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Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World
by Su Fang Ng

Brotton, Jerry. This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World. Allen Lane / Penguin Books, 2016. xv + 358 pp. ISBN: 978-0241004029. $26.00 cloth. 

The past two decades have seen increasing interest in Early Modern Anglo-Islamic relations with an ever-expanding list of publications, especially in literary studies. Jerry Brotton’s early books, co-authored with the late Lisa Jardine, namely, The Renaissance Bazaar and Global Interests, were among the pioneering works of this “re-orienting” of Early Modern literature that uncovered England’s relations with the East.[1] Brotton and Jardine, Nabil Matar, Daniel Vitkus, Jonathan Burton, and now many more, have examined the myriad ways in which Islamic culture influenced and inflected the European Renaissance.[2] Brotton’s latest book (published in the U.S. as The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam) examines the Elizabethan age from about 1570 until the queen’s death to argue that England experienced a particularly intense alignment in this period with the Muslim world. Writing for a general audience, Brotton consolidates the last two decades of research in this field to weave a fascinating narrative of Elizabeth’s economic, political, and military alliances with the Kingdom of Morocco and the Ottoman Empire against their mutual enemy, Catholic Spain. In doing so, he paints a picture of mutual rapprochement that cut across culture and religion.

Over eleven chapters, Brotton tells the narrative of Anglo-Islamic engagements, mainly through the stories of individuals, whether English diplomats sent to negotiate trade agreements, English adventurers seeking fame and fortune, or Muslim ambassadors sent to England to broker an alliance. Given Brotton’s literary background, interspersed in the some of the chapters are accounts of English drama’s fascination with Muslim figures, but these take a back seat to the narrative history. The Introduction sets the stage with the visit of the important Moroccan envoy Abd al-Wahid bin Maoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri, who arrived in London in 1600 and stayed for six months. Al-Annuri has been of particular interest to literary scholars because he may have served as a model for Shakespeare’s Moorish Othello, and in Brotton’s Introduction the envoy and his embassy serve as a kind of synecdoche for amicable relations with Muslim princes. Chapter 1 gives the context for the English court’s tolerance of Islam, which lay in Reformation conflicts, when both Catholics and Reformers used Turkishness as a metaphor for ungodliness. The Hapsburgs were fighting heretical belief on two fronts: against Muslims and against Lutherans. Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain initiated a bloody period of the suppression of Protestantism, with Philip’s father Charles V’s victory over the Turks presented as example in a set of twelve imposing wedding tapestries depicting the Conquest of Tunis. After Mary’s death, Elizabeth found herself in a precarious position as a Protestant monarch threatened by Catholic powers on the continent and was thus inclined toward strategic alliances with powerful Muslim states.

Chapters 2 and 3 detail the early English contact with the two major powers Brotton is most concerned with, the Ottomans and the Moroccans. Chapter 2 focuses on the exploits of Anthony Jenkinson, a Muscovy company merchant and a mercer by trade. A chance meeting with the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman in Aleppo when they were both there in the winter of 1553-4 gave Jenkinson the opportunity to secure trading privileges, thus initiating Anglo-Ottoman relations. With only a faint inkling of the differences between Sunni and Shi’a, which he described in terms of whether or not they shave their mustache, Jenkinson found himself in the midst of Ottoman conflict with the Safavid Persians. His later voyages—to Bukhara (today Uzbekistan), Persia, and Russia—opened up further eastern territories for trade: he brought back a young Tartar slave girl as a gift for Elizabeth and even was shown an ancient wall said to have been built by Alexander the Great to keep out the barbaric tribes of Gog and Magog. In a later voyage, the peace treaty concluded between the Ottomans and Safavids put him in danger when the Turkish merchants in Persia wanted to be rid of him, but Jenkinson was saved through the intervention of Abdullah-Khan, the ruler of Bukhara.

Chapter 3 turns to English trading relations, mediated by Jewish merchants, with Morocco, whose sugar and saltpeter were particularly desired. Morocco, Brotton argues, was one of the two Islamic powers at either end of the Mediterranean important to ensuring English security against the Spanish. English merchants were involved in trading arms with the tacit support of the crown. Although the ostensible reason for al-Annuri’s embassy to England was a trade deal, his real brief was to proposal a military alliance. In this case and other cases, both Christians and Muslims took the rhetorical strategy of minimizing differences, particularly religious ones, to enable cooperation. Elizabeth’s first ambassador to Morocco, Edmund Hogan, who established a relationship with the new king Abd al-Malik, praised him as a kind of Protestant. The former king who was ousted, Abdallah Muhammad, exiled in Portugal, offered vassalage if King Sebastian would restore him to the throne. This ill-judged crusade was supported by an English soldier, pirate, and renegade, Thomas Stukeley, in a war known as the Battle of El-Ksar el-Kebir (Alcácer-Quibir), which marked yet another shift in Anglo-Islamic relations. Al-Malik’s death left England without a sympathetic ally while Sebastian’s led to Portugal’s annexation to Spain, leaving England once again in a precarious and politically isolated position.

