No painter has done more to define an era than Sir Anthony van Dyck with his portraits of regal majesty, gilded youth and feminine beauty. They show an age of sumptuous costume and cultivated ease. None is more exotic than that of Sir Robert and Lady Sherley painted in Rome in 1622.

The Sherleys are shown in Persian robes with Sir Robert wearing a large turban bearing a crucifix – a strange fusion of two religious traditions and in itself a significant diplomatic gesture at a time when Persia was keen to open its frontiers to the West. The Sherleys were in Rome on a secret diplomatic mission to establish trade links with Europe on behalf of Shah Abbas I of Persia. While in Rome Robert was made a papal count and the pontiff granted him the right to sell blessed rosaries, crosses, medals and indulgencies. This would have been a potentially highly lucrative marketing deal for the time. Later when the Sherleys travelled on to Spain the court there showed him similar courtesy, although the king quietly objected to receiving a European with a turban on his head

The involvement of Sir Anthony Sherley and his younger brother Robert in Persian affairs had begun in 1598 when the Earl of Essex conceived one of the most ambitious stratagems of the age. His audacious plan was to broker an alliance between the European Christian powers and Muslim Persia in order to challenge the power of their common enemy, the Ottoman Turks. With the Turkish threat removed from the Mediterranean, both England and Persia would benefit and Essex himself would profit from new lucrative trading opportunities with the East. By 1598, when the capital moved to Isfahan, the Portuguese and latterly the Dutch had already established trade relations in India, China and Southeast Asia. The Portuguese had also taken control of Hormuz, the strategically located island in the Persian Gulf. In 1600 Queen Elizabeth I signed the charter of the East India Company and gradually the English began to sail or travel overland to Persia and the lands beyond it to the east. First Anthony and then Robert returned to Europe as the shah’s ambassadors. They tried to persuade the kings of Spain and England to join an alliance against the Ottomans and to open their markets to traders from Persia.

Robert Shirley met his future wife Teresia Sampsonia, the daughter of a Circassian chief named Ishmael Khan, in Shah ‘Abbas’s former capital, Qazvin. She was a Christian of noble Circassian blood and proved an intrepid partner for her husband, saving his life on two occasion. Teresia was dark in appearance, the English traveller and mapmaker Thomas Fuller describing her as being ‘more of ebony than ivory in her complexions; yet amiable enough and very valiant’. The Circassians, who inhabited the region of the North Caucasus around the Black Sea region, were traditionally Muslim, although Teresia herself was from the Orthodox Christian minority.

Their progress through Europe caused quite a stir and when the couple finally arrived in England the welcome was if anything even warmer. The exotic Teresia Sherley in particular caught the public imagination and rapidly became such a celebrity in her own right. Unusually for a woman of her time, her character, that of the beautiful and exotic visitor from the East, suddenly appeared in several plays on the London stage. She even featured as the romantic lead in one of the most popular dramas on the London stage at the time. This play or rather entertainment, ‘The Travels of the Three English Brothers’ written by John Day, William Rowley and George Wilkins opened in London on 8 June 1607. The production appears to have been financially backed by the Sherleys themselves in what can be seen as a clever attempt at self-promotion, an early exercise in public relations typical of the Sherleys’ overweening confidence and never attempted by any other of the Western adventurers such as Drake or Raleigh.

‘The Travels of the Three English Brothers’ with its glamorous heroine Teresia Sherley, was typical of a genre of naive drama of adventure and romance popular at the time. The authors appeared eager to draw cultural contrasts between Christian England and Muslim Persia, stressing the violence and brutality of Persian society, especially the practice of beheading. Throughout the drama the English characters display valour and resourcefulness in the Sherley manner. When faced with local violence and treachery they behave so well that the shah is inspired to grant Christians tolerance throughout his dominions. In this English obsession with Muslim sympathy for Christianity magnified out of all proportion and credibility by Anthony and Robert Sherley, lie some of the roots of Persian resentment and suspicion that would colour all future relations between the two countries.

Success on the stage was accompanied by success in society and Robert and his wife appeared to have London at their feet. The new sovereign, James I, was just as fascinated by the exotic visitors as any of his courtiers particularly when Robert claimed that Shah Abbas had been present at the baptism of Teresia and Robert’s first child and even acting as a kind of godfather. When this episode was dramatised on stage in London it provoked ridicule from other playwrights such as Francis Beaumont and John Cartwright. The latter wrote mockingly ‘that he {Robert Sherley)} should have a child in Persia and that the King should bee the God-father; this is certainly more fitte for a Stage, for the common people to wonder at, than for any mans more private studies’. Whether true or false the story certainly fits well with both Robert and Anthony’s persistent attempts to portray Shah Abbas as being deeply sympathetic to Christians and Christianity.

On Robert and Teresia Sherley’s arrival back in Persia however, the king’s favourite, Mahomet Ali Beg, launched an unexpected attack upon Robert describing his diplomatic performances as ‘ frivolous and counterfeit,’ and telling him that the shah had no further use for his services. Sherley took this rebuff to heart and died on 13 July 1628, within six weeks of his arrival in Kazveen. He was buried by his friends under the threshold of his own house in that city. According to Sir Thomas Herbert, who was at Kazveen during Sherley’s last days, the shah, in a characteristic change of heart, then began to lament his death, saying that ‘he had done more for him than any of his native subjects’. Following her husband’s death Teresia Sherley decided to leave Persia and retired to Rome, where she was held in esteem on account of her devotion to the Catholic faith.

The strange and exotic story of the Sherleys has been almost forgotten but their portrait at Petworth House in Sussex bears testimony to a unique episode in Anglo-Persian history.