Elzābet of Anletār

John Gallagher

  • This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World by Jerry Brotton
    Allen Lane, 358 pp, £20.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 00402 9

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.

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