Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Roe, Thomas
ROE, Sir THOMAS (1581?–1644), ambassador, son of Robert Rowe, was born at Low Leyton, near Wanstead in Essex, in 1580 or 1581. His grandfather, Sir Thomas Rowe or Roe, merchant tailor, was alderman, sheriff (1560), and lord mayor of London (1568); Mary, daughter of Sir John Gresham, was Sir Thomas's wife [see under Gresham, Sir Richard; and Remembrancia, p. 332]. Robert, the father of the ambassador, died while his son was a child (Wood, Athenæ, ed. Bliss, iii. 111). His mother, Elinor, daughter of Robert Jermy of Worstead, Norfolk (Philpot pedigree in College of Arms), subsequently married ‘one Berkeley of Rendcomb in Gloucestershire, of the family of the Lord Berkeley.’
Thomas matriculated as a commoner of Magdalen College, Oxford, on 6 July 1593, at the age of twelve. He had clearly powerful family influence, whether from the Berkeleys, the family of his stepfather, or from his father's wealthy relations. After spending some time ‘in one of the inns of court or in France or both’ (Wood), he was appointed esquire of the body to Queen Elizabeth in the last years of her reign, and after her death was knighted by James I on 23 March 1604–5. He was popular at court, especially with Henry, prince of Wales, and his sister Elizabeth, afterwards queen of Bohemia; and the former gave him his first opportunity of distant travel by sending him ‘upon a discovery to the West Indies.’ Roe equipped a ship and pinnace, and sailed from Plymouth on 24 Feb. 1609–10. Striking the mouth of the Amazon, then unknown to English explorers, he sailed two hundred miles up the river, and rowed in boats one hundred miles further, making many excursions into the country from the banks; then returning to the mouth, he explored the coast and entered various rivers in canoes, passing over ‘thirty-two falles in the river of Wia Poko’ or Oyapok. Having examined the coast from the Amazon to the Orinoco for thirteen months, without discovering the gold in which the West Indies were believed to abound, he returned home by way of Trinidad, and reached the Isle of Wight in July 1611. Twice again was he sent to the same coast, ‘to make farther discoveries, and maintained twenty men in the River of Amozones, for the good of his countrey, who are yet  remaining there, and supplied’ (Stow, Annales, continued by Howes, 1631, p. 1022). At the close of 1613 he was at Flushing ‘going for Captaine Floods companye,’ who was just dead (Collins, Letters and Memorials of State of the Sydney Family, ii. 329). While in the Netherlands he entered in July 1613 into some theological disputations with Dr. T. Wright at Spa, and these were published by the latter in 1614 at Mechlin, under the title of ‘Quatuor Colloquia.’
In 1614, after being elected M.P. for Tamworth, Roe was commanded by James I to proceed, at the request and at the expense of the East India Company, as lord ambassador to the court of Jehângîr, the Mogul emperor of Hindustan (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 24 Nov. 1614). His instructions were to arrange a commercial treaty and obtain concessions for ‘factories’ for the English merchants in continuation of the privileges obtained by Captain William Hawkins [q. v.] in 1609–12 (Purchas, 1625, i. 544; Stow, Annales). The expedition consisted of four ships under the command of Captain William Keeling [q. v.] Roe embarked in March 1614–15, and, sailing round the Cape of Good Hope, landed at Sûrat on 26 Sept. Thence he travelled by way of Burhânpûr and Mândû to Ajmîr, where the Emperor Jehângîr resided. He had his first audience of the emperor on 10 Jan. 1615–16. He remained in close attendance at the court, following Jehângîr in his progress to Ujain and Ahmadâbâd, until January 1617–18, when he took his leave, having accomplished the objects of his mission as far as seemed possible. He obtained the redress of previous wrongs, and an imperial engagement for future immunities, which placed the establishment at Sûrat in an efficient position for trade, and laid the foundations of the future greatness of Bombay, and, indeed, of British India in general. The patience and self-restraint exercised by Roe under exceptional provocation are admirably displayed in the pages of his entertaining ‘Journal,’ which gives an inimitable picture of the Indian court.
