Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William (1460?-1514)
SMITH or SMYTH, WILLIAM (1460?–1514), bishop of Lincoln and co-founder of Brasenose College, Oxford, born about 1460, was fourth son of Robert Smyth of Peelhouse in the parish of Prescot, Lancashire. His father appears to have been a country squire of moderate estate. It is a probable tradition that William was educated in the household of Margaret, countess of Richmond and Derby, mother of Henry VII and second wife of Thomas Stanley, first earl of Derby [q. v.], at Knowsley, within which parish his birthplace is situate [see Beaufort, Margaret]. The Lady Margaret maintained a sort of private school, ‘certayn yonge gentilmen at her findyng’ being educated at Knowsley by Maurice Westbury, whom she had brought from Oxford for that purpose. Smyth's biographer, Churton, after completely disproving Wood's assertion that Smyth was a migrant from Oxford to Cambridge, inclines to identify him with William Smyth, a commoner of Lincoln College in 1478. He would then probably be about eighteen years old. In that case he must have been only twenty-five when he, being already qualified by the degree of bachelor of law, was appointed (20 Sept. 1485) to the lucrative office of keeper or clerk of the hanaper of the chancery for life, with a salary of 40l. yearly in excess of that enjoyed by his predecessor, a knight, besides an allowance of eighteenpence a day when in attendance on the chancellor (Campbell, Materials, i. 16). The fact that this grant was made within a month after the battle of Bosworth, and that it was followed a few days later (2 Oct.) by preferment to a canonry of St. Stephen's, Westminster (ib. p. 71), shows that Smith's friends must have been active as well as powerful at the new court. Among the state papers is one belonging to 1485, showing the issue of 200l. to William Smyth, keeper of the hanaper, for the custody of two daughters of Edward IV. Another document of 24 Feb. 1486 recites that this 200l. was delivered by Smyth to the Lady Margaret, who ‘of late hadde the keping and guiding of the ladies, daughters of King Edward the iiiith.’ On 17 Feb. in the same year he is described as a member of the king's council. Smyth's first parochial preferment was on 13 May 1486 to the living of Combe Martyn, north Devon, in the gift of the crown (ib. i. 434; Pat. Roll, 1 Hen. VII, pt. iii. m. 13). He was also presented, under the style of the king's chaplain, to the living of Great Grimsby on 4 May 1487 (ib. 2 Hen. VII, pt. ii. m. 8). In 1491 he was made dean of the collegiate and royal chapel of St. Stephen's, Westminster. This preferment he had resigned before 1496. On 14 June 1492 he was presented by the Lady Margaret to the rectory of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. This he held for two years, resigning it on his promotion to a bishopric. In the same year (1492) Smyth, together with Richard Foxe [q. v.], then bishop of Exeter, and Sir Elias Dawbeney, was made a co-feoffee of her estates in Somerset and Devon for the performance of Lady Margaret's will.
At the beginning of 1493 Smith was made bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. He had been entrusted with the custody of the temporalities of the see since 30 March 1491, his predecessor, Bishop John Hales, having died on the last day of 1490, with liberty to apply its revenues to his own use without rendering account to the crown (Exch. Q. R. Mem. Roll, 21 Hen. VII, inter brevia, Easter Term m. iii.). The Lichfield registers show that he at once diligently entered upon his episcopal duties, but within three months he was acting as a member of Prince Arthur's council in the marches of Wales. This necessitated the nomination by him, after the example of Foxe and other contemporary prelates, of a suffragan bishop, Thomas Fort, bishop of Achonry in Ireland, in 1494. He presumably resigned at the same time his office of keeper or clerk of the hanaper, his successor, Edmund Martyn, who also followed him as dean of St. Stephen's, being appointed to the place on 6 Feb. 1493 (Pat. Roll, 8 Hen. VII, pt. ii. m. 18). While bishop of Lichfield, Smyth refounded the ruinous hospital of St. John, originally a priory of friars, but transformed by him into an almshouse and free grammar school. To it he annexed the hospital of Denhall or Denwall in Cheshire, and secured for it liberal patronage from Henry VII. This hospital of St. John still survives at Lichfield as a monument to Smyth's memory.
