Gloriana and the Sultan — England’s unlikely alliance

Jerry Brotton’s study of how Queen Elizabeth I allied herself with Islam against the arch-enemy Spain makes for fascinating reading

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World Jerry Brotton

Allen Lane, pp.209, £20, ISBN: 9780241004029

The idea for a mechanical cock was never going to work. In 1595 the English ambassador to Constantinople, Edward Barton, advised Queen Elizabeth I that the surest way for her to impress Sultan Mehmed III, the new leader of the formidable Ottoman empire, was to send him a ‘clock in the form of a cock’. Knowing that Mehmed had a growing reputation for psychopathy rather than ornithology — he had his 19 brothers circumcised and then strangled to death — Elizabeth demurred and eventually sent him an elaborate clockwork organ instead. The organ was accompanied by its maker, Thomas Dallam, who spent his first month in Constantinople fixing the damage it had suffered in transit before eventually playing it for the Sultan and his retinue at the Topkapi palace.

However terrifying the gig, the artisan-musician from Warrington thrilled his audience, delighting the Sultan so much that he gave Dallam £20 in gold, letting him play with his scimitar and frolic in his harem. Dallam duly obliged, supplying us in his diary with the first written account in English of a sultan’s harem. Even though Mehmed wanted Dallam to stay indefinitely, he left after a few months, escorted back to his ship by a local translator called Finch who, as a Muslim convert originally from Chorley, knew his companion’s home county of Lancashire every bit as well as the Ottoman territory they traversed.

In Jerry Brotton’s fabulous new book, such encounters reveal both the strangeness of home and just how deep and entangled the roots of the Islamic and Christian faiths were in the early modern period. Brotton’s view of Elizabethan England as an ‘Orient Isle’ contests the idea of the nation existing in splendid or belligerent isolation from the Islamic world, a ‘sceptered isle… a fortress… against infection’ as John of Gaunt puts it in Richard II.

Instead Brotton shows us how ‘Islam… is part of the national story of England’. This isn’t, though, a multiculturalist fantasy in which everyone was always respectfully sensitive to each other’s differences. Rather, Brotton traces how the anxieties, suspicions and xenophobia of Elizabethan Anglo-Islamic relations emerged in tension with the establishment of such trading enterprises as the Barbary Company, the Levant Company and the Turkey Company, whose activities brought riches, tastes and fashions home from an international trade in fabrics, food and munitions with Muslim countries. These diplomatic and economic tensions produced the most profound political and religious uncertainties which, in turn, hothoused some of the greatest English dramatic art.

The trade relations were written all over Elizabeth I’s face, or, at least, in her mouth. Her teeth were blackened by the Moroccan sugar that she and her subjects enjoyed with increasing relish (by 1569 England imported 250 tonnes of it). The Anglo-Islamic political conditions were more difficult to discern but were, nonetheless, unique to the Queen’s 45-year reign. Excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570, the Queen and her advisers forged connections with a variety of Islamic kingdoms in order to ensure their safety alongside the great neighbouring Roman Catholic power of Spain. In the wake of that most famous of English military successes, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth wrote to Ahmed al-Mansur, Sultan of Morocco, telling him of her triumph; in return the Queen was dubbed ‘Sultana Isabel’, and a Moroccan ambassador, Ahmad Bilqasim, was sent to ride in state through London, with the prospect of an Anglo-Moroccan assault on the reeling Spanish a real (if fleeting) possibility. With the accession of James I in 1603 and his vision of rapprochement with Spain, such alliances fell apart.

They made for great theatre, however. Throughout this period there was scarcely a professional playwright who failed to put a Turkish, Persian, Saracen or Moorish character in at least one of their plays. While some of this drama, like Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London (1581), offered only deadening moralism about the risks of trading with Turks, in more expert hands the negotiation of Islamic-Christian relationships became the centrepiece for a new kind of theatrical entertainment which probed the messy, contingent nature of confessional, racial and sexual identity. Thus, Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587), with its infamous Quran-burning scene, showed how all forms of religious zealotry, whether Christian or Islamic, might induce both awe and terror. Marlowe forged a theatre of doubt rather than moral absolutes, inviting audiences to regard such a hot topic very coolly, and ‘applaud it as you please’.

