University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Elizabeth I seeks friends amongst the Eastern Islamic powers

After a talk with his eventual dissertation supervisor Dr Katy Gibbons, third-year UoP student Richard Grainger was inspired to enrich his knowledge of twentieth-century orientalism in a dissertation which applied his theoretical understanding to the study of a period when Islamic nations were the more dominant powers.

The university’s history department prides itself on delivering a socially and culturally favoured degree curriculum. The emphasis on ‘history from below’ has been particularly enjoyable from my view. One particular historical approach of interest is postcolonial studies, which focus on the cultural impact of empire on the colonised. Edward Said has been influential, and often controversial within this area of study. In Said’s Orientalism, he argues that the Western has to a certain degree always imposed a degree of positional superiority on the East. He argues this transcends all walks of life, both politically and culturally.

A Lady Receiving Visitors (The Reception), John Frederick Lewis, 1873, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Orientalist art often depicts the East as feminine, and by implication inferior to the masculine West. A Lady Receiving Visitors (The Reception), John Frederick Lewis, 1873, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, Accession No. B1981.25.417


My interest in Edward Said’s Orientalism was stimulated primarily from a second-year unit on International Politics of the Middle East. With a focus on the last hundred years or so, the unit gave me an ever increased understanding of British and French dominance and duplicity in their relationships with Islamic nations. As this module focused on the First World War, this was initially my first thought chronologically for my dissertation. Only after a conversation with one of the early modernists in the department, Katy Gibbons,did I begin to look at earlier periods for my research.

Fellah Women Drawing Water, Jean-Leon Gerôme, 1873-5, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Williamstown, Mass., Accession no. 1955.52


I became interested in studying an earlier period where Western dominance was not so self-assured. Whilst the power of Britain and France was considerable in the lead up and aftermath to the First world war, I was interested in a study which went ‘against the grain’ and challenged narratives. The early modern period was a complex period of geo-political reality, and it felt that a study in Elizabeth’s England would be an interesting angle to compare Said’s theory to. As Orientalism was said to have filtered throughout society, I wanted to use two distinctive models to establish whether relations between England and the Islamic powers could be seen as Orientalist. I wanted to understand what England’s place in the world was really like in the 16th Century, and how Englishmen reacted to it.

In order to do so, I wanted to compare both the real-politics and the cultural aspect in a way which was accessible. I therefore chose to analyse English playwriting regarding the Ottomans, Turks, and Islam, and the message or anxieties made visable by playwrights. In comparison, I wanted to see if Queen Elizabeth felt the same way in her diplomatic correspondence with the leaders of Eastern states.

Queen Elizabeth I, Armada portrait

Queen Elizabeth I, Armada portrait: the imperial crown and globe depicted in the painting are thought to signify the pursuit of imperial power.

It was crucial before doing so to understand the geo-political reality, which was that post-Reformation England had to adjust to a new situation in the late sixteenth century which allied themselves with anti-Catholic powers. Elizabeth worked hard to cultivate commercial relationships with the Ottomans and the Moroccans, who had much more extensive empires in their own right, but needed tin, lead and other materials from England.  Whilst English expansion was at this stage limited to a claim to land in Ireland, the Ottomans were multi-ethnic, trans-continent and at the peak of their powers towards the end of the century.

Thomas Heywood, The Fair Maid of the West

I chose three plays right at the end of the 1500s to analyse. William Shakespeare’s Othello (1603); Thomas Heywood’s, The Fair Maid of the West Part 1 (1597-1603); and Thomas Dekker’s Lusts Dominion (1600). These plays would ‘Other’ Muslim characters, but also allow for audience agency, and allowed me to reflect on how Englishmen saw their place in the world.

To compare, I wanted to find diplomatic correspondence between Elizabeth and elites in Morocco and the Ottoman courts to establish whether these fears were shared, but also whether England tried to impose any superiority. As with many diplomatic exchanges, I found that both sides wanted to seek similarities. Protestant England was against the idolatry of the Catholic church, and found commonality with Islamic powers in this regard. Most crucial to dispel Said’s theory of Western superiority was the exchange of gifts which lubricated these alliances, with the more predominant gifts coming from London.

Finding sources was thoroughly enjoyable. I enjoyed reading plays, letters and pamphlets depicting the East from an English perspective. I had to tread carefully not to leap to texts which confirmed my narrative, and had to really think hard about whether they contributed to a general sentiment, or allowed for audience agency. The ambiguities themselves made the project especially enjoyable.

The moorish Ambassador to Elizabeth I, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, 1600

The moorish Ambassador to Elizabeth I, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, 1600, Shakespeare Institute, Stratford on Avon, PFH1166942


I found that firstly, English positional superiority did not apply to the late sixteenth century over the East. Secondly, contemporaries responded to this situation in their representation of the East, which served to define English national character. What became clear was that contemporary visions of England’s place in the world would vary from fear and othering of the East, to a proactive global vision articulated and pieced together by the Queen herself.


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