On 31 Jan. 1496 Smyth was translated to Lincoln, at that time the most extensive diocese in England, stretching, as it did, from the Humber to the Thames. But he was generally an absentee, resident at Ludlow or Bewdley in attendance upon Prince Arthur, though he found time in the first year of his episcopate to make a visitation at Oxford. Even as long after his translation as 1500, when he proposed to make his first entry into his cathedral city, affairs of state recalled him to Bewdley; nor was his visitation carried out until the spring of 1501. The wealth now at his disposal enabled him in the same year to acquire private property in land, and he purchased an estate at St. John's, Bedwardyn, near Worcester.
On 22 Aug. 1501 Smyth was appointed lord president of Wales, upon the reform of the administration of that principality, with a salary of 20l. a week, equivalent to about 12,000l. a year of our money, for a table for himself and the council. He had already for some years presided at Prince Arthur's council. His new office was one comprising both administrative and judicial functions. On 5 Nov. 1500, within a few days after Cardinal Morton's death, Smyth, who had previously been recommended for the post in 1495 by Henry VII, was elected the cardinal's successor in the chancellorship of Oxford University. He resigned it in August 1503. During his chancellorship in September 1501 the Prince of Wales (Arthur), with Smyth in attendance, visited Oxford. In April 1502 the prince died in Ludlow Castle, and Smyth officiated at his funeral in Worcester Cathedral. He still remained lord president of Wales, and retained the office during life; but there are indications that after Prince Arthur's death his attention was less absorbed by Welsh affairs. In 1503 he took part in the investiture of Warham, of whom he had been an early patron, as archbishop of Canterbury. In November 1504 he joined in a celebrated decree of the Star-chamber regulating the relations of the staplers and merchant adventurers. On 3 June 1505 he was condemned by the commissioners of sewers at Newark, Nottinghamshire, to pay a fine of eight hundred marks (533l. 6s. 8d.) for erecting weirs and mills in the Trent ‘to the noysaunce of the passage of boats and other vesselles.’ The fine was remitted by the king on the following 11 April (Exch. Q. R. Mem. Roll, 21 Hen. VII, E. T. inter brevia, m. i.). At some time towards the close of Henry VII's reign Smyth's wealth invited extortion of the kind generally associated with the names of Sir Richard Empson [q. v.] and Edmund Dudley [q. v.] An information was laid against him that he had paid English gold to a foreigner, presumably for exportation abroad, in violation of the statute of 1488–9 (4 Hen. VII, c. 23). He was condemned in the immense sum of 1,800l., the penalty being double the amount of gold alienated by the offender. Of this sum, it appears from an account rendered by the executors of Henry VII, Smyth paid in ready money two instalments of 100l. and 1,200l. respectively. Henry VII having left instructions that this and other extortions from dignified ecclesiastics should be restored, Smyth received the money back again about 1509 (State Papers, Dom. 1 Hen. VIII, 776). But his apprehension of a continuance of similar proceedings led him to procure for himself a pardon, dated less than three weeks after Henry VIII's accession, for every conceivable common-law or statutory offence which might have been committed by him, beginning with homicide and ending with breaches of the manufacturing regulations (Exch. Q. R. Mem. Roll, 1 Hen. VIII, Trinity Term, m. vii.).