With the death of al-Malik, Elizabeth’s government refocused to cultivate the Ottomans, the subject of Chapters 4 and 5. The key figure in the negotiations with the Ottoman Empire, discussed in Chapter 4, was William Harborne, spy, ambassador, and chief merchant, sent by Elizabeth’s secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, whose important memorandum on the Turkey trade established Elizabethan policy on Anglo-Ottoman relations. Remarkably, William Harborne successfully negotiated a charter of trading privileges (the Capitulations), to the dismay of England’s European rivals. His well-laid plans were almost scuttled by the piratical activities of his fellow Englishman Peter Baker, who captained the vessel Bark Roe. Baker’s piracy enraged Turkish, Greek, and Venetian authorities, endangering not just Harborne’s life but also his mission, for the valuable Capitulations were revoked. Elizabeth herself had to write a groveling letter beseeching the Ottoman Sultan Murad’s mercy. Haborne’s story continues in Chapter 5, but not before a digression on the representation of the Ottomans on the English stage. In the first half of the chapter Brotton discusses Robert Wilson’s moralizing Three Ladies of London (1583) as evidence of the topicality of Harborne’s mission. The last half of the chapter shows Harborne’s painstaking but successful building of a network of mercantile agents in the Ottoman empire, as he won back the trading privileges he had lost. Brotton sees these efforts as more than just commercial; he argues that they constituted a deliberate anti-Spanish policy, masterminded by Leicester and Walsingham.

Chapter 6, titled “Sultana Isabel,” the name the Ottomans gave Elizabeth, considers the alliance-building at two ends of the Mediterranean as overlapping policies. But neither Harborne’s alliance-building at the Sublime Porte nor Henry Roberts in imperial Marrakesh, however successful diplomatically, ever achieved their ultimate goal of an Anglo-Ottoman or Anglo-Moroccan naval attack on the Spanish fleet. Although Brotton shows very convincingly the extensive negotiations, for one reason or another cooperation fell short of actual military action. To underline the intensity of Anglo-Islamic relations, Brotton begins the chapter with something that seems more of a digression, by contrasting the first recorded case of Muslim conversion to English Protestantism against the many Christian conversions to Islam, including the prominent example of Samson Rowlie, who became the chief eunuch and treasurer of Algiers. By the end of the chapter, Anglo-Islamic relations seem conducted more on paper (in the exchange of royal correspondence) and in personal relations, than in fighting jointly on the battlefield or on the high seas.

The last chapters turn more attention to English cultural productions about the Muslim world, especially representations of Islamic Others on the stage, though Brotton intersperses his summaries of the plays in the framework of a historical narrative. Chapter 7, on “London Turns Turk,” considers London’s rage for the Turk in a series of plays that follow Wilson’s Three Ladies of London, and most important of all, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays. However, the chapter begins by back-tracking to the projected Anglo-Moroccan alliance raised by the Moroccan embassy sent after England’s 1588 victory over the Spanish Armada. The Sultan al-Mansur audaciously proposed to place Don António on the Portuguese throne and to reconquer Al-Andalus, a plan that Brotton suggests is part of Elizabeth’s larger anti-Spanish axis. This opening to the chapter serves only to introduce the topic of the popularity of Muslim figures on the stage in the period when the Moroccan ambassador was in London. Brotton spends some pages discussing the representation of the Muslim in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, as well as in other plays like Thomas Kyd’s Soliman and Perseda (about the Ottoman invasion of Rhodes), and George Peele’s Battle of Alcazar (about the war at Alcácer-Quibir). The chapter pivots back to the story of the disappointing failure of the Portuguese project before discussing the ubiquity of the fascination with Islamic worlds not just in plays but also in political histories, travelogues, and sermons. Two thirds of the more than sixty plays featuring Turks, Moors, and Persians staged in the last part of Elizabeth’s reign were performed in the decade between 1588 and 1599, with examples like Robert Greene’s Tragicall Reign of Selimus and Alphonsus King of Aragon, and Marlowe’s own Jew of Malta.

