At a time when many people rarely travelled beyond the village or town in which they were born, the assumption is that England in the late 15th and 16th century was defined by the timeless rhythms of agrarian Anglo-Saxon traditions: exclusively white and Christian. Even Henry VIII’s split from Rome in the 1530s was seen as a religious controversy involving high European politics that had little bearing on everyday life in the country’s shires.


For many people living outside London this picture may have been true, but in recent years historical research has begun to offer a far more complicated story of this sceptered isle’s relations with the wider world, even beyond Europe. One of the most striking instances of such relations which has a particular resonance today is England’s longstanding encounter with the Islamic world. There is a tendency to believe that Anglo-Islamic relations are defined by the significant immigration of Muslims communities from South Asia from the 1950s, but this is only one dimension of a much longer and more complicated story.

The first stories of the Islamic faith – as well as its imperial power – entered England with the Crusades. Beginning in the late 11th century, the crusades were a series of military expeditions mounted by western European Christians in a bid to conquer the Holy Land. Perceptions of the Muslim faith were predictably confused and generally hostile. Early Christian commentators regarded Islam as either a pagan religion or a heretical belief that emerged from early Judeo-Christian theology. William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1370–86) described the Prophet Muhammad as a “Cristene man” pursuing the wrong beliefs, while Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387–1400) spoke of the “strange nacioun” of Syria.

With the rise of the Ottoman Empire as a global force following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the early Tudors became aware that Islam was both a threat to Christianity but also a potential ally in the shifting sands of European politics and diplomacy. Henry VIII was known to dress in fashionable Ottoman attire, appearing at courtly events dressed in Turkish silken and velvet robes, and in 1533 as he broke from Rome he entertained plans to join a Franco-Ottoman alliance to combat the Habsburg-Papal axis that united the two great European Catholic powers of Pope Clement VII and the emperor Charles V. Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors (1533) depicts the French ambassadors who came to London that year to broker the alliance.

But Henry’s alliance with the Ottomans did not come to fruition, primarily because of his domestic problems, and because for the Turks, the English were peripheral players in the larger geopolitical world picture of the 1530s.

Trading on the Silk Road

Privately, English merchants had been quietly trading with the Muslim rulers of the Barbary states [a collection of North African states, many of which practiced state-supported piracy in order to exact tribute from weaker Atlantic powers] in modern-day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. This went against long-standing papal edicts forbidding Christians from trading with Muslims on pain of excommunication. The Venetians had been turning a blind eye to such injunctions in their trade with Muslim kingdoms for centuries.

Elizabeth I, having been excommunicated already [by Pope Pius V in 1570, for “having seized on the kingdom and monstrously usurped the place of supreme head of the church in all England”], when she came to the throne in 1558 Elizabeth and her advisers saw an opportunity to enrich the kingdom and antagonise Catholic Europe by reaching out to not only Barbary states but also the Ottomans and the Safavid empire in modern-day Iran.

Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603), queen of England and Ireland (1558 - 1603). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Although papal edicts forbade Christians from trading with Muslims, Queen Elizabeth I had already been excommunicated when she came to the throne and built profitable relationships with Islamic countries. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Elizabeth already had a context for Anglo-Islamic contact: in 1553, an English textiles merchant named Anthony Jenkinson was trading in Aleppo – the terminus of the Silk Road, where any ambitious merchant interested in cloth and silk needed to be – and met with the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Jenkinson successfully established the first ever commercial privileges for the English to trade freely in Ottoman lands. On his return to England Jenkinson was appointed as the first representative of the newly formed Muscovy Company [a body of English merchants trading with Russia] and sent to trade with the Safavid shah of Iran, Tahmasp I.

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In 1562 Jenkinson arrived in Qazvin (near modern-day Tehran), where he observed the theological differences between the Persian Shi’a beliefs in contrast to the Ottoman Sunni theology, the latter tracing its descent directly back to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Anglo-Safavid trade prospered briefly, but the logistical and financial costs of such long-distance commerce (conducted via Russia) made it unsustainable. But Barbary and Turkey were much closer, and so in the late 1570s Elizabeth I and her advisers began to openly encourage the trade with the former and proposed a significant new initiative with the latter. In 1578 Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham wrote a ‘Memorandum on the Turkey trade’ proposing that Elizabeth send a merchant-come-ambassador to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) to establish a commercial and political alliance with the Ottoman empire of Sultan Murad III.