Shakespeare, too, was obsessed with spooling ideas out of Islamic details throughout his theatrical career. Whether reading Portia’s courtship by the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, the place of Sycorax, the Algerian mother of Caliban, in The Tempest, or Othello’s suicide, in which he both is and is not the ‘malignant and turbaned Turk’ of his own violent imaginings, Brotton expertly demonstrates how the Islamic world was always much closer to the national poet’s sense of a happy ending or tragic subjectivity than we might ever have thought. Brotton’s Shakespeare is no liberal or post-colonial commentator avant la lettre (a figure who haunts much academic discussion about Shakespeare on race or religion). He is, instead, a brilliant artist enthralled by contemporary politico-religious uncertainties about England’s place in Europe and the competing claims of Christianity and Islam. Brotton’s own book is itself a timely intervention and a marvellous achievement.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17.00. Tel: 08430 600033. Marcus Nevitt is senior lecturer in renaissance literature at the University of Sheffield. He’s working on books about 17th-century news-writing and William Davenant.

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Show comments
  • Sargon the bone crusher

    SO – ally ourselves with with the naught Men in Black against Brussels????!!!!!????? (Just asking???)
    These days I do not think they need our help.
    Just asking???
    (Sorry GCHQ – no need to panic)

  • I’m always impressed by a review that praises a book to the sky before announcing that you can buy a copy from the reviewer.

    • Marcus Nevitt

      You can’t buy a copy from me.

  • Minstrel Boy

    Easy to understand, just as the alliance with the Arab tribes has been used to defeat the Ottoman and Communist Russian Empires. My enemy’s enemy is my friend.
    The author Francis Bacon, a shrewd observer of Gloriana and her spymasters, observed however that one should beware alliances with principalities more powerful and populous than oneself, lest they gobble up the perceived senior party in the process.
    I think we are already a long way down that road. When hempe is spun, England’s done.

  • ardenjm

    No surprise at all: The Protestants and the Muslims share a great deal of theology – over and against Catholic and Orthodox teaching. Whilst the Protestants focus on the unique mediation of Christ between sinners and God, they dismiss the means that Christ puts in place that mediate His mediation to whit: His Body the Church (with its sacraments, ministers and ultimately, Magisterial authority, intercession of the saints, sacramentals and the like). Muslims just go a step further (admittedly a hugely significant step!) and get rid of Christ as a mediator between men and God. For Sunni Islam, the person is submitted directly to Allah. No mediation. Indeed, the heart of their quarrel with Shia Islam is precisely the reappearance in Shia Islam of those mediations.
    Added to these shared theological orientations are the political factors that are exacerbated by bad conscience: Protestants and Anglicans did nasty things to their Catholic past, heritage and, of course, neighbours (Catholics did nasty things to the Protestant innovators also, of course, but there wasn’t the same animus against a 1000 year history because, of course, the Protestants were the new kids on the block.) Thus, it became easier, indeed, expedient, for non-Catholics to see alliance with the vastly more powerful Ottoman Empire over and against the Catholic powers in Europe. Calvinists in the Netherlands were ready to become Calvinists under the Sultan rather than under a Catholic, Spanish, monarch.
    Fast forward to our own time and the unholy alliance between Left and Liberal secularists and Islamic fundamentalists is of a similar spiritual-political pact: against Catholicism, the Church, and the Cross of Christ. Muslims reject it, of course, because the Koran is predicated on repudiating Christian truth. Secularists reject it, of course, because of their visceral refusal and denial of the Crucified One.
    Mainstream Protestantism, of course, in its Anglican or Lutheran (or even Reformed) variety has become merely a hobby for a tiny minority of Europeans. And the present pontificate seems to be succeeding in making many Catholics equally as shallow. The days of Poitiers, Lepanto, Malta and Vienna are long gone – but might we hope that Catholics in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia and the bits of Western Europe not entirely decadent might keep the Faith? We shall see, inevitably, in the coming decades. England, I fear, just like under Queen Elizabeth I, can be relied upon to be on the wrong side of this struggle against militant Islam.

