SHIRLEY (SHERLEY), Sir Thomas I (1542-1612), of Wiston, nr. Steyning, Suss. and Blackfriars, London

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press




Family and Education

b. 9 May 1542,1 1st s. of William Shirley of Wiston and Mary, da. of Thomas Isley of Sundridge, Kent.2 educ. Oriel, Oxf. 1554, BA 1557; G. Inn 1559.3 m. c.1559, Anne (d.1623), da. of Sir Thomas Kempe† of Wye, Kent, 5s. (2 d.v.p.) 7da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1551;4 kntd. 12 Aug. 1573.5 Oct. 1612.6 sig. Thomas Sherley

Offices Held

Fell. Oriel 1557-9.7

J.p. Suss. 1573-1601;8 sheriff, Surr. and Suss. 1577-8;9 commr. musters, Chichester, Suss. 1580,10 dep. lt. Suss. 1585-1601;11 commr. recusancy, 1586, 1592,12 subsidy 1589,13 oyer and terminer, Home circ. by 1595-d., the Verge 1604-5;14 freeman, Southampton, Hants 1602;15 commr. sewers, Suss. 1604-10.16

Capt. foot 1586-97;17 treas. at war, Neths. 1587-97, France 1591.18

Servant to James I by 1604.19


Shirley belonged to a junior branch of an ancient Midlands family, which represented Warwickshire in Parliament as early as 1295.20 His ancestors acquired the manor of Wiston, in Bramber rape, West Sussex, in the mid-fifteenth century. The family became sufficiently prominent in their adopted county for his grandfather, Sir Richard Shirley, to be returned for Sussex in 1529, which county Shirley himself represented three times in the Elizabethan period.21

Shirley was a follower of Robert Dudley†, earl of Leicester, who was presumably responsible for appointing him as treasurer-at-war in the Netherlands in 1587. However, he used the money entrusted to him for money-lending and property speculation until his bankruptcy in 1597, as a result of which he was imprisoned in the Fleet, and eventually forced to make over his lands to the Crown. Having described himself in 1595 as ‘ever both a purchaser and seller of land’, he estimated the annual value of his property at £1,299 in Sussex and £130 in Berkshire.22 Shirley’s namesake and distant kinsman, a recusant antiquarian knighted in 1622, ascribed his fall to his abandonment of the Catholic faith, but though he had been a ward of Cardinal Pole, as an adult he seems to have been consistently Protestant. He protected his wife’s recusant uncle, Anthony Kempe†, but this may not have been for entirely altruistic reasons, as doing so brought him the use of a house in Blackfriars, where, according to his son’s subsequent account, in 1601 he entertained the influential Scottish diplomat and courtier Sir Thomas Erskine, subsequently 1st earl of Kellie.23

Shirley had need of all the royal contacts he could muster when James I ascended the English throne in 1603, as two of his sons, the privateer Sir Thomas II* and the spy Sir Anthony, were languishing in foreign gaols, the former in the Ottoman empire and the latter in Venice. Shirley attended the new king at Theobalds to beg for diplomatic assistance in obtaining their release. As a result Sir Anthony was quickly freed, although Sir Thomas remained confined until 1605.24

Following the collapse of his fortune there was no question of Shirley representing Sussex again. However, his interest at Steyning, two miles from Wiston, remained strong enough to secure his return for the borough in 1601, and he was re-elected there in 1604, even though all his local property had been taken over by the Crown in satisfaction for his debt. In 1603 he had joined his son-in-law, Thomas 3rd Lord de la Warr (Thomas West†) in signing the petition of Sussex puritans for ‘a learned, godly and resident ministry’ and opposing the rigorous enforcement of ecclesiastical ceremonies.25

