Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shirley, Robert (1581?-1628)

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SHIRLEY or SHERLEY, ROBERT, commonly called Sir Robert Shirley or Count Shirley (1581?–1628), envoy in the service of the shah of Persia, born about 1581, was youngest son of Sir Thomas Shirley ‘the elder’ of Wiston, and was brother of Sir Thomas Shirley [q. v.] and of Sir Anthony Shirley [q. v.] He accompanied his brother Anthony on the abortive expedition to Ferrara in 1598, and thence to Persia. When, at the end of 1599, Anthony left Persia on his mission to the courts of Europe, Robert remained behind with five English attendants, as the guest of the shah Abbas. The reports that were circulated in England as to the favours showered on Robert and his fellow Christians by the shah were greatly exaggerated (cf. Nixon, Three Brothers, 1607). Robert seems to have employed himself usefully in improving the discipline of the Persian army, and in instructing it in the use of artillery. But the shah was niggardly in his allowances, and on 22 May 1605 Robert wrote from Tabreez to his brother Anthony that he was resolved to quit the country if he could. On 10 Sept. 1606 he complained in another letter to Anthony (dated from Kazveen) that the failure of Anthony's despatches to reach the Persian court greatly imperilled his own position there. He was esteemed, he wrote, ‘a common liar.’ Before 1607 he married Teresia, daughter of Ismael Khan, a Circassian of noble birth and of Christian faith, who was related to one of the Circassian wives of shah Abbas.

Owing to Sir Anthony's long silence, the shah in 1607 determined to send a second embassy to James I and to the Christian princes of Europe, to invite their aid in a crusade against the Turks and to promote commercial relations. Robert was selected as his envoy. He left Persia with his wife on 12 Feb. 1607–8, ‘well accompanied and furnished.’ At Cracow Sigismund III, king of Poland, entertained him handsomely (cf. Thomas Middleton, Sir R. Sherley sent ambassadour … to Sigismond the third, 1609, dedicated to Robert's brother Thomas; reprinted in Harleian Miscellany, v.). In June 1609 the Emperor Rudolf II received him at Prague, and not only knighted him (2 June), but created him a count palatine of the empire. King James, to whom he at once announced his arrival in Europe, recommended him to complete his mission on the continent before repairing to England. Accordingly, leaving his wife at Prague, Robert proceeded to Florence, where the grand duke gave him a gold chain valued at eight hundred crowns, and on 27 Sept. 1609 he made his entry into Rome, wearing in his turban a crucifix of gold (he always dressed in Persian costume). The pope (Paul V) received him in audience on the 29th (Italian tract, Bologna, 1609), and, according to Purchas (iii. 1806), created him count of the sacred palace of the Lateran and his chamberlain. At the same time he was granted the power of legitimatising bastards (Abbot to Sir Thomas Roe, 20 Jan. 1616). At Milan he had a brief meeting with his brother Anthony, but soon left to pursue his diplomatic adventures in Spain. He reached Barcelona ‘with his great turban’ early in December 1609, and was at Alcala next month. The Spanish court did not show him much courtesy, but a tedious commercial negotiation, which came to little, detained him at Madrid for more than a year. The English ambassador, Sir Francis Cottington, whom he frequently visited, reported that he was a man of ‘wise and discreet carriage’ and ‘both modest and moreover brave in his speech, diet, and expenses.’ In February 1611 he welcomed his brother Anthony, who was suffering extreme poverty, to his house at Madrid, and next month his wife arrived. In the summer he left for England, and in August he was staying with his father at the family seat of Wiston. On 1 Oct. James I received him graciously at Hampton Court. Four merchants of the Levant Company were appointed to attend him, 4l. a day was allowed him for his diet, and 60l. a quarter for house rent; but the Levant merchants were unwilling to countenance any mercantile treaty with Persia, on the ground that it would hamper their valuable trade with Turkey. On 4 Nov 1611 Robert announced to Henry, prince of Wales, the birth of a son—his only child—and requested him to stand godfather. The boy was accordingly baptised in the name of Henry.

