‘Turk’ was a mutable term in early modern England, often relating to individuals from central Asia but difficult to untangle from a range of associations with the Ottoman imperial state, English converts to Islam, and Muslims more generally.[1] ‘Turks’ referred largely to Ottomans in early modern England, and to the power of Ottoman rulers – the Grand Turk – but Muslims from other ethnic origins in Asia or Africa could also be described as such.[2]

Recent studies have uncovered the dynamism of Elizabethan and Stuart interactions with Ottomans, where popular print, sermons, travel accounts, and plays revealed a rich, if at times contradictory, interaction with ideas of the Turk.[3] While issues of power and knowledge-construction in the context of imperial power undoubtedly informed interactions between Turks and Englishmen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, range of interactions existed in between: pirates who converted to Islam, Englishmen enslaved on Ottoman galleys, and travellers like George Sandys who, behind their assumptions of Christian superiority, admired aspects of Ottoman hospitality or charity. This was not a world in which Europe always emerged superior. The relationship between Englishmen and the Muslim worlds in the sixteenth and much of the seventeenth century one of ‘defensive strategy and contest’.[4] The ‘mightie Empire of the Turks’, acknowledged the historian and translator Richard Knolles in 1603, was ‘the greatest terror of the world, and holding in subjection many great and mightie kingdomes’.[5]

Beyond stereotypes of Turks as ‘Mahometans’ and idolaters, the English pragmatically engaged with Turks through travel and diplomatic exchange, leading to a series of socio-cultural negotiations in transcultural contact zones.[6] While the English came into contact with Muslim powers such as the Safavids of Iran or Mughals of India, they developed most significant contact in the Tudor period with the Ottoman Turks and North African Moors.[7] The naval officer Richard Hawkins, complaining of his imprisonment in Seville in a letter Queen Elizabeth, criticised the prevalences of ‘turkes’ in the Mediterranean and accused Spain of being ‘peopled of a myngled nacion of moores, turkes, jues & negroes’, believing this caused civil unrest more than ‘domestic enemyes’.[8] Queen Elizabeth had been the first English monarch to allow her subjects to trade and interact with Muslims without being liable for prosecution for dealing with ‘infidels’.[9] The Levant Company, created as a merger between the Turkey Company and Venice Company in 1592, was specifically created to open up trade routes and exchanges with the Ottoman empire. One Richard Willoughby reported on the cruelty but also moral resonances of Turkish laws, as when a baker was burnt in his own oven for false weights, leading him to conclude that ‘[t]he Turke (whos pictor hearenclosed [sic] I send you) is very sever’.[10] The image Willoughby sent does not survive, but testifies to the taste for news and curios related to ‘Turks’ in late sixteenth-century London.

Portrayed as sensual, luxurious, and ruthless in battle, the English admired Turks for their military might and commercial potential.[11] ‘Who can deny that the Emperor of Christendome hath had league with the Turke … Why then should that be blamed in us, which is usuall, and common?’ Richard Hakluyt asked in 1599.[12] At the same time, because the English considered Turks to follow a ‘false’ religion [see ‘Mahometan’], English churchmen, travellers, and policy-makers often criticised Turks for their religious corruption. Memories of the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, where Protestants and Catholics had coalesced to defeat Ottoman forces in the Mediterranean, still lingered powerfully over the European imaginary into the seventeenth century. In 1603, London printers reissued King James’ poem on Lepanto in the aftermath of his ascension to the English throne. Framed in highly biblical language, the heroic verse celebrated the ‘bloudly battell’ between ‘the baptiz’d race,/ And circumcised Turband Turkes’.[13] James conformed to commonplace assumptions that the ethnographic identity of the Turk was inseparable from religion: ‘Are we not day by day/ By cruell Turkes and Infidels/ Most spitefully opprest?’[14]

