This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England’s remarkable alliance with the Muslim world

Jerry Brotton introduces his study on the ties between Elizabethan England and the Islamic world during the 16th century - It was the start of a unique alliance with the Muslim world and it initiated a flow of ideas, commerce and culture.

Elizabethan England is rarely associated with people and events beyond what William Shakespeare called “this sceptred isle”. But throughout her 45-year reign from 1558 to 1603, Queen Elizabeth I established close diplomatic, commercial and military ties with Muslim rulers in a series of coalitions designed to resist their common enemy – Catholic Spain.

These alliances sought common ground between the religious beliefs of Protestantism and Sunni Islam. They brought Muslims to London and led hundreds if not thousands of English men and women to travel to Islamic lands, many living and dying there, and some even converting to Islam. It is one of the great forgotten stories of Elizabeth’s reign, but one that seems important to remember now more than ever, as anti-Islamic rhetoric continues to denigrate the British Muslim community and shows little understanding of the historical connections between Muslims and Christians.

Nobody in Elizabethan England would have recognised the word “Muslim”.

Elizabeth’s pro-Islamic policy was conceived as a pragmatic political response to her increasing isolation within Catholic-dominated Europe. In 1570, when it became clear that Elizabeth would never renounce Protestantism, Pope Pius V excommunicated her. Elizabeth responded by seeking an alliance with the one global superpower able to protect her from Catholic papal and Spanish aggression: the Ottoman Empire. Her excommunication placed her outside papal edicts forbidding Christians from trading with Muslims. This allowed her to create the Turkey Company (subsequently the Levant Company) and to send a Norfolk merchant called William Harborne to Constantinople to establish a political and commercial friendship with Sultan Murad III.

Harborne signed a commercial treaty acknowledging Murad’s superior imperial power, and Elizabeth began shipping munitions to the Ottomans, made from lead stripped from deconsecrated Catholic churches. English trading stations opened in Muslim cities across North Africa and the Middle East and Harborne encouraged Murad to fight the Spanish in the Mediterranean in an unsuccessful attempt to distract King Philip II from launching the Armada in 1588. Elizabeth developed a friendly correspondence with both Murad and his consort, Safiye Sultan. They exchanged exotic gifts: the Ottomans sent jewels, silks and fashionable Turkish clothes; Elizabeth responded with cloth, clocks, carriages and her portrait. She even sent a Thomas Dallam, from Lancaster, to present the sultan with a clockwork musical organ, which he played before an amused Ottoman court in 1599.

Elizabeth’s alliances were not confined to the Ottomans. Before her excommunication she was supporting English trade with the Saadian Moroccan dynasty, once more exporting munitions, this time in exchange for saltpetre (used to make gunpowder) and importing sugar, which did so much damage to her teeth. As with the Ottomans, the Anglo-Moroccan alliance was based on common anti-Spanish sentiment and was so successful that it led to the creation of the Barbary Company in 1585. The queen also fostered a friendship with the Safavid Shia empire of Shah Tahmasp. In 1562 English Muscovy Company representatives travelled through Raqqa, Fallujah and Baghdad before reaching the shah’s court in Qazvin in 1562, where they learned of the distinctions between Sunni and Shia beliefs, which some compared to the sectarian conflicts dividing Protestants and Catholics. They also returned to London bringing with them a young Muslim Tatar woman they named Aura Soltana. She became the queen’s devoted servant who wore fashionable Granadan silk dresses and Spanish leather shoes.

The goods, ideas and even words that entered England from the Muslim world transformed English life. Imports from Turkey and Morocco enabled Elizabethans to display rugs and carpets, wear silk and cotton in new designs, drink sweet wines and incorporate various condiments into their diet, including aniseed, nutmeg, mace, turmeric and pistachios. The demand for currants alone from Ottoman-controlled Greek islands was so great that at the height of Elizabeth’s reign that 2,300 tonnes were being imported annually. “Sugar”, “candy”, “crimson” (from the Turkish kirmiz), “turquoise” (or “Turkey stone”), “indigo” and “tulip” (from the Turkish pronunciation of Persian dulband, or “turban”), even “zero” all entered the language and took on their modern associations during this period, primarily thanks to Anglo-Islamic trade.

The relationship of Elizabethan England towards Islam was understood as one of inferiority. In the late 16th century England was a small, isolated island off Europe that many believed would not sustain Protestantism for more than a generation. The so-called “capitulations” Elizabeth signed with Murad explicitly named her as a supplicant, and the Ottomans were appalled to hear that a woman ruled the country (when they could remember where England was).

