Elizabethan England behind the dazzling Ottoman veil

Mahak Nuwal

If you were to go back in time and visit one of Elizabethan England’s great houses, the first thing you would probably notice would be its vast displays of Turkish carpets of silk

If you were to go back in time and visit one of Elizabethan England’s great houses, the first thing you would probably notice would be its vast displays of Turkish carpets of silk, Anatolian rugs containing Arabic script and Iznik pottery from Bursa. If you were to look closely then you might also spot some tapestries depicting the Ottoman capital Constantinople and even a portrait of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III. Trust that you are not alone in thinking if this really is an Elizabethan house or have you mistakenly landed into the house of a traitor. Hold on because there is a good chance that this could actually be the house of Robert Dudley, Queen Elizabeth I’s firm favourite. The description of the house’s interior, I agree, does sound rather surprising, nevertheless this was the reality for most Elizabethan houses. They were the living proof of England’s unexpected yet uncommonly successful alliance with the mighty Ottoman empire. Confused? Let’s start from the beginning… In February 1570, England was left in a very precarious position after Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I from the Catholic Church. Once excommunicated, England was cornered by Europe’s Catholic powers who would only give the English merchants limited commercial access to their ports and cities. Eventually, the English trade flunked and the economic crises ensued. It became obvious to Elizabeth and her councillors that they would have to look elsewhere if they wished to revive the English trade. It was Sir Francis Walsingham who first saw the potential benefits of an alliance with the Ottomans. In 1578, he sent England’s first official merchant-cum ambassador, William Harborne, to Constantinople (Istanbul). Harborne’s goal was to first establish a trading presence and later strategically develop that into a political alliance with the empire of Sultan Murad III but it wasn’t easy. Why would a global power like the Ottomans form an alliance with a rather small and isolated England? And let’s not forget religion, it was a touchy subject; Ottomans followed Islam while the English were Christians. Would their alliance be religiously acceptable?
Elizabethan England behind the dazzling Ottoman veil
Safiye Sultan

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Elizabethan England behind the dazzling Ottoman veil
Queen Elizabeth I

England and the Ottomans shared the same enemies

Fortunately, there were two vital factors that firmly bound the two nations together – commerce and enemies. English merchants could supply great quantities of tin and lead which the Ottomans required for casting of guns and weapons; Ottomans, in return, could provide them with a steady supply of textiles, silk, spices and jewels. Moreover, England and the Ottomans shared the same enemies – Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Catholic nations viewed Ottomans as infidels and a threat to Christianity, they were each other’s sworn enemies. Elizabeth cleverly exploited this situation to England’s advantage – she claimed in a letter to Murad that she, like him, disapproved of Catholic ‘idolatry’ and those ‘falsely’ professing Christ. Thus, presenting England as his ally and settling the religious debate. By May 1580, Harborne, with his hard work and determination, had obtained for England a charter of privileges that granted the English full commercial rights in Ottoman dominions. He would remain in Constantinople for another eight years and would later be succeeded by Edward Barton. One major yet lesser talked about aspect of this alliance was the relationship between Elizabeth I and Safiye Sultan, chief consort of Murad III. Safiye, one of Ottoman history’s most enigmatic figures, held unprecedented political power and exercised considerable influence over Imperial policy. It was Barton who first realised that cultivating a friendship with Safiye could help him strengthen the alliance in England’s favour. He knew that England had an edge here because of its female monarch, which meant that Elizabeth, as a woman, could write directly to Safiye and could be more open and friendly in her letters. The two women often wrote to each other and would, over a period of time, engage in a reciprocal exchange of gifts with Elizabeth famously sending Safiye ‘a clockwork musical organ’ and a golden coach. Safiye would continue to favour the English trade until her own downfall. With Harborne and Barton’s successful embassy, England worked its way through a very unlikely alliance. Unknown to these men, the Anglo-Ottoman Capitulations would last for the next 343 years and would only be dissolved upon the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1923.
Ancestry UK
Elizabethan England behind the dazzling Ottoman veil

Mahak Nuwal

I am a history enthusiast with a passion for Tudor history. For me, history always has some unique story to tell and it binds us all together in the most uncommon of ways. I am a huge believer in the fact that we are always surrounded by history no matter where we go. I hold an MBA degree in marketing and I am currently working a full-time job as a marketer but nevertheless my love for history has only gotten stronger. I have been reading about Tudor history for the last 8 years now and somehow it still is the first thing I tend to read about when I am off my work. I run an Instagram page called @tudorhistoryxo where I regularly post and talk about Tudor history and it has enabled me to share my interest with a community of like-minded individuals. Learning more about history has always made me feel really fulfilled as a person and I hope to continue doing that for as long as I could.
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