James I’s verse about the ‘circumcised Turband Turkes’ captures some of the primary markers of the Turk in early modern England, bodily modification and the turban. Beyond military strength and religion, the figure of the Turk was set apart by visual difference. The English considered the practice and ritual of circumcision to be a fundamental part of Turkish identity, a rite shared with Jewish identity, but circumcision also raised profound anxieties about the English self. The Englishmen who willingly ‘turned Turk’ were treated by authorities as renegades and traitors. The pirate John Ward, for example, died in Tunis in 1623, having converted to Islam by 1610 and married an Italian renegade despite also having a wife in England. Ward’s identification with the Turk led to his adopting a different name: he was known outside of England as Issouf Reis. ‘[O]nce a great Pyrat’, the Scottish traveller William Lithgow wrote, recalling his meeting with Ward in Tunis, ‘in despight of his denied acceptance in England had turned Turke, and built there a faire Palace, beautifyed with rich Marble and Alabastor … With whom I found Domestick some fifteene circumcised English Runnagats’.[15]

Lithgow’s report acknowledged an uncomfortable truth: that a rejection of Christianity might actually lead to a prosperous life. Ward gave Lithgow a magnanimous welcome, but English authorities in London were less enchanted, seeing Ward’s willingness to ‘turn Turk’ as an act of damnation and disloyalty. Circumcision was an irrevocable act, a physical marker of the secret corruptions of the human heart, and plays like Robert Daborne’s A Christian turn’d Turke (1612) re-cast Ward’s trajectory as one that inevitably led to divine punishment. The malleability of the human body and soul to the customs of the Turk presented a problem in cases of English prisoners subjected to forced circumcision. This went to the heart of English fears about loyalty and faith. When Richard Burges and James Smith, two young men captured in Tripoli in 1583, refused to convert to Islam, they were told ‘thou shalt presently be made a Turke’.[16] Becoming a Turk could thus become a forcible act brought about by physical change. Afterwards, Burges strongly resisted this notion by proclaiming that although ‘they had put on him the habite of a Turke’, nonetheless a ‘Christian I was borne, and so I will remaine, though you force me to doe otherwise’.[17]

Direct contact between Englishmen and Turks often happened at sea. Captivity accounts related the stories of fearful encounters between sailors and merchants that might lead to death or capture. Edward Webbe recounted his ‘time in the wars and affayres of the great Turke’ during and following his capture in the 1570s, narrating his travels through Damascus and Constantinople, Persia and the Mughal Empire, in service of the Ottoman army.[18] Webbe’s account conforms to the argument by Nabil Matar and Gerald MacLean, that English captivity narratives heavily shaped understandings of Islam in early modern England, portraying interactions with Turks in highly religious, redemptive language. In this early period, English writing about Turks focused especially on ‘religious animosity’ and the need to resist the seductive sway of the Islamic east.[19] Since captivity narratives were a primary source of information about Turks in England, combatting the appeal of the Turk was closely related to the Protestant notions of conformity and steadfastness often disseminated in cheap print. ‘[I]f in Turkey I would have denied my Christ, or in my travaile would have forsaken my Prince’, Ward wrote, he would have ‘become a Traytour to your Majesty & my native Countrey’.[20] The ethno-biblical perspective shifted from the 1640s, when accounts began to frame captives as explorers and adventurers who sought to give more detailed and useful intelligence about Ottoman affairs, particular in matters of business and trade – a result of increased engagement with the Ottomans in the seventeenth century.[21]

Travellers were not the only English to encounter Turks. In 1625, a report to the privy council noted that there were ‘3 or 4 Turkes or Moores’ in Exeter, the same in Bristol, and some 30 in the port town of Plymouth.[22] Muslims who came to England were generally either captured pirates, merchant seamen, or ambassadors.[23] High-ranking officials, such as the Moroccan ambassador Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud who visited the Elizabethan court in 1600, enjoyed the protection of the monarch and could wear his North African dress without fear of criticism. A surviving portrait of the ambassador in a white turban and richly embellished sword depicted his elite status while allowing him to proclaim his distinct heritage. This suggests that the status of Muslims in early modern England was, as with many other groups, contingent on status and rank, often more so than religious or ethnographic difference.

