SHIRLEY (SHERLEY), Sir Thomas II (c.1564-1632), of Wiston, nr. Steyning, Suss.; later of Calbourne Parsonage and Cosham House, Newport, I. o. W.

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. c.1564, 1st s. of Sir Thomas Shirley I* and Anne, da. of Sir Thomas Kempe† of Wye, Kent.1 educ. Hart Hall, Oxf. 1579, aged 15; I. Temple 1581.2 m. (1) 1591, Frances, da. of Henry Vavasour of Copmanthorpe, Yorks., 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 4da.; (2) 2 Dec. 1617, Judith, da. of William Bennett of London, wid. of one Taylor, 5s. 6da. (at least 2 d.v.p.). kntd. 26 Oct. 1589; suc. fa. 1612.3 bur. 13 Dec. 1632.4 sig. Thomas Sherley.

Offices Held

Capt. horse 1585-8,5 ft. 1597-8;6 capt. RN 1599.7

J.p. Surr. c.1593-1601;8 commr. oyer and terminer, Home circ. by 1595-at least 1598;9 kpr. of Parkhurst forest, I.o.W. 1625.10

Servant to Queen Eliz. by 1602;11 esq. of the Body ?1617-at least 1624.12

Member, Virg. Co. by 1610.13


The son of a prominent Sussex supporter of Robert Dudley†, earl of Leicester, Shirley joined Leicester’s expedition to the Netherlands in 1585, commanding a cavalry troop until 1588. The following year he served for a short period in an unknown capacity in Ireland, where he was knighted. In 1591 he was imprisoned for secretly marrying one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour, but was released in the following spring. He returned to the Netherlands in 1597, this time as captain of an infantry company, after his father, the treasurer-at-war, went bankrupt and was disgraced. He subsequently became a privateer, hoping thereby to recover his family’s fortunes, although he commanded a naval vessel in 1599.14

According to a letter he subsequently wrote to James I, Shirley was, in the late Elizabethan period, an ardent proponent of the Scottish succession and offered to ‘attempt to take from the Turk ... his treasure’ in order that he might ‘lay it down’ at James’ feet.15 What is certainly true is that in 1602 he led a privateering expedition to the Mediterranean which ended in disaster, and when James ascended the English throne, Shirley was a prisoner in Constantinople. The king made every effort to secure his release, writing several letters directly to the Sultan. He was set free in December 1605, after nearly three years in captivity, but somewhat surprisingly remained in Constantinople until the following February, before beginning a leisurely journey home. The ubiquitous Tobie Matthew* met him at Naples, and reported in August 1606 that he was living there ‘like a gallant’.16

On his return late in 1606, Shirley wrote his Discours of the Turkes, which included a lengthy description of his journey home as well as an account of the Ottoman Empire. Although it was not published until the 1930s, Shirley probably circulated it in manuscript, which helped turn him into something of a popular hero. A book was written and a play performed about his exploits, and those of his more adventurous younger brothers, Robert and Anthony. 17

Shirley had financial dealings with the Sephardic Jewish community in the Mediterranean, and, with the tightening persecution in the Iberian Peninsula, he wrote to the king in 1607 to propose the readmission of the Jews to his dominions, especially Ireland, where he thought they would transform the economy.18 In September, however, Shirley was sent to the Tower on a charge of attempting to divert the English share of the Levant trade to the Venetians. He presumably hoped to profit in some way from the scheme, but he may also have had moral reasons, as the Discours shows his distaste for the English sale of arms to the Turks and their participation in the slave trade.19

Shirley was released from the Tower in December, and in the following year he purchased a grant of old debts from the Crown for £9,000, which he promised to pay in instalments.20 By 1609 he was finding it difficult to make the payments, and although he subscribed £37 10s. to the Virginia Company in 1610, he was imprisoned for debt the following year.21 The 1st earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) gave him £30 towards his relief, but by June 1612, according to Chamberlain, he was desperate enough to take poison, ‘but being presently perceived, and remedies applied, he was recovered against his will’.22 He thought he had managed to compound with his creditors when another appeared on the scene, a Gosport merchant named Peachy who claimed £50 for victualling one of his privateering ventures. Twelve years later Shirley maintained in Star Chamber that the account had been paid, but he nevertheless agreed to give Peachy a judgment for £100 out of a natural eagerness to attend his father’s deathbed.23

The death of his father in 1612 left Shirley heir to a ruined estate, but it included an interest in the manor of Wiston. However attenuated, it assured him of election at Steyning, two miles away, which he seems to have valued largely for the protection bestowed by membership. He was returned for the borough in 1614, but he only appears once in the surviving records, on 31 May, when he was appointed to ‘consider of some course concerning the old debts’.24

A month after the dissolution of the Addled Parliament Shirley obtained royal protection for one year.25 He tried to redeem Wiston in 1615, making over a Sussex farm to John Dackombe* in exchange for his good offices, but the Scottish favourite, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, to whom the Crown had granted its interest, demanded £10,000, and Shirley could only raise £3,000.26 ‘Greatly indebted to His Majesty, and ... to other persons in divers sums’, he secured a renewal of his protection early in 1616, but the following January it was reported that he had been imprisoned in the Fleet for debt.27 It was probably shortly afterwards that he was made an esquire of the Body, his brother Sir Anthony writing in September 1617 to congratulate him on receiving an honour from the king.28

