Throughout the Elizabethan era, the Ottoman Empire was inextricably linked to European socio-political affairs. As a superpower in a period of increasing globalization, the influence of Islamic culture spread far and wide. So, when Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I in February 1570, Elizabeth seized the opportunity to establish a trade and military alliance with the Ottomans.
Until the latter part of the sixteenth century the vast majority of trade between Europe and the Ottoman Empire was under the control of the French ambassador at the Sublime Porte, Jacques de Germigny. Under a capitulation signed by Francis I and Süleyman I in 1535, the King of France had the right to act as protector of all Christian nations in the Levant. Consequently, European trade in the region could only be conducted under the protection of the French flag regardless of where ships originated from.
At this time, Anglo-Spanish relations were rapidly deteriorating as Spaniards rejected Elizabeth as Queen of England because of her Protestant faith, supporting Mary, Queen of Scot’s claim to the English throne instead. Consequently, Elizabeth sought a military alliance with Sultan Murad II as protection from Spain as well as enabling trade in the Levant free from French interference.
In October 1587, Elizabeth sent William Harborne, a successful merchant, to Constantinople with a letter to Sultan Murad III expressing her wish to form an alliance between the two states. The featured item, Coppie de la requeste au Turk, contains two French versions of the commercial negotiations between Elizabeth and the Porte.
Harborne managed to secure trading privileges for himself and his employers but the Sultan was reluctant to upset his longstanding agreement with France and rejected Harborne’s request for unrestricted English trade. Steadfast in his task, however, Harborne remained at the Porte and built a friendship with the Grand Vizier, calling his attention to the potential military threat that an empire of Spain’s size posed whilst underlining that England would be a reliable ally, should they need one.
Despite his reluctance to form a military alliance, the sultan was still keen to establish cordial relations with England primarily to ensure continued imports of the English tin and lead used to make Ottoman weapons and ammunition. Wary of damaging Turkey’s relationship with France, the sultan requested the appointment of an English ambassador to the Porte who could formally negotiate a treaty between the two states.
Harborne was appointed as permanent ambassador in 1582 and the following year a treaty was signed that granted all English subjects the right to trade freely in the Levant. Despite failing to make a military alliance with the Ottomans, Harborne and Elizabeth had succeeded in establishing formal diplomatic and commercial relations between England and the Ottoman Empire.
French outrage at England’s new trading status is perfectly captured in the adjoining poems with two references to Elizabeth being "louve, pire qu'un million de loups" (“a wolf, worse than a million wolves”).
Trade with the Ottoman Empire, however, had a transformative effect on Elizabethan society and England’s economy. As well as imports of sugar, silks and spices, Ottoman décor became a status of wealth in Elizabethan homes and words such as ‘crimson’, ‘turquoise’ and ‘tulip’ entered the English language. This unique item, therefore, provides an exclusive insight into the fascinating story behind England’s first formal negotiations with the Ottomans.
Horniker, A., 1942. William Harborne and the Beginning of Anglo-Turkish Diplomatic and Commercial Relations. The Journal of Modern History, 14(3), pp. 289-316. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1874534 [Accessed September 2019]
Brotton, J., 2018. Elizabethan England’s relationship with the Islamic World. History Extra. Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/elizabethan/elizabethan-englands-relationship-with-the-islamic-world/ [Accessed September 2019]