This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World 
by Jerry Brotton.
Allen Lane, 358 pp., £20, March 2016, 978 0 241 00402 9
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In the spring​ of 1579, the scribes of the Ottoman imperial chancery put together a letter addressed to ‘Elzābet, who is the queen of the domain of Anletār’. It began a correspondence between Sultan Murad III and the

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, cloud of most pleasant rain, and sweetest fountain of nobleness and virtue, lady and heir of the perpetual happiness and glory of the noble realm of England (whom all sorts seek unto and submit themselves).

To Elizabeth I and her advisers, ruling over a small island on the edge of Western Europe, and attempting to make a fragile religious and political settlement hold in the midst of the bloody conflicts of the period, the Ottoman Empire and the wider Muslim world seemed to offer new opportunities for political, commercial and cultural exchange.

The Somerset House Conference (1604)

The Somerset House Conference (1604)

‘Turkey work’ was everywhere in fashionable 16th-century England. When Elizabeth was entertained by the Earl of Leicester at Kenilworth Castle in 1575, she and her entourage probably admired his collection of ‘Turkish’ carpets; he owned more than eighty, including ‘a great fine carpet ofturkey makinge of orient colours’, ‘a greate turky carpet with grene wrethes & flowers of white and blewe’ and ‘a percian [Persian] carpet lyke turkye worke’. In Holbein’s great mural for Whitehall Palace (destroyed by fire in 1698), the rucked-up carpet on which Henry VIII stands was probably the work of Muslim craftsmen. When Gremio makes a bid for Bianca’s hand in The Taming of the Shrew, he boasts of his townhouse filled with ‘hangings all of Tyrian tapestry’ and strewn with ‘Turkey cushions boss’d with pearl’: English audiences recognised goods from the ‘Turkish’ east as rare luxuries. Those with access to the homes of the rich and powerful could glimpse the Islamic world via the portraits of the ‘great Turk’ owned by many English gentlemen, or the needlework image of Faith (upstanding, Elizabethan, clutching a Bible and a chalice) and Muhammad (turban-sporting and glum) found in the bedchamber of Bess of Hardwick.

In This Orient Isle, Jerry Brotton sets out to show that ‘Islam in all its manifestations – imperial, military, cultural, theological and commercial – is part of the national story of England.’ He does this, in part, by turning popular conceptions of the ‘sceptred isle’ on their head, and emphasising that the ‘Elizabethans were … peripheral players on the margins of a geopolitical world dominated by the empires of Spain, Persia and the Ottomans, and at various moments they openly acknowledged the superiority of the Muslim powers with which Elizabeth repeatedly put England on friendly terms.’ Elizabethan England’s encounter with Islam was not a clash of civilisations – not least because England’s status as ‘civilised’ was hardly settled in early modern Europe. Narratives of English commercial and colonial expansion (and of political and religious change) too often forget the marginality of England, English culture and the English language in the 16th century. But Brotton foregrounds the tentative, contingent and clumsy nature of the interactions that formed the basis of English commercial and diplomatic ventures in the Muslim world.

While England delighted in cottons, spices, silks, currants from the islands of Zante and Cephalonia and sugar from Morocco (one cause of Elizabeth’s decayed teeth), by the turn of the 17th century the newly founded Levant Company’s twenty ships were netting £150,000 a year by selling English cloth in the Mediterranean. The First Witch in Macbeth plots revenge on a sailor’s wife whose husband is ‘to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger’. Among the English cargoes valued by Muslim powers in the 16th century were ‘broken bells’: the bells that had rung in Catholic churches and monasteries, and the lead from their roofs, were recast in foreign forges and made into weapons for Muslim soldiers. In a Europe riven by theological divisions, the symbolism escaped nobody. The trade in such theologically loaded materials was ‘a symbolic act of alliance that conflated the iconoclastic faiths of Protestantism and Sunni Islam’.

