SMITH, George (-d.1619), of Madford House, Exeter, 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

1st s. of John Smith of Exeter, merchant, and Alice, da. of Alexander Muttleberry of Jordans, Som. m. (1) 30 Sept. 1572, Joan (d. aft. 1587), da. of James Walker of Exeter, 2s. (1 d.v.p.) 2da.; (2) settlement 30 Mar. 1598 (with £1,200), Grace (bur. 16 Jan. 1645), da. and coh. of William Viell of Trevorder, Cornw. and wid. of Peter Bevill of Killigarth, Cornw., 1da.1 suc. fa. by 1581;2 kntd. 12 June 1604.3 d. 21 Mar. 1619.4

Offices Held

Freeman, Exeter 1568,5 bailiff 1575-6,6 common councilman 1579-at least 1614,7 churchwarden, St. Petrock, Exeter 1580-2,8 recvr. Exeter 1582-3, sheriff 1583-4, mayor 1586-7, 1597-8, 1607-8,9 alderman 1590-at least 1614,10 commr. subsidy 1593-5, 1602, 1608, 1610, Devon 1608,11 j.p. 1602-d.,12 collector, tenths and fifteenths, Exeter 1604-5, 1607,13 Privy Seal loans, Devon 1604-5,14 commr. aid, 1609,15 oyer and terminer, Exeter 1614-15,16 dep. lt. ?1614-d.17

Gov., Exeter French Co. 1586-7.18


Smith’s father hailed from Burridge, near Tiverton, Devon, but pursued a successful mercantile career in Exeter, where he served as mayor in 1567-8. When Smith himself became a freeman in the latter year, he paid the unusually large fine of £13 6s. 8d., a clear sign of his family’s wealth. During the next few years he rapidly built his own fortune through trade, warranting subsidy assessments of £20 in 1577, and £30 in 1581. An investor in Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s† 1583 colonizing voyage to North America, he underlined his prominence in Exeter three years later by becoming both mayor and governor of the city’s main trading body.19 He also subsequently attracted notice in Devon and Cornwall as a leading tin merchant. In 1595 he joined the consortium led by the 17th earl of Oxford that bid unsuccessfully for the farm of the Crown’s pre-emption of tin.20

Smith spent £1,000 in 1584 rebuilding his Exeter townhouse, an early indication that he was investing his surplus capital in property. Two years later he was assessed for subsidy on the value of his lands rather than his goods, and for at least the next decade he continued to augment his estate with leases and piecemeal purchases. The precise scale of this activity is not known, but he probably acquired the vast bulk of the property later owned by his son Sir Nicholas* in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset, which included 25 manors or part-manors. By 1604 Smith was living outside the city in a mansion he built for himself at Madford.21 Contemporary estimates of his wealth in later life ranged from £20,000 to an improbable £80,000. Whatever the true figure, he was Jacobean Exeter’s richest citizen by a substantial margin. In 1610 his final recorded subsidy assessment of £40, which Smith himself approved as a commissioner, placed him on a par financially with Devon’s leading gentry.22 Indeed, social climbing became a priority for him. Having himself married into the Cornish gentry in 1598, he arranged the union three years later of his eldest daughter and (Sir) Thomas Monck*, heir to one of Devon’s oldest families, while the Dorset gentry provided Sir Nicholas’s bride in 1604.23 The impecunious Monck proved a troublesome son-in-law, using his Court contacts to pile pressure on Smith in 1603 after the latter refused to lend him £500. Remarkably, Smith ignored a letter from James I procured for Monck by the duke of Lennox, though he probably co-operated following a further intervention by Lord (Robert) Cecil†. As a conciliatory gesture, Smith subsequently brought up Monck’s son George† in his own household.24