Though the English encountered the ‘Turk’ and ‘Mahometan’ in religious polemic, popular print, and through travel and diplomatic exchange, large audiences also encountered the Turk on the stage. Jeremy Brotton argued that from the later Elizabethan period London itself ‘turned Turk’: more than sixty plays featured Turks, Moors, and Persians from the 1570s to 1603 alone.[24] Marlowe’s thunderous Tamburlaine (c. 1587) in many ways embodied the ‘imperial envy’ that the English exhibited towards the might of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the seventeenth century.[25] The defeated Turkish emperor in the play had admitted the extent of Tamburlaine’s ruthless power: ‘Millions of Turkes perish by Tamburlaine,/ Kingdomes made waste, brave cities sackt & burnt’.[26] Tamburlaine, in his quest for imperial glory, would have resonated with audiences who were reading captivity narratives and travel accounts, who heard rumours of pirates turning Turk or who might have caught a glimpse of esteemed Muslim visitors from North Africa or Asia, and which brought the imperial east to the microcosm of the stage. The turban occupied a key role in plays that staged ethnographic difference. Informed by depictions of Turks and turbans in written discourse as in costume books and cosmographies, turbans signified immediate difference and went to the heart of English understandings of Turkishness. Scholars have noted that on the English stage, plays that staged or referenced Ottomans often related the turban to the unseen but physical presence of circumcision.[27] When the pirate John Ward ‘takes the turban’, for example, in Daborne’s A Christian Turn’d Turke, he is also required to undergo circumcision.[28] ‘Ward turn’d Turke? it is not possible’, maintains one pirate, until others offer an eyewitness statement to confirm the finality of the act: ‘I saw him Turke to the Circumcision’.[29]

The continual tension between the Protestant mistrust of Islam as a ‘false’ religion, and wonder at the ability of the Turk to successfully subjugate vast territories and its inhabitants, meant that ‘Turk’ continued to operate in a variety of interconnected but at time conflicting ways in early modern England. In plays, as Jonathan Burton observed, ‘Islam functions as a discursive site upon which contesting versions of Englishness, Christianity, masculinity, femininity, and nobility are elaborated and proffered … which accommodates the solicitous, peaceful Turk and the bloody miscreant Turk, the convert and the temptress, the saint and the tyrant’.[30] Strikingly, as Nabil Matar has observed, fundamental differences in English and Ottoman perceptions of each other were reconciled in one thing: women. English writers at times used Turkish women to critique the outspokenness and brazenness of women in England, whose liberty and pursuit of fashion seemed to turn them ridiculous and their husbands into cuckolds.[31] In Philip Massinger’s The Renegado, a North African queen noted that ‘Christian ladies live with much more freedome … our jealous Turkes,/ Never let their poor wives to be seene’, but prefer them ‘vayled, and guarded’.[32] Yet the traveller George Sandys, noting that women revealed their beauty only in private, to their families or husbands, did not cast this in a negative light.[33] Nor did English writers, throughout the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, criticise the harsh realities of the harem, where women were often prevented from interacting with the outside world.[34] Rather, English writers seemed both fascinated by the sexual license of Ottoman men, and largely approving of the submission of Ottoman women.[35] The seraglio of the sultan became ‘a proverbial site for sexual excess, sadistic entertainments, and private, pornographic spectacle’, impelling Edgar in King Lear to boast that in women, he had ‘out-paramoured the Turk’.[36]

