Persian Petitioning and Serendipitous Research

As an eternal glutton for punishment, I was researching in the Archive Reading Room in the Houses of Parliament in January earlier this year. In the list of Petitions to the House of Lords in my period of research, there was one particular Petition which stood out from the others. Amidst the multitudes of petty disputes and unsettled debts, a Petition of the 8th May 1628 is unique; it describes a desperate plea for financial assistance for a disabled Persian man, Joseph Alley (Ali) and his wife. It is catalogued as the ‘Petition of Joseph Alley, son of the late Lord Steward to the Emperor of Persia. Being desirous of becoming a Christian, came to this country with the late ambassador, but is now sick and in great distress.’ The full Petition reads,

To the most Reverende and right honnorable: the Lords Spirituall & temporall in the highe house of Parliament assembled. The Humble Petition of Joseph Alley.

Humbly Sheweth,

That Whereas your subjects father beinge Lord Steward to the Emperor of Persia, the petitioner obtaining leave to come over with the late Ambassador, and for the greate desire wch hee had to become a Christian, and trulie worship and serve the true God, hath forsaken his parente countrie and frendes to live here.

And being nowe in that extreame miserie through wante of meanes that hee and his wyffe shall utterlie perishe unless yor Honnors clemencie bee extended for his ymmediate relief herin.

If we give whereof and for that the petitioner and his wife having been for so long tyme such that they had, and having goods better worth than £20: Money in pounds £6, wch wilbe forfetted for wante of money to redeeme it.

This most humble suite is that yor Lords in commiseracone of his moste miserable estate wilbe honourably pleased to sette sound course for his presente meanes and yearly supportacone, he having of late received such a bruse, as he cannot labor for his lyvnge being noble borne and not trained to merchante affairs, yet nowe wante means to buy his food.

And is in dutie bounde, he shall dailie praye for yor Lord’s live long and happie lives.

HL/PO/JO/10/1/35

As I was transcribing this manuscript, in the unfathomably luxurious reading room in the Palace of Westminster, I recalled a Guardian article which I had read whilst travelling to London earlier that day. The article reported on the distressingly high number of migrant refugees – 539, many of which of Iranian descent – who had attempted to cross the English Channel and reach the safety and security of Britain’s shores in 2018. Reading this petition, in the very building in which it was delivered 391 years earlier, made me pause. The petition, which offered the briefest glimpse into the tragic narrative of Joseph Alley and his wife, felt all the more pertinent because of the paralleling circumstances of the faceless and nameless refugees which sparingly reached our daily news reel.

Since that day in early January, alongside more focused research, I have tried to uncover additional details of the fate of Joseph Alley and his wife. I’ve tried to do this, not because their story is particularly relevant to my thesis, but because it is a story worth telling, and one which has struck a very personal chord with me.

Unfortunately, six months had passed, and I had been unable to find out any further details of Joseph Alley’s plight, or that of his unnamed wife. Last week, however, whilst scouring through the Calendar of State Papers for an entirely unrelated purpose, the name of Joseph Alley appeared. The entry of the 24th January 1628 reads, ‘Joseph Alley, one of the late Persian Ambassador’s servants, received a hurt in the yard at Blackwall by a piece of timber falling upon him.’ It wasn’t much, but it did, however, unveil the nature and circumstances of his disability, as well as reinvigorate my desire to unearth his story.

After further research, in the Guildhall Library Manuscripts, the name of Joseph Alley appeared once more. The records state that ‘Joseph Alley, a Persian borne’ was buried on the 27th July 1630 at St Botolph’s on Aldgate. A church which, with bizarre serendipitous happenstance, I myself had inadvertently set foot in, not forty eight hours prior. The church of St Botolph, the patron saint of travellers, is the final resting place for a significant number of people, just like Joseph Alley, of Asian or African origin who had found their way to early modern London.

His burial at St Botolph’s was, undoubtedly, a sentiment designed to offer spiritual support for Joseph Alley’s body and soul. Unfortunately, however, the reality of the situation, as the Petition to the House of Lords lays bare, is that Joseph Alley’s body and soul were in dire need of help long before he died. This story of Joseph Alley and his wife must, ultimately, serve as a warning against the consequences of inaction. Although incomplete, it reconfirms the necessity of studying our collective human history in the twenty first century, as Joseph Alley’s plea for help resonates firmly out of 1628 and into 2019.

Thomas Collins


Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/35.

St Botolph Aldgate: 27 July 1630, burial of ‘Joseph Alley, a Persian borne’ (GL Ms 9222/2 p.87)

‘East Indies: January 1628’, in Calendar of State Papers Colonial, East Indies, China and Persia, Volume 6, 1625-1629, ed. W Noel Sainsbury (London, 1884), pp. 439-458. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/colonial/east-indies-china-japan/vol6/pp439-458

[accessed 24 June 2019]

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