On his way home Roe went to Persia, to settle matters in respect of the trade in silks (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 7 Jan. 1619), and was reported on 11 Sept. 1619 as ‘returned [to London] rich from India,’ though it appears the wealth consisted chiefly in presents for King James, and that the ambassador had ‘little for himself.’
Roe was elected, in January 1620–1, one of the burgesses for Cirencester, doubtless by the Berkeley interest. But his parliamentary career was quickly interrupted by a new foreign mission. He was sent in September 1621 as ambassador to the Ottoman Porte. In passing through the Mediterranean he received ample evidence of the depredations of the Barbary pirates, and resolved to make it his business to try to suppress them. He arrived at Constantinople on 28 Dec. 1621, displacing Sir John Eyre. Roe's audience of Sultan Osmân II took place about the end of February 1621–2, and was of course purely formal. ‘I spake to a dumb image,’ he reports (Negotiations, p. 37). He was under no illusions as to the strength or the dignity of the Turkish empire. He described it as ‘irrecoverably sick’ (ib. p. 126), and compared it (almost in the words of the Emperor Nicholas 230 years later) to ‘an old body, crazed through many vices, which remain, when the youth and strength is decayed’ (ib. p. 22). He remained at the Porte till the summer of 1628, his term of appointment having been specially extended at the urgent prayer of the well-satisfied Levant merchants to Buckingham, in spite of Roe's repeated requests for recall (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 8 March 1625).
At Constantinople Roe succeeded in enlarging the privileges of English merchants, and the secretary of state, Sir George Calvert [q. v.], wrote that he had ‘restored the honour of our king and nation’ (Negotiations, p. 60). He also mediated a treaty of peace between Turkey and Poland (ib. pp. 129, 133), and liberated many Polish exiles at Constantinople (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 20 May 1623), services for which he received the thanks of King Sigismund in September 1622 (T. Smith, Account of the Greek Church, 1680, p. 252; Wood, l.c.). The suppression of the Algerine piracy in the Mediterranean proved beyond the power of mere diplomacy; but Roe's negotiations put England's relations with Algiers on a better footing, and he arranged for the freeing of English captives, partly at his own cost (Negotiations, pp. 14, 117, 140). By his efforts a treaty with Algiers was patched up in November 1624 (ib. p. 146); and though it was not wholly approved in England, it led to the liberation of seven to eight hundred English captive mariners (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1623). Roe, however, met with doubtful success in his zealous efforts to attach Bethlen Gabor, the prince of Transylvania, to the protestant alliance, and to use him as an instrument for the support of Count Mansfeld and the restoration of the palatinate. Gabor's attitude perplexed the ambassador, and James I's hesitation and lack of money for subsidies impeded the negotiation. But eventually Roe procured the promise of a monthly subsidy from England, and the Porte's support for the prince. The Porte consented to the reversion of the principality of Transylvania to Gabor's wife, a princess of Brandenburg, who was duly invested with the banner and sceptre by a Turkish ambassador (ib. p. 558; von Hammer, Gesch. d. osm. Reiches, iii. 73–5). Gabor accordingly allied himself to Mansfeld and the protestant union in October 1626 (Negotiations, p. 571); but a victory over the imperialists was neutralised by a truce and Mansfeld's subsequent death (ib. pp. 579–593). Suspicion was aroused by the conduct of Bethlen, who complained that the promised subsidy of ten thousand dollars a month from England had not been paid (ib. p. 595). Nevertheless Roe succeeded in keeping Gabor more or less on the side of the German protestants, and also managed in their interest to quash the proposal for a treaty between Spain and the Porte (ib. p. 452). At the same time he was a warm friend of the Greek church in Turkey, and on intimate terms with its celebrated patriarch, Cyril Lucaris. Cyril presented through Roe to James I the celebrated ‘Codex Alexandrinus’ of the whole Bible, which the patriarch brought from his former see of Alexandria; it was transferred with the rest of the royal library to the British Museum in 1757 (cf. Negotiations, p. 618). Roe was himself a collector of Greek manuscripts. Twenty-nine Greek and other manuscripts, including an original copy of the synodal epistles of the council of Basle, which he brought home, he presented in 1628 to the Bodleian Library (Macray, Annals of the Bodleian, 2nd ed., pp. 70, 72). A collection made by him of 242 coins was given by his widow, at his desire, to the Bodleian after his death. He also searched for Greek ‘marbles’ in behalf of the Duke of Buckingham and the second Earl of Arundel.