On 22 Mar. 1604 John Shurley, whose nephew Sir John Shurley* had married this Member’s daughter, informed the Commons that Shirley, had been arrested for debt four days before the start of the session and was now imprisoned in the Fleet. Shirley, who seems to have become a royal servant, had been ‘riding to attend His Majesty’ on the king’s ‘solemn entrance through London’ when he was arrested at the suit of a Lombard Street goldsmith named Simpson on a £3,000 bond forfeit for non-payment of £1,500. At this the House, ‘in affirmation of their own privilege’, ordered that a writ of Habeas Corpus be issued for bringing Shirley to the House. They also summoned both Simpson and the serjeant who had made the arrest.26 Brought before the Commons on 27 Mar., Shirley declared that he had warned the serjeant that he was a Member of the Commons and ‘that they might kiss the Tower for arresting him’. He also claimed that the bishop of Durham, Toby Matthew, had confirmed his return.27 The subsequent debate revolved around two questions. The first, whether Shirley was eligible for privilege before taking his seat, seems to have been soon resolved in his favour; the second, described by the diarist Sir Robert Cotton as ‘greatest of all’, was whether a grant of privilege would discharge the debt and consequently leave the creditors with no means of re-claiming their money. George Snygge warned that if a claim of privilege extinguished debts then it could be open to abuse. In reply several Members, including Sir Francis Bacon, argued that privilege only suspended the legal process, which could be resumed after the Parliament ended. However, the Commons remained in sufficient doubt that it established a committee to investigate the matter.28 On 11 Apr. it was ruled that Simpson and the arresting officers, who were now in the Fleet on the orders of the lord chancellor for having arrested Shirley despite being one of the king’s officers, were guilty of contempt against the Commons. The House thought it more suitable to have them transferred to the Tower, as this was ‘the proper prison of the House’. However, the question of the status of Shirley’s debts was deferred to enable counsel to be heard three days later.29

On 13 Apr. George Croke† appeared on behalf of Shirley and argued that freeing his client would leave the debt intact. However, counsel for the warden of the Fleet claimed that if Shirley were freed the warden would become liable for the debt. Three days later it was resolved that Shirley should remain in prison until such times as a bill to secure the debt and indemnify the warden was passed.30 The following day Sir John Shurley introduced a bill to that effect, which was promptly read twice and committed.31 Following its third reading on 21 Apr. it was sent to the Lords, who were requested to ‘move the King’s Majesty for his royal assent to be speedily granted’ because ‘if it should depend till the end of the Parliament, the desire and purpose ... would be frustrate’.32 However, the Lords replied that a special royal assent, whether in person or by commission, was ‘too much in the case of a private person’.33

The Lords’ unwillingness to approach the king was compounded by a further difficulty, for it was widely believed that the royal assent automatically ended a session. This meant that, were the royal assent to be given, all those bills that had not yet completed their passage would be lost. For this reason, on 2 May a committee was established to discover whether there were precedents that showed that legislation could be passed without causing the session to end.34 On 26 Apr. Shirley suggested a way of overcoming this difficulty himself. In a letter to Cecil he proposed that James should merely promise to give his assent. That way the Commons need not worry that it would lose its legislation and he might then be released.35 This suggestion was quickly seized upon, for on 4 May a draft petition was presented to the House, in which the king was asked to ‘signify under Your Highness’ hand, upon this petition’, that he would assent to the bill when the session ended. However, following a debate, the Commons concluded that it was detrimental to the independence of the House to petition the king for its privileges, and consequently the petition was rejected. Instead, it was resolved simply to issue a fresh writ of Habeas Corpus.36

The warden of the Fleet, however, refused to deliver up Shirley unless the bill to indemnify him was first enacted. He was thereupon committed to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms and, since he remained obdurate, was committed to the Tower on 8 May.37 The following day the serjeant was sent to fetch Shirley from the Fleet, only to be refused entry by the warden’s wife. At this, Sir Henry Montagu, the recorder of London, angrily moved that six Members should be sent ‘to free him with force’. His proposal was agreed on division, but further proceedings were restrained after the Speaker observed that those sent would themselves be liable to legal proceedings.38

