Thomas Shirley

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Sir Thomas Shirley (1564 – c. 1634) was an English soldier, adventurer and politician who sat in the House of Commons at various times between 1584 and 1622. His financial difficulties drove him into privateering which culminated in his capture by the Turks and later imprisonment in the Tower of London.

House of Commons of England parliament of England up to 1707

The House of Commons of England was the lower house of the Parliament of England from its development in the 14th century to the union of England and Scotland in 1707, when it was replaced by the House of Commons of Great Britain. In 1801, with the union of Great Britain and Ireland, that house was in turn replaced by the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.



Thomas Shirley was the eldest son of Sir Thomas Shirley of Wiston House, Sussex, and Anne Kempe, the daughter of Sir Thomas Kempe (d. 7 March 1591) of Olantigh in Wye, Kent. [1] [2] Sir Anthony Shirley [3] and Sir Robert Shirley [4] were his younger brothers.

Thomas Shirley (died 1612) English politician, died 1612

Sir Thomas Shirley, of Wiston in Sussex, was an English Member of Parliament, government official and courtier who is said to have suggested the creation of the rank of baronet.

Wiston House

Wiston House is a 16th-century Grade I listed building set in the South Downs National Park on the south coast of England, surrounded by over 6,000 acres (2,400 ha) of parkland in Wiston, West Sussex. It is the home of Wilton Park, an executive agency of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Olantigh is a property 1 mile (1.6 km) north of Wye in Kent, southeast England. It includes a garden of 20 acres (8.1 ha). The hamlet in which the property stands is Little Olantigh. The population of the property and surrounding area is included in the civil parish of Wye with Hinxhill.


Wiston House today Wiston House, West Sussex, England.jpg
Wiston House today

Shirley matriculated at Hart Hall, Oxford in 1579, but left the university without taking a degree. [5] In 1584 he was elected Member of Parliament for Steyning. [6] He went on military service with his father and brother in the Low Countries in 1585, and later saw some in Ireland. He was knighted at Kilkenny in Ireland by the lord deputy, Sir William Fitz-William, on 26 October 1589. [7] Shirley later came to the court. In the summer of 1591 he made a secret marriage to one of Queen Elizabeth's maids of honour and when the queen heard of it, she promptly committed him to the Marshalsea Prison. He remained in prison till the spring of 1592. [5] In 1593 he was elected MP for Steyning again. [6] In the same year he saw service with the rank of captain in the Low Countries again.

Steyning was a parliamentary borough in Sussex, England, which elected two Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons sporadically from 1298 and continuously from 1467 until 1832. It was a notorious rotten borough, and was abolished by the Great Reform Act.

Netherlands Constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Europe

The Netherlands is a country located mainly in Northwestern Europe. The European portion of the Netherlands consists of twelve separate provinces that border Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and the North Sea to the northwest, with maritime borders in the North Sea with Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom. Together with three island territories in the Caribbean Sea—Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba— it forms a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The official language is Dutch, but a secondary official language in the province of Friesland is West Frisian.

Sir William FitzWilliam (1526–1599) was an English Lord Justice of Ireland and afterwards Lord Deputy of Ireland. In 1587, as Governor of Fotheringhay Castle, he supervised the execution of the death sentence on Mary, Queen of Scots. He was the Member of Parliament for Peterborough and represented County Carlow in the Irish House of Commons. He lived at Gainspark, Essex, and Milton Hall.

Shirley was beginning to suffer from hopeless embarrassment because of his father's increasing financial difficulties. To secure a livelihood, he decided to fit out a privateering expedition to attack Spanish merchandise. He handed over his company at Flushing to Sir Thomas Vavasour, a relation of his wife, and in the summer of 1598 sailed into the English Channel, and seized four 'hulks' of Lübeck which were reputed to be carrying Spanish goods. [5] He may have made some of his attacks with the Queen's ship Foresight, which he commanded in 1599. The costs and returns were high. A ship that Shirley captured while returning from San Domingo laden with sugar, was valued at £4,700. In April 1600, Shirley offered the Earl of Nottingham £600 for his tenth share in two ships which he brought into Plymouth and said he had already paid £2,000 for 'the company's thirds'. In October 1600 Shirley was brought before the Admiralty court for seizing a ship from Hamburg which had a cargo belonging to some Dutch merchants and Lord Cobham had to intervene on his behalf. He was also coming under attack from his creditors for in July 1600 some supporters of Sir Richard Weston broke into his father's house at Blackfriars and threatened the Shirleys, father and son, demanding payment. In 1601 his father required the borough seat of Steyning. Shirley was elected MP for both Bramber and Hastings and chose to sit for Hastings. [6] In 1602 he renewed his privateering adventures, and pillaged 'two poor hamlets of two dozen houses in Portugal.' [5]

Thomas Vavasour (knight marshal) Elizabethan and Jacobean nobleman and politician

Thomas Vavasour (1560–1620) was an English soldier, courtier and Member of Parliament.

