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Susan Pallister | Elizabeth I and Mrs May
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Elizabeth I and Mrs May

22 Apr Elizabeth I and Mrs May

Brexit and a divided nation….. Of course, I could have written a post about the possibility that we are, however improbable it may seem, living in a computer simulation and somehow, in 2016 the coding has gone awry leading to Brexit as well as a Trump victory in the US presidential election!  Who knows what may happen in the French presidential election scheduled for April 2017? Apparently, there is a 20% chance that such a bizarre concept noted above is in fact correct. Perhaps, however, it is best to leave such a fanciful hypothesis for another day, or at least another post, when I can get my head around the rather complex Physics relating to parallel universes!  For now, it’s probably best just to focus on historical similarities. Two articles, one in the New York Times and the other in The Economist, have suggested that Theresa May is facing identical problems to that iconic English monarch Elizabeth I! The opening paragraph in The Economist states, “Governing a country polarised, uncertain and isolated from Europe, its female leader seeks salvation in faraway lands. Cutting loose from Europe, she hosts Middle-Eastern sheikhs in Westminster anxious to secure foreign markets and investment, and courts Turkey’s leader to shore up exports with arms sales.” So what exactly happened in the first Elizabethan era, when the ruling monarch dangerously fell out with Spain and the Papacy? Jerry Brotton, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, and the author of the forthcoming The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam highlights the following points:

  1. In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime”, and called on her subjects to rebel. His marriage proposals declined, a furious Philip II, king of Spain and lord of extensive Hapsburg lands, barred Britain from access to Europe’s wool markets, and built an armada to invade. The Scots, then as now, sided with the continent.
  2. Elizabeth responded by reaching out to the Islamic world. Spain’s only rival was the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Sultan Murad III, which stretched from North Africa through Eastern Europe to the Indian Ocean. The Ottomans had been fighting the Hapsburgs for decades, conquering parts of Hungary. In the 1580s she signed commercial agreements with the Ottomans that would last over 300 years, granting her merchants free commercial access to Ottoman lands.
  3. To replace the wool trade, Elizabeth launched Britain’s arms trade. Elizabeth stripped any remaining metal from old deconsecrated Catholic monasteries and melted their bells to make munitions that were then shipped out to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.
  4. Thousands of English traders crossed many of today’s no-go regions, like Aleppo in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq. They were far safer than they would have been on an equivalent journey through Catholic Europe, where they risked falling into the hands of the Inquisition.
  5. Elizabeth enthusiastically backed the Muscovy Company, which traded with Persia, and went on to inspire the formation of the Turkey Company, which traded with the Ottomans, and the East India Company, which would eventually conquer India.
  6. She also played on the Ottoman Empires mutual hostility to Catholicism, describing herself as “the most invincible and most mighty defender of the Christian faith against all kind of idolatries.” Like Muslims, Protestants rejected the worship of icons, and celebrated the unmediated word of God, while Catholics favoured priestly intercession. She saw Protestants and Muslims as two sides of the same heretical coin.
  7. The Ottoman authorities saw their ability to absorb people of all faiths as a sign of power, not weakness, and observed the Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the time with detached bemusement. Some Englishmen even converted to Islam.
  8. The sugar, silks, carpets and spices transformed what the English ate, how they decorated their homes and how they dressed.
  9. In an exchange of letters, the Ottoman caliph, Murad III, praised Protestantism as “the most sound religion”. Morocco’s Commander of the Faithful declared the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to be a sign of divine intervention.

So the parallels are evident. History can always be relied upon to bring its own unique and valid perspectives to current affairs and it is certainly worth quoting Timothy Snyder: “History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.”  Brotton’s account shows that despite the fear and uncertainty created by the war with Spain and excommunication from the Catholic Church, English society seemed to have gained considerably from the new world order.

Will History repeat itself now that Brexit is well and truly underway?


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