SHELLEY, Richard (1513/14-87).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
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Family and Education

b. 1513/14, 3rd s. of (Sir) William Shelley of Michelgrove, Suss. by Alice, da. and event. coh. of Henry Belknap of Knell, Beckley, Suss. unm. Kntd. May 1555/Jan. 1557.1

Offices Held

Aid of the chamber to King Philip June 1554; turcopolier, order of St. John of Jerusalem 1557, grand prior Sept. 1561-d.2


A younger son of the eminent judge, Richard Shelley received the training of a diplomat and courtier. At the age of 21 he carried letters from Thomas Starkey in London to Richard Morison in Padua, where he probably joined Reginald Pole’s household. It seems that he had earlier spent some time in France, and certainly his knowledge of French was much praised by his contemporaries. Shelley left Padua, probably after the break-up of Pole’s household there in 1536, and went to Bologna. By October 1538 he was in Venice whence he wrote to Morison of his studies (which included Greek and Latin authors) and of one Donato, who was Pole’s host in Venice.3

In May 1539 Shelley, proclaiming himself weary of ‘this scholastical life’, set out for Constantinople in the train of the Venetian ambassador; the journey, he said, was ‘for his promotion’, and he told his father that he would look out for Greek books and for trade openings between England and Turkey. As far as Shelley knew he was the first Englishman to visit the Ottoman court. By March 1540 he was back in Venice and by January 1541 he had entered the service of the deputy of Calais, Lord Mautravers, later 12th Earl of Arundel. In 1543 Shelley took part in a tournament held at Calais and about this time he received a gift of black satin from Queen Catherine Parr. From 1546 he was employed on various diplomatic missions, for which he was well qualified by his proficiency in languages and knowledge of foreign customs. In June 1546 he attended, with his old friend Morison, an Italian ambassador to the court, and in the following month he joined the English embassy to France, perhaps on the recommendation of his first cousin, Dr. Nicholas Wotton, recently appointed resident ambassador there.4

Described on the return as ‘of the court’, Shelley owed his election to the Parliament of 1547 to his brother-in-law Sir Roger Copley, whom the indenture called ‘burgess and only inhabitant of the borough and town of Gatton’. With one possible exception all Shelley’s diplomatic postings at this time occurred between the four sessions of the Parliament and he would probably not have required leave of absence from the House: nothing, however, is known of his part in its proceedings, although an Act for the assurance of certain lands to Sir Richard Rich and Shelley’s father (himself present in the Lords) was passed during the first session (1 Edw. VI, no. 13). In May 1549 Shelley was sent as a special envoy to the French court to complain of an attack on the Boulonnais, in the following October he accompanied the French ambassador to Dover, and in the summer of 1550, with his future antagonist Thomas Stukeley, he escorted a French hostage to Scotland and back. In October 1550 Sir John Mason, the new ambassador to the King of France, suggested to the Council that Shelley should be sent over as a special commissioner to negotiate with the French, but it is not known whether he went. In November 1551 Shelley and Edward Dudley escorted Mary of Guise, Queen Dowager of Scotland, on her return from France to Scotland.5

On 21 Feb. 1552, while Parliament was in its last session, Shelley was appointed ambassador to the imperial court, and on 12 June the Council issued a warrant authorizing payment to him of £250 ‘towards the furniture of [his] journey beyond the sea’. It is not certain, however, that Shelley went on this embassy: his role in the succession crisis of the following year, when he seems to have been a tool in the Council’s hands, suggests that he did not. Despatched on 15 July 1553 to the Emperor to explain the accession of Jane Grey, he was refused audience, while the correspondence of the imperial ambassadors does not imply that he was already known at their court. On hearing of Shelley’s appointment in 1552 one of them, Scheyfve, had written: ‘we hear he is of the new religion and has studied in Germany, where the late King employed him.’ Shelley is not otherwise known to have served Henry VIII in Germany, and if an attachment to Reform would help to explain his role in the crisis it can only have been a passing one.6

