Finding Sir Thomas Roe

Emperor Jahangir’s drinking buddy is buried in a quiet London suburb
Sir Thomas Roe (1581-1644) played a lead role in connecting the histories of England and India. He was a man of many parts ; explorer of the Amazon river, scholar and Oxford graduate, member of Parliament, world traveller par excellence and royal envoy to the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire. But, Roe is most remembered for his remarkable role as the first English Ambassador to the court of the great Mughals, cracking open a door that would eventually lead to the British Empire being established in India.
For four extraordinary years between 1615 and 1618, Sir Thomas Roe travelled with the powerful Mughal ruler Jahangir, between Surat and Burhanpur and Ajmer and Agra, wooing the man on behalf of the English East India Company. His time in India is described as “…a remarkable episode in the life of a remarkable man, and an event of high importance in the history both of England and of India.”* Roe made copious notes of his travels and intrigues in India, and left behind detailed memoirs that provide a unique insight into the ways of the Mughal court as seen through a westerner’s eyes.
My research on Sir Thomas Roe had led me to his burial place at St Mary’s Church in Woodford, a quiet suburb of London. It’s ironic that a man who lived such a globe-trotting lifestyle, discussing momentous affairs of state with kings and queens of powerful nations, now lies silently forgotten in this tranquil church in a little-visited community of London.

The sun dappled St Mary’s Church in Woodford; the final resting place for Sir Thomas Roe
I had written to St Mary’s Church and received a prompt reply. Yes, their records showed that Thomas Roe was buried here, along with his wife Eleanor. The church’s annals from 1644 mentions his death and his burial on 8th November of that year, “…in the upper end of the chancel on the middle, his head lying…. vnder the Communion Table just so far as against the Brasse that is on Mrs Mabs stone, and his feet lying against ye wall at the East end of the Chancell….” . Though his grave did not now physically exist, due to a fire and later reconstruction of the church, I was still welcome and encouraged to visit.
So, on a crisp September morning, under a pale blue sky streaked with white clouds, I set off to meet Reverend Canon Ian Tarrant at the Church of St Mary’s in Woodford. The tube clattered its way through central London’s tunnels to emerge among the neat suburban row houses of Woodford. A quick ten minute walk from the South Woodford tube station, I arrived at the church, bathed in the dappled light of a weak winter sun. It was early afternoon by the time I reached, and the church was shut. I was free to walk around the small graveyard, taking in the sights and sounds, and imagining the lives and deaths of those buried here.

The graveyard at St Mary’s Church ; somewhere in here lies Sir Thomas Roe...
Sir Thomas Roe was appointed by royal sanction in 1614, the East India Company’s ambassador to the court of the Mughal ruler, Jahangir. At the time, the Mughals were the worlds most civilized center of power. Their dazzling courts at Agra and Delhi were filled with all the splendor and luxury that Asia was fabled for. Among the European powers, it was the Portuguese who had out maneuvered the English in establishing trade with India. And, it was Roe’s job to set that right. He was to secure protection for the East India Company’s factory at Surat (which he did), and obtain a Mughal firman for British monopoly in trade with India (which he could not).
Prior to Roe’s arrival at the Mughal court, English representatives in India had been merchants or ship captains. They had not got very far. It was felt that a “person of quality” was now needed to make an impression on the great Mughal and tilt the scales in England’s favor. In appointing Sir Thomas Roe, the Directors of East India Company had chosen well. Roe’s personality has been described in a string of superlatives; dignified, confident, well borne, well educated, of middle age, brave, loyal, and physically impressive. In other words, an ideal Ambassador who “would make a good impression and generate respect for the king and the country he represented”**.

The ancient door of St Mary’s Church; which Roe would have climbed to enter

Roe first landed at Surat on 18th September, 1615 after an eight month sea voyage. He decided not to go ashore at once, mindful that his landing should be an occasion of dignity and splendor, setting the tone for his efforts in India. Disappointingly for him, Roe immediately got embroiled with the local Governor in an endless list of provocations and petty protocol ; on whether his goods would be custom searched, on whether the Governor would first call on the Ambassador or the reverse, on whether some of the gifts he had bought from England would be confiscated or not. To add to Roe’s annoyance, he also faced resistance from his own English trading factors, who sullenly refused his claim as the chief Company official in India. Roe spent an unhappy five weeks in Surat, and must have been glad to see the back of the city, leaving on the next leg of his journey to Burhanpur to meet with Jahangir’s second son Prince Parvez.

