SHIRLEY, Thomas II (1564-c.1630), of Wiston, Suss.; later of the I.o.W.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. 1564, 1st s. of Thomas Shirley I of Wiston by Ann, da. of Sir Thomas Kempe of Olantigh, Kent. educ. Hart Hall, Oxf. 1579; I. Temple 1581. m. (1) 1591, Frances, da. of Henry Vavasour of Copmanthorpe and Hazlewood, Yorks., 3s. 4da.; (2) Dec. 1617, Judith, da. of William Bennett of London, wid. of one Taylor, 6s. 6da. Kntd. 1589; suc. fa. 1612.1

Offices Held

Capt. in the Netherlands 1593; commanded the Foresight 1599.


At the age of 21, after an orthodox education, Shirley accompanied his father and brother Anthony to the Low Countries, later serving in Ireland where he was knighted by the lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam II. On his return to England, he went to court and began an affair with Frances Vavasour (sister of Thomas Vavasour), one of the Queen’s maids of honour. When the Queen learned that they had married, Shirley was put in the Marshalsea, where he remained from September 1591 until the following spring. In 1593 he was again serving in the Low Countries, now with the rank of captain, and while there became entangled in his father’s deteriorating financial situation. In debt, he relinquished his company at Flushing to his brother-in-law Thomas Vavasour, and started privateering. His ventures, which included the capture of four Lübeck ‘hulks’ in the Channel in 1598, with cargoes said to be Spanish, and the pillaging of a township in Portugal in 1602, were evidently financed by such men as Thomas Ridgeway, Dr. Thomas Crompton I and Sir Henry Carey, who received money from him at different times on his return from sea. Sir Robert Cecil, too, may have been involved, for in March 1602 he was reminded by Shirley of a promise to venture £100 with him. Large sums of money were at stake. One ship captured by Shirley on her way from San Domingo with a cargo of sugar, was valued at £4,700: and in April 1600, after bringing two prizes into Plymouth, Shirley offered the Earl of Nottingham, as lord high admiral, £600 for his tenth share in them, saying he had already paid £2,000 for ‘the company’s thirds’.

The official attitude to his exploits seems to have been tolerant at first; some of his attacks may even have been made with the Queen’s ship Foresight, which he commanded in 1599. However, in October 1600 Shirley was in trouble with the Admiralty court for seizing a Hamburg ship whose cargo belonged to certain Dutch merchants, and Lord Cobham, a connexion of the Careys, had to intervene on his behalf. His creditors, too, became impatient; among them was Sir Richard Weston, whose supporters were arraigned by Shirley’s father in the Star Chamber for breaking into his house at Blackfriars in July 1600 and threatening him and his son, from whom they demanded payment.2

The climax of his career as a privateer was reached when, after sailing with two ships late in 1602 to the Mediterranean and being entertained by the Duke of Tuscany in Florence, he attacked the Turkish-held island of Zea in the Cyclades in January 1603. He was captured and taken prisoner to Constantinople, where he remained until being ransomed in December 1605. He wrote an unpublished ‘Discourse of the Turks’. His return to England by way of Naples, whence he sent intelligence to Cecil, took him a year, and was followed by proceedings of the Levant Company against him for infringement of trading rights. In September 1607 he was imprisoned in the Tower on this charge. Four years later, he was declared insolvent in the King’s bench, and the death of his bankrupt father in October 1612 increased his problems. His second marriage may have been to relieve his debts, but it also brought him more children. In or about 1624, he sold his house at Wiston, now in poor repair, and retired to the Isle of Wight where he died some six years later. He was succeeded in his estates by his son Thomas, a Royalist, who was last but one of his line; another son, Henry, a dramatist, had predeceased him.

Shirley’s representation of Steyning, close to Wiston, in four Parliaments, was natural. Only in 1601 when his father required a borough seat, and Robert Bowyer II, secretary to Lord Buckhurst, had the other, did Shirley seek election elsewhere. He secured it at Bramber, nearby, but on being returned for Hastings, presumably through the influence of the lord warden of the Cinque Ports, Lord Cobham, who may have made the seat available to Lord Buckhurst, he chose the Cinque Port. As his father was also a member of all Shirley’s Elizabethan Parliaments it is possible, but unlikely, that some of the committees attributed to the father could have belonged to the son. As MP for Hastings in 1601, Shirley could have attended committees concerned with the business of the House (3 Nov.) and the Severn harbour project (21 Nov.).3

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: J.E.M.


  • 1. DNB; W. Berry, Co. Genealogies, Suss. (Comber’s annotated copy at Chichester), 172.
  • 2. LC2/4/4; Lansd. 68, f. 236; 142, f. 65; 145, ff. 138, 139; 150, ff. 204 seq.; HMC Hatfield, ix. 427; x. 143; xii. 78; St. Ch. 5/S14/4, S67/18, 37.
  • 3. HMC Hatfield, xvi. 21; xviii. 147, 177; Mousley thesis, 738-9; D’Ewes, 624, 647.