His first wife having died, Shirley remarried in December 1617. Three years later he was returned for Steyning for the last time. He received no committee appointments, but made one recorded speech, on 19 Feb. 1621, when he indignantly denied that he owed anything to the warden of the Fleet, ‘never having been in the Fleet since this warden’s time’.29 He seems to have offered no defence on 22 Mar. when the Bristol merchant John Whitson* accused him of extending his protection to one ‘being none of his servants or attendants’.30

In 1622, with the reluctant consent of his mother, Shirley finally relinquished his hold on Wiston to the earl of Middlesex (Sir Lionel Cranfield*).31 He was able to settle all his own and his father’s debts to the Crown, but, in the words of his antiquarian kinsman and namesake, he ‘thus left a numerous progeny without one foot of land’. Shortly afterwards he settled on the Isle of Wight, but during a temporary absence in London ‘waiting and attending on Your Majesty’, Peachy distrained his goods in Calbourne parsonage to the value of over £200 (by his own account).32 Early in 1625 he asked the secretary of state, Sir Edward Conway I*, for the keepership of Parkhurst forest in the Isle of Wight, ‘not as a matter of profit, but being old and infirm, and living in a troublesome place, he wishes the conveniency of the house, which is quiet’.33 His request seems to have been granted, and he spent his last years in Newport with his second wife. Another kinsman, Sir John Oglander*, recorded modest loans on equally modest security. ‘When they wanted, they always repaired to me, ... yet I knew him to be so ill a paymaster that I was forced to make him honest by taking a pawn for my money’.34

Shirley seems to have died in Westminster, as he was buried in St. Clement Danes on 13 Dec. 1632. No will or grant of administration has been found and no later member of the family sat in Parliament. Sir Edward Bishopp* murdered one of his sons, Henry, a minor dramatist. His eldest surviving son, Thomas, a professional soldier, was knighted while in royalist service in 1646, and a grandson, also Thomas, a Court physician, precipitated a conflict between the Lords and the Commons in 1675 while pursuing a claim to Wiston, then in the hands of Sir John Fagg†.35

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Alan Davidson


  • 1. E.P. Shirley, Stemmata Shirleiana, 235.
  • 2. Al. Ox.; I. Temple database of admiss.
  • 3. Shirley, Stemmata Shirleiana, 265, 269-72; Oxford DNB; Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 87.
  • 4. WCA, St. Clement Danes par. reg.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 436; HMC Ancaster, 89.
  • 6. APC, 1597, p. 30; HMC Hatfield, viii. 313.
  • 7. HMC Hatfield, ix. 427.
  • 8. Hatfield House, ms 278; C231/1, f. 117.
  • 9. CPR, 37 Eliz. I ed. S.R. Neal and C. Leighton (L. and I Soc. cccx), 122; C66/1482.
  • 10. D.W. Davies, Elizabethans Errant, 278.
  • 11. E. Denison Ross, ‘Letter from James I to the Sultan Ahmed’, Bulletin of Sch. of Oriental Stud. vii. 301.
  • 12. STAC 8/263/17; HMC Hatfield, xxii. 52.
  • 13. A. Brown, Genesis of US, 466.
  • 14. HP Commons, 1558-1603, iii. 376-7.
  • 15. Mems. and Letters Relating to Hist. Britain in Reign of James I ed. D. Dalrymple (Glasgow, 1766), pp. 67-70.
  • 16. Denison Ross, 305; T. Shirley, ‘Discours of the Turkes’ ed. E. Denison Ross, Cam. Misc. xvi. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3. lii), 21n.
  • 17. HMC Hatfield, xviii. 358; Shirley, ‘Discours of the Turkes’; Oxford DNB.
  • 18. HMC Hatfield, xix. 473; D.S. Katz, Philo-semitism and Readmission of Jews to Eng. 1603-55, pp. 163-5.
  • 19. HMC Hatfield, xix. 173, 243; CSP Ven. 1607-10, pp. 39, 41; Shirley, ‘Discours of the Turkes’, 9, 11.
  • 20. HMC Hatfield, xix. 394; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 451; C66/1776.
  • 21. CSP Dom. 1603-10, pp. 562, 600, 601; Brown, 466; Oxford DNB.
  • 22. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 101; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 361.
  • 23. STAC 8/263/17.
  • 24. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 391.
  • 25. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 242.
  • 26. M. Prestwich, Cranfield, 389-92; C2/Jas.I/D3/42.
  • 27. APC, 1615-16, p. 462; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 429.
  • 28. HMC Hatfield, xxii. 52.
  • 29. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 63.
  • 30. CJ, i. 569b.
  • 31. Wiston Archives ed. J.M.L. Booker, i. 243-4; Davies, 270, 278.
  • 32. CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 433; Shirley, 269; STAC 8/263/17.
  • 33. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 473.
  • 34. Royalist’s Notebk. ed. F. Bamford, 182, 238.
  • 35. Shirley, Stemmata Shirleiana, 288; Oxford DNB sub Shirley, Thomas (1638-78).