History repeats itself
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. Sound familiar? If so, it is. For when she travels to Ankara and Bahrain, and hosts Emirati and Qatari financiers on the eve of giving Brussels notice, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, is retracing a path first taken by Queen Elizabeth I when she left the European Union’s spiritual antecedent, the Catholic church, 450 years ago.
Back then, the consequences of Brexit looked even more dire than they do now. 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.
Bereft of European allies, the head of the newly-formed Church of England reached out to the Muslim powers beyond Europe’s rim. She wooed Morocco’s Sultans, Persia’s Shahs and above all the Ottoman caliph, who from his seat of Constantinople seemed best able to contend with the might of the Catholic Church. To replace the wool trade, she launched Britain’s arms trade. The royal court not only dissolved Catholic monasteries but also melted down the lead from their roofs and turned it into bullets for sale to Moors and Turks. A papal bull against Christians selling arms to Muslims created fresh opportunities. Cut off from Europe’s common market, Elizabeth dispatched hundreds of envoys with presents to negotiate free-trade agreements with Suleiman the Magnificent, and gain access to the silk road in Aleppo.
What began as a nationalist enterprise (there were anti-immigrant riots in London in the early 16th century) yielded surprisingly multi-cultural results. Denounced by the Catholic church as common heretical rogues, the head of a church cleansed of graven images and the caliph united against idol-worshipping Rome. 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, and sent an envoy to London to beseech Elizabeth’s help in recovering al-Andalus, lost by Islam a century earlier, for Islam. Ottoman terms for such luxuries as sugar, crimson and turquoise entered the English lexicon. Ironically, a policy born of resentment of foreigners served only to increase their influence.