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The Tudors’ unlikely allies

Cut off from much of Catholic Europe, Elizabeth I's regime embarked on a remarkable relationship with the Islamic world, as Jerry Brotton reveals...

Elizabeth I’s Armada portrait. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Published: March 10, 2016 at 12:41 pm
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This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 


On 25 February 1570, a papal bull issued in Rome by Pope Pius V, entitled Regnans in Excelsis (‘Reigning on High’), excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I. The bull condemned “Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England” for “having seized on the kingdom and monstrously usurped the place of supreme head of the church in all England”. It concluded: “We do out of the fullness of our apostolic power declare the aforesaid Elizabeth as being a heretic and a favourer of heretics, and her adherents in the matters aforesaid, to have incurred the sentence of excommunication.”

The bull’s consequences are well known. It divided English Catholics over whether or not to rebel against Elizabeth, while strengthening patriotic support for the queen and pushing her towards more aggressive Protestant policies at home and abroad. Pius’s decision tacitly supported a series of attempts to assassinate Elizabeth and ultimately led to the sailing of the Armada in 1588. But it also had another less well-known but equally significant outcome: it allowed the Tudors to establish a series of commercial and military alliances with the Islamic world on a scale never seen before in England.

A common enemy

Over the next 30 years, Elizabeth would broker deals with the Ottoman, Persian and Saadian (Moroccan) empires that saw hundreds, if not thousands, of Elizabethan men and women travelling across Muslim lands. Some converted to Islam, others traded amicably, while Elizabeth’s diplomats travelled back and forth between Whitehall, Marrakech, Constantinople and Qazvin (the Persian empire’s capital), concocting Anglo-Islamic alliances as a bulwark against what at the time were Islam’s and Protestantism’s common enemy: Catholicism.

The reasons for this surprising and generally overlooked alliance go back to the rise of Islam since the time of the crusades, and the more unforeseen consequences of the 16th-century Reformation. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 proved to be just one particularly dramatic moment in the apparently irresistible global rise of Islamic power in the face of a weak and divided Christianity. The papacy preached that the Muslim faith was nothing more than a garbled mixture of paganism and apostasy, although such claims were difficult to square with the power of a theocracy that, at the time Luther was calling for reform within the Christian church, ruled north Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Greece, the Holy Land (including Jerusalem), central Asia, most of the Indian subcontinent, large swathes of eastern Europe, and had even reached China.

This should not disguise the conflicts and tensions inherent within the rather unsatisfactory term, ‘the Islamic world’. The Sunni Ottoman empire clashed with the neighbouring Persian Shia empire, and had defeated the powerful Egyptian Mamluk sultanate in 1517 to become undisputed defenders of Islam’s holy cities and pilgrimage routes. In north-west Africa the Saadian dynasty (of Arab descent) played fast and loose with their theological distance and independence from the Ottomans.

Nevertheless, to most Christian princes, the Islamic world looked like a militarily and culturally superior superpower, to be regarded with fear but also admiration.

Martin Luther saw things slightly differently. As he launched his attack on Rome, he argued ingeniously that the Ottomans were part of God’s divine plan, and that “to make war on the Turks is to rebel against God, who punishes our sins through them”. He regarded the pope and the Turk as two versions of Antichrist, but his initial refusal to support a holy war against the Ottoman empire led the papacy to brand him as a heretic and little better than a Turk.

Writing in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1528), Sir Thomas More echoed these attacks, referring to “Luther’s sect” as worse than “all the Turks, all the Saracens, all the heretics”. By the 1530s, as Luther’s reformed religious beliefs found favour in England, Catholics were conflating Protestants and Muslims as two versions of the same heresy.

Anglo-Moroccan alliance

With her excommunication in 1570, the wily queen was quick to turn this situation to her political and commercial advantage. Since the 13th century, various church councils had forbidden trade with Muslim societies, which was punishable with excommunication. Covert trade still continued – Venice and France notoriously turned a blind eye to the injunctions – but by 1570, as a Protestant nation led by an excommunicated sovereign placed beyond papal sanction, Tudor England was suddenly freer than any other Christian country to trade with the Islamic world with ecclesiastical impunity.

