SHIRLEY, Thomas I (c.1542-1612), of Wiston, Suss.

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. c.1542, 1st s. of William Shirley of Wiston by Mary, da. of Thomas Isley of Sundridge, Kent. educ. Oriel, Oxf, 1554, BA 1557; G. Inn 1559. m. Ann, da. of Sir Thomas Kempe of Olantigh, Kent, 3s. inc. Thomas II 7da. suc. fa. 1551.1 Kntd. 1573.

Offices Held

J.p., dep. lt. Suss. from c.1569-1601; sheriff, Surr. and Suss. 1577-8; treasurer at war in Netherlands from 1587-97, in France 1591.2


The Shirleys of Wiston were descended from a Warwickshire family which acquired Sussex property by a late fourteenth-century marriage. In the mid-fifteenth century this was settled on a younger son, from whom derived both the Wiston line and the still younger branch at West Grinstead, a descendant of which was Thomas Shirley III. By the mid-sixteenth century the Wiston Shirleys had intermarried with such leading Sussex families as the Dawtreys of Petworth and the Shelleys of Michelgrove; they were also connected with the Blounts, Lords Mountjoy, and the Walsinghams.3

Shirley himself, who was only nine years old at his father’s death, and who became the ward of Cardinal Pole, inherited the manors of Wiston, Heene, Chiltington Slaughter and Eringham in Sussex and of Wedenhill in Buckinghamshire. A protégé of the Earl of Leicester, who may later have secured him his knighthood, he was made a deputy lieutenant at an early age. His name appears frequently on local commissions, such as those for suppressing piracy and recusancy and for the regulation of the grain trade. In 1583-4 the young Countess of Arundel, whose husband was then under house arrest in London, was put in his custody at Wiston.4

In 1585 Shirley accompanied Leicester to the Low Countries with a troop he had raised himself. When Leicester incurred the Queen’s displeasure by accepting the governorship of the Netherlands contrary to her instructions, he sent Shirley home to plead his cause. Shirley wrote back describing her ‘bitter words’ against Leicester, and his efforts to reason with her. Probably he returned to the Netherlands later that year when the trouble had subsided, and no doubt it was Leicester who obtained him, in February 1587, the post of treasurer at war to the English forces in the Netherlands, in succession to Richard Huddleston, who had got into difficulties with the accounts. Shirley himself at once began speculating with the soldiers’ pay, sold concessions to the army victuallers and set himself up as a moneylender. Reports of his income varied between £16,000 and £3,000 a year, apart from his stipend of 20s. a day. In 1591 the Queen set up a commission of inquiry, despite which he was made treasurer of the forces in France. His land purchases reached their peak in the early 1590s, and included certain lands of the Pellatt family in Sussex and others belonging to Norwich cathedral. After an unsuccessful attempt to secure the comptrollership of the Household in 1592, his financial position deteriorated and on 4 Apr. 1597 he was superseded as treasurer at war by Sir Thomas Fludd; in 1601 he was put off the commission of the peace and the deputy lieutenantship of Sussex; and finally, in March 1604, he was arrested and sent to the Fleet. This happened at a particularly inappropriate moment, made ‘Shirley’s case’ a landmark in the history of parliamentary privilege, and ended in the committal of the warden of the Fleet to the ‘Little Ease’. Shirley was released and allowed to take his seat, but his debts remained unpaid. He sold his estates (except Wiston, which he settled on his wife), and died intestate in October 1612. The family finances never recovered.5

So far as it is possible to disentangle Shirley’s committees from those of his namesakes in the House (there was always at least one), he was active in his first three Parliaments. In that of 1572 he was appointed to the committee on the subsidy (10 Feb. 1576), the large committee ‘to consult of bills convenient to be framed’ (25 Jan. 1581), and committees concerned with the preservation of woods (28 Jan.), returns (24 Feb.), the Queen’s safety (14 Mar.) and iron mills (18 Mar.). In the 1584 Parliament he was again on a preservation of timber committee (8 Dec.); served on the conference appointed 15 Feb. 1585 to consider the Lords’ complaints about the Commons’ attitude to them over the fraudulent conveyances bill, and was on the subsidy committee (24 Feb.). By 1593 his son also had been knighted, and there can thus be no certainty as to which of them was appointed to the following, though the father is more likely: the committee on recusants (28 Feb. 1593); the second subsidy committee (1 Mar.)—he would have been on the first (26 Feb.) by reason of being a knight of the shire—and the committees on salted herrings (5 Mar.), the poor law (12 Mar.) and the relief of wounded soldiers (30 Mar.). On the last day of the session the House refused Shirley permission to bring in a proviso to a bill explaining a statute of Henry VIII for confirmation of letters patent. By 1601 he was no longer able to sit for the county and instead was returned for his local borough of Steyning. He made no recorded contribution to the business of this Parliament.6

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: J.E.M.


  • 1. Berry, Co. Genealogies, Suss. (J. Comber’s copy at Chichester), 172; Registrum Orielense, ed. Shadwell, i. 23; PCC 19 Bucke; C142/94/76.
  • 2. SP 12/59, no. 61; 179, nos. 52-3; HMC Hatfield, iii. 297; APC, xxi. 91; xxxi. 400; PRO Assizes 35, S.E. Circuit, Suss. 15-43; Lansd. 737, f. 158; CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 663; PRO, ms cal. pat. 30 Eliz., f. 13b; PRO Index 6800, f. 113; DNB.
  • 3. Berry loc. cit.; Suss. Arch. Colls. v. 8 seq.; Mousley thesis, 732 seq.
  • 4. C142/94/76; SP 11/11/57; Suss. Rec. Soc. xiv. 205; PCC 19 Bucke; DNB; Harl. 703, f. 67v; 474 passim; Lansd. 48, f. 136; 146, f. 19; Suss. Arch. Colls. ii. 59; v. 16; DNB (Howard, Philip).
  • 5. R. C. Strong and J. A. Van Dorstan, Leicester’s Triumph, 129; DNB; Cotton, Galba C.IX, ff. 120, 128, 136; F. C. Dietz, English Public Finance 1558-1641, pp. 452 seq.; Trans. Leics. Arch. Soc. xxiv. 57; C. G. Cruickshank, Elizabeth’s Army, 96; Lansd.; 45, f. 156; 50, f. 153; 51, f. 152; 54, f. 78; 58, ff. 2, 62; 64, ff. 2, 4; 75, f. 92; 85, f. 24; 149, f. 49 seq.; CSP Dom. 1595-7, p. 44; Horsfield, Suss. i. 235; Suss. Arch. Colls. v. 22; xxxviii. 111, 116; xlviii. 9 n; lxxii. 230; Devereux mss at Longleat, iii. nos. 126 seq.; SP 12/242/50; APC, xxvii. 16; EHR, viii. 733-40.
  • 6. D’Ewes, 247, 288, 300, 306, 308, 337, 349, 356, 474, 477, 481, 487, 499, 512, 521; CJ, i. 104, 119, 120, 129, 134, 136.