Burhanpur is on the northern bank of the river Tapti. It may today be a place of lesser importance, but at the time of Roe’s visit it was the seat of the Mughal administration for the Deccan and a headquarters for the army. The Lal Qila, or Red Fort, which was probably the scene of Roe’s presentation to Prince Parvez, is still in existence though much dilapidated. At Burhanpur, Roe had his first meeting with Mughal royalty, which he describes in detail. He was met by the Kotwal (police official) a mile short of the city, and taken to a caravan-serai (a lodging house for travellers) where he stayed a few days. On November 18th he was taken to meet the Prince…

“I went to his palace, taking with me such a present I thought might be grateful to him. I was received at the gate of the outward court, in which were a hundred gentleman on horseback, armed, and making a lane, through which I was to pass. The Prince himself sat mounted up in a round gallery, in the inner court, with a royal canopy erected over him, and rich carpets spread before him. As I drew near him, an officer came and told me, I must pull off my hat, and touch the ground with my bare head. But that sort of ceremony, though it might become his own couriers well enough, yet I upon the privilege of my character made bold to refuse it. Coming within the rails, to the steps of his throne, i did him that reverence that I judged agreeable; in return to which he bowed his body….all the Grandees stood on both sides of him, in the most humble posture imaginable, with their hands folded before them, as if they had been tied….as a more than ordinary favour, I was permitted to ease myself, by leaning upon one of the pillars that supported his canopy. Upon the whole, I must say, the Prince carried it to me in a manner sufficiently courteous and obliging”.

Unfortunately for Roe, the private attendance he was due to have with the Prince, for “free and familiar conversation, in a more retired place” could not materialize. Some of the wine that Roe presented to the Prince, described as “bottles filled with rich cordial waters”, Prince Parvez had “supped so liberally from, that he became wholly unfit for Company at that time”.

After Burhanpur, Thomas Roe reached Ajmer and first met Jahangir in January 1616. He spent two years at Jahangir’s court, between Ajmer and Mandu, passionately pushing his case for concessions to English trade. If Roe’s accounts are to be believed, the Emperor himself was well disposed, enjoying his company as a drinking companion and curious about the arts and culture of Roe’s England. However, Roe could not get over a chilly relationship with the rest of the powerful coterie in Jahangir’s court ; his influential wife Nur Jahan, his favorite son Prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan, of Taj Mahal fame), and Nur Jahan’s powerful brother Asaf Khan, “whose good will it was not so easy to secure”.

Together, they were inherently distrustful of English influence, for there were personal considerations involved. The Empress had her own commercial interests, extensively investing in trading expeditions and reaping handsome profits. This was threatened by the European powers, whose purpose it was to lure the trade of India in to their own ships. So, despite his efforts that spanned a number of years, Roe could only manage partial concessions for English trade. By February 1619, having more or less reached a dead-end, Roe terminated his appointment as Ambassador and set sail back to London.

Sir Thomas Roe’s lasting achievements are as much political and economic as they are historical. Through out his years in India, Roe’s journals, written painstakingly day by day, and full of self righteous assertions of English prestige in the face of hostility and scorn for “traders from the west”, is both a historical treasure trove and a fascinating read.

The kindly Reverend Canon Ian Tarrant, in front of his predecessors
Back to the present, and St Mary’s Church was now opening its doors for the evening service. I met the pleasant Reverend Tarrant, grey bearded and grey haired, wearing his dignified black pastor’s robes, with the church keys dangling from his pockets. The Reverend showed me inside his church, which had existed for eight hundred years, since the twelfth century. We visited the new part of the church and the old, a massive fire having destroyed nearly everything apart from the foundations and the distinctive back tower. Reverend Tarrant was as enthused by history as I was, and he walked me across to a special plaque on the wall which listed past Rectors for this church, starting from 1221. I searched out the name of the Rector who would have been serving when Thomas Roe died in 1644, and who may well have conducted Roe’s burial service: Reverend William Isaacson.
The church was now filled with music, with a man practicing the organ for the evening service. The pews were getting filled with the residents of Woodford slowly coming in. It was time for me take a few last photos, thank the Reverend for opening this small window on Sir Thomas Roe, and take my leave.
* “The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, as narrated in his journal and correspondence”. Volume 1, London – printed for the Hakluyt Society. Preface, page 2
** “Itinerant ambassador. The life of Sir Thomas Roe”. By Michael John Brown. Published by The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1970. Page 32

