A New and Large Discourse on the Travels of Sir Anthony Sherley

by Dr Ema Vyroubalová, Trinity College Dublin

William Parry’s A New and Large Discourse on the Travels of Sir Anthony Sherley belongs to a modest body of writings recounting the fortunes of the English merchant, adventurer, and diplomat Anthony Sherley (1565-1636?) as well as to a much larger body of early modern proto-nationalistic travel literature detailing the accomplishments of English explorers. The narrative covers Sherley’s outbound journey to Persia through Venice, Crete, Cyprus, Tripoli, Aleppo, and Baghdad, his stay at the court of the Shah Abbas I in Isfahan, and the northwestern return leg to Europe across the Caspian Sea and Russia. Parry had accompanied Sherley for the entire trip, which enabled him to claim the status of an eye-witness account for his short book. It was printed by Valentine Simmes for Felix Norton in 1601, the year following Parry’s return to England. Even though it was printed only a few months after Parry came back to England, A New and Large Discourse was not the first publication devoted to Sherley’s Persian adventures. The anonymous A True Report of Sir Anthony Sherley’s Journey had been printed in 1600 and then again in 1601 by Ralph Blore for John Jaggard but each time the pamphlet was suppressed and the printers were fined for a failure to secure the proper license and copyright clearance. When Parry designates his account as "New and Large", he is suggesting that his New and Large Discourse surpasses the earlier rival A True Report in both scope and novelty. The fact that prominent London printers and publishers were eager to put out material about Sherley’s latest exploits soon after the news of them had reached England suggests that there was a high demand for information on Sherley's journeys and for travel narratives in general among English readers.

Sherley was born to a wealthy landed family. He obtained a BA degree from Oxford, stayed on as a fellow of All Souls College and later was admitted to the Inner Temple in London. Dissatisfied with the life of a scholar and lawyer, he was drawn to the more adventurous careers in the military and diplomacy. He initially fought with English regiments against Spain in several European campaigns. In 1593 he secured his first diplomatic foothold but soon lost it after he incurred Queen Elizabeth’s displeasure by accepting a knighthood from the French King without her permission. (This knighthood is the source of his appellation as “Sir Anthony,” used by Parry and other writers.) He managed to anger Elizabeth further by entering into a marriage of which she disapproved. When the union itself proved unhappy, he embarked on a string of ambitious if risky ventures. In 1596 he organized a large privateering expedition to São Tomé, the Cape Verde Islands, and Jamaica. This undertaking failed and Sherley returned to England virtually bankrupt. In 1598 he set out on a mission sponsored by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, to help the Duke of Ferrara’s son in his war against the Pope. When he discovered that this conflict had already resolved itself, Sherley continued to Venice, where he paused and planned out his next move. It seems that he converted to Catholicism at this point. Sherley later claimed that Essex himself had advised him to set out for Persia, and whether this was true or not, Sherley certainly borrowed large sums for the venture from English merchants in Essex’s name. The mission technically succeeded in that Sherley negotiated favorable conditions for English merchants trading with Persia and also secured an appointment for himself as the Shah’s ambassador to Christian monarchs and the Pope. Unfortunately, by the time Sherley returned to Europe, his lifeline to the English court had been severed with Essex’s downfall. Only Parry proceeded back to England while Sherley himself attempted unsuccessfully to implement the Shah’s embassy at several other European courts (Prague, Venice, Madrid) as well as the Papal court in Rome. He accumulated increasing debt and devolved into offering his services as a spy to various governments. He later managed to reinstate himself into more official diplomatic posts for the Holy Roman Empire in Morocco and for Spain in the Eastern Mediterranean but his propensity for incurring debts and overstepping the boundaries of his mandates led to his being recalled both times. After multiple failed attempts to hatch plots against his many enemies with the Jesuits, he died in poverty in Spain. Two of his brothers (Robert and Thomas) were also adventurers of some note and Robert accompanied him on the Persian trip.