What Erasmus had deemed the ‘power-lust’ of the bellicose Turk was, throughout the early modern period, both a cautionary tale and a thing of wonder.[37] Much had changed between Erasmus’ Europe of the 1520s, and Europe one hundred years later, where confessional wars were about to unfold into one of the bloodiest in history with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War (1618 -- 1648). At a time when the English sought to convey their own authority and legitimacy as a Protestant nation in a global context fraught with confessional strife, the Turk raised a series of interrelated ideas about identity, empire, political power, and luxury. Sandys recounted, commenting on his travels through the Levant in the 1610s, the ‘Saracens and Turks’ who ‘enlarged their Empires, doth at this day wel-nigh over-run three parts of the earth; of that I mean that hath civill Inhabitants’.[38] The ‘Turk’ did not just exist in the English imaginary, then, but represented a global reality that the English were increasingly forced to confront, one that was more ‘civill’ than they at times were willing to admit.
Portrait of a European gentleman in Turkish dress[39]
1. Gerald MacLean, Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire Before 1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), p. 8.
2. Ibid., p. 1.
3. Ibid., p. 5. See also Jerry Brotton, The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam (New York, NY: Viking, 2016); Matthew Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Gerald MacLean and Nabil Matar, Britain and the Islamic World, 1558—1713 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Many of these texts challenge or modify Edward Said’s influential Orientalism (1978), which argued that ‘the Orient’ is, and always has been, a construction created largely by imperial-minded western travellers. Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (New York, NY: Penguin, 1978), pp. 4-5.
4. Ian Smith, ‘The Queer Moor: Bodies, Borders, and Barbary Inns’, in A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, ed. by Jyotsna G. Singh (Chichester: Blackwell, 2009), pp. 190-204 (p. 198).
5. Richard Knolles, A generall historie of the Turkes (London, 1603; STC 15051), sig. A4v.
6. Nandini Das, ‘“Apes of Imitation”: Imitation and Identity in Sir Thomas Roe’s Embassy to India’, in A Companion to the Global Renaissance, pp. 114-28.
7. Jyotsna G. Singh, 'Introduction: The Global Renaissance', in A Companion to the Global Renaissance, pp. 6-7. See also Brotton, The Sultan and the Queen; Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad; MacLean and Matar, Britain and the Islamic World.
8. 'Richard Hawkins to Queen Elizabeth, 12 June 1598', Hatfield House, CP 177/36[61?]r.
9. Nabil Matar, Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (New York, NY: Columbia, 1999), p. 19.
10. 'Richard Willoughby to Dr. Hawkins, 28 April 1595', Hatfield House, CP 32/3[5?]r.
11. Matar, Turks, Moors, and Englishmen, p. 19.
12. Quoted in Anders Ingram, Writing the Ottomans: Turkish History in Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015), p. 92.
13. James I, His Majesties Lepanto (London, 1603; STC 14379.3), sig. A4r.
14. Ibid., sig. Bv.
15. William Lithgow, The totall discourse, of the rare adventures (London, 1640; STC 15714), sig. Aa3v.
16. Thomas Sanders, ‘The voyage made to Tripolis in Barbarie, in the yeere 1583’, in Richard Hakluyt, The principal navigations (Oxford, 1599—1600; STC 12626a), sig. Q5r.
17. Ibid.
18. Edward Webbe, The rare and most wonderfull things which Edw. Webbe an Englishman borne, hath seene and passed in his troublesome travailes (London, 1590; STC 25152),
19. MacLean and Matar, Britain and the Islamic World, pp. 125-31.
20. Ibid., sig. A2v.
21. MacLean and Matar, Britain and the Islamic World, pp. 131-2.
22. Matar, Turks, Moors, and Englishmen, p. 25.
23. Ibid, p. 32.
24. Brotton, The Sultan and the Queen, p. 172.
25. MacLean, Looking East, p. 20.
26. Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great (London, 1590; STC 17425), sig. K6r.
27. Robert Lublin, Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), p. 146.
28. Ibid., p. 147.
29. Robert Daborne, A Christian turn’d Turke (London, 1612; STC 6184), sig. F3r.
30. Jonathan Burton, Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579—1624 (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2005), p. 28.
31. Nabil Matar, ‘The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England’, The Muslim World, 86 (1996), 50-61 (p. 58).
32. Ibid., p. 51.
33. Ibid., p. 52.
34. Ibid., at p. 58. See also Bernadette Andrea, Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli, The Age of the Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
35. Ibid.
36. Daniel J. Viktus, ‘Early Modern Orientalism: Representations of Islam in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Europe’, in Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Perception of Other, ed. by David R. Blanks and Michael Frassetto (New York, NY: St Martin’s Press, 1999), 207-30 (p. 223).
37. Matthew Dimmock, New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), p. 20.
38. George Sandys, Sandys travailes containing a history of the originall and present state of the Turkish empire (London, 1652; Wing S677), p. 42.
39. Anonymous [Iranian painter], Portrait of a European gentleman in Turkish dress, second half of 17th century
Usage Examples
'I met with our English Captaine, generall Ward, once a great Pyrat, and Commander at Seas; who in despight of his denied acceptance in England had turned Turke'