In 1579 the Norfolk-born merchant William Harborne arrived in Constantinople to represent yet another new Elizabethan trading initiative: the Levant Company. Established to organise commerce between the Levant (modern-day Turkey) and England, the company was given royal assent just two years later. The Ottomans accepted Harborne and other Englishmen as dhimmi (‘zimmi’), protected guests who paid a tax to remain unmolested in Muslim territory.

With Harborne’s help, Elizabeth’s merchants began a contraband trade shipping scrap-metal to Constantinople which was then made into munitions for the Ottomans’ wars with the Spanish and Persians. The metal came from the roofs and bells stripped from deconsecrated Catholic churches and monasteries.

The Spanish were outraged. In 1582 their London ambassador, Bernadino de Mendoza, wrote to his superior, Philip II, complaining that the English trade “is extremely profitable to them, as they take great quantities of tin and lead thither, which the Turk buys of them almost for its weight in gold, the tin being vitally necessary for the casting of guns and the lead for purposes of war”.

Bernadino de Mendoza concluded that it “is of double importance to the Turk now, in consequence of the excommunication proposed ipse facto by the Pope upon any person who provides or sells to infidels such materials as these”.

Political-religious alliances

Elizabeth was by this time writing cordial letters to Sultan Murad III proposing an anti-Spanish political-religious alliance. In October 1579 she wrote a letter that made the religious aspect of the alliance explicit, describing herself as “the most invincible and 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”. The letter greeted Murad as “the most mighty ruler of the kingdom of Turkey, sole and above all, the most sovereign monarch of the East Empire”.

Murad III (1546-1595), sultan of the Ottoman Empire. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Murad III, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, had an "affable" relationship with Elizabeth I. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Murad responded with letters of his own and the pair established an affable correspondence that continued throughout the 1580s. When Murad died in 1595 his mother continued the correspondence with Elizabeth – they exchanged various gifts including a carriage and a clockwork organ sent to Constantinople by Elizabeth in 1599.

William Harborne remained in Constantinople for eight years, working closely with the Ottoman court, who referred to him as “Luteran elchisi” – the Lutheran ambassador. During his time there he signed the first English alliance with Murad called the ‘Capitulations’, which remained in place until 1923 when the Ottoman Empire finally fell. The Capitulations enabled English merchants to trade freely throughout the Ottoman dominions, giving them preferential rates on customs duties, and also protecting any Englishman attacked by Catholics or Muslims. He also appointed English consuls across the Ottoman empire in Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, Tripoli, Jerusalem and Aleppo.

In the late 1580s Harborne was also encouraged by Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham to persuade Murad to engage the Spanish fleet in the Mediterranean in an attempt to disrupt plans for the Armada that finally set sail in 1588. Walsingham did not succeed in this bold attempt, mainly because the Ottomans were uninterested in fighting the Spanish simply to please the English. Nevertheless, he certainly stopped a Turco-Spanish peace deal, based on Harborne’s subtle machinations at the Ottoman court.

Harborne’s mission also brought about a series of religious conversions between Protestantism and Islam. One of the most colourful examples is that of Samson Rowlie, a merchant from Great Yarmouth. In 1577 Rowlie was captured by Ottoman pirates off Algiers, castrated and converted to Islam. By the 1580s he was known as Hassan Aga, chief eunuch and treasurer of Algiers under its Ottoman governor, responsible for corresponding with Harborne – and with no interest in returning to England, which was under immediate threat of invasion by Catholic Spain.

Conversion also (infrequently) went the other way. In 1586 a Turkish sailor named Chinano the Turk was publicly converted to Protestantism. Chinano (a corruption of ‘Sinan’) was captured by Spanish privateers in the eastern Mediterranean, enslaved and taken to Colombia in the early 1580s. In 1586, when Sir Francis Drake attacked Cartagena, Spain, he captured several Turks including Chinano and brought them back to London. Following his conversion Chinano disappears from the historical record, but the assumption is that he continued to live, work and probably die in London alongside other Turks and ‘Moors’ (Muslims from Barbary).