‘Elizabethan England,’ Brotton writes, ‘regarded Islam, with its refusal to worship icons and its venerating of a holy book, as a faith with which it could do business.’ Reformed theology and realpolitik both played a part in the creation of commercial and diplomatic alliances. The English played up their iconophobia, with Elizabeth and her representatives casting the queen as ‘the most invincible and most mighty defender of the Christian faith against all kind of idolatries’, and constantly emphasised the iconomania of their Spanish rivals. Not everyone was convinced by these analogies between faiths: one observer of the Moroccan diplomatic delegation that visited London in 1600 wrote that ‘they use beads, and pray to saints,’ implying that they could be seen as more Catholic than Protestant. Bishop John Aylmer was worried by the hard-won ‘capitulations’ that officially established Anglo-Ottoman trading relations, confessing that ‘surely in mine opinion it is very strange, and dangerous, that the desire of worldly and transitory things should carry men so far, with such kind of traffic, which neither our ancestors before us knew of, nor can be attempted without selling of souls for purchasing of pelf [money] to the great blemish of our religion and the shame of our country.’ England’s political and commercial elite may have been able to stomach trade with the ‘Turk’, but there is no getting around the deep-rooted (if ill-informed) antipathy shared by large swathes of the population. Their attitude is reflected by Portia’s response in The Merchant of Venice, when the Prince of Morocco chooses the wrong casket and loses his chance of her hand in marriage: ‘A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go./Let all of his complexion choose me so.’

As a bugbear, Muslims were no match for the Spanish, who seemed a much more potent and present threat to English religion and government. The intelligence agent William Herle wrote that Philip II, the king of Spain, hated English Protestants ‘with an immortal hatred never to be reconciled, esteeming them worse than either Turks, Marranos, Jews, or Infidels, the blasphemers of God’s holy name and of his son Jesus Christ’. Richard Verstegen, a Catholic polemicist, pointed to England’s courting of Muslim allies as proof of their godlessness, writing that ‘if we look what new confederates they have chosen, instead of the old, we shall see them to be the great Turk, the kings of Fez, Morocco and Algiers, or other Mahometains and Moors of Barbary, all professed enemies to Christ.’ The English, Verstegen claimed, ‘would exchange their Geneva Bible for the Turkish Alcoran’. In response, Francis Bacon wrote an acid rebuttal to the effect that if commerce with the Turk was sinful, that was a shame, since everyone else – regardless of their religious affiliation – seemed to be scrambling to get a slice of the pie.

Commerce cleared the way for diplomatic relations. Elizabeth’s tight-fisted and risk-averse government preferred to let merchants and companies bear the risks of new ventures, and established diplomatic ties off the back of the commercial networks painstakingly established by private individuals. William Harborne, who became the first English ambassador to the Sublime Porte, initially went to Constantinople to establish trading privileges for English merchants. For someone working without a rulebook, his achievement was impressive: with little more status than any other strange merchant, in an environment where the French and the Venetians had established footholds and bore scant goodwill towards a new arrival, he managed to build relationships that led to the negotiation of trading agreements that would survive in one form or another until the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Having successfully navigated local and international intrigues and crises, Harborne returned to Constantinople in March 1583 with gifts for Murad III (‘a most beautiful watch set with jewels and pearls, ten pairs of shoes, two pretty lapdogs, 12 lengths of royal cloth, two lengths of white linen, and 13 pieces of silver gilt’) and the credentials of an English ambassador. These early diplomatic contacts, halting but fruitful, were not universally popular at home (let alone in Catholic Europe), but some flavour of them made its way onstage: in the first part of Henry VI, Joan of Arc mocks the litany of titles held by the dead Earl of Shrewsbury, comparing him with ‘the Turk, that two and fifty kingdoms hath’, but ‘writes not so tedious a style as this’.

Brotton captures the piecemeal and improvisatory nature of Harborne’s efforts. It remains something of a mystery why, given the difficulties posed by linguistic barriers at the multilingual (and protocol-heavy) Ottoman court, the English never followed the French or the Venetians in establishing a formal training scheme for interpreters. The archives of the Levant Company are abuzz with different languages, and the problems that came with using interpreters whose loyalty to their English employers was forever in doubt. Few early diplomats – with exceptions such as Thomas Glover, the son of an English father and a Polish mother, a polyglot raised in Constantinople – were comfortable in this new Babel. Harborne’s successors all had their own difficulties. Edward Barton found himself co-opted into the retinue of Sultan Mehmed III during his campaign in Hungary, leading England’s enemies to make much of the closeness between the English and the anti-Christian Ottomans. Back in Constantinople, Barton cultivated a friendly relationship (oiled by gifts from Elizabeth) with Safiye Sultan, the sultan’s mother, and managed at one point to have the French ambassador imprisoned and returned in chains to Henri IV. His successor, Henry Lello, was less competent: the merchant John Sanderson commented that during his first address to the sultan, he stood ‘like a modest midwife, and began a trembling speech in English … sounding like the squeaking of a goose divided into semiquavers’.

