SMITH (SMYTH), John (1567-1641), of Warrens Court, North Nibley, Glos.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. 10 Nov. 1567,1 1st s. of Thomas Smith of Hoby, Leics. and Joan, da. of Richard Alan of Derby.2 educ. Derby g.s.; household of Henry Berkeley, 7th Lord Berkeley, 1584; Magdalen, Oxf. 1590; Clement’s Inn c.1593; M. Temple 1594, called 1605.3 m. (1) 5 Oct. 1597, Grace (d. 9 Nov. 1609), da. and h. of William Thomas of Wotton-under-Edge, Glos., wid. of John Drewe of North Nibley, s.p.; (2) 9 Jan. 1610, Mary (d.1666), da. of John Browning of Coaley, Glos. 5s. 4da.4 suc. fa. by 1594.5 d. 24 Feb. 1641.6

Offices Held

Servant to Sir Thomas Berkeley* 1584-90;7 household steward to 7th Lord Berkeley 1596-7,8 steward of Berkeley estate 1597-d.; auditor to Henry Percy, 9th earl of Northumberland 1605-9.9

Steward of the hundred of Berkeley, Glos. 1597-d.;10 escheator, Glos. 1601-3;11 steward of V.-Admlty Ct., Glos. 1603-13;12 commr. sewers, Glos. 1615, 1625,13 subsidy 1629.14

Member, Virg. Co. 1612,15 cttee. 1621,16 member, Somers Is. Co. 1620,17 Fisheries Soc. 1632.18


Smith came from an obscure Leicestershire family that was settled at Hoby, where the rectory was in the gift of the Berkeleys.19 On leaving Derby grammar school in 1584 he entered the service of the Berkeleys, being sent to wait on (Sir) Thomas Berkeley*, heir to Henry, 7th Lord Berkeley. He subsequently attracted the attention of Thomas’ mother, Katherine, Lady Berkeley, who instructed him in the social graces, having ‘no compare’ in ‘the education of youth’. After accompanying Thomas to Oxford, he was enabled to attend the inns of court by means of an annuity from Katherine.20 He continued to serve the family while studying law, acting briefly as household steward before taking over the stewardship of their estates, in which capacity his principal duty was to provide legal advice rather than manage lands. In 1609 he used his legal and antiquarian skills to settle the 192-year dispute over the lands of the barony of Berkeley, negotiating an agreement whereby the rival claimant, Viscount L’Isle (Robert Sydney†), agreed to accept Lord Berkeley’s title in return for a cash settlement. In addition he acted as Lord Berkeley’s man of business in the latter’s public offices as lord lieutenant and vice admiral of Gloucestershire, serving as steward of the Vice-Admiralty Court and compiling the highly detailed 1608 muster roll, which records the occupation of every adult male in the county.21 Smith proved indispensable to his masters: according to legend the Berkeleys’ fool once tied Berkeley Castle, the family’s principal residence, to the local church with string to prevent Smith from taking it home.22 In 1618 he formed a partnership with George Thorpe*, Richard Berkeley* and others to establish a plantation in Virginia, and settlers were sent out the following year, however they were massacred in 1623.23

After his first marriage Smith resided on his wife’s property at Nibley, but was hard pressed by his wife’s kinsman, a Bristol merchant named Crokey, over the North Nibley estate, which formed part of the endowment of the grammar school at Wotton-under-Edge.24 According to Crokey, Smith sought a seat in the 1621 Parliament because he learned that Crokey intended to introduce a bill to secure his title. It is not clear how Smith came by a burgess-ship at Midhurst in Sussex, a borough which, as Crokey commented, lay ‘130 miles from his residence’.25 He certainly had some acquaintance with the county derived from the Berkeley estate at Bosham, but he probably depended chiefly on the Lewknor interest, which the widow of Sir Thomas Berkeley could have obtained for him through her neighbour Sir Lewis Lewknor*.26

Smith kept a parliamentary diary in 1621. Published in the 1930s, the manuscript itself is now in the British Library. It covers the entire period of the Parliament and consists of notes taken by Smith for his personal use. These are sometimes only intelligible when placed alongside other accounts, as Smith made no attempt to keep a full record of debates, sometimes only recording headings to jog his memory and often failing to distinguish speakers in debates. He was frequently content to record only a brief summary of proceedings. Nevertheless his pithy notes are a useful supplement to other sources, sometimes recording his own and other Members reactions to speeches.27 He appears to have been an assiduous attender, as the only absences he recorded were on 11 and 18 Dec., when he missed the entire day’s proceedings, and the afternoon of 4 March. However, he sometimes arrived late in the morning.28 As well as keeping a diary, Smith supposedly wrote an account of contested elections, although this does not seem to have survived.29 His papers do, however, include a ‘collection of monopoly patents’, compiled shortly before the Parliament.30