As the Turkish trade prospered throughout the 1580s, Elizabeth I continued to support the trade with Barbary and its ruler, Ahmad al-Mansur. In 1585 she backed the creation of the Barbary Company, formalising the longstanding trade. As with her alliance with the Ottomans, common religious interests and opposition to Spanish Catholic aggression set the tone for the exchanges of letters and embassies. Morocco traded its gold and sugar (which caused havoc with Elizabeth’s teeth) in exchange for English cloth, and more importantly metal and saltpeter, which were used to make gunpowder.

England’s trade with Turkey, Morocco and Persia (which continued intermittently throughout this period) transformed the domestic economy of Elizabethan England, from what people ate to what they wore – and even what they said. As well as sugar, silks and spices, Persian and Ottoman rugs and carpets covered Elizabethan interiors. The words ‘sugar’, ‘candy’, ‘crimson’ (from the Turkish kirmiz); ‘turquoise’ (or ‘Turkey stone’); ‘tulip’ (from the Turkish pronunciation of Persian dulband, or ‘turban’) and even ‘zero’ all entered the English language and took on their modern associations during this period, primarily thanks to the effects of Anglo-Islamic trade.

Alliances reflected on the stage

The scale of the Ottoman and Moroccan alliances was reflected on the Elizabethan stage. Between 1579 and 1624 there were 62 plays featuring Islamic characters, themes or settings. These include some of the most influential plays of the period: Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587–88), which burns the Koran onstage; The Jew of Malta (1589); Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1587); and Peele’s Battel of Alcazar (1589). The phenomenon reached its zenith in the 1590s, when more than 20 plays featuring Turks or Moors were performed. It was a decade in which Shakespeare followed rather than set fashion: he refers to Turks in 13 of his plays.

Indeed, Shakespeare’s Othello (c1601) seems to have been influenced by Anglo-Moroccan relations that reached their high point in the summer of 1600, when the Moroccan ambassador Muhammad al-Annuri arrived with his entourage in London and presented his diplomatic credentials to the queen. His cover was that he was travelling in a trade delegation to Aleppo. Al-Annuri proposed a military alliance between the two countries that would attack Ottoman positions in North Africa.

A scene from ’Othello’ by William Shakespeare, published in 1622. The play “seems to have been influenced by Anglo-Moroccan relations that reached their high point in the summer of 1600,” writes Brotton. (Culture Club/Getty Images)
A scene from ’Othello’ by William Shakespeare. The play “seems to have been influenced by Anglo-Moroccan relations that reached their high point in the summer of 1600,” writes Brotton. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

The correspondence regarding Al-Annuri’s trip reveals that there was another intriguing aspect of his negotiations with Elizabeth I. Al-Annuri was a Morisco – a Spanish-born Muslim who had converted to Christianity. Much of the Moroccan elite fighting force was made up of soldiers with a Morisco heritage, which made them as much anti-Spanish as anti-Ottoman. Knowing this, Elizabeth engaged in delicate negotiations with Al-Annuri to persuade him and his fellow Moriscos to join forces with the English to fight the Spanish, not the Turks. The proposals foundered due to Elizabeth’s preference for sustaining her longer-held alliance with the infinitely more powerful Ottomans, and al-Annuri was recalled to Morocco. But his highly visible presence in London appears to have influenced Shakespeare in his portrayal of Othello – a charismatic, sophisticated individual with a divided heritage but who was prepared to take on the spectre of either Ottoman or Spanish imperialism.

Elizabethan England’s relations took a different direction under the new King James VI and I, whose Treaty of London in 1604 made peace with Spain and curtailed the need for close commercial and diplomatic ties with the Muslim world. But the trading companies established by Elizabeth I continued to thrive, including the East India Company (founded in 1600). While the great flowering of Elizabethan relations with the Islamic world came to an end, they left an indelible mark on English culture that remains with us today.

Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London and author of This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Penguin, 2016)


This article was published by HistoryExtra in 2017