Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, John (1534?-1607)
SMITH or SMYTHE, Sir JOHN (1534?–1607), diplomatist and military writer, born about 1534, was eldest son of Sir Clement Smith or Smythe, who resided at Little Baddow, near Chelmsford, Essex; owned the manor of Rivenhall and other property in the same county; was knighted in 1547; was ‘chidden’ by Edward VI for hearing mass in 1550; and died at Little Baddow on 26 Aug. 1552 (Morant, Essex; Nichols, Lit. Remains of Edward VI, pp. cccvi, 310). Sir Clement married Dorothy, youngest daughter of Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall, Wiltshire, and sister of Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset [q. v.], and of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's queen [see Jane]. John was thus first cousin of Edward VI, but he fully cherished the Roman catholic sentiments with which his father imbued him. Wood states that he was educated at Oxford, ‘but in what House 'tis difficult to find, because both his names are very common.’ The ascertained facts of Sir John Smith's career render it impossible to identify him with any of the three Oxford graduates named John Smith who matriculated between 1537 and 1551. It is certain that he took no degree. Dissatisfied with the protestant policy that was favoured by his royal cousin and by his mother's family, he probably left England at an early age to seek his fortune abroad. According to his own account, he served as a volunteer or soldier of fortune in France while Edward VI was still king (Discourses, p. 23). For nearly twenty years following he maintained like relations with foreign armies and saw active service not only in France, but in the Low Countries, where he enlisted under the Spanish flag, and in the east of Europe. In 1566 he fought against the Turks in Hungary, and came under the notice of the Emperor Maximilian II. A man of much general intelligence, he became an expert linguist, especially in Spanish, and lost no opportunity of studying the art of war as practised by the chief generals of the continent. Despite his catholic predilections, he remained devotedly attached to the interests of his own country, and often disavowed sympathy with catholic priests.
In 1572 the queen granted him the manor of Little Baddow, with the advowson of the church there (Morant, ii. 21); and in 1574 he received, through Sir Henry Lee, while still abroad, an invitation from the English government to return home and enter the government service. ‘Refusing very great entertainments that he was offered by certain great and foreign princes,’ he at once accepted the offer. At first he had no ground to complain of the trust reposed in him. He went to France in April 1576 to watch events. In his despatches home he gave disparaging accounts of the beauty of the ladies of the French court when compared with that of Queen Elizabeth. He was knighted in the same year, apparently on revisiting London (Metcalfe, Knights, p. 130). In the spring of 1577 he was entrusted with a diplomatic mission of high importance to Madrid. He was directed to explain to Philip II Elizabeth's conduct in the Netherlands, to renew her offer of mediation between Spain and the revolted provinces of the Netherlands, and to demand for English traders off the coast of Spain and elsewhere protection from the assaults of Spanish ships (Froude, History, x. 389–91). Philip and Alva received him complacently, but Quiroga, archbishop of Toledo, the inquisitor-general, haughtily scorned his advances. At the end of ten months, however, Smith returned home with friendly assurances from Philip, and the diplomatic relations between the two countries seemed to be placed on a permanently amicable footing (cf. Leycester Correspondence, p. 93). Smith's ‘Collections and Observations relating to the condition of Spain during his residence there in 1577,’ chiefly in Spanish, are preserved in manuscript at Lambeth (No. 271).
Thenceforth Smith's life was a long series of disappointments. He sought further official employment in vain. A querulous temper and defective judgment doubtless accounted for the neglect. His importunate appeals to the queen and her ministers did not improve his prospects. He had borrowed money of the queen and was hopelessly involved in pecuniary difficulties. On 21 Sept. 1578 the queen released ‘unto him the mortgage of his lands upon the debt which he oweth her’ on condition that he gave a bond for the payment of 2,000l. at Michaelmas twelvemonth (Nicolas, Life of Hatton, p. 93; cf. Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1547–80, p. 646).
In view of the threatened armada, Smith, whose reputation as a soldier remained high, was directed to train the regiments of foot soldiers raised in his own county of Essex. He boasted that he admitted to his troops only men of proved respectability, but otherwise evinced little discretion. When in July 1588 he brought his detachment to the camp at Tilbury, he pointed out to Leicester, the commander-in-chief, the defective training of the rest of the army. Leicester, though he privately held much the same view, resented Smith's severe criticisms, and Smith inopportunely asked for leave of absence on the ground of ill-health, which necessitated a visit to ‘the baths.’ The request was refused, and he continued to give voice to what Leicester denounced as ‘foolish and vainglorious paradoxes.’ After a review by Smith of the Essex contingent, ‘he entered again (according to Leicester) into such strange cries for ordering of men and for fight with the weapon as made me think he was not well’ (Motley, United Netherlands, ii. 492–3). The armada was soon dispersed at sea, and Smith's services were not put to further test.
