Friday 12 October 2018

Mussulman Rites in an English Churchyard; The Lost Memorials of London, Khwāja Shāhsuwār (1582-1626), St Botolphs, Bishopsgate

In the ‘Additions and Corrections’ to his 1790 edition of John Stow’s A Survey of London Thomas Pennant says of St Botolph’s, Bishopgate, that “In the coemetery of this church is the very remarkable tomb in the altar form of Coya Shawsware a merchant and secretary to Nogdi beg the Persian embassador….” By the time of the 1813 edition the wording has been changed to ‘in the coemetery of this church formerly stood..’ The first Muslim tomb in London had disappeared sometime in the previous 20 years.  
The first reference to the tomb had been made in the fourth edition of Stow’s Survey edited by Anthony Munday and Humfrey Dyson and published in 1633. Munday was an older contemporary and possible collaborator of William Shakespeare’s and one of Philip Henslowe’s stable of Elizabethan playwrights.  He seems to have been a consummate hack and would turn his hand to prose if there was money in it. He worked on the third edition of the Survey published in 1618 and collaborated with the scrivener and book collector Humfrey Dyson on the fourth edition (the effort made by both men seems to have killed them– they both died in the year of publication). The deceased was a 44 year old Persian merchant Khwāja Shāhsuwār, phonetically transcribed by Munday as Coya Shawsware. In the book Munday’s account is illustrated with a line drawing of the altar tomb:

Khwaja's tomb in the fourth edition of  John Stow's
'A Survey of London' by Munday and Dyson
This Monument was erected to the memory of one Coya Shawsware a Persian Merchant and a principall serwant and Secretary to the Persian Ambassadour with whom he and his sonne came over.  He was aged 44 and buried the tenth of August 1626. The Ambassadour himselfe,  young Shawsware his sonne and many other Persians (with many expressions of their infinite love and sorrow) following him to the ground betweene eight and nine of the clocke in the morning. The rites and ceremonies that (with them) are due to the dead were chiefly performed by his sonne, who sitting crosselegged at the North end of the grave, (for his Tombe stands North and South) did one while Reade, another while Sing; his Reading and Singing intermixt with sighing and weeping. And this, with other things that were done in the Grave in private (to prevent with the sight the relation) continued about halfe an houre. But this was but this dayes businesse: for, as this had not beene enough to performe to their friend departed, to this place and to this end (that is, Prayer, and other funerall devotions) some of them came every morning and evening at sixe and sixe, for the space of a moneth together. And had come (as it was then imagined) the whole time of their abode here in England, had not the rudenesse of our people disturbed and prevented their purpose.
Sir Robert 'don't call me Shirley' Sherley
Much may have changed in England over the last four hundred but the rudeness of its inhabitants and their inability to spell their own language remain as constant as the rain and grey skies. Khwāja was a member of the retinue of the Persian Ambassador, Naqd Ali Beg, sent by Shah Abbas the Great, to support and no doubt keep a close eye on, the adventurer Sir Robert Sherley who had preceded him to London to persuade the King to support the Shah in his war with the Ottoman Turks. Sir Robert was the younger of the three Sherley brothers, sons of Sir Thomas Sherley of Wiston in Sussex, the one time High Sheriff of Surrey and Sussex who had lost a spectacular amount of money engaging in financial speculation with the royal funds entrusted to him as Treasurer-at-war to the English army in the Netherlands. With their father accused of fraud and up to his neck in debt to the Crown Sir Thomas’ three sons were forced to look for ways to make enough money to extricate the family from their ruinous financial position. The eldest son, also Sir Thomas, went into that well established career path of any Elizabethan gentleman looking to make a quick profit – privateering. His initial successes in state sponsored piracy came to an abrupt end when he found himself in the admiralty court after taking a vessel near Hamburg which turned out to belong to friendly Dutch merchants. A more ambitious scheme to become a buccaneer in the Levant led to his humiliating capture by the Turks and even more humiliating imprisonment in the Tower of London once ransomed, accused with interfering with the royally sanctioned trade of the Levant Company. The two younger brothers Anthony and Robert took up general adventuring, making themselves available for any dangerous mission offered by anyone willing to pay and were sent to Persia by the crown in 1598. Their mission seems to have been to serve as military advisers coaching the Shah’s generals in the secrets of western military discipline, a quality urgently required if the Persian army were to successfully rebuff the territorial advances of the Ottomans. After just a few months in Persia Sir Anthony returned to Europe with messages for the Queen from the Shah but leaving his younger brother in Persia. He never made it back to England, the continental powers doing everything they could to divert, distract and delay him on his route home. He was received by virtually every ruler in Europe, including Tsar Boris Godunov in Moscow, Rudolf II in Prague, and the Pope in Rome. He was showered with honours, arrested, sent to Morocco as an envoy of Rudolf, imprisoned in Venice and ended up living in Poverty in Madrid but during all his various adventures, always refused permission to return to England. His failure to return to London was viewed as treasonable by the English crown and he effectively became a refugee in Spain.
Meanwhile Shah Abbas, frustrated by Sir Anthony’s apparent disappearance and long silence sent his younger brother back to Europe in 1607 to find out what had happened. The ruling powers of Europe subjected Sir Robert to all the same wiles and trickery as his brother but he managed to avoid becoming as hopelessly entangled as his sibling, actually making it back to England by the summer of 1611. He stayed at home for just 18 months before King James commanded him to return to Persia in January 1613. It took him two years to arrive back at Shah Abbas’ capital where after a few months rest he was despatched back to Europe, a journey that this time took him almost eight years; he finally arrived in January 1625. He presented letters of credence, in Persian, to King James at Newmarket and was given a house on Tower Hill from where he spent the next year trying to persuade the King to engage in trade with the Persians. Late the following year he received news that a new Persian Ambassador had landed in England, this time a Persian, Naqd Ali Beg despatched by a Shah Abbas frustrated at his decade long wait for news from the West.