Lübeck Place in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

Lübeck is a city in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany, and one of the major ports of Germany. On the river Trave, it was the leading city of the Hanseatic League, and because of its extensive Brick Gothic architecture, it is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In 2015, it had a population of 218,523.

Admiralty courts, also known as maritime courts, are courts exercising jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, torts, injuries, and offenses.

At the end of 1602 Shirley equipped two ships for a more ambitious adventure in the Levant where he aimed to strike a blow against the Ottoman Empire of Mehmed III. He was given encouragement by the Duke of Tuscany at Florence, who supported Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor in this respect. However, he made an imprudent descent on the island of Kea on 15 Jan 1603 and was captured by the Turks. He was transferred to Negropont on 20 March, and on 25 July 1603 he was carried a close prisoner to Constantinople. When news of his misfortunes reached England, 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 finally he was released on 6 December 1605, after eleven hundred dollars had been paid to his gaolers. He immediately went to Naples, where he was described by Toby Mathew, on 8 August 1606, as living there 'like a gallant.' At the end of 1606 he returned to England. [5]

Levant Geographic and cultural region consisting of the eastern Mediterranean between Anatolia and Egypt

The Levant is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily in Western Asia. In its narrowest sense, it is equivalent to the historical region of Syria. In its widest historical sense, the Levant included all of the eastern Mediterranean with its islands; that is, it included all of the countries along the Eastern Mediterranean shores, extending from Greece to Cyrenaica.

Ottoman Empire Former empire in Asia, Europe and Africa

The Ottoman Empire, historically known in Western Europe as the Turkish Empire or simply Turkey, was a state that controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. It was founded at the end of the 13th century in northwestern Anatolia in the town of Söğüt by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman I. After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe, and with the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman beylik was transformed into a transcontinental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror.

Mehmed III Ottoman sultan

Mehmed III was Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1595 until his death in 1603.

Shirley was imprisoned in the Tower of London in September 1607 on a charge of illegal interference with the operations of the Levant Company. It was said that he had "overbusied himself 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 greatly increased his difficulties. Wiston, which had fallen into ruins, was sold, but he was elected MP for Steyning in 1614, and 1621. [6]

Tower of London A historic castle on the north bank of the River Thames in central London

The Tower of London, officially Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, is a historic castle located on the north bank of the River Thames in central London. It lies within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, separated from the eastern edge of the square mile of the City of London by the open space known as Tower Hill. It was founded towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest of England. The White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 and was a resented symbol of oppression, inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite. The castle was used as a prison from 1100 until 1952, although that was not its primary purpose. A grand palace early in its history, it served as a royal residence. As a whole, the Tower is a complex of several buildings set within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat. There were several phases of expansion, mainly under Kings Richard I, Henry III, and Edward I in the 12th and 13th centuries. The general layout established by the late 13th century remains despite later activity on the site.

Levant Company organization

The Levant Company was an English chartered company formed in 1592. Elizabeth I of England approved its initial charter on 11 September 1581 when the Venice Company (1583) and the Turkey Company (1581) merged, because their charters had expired, as she was anxious to maintain trade and political alliances with the Ottoman Empire. Its initial charter was good for seven years and was granted to Edward Osborne, Richard Staper, Thomas Smith and William Garret with the purpose of regulating English trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Levant. The company remained in continuous existence until being superseded in 1825. A member of the company was known as a Turkey Merchant.

Shirley is said to have retired subsequently to the Isle of Wight, and to have died there about 1630. [5]

Marriages and issue

Shirley married firstly Frances Vavasour, daughter of Henry Vavasour of Copmanthorpe, by whom he had three sons and four daughters. [2] His second son, Henry Shirley, was the dramatist who was murdered in London on 31 October 1627. [8] His only surviving son by his first marriage, Thomas Shirley, 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. [5]

Shirley married secondly at Deptford on 2 December 1617, a widow, Judith Taylor, daughter of William Bennet of London, by whom he had five sons and six daughters. [5] [2]

See also


  1. Pennington 2004.
  2. 1 2 3 Raiswell I 2004.
  3. Raiswell II 2004.
  4. Raiswell III 2004.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 "Shirley, Thomas"  . Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  6. 1 2 3 4 History of Parliament Online – Thomas Shirley
  7. Knights of England
  8. Kathman 2004.

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Parliament of England
Preceded by
John Cowper
Richard Pellatt
Member of Parliament for Steyning
With: Pexall Brocas
Succeeded by
Thomas Bishop
Henry Shelley
Preceded by
Thomas Crompton
Henry Apsley
Member of Parliament for Steyning
With: Sir Walter Waller
Succeeded by
John Shurley
Thomas Shirley III
Preceded by
Nicholas Trott
William Comber
Member of Parliament for Bramber
With: Henry Bowyer
Succeeded by
Henry Lok
Henry Bowyer
Preceded by
Richard Lyffe
Edmund Pelham
Member of Parliament for Hastings
With: Richard Lyffe
Succeeded by
Richard Lyffe
Sir George Carew
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Bishopp
Sir Thomas Shirley
Member of Parliament for Steyning
With: Edward Fraunceys
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas Farnfold
Edward Fraunceys