On 28 Jan. 1589–90 he wrote to Burghley from Baddow, sensibly warning him of the danger of permitting the formation of regiments for foreign service from men of ‘the baser sort.’ He complained of his long neglect at the hands of the queen, and vainly begged permission to visit the spas and foreign countries for a year or two, and to assign his lands so as to pay off his debts to the queen and others, and to maintain his wife and family (Cal. Hatfield MSS. iv. 4, 5). To distract his mind from his grievances he composed between 1589 and 1591 ‘four or five little books’ treating of ‘matters of arms,’ and in 1590 he published one of them, consisting of a series of discourses on the uses of military weapons. He strongly favoured the continued use of the bow in warfare, and drew from his foreign experience much interesting detail respecting the equipment of armies at home and abroad. The work was entitled ‘Certain Discourses written by Sir John Smythe, knight, concerning the formes and effects of diuers sorts of Weapons, and other verie important matters Militarie greatlie mistaken by diuers of our men of warre in these daies, and chiefly of the Mosquet, the Caliuer, and the Long-bow; as also of the great sufficiencie, excellencie, and wonderful effects of Archers; with many notable examples and other particularities by him presented to the Nobilitie of this Realme, and published for the benefite of this his native Countrie of England,’ 4to, London (by Richard Johnes), 1590. In the dedication, which he addressed to the English nobility, and in other sections of the work Smith gave vent to his resentment at failing to obtain regular military employment, and charged Leicester and others of the queen's advisers with incompetence and corruption. These charges were brought to the queen's notice, and she directed that all copies of the book be ‘called in, both because they be printed without privilege, and that they may breed much question and quarrell’ (Sir Thomas Heneage to Burghley, 14 May 1590). In a long letter to Burghley, 20 May 1590, Smith hotly protested against this indignity, and rehearsed his grievances anew. On 3 June he addressed himself in similar terms to the queen, and no further restriction seems to have been placed on the book's circulation. Smith's views on the value of archery were attacked about 1591 by Humfrey Barwick in his ‘Breefe discourse concerning the force and effect of all manuall weapons of fire.’
In 1594 Smith published a second military treatise of a more practical character than its forerunner; it was called ‘Instructions, Observations, and Orders Militarie, requisite for all Chieftaines, Captains, and higher and lower men of charge, and Officers, to understand, knowe, and observe. Composed by Sir John Smythe, knighte, 1591, and now first imprinted, 1594,’ London, by Richard Jones, 4to. It had some sale, and was reissued in the following year. The dedication, inscribed to the ‘knights, esquires, and gentlemen of England that are honorablie delighted in the arte and science militarie,’ displayed much knowledge of history.
At length, on 2 March 1595–6, Smith obtained the permission he had long sought to sell Little Baddow, and Anthony Pennyng of Kettleberg, Suffolk, purchased it on 30 April (Morant). Smith continued to reside in the village. In June 1596 he was at Colchester with Sir Thomas Lucas, who was training the county militia. In their company was Smith's kinsman, Thomas Seymour, second son of Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford [q. v.], and brother of Edward Seymour, lord Beauchamp, a claimant to the royal succession. On the morning of 13 June Smith rode into the field where the pikemen were practising, and bade the soldiers forsake their colonel and follow Seymour and himself. ‘The common people,’ he added, ‘have been oppressed and used as bondmen these thirty years; but if you will go with me I will see a reformation, and you shall be used as freemen’ (Strype, Annals, iv. 13). The words were at once reported to Lord Burghley. Smith was arrested on a charge of treason and sent to the Tower. When examined in the Star-chamber on 14 June, he confessed the truth of the facts as reported, but pleaded that he had supped too generously for the state of his health the night before. On the 26th of the month he sent an abject apology to Burghley, offering to confine himself thenceforth to his house at Little Baddow, and to publish a confession of his fault in the market-place at Colchester. No further steps were taken against him, but he remained in the Tower till February 1598, when the queen directed that he might repair to his house in Essex on giving good security not to go a mile from it without special license. This condition was enforced till the end of the queen's reign (ib. pp. 414–18; Letters of Eminent Literary Men, Camden Soc. pp. 88–97; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1595–7, pp. 235 seq., 1598–1601, pp. 2, 17, 408, 417). He was buried in the church of Little Baddow on 1 Sept. 1607 (Reg.)