Brotton​ assembles a panoply of perspectives and voices from travel accounts, diplomatic correspondence, histories, captivity narratives, sermons and plays and weaves them into a narrative in which Anglo-Islamic encounters are neither rare nor the preserve of the diplomatic and commercial elite. The manuscript and print records of the period are marked by the tracks of English people journeying to Muslim lands. Fynes Moryson, who set out from Cambridge in 1591 and wrote one of the great travel narratives of the early modern period, followed his ‘itching desire’ to see Constantinople and Jerusalem, lost his brother to dysentery and buried him in the countryside outside Iskenderun. Edward Webbe was a former slave who spent five years in the Ottoman naval and military service, journeying to Persia, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus and Goa, which he called ‘the head and chief city in all the East Indies’. On his return to England he wrote a remarkable and picaresque account of his travels and travails. Captivity and slavery were not confined to the Muslim world: Elizabeth’s court was home to ‘Aura Soltana’ or ‘Ippolyta the Tartarian’, a Tartar woman brought back to England from Astrakhan, where she had been bought by the merchant Anthony Jenkinson.

Elizabethans saw dramas of conversion and cultural change played out wherever English Christians met Muslims. The possible dangers of such encounters were made apparent by figures like Hassan Aga, eunuch and treasurer to Hassan Bassa, king of Algier. Aga was better known to the English as Samson Rowlie, a merchant from Great Yarmouth. After being captured and castrated, he converted to Islam and became a key adviser to the Ottoman governor of Algiers, as well as the recipient of hopeful correspondence from William Harborne, who tried to persuade him to intercede in the ransoming of English slaves held in the city. Thomas Dallam was able to communicate with the people he met in Constantinople thanks to two interpreters – one from Chorley in Lancashire (close to where Dallam himself was born), and the other ‘a Turke, but a Cornishe man borne’.

Forced conversions to Islam were rare in the early modern world (Brotton is perhaps too willing to believe an account of such practices by the captive Thomas Sanders, who wrote from Tripoli to his father in Devon in the hope of securing his release), but capture and conversion were experienced by the English in Muslim lands, just as they were by Muslims in Christian Europe. Several members of the embassy that travelled from Persia with the English adventurer Anthony Sherley, who claimed to have talked Shah Abbas into opening commercial relations with the Christian princes of Europe – including the cook, the barber, the under-secretary, and the nephew of Sherley’s Persian counterpart – converted to Catholicism in Italy and Spain. The nephew, Uruch Beg, ended his life in Spain, where he went by the name Don Juan of Persia. Early modern European audiences were entertained by the public conversions of Moors or Turks to Christianity, which were accompanied by full-throated renunciations of Islam. In the case of a man known as Chinano, a ‘silly Turk and poor Saracen’ who was baptised at St Katharine’s Church in London in 1586, the spectacle contained a crowd-pleasing attack by Chinano himself on the Spanish Catholics’ ‘cruelty in shedding of blood, and … idolatry in worshipping of images’.

Thousands of English people found themselves in Muslim North Africa and the Ottoman Empire – whether fleetingly or for life, either by their own free will or by coercion – and some of them, like Sherley and his brothers, had their stories transposed into theatrical entertainments. Many Elizabethans only encountered Muslim societies in print, theatre or sermons. As Brotton writes, the capital’s stages in the late 16th century were thickly populated with Turks and Moors, with their religious texts – in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, a Quran is burnt onstage – and their fabrics and fashions, from the costumes worn in the urban pageants of the 1550s and 1560s to the ‘apparel for Mahewmet’ paid for by Philip Henslowe, presumably a costume for an actor playing the Prophet. Brotton offers sensitive readings of plays that veer between crude caricatures of Islam (as in Robert Greene’s Alphonsus, King of Aragon, which contains a cameo by a fire-breathing brass head of the ‘God Mahomet’) and more nuanced or informed portrayals, including the uneasy and shifting identities inhabited by Othello – the Christian Moor who, at the moment of his suicide, seems to become the ‘malignant and … turbaned Turk’ whom he had killed for speaking ill of the Venetian state in Aleppo, years before.

It is difficult to write about Elizabethan England for a wide audience without some reference to Shakespeare and the theatre of the day. But when writing about English meetings with Islam in the early modern world, there is always a risk that actual encounters can be crowded out by talk of representations. Far more English-speakers learned about the Islamic world through stories like those of Othello and Tamburlaine than lived or travelled there, so these representations are useful when seeking to understand how Islam was imagined, as well as experienced. But there is more work to be done. Brotton works sensitively with a range of sources, most of which will be unknown to the general reader, but the archive is far from exhausted. The history of the Levant Company in the 16th and early 17th century – and its diplomats, traders, interpreters, chancers and hangers-on – remains patchy and opaque. New, multilingual approaches are needed to exploit British and Mediterranean archives to their fullest.

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