The following day Montagu brought in a new bill to secure Simpson and the warden, which was hurriedly given three readings and sent to the Lords. Meanwhile Sir Roger Aston delivered a message from James promising to assent to the bill when the session ended. On the same day a letter from the warden’s wife was read, in which she declared that she would release Shirley only if the three chief justices certified that she would not be liable for his debt, or if Simpson or Shirley would indemnify her, ‘whereby I and mine perish not in the street’.39

On 11 May the serjeant was sent back to the Fleet, but was again confronted by the warden’s wife, who protested that ‘if he carried away Sir Thomas he should carry her dead.’40 The warden was again sent for, and this time he was committed to Little Ease, a dungeon in the Tower subsequently reported to be ‘very loathsome’.41 In a further debate on 14 May Sir Francis Bacon, himself a former victim of Simpson, proposed that the House should petition the king ‘to appoint some to assist our serjeant to deliver Sir Thomas Shirley with force’. This was ostensibly rejected, and the Commons ordered another writ of Habeas Corpus and once again sent the serjeant to the Fleet. However, the clerk noted that Sir John Stanhope I, the vice chamberlain, ‘was privately instructed to go to the king, ... to command the warden, on his allegiance, to deliver Sir Thomas, not as petitioned by the House, but as of himself found fit’.42 The following day the Speaker reported that the warden had finally agreed to release Shirley.

Shirley was admitted to the House on 15 May after taking the oath.43 He played no subsequent role in the session’s proceedings. He still owed the Crown over £13,000, but in June 1604 he was granted impropriate rectories and tithes to the value of £1,000 p.a. The following October he was allowed to lease back Wiston for £1,000 p.a., on condition that he pay off his debt at the rate of £400 p.a.44

During the second session Shirley, presumably because he had had an interest in cathedral lands there in the previous reign, was named to consider a bill to improve the maintenance of preachers in Norwich (13 Feb. 1606). His only other appointment was for a bill to avoid the double payment of debts upon shop books (18 April).45 In the debate on additional supply on 14 Mar. he was presumably seeking to rebut claims that further taxation would impoverish England when he claimed that money granted to the king ‘goes not out of the country’.46 In the third session he was appointed to consider bills ‘for the better satisfying of due debts’ (26 Feb. 1607), and ‘for amortizing of lands to poor churches, and for better serving of cures’ (15 May).47 All that the ‘Parliament Fart’ poem found notable about him was that he was ‘a fat man’.48 He left no trace on the surviving records of the fourth and fifth sessions.

Shirley’s own affairs remained troubled, even though in 1607 he secured a lease of unrecorded fines for alienations, at a rent of £1,000.49 In August 1611 his son Sir Robert, begged Cecil, now 1st earl of Salisbury, for a stay of seizure on his sick father for arrears of the rent for the parsonages.50 After Shirley’s death his eldest son, Sir Thomas II, claimed that his father, whom he described as ‘a man of excellent and working wit’, had been responsible for inventing the baronetcies, for which Cecil had promised him a reward.51

Shirley died in October 1612, and was buried at Wiston, where, despite his debts, a substantial funeral monument was erected.52 Letters of administration were granted on 7 June 1615 to one John Whiting of Saddington in Leicestershire to the sum of £1,000 for a debt of owed to Shirley’s son-in-law Sir Pexall Brocas†, and at the end of the month further letters were issued to Shirley’s son Sir Thomas for the remainder of the estate.53