‘Naked I came in, and naked I goe out,’ he wrote on 6 April 1628, on finally leaving his embassy at Constantinople (ib. p. 810). June found him at Smyrna, whence he sailed to Leghorn, and on the way fought an engagement with Maltese galleys, during which he was struck down by a spar which had fortunately checked a ball (ib. pp. 826–7). Travelling across the continent, Roe visited Princess Elizabeth, the electress-palatine and queen of Bohemia, at Rhenen, and, in compliance with her wish, adopted the two daughters of Baron Rupa, an impoverished adherent of the elector (Green, Princesses of England, vi. 471). Reaching the Hague in December 1628, he presented to the Prince of Orange a memorial in which he urged that Bethlen Gabor should again be subsidised, and that Gustavus Adolphus should march into Silesia, where Bethlen would join him (Camden Society Miscellany, vol. vii.; Letters of Sir T. Roe, ed. S. R. Gardiner, pp. 2–4). He left the Hague at the end of February for England, and in May 1629 he submitted another memorial to the same effect to Charles I, and in the result was despatched in June on a mission to mediate a peace between the kings of Sweden and Poland (Instructions, printed ib. pp. 10–21). He visited the Swedish camp near Marienburg, and then the Polish camp, brought about a meeting of commissioners in September 1629, and succeeded in arranging a truce for six years (ib. p. 39). He was in close personal relations with Gustavus Adolphus, whose generous character strongly impressed him, while the Swedish king admitted that he owed chiefly to Roe the suggestion, which he put into effect in June 1630, of carrying the war into Germany and placing himself at the head of the protestant alliance. He called Roe his ‘strenuum consultorem,’ and sent him a present of 2,000l. on his victory at Leipzig (Howell, Familiar Letters, ed. 1754, p. 228). After arranging the truce between Poland and Sweden, Roe drew up a treaty at Danzig settling the claims of that city with which he had been instructed to deal, and, breaking his homeward journey at Copenhagen, he concluded a treaty with Denmark which in other hands had been languishing for years.
In the summer of 1630 Roe returned to England from this successful mission. The king had a gold medal struck in his honour, bearing the shields of Sweden and Poland and the date 1630, and on the reverse the crown of England supported by two angels, and beneath a monogram of Roe's initials (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1630–1, p. 466). This medal Dame Eleanor Roe presented to the Bodleian Library in 1668 (Macray, Annals, 2nd edit. p. 134). But beyond this barren honour the ambassador received no rewards. For six years he lived in retirement, suffering from limited means; his wife's purchased pension was in arrears; even payment was long withheld from him on account of the diamonds which he bought for the king at Constantinople, and the pleasures of a country life ill requited him for the lack of state employment. He ‘bought a cell’ for his old age at Stanford, and afterwards moved to Bulwick and then to Cranford (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1629–31, pp. 344, &c.). At last, in January 1636–7, he was appointed chancellor of the order of the Garter, to which a year later a pension of 1,200l. a year was added (ib. 1637–8, p. 214). Meanwhile he was in constant correspondence with the queen of Bohemia, who addressed him as ‘Honest Tom,’ and who depended on his influence to counteract the indiscretions of her London agent, Sir Francis Nethersole [q. v.] (Green, Princesses, vi. 556–66).
