queen elizabeth I and the muslims -- 11/04/16

Today's selection -- from The Sultan and the Queen by Jerry Brotton. After Queen Elizabeth I's father, King Henry VIII, split from the pope and started the Church of England, the king was excommunicated and England was largely cut off from trade with the Catholic nations. When Elizabeth continued her father's church policies, she suffered the same consequences. The result of this embargo was that England needed trade with the Islamic countries. And when the Turkish Sultan demanded that Elizabeth show deference to him in order to do so, she was clever enough to comply:

"Toward the end of September 1579, a letter arrived in London addressed to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Wrapped in a satin bag and fastened with a silver capsule, the letter was an object of exquisite beauty, unlike any other diplomatic correspondence the queen had ever received. It was written on a large parchment roll dusted with gold and dominated by an elaborate calligraphic monogram and emblazoned with a flourish across the top. The letter was composed in Ottoman Turkish, a stylized Arabic script that was used in all formal correspondence by its sender, the thirty-three-year-old Ottoman sultan Murad III. This was the very first communication between a Turkish sultan and an English ruler. It was written in response to the arrival in Constantinople that spring of an English merchant, William Harborne, who had requested commercial privileges for his country superior to those that had thus far been awarded to any other Christian nation by the Ottomans.

"It had taken six months for the letter to make its way from Constanti­nople to London, where it was presented to the queen alongside a Latin translation prepared by an imperial scribe. The letter followed the standard conventions of an Ottoman hukum, a written order to a subject, and was addressed as a direct 'Command to Elzābet, who is the queen of the do­main of Anletār,' Murad told Elizabeth that he had been informed of the arrival of her 'traders and merchants of those parts coming to our divinely­ protected dominions and carrying on trade.' He issued an edict that if 'her agents and merchants shall come from the domain of Anletār by sea with their barks and with their ships, let no one interfere.' As long as this queen from a faraway country was prepared to accept Murad's superiority and to function as his subject, he would be happy to protect her merchants.

"Elizabeth responded quickly. The opening of her letter, dated October 25, 1579, was as revealing as Murad's. The queen began by describing herself as:

Elizabeth by the grace of the most mighty God, the only Creator of heaven and earth, of England, France and Ireland Queen, 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, the most mighty ruler of the kingdom of Turkey, sole and above all, the most sovereign monarch of the East Empire, greeting, and many happy and fortunate years.

"Elizabeth was eager to boast of her own imperial aspirations -- although it was stretching credulity to suggest she was queen of France -- and to assure Murad that she shared his antipathy toward Catholic 'idolatry' and those 'falsely' professing Christ. But her main interest was in es­tablishing a commercial relationship with the Ottomans, even if it meant having to write from a position of subjection:

Most Imperial and most invincible Emperor, we have received the letters of your mighty highness written to us from Constantinople the fifteenth day of March this present year, whereby we under­stand how graciously, and how favorably the humble petitions of one William Harborne a subject of ours, resident in the Imperial city of your highness presented unto your Majesty for the obtain­ing of access for him and two other merchants, more of his com­pany our merchants also, to come with merchandizes both by sea & land, to the countries and territories subject to your govern­ment, and from thence again to return home with good leave and liberty, were accepted of your most invincible Imperial highness.

"This was the start of a cordial seventeen-year-long correspondence between the sultan and the queen that marked the beginning of one of history's more unlikely alliances. For the wily Protestant queen who had already held on to her crown for twenty-one years in the face of implacable Catholic opposition to her rule, it was yet another shrewd move designed to ensure her political survival.

"Ever since Elizabeth's excommunication by Pope Pius V in 1570, Europe's Catholic powers had offered English merchants only limited commercial access to their ports and cities. In response to the growing economic crisis that ensued, a group of merchants came together and proposed to explore, with the queen's blessing, the possibility of direct trade with the fabled lands to the east."


Jerry Brotton


The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam


Viking an imprint of Random House, LLC


Copyright 2016 Jerry Brotton


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