top of page

The Story of Queen Elizabeth I’s Secret Alliance with an Islamic State

By the 16th century, Islam and Christianity were in the throughs of war. Alongside the many small kingdoms of Italy, the kingdom of Spain found themselves constantly fighting with their Islamic neighbors, also known as the Ottoman Empire.

Before the New World had Spain's full attention, the Catholic nation's focus was on the supremacy of the church over a pagan and heretical world. Ever since the Crusades and pre-Reconquista, both Catholics and Muslims had been warring over crucial territories but fought the most over the land surrounding the Mediterranean. The bottom half of Spain had undergone long years of Islamic occupation before the Reconquista drove them out, leading to the formerly fragmented peninsula kingdom experiencing a unified resurgence. As a significant facet of their renaissance, Spain launched a religious war on any faith they deemed heretical or pagan, putting Protestant England directly into Spain's rapacious path.


Meanwhile, the Virgin Queen's reign was already falling apart at the seams. Her position as Monarch was legally dependent on a Protestant England due to the Catholic church's strict policy on annulments, which her parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boelyn, had filed three years after her birth. To make matters worse, since England had declared itself a Protestant state and, thus, became excommunicated by Rome, the small island nation was now encapsulated by a sea of Catholic countries, who had to adhere to their inherent Catholic political ties. Spain, in particular, had deleterious plans for Elizabeth I's England. With no Protestant allies to speak of, the shrewd Gloriana would have to seek foreign relations outside of Papal-dominated Europe and attempt to turn a long-held enemy into an ally.


Elizabeth I sent her first letter to the Ottomans in 1579. Written on the pages of the letter were artful pleadings for a strategic alliance between two vastly different cultures, a tall order during the 16th century. Nevertheless, the Virgin Queen needed to ally with someone.

That intended 'someone' was Sultan Murad III, and according to British historian and expert on the Anglo-Ottoman alliance Jerry Brotton, Elizabeth's strategy was to point out their similarities:

"What she does very shrewdly when she started to write to the Sultan in 1579 is say: Look, you and I have many similarities in terms of our theology. We do not believe in idolatry or that you should have intercession, i.e., a saint or a priest will get you closer to God."

Through her diplomatic letter writing, Elizabeth I was pragmatically showing Murad III what they had in common: religious piety and a mutual enmity towards Spain. Or, as Brotton puts it: "Elizabeth is doing this politically. What she's saying is, you're fighting Spanish Catholicism; I'm fighting Spanish Catholicism."

With the letter sent, Elizabeth I could only wait for the Sultan's response, royal fingers metaphorically crossed.


When Murad III initially received Elizabeth I's letter, the Sultan had to examine a map to see precisely where England was located in geographical relation to his Mediterranean nemesis, Spain. Historian Dr. Cristine Woodhead of the University of Durham writes that when, "the English traveller Fynes Moryson recorded that when the Ottoman Sultan Murad III was shown the location of England on a map, he peered at it in astonishment and wondered aloud why the King of Spain did not take a spade, dig it up and throw it into the sea."

Despite Murad III's diminutive view of England, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire's gold dust-covered letter contained good news for Elizabeth I. Murad III would allow English merchants safe access to and from Ottoman ports. In other words, Murad III accepted Elizabeth I's government as an ally. The Sultan, though justifiably ignorant of England's potential, saw the alliance as beneficial for his empire, especially the prospects for friendly trade with a relatively wealthy European nation.


The letters Elizabeth I received in response from the Sultan were covered in gold dust and delivered in a satin bag clasped in silver; a letter fit for a Queen; A Queen who has flaming red hair and, juxtaposed by an Islamic Sultan from Constantinople. This image is difficult for many modern Tudor enthusiasts to imagine due to what historian Jerry Brotton calls 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." This 'parochial identification' is perhaps the primary reason you have not heard of the Anglo-Ottoman alliance; historians and television writers did not believe the remarkable political story warranted any attention.

Nevertheless, regardless of any preconceived connotations, the alliance was formed on March 7th, 1579, when Elizabeth I first opened the gold-dusted letter from Murad III. Subsequently, the two governments would develop a successful commerce-driven relationship. Both nations desired to raise their GDP by trading goods back and forth across the Mediterranean.

Dr. Woodhead explains how the Ottoman alliance "..enabled spices, silks, carpets, currants, and other luxury items to be brought directly and more cheaply to England, without passing through entrepots such as Venice or Antwerp." This savvy deal led to England enjoying a key trading advantage that its Western European contemporaries lacked: uninhibited access to the richest trading ports in the Mediterranean. And, due to their sour relations with the Ottoman Empire, who controlled the coastal land from Greece to Morocco, pro-Catholic nations like Spain struggled to bypass the conglomerate's Mediterranean monopoly, which was patrolled by Ottoman naval forces alongside swarms of pirates and privateers. Put another way, England had struck gold, literally.

Elizabeth I, and her wealthy peers, all reaped the benefits of England's new political and commercial relationship with the Ottomans. As Brotton points out: "Look at Tudor portraits. It's all Orient pearls, silk from Iran, or cotton from the Ottoman territories."

A feature the Tudor portraits do not show, however, are the effects of the most popular import from the Ottoman Empire: 250 tons of Moroccan sugar, which happened to be a particular favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, who voraciously consumed the new import to such an extent that her teeth ostensibly turned black.

Regarding Elizabeth I's teeth, Brotton says: "We have accounts by European travelers, who describe Elizabeth as a small woman with blackened teeth from eating so many sweetmeats and candies."

Of course, many Tudor fans are already familiar with this fun fact, despite many Tudor enthusiasts being blissfully unaware of how Elizabeth I obtained her gnarly sweet tooth and the unlikely ally who sold it to her.

1 comentario

I do believe the correct spelling is 'throes of war', not 'throughs of war'.

Me gusta
bottom of page