A day in the life of Jahangir

One of the unique aspects of Mughal court life – compared to European courts – is that it was seldom permanent and often on the move. The Emperor travelled around his kingdom, depending on where wars or rebellions would take him, and the entire splendor and ceremony of his court would move with him. On those days that the Mughal Emperor was not at war, or out hunting or managing diplomatic encounters, he attended to matters of state. Thomas Roe has described for us such a day in the life of Emperor Jahangir.
The day begins at dawn…“early in the morning, at that very time the Sun begins to appear above the horizon, he (Jahangir) appears unto his people in a place very like unto one of our balconies, made in his houses or pavilions for his morning appearance, directly opposite to the East, about seven or eight foot high from the ground”. This was a practice for all Mughal kings, appearing in front of their subjects at prescribed times, reinforcing their majesty and reassuring that all was well. When Jahangir appeared on the balcony, “a very great number of his people, especially of the greater sort, who desire as often as they can to appear in his eye, assemble there together, to give him the Salaam, or good morning, crying all out, as soon as they see their King, with a loud voice, Paadsha Salaamat, which signifies Live O Great King”.
Much of the day would be spent on administrative matters, sometimes in the Hall of Public Audience, where the emperor would receive petitions, make appointments and give audiences. At times, Jahangir would use his private hall, to discuss confidential business with his principal ministers. Every Tuesday, Jahangir would sit in judgment for cases that had been bought before him, listening to the complaints of “the lowliest man as he did to those of the highest”. Apart from the dawn public appearance, twice more during the day, Jahangir would follow the same ritual…”at noon he shows himself in another place…on the South-side; and a little before sunset, in a like place, on the west side..”.
For the famously debonair Jahangir, the evening was given to merry making. “as soon as the sun forsakes the hemisphere, he leaves his people, ushered in and out with drums and wind instruments, and the peoples acclamations….and between seven and nine of the clock at night, he sits within his house or tent more privately in a spacious place called the Goozalkan (Ghusualkhana), or bathing house, made bright like day by abundance of lights….Here the king sits mounted upon a stately throne ; where his nobles, and such as are favored by him, stand about him; others find admittance to, but by special leave from his Guard, who cause every one that enters that place to breathe upon them, and if they imagine that any have drunk wine, they keep them out”.

This was the time that Roe found most apt for discussions, as…”it was a good time to do business with the King, who then was for the most part very pleasant, and full of talk unto those who were around him, and so continued till he fell asleep (oft times by drinking), and then all assembled immediately quitted the place, besides those who were his trusted servants, who by turns watched his person”.*
* Page 389, Terry’s account. “The Embassy of Thomas Roe to India 1615-1619”. Edited by William Foster, London. Printed by the Hakluyt Society

The captivating beauty of Lady Eleanor

Just weeks before leaving England to spend his four years in India, in 1613, Thomas Roe married Lady Eleanor Beeston, a young widow. She did not accompany Roe to India, choosing to stay back in England, but travelled with him on his subsequent ambassadorial trips to Constantinople and other places.
There is a fascinating account in Roe’s memoirs, of a portrait of Eleanor’s that Roe carried with him to India and that caught Jahangir’s eye. When Jahangir saw the portrait, he mentioned that he had never seen such a beauty and asked who she was. Roe evaded the question by saying the picture was of a “friend of mine that was dead”, and that he could not give it to Jahangir because “it was the image of one that i loved dearly and could never recover”.
The Roe’s were happily married for thirty years but remained childless, adopting an orphaned girl. Eleanor died in 1675, thirty years after her husband, and left special instructions that she was to be buried by his side. “in as private a manner as he was”. Husband and wife rest together at St Mary’s Church in Woodford.