Smith was appointed to four committees, three of which were for private bills, and made eight recorded speeches. He also brought in a bill to confirm the Chancery decree on the Bosham customs that he had secured in Lady Berkeley’s favour, but it proceeded no further than a first reading, which it received on 13 February.31 In the committee for grievances on 2 Mar. he spoke against the patent for tithes, alleging that as a consequence of this grant ‘three score out of that part where he lives’ had been obliged to attend the London office for as many as six days.32 The following day he reminded the House that (Sir) Giles Mompesson* was not the only beneficiary of the gold thread patent.33 Ten days later he spoke in favour of the recommittal of the bill for free trade in wool, and moved to restrict the market at Blackwell Hall to Thursdays only in order to limit the opportunity for London’s merchants ‘to combine themselves for pulling down the price’ and enable the clothiers to get home for the Sabbath. He obviously thought it absurd to linger in the capital when one might be in Gloucestershire, and ‘spoke of his habitation ... , and of the beauty of that place in tuckmills and tenters, far superior to the 60 goldsmiths in Cheapside’.34 Though not directly involved in the wool trade, Smith was a nephew by marriage of a leading clothier, Benedict Webb, and invested heavily in his rape-seed oil project.35

In the debate on the bill to enfranchise county Durham on 14 Mar., Smith argued that the measure should award Durham less seats than Gloucestershire in view of the size difference between them. However, he does not seem to have promoted the claims of Berkeley, a small market town close to Berkeley castle, to enfranchisement, although he later wrote that this was something he had ‘much sought after’.36 On 27 Mar., the day before the Easter recess, he prepared motions for bills on freedom of speech and parliamentary elections, but does not seem to have made them.37 He spoke in the debate of 18 Apr. on the tobacco trade, admitting ‘his interest in Virginia and Somer [Bermuda] Islands’ and explaining that ‘he had been present at all the meetings in and before the recess, the vacation, and since, and had heard all the merchants’ objections and answers for the Spanish merchandises and tobacco, and could speak large to all’. He pointed out that the Spaniards would not mind the banning of their tobacco, ‘so you exclude Virginia tobacco too, for that colony cannot at first subsist without it’.38 He was a valued participant in meetings of the Virginia Company at this time, ‘preferring always motions of special consequence’, and was elected to its committee early in May.39 On 28 Apr. he opposed Sir William Strode’s game bill, designed to prevent the use of firearms, saying that guns were now ‘the service of the state’ and the longbow ‘obsolete’.40 On 4 May he defended the House’s proceedings against the Catholic barrister Edward Floyd, who had reportedly disparaged the king’s daughter and her husband, the Elector Palatine:

if the Lady Elizabeth had been present and complained to the earls marshal, they would have punished Floyd without ministering an oath to the witnesses, for they can give no oath. That he knoweth that the earls marshal have punished and imprisoned without oath in his own case. And shall we, who are the representative body of the whole Commonwealth, doubt whether a judgment given by us without oath shall be of less force than that of the earls marshal, who do this only by the king’s edict?41

‘His own case’ was one in which a Gloucestershire man had been imprisoned in the Marshalsea for calling him ‘knave, villain and beggar’.42

Smith attended the committee for the fishing bill on 16 May, commenting that the proviso unsuccessfully offered by John Guy* for the Newfoundlanders was ‘not very unreasonable’. He also recorded his contempt for the New England monopolists Sir Ferdinand Gorges† and Sir John Bourchier*, and his quiet confidence in the trustworthiness and virtue of the Virginia Company. 43 He was appointed to the committees for the bills to make the upkeep of Tewkesbury bridge a county responsibility (5 May) and to cancel judicial appointments obtained by bribery (25 May). During the summer recess he succeeded in neutralizing Crokey by having him thrown into a debtors’ prison. Crokey was released in November, but nothing further seems to have happened in the matter during the second sitting.44