Shelley quickly won favour with Queen Mary, who in December 1553 sent him as ambassador to the King of the Romans. In the following June he was named one of three aids of the chamber to King Philip and in May 1555 sent to inform the King of Portugal of the Queen’s supposed pregnancy. He must have been knighted after this mission but before January 1557, when he is so styled in a report of his appointment as ambassador to the Duchess of Parma, and it was perhaps at the same time that he was given an annuity of £50 for life. In 1557 the order of St. John of Jerusalem was re-established in England on the initiative of Cardinal Pole, who may also have influenced the crown’s choice of Shelley as turcopolier of the English ‘Tongue’. Shelley had not, as the office demanded, been a professed knight for 15 years: he was not named among the knights who were granted pensions on the dissolution of the order in 1540. As to his having ever been at Malta, it was reported in 1853 that two letters from him to Henry VIII, in which he complained of the King’s treatment of the order, were missing from the library in Malta: he could have joined the order as a young man before embarking upon his studies and he almost certainly visited the island in the course of his travels. His uncle Sir John had been one of the knights killed at the siege of Rhodes in 1522, and he had at least one other kinsman in the order at the time, Edward Bellingham, who later became a trusted Henrician diplomat—and so perhaps turned Shelley in that direction—and sat for Gatton in the Parliament of 1545.7

Summoned to Malta in 1558, Shelley fell sick at Brussels and remained there on hearing of Queen Mary’s illness. In December he returned to England to greet the new Queen. Religious scruples, however, prevented him from remaining long, and in the spring of 1560 he set out for Spain without a royal licence, much to the displeasure of Elizabeth, who ordered him to return. From the first Shelley protested his complete loyalty, saving his conscience, and throughout his chequered career in exile he was at pains to convince the English government of his patriotism. He entered or, rather, remained in the service of Philip II, who thought highly of the abilities and religious devotion of one whom he described as his ‘taster’—perhaps one of Shelley’s duties as an aid of the chamber. In 1561 he obtained a licence to go to Malta to attend to his duties as turcopolier: before setting out he informed (Sir) Thomas Chaloner that the furtherance of the English order’s affairs was Philip’s only motive in employing him, and some 20 years later he told Cecil that he had asked for leave of absence because of the growing enmity between England and Spain. He had only reached Genoa when he was recalled by Philip to go as ambassador to Persia; this mission was, however, cancelled. Meanwhile Shelley had been elected, at the instance of his brother Sir James Shelley, grand prior of the order in place of Sir Thomas Tresham.8

Shelley served Philip II for the next three years but refused his offer of naturalization. The Turkish attack on Malta in 1565 drew him thither, but he was delayed at Naples and afterwards spent some time in Rome, not taking his seat in the council at Malta until September 1566. He quarrelled with the prior of Messina on a point of precedence and, although judgment was awarded in Shelley’s favour in October of the following year, he left Malta some two years later after the prior had succeeded la Valette as grand master.9

In 1570 Shelley was said to be hoping to become a cardinal. Two years later he was in Venice where he greatly impressed the papal legate, who suggested that the pope might employ him on business concerning England. In 1575 he journeyed from Venice to Rome where he joined a group of English Catholics in a discussion of the conversion of England. Such was their esteem for Shelley that many of them wished him to be created a cardinal. Before 1575 the Venetian seignory proposed to send Shelley as their ambassador to Russia and Persia to enlist aid against the Turk. In 1581 the pope ordered Shelley to leave Rome following a dispute with a rival group of English Catholics led by Sir Thomas Stukeley.10

Shelley retired to Venice where, according to a friend, ‘the chief nobles wonder at him for his learning and good life’. He refused to take his Spanish pension because of the deterioration in relations between England and Spain. An undated list of Philip II’s pensioners includes ‘Master Shelley, who is called lord great prior of England. He hath not any pension, but doth maintain himself by making knights of the order of Malta’. He made himself useful to the English government by supporting the suit of some English merchants in the Senate, and corresponded frequently with Burghley and Walsingham. His services not only earned him in 1583 a passport to return, which he never used, but also strengthened his successful plea for the life of his nephew, William Shelley of Michelgrove, sentenced to death for treason in 1586. Shelley died in Venice on 15 July 1587.11