In 1507 Smyth began a series of benefactions which elicited Fuller's eulogy that ‘this man wheresoever he went may be followed by the perfume of charity he left behind him.’ In the course of this year he founded a fellowship in Oriel College; he established a free school at Farnworth in Lancashire, where he added a south aisle to the church; and he presented two estates to Lincoln College, the manor of Bushbery, or Ailleston, near Brewood, in Staffordshire, and the manor of Sencleres in Chalgrove, Oxfordshire. In the same year he first formed the design, in concert with Richard Sutton [q. v.], of founding a new college in Oxford. The earliest steps towards effecting this purpose were taken by Sutton, but in 1509 Bishop Smyth appears in conjunction with Sutton as lessee of a stone quarry at Headington, and is represented by an inscription on the foundation-stone of Brasenose College to have laid it, together with Sutton, on 1 June of the same year. The core of the new foundation was Brasenose Hall, dating at least from the thirteenth century. This Smyth rebuilt. With it he incorporated other adjacent halls, and gave to the whole the name of ‘the king's hall and college of Brasenose,’ at first sometimes designated ‘the king's college of Brasenose,’ or ‘Collegium Regale de Brasenose.’ The charter of foundation is dated 15 Jan. 1512 (Rymer, xiii. 320). In the following year Smyth transferred to the new college the estates of the dissolved priory of Cold Norton, Oxfordshire, purchased by him from the dean and convent of St. Stephen's, Westminster, to whom they had been granted. He added an estate near Oxford, known as Basset's fee. The objects of his new college, as set forth in the charter, were ‘to study philosophy and sacred theology … to the praise and honour of Almighty God; for the furtherance of divine worship, for the advancement of holy church, and for the support and exaltation of the Christian faith.’ It was to consist of a principal and twelve fellows, all of them born within the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, with preference to the natives of Lancashire and Cheshire, and especially those of Prescot in Lancashire and Presbury in Cheshire. Apparently the principal and all the fellows were to be in holy orders. The first statutes were drawn up by Smyth himself, largely borrowed from those of Magdalen, and prescribing both the diet and dress of the members of the house. The severity of Smyth's rules was somewhat mitigated after his death by his surviving co-founder, Sutton, at the request of the college. Meanwhile Smyth took part in the conversion of the property of another religious house to educational purposes, having in 1510 assisted in the suppression of the priory of St. John, Cambridge, with a view to the foundation of St. John's College, Cambridge.
The deaths of Smyth's patrons, Henry VII and the Lady Margaret, took place respectively in April and June 1509. The person foremost in Henry VIII's council at this time was Richard Foxe [q. v.], bishop of Winchester, who, together with Smyth, was among the executors of Henry VII. With Foxe Smyth had had frequent official relations, and in 1509 joined with him, Fitzjames, bishop of London, and Oldham, bishop of Exeter, in the successful assault upon the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Canterbury's probate court [see Warham, William]. On the other hand, there were differences of opinion between them, Foxe favouring the liberal tendencies of ‘the new learning.’ The sense of rivalry disclosed itself in riotous attacks, in which a former principal of Brasenose Hall was concerned, upon the builders of Foxe's new college of Corpus Christi. Although Smyth retained till his death his office of president of Wales, his name, after his patrons' deaths, practically disappears from the domestic state papers. Foxe's influence was probably the cause of his retirement. He seems to have spent his later years within the limits of his vast diocese. His will is dated 26 Dec. 1513. He died at Buckden in Huntingdonshire, one of his ten palaces as bishop of Lincoln, on 2 Jan. 1514. In his will he desired to be buried in his cathedral, and he left certain sums for religious services. To the college of Brasenose he bequeathed, for the use of the chapel, the books, chalices, and vestments of his domestic chapel. These, of which an inventory was left, appear never to have come into possession of the college. They were probably appropriated by Wolsey, his successor in the see, one of the charges against whom was that he ‘had the more part of the goods of Dr. Smyth, bishop of Lincoln,’ as well as of other bishops whom he succeeded, ‘contrary to their wills and to law and justice.’ Smith also bequeathed 100l. to the hospital of St. John Baptist in Banbury, where another of his episcopal palaces was situate, and certain sums to his relatives. The residue of his goods was to be disposed of by his executors in works of piety and charity for the welfare of his soul. The will was proved on 30 Jan. 1514. He was buried in a stone coffin, one of the latest instances of this practice, under a marble gravestone, inlaid with a rich brass effigy and inscription. This was destroyed during the civil wars, but a copy made in 1641 by Sir William Dugdale is extant. A mural monument near the west door of the cathedral, erected by Dr. Ralph Cawley, principal of Brasenose in 1775, bears a long Latin inscription to his memory.
