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Mitring Persia in The Faerie Queene
by Ladan Niayesh

A goodly Lady clad in scarlot red,

Purfled with gold and pearle of rich assay

And like a Persian mitre on her hed

She wore, with crownes and owches garnished,

The which her lauish louers to her gaue. (The Faerie Queene, I.2.13.2–6)[1]


This description of Duessa’s outfit in the scene of her first encounter with the Redcrosse knight in Book I of The Faerie Queene gets primarily glossed in Spenser editions as an anti-Catholic reference. Indeed, the mitre and scarlet both recall a bishop’s outfit and that of the Whore of Babylon in Revelation 17.4, ‘arraied in purple and skarlet, and gilded with gold and precious stones and pearles’ in the Geneva version.[2] Lucas Cranach the Elder’s woodcut in the Luther Bible (c. 1530) gives a visual precedent for the figure of the great whore associated with that of the Pope as Antichrist, since she is explicitly represented with a papal triple tiara.[3] That additional headdress is also given to Duessa later into Book I by her lover Orgoglio: ‘He gave her gold and purple pall to weare, / And triple crowne set on her head full hye’ (I.7.16.3–4). The image evokes at once the excess of ritual in the Catholic mass and the corrupt pomp of the Church of Rome in Protestant readers’ eyes, as they discover Duessa in her Fidessa disguise, entering in the company of Redcrosse’s Saracen adversary, Sans Foy, in reverse symmetry to the earlier idealized and white-clad Una as allegory of the one Church, with true Saint George – an oriental figure like Sans Foy, but Christian – as its defender.

What gets less immediate attention in the reference, though, is its Persian association, and how the Persian note should be understood in the line. ‘Persian’ could be conceived both as an adjective and as a noun. If an adjective, the line can be paraphrased as ‘she wore what looked like a Persian mitre on her head’. If a noun, the line comes to mean ‘like a Persian, she wore a mitre on her head’. In the first instance, ‘Persian mitre’ orientalizes the headdress, while the second instance places Persia on the side of the mitre-wearing Roman Catholic clergy at a time when the reformed Church of England avoided using that headdress. In what follows, I explore the two leads together, that is to say what the Persian note contributes to the Catholic reference, and what the implications of characterising Persia as Catholic could be at that specific point in time.


Orientalizing Catholicism


The etymology section in the OED is explicit about the connection between the mitre and West and South Asia, signposting the word as cognate with mitra, the Sanskrit word for ‘friend’, and the Indo-European root for ‘to bind’, present in the name of the Iranian god Mithra. Accordingly, details on the symbolic outfit of that divinity provided in the Encyclopaedia Iranica include that specific headdress: ‘the god is dressed in Iranian costume, with rays radiating from a high curved Iranian tiara (which was later to be adapted as a Phrygian cap in the iconography of the Greco-Roman Mithras).’[4] Senses 1.a and 1.b in the OED confirm the stereotype, with classical examples attributing that Asian headdress to both male and female wearers in the East.

The orientalizing value of the mitre is clearly an aspect of which Spenser’s contemporaries were aware, as is reflected for example in the headdresses designed by Inigo Jones for the eastern queens of his and Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queens (1609). Jones’s surviving costume sketches for that court entertainment unmistakably show Egyptian Berenice and Ethiopian Candace wearing magnificent, bejewelled mitres.[5] Even if both of them feature as positive figures and Female Worthies in the masque, their headpieces nonetheless denote sumptuous oriental riches. Similarly, associating classicized Persia with pomp and pride is a recurrent feature in The Faerie Queene, even if Persia cannot be systematically and unproblematically reduced to that aspect alone in The Faerie Queene. An example of luxurious and corrupt associations of Persia is found in the figure of the next false female Redcrosse meets after Duessa, that is to say Lucifera, whose court is described as surpassing even that of ‘Persia selfe, the nourse of pompouse pride’ (I.4.7.6). That quote is chosen by Jane Grogan as the title of a chapter in The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing,[6] even if her point in that chapter is to demonstrate the inconsistencies of Spenser’s Persian allusions, making also room for such mitigating features as Arthur’s virtuous association to Cyrus, recalling the admirable classical precedent of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, as translated into English by William Barker (c. 1553).[7]

