The Last Goodbye: Robert Sherley’s “Vltimum Vale” in Safavid Persia

The Last Goodbye: Robert Sherley’s “Vltimum Vale” in Safavid Persia

17 August 2020
Herbert’s description of Robert’s death, therefore, encourages us to consider the limits of his position

In my forthcoming chapter “Robert Sherley and the Persian Habit” from Su Fang Ng and Carmen Nocentelli’s edited collection, England’s Asian Renaissance (University of Delaware Press, Early Modern Exchange series), I examine the prose and dramatic literature surrounding Robert Sherley, one of the most famous English travelers to Safavid Persia. He arrived at the Safavid Court with his brother Anthony in 1598 where they were entertained by Shah Abbas I. As contemporaneous literature about this famous family indicates, the Sherleys made an impression with the shah, earning both men the title of ilchi – first Anthony in 1599 and then Robert in 1608. The post of ilchi referred to a Persian envoy who would be entrusted to do the bidding of the shah in foreign lands, someone who might be thought of as a “messenger” with specific duties and responsibilities. But because of the dangerous nature of their work, they were also exceptionally replaceable if they failed to return from their journeys or complete their missions. Robert Sherley’s role as ilchi, which positioned him to establish alliances with Christian rulers on behalf of Persia, was translated as “ambassador” in the English literature about the Sherleain adventures. The mistranslation from ilchi to “ambassador” in English accounts, therefore, granted Robert geographical and social mobility, as well as fame within his native England.

While acting as the shah’s ilchi, Robert was known to travel in traditional Persian garb, or the “Persian habit,” to use Thomas Fuller’s words from The History of the Worthies of England (1661), a historical compendium of honourable Englishmen that includes a section remembering the Sherleys. As I argue in my chapter, Robert’s “Persian habit” – a discursively constructed symbol of imagined Anglo-Persian intimacy – was sartorially and behaviorally removeable and, therefore, unthreatening, and kept him and English fantasies of long-term collaboration with the Safavid Empire in circulation. Much of the scholarship on Robert Sherley and his famous family – including my own contribution to Ng and Nocentelli’s collection – unsurprisingly follows the Sherleys’ comings and goings in and out of Safavid Persia and other foreign lands. But rather than focus on Robert’s real and imagined life in this blog post, I turn my attention toward what I only discuss briefly in my forthcoming essay: his death.

After approximately 15 years of traveling on official business for Shah Abbas, Robert Sherley returned to England in 1623 in order to negotiate an Anglo-Persian trade agreement. Though King James I was interested in an alliance – particularly one that would result in the trading of silk – Robert’s plans were interrupted with the appearance of another Persian ilchi, Nuqd Ali Beg, who arrived in England in 1626 on an English East India Company ship, approximately one year into the reign of King Charles I. This surprise visitor discredited Robert’s position as the shah’s representative, resulting in an unexpected brawl between them. Given the competing information from – as well as physical altercation between – two supposed ambassadors to the shah, King Charles sent them on a return journey to the Safavid court led by acting English ambassador, Sir Dodemore Cotton, who was meant to negotiate a profitable agreement for England. This voyage, well-documented in the highly popular travelogue A Relation of Some Years Travaile (first published in 1634) by Cotton’s gentleman attendant, Sir Thomas Herbert, would be Robert’s last.

Herbert’s account describes not only the voyage itself – including how Nuqd Ali Beg died en route by suicide – but also the team’s reception at the Safavid court upon their arrival. Much to the surprise of the ship’s English passengers, Robert was not as popular in Safavid Persia as the contemporaneous English literature about the Sherley family suggested. In fact, the shah expressed his refusal to grant an audience to his new English visitors and his wish for Robert to “depart his kingdome,” describing him as “old and tiresome.” This refusal was punctuated with the shah’s advisor destroying Robert’s official papers, thereby denying any future opportunities for Robert to continue traveling as the shah’s official representative. Herbert addresses the immediate aftermath of this unfortunate turn of events in his travelogue, explaining that:


“These and the like discontents (casuall to mortall men) so much afflicted him, that immediately a Feuer and Apoplexie ouer-charged him, so that on the thirteenth of Iune, he gaue an vltimum vale to this World. And wanting a fitter place of Buriall, was put into the earth at the doore of his owne House in Cazbeen where he died.”

This description of Robert’s death does not align with descriptions of his life. The Sherley canon’s representation of Robert as a “Persian ambassador” rather than a Persian ilchi manufactured the promise of Anglo-Persian co-existence and the fantasy of unlimited and unregulated English access to the Safavid Empire. Such an achievement would surely merit a more honourable end than an unceremonious dismissal followed by a humble burial “at the doore of his owne House in Cazbeen.” Herbert’s account of Robert’s death, however, punctures the hopeful image of what a “Persian ambassador” had come to mean. The final days of his life – marked by the Persian state’s outright rejection of English desires for an exclusive mercantile agreement – expose the position he held from the Safavid perspective. Far from initiating Robert’s loss of status or loss of favour, the shah’s refusal to entertain the English embassy to Safavid Persia exposed Robert’s station as inherently precarious. The terms of Robert’s relationship with the Safavid court – indicated by the true meaning of ilchi – was contingent on whether he could be of use to Shah Abbas and his plans for the future of his empire. When Robert proved incapable of securing the Perso-Christian alliances Shah Abbas entrusted him to establish, the shah no longer had a need to sanction the continued travels of an ineffective ilchi.

The severing of Robert from the Persian court, therefore, coincides with and, indeed, accelerates his departure from the earthly realm, rendering the promise of Anglo-Persian intimacy null and void. Not only was this promise dissolved within the historical context, the writings that imagined Robert’s alignment with the Safavid court and reproduced the image of a seamless union between England and Safavid Persia were also subject to cessation: without new content, writers could no longer gesture toward and continue to circulate the possibility (or even realisation) of a future alliance through their “Persian ambassador.” Herbert’s description of Robert’s death, therefore, encourages us to consider the limits of his position in the first place as well as the limits of English ambition in the early modern period. It likewise brings Shah Abbas’s agency into focus; without his consent, early modern England cannot achieve its desires to gain exclusive access into his empire. His refusal, therefore, disempowers early modern English attempts for exclusive rights by relegating English desires for Safavid Persia to the world of writing. While the Sherley canon expresses English hopes for intimacy through a discursively-constructed symbol, a closer engagement with Robert Sherley’s “vltimum vale,” or last goodbye, emphasises that the power to enable such an alliance had always resided solely within Safavid Persia.

Image: Sir Robert Sherley by Anthony Van Dyck 1622, accessed from Wikimedia Commons


Selected Bibliography

Burton, Jonathan. “The Shah’s Two Ambassadors: The Travels of the Three English Brothers and the Global Early Modern.” Emissaries in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Mediation, Transmission, Traffic, 1550-1700, edited by Brinda Charry and Gitanjali Shahani, Ashgate, 2009, pp. 23-40.

 Davies, D. W. Elizabethans Errant. Cornell University Press, 1967.

 Grogan, Jane. The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Houston, Chloë. “‘Thou glorious kingdome, thou chiefe of Empires’: Persia in early seventeenth-century travel literature.” Studies in Travel Writing, vol. 13, no. 2, 2009, pp. 141-52.

Schleck, Julia. Telling True Tales of Islamic Lands: Forms of Mediation in English Travel Writing, 1575-1630. Susquehanna University Press, 2011.