SMITH, Sir Nicholas (1575-1622), of Exeter, Devon; later of Larkbear, nr. Whimple, Devon.

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

bap. 31 July 1575,1 2nd but o. surv. s. of (Sir) George Smith* of Madford House, Exeter, mayor and alderman, and Joan, da. of James Walker of Exeter.2 educ. Exeter Coll. Oxf. 1590, BA 1594; L. Inn 1595.3 m. settlement 2 Nov. 1604 (with £1,500),4 Dorothy (admon. 17 Oct. 1655), da. of Sir Ralph Horsey† of Clifton Maybank, Dorset, 5s. 2da.5 kntd. 23 July 1603;6 suc. fa. 1619.7 d. 5 Nov. 1622.8

Offices Held

Commr. Sir Walter Ralegh’s† lands, Devon 1612, piracy 1615-d.,9 subsidy 1621-2,10 j.p. 1621-d.11

Gent. of privy chamber by 1619.12


Smith grew up as a younger son, but his father’s wealth assured him of a comparatively privileged upbringing. In April 1589, aged only 13, he was granted fishing rights in the River Exe near Exeter.13 After entering Oxford University with his elder brother in the following year, Smith graduated alone to the inns of court. Nothing is known of his activities during the next few years, but his contacts were good enough to secure him a knighthood in 1603, 11 months before his father. In 1604 Smith married a distant cousin. He was affluent enough in 1609 to buy some small properties in Cornwall, while the death of his elder brother Thomas in about 1611 made him principal heir to his father’s fortune.14 In 1609 Smith was living in Sherborne, Dorset, close to his wife’s family, but he had presumably returned to Exeter by 1612 when he was appointed to a Devon commission.

Smith almost certainly drew on family connections to secure his election at St. Mawes in 1614. His wife’s uncle, Sir Reginald Mohun*, was related to the Trevanions, the borough’s major patrons, and was a trustee of their lands during Charles Trevanion’s* minority. Mohun’s nephew, Reginald Mohun, who then owned a manor close to the borough, may also have lent his support.15 At Westminster, Smith apparently spoke only once, during the 10 May debate on Sir Thomas Parry’s* dealings in the Stockbridge election, when he argued that Parry should be shown no mercy until he acknowledged his fault.16 He was nominated to committees to prepare for discussions with the Lords about impositions (5 May) and the bishop of Lincoln’s alleged remarks on the same subject (25 May), while on 28 May he was appointed to accompany the Speaker when he visited the king to discuss parliamentary protocol. Smith was also named to bill committees concerned with Sutton’s Hospital (9 May), the Vere family’s naturalization, and the estates of his kinsmen, the Heles of Devon (both on 17 May).17

By 1617 Smith had consolidated his place in Devon’s local government, and taken up residence at his newly-purchased seat of Larkbear, about ten miles north-east of Exeter.18 He evidently received much of his patrimony prior to his father’s death, as in 1618 he already owned property in some 40 parishes across the four western counties, particularly in east Devon around Exeter and Honiton. Although his holdings included 12 manors or part-manors, most of his assets took the form of tenements and small plots of land, suggesting that he derived much of his income from rent. As he had already disposed of his Cornish purchases of nine years earlier, he probably also engaged in property speculation.19

By 1619 Smith had been appointed a gentleman of the privy chamber, and he was in London fulfilling his duties when his father died in March that year. Sir George Smith left £2,000 to his widow Lady Grace, Smith’s stepmother, and almost all the residue of his estate to Smith himself. The latter presumably anticipated a dispute over the will, for he proved it just three days after Sir George’s death. Once its contents became known, these bequests were indeed challenged by Lady Grace and Sir Thomas Monck*, Smith’s brother-in-law, who claimed that Sir George had intended that each of them, under the inheritance customs of Exeter, should receive one-third of his possessions, which they valued at £20,000. According to them, Smith, under cover of his absence in London, had suppressed an earlier will and seized Sir George’s papers as he lay dying. Monck more sensationally alleged that Sir George had disliked Smith

both for his being addicted to the Romish religion and for his consenting and accompanying himself with the Romish priests and Jesuits beyond the seas and with his father’s enemies at home, as also for his profane revelling, jesting and scoffing in opprobrious and reproachful terms not only against his natural father but also of divers others of great place and honour, and against professions and degrees of learning ...