Smith never stood again. When Crokey published a virulent attack on his proceedings over the school endowment in 1625, he prepared a detailed answer for the second Caroline Parliament, ‘where the said business received much agitation but nothing concluded’. In 1631 he prosecuted Crokey for a libellous pamphlet in Star Chamber, which fined him £500, and he became ‘a runagate in Ireland’.45 An enemy to rigid sabbatarianism, he warmly approved the Book of Sports. On 21 Dec. 1639 he finished his last major work, the history of Berkeley hundred, and said ‘farewell also to all my 20 other books, the recreations of my last 50 years’.46 He made his will on 1 Dec. 1640, thanking God that no one had been suffered ‘finally to prevail against me, though many of divers humours and to divers ends have risen up against me’. He left rings to two of the Berkeleys, but for the 8th lord he could think of ‘no legacy worthy of his acceptance or of value for me to give answerable in the smallest degree to the many, many favours which I have received from his lordship’s father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, for 58 years together’.47 He was buried three days after his death at Nibley.48 His eldest son, a royalist, succeeded him as the Berkeley steward, and the family remained at Nibley until the eighteenth century, but no later member sat in Parliament.49

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Alan Davidson / Ben Coates


  • 1. R. Bigland, Hist. Monumental and Gen. Colls. Relative to County of Gloucester ed. B. Frith (Glos. Rec. Series v.), 936.
  • 2. J. Smyth, Berkeley Mss ed. J. Maclean, i. ped.
  • 3. Smyth, ii. 394-5; Al. Ox.; M. Temple Admiss.
  • 4. Smyth, i. ped.; iii. 302.
  • 5. M. Temple Admiss. i. 66.
  • 6. Abstracts of Glos. Inquisitiones Post Mortem ed. W.P.W. Phillimore and G.S. Fry (Index Lib. xiii), 168.
  • 7. Smyth, ii. 394.
  • 8. Ibid. 378.
  • 9. J. Broadway, ‘John Smyth of Nibley: A Jacobean Man-of-Business and his Service to the Berkeley Fam.’, Midland Hist. xxiv. 89.
  • 10. Ibid. i. pp. i, iv.
  • 11. List of Escheators comp. A.C. Wood (L. and I. Soc. lxxii), 59.
  • 12. Smyth, ii. 372.
  • 13. C181/2, f. 240v; C181/3, f. 172v.
  • 14. Smyth, iii. 9.
  • 15. A. Brown, Genesis of US, 1005.
  • 16. Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.M. Kingsbury, i. 473.
  • 17. T.K. Rabb, Enterprise and Empire, 378.
  • 18. SP16/221/1.
  • 19. Broadway, 80.
  • 20. Smyth, ii. 386, 394; Broadway, 80.
  • 21. Broadway. 81, 83-6; Smyth, ii. 321, 332.
  • 22. T.D. Fosbroke, Berkeley Mss, vi.
  • 23. J.E. Gethyn-Jones, ‘Berkeley Plantation’, Trans. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. xciv. 5-17.
  • 24. Smyth, ii. 319-20; iii. 402; VCH Glos. ii. 401-5.
  • 25. CD 1621, i. 85.
  • 26. Smyth, ii. 432.
  • 27. CD 1621, i. 79-81; vi. 249-420.
  • 28. Ibid. 283, 321, 410, 414, 418.
  • 29. R. Atkyns, Ancient and Present State of Glos. 579.
  • 30. HMC 5th Rep. 355.
  • 31. CD 1621, ii. 63.
  • 32. Ibid. vi. 277.
  • 33. CJ, i. 536a.
  • 34. Ibid. 552b; CD 1621, ii. 217; iv. 152; v. 295.
  • 35. Smyth, ii. 317; E. Moir, ‘Benedict Webb, Clothier’ EcHR, (ser. 2), x. 256-64.
  • 36. CJ, i. 553a; Smyth, iii. 84.
  • 37. CD 1621, v. 324.
  • 38. CJ, i. 581b; CD 1621, v. 78, 334.
  • 39. Recs. Virg. Co. i. 452.
  • 40. CJ, i. 595a.
  • 41. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 22.
  • 42. G.D. Squibb, High Ct. of Chivalry, 38.
  • 43. CJ, v. 378-9.
  • 44. LJ, iii. 170, 174.
  • 45. PC2/47, f. 11; Reps. of Cases in Cts. of Star Chamber and High Commission ed. S.R. Gardiner (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxxix), 37-40; R. Austin, Cat. Glos. Collection, 872-8; B. Crokey, To his Sacred Maiestie, the Lords Spiritual, and Temporal, and the House of Commons in this Present Parliament Assembled (1625).
  • 46. Smyth, iii. 350, 410-12.
  • 47. PROB 11/187, ff. 239-41.
  • 48. I.E. Gray, ‘Smith of Nibley’s Will’, Trans. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. lxxviii. 129.
  • 49. CCC, 948.