Even before her excommunication, Elizabeth had cautiously encouraged trade with kingdoms like Morocco, and by 1570 English merchants were importing goods worth £28,000 a year (more than the entire revenue from the Portuguese trade), including 250 tonnes of sugar (much to the infamous distress of the queen’s teeth) valued at £18,000. Most of the transactions were undertaken with Morocco’s sizeable Jewish community, particularly its wealthy ‘sugar barons’, including one called Isaac Cabeça who traded sugar for English cloth before going bankrupt in 1568 and being named in a series of insolvency trials in the High Court of Admiralty and Chancery.

By the 1570s Elizabeth sent Edmund Hogan, a member of the Mercers’ Company from Hackney to negotiate with the Saadian sultan Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik I, trading English weapons for Moroccan saltpetre (a key ingredient in making gunpowder).

Encouraged by the Moroccan trade’s success, Elizabeth and her counsellors – especially Francis Walsingham – proposed an even more ambitious alliance with the Ottomans. There were good reasons to believe that the two religions could establish a common political cause against what they both regarded as the imperial aggression of the Spanish Habsburg king Philip II. Walsingham was particularly attracted to the Ottomans’ wooing of Protestants by stressing the commonalities between their faith and that of Islam.

In an extraordinary letter written by the Ottoman Chancery in 1574 and addressed to “the members of the Lutheran sect in Flanders and Spain”, the reformers were praised because they did “not worship idols”, and had “banished the idols and portraits, and bells from churches, and declared your faith by stating that God Almighty is One and Holy Jesus is His Prophet and Servant, and now, with heart and soul, are seeking and desirous of the true faith; but the faithless one they call Papa [the pope] does not recognise his Creator as One, ascribing divinity to Holy Jesus (upon him be peace!), and worshipping idols and pictures which he has made with his own hands, thus casting doubt upon the Oneness of God and instigating how many servants of God to that path of error”.

Obviously such claims were driven as much by shrewd realpolitik as belief in a commonality between the two religions, but they enabled a remarkable flourishing of Anglo-Ottoman commercial and political relations over the next two decades.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, ca. 1600. Found in the collection of University of Birmingham. Artist : Anonymous. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri, ambassador for Morocco – one of Elizabeth I’s trading partners. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Ambassador to the Ottomans

In 1578 the Norfolk-born factor William Harborne was sent to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople with precise instructions to establish diplomatic relations with the court of Sultan Murad III. The resident Catholic Spanish, French and Venetian ambassadors were appalled at the arrival of a Protestant interloper like Harborne, openly flouting the papal injunction against trading with Islamic ‘infidels’. The Spanish ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza complained bitterly that “the Turks are also desirous of friendship with the English on account of the tin which has been sent thither for the last few years, and which is of the greatest value to them, as they cannot cast their guns without it, while the English make a tremendous profit on the article, by means of which alone they maintain the trade with the Levant”.

Over the next 10 years Harborne established himself as what the Ottoman court called the ‘Lutheran ambassador’ to Murad. He negotiated England’s first ever trade agreement with a Muslim power, established a string of English trading posts throughout the Mediterranean and encouraged the Ottomans to attack the Spanish navy to forestall the sailing of Philip II’s Armada in 1588.

The venture was so successful that in 1581 Elizabeth granted a charter to the newly created Turkey Company, with Harborne as its formal representative and England’s first ambassador to the Ottomans. He oversaw a burgeoning trade in English tin, lead (stripped from deconsecrated English churches) and wool. He negotiated the release of hundreds of English men and women captured by pirates and slavers, all while acting as Walsingham’s loyal spy. He was also the intermediary in the first formal exchanges of letters between an English monarch and an Ottoman sultan.