In 1604 Smith was elected to serve for Exeter in the first Jacobean Parliament. While not a conspicuously active member of the corporation, he was now one of the most senior aldermen, a factor which presumably helped him to outpoll two rival candidates nominated by the commonalty.25 In the first session he received four committee nominations, including an appointment on 26 Mar. to confer with the Lords about petitioning the king for permission to treat for the abolition of wardship. As both he and his colleague John Prowse were named to the legislative committee concerning starch manufacture (20 June), this may indicate a constituency interest. He probably also lobbied behind the scenes against a bill in the Lords to exempt the dean and chapter of Exeter Cathedral from the city’s jurisdiction. Although this measure stalled in committee, he was appointed by the corporation in December 1604 to help prepare a defence strategy in case the bill was revived. His wages for this session came to £25 16s. As an added bonus, he was knighted at Greenwich a few weeks before the prorogation.26

In the second session Smith made no recorded speeches, but attracted eight personal nominations. As a member of the committee to examine the Spanish Company’s charter, appointed on 5 Nov. 1605, and reappointed on 28 Jan. 1606 after the interruption of business caused by the Gunpowder Plot, he was also named to consider the resulting bill for free trade to Spain, Portugal and France (10 February). His other bill committee nominations covered such topics as corporation grants and road maintenance (25 Jan., 6 Feb.); as an Exeter burgess he was entitled to scrutinize the bill against weir construction (7 February). Prowse was named to all but two of the same committees, and by now it was becoming clear that he, rather than Smith, was Exeter’s main spokesman in the Commons, despite the marked discrepancies in their wealth and status. Smith’s wages for this session are incompletely recorded.27

Smith was presumably present when Parliament reassembled in the following autumn. On 26 Nov. 1606 he was appointed, as an Exeter burgess, to consider the bill, probably introduced by Prowse, to amend the 1606 Free Trade Act by making allowance for Exeter’s trading privileges. However, when the House resumed sitting after the Christmas recess, he was noted on 11 Feb. 1607 as being ‘extreme sick of the gout and not able to travel’, and was excused further attendance at that session ‘if he shall not thoroughly recover’. In the event, he was back in London in time to be named on 1 July to the bill committee on leather manufacture. However, his wages of £18 19s. for just 92 days’ attendance and other charges reflected his prolonged absence.28

Smith’s health did not prevent him from serving as mayor of Exeter for a third time in 1607-8, when he led the city’s protests at plans for a national French Company, which would undermine Exeter’s own rights, notwithstanding the 1607 Free Trade Amendment Act that he had himself helped to obtain. Nevertheless, illness again kept him from playing a conspicuous role in the first parliamentary session of 1610. Although named on 20 Feb. to consider the bill to avoid the double payment of debts, he was granted leave to depart on 8 Mar., being ‘impotent of the gout’. Exeters corporation paid him £8 for 40 days service during this session, and a rather generous £22 for 110 days covering the session of autumn 1610, when he left no mark on the sparse surviving records.29

Smith had been appointed an Exeter deputy lieutenant in 1608, but declined to serve, on the grounds that the warrant failed to describe him correctly as a knight. In 1611 the other deputies requested that he be reappointed with his proper title. However, this seems not to have happened, for when the commission was renewed in May 1614, the Privy Council left the lord chancellor (Thomas Egerton†) to decide whether Smith should be ‘added or left out’. This time his status probably was reaffirmed, as he held this office at the time of his death, though it is doubtful whether he took an active role.30 Smith stopped attending corporation meetings in September 1613, though he was still described as a member in the following March, when his colleagues resolved to present him with ‘a fair cup of silver gilt’ worth £10, as a token of goodwill.31

Smith drew up his will on 22 Feb. 1619. He had already made over much of his property to his son Sir Nicholas, who was now simply designated as his residuary legatee. To his wife he bequeathed £2,000 in goods and money, on condition that she did not attempt to claim a larger share of his property under Exeter’s traditional inheritance customs. Other minor legacies came in total to a few hundred pounds. Smith died a month later, and was buried in Exeter Cathedral.32 Sir Nicholas was then in London, and proved the will just three days after his father’s death. This unusual haste suggests that he expected a challenge, which was not long in coming. Both Smith’s widow, Grace, and Sir Thomas Monck, sued Sir Nicholas, alleging that the will was a forgery, and that Smith’s papers had been stolen while he lay on his deathbed in order to conceal this subterfuge. The dispute dragged on for three years, but ultimately Smith’s will was upheld in almost every respect. Grace secured an extra £1,000, but not the much larger sum that local custom would have brought her. Monck merely obtained what he was already entitled to under the terms of his marriage settlement; his claims that he should have received at least £10,000, and that Smith had promised his son George a manor, were thrown out by the courts.33

