Edward Sheldon (1558-1643)
WHAT WAS BELIEVED to have been the first British ‘passport’ – issued to Sir Thomas Lyttleton in 1636 – was sold by auction by Bonhams in Knightsbridge, London, for £1,375 ($1,750) back in 2016.
But thanks to the Sheldon historian EAB Barnard we know that an almost identical travel document was issued 11 years earlier by Charles I – on 30 April 1625 to be precise – to Edward Sheldon (1558-1643), son and heir of Ralph Sheldon.
Barnard stated in his history of The Sheldons, published in 1936: “This Sheldon succeeded to most of the family estates, but does not appear to have been much associated with them for many years, some of which he certainly spent abroad with an imposing retinue, as is evidenced in the Calendar of State Papers Domestic, under date 23 June, 1625, where there is this note: ‘Mr Sheldon’s humble suit to your Lordship that you would procure a license for him and his wife Elizabeth, together with Ralph Sheldon and Bridget his wife and their 18 servants and six horses to travel on the Continent for two or three years’.”
The license was granted, and was renewed three years later for the same period. Similar licenses had been granted to him and to other Sheldons at earlier dates in this period, ” Barnard added.
He then goes on to mention that during the course of his researches he had received information from a Mr Arthur Stockton, of Banbury — on what might be regarded as the western fringes of Sheldon territory — by the actual and carefully folded Letters of Safe-Conduct, dated 30 April, 1625, and signed by Charles I, at that time granted to Edward Sheldon and that the document was in Mr Stockton’s possession.
The original hardback edition of The Sheldons, being some account of the Sheldon family of Worcestershire and Warwickshire (to give it its full title) contains a full-page plate illustration of the document, which would seem to confirm its provenance. Further credence to the claim can be seen when comparing it with a photograph of the document sold by Bonhams in 2016. The two documents are almost identical in appearance, differing only in the official seal.
Because Charles had only been king for a month a new royal seal had not been readied so the one used at the bottom of the Sheldon document was that of his predecessor, James I, whereas his own is used on the Lyttleton paper.
Barnard added: “This document may be unique in its class and for its period, at least no other similar instance appears to be known.
“It is, of course, in French, and quite formal in its style, but it reveals the fact that Sheldon, acting under the advice of his doctors and for the recovery of his health, made his very humble request to the King that he, with his suite and company, may have permission to cross the sea without let or hindrance, and so to journey on to the spa-water resorts in Germany, which in their curative attractions were at this time beginning seriously to compete with Spa in Belgium.
“The King had only been on the throne some five weeks when he signed this passport, so it is impressed with the Privy Seal of James I, who had died on the preceding 27 March.”
However, something must have delayed Sheldon’s departure for he submitted another passport application only seven weeks later. His continental sojourn lasted just shy of six years. After visiting the German spa towns, he settled in the Belgian town of Namur, then under the control of the Spanish branch of the Hapsburg family.
When his beloved wife Elizabeth died in 1630, Edward was persuaded by friends and family, against his better judgment, to return home.
Barnard also records that in August, 1636, Charles I visited Warwick, and a day or two later went on “to Weston at Mr Sheldon’s house with great delight”.
Despite his earlier ill health, Edward Sheldon lived on well into his 80s. He lived through the reign of three monarchs, Elizabeth, James I and Charles I. He had married Elizabeth Markham, daughter of Thomas Markham of Cottam and Ollerton, Nottinghamshire. They had three sons, William, Ralph and Edward, and three daughters, Frances, Joan and Anne.
Edward, due to a combination of his ill-health and steadfast adherence to the Old Faith, did not make many waves in life.
He made his last will and testament on 20 September 1643, by which time England was in the grip of Civil War, though these days the 12 years of conflicts that collectively involved England, Scotland and Ireland are more usually referred to as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Indeed, Sheldon’s will was dated the day of the first, inconclusive Battle of Newbury between Royalist and Parliament forces.
Sheldon died suddenly a few days later, but probate, no doubt hindered by the ongoing war, was not granted until 10 May, 1650.
In this will he had described himself as being in good health and perfect memory, and that he hoped to die “in the unity of the Catholique Church and by the benefits thereof to be a member of his Triumphant Church for ever.
“I will that my body shall be buried in the North Isle of the Church of Beoley aforesaid (erected and builded by my deare father Ralph Sheldon deceased) with such funerals and expenses thereupon, and unto the poor as my executors hereafter named shall seem convenient, avoiding all vain superfluity therein.”
He refers to his “last goeing over beyond the Seas” and proceeds to make bequests which show that he was a man of considerable estate.
His memorial is on the south wall of the church. It consists of a double tablet surmounted by a shield bearing the arms of Sheldon impaling Markham. The Latin inscriptions in the two panels contain some important genealogical details, which translated reveal:
“…This man, Edward Sheldon, though greater in paternal virtues than in fortune, when by his prudence he could hand on his inheritance enriched to his son and heir, and could provide abundantly for his other children, crossed over to Belgium, in the year 1625, that he might have leisure more freely for God and for himself.
“He settled at Namur and remained there with his devoted wife until 1630, when Heaven snatched away that most dear consort. Thence, persuaded by his friends, although he himself was unwilling, he returned to his native land and at length, full of days and good work, he died on 26 September, 1643, in the 83rd [sic] year of his age.
“His grateful heir has now set up this monument to a parent – indeed well-deserving – not in conformance with a common custom but as a witness of filial love, for a document of honour, for a religious obsequy from a most devoted soul and one most heavily affected.”
The first image above shows the Letter of Safe-Conduct granted to Edward Sheldon on 30 April 1625. Though clearly showing the name of Charles I, it has the seal of James I, who had died on 27 March 1625. The second shows the Letter of Safe-Conduct issued to Sir Thomas Lyttleton, believed to have been the oldest British ‘passport’ when it was sold at auction by Bonhams in 2016.
FOOTNOTE: The requirement for travel documents when journeying to foreign lands dates back some 2,500 years. The earliest reference found so far is contained in the Hebrew Bible when in around 450BC Nehemiah, an official working for the King of Persian sought permission to travel to Judea.
The king approved his mission and gave him a letter “to the governors beyond the river” requesting safe passage as he travelled through their lands.
King Henry V is credited with having invented the first passport as a way for his subjects to prove who they were on their travels abroad. The earliest reference to such documents appears in a 1414 Act of Parliament. In 1540, responsibility for granting travel documents was given to the Privy Council of England, and it was around this time that the term “passport” was first used.