In the spring of 1579 Murad sent letters addressed to “most renowned Elizabeth, most sacred queen, and noble prince of the most mighty worshippers of Jesus, most wise governor of the causes and affairs of the people and family of Nazareth”. Elizabeth responded with equal flattery, dispatching a letter from “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, unto the most imperial and most invincible prince, Zuldan Murad Chan [Murad III], the most mighty ruler of the kingdom of Turkey”. Both rulers saw the strategic benefits of celebrating the shared tenets of their faith in contrast to the ‘idolatry’ of Catholic rites and intercession, even though their ends were more pragmatic and political.

Trading expands

At the height of Harborne’s embassy the Turkey Company was dispatching 19 ships weighing 100–300 tonnes and crewed by nearly 800 seamen on an average of five voyages a year to trade in 10 Ottoman-controlled Mediterranean ports. The profits on some voyages were estimated at over £70,000, producing returns of nearly 300 per cent. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth was encouraged to grant another royal charter in 1585, this time creating the Barbary Company, importing Moroccan saltpetre, almonds, gold and sugar.

By the 1590s prosperous Elizabethans were able to consume the fruits of the Anglo-Islamic trade, from pearls, diamonds, sapphires, silks, brocades and damasks to rugs, carpets, embroideries and even Iznik pottery made in Bursa in Turkey. The importation of cotton wool from Turkish merchants stimulated Lancashire’s textile industry, and the manufacture of Iranian raw silk provided employment for hundreds of workers who produced clothes ‘in the Turkish manner’ and household furnishings. The Turkey and Barbary imports enabled Elizabethans to wear silk and cotton, drink sweet wines and consume 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 2,300 tonnes were being imported annually.

Slowly but surely the Tudors were changed by their encounter with Islam, in the trade they practised, the diplomacy they pursued, the clothes they wore and the things they ate.

Yet with Elizabeth’s death in 1603, James VI and I’s accession and peace with Spain in 1604, the need for an anti-Spanish Anglo-Islamic alliance collapsed. Over the subsequent centuries, academic ‘orientalism’ denigrated Islamic societies as decadent, despotic and backward, a myth reinforced by the ideology of British imperial rule over Islamic communities across the Middle East and east Asia. It is only in recent years – with the rise of religious fundamentalism, the infamous ‘war on terror’ and ‘clash of civilisation’ thesis – that the long and fraught history of Christian and Islamic encounters are being re-examined to find some response to the conflicts currently raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and even on the streets of Paris, London and Madrid.

Elizabeth’s reign saw a brief and extremely strategic flowering of a rapprochement with the Islamic world and, although it was confused and misunderstood, it was a time at which those on both sides of the theological divide put aside faith to try to find ways of accommodating each other’s differences.

A truly multicultural approach to world history should acknowledge that Tudor England was not insular and parochial but outward-looking and international, and that relations with the Muslim world were an important part of its story. If we want to understand the role played by many different faiths in this island’s history, from Christians and Jews to British Muslims, then it is a story we need to acknowledge now more than ever before.

Muslim stars of Shakespeare’s plays

By the 1580s, Elizabeth’s amicable relations with the Islamic world had drawn the attention of dramatists like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Plays featuring Turks and Moors became a fashion. Between 1576 and 1603 there were more than 60 with Muslim characters, although ‘Muslim’ only entered the language in 1615; before then ‘Mahometans’, ‘Ottomites’, ‘Saracens’, ‘Moors’, ‘Pagans’ or ‘Turks’ were used interchangeably to describe Muslims.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to Moors and Turks. In 1592 his first history play, Henry VI, Part 1, mentions ‘Mahomet’ (Muhammad), followed two years later by the villainous Aaron the Moor in the revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus.

He put a different Moor onstage in The Merchant of Venice (1596): the Prince of Morocco, who tries unsuccessfully to woo the heroine Portia.

Shakespeare’s interest in such characters culminates in Othello (c1600–03), subtitled ‘The Moor of Venice’. Othello is a notoriously ambiguous figure, subject to racial slurs but also admired as a Moor who has converted to Christianity (though from what we are never told) and whose marriage to the Venetian noblewoman Desdemona is destroyed by his jealous lieutenant Iago, whose name in Spanish is Santiago, or Matamoros – the Moor killer.


Jerry Brotton is professor of renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London.


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