhood years, particularly during the turbulent period in question.
Thus the period of December 1554 through January 1555 remains the most likely time for his removal from the vicinity of Hedingham, the primary reason being fear of the regime, more particularly of the brutal inquisition that did in fact begin to grip Essex early the following year, and the social unrest that it would unleash.
All sorts of unrelated crimes are committed during periods of political unrest. Neighbor turns on neighbor in a push for power or the sudden arising of an opportunity to grab what can’t be gotten any other way. A man’s heir represented the future of his name and his house, so the assassination of young heirs (as touched on in several of Shakespeare’s plays) is one of the most obvious moves during a violent coup. The death of an heir is one of the major reasons why families strove to produce more than one son. Lacking brothers, little Edward’s safety was all the more pressing.
Fears like these would have been at their peak following the dire portents of November 1554, yet by the following September they must have eased to some extent. Once the Queen’s poor health became known, her obvious failure to get pregnant along with her husband’s all too apparent enthusiasm for returning to Spain, plus the lack of any other strong Catholic candidate for the throne, made it clear that, no matter how many suffered in the meantime, the Catholic grip on the nation was unlikely to outlast her reign. Yet this would have been far from obvious during the dark days of December 1554.
Cecil steps in
Dewar suggests that it was Edward’s Protestant uncle, the translator Arthur Golding, who arranged for de Vere’s placement with Smith, based on their connection as neighbors in Essex and scholars at Cambridge. As a representative of his mother’s family, Golding may have been involved. It’s more likely, however, that the change was engineered by someone much closer to the center, Smith’s former pupil at Cambridge and his lifelong colleague and friend, William Cecil. More than any other member of the Protestant leadership, Cecil was positioned to know what the Catholic regime was up to, and as later history reveals, he would always do what he could to see that the educations and training of young English peers would not be left to the whims of unreliable guardians.
Cecil’s importance to the future of the Protestant Reformation during the dangerous period of the Marian regime is clear, however spotty the record. Though divested by Mary of his official status, by dissembling his own agenda he managed to remain close enough to his former colleagues at Court that he was able to discover, or sense, in what direction events were headed. Cecil also had what may have been even more useful, close relations with the staff that remained throughout all upheavals, a legacy from his father who, until his death just before Mary’s accession, was one of them. Servants usually know a great deal more than their masters realize.
Most significantly Cecil was included with the group that went to Brussels in November to bring the Papal legate, Cardinal Reginald de la Pole, back to England. As the highest-ranking official in the English Church and a member of one of England’s most ancient and prestigious families, the Cardinal was the most important of the Catholic Queen’s English advisors. During his first weeks in England, Cecil continued to act as de la Pole’s unofficial secretary (Read Cecil 105). That he managed to maintain a personal friendship with this powerful political adversary until the Cardinal’s death in 1558, shortly before Mary’s death ended the regime, should tell us something about Cecil’s genius.
Having spent several weeks with de la Pole and his retinue, Cecil would have been aware of the dark significance that the Cardinal’s arrival in England held for the Protestant community. It would have been shortly after his return on November 24, 1554, that he began making arrangements for de Vere’s transfer to the safety of Smith’s household.
Long familiar with the feudal tradition that peers be raised apart from their parents (Stone Family 107-14), the sixteenth earl would probably have agreed with any plan that placed his precious heir as far from danger as possible. Cecil would also have been in the best position to bring the Goldings, who had every reason to mistrust Earl John (based on his behavior during the Catholics’ return to power), into an agreement that the boy should be placed with the tried and true Sir Thomas Smith, for Smith, although he was living at the time in Buckinghamshire, was an Essex man,whose family still resided in their hometown of Saffron Walden, roughly 25 miles northwest of Hedingham.
It’s also likely that Cecil felt he had to get Queen Mary’s agreement. Monarchs, female monarchs in particular, were jealous of their prerogative in deciding whom peers could marry and where to place their children, it being of utmost importance that children be raised to conform to the prevailing ideology. That Smith lived so near to Windsor, Mary’s favorite home base, would also have been agreeable to the lady, who despite her terrible nickname, was actually quite soft-hearted in private matters, particulary where children were involved. Smith was in her good graces at the time, and although not a Catholic, for her to demand a Catholic tutor may have been seen as too confrontational, for Mary was still sanguine that the country could be quickly and easily won back to the Old Faith, the only problem being a few lunatic bishops who––for some crazy reason that she simply couldn’t understand––were refusing to recant.
Thus, following November, with Mary’s government obviously gearing up for extreme measures against the Protestants, and with both sides thirsting for a violent showdown, those most concerned with the safety of the only son and heir to the Oxford earldom would have been eager to see him placed as far as reason allowed from danger––and as soon as possible––before the traditional detente of the winter holidays came to an end, feeling certain that once it was past, all hell was going to break loose. These factors, added to the importance of raising him in the Protestant culture, gives sufficient motive for placing little Edward with Smith.