Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shirley, Thomas
SHIRLEY or SHERLEY, Sir THOMAS (1564–1630?), adventurer, born in 1564, was eldest son of Sir Thomas Shirley, ‘the elder,’ of Wiston, Sussex, who married, in 1559, Anne (d 1623), daughter of Sir Thomas Kempe of Ollantighe in Wye, Kent. Sir Anthony Shirley [q. v.] and Robert Shirley [q. v.] were his younger brothers. The founder of the Wiston branch of the family, Ralph Shirley or Sherley (d 1510), sheriff of Surrey and Sussex in 1504, was son, by a second marriage, of Ralph Shirley of Ettington (d. 1466).
Sir Thomas Shirley (1542–1612) of Wiston, the father of the subject of the present notice, was great-grandson of Ralph Shirley of Wiston and son of William Shirley (d. 1551). He is said to have abandoned the Roman catholic faith, to which the elder branch of the family and his own sons adhered. Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, patronised him. He was elected M.P. for Sussex in 1572, and again in 1592, while he sat for Steyning in 1584, 1601, and 1603. He was knighted at Rye on 12 Aug. 1573, and served as sheriff of Sussex and Surrey in 1578. He rebuilt the house at Wiston. In 1585–6 he accompanied Leicester to the Low Countries with a troop of his own raising, and was on 1 Feb. 1587 appointed treasurer-at-war to the English army serving in the Low Countries. In that capacity he involved himself inextricably in debt to the crown. In 1588 his goods at Wiston were seized by the sheriff. In 1591 the queen appointed a commission to inquire into his pecuniary position. Efforts to secure, by Lord Burghley's influence, the controllership of the royal household failed, and in March 1596 it was reported that ‘he owed the queen more than he was worth,’ and that his indiscretions had cost him the loss of good friends. His distresses proved incurable. On 15 March 1603–4, the day of James I's formal entry into London, he was arrested for debt, while M.P. for Steyning, on the petition of a goldsmith, and was sent to the Fleet. Parliament raised the question of privilege, and the obduracy of the warden of the Fleet in releasing Shirley caused much public excitement (Commons' Journals; Spedding, Bacon, iii. 173–6). For Shirley is claimed the distinction of first suggesting to James I the creation of the rank of baronets (Shirley, Stemmata, p. 256). He died in great pecuniary distress in October 1612, and was buried in the church at Wiston, where a monument to his memory still stands. Three sons—a far-famed ‘leash of brethren,’ in Fuller's phrase—with six daughters, survived him. The son Thomas, with his younger brother, Anthony, matriculated from Hart Hall, Oxford, in 1579, but left the university without taking a degree. In 1585 he accompanied his father and brother to the Low Countries, and on returning home saw some military service in Ireland, where he was knighted by the lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam, on 26 Oct. 1589. Subsequently he visited the court, but in the summer of 1591 he greatly imperilled his prospects by a secret marriage with Frances, daughter of Henry Vavasour of Copmanthorpe, of a younger branch of the Vavasours of Hazlewood, Yorkshire. When the news of the marriage reached the queen's ears, she promptly committed Shirley to the Marshalsea (September). He remained in prison till the spring of 1592. In 1593 he served again in the Low Countries, now holding the rank of ‘captain.’ Meanwhile his father's pecuniary difficulties were increasing, and they involved him, too, in hopeless embarrassment. With a view to securing a means of livelihood, he resolved to fit out a privateering expedition to attack Spanish merchandise. After handing over his company at Flushing to Sir Thomas Vavasour, his wife's kinsman, he in the summer of 1598 made a voyage in the Channel, and seized four ‘hulks’ of Lübeck, the freight of which was reputed to be Spanish. In 1601 he was elected M.P. for both Bramber and Hastings, but sat for the latter place. In 1602 he renewed his privateering adventures, and pillaged ‘two poor hamlets of two dozen houses in Portugal.’ At the end of 1602 he equipped two ships on a more ambitious quest in the Levant. He designed to strike a blow against the Turks. At Florence the Duke of Tuscany gave him every encouragement, but an imprudent descent on the island of Zea, on 15 Jan. 1602–3, led to his capture by the Turks. He was transferred to Negropont on 20 March, and on 25 July 1603 he was carried a close prisoner to Constantinople. News of his misfortunes reached England, and James I appealed to the government of the sultan to release him. The English ambassador to the Porte, Henry Lello, used every effort on his behalf, and at length, on 6 Dec. 1605, after eleven hundred dollars had been paid to his gaolers, he was set free. Retiring to Naples, he was described by Toby Mathew, on 8 Aug. 1606, as living there ‘like a gallant.’ At the end of the same year he returned to England.
In September 1607 he was imprisoned in the Tower on a charge of illegal interference with the operations of the Levant Company. He had ‘overbusied himself,’ it was said, ‘with the traffic of Constantinople, to have brought it to Venice and to the Florentine territories.’ In August 1611 he was confined in the king's bench as an insolvent debtor. The death of his father next year, and his second marriage (on 2 Dec. 1617, at Deptford) with a widow, Judith Taylor, daughter of William Bennet of London, by whom he had a large family, greatly increased his difficulties. Wiston, which had fallen into ruins, was sold, but he continued to sit in parliament as M.P. for Steyning in 1614, 1615, and 1620. Sir Thomas is said to have subsequently retired to the Isle of Wight, and to have died there about 1630. By his first wife, Frances Vavasour, he had three sons and four daughters. Henry [q. v.], the second son, was the dramatist. The only surviving son Thomas was baptised at West Clandon, Surrey, on 30 June 1597, was knighted in 1645 by Charles I at Oxford, was alive in 1664, and was father of Thomas Sherley [q. v.], the physician, By his second wife, Judith Taylor, Sir Thomas had five sons and six daughters.
Shirley left in manuscript a ‘Discours of the Turkes,’ which is now at Lambeth.[Stemmata Shirleiana, 1873, pp. 248–72; The Shirley Brothers, by One of the same House (i.e. Evelyn Philip Shirley, for Roxburghe Club, 1848); Nixon's Three Brothers, 1607, with the play of John Day, George Wilkins, and William Rowley, which recounts Shirley's adventures in Turkey; other authorities cited in text and under Shirley, Sir Anthony.]