Elizabeth I’s Muslim ties ‘held off a Catholic invasion’, says a New York Times piece. It’s a myth

Sultan Murad III, the Ottoman Emperor from 1574 to 1595, and Queen Elizabeth I

How did Elizabeth I manage to avoid invasion by the Catholic Philip II of Spain? According to Professor Jerry Brotton of Queen Mary’s, London, “Elizabeth’s Islamic policy held off a Catholic invasion”. Prof Brotton made this claim in a recent article for the New York Times. Like his new book, it places him in a recent scholarly movement which – quite understandably – aims to depart from Eurocentric historical narratives. But unfortunately, the claim about “Elizabeth’s Islamic policy” is not merely simplistic but manifestly erroneous. The historical facts just don’t support it.

England’s ties with the Muslim Ottoman Empire did indeed make an impact on military events but in a very different way. They must be studied within the wider background of diplomatic and military developments elsewhere in Europe, the Mediterranean and even the Middle East.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Mediterranean saw a period of open warfare followed by a period of truces and relative calm. Before 1571, the Ottoman Empire and Spain (and its Italian allies) were locked in a bitter struggle for naval domination. Despite the famous Christian victory at Lepanto in October 1571, neither side was able to secure a decisive victory; and so in 1580, the King of Spain and the Sultan concluded the first of a series of truces. For the next two decades, the Mediterranean was divided into a Spanish-dominated west and Ottoman-dominated east. After the mid-1570s, the King of Spain and the Ottoman Sultan thus largely disengaged from one another and turned their eyes away from the Mediterranean. They focused their bellicose energies instead against adversaries who were identified as greater threats.

For Philip II of Spain, the heretical Protestants in Northern Europe came to dominate all other issues: the Calvinist rebels in the Netherlands, their English allies, and the Protestants in France posed a danger to the Catholic Church and Philip’s own authority.

Similarly, the primary threat for the Sunni Ottoman Sultan became the Shiite Safavid dynasty in Persia (modern-day Iran). As Shiites, the Safavids challenged the theological legitimacy of the Sultan in the Islamic world and threatened the Ottoman heartlands in Anatolia. The Ottomans initiated a conflict against the Safavids in 1578 (until 1590) and the rivalry between both Muslim dynasties continued into the seventeenth century. Both the superpowers of the age had effectively decided that the enemies within their faith represented a great threat than the infidel.

It is therefore hard to see how the ties Elizabeth forged with the Ottoman played any role in “holding off a Catholic invasion”. Indeed, in this respect her strategy could be seen as having been a singular failure. When the Armada sailed against England in 1588, it comprised a number of ships that were redeployed from Mediterranean squadrons due to the absence of an Ottoman threat. The galleass La Girona, which sank off Country Antrim with tremendous loss of life in October 1588, was just one of these redeployed galleys and galleasses that were more suited to naval warfare in the Mediterranean than the North Atlantic.

The Ottoman Sultan and his officials may well have welcomed English envoys and trade links and made pleasing diplomatic noises. But they offered no real military help. Diplomatic relations in early modern Europe and the Mediterranean were often moulded by a brutal realpolitik in which expediency trumped religious loyalties: my enemy’s enemy was my friend, whether or not he was an infidel. Elizabeth wasn’t the first European monarch to seek a Muslim ally (the French Kings had previously sought Ottoman help against the Habsburgs); she wasn’t the last, either (even Philip III of Spain would later seek to cultivate relations with the Safavids to counter any Ottoman threat).

Elizabeth survived the Armada through a combination of skilful English seamanship, poor Spanish leadership and luck. But the war did not end in 1588, and Philip did not abandon his plans to attack the British Isles. Philip II’s failure to invade and conquer England or defeat Protestantism in northwestern Europe was certainly not caused by Ottoman interference but by diplomatic and military overreach in northern Europe. What inhibited Philip, much more than the Ottomans, was the worrying possibility of a Protestant victory in the civil war in France. Through his Catholic alliances, Philip found himself dragged into an all-out war with the ex-Protestant King Henry IV of France between 1595 and 1598.

Eventually, Philip went bankrupt, thanks to the combined weight of war against an alliance of the Dutch, the English and Henry IV. It is therefore ironic that after 1588 Elizabeth had the French and the Catholic King of France, rather than the Ottomans, to thank for thwarting Philip’s plans to unseat her.

Inaccuracies and legends, some of them derived from Protestant propaganda, continue to colour our perception of the reign of Elizabeth and her relations with Philip II of Spain. The notion that “Elizabeth’s Islamic policy held off a Catholic invasion” is just another error that we can do without.

Francois Soyer is associate professor in Late Medieval and Early Modern History at the University of Southampton