Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shirley, Anthony
SHIRLEY or SHERLEY, Sir ANTHONY (1565–1635?), ambassador to Persia, born in 1565, was second son of Sir Thomas Shirley the elder (1542–1612) of Wiston in Sussex, and was brother of Sir Thomas Shirley [q. v.] and of Robert Shirley [q. v.] Matriculating from Hart Hall, Oxford, in 1579, Anthony graduated B.A. in 1581, and in November of the same year was elected probationer-fellow of All Souls' College; he was a kinsman, through his mother, of Archbishop Chichele, the founder. ‘Having acquired,’ he wrote, ‘those learnings which were fit for a gentleman's ornament,’ he soon left the university in order to engage in military service. The college granted him leave of absence. He took part in the wars in the Low Countries, under Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, in 1586, and was present at the skirmish near Zutphen in which Sir Philip Sidney was fatally wounded. In August 1591 he joined the Earl of Essex in his expedition to Normandy in support of Henry of Navarre, and became an enthusiastic disciple of his commander, the Earl of Essex. He ‘desired’ (he wrote) to make the earl ‘the pattern of his civil life, and from him to draw a worthy model of all his actions.’ Essex readily accepted his homage. Henry IV was likewise so well satisfied with his services that he conferred upon him the knighthood of the order of St. Michael. On returning to England early in 1593 the news of his acceptance of this honour, without the queen's permission, excited her wrath. He was imprisoned in the Fleet and rigorously examined by Chief-justice Puckering and Lord Buckhurst, but was released on retiring from the order. He was, however, commonly known thenceforth by the title of Sir Anthony. Soon afterwards he married Frances, daughter of Sir John Vernon of Hodnet, Shropshire, by Elizabeth, sister of Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex. She was thus first cousin of the Earl of Essex, Sir Anthony's patron. The union proved unhappy. ‘Led by the strange fortune of his marriage to undertake any course that might occupy his mind from thinking on her vainest words,’ he organised, during 1595, with the aid of Essex and his father, a buccaneering expedition. He intended to attack the Portuguese settlement on the island of São Thomé, in the Gulf of Guinea, about three hundred miles south of the mouth of the Niger. After much delay, chiefly occasioned by Essex's unwillingness or inability to procure for Shirley as wide powers as he desired, the expedition, consisting of six ships, left Plymouth on 21 May 1596. After watering at the Canary Isles, Shirley passed south to the Cape Verde Isles, where he seized the town of Santiago and held it for ‘two days and nights with two hundred and eighty men, whereof eighty were wounded in the service against three thousand Portugals.’ A few days were spent in the neighbouring volcanic island of Fogo, but Shirley thereupon abandoned the journey to São Thomé, and, crossing the Atlantic, made for the island of Dominica, where ‘excellent hot baths refreshed his men.’ Thence he moved south to the island of Margarita, off Venezuela, and, passing along the coast, reached the little island of Santa Marta, near the mouth of the Magdalena in Columbia. There one of his ships forsook him. Turning north, he landed in Jamaica on 29 Jan. 1596–7, marched six miles inland without resistance, and was much impressed by the fertility of the island. Sailing north again, he intended to put in at Newfoundland and thence to make for the Straits of Magellan and return by way of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But at Havana, on 13 May 1597, his companions mutinied, and one ship alone remained to him. After suffering many hardships he reached Newfoundland on 15 June, and arrived in London next month. Hakluyt published in his ‘Voyages and Discoveries’ (1598) ‘A True Relation of the Voyage undertaken by Sir Anthony Sherley, Knt., in anno 1596, intended for the Isle of San Tomé, but performed to St. Jago, Dominica, Marguerita, along the coast of Tierra firma, to the Isle of Jamaica, the Bay of the Honduras, 30 Leagues up Rio Dolce, and homewarde by Newfoundland, with the memorable exploytes atchieved in all this voyage.’
Shirley came ‘home alive but poor,’ wrote Sir Robert Cecil. His passion for adventure was unexhausted, and he eagerly accepted the invitation of the Earl of Essex to accompany him on the ‘Islands voyage’ during the summer of 1597. He returned with the fleet at the end of October 1597, after much fruitless cruising. Craving more remunerative occupation, he accepted in the winter of 1598–9 Essex's invitation to conduct a small company of English volunteers to Ferrara to assist Don Cesare d'Este, the late duke's illegitimate son, in an attempt to possess himself of the duchy to which the pope laid claim. Shirley left England with his brother Robert and some twenty-five gentlemen adventurers, and never returned. On reaching Venice, he learnt that the dispute respecting Ferrara had been settled by Don Cesare's submission to the pope. Shirley reported to Essex the posture of affairs, and, according to his own narrative, received instructions to make his way to Persia with the twofold object of persuading the Persian king to ally himself with the Christian princes of Europe against the Turks, and to promote commercial intercourse between England and the east. The enterprise was without official sanction. The English government were not consulted, and they viewed his mission with suspicion. When Shirley subsequently sought permission to return to England, it was peremptorily refused, and English ambassadors abroad were warned to repudiate his pretensions.