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: George Yerby / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 691-2; Vis. Som. (Harl. Soc. xi), 76; CPR, 1586-7, p. 152; C78/276/7; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 549.
  • 2. Devon Taxes 1581-1660 ed. T.L. Stoate, 109.
  • 3. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 133.
  • 4. WARD 7/58/12.
  • 5. Exeter Freemen ed. M.M. Rowe and A.M. Jackson (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. extra ser. i), 88.
  • 6. J.J. Alexander, ‘Exeter MPs’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. lxi. 210.
  • 7. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 3, p. 430; Act Bk. 7, p. 115.
  • 8. R. Dymond, ‘St. Petrock’s parish, Exeter’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. xiv. 467.
  • 9. Alexander, 210.
  • 10. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 5, p. 178; Act Bk. 7, p. 115.
  • 11. Tudor Exeter ed. M.M. Rowe (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. n.s. xxii), 76-7; Exeter Tax and Rate Assessments ed. W.G. Hoskins (Devon and Cornw. Rec. Soc. n.s. ii), 1; SP14/31/1; E179/101/440.
  • 12. C231, f. 133; C66/2234.
  • 13. E401/1874-5, 2403-4, 2408.
  • 14. E401/2585, ff. 22-4.
  • 15. SP14/43/107.
  • 16. C181/2, ff. 206v, 223v.
  • 17. APC, 1613-14, p. 428; C231/4, f. 126.
  • 18. W. Cotton, Elizabethan Guild of City of Exeter, 43.
  • 19. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 691; Exeter Freemen, 88; Tudor Exeter, 63; Devon Taxes, 110; Cotton, 86.
  • 20. APC, 1591-2, p. 11; HMC Hatfield, iv. 519; v. 162.
  • 21. A.M. Erskine and D. Portman, ‘Hist. of an Exeter Tenement’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. xcii. 150; Tudor Exeter, 69; HMC Exeter, 163-4; CPR, 1586-7, p. 152; 1591-2, pp. 34, 126-7; 1594-5, pp. 59, 169; HMC Hatfield, v. 114; C142/399/151; Dymond, 467. Smith’s own i.p.m. is incomplete: WARD 7/58/12.
  • 22. C78/276/7; STAC 8/211/6; E179/101/440; M. Wolffe, Gentry Leaders in Peace and War, 22.
  • 23. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 692; M. Ashley, Gen. Monck, 2; C78/224/12.
  • 24. STAC 8/211/6; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 44; HMC Hatfield, xvi. 237; Ashley, 4.
  • 25. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, p. 118; CD 1628, ii. 121, 136.
  • 26. CJ, i. 154b, 243b; LJ, ii. 283b; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 6, pp. 126, 156; J.J. Alexander, ‘Parl. Representation of Devon’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. lxviii. 108; Shaw, ii. 133.
  • 27. CJ, i. 256b, 260a, 261a, 264a, 265a; Alexander, ‘Parl. Representation’, 108.
  • 28. CJ, i. 325a, 389b, 1012a; Alexander, ‘Parl. Representation’, 108.
  • 29. HMC Hatfield, xx. 107; CJ, i. 397b, 407b; J.J. Alexander, ‘Exeter MPs’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. lxi. 202.
  • 30. SP14/33, f. 3v; HMC Exeter, 85; APC, 1613-14, p. 428.
  • 31. Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 7, pp. 99, 115.
  • 32. PROB 11/133, ff. 208v-9v; C142/399/151; Exeter Cathedral Archives, ms 3553, f. 83.
  • 33. STAC 8/211/6-7; C78/276/7; C2/Jas.I/M18/63; C3/325/49; C142/440/87.