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Episode 099: Elizabeth and the Sultan

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This Orient Isle

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







Portrait of the Ambassador at the British Library


(remember, if you like this show, there are a few ways you can help it succeed. The easiest – and free – is to leave a rating on iTunes. It really makes a difference in helping new people find the show. Next up, you could buy a gift from my awesome – if I do say so myself – collection of cool stuff, like Tudor Leggings, Elizabeth mugs, and other gifts at TudorFair.com, which is my online shop. Finally, you can consider becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1/episode.)


Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is Episode 99, and I’m finally wrapping up this mini series on the relationships of the Tudors with the Muslim Ottoman Turks. In this episode I look at the on the ground trading and personal partnerships involved, as well as the portrayal of the Turk in popular culture.

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In November 1600, an ambassador arrived in England with a retinue of foreigners. He wasn’t the kind of ambassador we normally think of, like in the Holbein portrait of the Ambassadors that is so famous. No, this was a foreigner from Morocco, and he and his group of servants and diplomats were given a house courtesy of the Barbary Company of traders on the Strand. He was in London to conclude a peace treaty with England that would bring together the English Protestants and Muslims in Morocco against Catholic Spain.  His name was Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annur, and we know what he looked like because he sat for a portrait – the first ever portrait from life of a Muslim in England.

His visit was the culmination of over 50 years of negotiations, trade, and overtures between the Tudors, and the Muslim world. Elizabeth imported her treasured sugar from Morocco since the beginning of her reign. Turkey carpets were becoming all the rage, with Bess of Hardwick commissioning wall hangings in the Turkish style for her homes, Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall. Elizabeth herself held several meetings with Al-Annur, on subjects ranging from trade, to the military plans in the Netherlands. The most important proposal by far was the one that Morocco had brought to the table – a formal military alliance that would bring together the English and Moroccan navies to attack Spain. The memo states that it would “be an act of compassion and humanity for the benefit of all mankind if her serene majesty should embrace the perpetual friendship between her and the serene emperor his master, and join forces against the King of Spain, their common foe and enemy.” This was part of the larger Moroccan goal of recapturing Al Andaluz, which is actually where I live – Andalucia – which was the part of southern Spain that had been under Arab rule for seven hundred years, and had only been reconquered one hundred years earlier.

Al-Annur also suggested that the two combine forces on the ocean, and take the Spanish colonies from Spain as well. He said that Morocco was especially ready fight in central America because their soldiers were already used to the heat. The two may have held far fetched dreams of completely getting rid of Catholic Spain.

So let’s go back a bit. In an episode from several years ago I talked about the Muscovy Company, which was first set in motion during the reign of Edward VI when a group of explorers led by Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor decided to try to sail north east, around Russia, to get to the Indies. They didn’t make it to the Indies, but they did discover a trade route to Russia, and so was born the Muscovy Company. In 1555, under Mary and Philip, the Muscovy Company got their royal charter. They wouldn’t threaten Philips trade routes to the indies, and he was happy to go along with the plan to give a monopoly to sailors sailing north, northeast, and northwest to go in and out of Russia.

This was all well and good, but two years later, in 1557, Mary and Philip wrote to Tzar Ivan in Russia (aka Ivan the Terrible) and requested safe passage for the representatives of the Muscovy Company to go through Russia into Persia. This was the first overture of relationships between then-Catholic England, and Islam.

This was when the first trading agreement with the Ottomans came about, thanks to the precocious adventures of a young Anthony Jenkinson. At the time he was on business for the Muscovy Company in Bukhara, modern day Uzbekistan, a guest of the Islamic ruler Abdullah Khan II. Jenkinson had been a merchant in the Low Countries, and specialized in textile fabrics. He traveled through Flanders, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and then across North Africa to the holy land. When he was 24 he made it to Aleppo in Syria, one of the oldest cities in the world, and a major route on the Silk Route. He was there to examine the silk – the city had 56 silk markets – and was there when the Sultan Suleyman visited Aleppo. We talked about Suleyman in the Siege of Rhodes episode – he is known as Suleyman the Magnificent for a reason, and Jenkinson wrote home of the army of 80,000 men. Being a textile expert, he made special notes of their clothing. He mentioned the dazzling turban worn by Suleyman – it was a “goodly white turban, containing in length by estimation fifteen yards, which was of silk and linen woven together, resembling something of a Calicut Indian cloth, but is much more fine and rich, and in the top of his crown a little plume of white ostrich feathers.”

