In late September 1579, Queen Elizabeth received a satin bag that contained a parchment sprinkled with gold dust. It was a message from Murad III, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, composed in Arabic script. (A second letter written in Latin was also presented to the queen.)
It was the first communication between an English monarch and a Turkish sultan, according to historian Jerry Brotton, author of The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam.
In the letter, Murad promised safe passage and trading for the queen’s “agents and merchants [who] shall come from the domain of Anletar (England) by sea with their barks and with their ships.”
The only catch? The queen would have to accept Murad’s superiority and become his “subject.”
The letter, it should be pointed out, was not unexpected. The queen had sent merchants to the sultan the previous year. Elizabeth had dispatched them because she had a trade problem, the result of religious tension.
Elizabeth’s father, Henvy VIII, had been excommunicated in 1538 after divorcing Catherine of Aragon and creating his own church (The Church of England). Queen Elizabeth herself was excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570.
As a result, trade with many of Europe’s Catholic nations was forbidden or limited. Needing to establish new trade prospects for English merchants, the queen looked to Asia Minor.
So how did Elizabeth respond to Murad’s demand? She flattered him.
Most Imperial and most invincible Emperor, we have received the letters of your mighty highness written to us from Constantinople the fifteenth day of March this present year, whereby we understand how graciously, and how favorably the humble petitions of one William Harborne a subject of ours, resident in the Imperial city of your highness presented unto your Majesty for the obtain¬ing of access for him and two other merchants, more of his company our merchants also, to come with merchandizes both by sea & land, to the countries and territories subject to your government, and from thence again to return home with good leave and liberty, were accepted of your most invincible Imperial highness.
Elizabeth’s response began a 17-year correspondence between the queen and Murad, what Brotton called “the beginning of one of history’s more unlikely alliances.”
Alienated from her Catholic neighbors, the Protestant queen shrewdly forged an alliance with a partner outside Christendom. She recognized that flattering Murad was a small price to pay for the trade her embargoed nation desperately needed.
I’ve only just started The Sultan and the Queen, but so far it’s smart and informative. If you’re looking to better understand realpolitik diplomacy and how cross-cultural alliances are formed, this might be the book for you.
Jon Miltimore is senior editor of Intellectual Takeout. Follow him on Facebook.