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Alan Davidson / Ben Coates


  • 1. Notes of Post Mortem Inquisitions taken in Suss. ed. E.W.T. Attree (Suss. Rec. Soc. xiv), 205.
  • 2. E.P. Shirley, Stemmata Shirleiana, 235.
  • 3. Reg. Orielense ed. C.L. Shadwell, i. 23; GI Admiss.
  • 4. Shirley, 235, 258.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 75.
  • 6. Shirley, 256.
  • 7. Reg. Orielense, i. 23.
  • 8. Cal. Assize Recs. Suss. Indictments, Eliz. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 94; C231/1, f. 113v.
  • 9. List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 137.
  • 10. APC, 1580-1, p. 8.
  • 11. HMC Hatfield, iii. 297; APC, 1600-1, p. 400.
  • 12. Harl. 703, ff. 21, 67v; R.B. Manning, Religion and Soc. in Eliz. Suss. 148n.
  • 13. Harl. 703, f. 1.
  • 14. CPR, 37 Eliz. I, ed. S.R. Neal and C. Leighton (L. and I Soc. cccx), 122; C181/1, ff. 93v, 117v; 181/2, f. 144v.
  • 15. HMC 11th Rep. III, 22.
  • 16. C181/1, f. 81; 181/2, f. 134.
  • 17. D.J.B. Trim, ‘Fighting “Jacob’s Wars”. The Employment of English and Welsh Mercenaries in the European Wars of Religion: France and the Neths. 1562-1610’ (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 2002), pp. 389-90; APC, 1591, p. 30.
  • 18. HMC Hatfield, iii. 230; APC, 1591, p. 317; 1597, p. 16.
  • 19. CJ, i. 171b.
  • 20. OR; Shirley, 295.
  • 21. VCH Suss. vi. pt. 1, 261; HP Commons, 1509-58, iii. 316.
  • 22. CSP Dom. 1595-7, pp. 44, 386, 394; Wiston Archives ed. J.M.L. Booker, i. 243.
  • 23. Shirley, 251; Oxford DNB sub Shirley, Sir Thomas c.1590-1654; Manning, 146; HP Commons, 1509-58, ii. 460-1; STAC 5/S67/18; Mems. and Letters Relating to Hist. Britain in Reign of James I ed. D. Dalrymple (Glasgow, 1766), p. 67-8.
  • 24. CSP Ven. 1603-7, p. 35; Oxford DNB sub Sherley [Shirley], Anthony.
  • 25. T.W.W. Smart, ‘Extracts from the Mss of Samuel Jeake’, Suss. Arch. Colls. ix. 47; CP, iv. 160-1.
  • 26. CJ, i. 149b, 943b; CD 1604-7, p. 54. Simpson appears to have been merely first on a list of Shirley’s creditors, who included the father of William Beecher*. CJ, i. 936b; CD 1604-7, pp. 27-8.
  • 27. CD 1604-7, p. 46.
  • 28. CJ, i. 936b; CD 1604-7, p. 47.
  • 29. CJ, i. 167a, 171b.
  • 30. Ibid. 948a; CD 1604-7, p. 68.
  • 31. CJ, i. 175b.
  • 32. Ibid. 179a, 180a, 181a; LJ, ii. 184a.
  • 33. CJ, i. 189b.
  • 34. Ibid. 962b.
  • 35. HMC Hatfield, xvi. 71-2.
  • 36. CJ, i. 198b.
  • 37. Ibid. 203b.
  • 38. Ibid. 204b, 205a.
  • 39. Ibid. 205b-a.
  • 40. Ibid. 207a.
  • 41. Ibid. 207a, 209a.
  • 42. Ibid. 209a-10a; Letters and Life of Francis Bacon ed. J. Spedding, iii. 173-6.
  • 43. CJ, i. 210b.
  • 44. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 281; CSP Dom. 1603-10, pp. 125, 160; Addenda, 1580-1625, p. 445; Wiston Archives. i. 243.
  • 45. CJ, i. 267b, 300a; Lansd. 64, ff. 2, 4.
  • 46. CJ, i. 284b.
  • 47. Ibid. 343, 374a.
  • 48. Add. 34218, f. 21.
  • 49. HMC Hatfield, xix. 471-2.
  • 50. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 71.
  • 51. Mems. and Letters Relating to Hist. Britain in Reign of James I, 69; J.G. Nichols, ‘Institution and Early Hist. of the Dignity of Bt.’ Her. and Gen. iii. 195-6.
  • 52. Suss. Gens.: Lewes Cent. comp. J. Comber, 258; Oxford DNB.
  • 53. PROB 6/9, ff. 21v, 22.