Shelley won the admiration of his contemporaries by his learning, his knowledge of Europe, his uprightness of character and the sacrifice he made for his religion. His ‘virtue’ was such, wrote a friend to Cecil, that he was fit to serve any prince in the world. Shelley had a strong sense of personal mission concerning the conversion of England. He addressed the pope in 1561 and 1566, deprecating the use of force but urging that otherwise no pains should be spared. He aspired to be a mediator between England and the papal see, and for this reason (according to the papal nuncio in Venice) tried to commend himself to the English government; although the Queen, wrote the nuncio, ‘counts not on him for her and her side, as she would wish, yet he is not so odious to her as the other exiles that are her professed enemies’. The mission, however, never took place, and when in his exile in Venice from 1581 Shelley asked to be allowed to return home his motives seem to have been more personal and less religious than formerly. Perhaps his failure to make use of his passport arose from a suspicion that he would not be allowed the religious freedom which had been promised. Shelley’s cautious viewpoint enraged Sir Thomas Stukeley, who favoured the use of force, and Father Robert Persons had to intervene to save Shelley from the Inquisition. Persons believed that Shelley hoped to be made a cardinal and ‘by that means to deal peaceably with the Queen.’. It was this argument, and another concerning the English College in Rome, which prompted the pope’s decision to send Shelley to Venice in 1581.12

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: S. R. Johnson


  • 1. Aged 68 in August 1582, CSP For. 1582, p. 288. C. Read, Sir Francis Walsingham, iii. 288; Vis. Suss. (Harl. Soc. liii), 37; CSP Ven. 1556-7, p. 914; CSP For. 1553-8, p. 172; DNB.
  • 2. CSP Span. 1554, p. 297; H. P. Scicluna, Eng. Tongue 1523-67, p. 52.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, ix, xiii, xv; W. G. Zeeveld, Foundations of Tudor Policy, 44, 108-9.
  • 4. LP Hen. VIII, xiv, xviii, xxi; PPC, vii. 111; E101/423/12, f. 12; DNB (Wotton, Nicholas).
  • 5. Vis. Suss. 37, 111; APC, ii. 281, 329; iii. 26, 54, 404, 405, 409, 481, 482; CSP Span. 1547-9, pp. 376, 382; CSP For. 1547-53, pp. 59, 191; CJ, i. 3.
  • 6. Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, 491; APC, iv. 76; CSP Span. 1550-2, p. 468; 1553, pp. 88, 91, 99, 130.
  • 7. Egerton 2790, f. 141v; CSP Span. 1554, pp. 154, 297; APC, v. 66, 126, 152; CSP Ven. 1556-7, p. 793; CSP For. 1553-8, pp. 50, 172; Lansd. 155(28), f. 98; N. and Q. (ser. 1), viii. 190; VCH Mdx. i. 194, 196; R. Vertot, Kts. of Malta, i. 160; E. J. King, Kts. of St. John, 85 seq.; Statutes, iii. 778-81.
  • 8. CSP For. 1558-9, pp. 28, 30; 1559-60, pp. 594, 596; 1560-1, pp. 489n, 542; 1561-2, p. 520; Letters of Sir Richard Shelley, 1-3, 6-12; Scicluna, 52; CSP Rom. 1558-71, pp. 36, 70.
  • 9. CSP For. 1562, pp. 372, 382, 394, 482-4; 1564-5, pp. 418, 502; CSP Rom. 1558-71, p. 190; Letters of Sir Richard Shelley, 6-12; A. Mifsud, Kts. Hosp. of Eng. Tongue, 213.
  • 10. CSP For. 1569-71, p. 209; CSP Rom. 1572-8, pp. 4, 193; Letters and Memorials of Card. Allen, ed. Knox, 267-8; Cath. Rec. Soc. ii. 64, 162, 163.
  • 11. CSP For. 1581-2, pp. 389-90; 1582, pp. 287-9; 1583-4, pp. 586-7, 635-6; 1584-5, pp. 144, 145, 182; 1586-8, p. 161; Recs. Eng. Caths. ed. Knox, 302; Read, iii. 288; R. B. Manning, Rel. and Soc. in Eliz. Suss. 164n.
  • 12. Leland, Coll. v. 147; CSP Rom. 1558-71, pp. 60, 185; 1572-8, pp. 81, 198, 206-7; CSP For. 1564-5, p. 502; Letters and Memorials of Card. Allen, 267-8.