  • pobjoy

    Islam lacks any coherent soteriology; there is no systematic aspect to any of it, the Qur’an being a jumble of ideas, borrowed and mutilated. So a Muslim cannot provide a rationale for an afterlife, and cannot know a personal fate. It is a ‘copycat’ religion, but of only uncertain salvation by works. It purports to encompass the ministry of Jesus, though. This was a genuinely prophetic ministry that the apostles explained, and Protestantism systematised, both based on soteriology founded on the narrative of the Abraham of Genesis, a soteriology in which works are the fruits of faith, not the means of justification before God.

    Now Islam sympathised with Catholicism, because it too claims to encompass the ministry of Jesus, while subverting its coherent soteriology. Like Muslims, Catholics cannot die knowing a personal fate. But Islam considered even Catholicism too close to the truth, and that its own nostrum, by which Jesus was reduced to a minor prophet, was safer.

    • ardenjm

      “Now Islam sympathised with Catholicism, because it too claims to encompass the ministry of Jesus, while subverting its coherent soteriology. Like Muslims, Catholics cannot die knowing a personal fate. But Islam considered even Catholicism too close to the truth, and that its own nostrum, by which Jesus was reduced to a minor prophet, was safer.”

      Yep. Lots of sympathy.
      Lots of alliances.
      Lots of co-operation from the 7th century through to the Gates of Vienna.
      Suck it up, Pobjoy: in the millenial struggle against Islamic expansionism the Protestant world was on their side against the Catholics.
      In fact, pobjoy we can perform a clear and empirical test to prove the truth of what I say:
      If you had to choose one religion for a society that you were establishing and the choice was either Catholicism or Islam, what would you choose?

      We both know that you would choose Islam. (You might hold your nose as you did so, but for you it would be a no-brainer: rather Islam over Catholicism.)

      I rest the case that you, as so often, have made for me.

  • Mr__Neutron

    Mehmed III was one of the less worthy Ottoman Sultans (he was a coward and became so fat he could barely ride a horse), but he was probably not a psychopath. The decision to execute his brothers was made by his other relatives and the palace staff when Mehmed ascended to power. Fratricide was an official policy for the Ottomans, who had inherited the Turco-Mongol succession method. This meant that when a sultan died, all of his sons were eligible for the throne, not merely the eldest. Whoever succeeded in taking power became Sultan. This usually ensured that the toughest and most warlike son got the job, and the first 10 Sultans were of high quality.

    However, a Sultan who left his brothers alive could count on civil war, since his siblings would attract rebels and malcontents, so it became the policy for a new Sultan to immediately have his brothers executed when he took power. Cruel as this was, it reduced conflict. But the system began breaking down in the era of Mehmed III. First, Mehmed had to execute far more siblings than usual, thanks to his father Murad III, who rarely left the palace and fathered over a 100 children. Most died shortly after childbirth, but 19 sons remained for Mehmed to execute, mostly small children. This left a bad taste, and when when Mehmed’s son Ahmed I became Sultan, he kept his brother alive.

    Mehmed III was a weak, sedentary sultan, who was ruled by his mother, his concubines, his eunuchs, and representatives of various palace factions. He was also at the mercy from uprisings by the cavalry and Janissaries. As the Sultans became weaker, the army and bureaucracy preferred that Sultans’ brothers be kept alive, so that they could overthrow unsatisfactory Sultans and replace them with more pliable brothers.