This was during a period of warfare between Sunni and Shia muslims, not that different than what we still see today. Jenkinson likely didn’t pay much attention to the nuances of the Muslim faith, but he did manage to get an audience with Suleyman himself. Even more remarkable, he came away from that meeting with formal trading privileges, normally the kind of thing only granted to a head of state, signed by Suleyman. He had somehow managed to pull this off with no diplomatic experience, and no history of English relations with the Ottoman Empire. He negotiated rights to “lade and unlade his merchandize wheresoever it shall seem good unto him,” anywhere in the Ottoman Empire, without any other “custom or toll.” France and Venice – who also had trading relations with the Turks – were expressly instructed not to get in the middle of the deal.


In late December 1558 Jenkinson was on another trip through Russia to Persia – he met with the tsar and obtained a safe passage to go towards Persia, traveling to the Caspian Sea. He had heard great things about this area, but was disappointed to find that, less than 60 miles from the Caspian, he found a market where “there is a certain trade of merchandize there used, but as yet so small and beggardly that it is not worth the making mention.” Then he became the first Englishman to see the Caspian sea, traveling in a caravan of camels, with his English woolen cloth that he somehow hoped to trade for silks. At this point he began to see the complex relationships within the Muslim world, and commented on how the Sunni order to trim the mustache while the Shia men kept theirs long. That is the first surviving English eyewitness account of any kind of differences between the two main branches of Islam. Jenkinson was disappointed in the trading opportunities, and thought he might push on to China, but realized how dangerous it would be for him traveling alone, and he left, going back the way he came through Moscow.

The accounts of his travels were later published by Richard Hakluyt, the first English travel writer. He notes as an aside a thank you to another Muscovy Company agent, Henry Lane, for the “wench, Aura Soltana,” that was a gift. Later, Jenkinson would give the girl to Queen Elizabeth. This casual addition demonstrates the harsh reality of the trafficking of men and women that was part of any missions during this time. We talked in the previous episodes of how the Muslims and Christians would raid each others’ ports and capture slaves to row the galleys or be sold in the slave markets dotted around the Mediterranean. This is one small example of an English adventurer partaking in that slave trade without even giving it a second thought. Aura Soltana would be the first recorded Muslim woman to enter into Tudor England.

So we have adventurers like Jenkinson setting the stage. In 1559 Elizabeth’s first Parliament created a series of economic reforms that were designed to brace the country for the isolation expected with the succession of a Protestant woman that much of Christendom deemed a bastard. Included were ideas to encourage new navigations into the Muslim world, and within a decade England would be importing 250 tons of Moroccan sugar every year, with imports overall from Morocco being 25% higher than that with Portugal. Trade with Morocco became very profitable, with dozens of London merchants participating – some individually, and many as groups.

In 1570 Elizabeth was excommunicated by Pope Pius V, with the Papal Bull saying that “Elizabeth, the Pretended Queen of England” had “seized on the kingdom and monstrously usurped the place of Supreme Head of the Church in all England.” She had left the said kingdom in a miserable and ruinous condition, which was so lately reclaimed to the Catholic faith under Mary and Philip. Elizabeth was officially cut off from the Body of Christ. Catholicism suddenly became even more suspect throughout England. The Bishop of Winchester wrote in 1566 that “the Pope is a more perilous enemy unto Christ than the Turk: and Popery more idolatrous than Turkery.” This would actually be a point where the Elizabethans and Ottomans could agree. They would often mention their shared dislike of idolatry, with Muslims and Protestants both disliking Popery.