Smyth was one of the enlightened statesmen-prelates of his age. He evidently shared with his lifelong friend, Hugh Oldham [q. v.], bishop of Exeter, some of the dislike and suspicion of the regulars then current even among ecclesiastics. During the short time that he was at Lichfield he twice rejected the incompetent presentees of monastic houses to livings, and made a visitation of the religious foundations within his diocese. Not long after his translation to Lincoln in 1499, we find him suspending the abbot of Oseney, and enforcing a reformation of that house. That he was a man of learning is apparent from his election as chancellor of Oxford, and from the specimen of his Latin composition which has survived. Though a contemporary of Erasmus and Foxe, he does not seem, if we may judge by the statutes of his college, to have been alive to the importance of Greek. On the contrary, his design seems to have been to establish an ecclesiastical and conservative institution adhering to the traditional studies of scholastic philosophy and theology. In this respect his statutes differ amazingly from the far more progressive provisions which Foxe drew up for his college of Corpus. Sutton's mind, it is evident, was cast in the same mould as that of Smyth, and it can readily be believed that he deferred entirely to the guidance of the former chancellor of the university. It can be understood, therefore, that Smyth displayed no liberal tendencies in his theology, and in 1506 he is recorded to have enforced the law against heresy both by imprisonment and burning. But John Foxe [q. v.], the martyrologist, who as a Brasenose man was probably indisposed to be severe upon the founder of his college, records of Smyth ‘that in the time of the great abjuration, divers he sent quietly home without punishment and penance, bidding them go home and live as good Christian men should do.’ Judged by the high standard of clerical duty held by Latimer, Smyth, whatever his wishes may have been, was an ‘unpreaching prelate.’ He must have been too absorbed in business of state, at any rate down to the death of Prince Arthur in 1502, to exercise any effective personal supervision over his immense diocese. Nor can he be acquitted of the prevailing ecclesiastical vice of nepotism. His biographer Churton devotes a chapter to his kinsmen and the ecclesiastical preferments he heaped upon them. Three of his nephews he made archdeacons in his diocese, appointing one of them, William Smyth, archdeacon of Lincoln, to the most valuable prebend, it is said, in England. Another of them, Gilbert Smyth, he made a prebendary in 1498, nearly six years before he took sub-deacon's orders. Matthew Smyth, the last principal of Brasenose Hall, and the first of Brasenose College, in all probability a relation of the bishop, was presented by him to a prebend in Lincoln Cathedral in 1508, though he was not ordained sub-deacon till 1512. One of Bishop Smyth's last acts was to grant a lease, probably on beneficial terms, of the manor of Nettleham in Lincolnshire to Richard Smyth, doubtless a kinsman. Churton complains that in Smyth's time the cathedral of Lincoln was ‘peopled with persons of the name of William Smyth,’ and, from what we know of the bishop's care for his kinsmen, it is not unfair to suspect that most of them were relatives whom he indemnified in this way for the diversion of the bulk of his property to his college.
In the appendix to the fourth report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission (1874, p. 173) it is stated that in a bundle of sixty papers belonging to the dean and chapter of Westminster, chiefly letters addressed to Sir Reginald Bray [q. v.], are some letters from the bishop of Lincoln (Smyth). These letters had previously been seen by J. A. Manning, author of the ‘Lives of the Speakers’ in 1851 (p. 146), but have since disappeared from their place in the muniment-room of the abbey. The bishop's portrait, which hangs in the hall of Brasenose, is unfortunately undated. A replica exists at his hospital at Lichfield. The picture apparently represents him in his closing years. The eyes are fine, and the cast of countenance one of serene intelligence.
[Fuller's Worthies; Wood's Athenæ Oxon.; Churton's Lives of Smyth and Sutton, Oxford, 1800; Campbell's Materials for the Hist. of the Reign of Henry VII; State Papers, Dom. Henry VIII, vols. i. ii.]