* Page 254-256, “The Embassy of Thomas Roe to India 1615-1619”. Edited by William Foster, London. Printed by the Hakluyt Society.

An Ambassador’s wages

What financial inducements did Sir Thomas Roe receive for being Ambassador to the Mughal court, and for the years that he spent in India?
Roe was provided a salary of six hundred pounds a year, of which half, at his own request, was in Company stock (who says stock options are a modern incentive…?!). In addition, Roe received a long list of perks ; “For the expenses of his outfit the Crown bestowed upon him five hundred marks; a similar sum was advanced from his first year’s salary to satisfy some debts that he oweth abroad; and £100/- was lent for purchase of plate for his table.” Roe was also given a chaplain and a surgeon (with wages of £50 and £24 per annum respectively), and for the rest of his servants, he received a further allowance of £130 a year for wages and cost of liveries.
Roe was asked to keep an account of all his expenses, which he diligently did. All food and household expenses would be charged to the Company “unless the Mogul should make an allowance for this purpose”. And, to keep Roe focused on his job as an Ambassador and nothing else, he was expressly bound to abstain from all private trade.

A King’s Flowery Speech

In case you were wondering how Kings wrote to each other in times gone by, here is a translation of the “Grand Mogul’s” letter to King James II, which makes for a fascinating read.
“…Unto a King rightly descended from his ancestors, bred in military affairs, and clothed with honor and justice, a commander worthy of all command, strong and constant in religion, which the great Prophet Christ did teach, King JAMES, who’s love hath bred such impression in my thoughts, as shall never be forgotten, but as the smell of amber, or as a garden of fragrant flowers, whose beauty and odor is still increasing, so be assured my love shall grow and increase with yours.
Your letter which you sent me in the behalf of your merchants, I have received, whereby I felt satisfied in your tender love towards me ; and desire you not to take it ill, for not having writ unto you heretofore; for this is my present letter, I send to renew our loves, and herewith do certify you, that I have sent forth my firmans through all my Countries to this effect, that if any English ships or merchants shall arrive on any of my ports, my people shall permit and suffer them to do what they will, freely, in their merchandising causes, aiding and assisting them in all occasions of injuries that shall be offered them, and that the least cause of discourtesy be not done unto them, as also, that they be as free and freer than my own people…
….and if any in my Country, not fearing God, nor obeying their King, or any other void of religion, should endeavor or be an instrument to break this league of friendship, I would send my son Sultan Khurram, a soldier approved in the wars, to cut him off, that no obstacle may hinder the continuance and increasing of our affections”.

How to get here:

Take the underground to South Woodford station on the central line. Exit the station on to George Lane, and walk along George Lane, past a shopping center till the end of the road. Then, turn right on to High Road. A few minutes walk from here, the church is on the left, opposite the Woodford Public Library. The total walking distance from the Tube station is about ten minutes.

Information:

  • Closest Tube : South Woodford (Central Line)
  • Open from 8am to 6.30pm.
  • Toilet facilities
  • Wheelchair access
  • Parking available on the road

Sources:

  1. “The Embassy of Thomas Roe to India 1615-1619”. Edited by William Foster, London. Printed by the Hakluyt Society
  2. “An account of Sir Thomas Roe’s embassy to the court of the Great Mogul”. Collected by John Harris. Published 1705.
  3. “Itinerant ambassador. The life of Sir Thomas Roe”. By Michael John Brown. Published by The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1970
  4. “Sir Thomas Roe and the Mughal Empire”. By Colin Paul Mitchell. Published by Area Study Centre for Europe, University of Karachi, 2000
  5. St Mary’s Church, Woodford, Essex : Archive Book
India Heritage
Adil Ahmad
[email protected]

Adil Ahmad has worked with Multinational companies across India, England, Mideast, East Asia….but his passion has always been in history and culture! Adil is deeply curious and about India’s heritage and its many stories, and being widely travelled and a voracious researcher of all things historical, loves discovering ‘hidden gems” that he knows will interest other readers. Adil is a history graduate from Delhi University (where the seeds of his heritage-passion were sown…) and an MBA. Having finished with his corporate career, he is now a full-time heritage nerd.