Historian and award-winning author Jerry Brotton on Elizabethan England’s alliance with the Islamic world.
Historical events have a way of overtaking a book. When This Orient Isle was published in March 2017, I hoped that it might enable some calmer reflection on the status of today’s British Muslim community by seeing it within a much longer history of Anglo-Islamic relations. What I could never have anticipated was that the vote to leave the European Union last June would fill me with a profound sense of déjà vu. It returned me to the moment nearly 450 years ago when England’s relations with Europe also collapsed, with unforeseen consequences, including a remarkable alliance with the Islamic world.
My story begins in February 1570 when Queen Elizabeth I was officially excommunicated from the Catholic church by Pope Pius V. It was a theological Brexit that labelled Elizabeth illegitimate and a heretic and condemned Protestant England as a rogue state isolated from the rest of predominantly Catholic Europe. Elizabeth faced imminent invasion and economic ruin with the country’s staple wool exports shut out of the Low Countries. Her advisers counselled that the only way to survive was to make alliances with her enemy’s enemy. The result was that with the support of her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, she began negotiations with the sixteenth-century global superpower also condemned by its papal adversary as heretical: Islam, and in particular the Ottoman Empire.
Over the next ten years Elizabeth developed an amicable correspondence with the Ottoman sultan Murad III, advising him that they were united in their antipathy towards what she characterised as idolatrous Catholics, and that she would be happy to act as his subject in return for a political and commercial alliance. Murad was rather perplexed to hear from a female ruler of a tiny country on the edge of Europe that he’d never heard of, but this was a time when Islam saw assimilation on its terms as a sign of its power rather than weakness (the empire was populated and partly run by Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Croats and Serbs). Writing back to ‘Sultana Isabel’, Murad offered her English joint stock companies a commercial agreement (that remained in place until 1922 when the empire fell), strictly on his terms, that infuriated Spain, Italy and Venice. Official papal policy was to excommunicate Christians trading with Muslims: but Elizabeth was beyond such edicts. By the 1580s Elizabeth had a resident ambassador in Istanbul (then Constantinople) and consuls throughout North Africa and the Middle East, some in places like Aleppo and Raqqa. Many would have felt safer travelling in Muslim lands under Ottoman protection than Catholic Europe, where arrest and the Inquisition invariably awaited them.
Our modern scandals of illicit arms shipments to Iran and Iraq are nothing new; their equivalents can be found in Elizabeth’s pro-Ottoman policy. English wool was a tough sell in Turkey, so with characteristic pragmatism as well as a keen eye for symbolic revenge, Elizabeth stripped lead and tin from deconsecrated Catholic churches to export to the Ottomans as munitions in their wars with the Shia Persian empire, ‘which the Turk buys of them’ wrote an outraged Spanish ambassador to England, ‘almost for its weight in gold, the tin being vitally necessary for the casting of guns and the lead for purposes of war’. The trade was so successful that it was replicated in the Barbary states of North Africa, where again English armaments were traded for gold and sugar (hence Elizabeth’s infamously bad teeth). English merchants also travelled as far as Persia, playing the Shah off against his Ottoman adversaries in a dangerous geopolitical game, aimed at neutralising the Catholic threat of imminent Spanish invasion and keeping the ailing English economy afloat.
Nor was this a story limited to the realpolitik of the elite. Hundreds, possibly thousands of Elizabethans worked and lived in the Islamic world. All acknowledged Ottoman sovereignty and many converted to Islam, some under duress, others willingly, assuming that being Muslim would assure their survival more than Protestantism. One such individual was a merchant called Samson Rowlie, born in Norfolk but taken prisoner on a Turkey Company ship off Algiers in 1577. Samson was castrated and converted to Islam and became Hassan Aga, the Chief Eunuch and Treasurer to the Ottoman ruler of Algiers. Conversion rarely went the other way. Various Moroccan trade delegations visited London throughout Elizabeth’s reign, though they were rarely impressed, and all were happy to return to their homelands. The Ottomans never visited: despite their formal alliance with Elizabeth, they never regarded travelling to her court as being diplomatically or commercially of sufficient significance, in contrast with their preoccupation with much more pressing relations with the Barbary states of North Africa, Persia and Mughal India.
The heady mix of trade, religion and politics inspired by Elizabeth’s pro-Ottoman policy soon caught the eye of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and from the late 1580s the Elizabethan theatre was full of Turks, Moors, Persians and Saracens. Between 1579 and 1624 there are at least 62 plays with Islamic characters, themes or settings. Many of these appear in some of the most influential plays of the period, including Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587-88) (which burns the Koran onstage). They include Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus with its evil, scheming Moor, Aaron, the noble, melancholic Prince of Morocco in The Merchant and Venice, and culminated in Othello. The enduring ambivalence audiences still feel toward the tortured Moor of Venice is a sign of the deliberate ambiguity that Shakespeare and other dramatists exploited in the portrayal of such characters.
The greatest irony of all is that the theological Brexit that led to this flowering of Anglo-Islamic relations was commercially unsustainable. The trade was too far and Elizabeth’s successor King James I was more squeamish than her in pursuing such an alliance. In 1604 he signed the Peace of London, a treaty with Spain that ended Protestant-Catholic conflict and enabled the English to return to the heart of European trade and politics. The untold story of Elizabeth’s Islamic alliance should remind us that the UK’s beleaguered Islamic community has a much longer history on these isles that many imagine, and that the nationalist cry against globalisation that inspired Brexit was driven by a vision of Anglo-Saxon English purity that never existed anyway. It all might sound a long way from the UK’s current negotiations over exiting the EU, but it is surely the responsibility of historians to keep telling politicians that our cultures and societies have always overlapped and borrowed from each other in far more creative ways than the inauthentic dog whistles of nationalism or the clash of civilisations that drive so much of today’s political rhetoric. The story of Elizabeth’s complex pro-Islamic policy and the events it inspired, is one that should unite this country’s many diverse communities, rather than divide them.
Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Penguin, 2016), which won the HWA Non-fiction Crown 2017.
- Elizabeth I: The Armada Portrait © National Portrait Gallery
- Sultan Murad III, Wikipedia Commons
- 1630 handbill for Othello