Apr 15 2021
Sir Henry Lello’s Embassy to Constantinople: Why information about The Islamic World and ‘The East’ was important to Early Modern England

In the late 16th century William Harborne, English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, managed to secure a set of capitulations from the Turkish Sultan which reduced tariffs on English goods and paved the way for a fruitful economic relationship that would last until the dawn of the 20th century. Harborne’s friendly relations with the Ottoman elite, coupled with his knowledge of the Levant and diplomatic skill, has earnt him praise from scholars of Anglo-Ottoman history. Naturally, Harborne’s successors have received less attention. It is my intention to redress this imbalance by focusing on two letters written by Sir Henry Lello, who served as ambassador to the Sublime Porte in 1597. Lello’s mission and letters from Turkey highlight Protestant England’s desire to learn more about the Islamic world, but also shed light on the importance of information exchange in Early Modern diplomacy and how knowledge of ‘Eastern’ countries could be politically useful and economically beneficial when formulating wider state policy. Viewed from this perspective, Lello’s successes may have been more subtle than Harborne’s, but is equally deserving of praise.

Sir Henry Lello wrote two letters in relatively quick succession to the English Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil. In them, he informs Cecil of the imminent arrival of the Persian ambassador to Constantinople who is ‘expected daily’ and will discuss ‘the redelivery of the towns and fortresses he hath lately taken from the Grand Signour.’ In his next dispatch, written a mere 14 days later, Lello notifies Cecil of the arrival of the ambassador, ‘who was received with great pomp’ and who ‘cometh to demand those two great countries of Tauris and Sheryan, otherwise called Medea, which were won from the Persian by the Grand Signour.’ Lello’s description of the embassy and the relations between the Ottoman Empire and Persia make up a significant portion of his letter, and he goes into further detail about potential unrest in the Ottoman Empire which the Persians were looking to exploit. It must also be noted that Cecil was receiving similar information about Turkey and Persia from other clients, including the Shirley brothers. Furthermore, Lello sheds light on the relationship between the Sultan and Tsar of Russia, stating ‘another (ambassador) from the Emperor of Muscovia for the concluding of a perpetual peace’ is soon expected in Constantinople.  Naturally, this leads us to consider why information about Ottoman-Persian relations and their wider diplomatic alliances were important to Cecil and Protestant England.

The most obvious answer is commerce, given the fact that English trade to both Persia and the Ottoman Empire could be sufficiently hampered by prolonged periods of conflict between the two. The Levant Company, set up under a charter by Elizabeth I, helped English trade to the Near East flourish. The English monarch was also keen to start a regular trade with Persia, with her merchants in Russia asking several times for a transit route to be restored along the River Volga, thereby allowing British merchants access to Persian markets. In addition, Lello’s letters could also be politically useful for English diplomacy with other Northern and Eastern powers. Knowing the Tsar was attempting to secure a peace with the Ottoman Sultan had the potential to remove a significant barrier to Anglo-Russian relations, as successive Russian kings, including Ivan the Terrible and Boris Gudunov, constantly questioned English support for the ‘infidel Turk.’

Whilst we have considered the importance of information to Cecil and the monarchy, it is also worth briefly exploring how providing these ‘intangible gifts’ of information on the Islamic world also benefitted ambassadors like Sir Henry Lello. Having written these letters to Robert Cecil in 1599, two years later we find a request from the same Henry Lello to Cecil, asking ‘for favour for his brother Hugh Lello’ ‘who desires some change in martial affairs.’ It seems that in return for providing information about the Islamic world, Lello was able to lobby Cecil for favours, including for members of his family, thus highlighting the reciprocal nature of information exchange in Early Modern England.

Viewing Lello’s mission from the perspective of information exchange allows us to shed a new light on his embassy to Constantinople, not merely as a footnote to William Harbourne, but as a successful diplomat in his own right who acted as an important source of information about the Wider Islamic World. Perhaps more importantly, his correspondence in 1599 also illustrates how important the ‘East’ and wider Islamic World was to the English crown. Given the West’s recent military involvement in the Middle East, there seems like no better time to highlight Lello’s embassy and this period of relatively peaceful exchange.

Shahid Hussain

University College London



Shahid Hussain is a current MPhil research student hoping to complete his PhD at University College London (UCL) on the patronage and networks of British Ambassadors to Muscovy in the 17th century. He completed his Undergraduate and Master’s degree at UCL, where he investigated various aspects of Russian History in the Early Modern Period, including the military relationship between Muscovy and the Ottoman Empire during the reigns of Ivan the Terrible and Suleiman the Magnificent. A strong interest in diplomacy and the interplay between The West, Russia and The Islamic World has also culminated in a number of articles on contemporary diplomatic affairs for journals including The Diplomat and Modern Diplomacy.  He can be reached on LinkedIn here, or by email at shahid.hussain.10@ucl.ac.uk.