On 13 Jan. 1612–13 Robert left London on his return journey to Persia. He went by sea. Guadal was reached in September 1613, and he narrowly escaped a plot of the Portuguese settlers there to blow up his lodgings with gunpowder. When the ‘great mogul’ (the Emperor Jehangir) learned of the cowardly attempt on his life, he summoned him to Surat, where a hospitable reception was accorded him during a sojourn extending over more than a year. At length in June 1615 he arrived at Ispahan. There he and all his companions were the victims of a conspiracy to poison them. He and his wife alone recovered. At the end of the year he was fortunately ordered to Europe to negotiate anew on the shah's behalf. After a ten months' stay at Goa, he landed at Lisbon in the summer of 1617, when the king of Spain invited him to Madrid. There the Spanish government made him the liberal allowance of fifteen hundred ducats a month, in addition to provision for house-rent and a coach. Although his diplomatic labours progressed slowly, he stayed on till the spring of 1622, in the full enjoyment of court favour. Subsequently he paid a visit to Gregory XV at Rome, and Vandyck painted his own and his wife's portrait. In January 1624 he arrived again in England. While staying with his sister, Lady Crofts, at Saxham, Suffolk, he visited James I at Newmarket (27 Jan.) and presented his letters of credence (in Persian). Contrary to Persian etiquette, he removed his turban in the king's presence. During the rest of the year he resided at a house provided for him by the government on Tower Hill, and persistently urged on the English ministers his project for opening up trade between Persia and England. In 1625 another envoy from the shah arrived in London in the person of a Persian nobleman, named Najdi Beg. With the newcomer Shirley engaged in a furious quarrel, and the English government, unable to reconcile the two envoys, recommended that they should both return to Persia, in the company of an English agent, Sir Dodmore Cotton (cf. Finet, Philoxenis, 1656). They set forth in separate ships, at the earnest petition of Robert Shirley's wife, in March 1627. The Persian Gulf was reached on 29 Nov. 1627, and soon afterwards Shirley's rival, Najdi Beg, acknowledged himself in the wrong by committing suicide. Shirley was well received on his way to the shah's court at Kazveen, which he reached early in June 1628. There the king's favourite, Mahomet Ali Beg, complained that his diplomatic performances ‘were frivolous and counterfeit,’ and announced that the shah had no further use for his services. Shirley took this rebuff to heart, and died on 13 July 1628, within six weeks of his arrival in Kazveen. He was buried by his friends, under the threshold of his own house in that city (Sir Thomas Herbert, Travels, pp. 170, 202–4). According to Sir Thomas Herbert, who was at Kazveen during Shirley's last days, the shah lamented his death, saying that ‘he had done more for him than any of his native subjects.’

Shirley's widow retired to Rome, where she was held in esteem on account of her devotion to the catholic faith. In 1658 she caused her husband's remains to be reinterred there in the church of Santa Maria della Scala. She seems to have resided in the convent attached to the church, and dying in 1668 to have been buried in the tomb which she prepared for her husband. To her and Sir Robert's only son, Henry, Lady Shirley (his grandmother) left 40l. a year in 1623, making at the same time a bequest to a young Persian companion, William Nazerbeg. Henry Shirley was alive in England in 1626, but died there soon afterwards.

Vandyck's portraits of Robert and his wife, painted at Rome in 1622, are at Petworth, and that of Sir Robert is engraved in Nichols's ‘Leicestershire.’ Hollar engraved a different portrait of Lady Teresia assigned to Vandyck. A portrait (apparently by a Dutch painter) of Robert in his characteristic turban and eastern costume, with a Persian inscription to the right of the head, is, with another of his wife, at Ettington. A rare print of a third portrait of Robert is embellished by a miniature representation of Shirley's reception at Rome in 1609. A fourth painting belongs to Earl Ferrers. Others are said to be at the convent of Santa Maria della Scala at Rome. A miniature by Oliver of Sir Robert was at Strawberry Hill, and one of Lady Teresia is at Windsor Castle.

[Shirley's Stemmata Shirleiana, 1873, pp. 279–287; authorities cited in text and under art. Shirley, Sir Anthony. A gossiping and eulogistic account of Robert Shirley's Circassian wife—‘Teresa Comitissa ex Persia’—is given in Nicius Erythræus' Pinacotheca Tertia (new edit. 1712, pp. 797–807).]

S. L.