In 1638 he was once more sent abroad as ambassador extraordinary to attend the congress of the imperial, French, and Swedish plenipotentiaries for the settlement of the terms of a general peace, which sat successively at Hamburg, Ratisbon, and Vienna (Negotiations, p. 13; Letters and Memorials of Sidney Family, ii. pref., 564, 570; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1638–43, passim; Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 21993, f. 294). The plenipotentiaries did their utmost to exclude him, but Roe contrived to join the conferences and to make his influence felt towards the restoration of the palatinate. Roe's ability profoundly impressed the emperor, who is reported to have exclaimed, ‘I have met with many gallant persons of many nations, but I scarce ever met with an ambassador till now’ (Wood, Athenæ, loc. cit.; De Wiquefort, L'Ambassadeur, 1682, p. 105). These negotiations and a further treaty with Denmark occupied most of his energies till September 1642 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1639, pp. 143, 206; Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 28937, f. 25), but he was at intervals in London, where he busied himself with parliamentary work. He was sworn a member of the privy council in June 1640 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1640, p. 447), and was returned on 17 Oct. 1640 as one of the burgesses for the university of Oxford. His wide experience, sober learning, and dignified eloquence had their weight in the House of Commons. Some of his speeches, chiefly on commercial and currency questions (e.g. on brass money, 1640, on Lord-keeper Finch, 1640, on the decay of coin and trade, 1641), were printed, and on 13 Nov. 1640 he presented to the house a report on the negotiations connected with the Scottish treaty at Ripon (Nalson, Collect. ii. 524). In the following summer he asked and obtained the leave of the house to retain his seat during his absence at the diet of Ratisbon (ib. p. 804). In July 1642, when ambassador-extraordinary at Vienna, he wrote a letter to Edmund Waller, which was read to the House of Commons, repudiating the rumour that he had offered an offensive and defensive alliance to the king of Hungary without his own sovereign's permission (Letter to Waller, Brit. Mus., 1642). On 2 July 1643 Roe obtained permission of the commons to retire to Bath in the hope of improving his health. He died on 6 Nov. 1644—in the words of Dr. Gerard Langbaine's proposed epitaph, ‘præreptus opportune, ne funestam regni catastrophen spectaret’—and was buried two days later in the chancel of Woodford church, Essex (Wood, Athenæ); the manor of Woodford had been conveyed to him in 1640 (J. Kennedy, Hist. of Leyton, p. 357).
Roe's solid judgment, penetration, and sagacity are sufficiently proved by his published journal and despatches; in knowledge of foreign affairs and in a practical acquaintance with the details of British commerce he probably had no living equal; he was not afraid of responsibility; while of the charm of his manner and conversation it is enough to quote the emperor's remark, that ‘if Roe had been one of the fair sex, and a beauty, he was sure the engaging conversation of the English ambassador would have proved too hard for his virtue’ (Collins, Letters and Memorials of State of the Sydney Family, ii. 541 n.; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1641–3, p. 131). In his personal character he was devout and regular; he always gave a tenth of his income to the poor; he was an earnest supporter of the protestant principle, and devoted to his king, though lightly rewarded. ‘Those who knew him well have said that there was nothing wanting in him towards the accomplishment of a scholar, gentleman, or courtier; that also as he was learned, so was he a great encourager and promoter of learning and learned men. His spirit was generous and public, and his heart faithful to his prince’ (Wood, Athenæ, iii. 113). He married, before 1614, Eleanor, daughter of Sir Thomas Cave of Stanford, Northamptonshire (Philpot pedigree, College of Arms), and niece of Lord Grandison (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1626, p. 475). She accompanied her husband in 1621 on his embassy to the Ottoman Porte, and showed great courage during the engagement with Maltese galleys on the way home.