Chapter 8 considers how England’s Anglo-Islamic engagements infiltrated Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare alludes to the Prophet Muhammad in Henry VI, Part I. He may have been influenced by prior Turk stage figures, modeling Titus in Titus Andronicus on Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or Robert Greene’s Selimus, or Aaron the Moor on George Peele’s Muly Mahamet in The Battle of Alcazar. Shakespeare responded to earlier dramatic precedents as well as to current political events in his depiction of Shylock and the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice. Chapter 9 continues the theme but this time reading Shakespeare’s allusions against the backdrop of Ottoman imperial transitions, with the late Sultan Murad III succeeded by Mehmed III. The Turkey trade introduced new luxuries to England, whether silk or tapestries. Here Brotton discusses allusions to Turks in Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV. He also includes a discussion of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, not only the explicitly Muslim figures, such as the “Saracens” and “Paynims” peopling Spenser’s epic, but also St George, who is a prime example of the blending of Christian and Islamic traditions: in Islam St George is conflated with the immortal figure of al-Khidr. Spenser conflates Catholicism and Islam in the depiction of a “Souldan,” or sultan, a figure for Philip II, threatening the queen Mercilla, who stands in for Elizabeth. The complex inheritance of St George, evident in Spenser and in Richard Johnson’s Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom, Brotton argues, also becomes part of Shakespeare’s Henry V in his protagonist’s proposal that his heir will “take the Turk by the beard” (5.2.196). [3] But while Shakespeare’s drama brings up the possibility of a crusade, English ambassadors were negotiating commercial privileges by presenting the Ottoman sultan curious gifts such as the clockwork organ built and delivered by the blacksmith Thomas Dallam, whose handicraft delighted his Turkish hosts.

Chapter 10 recounts the adventures of the Sherley brothers that became part of cultural knowledge, alluded to in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the subject of a play, The Travails of the Three English Brothers (1607). One brother, Anthony, had a particularly colorful career: when negotiating trade with the Persian Shah Abbas, he became a close companion of the sultan, and was later sent as one of two Persian ambassadors to Europe to propose a political alliance. However, that embassy encountered difficulties as Anthony and the Persian ambassador, Ali Beg, got into disputes over precedence. With in-fighting taking a toll, the embassy ended a failure. Chapter 11 returns to the subject of the Moroccan embassy of 1600 with which this book began. This time it becomes the setting for a discussion of dramatic representations of Moors that appeared soon after the embassy, such as Thomas Dekker’s Lust’s Dominion; or The Lascivious Queen, William Percy’s Mahomet and his Heaven, and of course, Shakespeare’s Othello, to which Brotton devotes the bulk of his attention. The short Epilogue concludes the account of English engagement with the Islamic world by considering the Mediterranean setting of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

For Early Modern scholars working on Anglo-Islamic relations, the story Brotton tells is not wholly new. The various merchants, adventurers, and diplomats discussed here are well known to specialists in the field as are the plays, whether those by Shakespeare or by more obscure authors. But Brotton weaves the many threads of his story into a rich tapestry that a general reader would find pleasurable and enlightening. He turns details that have been studied piecemeal into a compelling larger story about how England’s engagements with Islamic powers constituted an important part of the history of Reformation conflicts. Because Brotton blends history and literary analysis, sometimes letting history be the main story, other times using history as context for the literature, the book’s narrative line is not a straight one. Rather, it moves back and forth quite a bit. The chapters oscillate between Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, but sometimes this means returning to the same embassies and events. Unfortunately, this recursiveness can seem a little repetitive by the last chapters. Considering how long Brotton has worked on Anglo-Islamic relations, there is a surprising error with a simple Arabic word: he translates funduq as markets (130-31) when it means inn or hotel (plural: fanādiq): the word for market is in fact suq (plural: aswāq).

Still, these are mere quibbles, for Brotton brings together an impressive range of sources. Master of his material, he marshals the evidence into a new, surprising narrative about the Reformation. His argument that England responded to the Spanish threat by cultivating Muslim friends puts a new aspect on the history of English Protestantism and even on that signal English event of the period, the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. Even if these Anglo-Islamic engagements and alliances did not last long beyond Elizabeth, recovering them reminds us that Islam too was part of the story of the English nation. And Brotton tells this important story with considerable verve.  

Su Fang Ng
Virginia Tech 



[1] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo, Oxford UP, 2010, and Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton, Global Interests: Renaissance Art Between East and West, Reaktion, 2003.

[2] See Nabil Matar, Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery, Columbia UP, 2000, Islam in Britain, 1558-1685, Cambridge UP, 2008, Daniel Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630, Palgrave, 2003, and Jonathan Burton, Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579-1624, U of Delaware P, 2005.

[3] The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed., edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al., Norton, 1997, 2008.

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47.2.26

Cite as:

Su Fang Ng, " Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World," Spenser Review 47.2.26 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed June 19th, 2018.
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