Robert Shirley was the third son of Sir Thomas Shirley of Wiston, Sussex, and Anne Kempe, the daughter of Sir Thomas Kempe (d. 7 March 1591) of Olantigh in Wye, Kent. He had two elder brothers, Sir Thomas Shirley and Sir Anthony Shirley, and six sisters who survived infancy.
Shirley travelled to Persia in 1598, accompanying his brother, Anthony, who had been sent to the Safavid Persia from 1 December 1599 to May 1600, with 5000 horses to train the Persian army according to the rules and customs of the English militia and to reform and retrain the Persian artillery. When Anthony Shirley left Persia, Robert remained in Persia with fourteen other Englishmen. He married Teresia, a Circassian lady. In 1608 Shah Abbas sent him on a diplomatic mission to James I of England and to other European princes for the purpose of uniting them in a confederacy against the Ottoman Empire.
Shirley travelled first to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where he was entertained by Sigismund III Vasa. In June of that year, he arrived in Germany, where he received the title of Earl (Count Palatine) and Knight of the Roman Empire from the Emperor Rudolph II. Pope Paul V also conferred upon him the title of Earl. From Germany, Sir Robert travelled to Florence and then Rome, where he entered the city on Sunday, 27 September 1609, attended by a suite of eighteen persons. He next visited Milan, and then proceeded to Genoa, from whence he embarked to Spain, arriving in Barcelona in December 1609. He sent for his Persian wife, and they remained in Spain, principally at Madrid, until the summer of 1611.
In 1613 Shirley returned to Persia. In 1615 he returned to Europe, and resided at Madrid. In a pleasingly serendipitous meeting Shirley's caravan met Thomas Coryate, the eccentric traveller and travel writer (and attendant of Prince Henry's court in London), in the Persian desert in 1615.
Shirley's third journey to Persia was undertaken in 1627 when he accompanied Sir Dodmore Cotton the first British ambassador to the Kingdom of Persia, but soon after reaching the country they both died at Qazvin, in what is today northern Iran.
In 1609, Andreas Loeaechius (Andrew Leech), a Scot living in Cracow, Poland, wrote a Latin panegyric to Shirley entitled Encomia Nominis & Neoocij D. Roberti Sherlaeii. This text was translated in the same year by the English writer Thomas Middleton as Sir Robert Sherley his Entertainment in Cracovia.
- Pennington 2004.
- Raiswell I 2004.
- Raiswell II 2004.
- Raiswell III 2004.
- At the time crowns of England Scotland and Ireland were in a personal union. However James I and Charles I styled themselves King of Great Britain and Ireland, and so the ambassador represented the interests of Charles as Sovereign of all three countries.
- Firth 1890, p. 417.
- Karen Hearn (ed.), Van Dyck & Britain, Tate Publishing, 2009, page 52–55. ISBN 978-1-85437-795-1.
- Daniel J. Vitkus. Intro. to "Sir Robert Shirley his Entertainment in Cracovia". In Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford, 2007). 670-2.
- Pennington, Janet (2004). Sherley, Sir Thomas (c.1542–1612). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 21 August 2013.
- Raiswell, Richard (2004). Sherley, Sir Thomas (1564–1633/4). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 22 August 2013.
- Raiswell, Richard (2004). Sherley, Anthony, Count Sherley in the nobility of the Holy Roman empire (1565–1636?). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 22 August 2013.
- Raiswell, Richard (2004). Shirley, Sir Robert, Count Shirley in the papal nobility (c.1581–1628). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 22 August 2013.
- Firth, Charles Harding (1890). "Hacker, Francis". In Stephen, Leslie; Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 23. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 416–418.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Shirley, Sir Anthony". Encyclopædia Britannica 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 990
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