The Papal Bull encouraged Elizabeth to seek trading partners elsewhere outside of Christendom, and she largely stayed out of the Holy League with the Battle of Lepanto. By March 1577 Ottoman Abd al-Malik captured the Moroccan city of Fez, and proclaimed himself the Sultan of Morocco. He wanted to do a deal with Elizabeth, “being desirous of the honor I hear of your queen of England, and the good liking I have of the English nation.” He was going to offer access to the markets beyond Morocco, and this particular trading relationship angered the Catholics like none before it, as it dealt with the trade of arms and weapons. English tin went to the Muslim world, which would be used against Catholic Spain.

So let’s talk about how all of this played out in England. Between 1576 and 1603 more than 60 plays featuring Muslims in the guise of Turks, Moors or Persians played on London’s stages. We see Shakespeare showing a Moore vying for Portia’s love in The Merchant of Venice, saying “mislike me not for my complexion, the shadowed livery of the bunished sun, to whom I am a neighbor and near bred. Bring me the fairest creature northward born, Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles, And let us make incision for your love To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.” The registerrs of the company of Stationers of London show that nearly 60 books were published during Elizabeth’s reign on subjects relating to the Ottomans, and of those half were published in the 1590’s.

Inventories of art collections of London’s lord mayor, and Oxford scholar Thomas Key, both list pictures of the Great Turk. Poet Sir Philip Sidney wrote in 1575 that he was happy to receive a portrait of “murad, the new Emperor of the Turks,” from a friend in Strasbourg. He would later write about the Turks in a love sonnet sequence from the 1580’s, saying “whether the Turkish new-moone minded be, to Fill his horses this yeare on Christian coast,” obviously alluding to the islamic crescent moon.

We can look at Shakespeare for other portrayals of Moors and Islam in popular culture. There’s the aforementioned Merchant of Venice, but there are two other plays centered around Moors. Othello is the most nuanced, having us show sympathy for the General, who is praised throughout the play. It’s the villain of the play, Iago, who refers to him as a “Moor” in a derogatory way; and he refers to Othello’s sexual relationship with Desdemona as “an old black ram tupping…[a] white ewe”, where the word “tupping” is reserved for the copulation of animals.

Even within Titus Andronicus, which is the most violent of Shakespeare’s plays – even with cannibalism – we still see a bit of sympathy for the violent Moor. A recent article in The Economist points to how, “he is also alarmingly eloquent and elicits sympathy when he rebuffs accusations about his beliefs. Shakespeare even suggests that it is society’s racism that drives characters to evil.”

So in many ways, both the Moor and the Catholics were evil, and then, as now, it was a complicated relationship, with prejudices and stereotypes leading the way. It has been my hope in doing this series that you can see that the Muslim relationship with England has been a complex one dating back centuries, with both sides wondering, and questioning each other, but also finding each other exotic and interesting in their own ways. Let’s remember that in Hardwick Hall, Bess of Hardwick had over 40 Turkey Carpets. So while Shakespeare showed Moors killing children, the merchants did deals for luxury products, which really isn’t so different than what often happens now.

So I’m going to leave it there for this week – This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World by Jerry Brotten. And you can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast. So you guys, next episode is episode 100. Can you believe we’ve been through 100 episodes together? I’m going to do a fun one that looks at the ways Tudor England is still with us today, from words and language, to customs, and ways we might not have even realized. The Tudors are everywhere! So stay tuned for that. Also, remember to check out the treat boxes at TreasuresFromBess.com, and I’ll be back with you in two weeks. Thanks for listening!

(remember, if you like this show, there are a few ways you can help it succeed. The easiest – and free – is to leave a rating on iTunes. It really makes a difference in helping new people find the show. Next up, you could buy a gift from my awesome – if I do say so myself – collection of cool stuff, like Tudor Leggings, Elizabeth mugs, and other gifts at TudorFair.com, which is my online shop. Finally, you can consider becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1/episode.)