Smith countered by withholding lands promised under Lady Grace’s jointure arrangements and Monck’s marriage settlement, and by pursuing them both for debt. In the legal wrangling which followed, Smith emerged on balance as the loser. The marital agreements were upheld, and Lady Grace was awarded an additional £1,000, though without official recognition of any customary rights.20 As for the allegations about Smith’s personal behaviour, there was some substance to the charge of popery. In 1617 and 1619 he obtained passes to visit Spa, in the Catholic Spanish Netherlands, ostensibly for his health, but during the latter trip he was accused of ‘suspicious familiarity with the Jesuits thereabouts’, and his close friend Sir George Calvert*, himself a future Catholic convert, intervened to protect him.21 The broader assault on Smith’s character must be set against verses written by his friend Robert Hayman some years later, praising Smith’s wit for its ‘steeled judgment, sharp invention, tempered with learning and discretion’.22

Smith died in November 1622 with the legal battles still raging. His property now included an additional 13 manors or part-manors, with land or tenements in about 17 more parishes, suggesting that he had been broadly successful in keeping his inheritance together. However, a codicil to his will dated 27 Oct. 1622 provided for the sale of some manors and leases to cover his debts and legacies.23 Smith had initially drawn up the will on 22 June 1619, carefully recording that his £2,000 legacy to his wife was conditional on her disclaiming any additional benefits under the customs of Exeter. The will’s preamble was conventionally Protestant, but Smith appointed as his overseers Calvert and the ex-Catholic John Donne*. A further codicil of 24 Oct. 1622 included a bequest of £150 to Thomas Magent, a servant who had supported Smith against Lady Grace. At his own request he was buried in Exeter Cathedral. Smith’s affairs had apparently not been wound up seven years later, when his heir Nicholas drew up his will.24 Sir James Smith, who represented Exeter in the Cavalier Parliament, is described in some sources as Smith’s youngest son, but the family’s testamentary records do not bear this out.25

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. IGI, Devon.
  • 2. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 692; C3/324/23.
  • 3. Al. Ox.; LI Admiss.
  • 4. C78/224/12.
  • 5. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 692.
  • 6. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 126.
  • 7. WARD 7/58/12.
  • 8. C142/399/151.
  • 9. C181/2, ff. 170, 242; 181/3, f. 1v.
  • 10. C212/22/20-1.
  • 11. C193/13/1, f. 22v.
  • 12. STAC 8/211/6.
  • 13. E112/77/324.
  • 14. C54/1995; C78/224/12; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 325; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 464. An admon. was granted for Thomas Smith of Exeter in 1611: Devon Wills (Brit. Rec. Soc. xxxv), 564.
  • 15. Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 324-5; PROB 11/115, f. 13; C142/218/43; C54/2372/48.
  • 16. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 192, 198.
  • 17. Ibid. 151, 176, 268-9, 346, 377.
  • 18. APC, 1616-17, p. 289; D. and S. Lysons, Devonshire, 311.
  • 19. C142/399/151.
  • 20. STAC 8/211/6-7; PROB 11/133, f. 209r-v; C78/276/4, 7; C2/Jas.I/M18/63; C3/324/23; C142/440/87.
  • 21. APC, 1616-17, p. 289; 1618-9, p. 483; PROB 11/142, f. 61v; HMC Trumbull Ts. XIV.67.
  • 22. R. Hayman, Quodlibets (1628), p. 14.
  • 23. C142/399/151; J. Hutchins, Hist. and Antiqs. of Dorset, ii. 109; PROB 11/142, f. 62r-v.
  • 24. PROB 11/142, ff. 60-2; 11/157, f. 136r-v Regs. Exeter Cathedral ed. W.U. Reynell-Upham and H.T. Soper, 59.
  • 25. A.M. Smith, Smiths of Exeter, 20.