Hans Eworth's 1549 portrait of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent on horseback (Private collection/ Courtesy of Viking)

Rachel Newcomb is a professor of anthropology at Rollins College. Her book, “Everyday Life in Global Morocco,” will be published in 2017.

In a year when the election of London’s first Muslim mayor and the Brexit vote made headlines, the publication of historian Jerry Brotton’s new book, “The Sultan and the Queen,” seems particularly appropriate. While histories of 16th-century England generally emphasize the country’s isolationism, Brotton argues that to the contrary, England actively sought closer ties with the Islamic world. “The Sultan and the Queen” explores a less-well-known aspect of Elizabethan history, namely England’s nascent commercial and political relationships with the Muslim powers of the day: the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Morocco.

In 1570, Queen Elizabeth I’s excommunication from the Catholic Church led to England’s exile from its European trading partners as well as its release from papal edicts against trade with Muslim nations. When merchants proposed that England seek closer links with the Muslim world, Elizabeth agreed. North America had not yet become a source for significant exports, so from these Muslim lands England hoped to gain sugar, spices, silk, cotton and even potassium nitrate to make gunpowder. During the queen’s nearly 45-year reign, she sent numerous delegations to powerful Muslim empires, frequently with purposes that extended beyond business.

At the time, England was not the dominant world power it would later become, and little was known about Islam or life in Muslim lands, despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire was much more formidable than England. In England, Muslims were known as Saracens, a racialized term that referred to Arabs or dark-skinned Crusaders. Yet in many ways, Brotton asserts, the Muslim world in 1578 was much more cosmopolitan than England. Writing of an English soldier’s first visit to Morocco during this period, Brotton observes that coming from “the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestant and Catholic, the multiconfessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock,” with its “Berbers, Arabs, Sephardic Jews, Africans, Moriscos and Christians” as well as the many languages spoken in its streets.

While the most skilled of Elizabeth’s diplomatic envoys succeeded in forging treaties that opened up trade relations, the approaches of others ranged from bumbling to treacherous. The Sherley brothers, to whom Brotton devotes an entire chapter, were well-born but disreputable merchants who were often dispatched to the East under the blessing of the Earl of Essex, a favorite adviser of the queen who would later be executed for treason. Younger brother Robert Sherley, after a 10-year stint as a hostage in Persia, “managed to convert to Catholicism, marry a princess, return to Europe, work for the papacy and have his portrait painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck wearing full Persian dress before dying in Qazvin and being buried in Rome.” The elder of the Sherleys, Sir Anthony, was prone to going off message and causing international incidents, such as when he formed an unapproved alliance with the Shah of Persia, threatening the queen’s relationship with the Ottoman Empire. Subsequent biographies have “uncovered a dizzying trail of betrayal, debt, embezzlement, dishonesty, espionage, heresy, privateering, incarceration, treason, drunkenness, elopement, and murder wherever the brothers went.” No wonder they were the subjects of many plays at the time, Sir Anthony even meriting a mention in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

"The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam," by Jerry Brotton (Viking)

As trade relations became more firmly established, hundreds of Muslims traveled to England, where the English reported on their unfamiliar clothes and customs. When the Moroccan sultan al-Mansur sent a delegation in 1600 to London (ostensibly for trade but covertly to discuss the prospects of a joint attack on Spain), witnesses noted that in addition to being “strangely attired and behavioured,” the emissaries “killed all their own meat within their house. . . . They use beads, and pray to Saints.”

Theatrical entertainment of the period reflects a cultural fascination with these exotic visitors from abroad, as dramatists sought “to exploit the ambivalent emotions created by English experiences in the east as spectacular, captivating drama.” Perhaps the most famous among these theatrical characters is Othello, yet Shakespeare was not alone in depicting Moors and Turks. Their representation ranged from threatening, evil stock characters to complex human beings whose roles indicate both the ambivalence and the opportunities offered by strengthened relations with the Muslim world. In a multiple-authored play about the life of Henry VIII’s adviser Sir Thomas More, a scene attributed to Shakespeare depicts the May Day riots of 1517, in which foreigners were attacked for stealing local jobs. Begging the rioters for tolerance, More’s character says, “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,/ Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,/ Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation.” What would happen, More asks the rioters, if they were in the immigrants’ shoes?

“Would you be pleased/ To find a nation of such barbarous temper . . ./ What would you think/ To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case./ And this your mountainish inhumanity.”

It is impossible to read these words and not think of the Syrian refugee crisis, one of many moving reminders of why this book is particularly resonant today. History is long, even if cultural imaginations often hardly extend back before the colonial period. “The Sultan and the Queen” evokes an England struggling to find a place for itself in a world that it had not yet learned to dominate, and often making colossal diplomatic blunders in the process. Brotton is a gifted writer who is able to present this history as an exciting series of critical and suspense-filled encounters. His masterful blending of the influential stage dramas of the day with the historical incidents that influenced them makes theater and history come alive. In a lesser writer’s hands, both Shakespeare and the fevered political engagements with the Muslim world could easily have come across as dry relics of the distant past.

As England, like so many countries these days, tacks between isolationism and integration, between building walls and welcoming refugees, Brotton’s colorful and fascinating history of earlier encounters between England and the Muslim world is a potent reminder that in many respects, we have been here before.

The Sultan and the Queen
The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam

By Jerry Brotton

Viking. 338 pp. $30