Robert Shirley

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For other people named Robert Shirley, see Robert Shirley (disambiguation).
Double portrait of Robert Shirley and his Circassian wife Teresia, c.1624–1627. He wears the exotic Persian clothes which so impressed his European hosts, whilst she wears her native style of dress but also holds a flintlock pistol and a pocket watch, symbols of the technologies Europe was introducing to Persia.

Sir Robert Shirley (c. 1581 – 13 July 1628) was an English traveller and adventurer, younger brother of Sir Anthony Shirley and Sir Thomas Shirley.


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.[1][2][3][4]


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.

Painting of Robert Sherley visiting Pope Paul V in 1611, Sala dei Corazzieri, Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome. Painted in 1615-1616.

With this mandate, Shirley travelled first to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where he was received by Sigismund III Vasa. In June of that year, he arrived in Germany, where he received the title of Count Palatine and appointed to Knight of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Rudolph II. Pope Paul V also conferred upon him the title of Count. 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.

Sir Robert Shirley, by Anthony van Dyck, painted in Rome in 1622.

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,[5] but soon after reaching the country they both died at Qazvin, in what is today northern Iran.[6]

In art[edit]

There are several double portraits of Shirley and his wife in English collections, including the private collection of R.J. Berkeley and of Petworth House (by van Dyck).[7]

In literature[edit]

The exploits of the Shirley brothers were dramatised in the 1607 play The Travels of the Three English Brothers by John Day, William Rowley and George Wilkins.

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.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pennington 2004.
  2. ^ Raiswell I 2004.
  3. ^ Raiswell II 2004.
  4. ^ Raiswell III 2004.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Firth 1890, p. 417.
  7. ^ Karen Hearn (ed.), Van Dyck & Britain, Tate Publishing, 2009, page 52–55. ISBN 978-1-85437-795-1.
  8. ^ 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.



Further reading[edit]