This did not mean that the two religions sought some tolerant, comparative understanding of each other’s faith. Elizabeth exploited Catholic assumptions that Protestantism and Islam were both “heresies” of one true faith. She wrote to Sultan Murad calling herself the “most mighty defender of the Christian faith against all kind of idolatries, of all that live among the Christians, and falsely profess the name of Christ”. It was a shrewd move that suggested her faith, like Murad’s, rejected Catholic intercession and “idolatry”, and believed in the power of their respective holy books. The Ottomans responded by describing Harborne approvingly as a “Lutheran ambassador”, and reportedly instructing prayers to be recited in Constantinople praising Martin Luther. They even wrote to Calvinist rebels in Holland praising their struggle against Spanish Catholicism.

Such alliances led to a remarkable movement of people between the two cultures. English men and women worked and lived within Muslim communities, mainly in trade, throughout the Islamic-dominated Mediterranean. Some like the Norfolk merchant Samson Rowlie converted to Islam. In 1577 Rowlie was captured by Turkish pirates off Algiers where he was castrated, converted and took the name Hassan Aga. By the 1580s he was living in Ottoman-controlled Algiers as its chief eunuch and treasurer, corresponding with Harborne and showing no appetite for returning to England and the Protestant fold. Conversions also went the other way. In 1586 Francis Drake returned to England from Colombia with a hundred Turks rescued from Spanish enslavement. One of them, known only as “Chinano”, converted to Protestantism, took the name William Hawkins and lived out the rest of his life in London alongside many other Muslims working in various trades across the city, some recorded as converting to Christianity, while others did not, and presumably continued to quietly practise their Muslim faith.

It is difficult to assess the sincerity of any of the recorded conversions between Christianity and Islam and what happened to Chinano or the other hundred Turks is unclear. But they represent a largely silent Muslim presence in Elizabethan London that was bolstered by more visible and elite arrivals. In 1589 the Moroccan ambassador Ahmed Bilqasim entered London in state, surrounded by Barbary Company merchants, proposing an Anglo-Moroccan military initiative against “the common enemy the King of Spain”. Although the anti-Spanish proposal came to nothing, the Moroccan ambassador sailed in an English fleet later that year that attacked Lisbon with the support of the Moroccan ruler, Mulay Ahmed Al Mansur (another of Elizabeth’s correspondents).

Just over 10 years later another Moroccan ambassador arrived in London, this time with a retinue of followers who stayed for six months living in a house on the Strand and negotiating another anti-Spanish alliance. Muhammad Al Annuri arrived in the autumn of 1600 and was described by various Londoners with a mixture of admiration, fear and anxiety. He had his portrait painted, met Elizabeth and her advisers twice and even proposed a Protestant-Islamic invasion of Spain and naval attack on its American colonies. The plan only seems to have foundered because Elizabeth feared upsetting the Ottomans, who were at the time Al Mansur’s adversaries.

The complex English relationship with the Ottomans is captured in the remarkable life of Anthony Sherley. In 1598 Sherley travelled to Persia where he befriended Shah Abbas. Rather than reproducing the standard Elizabethan line about the Anglo-Ottoman friendship, Sherley converted to Catholicism. He agreed to act as the shah’s ambassador, travelling back to the European courts, trying to broker a grand Shia-Catholic alliance against Sunni Ottoman dominance. The project came to nothing partly because Sherley behaved so badly, leaving a trail of debt and distrust wherever he went before his death in the 1620s.

The Muslim presence in Elizabethan London can be also be felt in the drama of the period. Sherley's time in Persia is mentioned casually in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, just one of more than 60 plays performed between 1576 and 1603 that were staged featuring Turks, Moors and Persians, from Marlowe's Tamburlaine to Shakespeare's Othello, which was written within months of Al Annuri's departure.

Although the alliance came to an end with Elizabeth’s death and her successor James I’s decision to make peace with Catholic Spain, it remains a significant but neglected aspect of Elizabethan history.

What this brief-but-remarkable moment reveals is that Muslims have been a part of Britain for much longer than many people imagine.

Today, when much is made of the “clash of civilisations” between Islam and Christianity, it is also timely to remember that the roots of the connections between the two faiths are much deeper and more entangled than much of today’s ill-informed western media seems to appreciate. In the 16th century, Islamic empires like those of the Ottomans far surpassed the power and influence of a small and relatively insignificant state such as England in military power, political organisation and commercial reach. It turns out that Islam in all its manifestations – imperial, military and commercial – is part of the national story of England. One way of encouraging tolerance and inclusiveness at a time when both are in short supply is to show both Muslim and Christian communities how, more than four centuries ago, absolute theological belief often yielded to strategic considerations, political pressures and the pursuit of wealth.

In a period of volatile and shifting political and religious allegiances, Muslims and Christians were forced to find a common language of messy and uneasy coexistence, regardless of the official injunctions of their faith. Despite the sometime intemperate religious rhetoric, the conflict between Christian Europe and the Islamic world was then, as now, defined as much by the struggle for power and precedence as by theology.

The story of the Anglo-Islamic alliance in the Elizabethan period is part of the heritage of Christians, Muslims and any others who call themselves English.

Jerry Brotton is a professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London. His book, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World was published last month.

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