Roe's diplomatic memoirs and voluminous and interesting correspondence have only been in part published or preserved. Part of the ‘Journal’ of his mission to the mogul, to February 1616–17, with interspersed letters, exists in two manuscripts in the British Museum, Addit. 6115 and 19277, and was first published during his lifetime in 1625 by Purchas in ‘His Pilgrimes,’ pt. i. pp. 535–78, together with some of his correspondence with George Abbot [q. v.], archbishop of Canterbury, and others. The journal was reprinted by Harris in 1705 in his ‘Navigantium Bibliotheca,’ i. 156–67, and more fully by Churchill in 1732 in his ‘Collection of Voyages,’ i. 688–728, where it is stated that the original manuscript has been used. It was also translated into French in the ‘Relations de divers Voyages Curieux,’ 1663, into German in Schwabe's ‘Allgemeine Historie der Reisen,’ 1747, and into Dutch in the ‘Journael van de Reysen,’ 1656.
Proposals were published in 1730 for editing Roe's European correspondence, and his ‘Negotiations in his embassy to the Ottoman Porte,’ 1621–8, were eventually printed in great detail by Samuel Richardson (1740), but with scarcely any attempt at annotation or editing, beyond a very full analytical table of contents and decipherments of some of the ciphers. This large volume (of lxiv + 828 folio pages) was published mainly at the cost of the ‘Society for the Encouragement of Learning,’ and Thomas Carte [q. v.], who originated this society, appears to have arranged the papers published in this volume (Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 6190 f. 21, 6185 ff. 103, 111; Harl. 1901). This was prospectively the first of several volumes, and the intention was to have published the rest of Roe's correspondence up to his death, but the scheme was abandoned. Roe also printed, besides several of his parliamentary speeches in pamphlet form: 1. ‘A True and Faithful Relation … of what hath lately happened in Constantinople, concerning the death of Sultan Osman and the setting up of Mustapha his uncle,’ London, 1622, 4to. 2. ‘A Discourse upon the reasons of the resolution taken in the Valteline against the tyranny of the Grisons and heretics,’ translated from Fra Paolo Sarpi, London, 4to, 1628 (reissued in 1650 as ‘The Cruel Subtilty of Ambition’). A poem by Roe on the death of Lord Harington appeared in ‘The Churches Lamentation for the Losse of the Godly,’ 1614 (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. v. 9).
A few of Roe's despatches, preserved in the state paper office, were edited in 1847 by Dr. S. R. Gardiner for the ‘Camden Society Miscellany,’ vol. vii., ‘Letters relating to the Mission of Sir T. Roe to Gustavus Adolphus,’ and George lord Carew's letters to Roe between 1615 and 1617 were edited by Sir John Maclean for the Camden Society in 1860. There are numerous letters and despatches of Roe's, still unpublished, in the public record office; but few of those published in the volume of ‘Negotiations’ seem to be preserved there (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 351–2). In the British Museum, besides his Indian journal and letters, there are letters among the Harleian, Egerton, and Sloane manuscripts. Roe is further stated by Wood to have left in manuscript ‘A Compendious Relation of the Proceedings and Acts of the Imperial Dyet held at Ratisbon in 1640 and 1641, abstracted out of the Diary of the Colleges,’ which was in the possession of T. Smith, D.D., of Magdalen College, Oxford, and a ‘Journal of several proceedings of the Knights of the Garter,’ frequently cited by Ashmole in his ‘Institution’ (Cat. MSS. Angliæ et Hib. i. 330). His portrait, by Michael van Miereveldt of Delft, is engraved by Vertue as a frontispiece to the ‘Negotiations.’[Authorities cited above; Laud's Works, passim; information from Messrs. T. M. J. Watkin, Portcullis, S. R. Gardiner, J. Cartwright, F. H. Bickley, and Lionel Cust, F. S. A.]