Naqd Ali Beg, a portrait commissioned by
the East India Company in 1626 
Naqd arrived in England in February 1626. The East India Company accorded him full honours ensuring that his arrival was celebrated with due pomp and circumstance. They borrowed a royal coach and eight horses for the final stage of his journey into London and made sure that he was accompanied by not only the directors of the company but by a contingent of courtiers led by the Royal master of ceremonies, the Earl of Warwick.  The Persian ambassador was due to be received by the recently crowned King Charles a few days later but on the morning of the reception Sir Robert Sherley visited him in his lodgings with the Earl of Cleveland and other members of the court. The visit did not go well. The ambassador refused to rise to his feet when he received the party of English gentlemen sitting on a chair with his legs crossed under him in the Persian manner.  When Sir Robert produced his letters of accreditation from Shah Abbas, Naqd lost his temper, leapt to his feet, grabbed the documents and tore them in half before punching him in the face.  One of his entourage then attacked Sir Robert, knocking him to the floor and raining blows on his head. The other English men present pulled the Persian off Sir Robert and the Earl of Cleveland warned the ambassador that only respect for his master was stopping them from killing him. Thus began a feud between the two ambassadors that only ended with the death of the Persian the following year. In the meantime both claimed to the only genuine envoy of the Shah, and engaged in constant backbiting and bad mouthing of the other, much to the irritation of the King.

Sir Thomas Herbert, who later travelled to Persia as part of the first official English embassy to Shah Abbas later wrote in his Some Yeares Travels into Africa and Asia the Great wrote that “of the events of their enforced stay we hear little, save of trouble given to the company by the extravagant demands of Naqd Ali Beg and by his quarrels with a Persian merchant (Khwaja Shahsawar) who had come with him. This person died in August, 1626; but his son carried on the dispute and, and the Privy Council was forced to intervene.” He gives no details of the quarrel or why the Privy Council felt itself obliged to interfere. Despite the bad feeling between the Shahsawars and Naqd Ali Beg, the ambassador was present at the funeral of Khwaja when he died in August. We know few other details of the Shahsawars; the grief of Khwaja’s son Mohammed seems not to have stopped him falling in love with an English woman and apparently wanting to convert to Christianity. He was not alone in being attracted by the charms of the women of London; Naqd also started a relationship with a ‘lewde strumpet’ with whom he became so enamoured that he wanted to take her back to Persia. King Charles soon lost patience with the squabbling Persian envoys and sent them back to Persia with Sir Dodmore Cotton to take Shah Abbas’ advice on which of them was his genuine envoy. It was a ill fated embassy; Khwaja’s son died of a burning fever in the Arabian gulf, Naqd Ali Beg committed suicide and Sir Robert Sherley and Sir Dodmore Cotton died the following year before returning to England.  

Mahomet, a Persian merchant returning for Persia in our ship, died of a burning-fever, his father Hodge Suar having paid nature her last tribute in London the year before. Nemo ante obitum beatus was verified in this person; but a happy man we hope this Mahomet died if, throwing away the rags of Mawmetry [i.e. Muhammadanism], he clothed his soul with the robes of true faith in Christ, whom we were told, a little before he left the world, he called upon as the only efficacious means of his salvation; again I say happy, if unfeignedly. At his putting into the sea the captain of our ship honoured his funeral with the rending clamour of four culverins, his carcass at that instant being committed to the mercy of the sea, no less sure a treasury than the earth till the Resurrection.
Thomas Herbert

We came to anchor in Swally Road Nogdi-Ally-beg, the Persian Ambassador (Sir Robert Sherley’s antagonist), died, having, as we were credibly told, poisoned himself – for four days eating only opium. The Mary (where he died) gave him eleven great ordnance at his carrying ashoe, his son Ebrahim-chan conveyed him to Surat (10 miles thence) where they entombed him him not a stones cast from Tom Coryat’s grave…
Thomas Herbert

1 comment:

  1. There's a reference to this in an 1799 children's book by Elizabeth Helme, Instructive Rambles Extended. Thanks for this informative article.