The closest that early modern drama comes to associating the mitre as a prop with both classicized East and Roman Catholicism is the stage direction in the scene of Medea’s conjuring for the Great Turk Amurath’s wife and daughter in Robert Greene’s Alphonsus, King of Aragon (c. 1587). Resurrecting the ghost of the soothsayer Calchas, known for having prophesied to Agamemnon at the start of Homer’s Iliad, the sorceress makes him appear in a guise described by the following stage direction: ‘Rise CALCHAS up in a white surplice and a cardinal’s mitre’ (3.2.91SD).[8] Appearing only a couple of years before The Faerie Queene, the play makes a Pope-Antichrist/Turk association similar to the Whore of Baylon/Saracen one yoking Duessa and Sans Foy together. In Greene’s play, the audience sees the spirit of Calchas rising while Amurath’s body lays asleep in the scene of conjuration. The spectacular episode recalls Luther’s allegorizing in his Table Talk, affirming that ‘the person of the Antichrist is at the same time the pope and the Turk’ and that ‘the spirit of the Antichrist is the pope, his flesh is the Turk.’[9] But if Greene’s Alphonsus expectedly follows the Lutheran precedent by placing the Catholic connection on the side of the antagonised Ottomans, the Persian mitre in The Faerie Queene surprises us by making a similar connection for the Sunnite Ottomans’ Shiite adversaries. This calls for further unpacking of the reference, as well as considering the ideological implications of casting Persia in specifically Catholic garb at this point in time.


Catholicising Persia


Early modern England would not have been totally unaware of doctrinal discord between Sunnite Ottomans and Shiite Safavids. Among various available resources on the question, first-hand testimonies of Muscovy Company agents published in travel compendia make this point explicit. If Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (for which the first edition is dated 1589), would not have been accessible to Spenser prior to his composing The Faerie Queene, much of that compilation’s Persia-related material takes up the Muscovy Company papers as they had previously been published in Richard Eden and Richard Willes’s The History of Trauayle in the West and East Indies (1577). One such item is the report by agent Geoffrey Ducket, in charge of the Company’s 1568 expedition to Persia, who includes, among diverse observations on the country, a section entitled ‘Of the religion of the Persians’ (fol. 325v ff.). It is true that Ducket calls the two factions ‘Turkes’ and ‘Persians’ rather than Sunnites and Shiites, and he gets the names and connections wrong for the first elected Caliphs, missing out on Abu Bakr and mistaking ‘Umar and ‘Uthman for a father and son. Nevertheless, he manages to give his readers an overall sense of the original schism between the two parties over the succession of the Prophet Muhammad: ‘Theyr [meaning the Persians’] religion is all one with the Turkes, sauyng that they dyffer who was the ryght successor of Mahumet. The Turkes saye, that it was one Homer and his sonne Vsman. But the Persians saye, that it was one Mortus Ali.’[10]

Following Samuel Chew’s lead in The Crescent and the Rose (1937), which treated Shiite Persia in a separate section and primarily as a foil to the Ottomans, critical interest was sparked in early modern diplomatic correspondence and propaganda writings connected to Persia, which translated the Sunnite-Shiite division along the lines of the Catholic-Protestant one so as to nurture projects of a political and commercial alliance between England and the Safavids.[11] But such a reading cannot be systematic, and it is countered by many jarring notes, starting with the fact that even the staunchest proponents of that projected alliance, the Sherley brothers, were Catholic converts. As I argue elsewhere, the religious propaganda of The Travels of the Three English Brothers (1607), a play directly related to the Sherleys’ efforts, makes much of the prospect of converting the Sophy and his Persian subjects to Christianity, rather than to Protestantism.[12] Subtle Catholic notes are even present in the play, as when the Sophy’s Niece swears ‘By’r lady’ (sc. 11, l. 57).[13]

Commenting on such moments in the play as a courtier’s reminding the Persian Sophy of his pagan beliefs – ‘you, whose empire for these thousand years / Have given their adoration to the sun, / The silver moon and those her countless eyes’ (sc. 2, ll. 190-2) – Matthew Dimmock concludes that in such propaganda pieces, the portrayal of the religious beliefs of the Persians are by no means stable, but ‘veers across the spectrum of possibilities’ according to the needs of specific contexts of writing.[14]