Shirley and his brother Robert left Venice with their twenty-five English followers on 29 May 1599. At Constantinople Shirley raised four hundred pounds from the English merchants, and at Aleppo five hundred pounds, ‘wherewith he charged Essex by bills’ (Chamberlain, Letters temp. Eliz., Camden Soc.). From Aleppo he proceeded down the Euphrates to Babylon, and, passing into Persia to Ispahan by way of Kom, met the shah Abbas the Great at Kazveen. The two favourite wives of Shah Abbas were Christians, and they procured for Shirley a very promising reception. He won, too, the regard of Aly-verd Beg, the chief of the army, and the rank of mirza, or prince, was conferred upon him. A firman was issued to him, granting for ever to all Christian merchants freedom from customs, religious liberty, and the right to trade in all parts of the shah's dominions, but no immediate advantage was taken of the concession (cf. Curzon, Persia, ii. 538). After five months' stay in the country, the shah accepted Shirley's offer to return to Europe as his envoy and invite the princes to ally themselves with Persia against the Turks. A six months' journey, two months of which were spent on the Caspian Sea, brought him and a Persian nobleman, with six or seven other attendants, to Moscow. But the tsar, Boris Godunow, treated him with contempt, and the Persian nobleman openly quarrelled with him as to their respective precedence. Early in 1600 he took ship at St. Archangel for Stettin. At Prague he was hospitably received in the autumn of 1600 by the Emperor Rudolf II, whose offers of titles of honour he declined. In April 1601 he arrived at Rome, having visited Nuremberg, Augsburg, Munich, Innsbruck, and Trent on the way. Frequent displays of zeal for Roman catholicism secured him a good reception at the Vatican. But he outstayed his welcome. His appeals for permission to revisit England were ignored, and, retiring to Venice in March 1602, he opened a correspondence with the king of Spain and his ministers.
The English government, whose foreign agents managed to intercept many of his letters, deemed his proceedings dangerous and treasonable. At the same time he was hopelessly involved in pecuniary difficulties. Early in April 1603 he was arrested by order of the Venetian signory, either as an insolvent debtor or as a conspirator against a friendly power, and he was interned ‘in a certain obscure island near unto Scio.’ On the accession of James I his appeals to the English government were considered more favourably. Owing to their representations he appears to have been released, and on 8 Feb. 1603–4 he was granted a license from the English government ‘to remain beyond the sea some time longer.’ The curious document recommended him to the consideration of ‘the princes and strangers by whom he might pass.’ In order to improve his position at home he communicated to Sir Robert Cecil, while still at Venice, details of alleged plots that were being hatched abroad against the English government, and wrote him despatches on the affairs of Persia.
In the spring of 1605 he removed to Prague, and, after some negotiation with the Emperor Rudolf II, was employed by the imperial government on a mission to Morocco. The journey seems to have been undertaken with a view to a general report on the state of the country (cf. A … discourse of Muley Hamets rising to the three Kingdomes of Moruecos, Fes, and Sus … The Adventures of Sir A. S. … in those countries, by Ro. C., London, 1609, 4to). After four months' stay at Safi, he was received at Morocco in great state, and remained there five months. He advised the king on domestic politics, and urged an expedition against the Turks in Algiers and Tunis. He advanced money for the release of some Portuguese prisoners, and on leaving the country in the autumn of 1606 he sailed with his Portuguese protégés to Lisbon, where he sought to reimburse himself for the money he had laid out on their ransom. On 7 Sept. 1606 he wrote to Lord Salisbury of his recent adventures. Unable, however, to recover at Lisbon any money, he made his way to the Spanish court at Madrid. There he was held ‘in great reputation and credit.’ He was promised admission to the order of San Iago, and a formal commission was given to him as general or admiral of an ‘armado’ destined to attack the Turks and Moors in the Levant, and to hamper the Dutch trade there. In pursuit of this project, Shirley, in July 1607, arrived at Naples, where he was admitted to the council of state and war; but he found time to pay a brief visit at Prague to the Emperor Rudolf, who created him a count of the empire after he had recounted his experiences in Morocco. In the spring of 1608 he visited various towns of Italy, collecting stores in his capacity of ‘admiral of the Levant seas,’ and on returning to Madrid was granted by the king fifteen thousand ducats ‘towards his charge’ as a mark of approval of his activity. In 1609 Shirley set out from Sicily in command of a fleet for an attack on the Turks and Moors in the Mediterranean, but the only practical outcome of his ostentatious preparations, which were regarded with outspoken suspicion by English observers, was a futile descent on the island of Mitylene. His failure was followed by his dismissal from his command, and he never recovered the blow.