In contrast to Sherley’s well-documented career, almost nothing is known about William Parry (not to be confused with the Elizabethan courtier and spy of the same name). The title page of A New and Large Discourse provides all the extant facts about him: that he was a gentleman and accompanied Sherley on his travels to Persia. Parry's narrative is written mostly in the first person plural, which subsumes the author’s individuality into a collective identity of Sherley’s whole party. Parry was clearly beholden and subordinated to Sherley. He repeatedly points out instances of Sherley extending his generosity to his English travel companions and he unequivocally approves of Sherley’s views, decisions, and actions throughout the journey. Parry also leaves out, or at least presents more favorably, many of the less flattering facts that were reported about Sherley's Persian journey in other sources, such the mounting debts he accrued along the way, his likely conversion to Catholicism, or the quarrels he got into with his hosts and other travelers. For unclear reasons, Parry also does not mention that Anthony and Robert Sherley helped reorganize and modernize the Shah’s army. On the whole, the authorial voice which emerges from the narrative is that of a skilled and dedicated advocate of Anthony Sherley as well as a sharp observer of foreign lands and their inhabitants, who is eager to share his experiences with his compatriots back at home.

Parry prefaces his account of the journey with a bold claim for its authenticity: “For mine owne part, I am resolved to make a true relation of what mine eies saw, not respecting the judgement of the vulgars, but contending my selfe with the conscience of the truth; besides which, (I protest) I purpose to write nothing” (p. 2-3). To underscore his point, Parry draws up an elaborate allegory evocative of Plato's famous cave parable. Parry likens the incredulous reader who will doubt the authenticity of his narrative to someone confined to a cave or a dungeon from birth and so unable to envisage the wonders of nature existing outside. If this person will read his narrative, he or she will be like a lifelong cave-dweller who is magically transported to a scenic location, such as the top of a mountain on a sunny day, or even more dramatically, to heaven. On reading his book this reader will, Parry promises, be similarly dazzled by the beauty of God’s creation. The audacious conceit cleverly advertises the ensuing narrative and more broadly gestures toward travel narrative as a proto-Enlightenment genre, which opens readers’ eyes and minds to new worlds. Parry’s profession of the lofty aims for his book at the same time couches an implicit jibe at English provincialism: the cave or dungeon in the analogy above can be easily taken for a reference to England, especially since he later explicitly identifies his target audience as English.

The narrative is organized chronologically. Parry includes all the cities, islands, and rivers which they see or stop at along the way but focuses on providing detailed descriptions only of the more exotic countries they pass through. He refrains from delving into the “fashions and dispositions of the Germans and Italians” because:

"it is so well knowne to all men, that knowe or have read, or heard any thing: therefore I will go forward with our journey, and write of matter more novellous, and lesse knowne to my home-bred countreymen, for whose sake (chiefly) I have compiled this Discourse. (p. 4)"

This “novellous” matter refers to the Asian and Russian portions of the trip, and particularly the extended sojourn in Persia. At that point in the account, Parry frequently incorporates short informative vignettes on issues such as Persian economy, trade, family structure, diet, fashion, architecture, and religious practices, which together provide a cursory but engaging overview of late sixteenth-century Safavid Persia from a western perspective. To bring the narrative closer to home for his readers, Parry frequently offers English analogues for things he is describing: the remnants of the tower of Babel are as tall as the steeple of Saint Paul’s (this comparison incidentally also appears in the account of the visit to the tower by the Englishman John Eldred a decade earlier); coffee is supposed to have effects similar to those of Metheglin (an early modern version of mead); a troupe of courtesans welcoming the Shah make a cry “as the wild Irish make”; and the Persian currency resembles Bristol coins in size.

