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Queen Elizabeth I and Islam – A History You’ve Probably Never Heard of

World trade. Globalisation. Free markets. These are probably terms you associate with this day and age, especially as they’re constantly being bandied about in news reports, election campaigns and social media. However, as long as there’s been something to trade, countries have looked for the best price in the best place – no matter how far from home.

Now we’ll try to skim through this bit as quickly as possible, because it may remind you of a primary school history lesson. We’re back in Tudor times, the year is 1570. Queen Elizabeth I has been excommunicated by the Pope, and her country is now getting the cold-shoulder from the rest of Catholic Europe. This means no mates, no trade, and no wartime allies. To wrench England away from the brink of ruin, she seeks help from an unexpected place: the Islamic World.

In his new book, ‘The Sultan and the Queen’, historian Jerry Brotton argues that thanks to Elizabeth’s ties to influential Muslims during her reign (1558-1603), Protestantism at the time may have shared more similarities with Islam than Catholicism. On top of this, Islam went on to have a huge impact on England’s culture, fashion, and even language.

According to Brotton, Elizabeth made contact with the Shah of Iran and the Ottoman Sultan Murad III in an effort to strengthen her new Protestant nation. England needed trade, and she wasn’t going to get it from a Europe which had just shunned her. For that reason, Elizabeth’s connection with the Shah and Sultan was purely business; but if you’re importing goods from a distinct culture, that culture will no doubt impact your own.

So why would a trade deal of such significance be left out of your year five lesson on Tudor history? In a recent interview with National Geographic, Brotton put it this way:

‘There’s been a parochial identification of the Tudors, reflected in the way they have featured in recent TV shows, like The Tudors. It has become an index of Englishness, connected to whiteness and Christianity. But it never tells the wider story of what’s going on internationally. I started working on 16th-century maps and what the maps were telling me was that there was an exchange between the Islamic and Christian worlds, which wasn’t being told in the official histories.’

Once you’ve heard Brotton’s argument, and looked at the evidence, the Islamic influence seems clear as day. Tudor portraits show Elizabeth in silk from Iran, Orient pearls, cotton from the Ottoman empire. Words with Arabic or Persian roots – sugar, crimson, tulip – started to enter English language. Even Shakespeare seemed fascinated with the culture given his country’s new partnership, regularly mining Moorish history for characters (The Moors were Muslims who lived in north Africa and southern Europe in the middle ages).

This all makes sense, but what about the argument that Protestantism was more aligned with Islam than Catholicism thanks to this partnership? The Sultan and the Queen suggests this was a political maneuver on Elizabeth’s part to hasten the trade deals. She is said to have convinced the Sultan to work with her because they shared a common enemy: Spanish Catholicism. It’s the old ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ reasoning.

Elizabeth’s motivations may have had more to do with power than friendship, but it still reveals a cooperation few would’ve ever thought existed. Even hundreds of years ago, difficult times forced vastly different cultures to find some sort of common ground. And that’s certainly better than the alternative.

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