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The Islamic World and Tudor England: ambassadors, rhubarb and sugar

Date: 05 May 2021

Author: Misha Ewen

With over 3 million British Muslims currently celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, it’s a fitting time to explore how the Elizabethan and Jacobean court encountered the Islamic world. Misha Ewen is our new Curator of Inclusive History at Historic Royal Palaces and in her first blog she shares what she has been working on.

Through dress, food and furnishings, the Islamic world permeated society in 16th- and 17th-century England. At court, Henry VIII liked to dress in silk and velvet ‘in Turkey fashion’, even wearing a turban. From the 1550s, English merchants were directly trading with Muslim countries, as far apart as Syria and Morocco, for luxury goods. The wealthy feasted on sugar, currants, rhubarb and sweet wines and furnished their homes with exquisitely dyed textiles.

It was through trade routes across North Africa, Europe and Asia that things we take for granted today first came to England – ‘Turkey carpets’ and words like ‘sugar’, ‘crimson’, ‘indigo’ and ‘tulip’. As English diplomats, merchants and pirates travelled throughout the Islamic world, commercial, cultural and even religious exchange thrived. In North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, some English pirates were captured, enslaved and even forcibly converted to Islam, but many English travellers were also willing converts to Islam.

Image: Queen Elizabeth I, c.1575. In this painting, Elizabeth is shown wearing pearls and richly dyed, intricate fabric that would originally have been crimson and gold. She also holds an ostrich feather fan. Together, the pearls, fabric and feathers indicate her access to global goods from America and Asia. © National Portrait Gallery (NPG 2082)

One of the most important surviving images of Elizabeth I, this portrait was almost certainly painted from life, and the resulting pattern for the queen's face was to be repeated for the remainder of her reign.

Aura Soltana – a Muslim woman at the Elizabethan court

The exchange of goods and movement of people across the Islamic world went right to the heart of the Tudor court. Anthony Jenkinson, who was a merchant trading with the Muscovy Company, established commercial and diplomatic connections with Persia. After three years overseas he returned to England in 1560 and paid a visit to Queen Elizabeth I. With him was a captive ‘Tartar girl’, named Aura Soltana, who had been enslaved in Central Asia. According to the writer Richard Hakluyt, Jenkinson gifted Soltana to the Queen and she may have been established as a lady-in-waiting.

As libraries and archives open, I hope to be able to do more research into what became of Soltana and the degree of freedom she enjoyed at the Tudor court. Even now, she is still the first recorded Muslim woman to enter the Tudor kingdom. The historian Jerry Brotton speculates that the woman painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, depicted in Persian clothing, could be her.

Image: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c. 1561-1636), Portrait of an Unknown Woman, c. 1590-1600. This portrait is currently on display in the Presence Chamber at Hampton Court. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

A portrait of a woman. The longhaired figure wears pearls attached to her wrist and a pendant with a miniature around her neck.

Al-Annuri – the Moroccan Ambassador

In 1600, there was a significant shift in England’s relationship with the Islamic world. Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri was forty-two years old when he travelled to England as the ambassador of the Moroccan ruler, Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur. He was met at Dover on 8 August by members of the Barbary Company trading in Morocco, who took him and his retinue into London.

Al-Annuri’s mission was to establish an Anglo-Moroccan alliance which would unite Moroccan Sunni Muslims and English Protestants against their common enemy: Catholic Spain. Al-Annuri’s proposal to Elizabeth was to invade Spain and reconquer Al Andalus (the mainland of Spain that had been under Muslim rule for centuries) and also launch a joint campaign against Spanish colonies in the Americas and Asia. Morocco was willing to supply the English fleet with provisions, infantry and money.

After being met at Dover, they travelled to London, arriving at Tower Wharf on 15 August. From there, they went to the household of Anthony Radcliffe, a merchant, on the Strand. Londoners observed, what they perceived to be, the Moroccans’ unusual dress and Islamic customs, including prayer. Then five days later, the Moroccans had their first audience with the Queen at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey. Clearly eager to impress, the palace was prepared with ‘rich hangings and furniture sent from Hampton Court’.

The pinnacle of their visit was the celebrations of 17 November at the Whitehall tiltyards, which marked Elizabeth’s accession to the throne. Unlike the French and Russian ambassadors, who sat beside Elizabeth, al-Annuri and his entourage watched the jousting from beneath a specially constructed canopy amongst the Queen’s subjects. It was towards the end of his six-month stay that al-Annuri’s portrait was completed – the first of a Muslim in England.

Image: Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, 1600. © University of Birmingham Shakespeare Institute

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, painted in 1600. He is a tall man, dressed in white robes and wears a white turban, with a dark cape over his shoulders, and an embellished sword displayed on his left side. He looks directly at the viewer. There is a text in Latin in the portrait next to both sides of his head.

New horizons – after the Anglo-Moroccan alliance 

Dreams of an Anglo-Moroccan alliance died with Elizabeth. Her successor, James VI and I, who ascended the English throne in 1603, signed a peace treaty with Spain in 1604. In the aftermath of the treaty, the English looked for alternative means to expand their global influence and it was not long before the first permanent colony in America was established at Jamestown in 1607.

Whilst the sun had set on an alliance between England and Morocco, the Islamic world continued to shape fashion, culture and taste in Jacobean England. It was in late 1601 or early 1602, for instance, that William Shakespeare began writing Othello. Whilst Shakespeare was clearly building upon a long-standing fascination with the Islamic world and Muslim characters on the Elizabethan stage, his interest may have been especially piqued by the Moroccan envoy in London. It is possible, likely even, that Shakespeare saw al-Annuri and his envoy with his own eyes, either in the city or at court. On 1 November 1604, it was also at the Palace of Whitehall, in Banqueting House, that James and his courtiers watched the first recorded performance of Othello.  

There are many rich cultural legacies of this early contact with the Islamic world – so many that we hardly even notice them all. However, two things we have grown to enjoy at this time of year especially – sugary rhubarb crumble and vases of tulips – both first made their way into our kitchens and gardens through exchange with Muslim merchants.    

Misha Ewen
Curator of Inclusive History
Historic Royal Palaces

Image: Somerset House Conference, 1604. This painting was completed to commemorate the peace treaty, brokered at Old Somerset House. © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 665)

Further reading

  • Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (London, 2016) 

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