One instance in which the challenges posed by cultural intermediation begin to emerge occurs when Parry mentions the ban on non-Muslims entering Mosques: “They will not permitte any Christian to come within their churches, for they holde their profane and irreligious sanctuaries defiled thereby.” The contrary impulses to observe objectively and to assert, at the same time, what was to Parry a natural superiority of Christianity over Islam, generate a tangible tension in the narrative at this point. Although Parry's religious sensibility prompted him to regard Islam with mistrust, his ability to understand what he encountered during his stay in Persia was further restricted by a significant language barrier. Sherley himself knew little or no Persian or Arabic. From the narrative it appears that neither did Parry or any of the other English members of the party and so they had to use Italian and Latin (neither of which was spoken very well at the Shah’s court) to communicate. As a result, Parry’s conclusions are on the whole quite accurate as long as they do not depend on interpreting speech, symbols, or signs. This is the case with his depictions of the local markets, dress, food, and buildings. When it comes to matters of religion, the accuracy of Parry’s account begins to crumble. He misinterprets the call to prayer as an invocation for Mohammed’s second coming. He figures out that Christ plays a role in the Islamic eschatology but claims erroneously that Muslims fear that he will come back and convert them all to Christianity. Similarly, he does pick up on the divide between Sunni and Shia Islam but the details largely elude him: he writes that Turks pray to Mohammed, Mortus Ali (an anglicized version of Mortaza Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law lī ibn Abī Ṭālib), and Mohammed’s three servants (a misnomer for the first three caliphs: Abu Bakr as-Siddiq,Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan) whereas Persians pray only to Mohammed and Mortus Ali. In reality Shias (including the Persian branch) venerate Ali as Mohammed’s direct successor and at times have engaged in the practice of defaming the trio of Caliphs who, according to Sunni Islam, preceded Ali in the succession. He also reproduces the myth, commonplace in medieval and early modern Europe, that Mohammed’s coffin in Mecca hangs suspended in the air but acknowledges this as coming from a second-hand report only. He also rather surprisingly claims that the Persians are an unlearned nation devoid of a scholarly tradition and libraries even though several Persians scholars and their works were known to early modern Europe. One can imagine that Parry came to this conclusion because he did not encounter any scholars, books, or libraries in or around Isfahan and could not or did not inquire what the situation was beyond what he had immediate access to.

Although Parry’s book seems to aim to appeal to a broad English audience hungry for news of exotic lands, a more ambitious objective can be discerned as well. The account advocates for closer ties between Europe and Persia as well as for a military alliance between Europe and Persia against the Ottoman Turks. This is done both directly – for instance through claims that Turkey’s military strength is greatly exaggerated and that the Empire could be easily defeated by European or Persian armies – and more insidiously through depiction of negative interactions with Turks as opposed to generally positive ones with Persians. If Sherley worked hard to arouse the already amenable Shah’s interest in Europe, Parry’s account of the journey must have been intended to augment Sherley’s efforts at the European end of his mission. In the end, the envisaged large-scale shifting of alliances did not occur because the European monarchs did not see the proposed partnering up with Persia as particularly feasible or advantageous. Sherley’s mission did however reinforce a less formal but still significant set of economic and political ties between early modern England and Persia and A New and Large Discourse on the Travels of Sir Anthony Sherley bears witness to this process.

Even if Sherley’s ventures on the whole faltered, accounts of his travels did make it into early modern England’s two major compilations of travel narratives: Hakluyt and Purchas. Richard Hakluyt’s Principal navigations, voyages, traffiques and discoveries of the English Nation (1598-1600) includes his Atlantic voyage to São Tomé and the Caribbean. Samuel Purchas’ Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625) reproduces a portion of Parry’s narrative, which has been subsequently known and quoted chiefly through this reprinting rather than through the original publication. A New and Large Discourse on the Travels of Sir Anthony Sherley was reprinted in full by J. Pain Colllier in 1864 and it was reedited and published in modern spelling in E. Ross’ Sir Anthony Sherley and his Persian Adventure in 1933 (reprinted 2005). Libraries holding a copy of the original 1601 edition include: Chester Beatty Library, British Library, Hatfield House, Bodelian and Christ Church libraries at Oxford University; Folger Library, Newberry Library, Beinecke Library at Yale University, and University of Illinois Library.

To see the catalogue entry for A New and Large Discourse on the Travels of Sir Anthony Sherley click here.