Completely discredited, and in direst poverty, he made his way in 1611 from Naples to Madrid, where he met and quarrelled with his brother Robert. In pity of his misfortunes, the king of Spain allowed him a pension of three thousand ducats a year; but the greater portion was allotted to the payment of his heavy debts, and the residue barely kept him from starving. He tried to ingratiate himself with the jesuits, and sank to concocting impracticable plots against his enemies. In 1611 he began to compile, and in 1613 he contrived to publish in London, a tedious account of his early adventures in Persia. In 1619 Sir Francis Cottington, the English ambassador at Madrid, reported of Sir Anthony: ‘The poor man comes sometimes to my house, and is as full of vanity as ever he was, making himself believe that he shall one day be a great prince, when for the present he wants shoes to wear.’ He remained at Madrid in beggary till his death. He sometimes called himself the Conde de Leste, and was constantly obtruding new and impracticable projects on the notice of the council of state. Wadsworth, in his ‘English and Spanish Pilgrim,’ 1625, stated that among the English fugitives at the court of Spain ‘the first and foremost was Sir Anthony Sherley, who stiles himself Earl of the sacred Roman Empire, and hath from his Catholic Majesty a pension of 2,000 ducats per annum, all of which in respect of his prodigality is as much as nothing. This Sir Anthony Sherley is a great plotter and projector in matters of state, and undertakes by sea stratagems, to invade and ruinate his own country, a just treatise of whose actions would take up a whole volume.’ He died after 1635. He left no issue.
Shirley published in 1613: 1. ‘Sir Anthony Sherley: his Relation of his Travels into Persia, the Dangers and Distresses which befel him in his Passage … his magnificent Entertainment in Persia, his honourable Imployment there hence as Ambassadour to the Princes of Christendome, the cause of his disappointment therein, with his Advice to his brother, Sir Robert Sherley; also a true relation of the great Magnificence … of Abas, now King of Persia,’ London, 1613. It is a dull book, abounding in vapid moralising. The original manuscript is in the Bodleian Library (Ashmole 829). A Dutch translation appears in P. van der Aa's ‘Naaukeurige Versameling der … Zee-en Land Reysen’ (1707); vol. lxxix.
A rare engraving (in an oval) by[Most of the information accessible about Sir Anthony and his two brothers is collected in The Three Brothers: or the Travels and Adventures of Sir Anthony, Sir Robert, and Sir Thomas Sherley, in Persia, Russia, Turkey, and Spain, &c., with portraits, London, 1825; in The Sherley Brothers, by one of the same House (Evelyn Philip Shirley), Roxburghe Club, 1848; and in E. P. Shirley's Stemmata Shirleiana, London, 1841 (new edit. 1873). A brief summary of Sir Anthony's career appears in Burrows's Worthies of All Souls', and some of his letters to Essex and Cecil are calendared with the Hatfield MSS. and among the State Papers. At least five more or less full accounts of Shirley's adventures in Persia are extant. The first, A True Report of Sir A. Shierlie's Journey … by two Gentlemen who followed him the whole time of his travail, was published in 1600; a second, is dated 1612, and is sometimes prefixed to copies of Sir Anthony's ‘Travels’ (1613). Another rare print has some Latin elegiacs below the portrait. A marble bust is at All Souls' College, Oxford. The half-length portrait dated 1588, belonging to Sir Thomas Western, bart., of Rivenhall, Essex, which has usually been described as a picture of Sir Anthony, is really a portrait of his brother-in-law, Sir John Shurley. ‘New and large discourse,’ by William Parry [q. v.], appeared in 1601; a third, ‘Three English Brothers … Sir Anthony Sherley his Embassage to the Christian Princes,’ by Anthony Nixon [q. v.], in 1607 (a very inaccurate compilation); a fourth, Shirley's own Relation of his travels, appeared in 1613; and a fifth, by George Manwaring, an attendant, was first printed in part in John Cartwright's Preacher's Travels, 1611, and at greater length in the Retrospective Review (vol. ii.), and fully in The Three Brothers, in 1825. Shirley's own story is epitomised in Purchas his Pilgrimes, 1625, pt. ii. Nixon's untrustworthy record was dramatised in pedestrian fashion by John Day, William Rowley, and George Wilkins, who published their play as ‘Travailes of the Three English Brothers, Sir Thomas, Sir Anthony, Mr. Robert Shirley, as it is now play'd by her Majesties Servaunts,’ London, 1607. It is reprinted in Mr. A. H. Bullen's edition of Day's Works; a copy has been found with a dedication to ‘the intire friends to the familie of the Sherleys’ (cf. ‘Notes and Queries,’ 3rd ser. viii. 203). See also Malcolm's Travels in Persia, and Collier's Biographical Catalogue. An irresponsible endeavour to assign to Sir Anthony Shirley the honour of writing Shakespeare's plays was made in a pamphlet, William Shakespere of Stratford-on-Avon, 1888, by Rev. Scott Surtees, of Dinsdale-on-Tees.]