In 1570, Queen Elizabeth I of England was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Pius V. He named her a heretic, a pretender to the throne of England, and released from their allegiance all her subjects, lest they too face excommunication. Such was the attitude of Catholic Europe towards Elizabeth who, following the death of her half-sister, Queen Mary I, reinstituted the Church of England’s independence from papal authority.
While the kingdoms and principalities of Europe increasingly began to take sides amidst the great wars between Catholics and Protestants which dominated the geopolitics of that region between the sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, England’s geography and antagonistic relationship with Catholic maritime powers, namely Spain, meant allies and trading partners were few and far between.
When a letter was delivered to Queen Elizabeth in 1579, curiously wrapped in a satin bag and fastened with a silver capsule, it signaled the onset of an unlikely and unprecedented correspondence. For the first time ever, a Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had written to an English monarch. In her search for friendly trading ports, Elizabeth dispatched envoys and merchants to the Mediterranean in the hopes of establishing prosperous relations with the cities of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Word of the arrival of Englishmen in ports under his control had prompted the young Sultan Murad III to write to Elizabeth inviting her countrymen to establish friendly trading relations, provided she would acknowledge his greatness and function as his subject.
With the entire expanse of Catholic Europe acting as a buffer state and certain economic crisis looming, Elizabeth found these terms agreeable enough. The correspondence between these two rulers, and the ensuing cross-cultural transference of goods and ideas is the subject of Jerry Brotton’s The Sultan and the Queen. A professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, Brotton uses this relationship as a wonderfully unique lens with which to view Elizabethan England – no small task, given the sheer volume of available scholarship concerning that time and place.
The result is a work which provides a new angle of insight into the attitudes, alliances, and indeed even popular culture of Elizabeth’s England. Brotton draws significantly on the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe as supporting primary sources to explain how English disposition towards the Ottomans and the tenants of Islam metamorphosed during this era. Armed with this context, it becomes impossible to engage with works such as Othello in the same way again. If ‘untold’ historical narratives are your thing, I promise you will enjoy this offering thoroughly.