Written a full decade before the arrival of the Sherley brothers at the Safavid capital of Qazvin (1598), The Faerie Queene’s use of Persian references is necessarily a different one from that of the Sherley propaganda writings. By that point in time, the original commercial relations which the Muscovy Company had attempted with Persia in the 1560s and 70s had long been abandoned,[15] and the country itself was in the throes of political turmoil, following the death of Shah Tahmasp in 1576 and before a young Shah ‘Abbas managed to wrench control out of Qizilbash hands in 1589.[16] The immediate context of The Faerie Queene can therefore not be one of working towards a Persian alliance, but is rather one of post-Armada nationalism, with, for example, its casting of Philip II of Spain as the evil Sultan of book 5.[17] The spirit of Protestant militantism which characterized that specific moment in Elizabethan literary production called for a more systematic recourse to crusading stereotypes, conflating Catholics and eastern potentates and modelling those hybrid figures on medievalised Pagan Saracens. Cast as stock figures rather than any specific historical monarchs, the old Sultan and the young Sophy of Thomas Heywood’s heroic romance The Four Prentices of London (c. 1592-4) exemplify this chivalric trend in appearing as joint allies fighting the London apprentices turned Crusaders, despite the actual historical rivalry between the Ottomans and the Safavids. Similarly, the second part of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, composed, like The Faerie Queene, in the immediate aftermath of the Armada, gives us a fleeting vignette of an orientalized Catholic potentate in the figure of Prester John. Reporting on his trans-African expedition of conquest, Tamburlaine’s lieutenant Techelles boasts of having overcome the figure, ‘whose triple mitre I did take by force’ (2 Tamburlaine, 1.3.189).[18] A hyperbolic prop within a hyperbolic speech, the ‘triple mitre’ evokes two headpieces in one, the regular mitre and the triple tiara worn at papal coronations. Here too, Persians are involved in the process, but this time they are on the conquering side, since despite the Scythian/Tatar origins of Techelles and his leader Tamburlaine, they have been persianized as a result of Tamburlaine’s first conquest in Part 1 and his keeping the crown of Persia as his only one while distributing all other titles and crowns to his vassals.


To conclude, as the examples dealt with in this article have shown, literary engagements with Persia in the period open to a wider range of religious belongings than we find in more straightforward castings of Ottomans as Mahometans and the interchangeable use of the term ‘Turk’ as a marker of ethnicity and of religious belief.[19] As pointed out by Javad Ghatta, recent scholarship on English representations of Islam has been far ‘more complex and nuanced’ than in Chew’s time or later in Saidian orientalism. This has been made possible in part by exploring ‘the ambiguous religious polyphony assigned to Persians’ in the literature of the period.[20] Religious assessments of Persia in the late sixteenth century undergo continuous revisions over short intervals and sometimes even from one author to another, as is the case in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and its exact contemporary 2 Tamburlaine. The former casts Persia as mitre-wearing and Catholic, while the latter shows a Persianate army commander snatching the mitre off a catholicized adversary’s head. By turns classical and topical, the Persian mitre in its many iterations proves a symbol of spiritual and temporal power changing hands as conveniently as a stage prop, in fictions making the prospect of a Persian rapprochement possible, but circumstantial.


Ladan Niayesh

Université Paris Cité



[1] All references are to Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Qveene, ed. A.C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 2001).

[2] The Bible, That is the Holy Scriptvres, contained in the Old and New Testaments (London: Robert Barker, 1603), fol. 448r.

[4] Franz Grenet, “MITHRA ii. ICONOGRAPHY IN IRAN AND CENTRAL ASIA,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, (accessed on 1 August 2022).

[5] For Berenice’s costume see, and for Candace’s costume (accessed 1 August 2022).

[6] Jane Grogan, The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), chapter 2: ‘Romance Persia: “Nourse of Pompous Pride”’ (pp. 70-111).

[7] William Barker, Xenophon’s ‘Cyropaedia’, ed. Jane Grogan (Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2020).

[8] In Three Romances of Eastern Conquest, ed. Ladan Niayesh (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018).

[9] Cited in Daniel Vitkus, Turning Turk. English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2003), p. 60.

[10] Richard Eden and Richard Willes, The History of Trauayle in the VVest and East Indies (London: Richard Iugge, 1577), fol. 325v.

[11] Samuel Chew, The Crescent and the Rose (New York: Oxford University Press, 1937), part 5: ‘The Sophy and the Shi’a’, pp. 205-38.

[12] Ladan Niayesh, ‘Shakespeare’s Persians’, Shakespeare 4.2 (June 2008), 127-36, p. 132.

[13] In Three Renaissance Travel Plays, ed. Anthony Parr (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

[14] Matthew Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 142.

[15] See for details Michael Murrin, Trade and Romance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), chapter 9: ‘Spenser, Marlowe, and the English Search for Asian Silk’, pp. 183-206, in particular pp. 196-7.

[16] See Andrew J. Newman, Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), p. 50.

[17] For more on this aspect, see Talya Meyers, ‘Saracens in Faeryland’, Spenser Studies 29 (2014), 37-61.

[18] Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[19] For an updated overview of Persian and Ottoman stereotypes in the literature of the period, see Ladan Niayesh, ‘English Literature and the Ottoman and Persian Empires in the Renaissance’, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, pub. 20 June 2022,

[20] Javad Ghatta, ‘Persian Icons, Shi‘a Imams: Liminal Figures and Hybrid Persian Identities on the English Stage’, in Bernadette Andrea and Linda McJannet (eds), Early Modern England and Islamic Worlds (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 53-72 (p. 55).


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Ladan Niayesh, "Mitring Persia in The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 52.3.4 (Fall 2022). Accessed April 1st, 2023.
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