With the rise of the Ottoman Empire as a global force following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the early Tudors became aware that Islam was both a threat to Christianity but also a potential ally in the shifting sands of European politics and diplomacy. Henry VIII was known to dress in fashionable Ottoman attire, appearing at courtly events dressed in Turkish silken and velvet robes, and in 1533 as he broke from Rome he entertained plans to join a Franco-Ottoman alliance to combat the Habsburg-Papal axis that united the two great European Catholic powers of Pope Clement VII and the emperor Charles V. Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors (1533) depicts the French ambassadors who came to London that year to broker the alliance.

But Henry’s alliance with the Ottomans did not come to fruition, primarily because of his domestic problems, and because for the Turks, the English were peripheral players in the larger geopolitical world picture of the 1530s.

Elizabeth already had a context for Anglo-Islamic contact: in 1553, an English textiles merchant named Anthony Jenkinson was trading in Aleppo – the terminus of the Silk Road, where any ambitious merchant interested in cloth and silk needed to be – and met with the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Jenkinson successfully established the first ever commercial privileges for the English to trade freely in Ottoman lands. On his return to England Jenkinson was appointed as the first representative of the newly formed Muscovy Company [a body of English merchants trading with Russia] and sent to trade with the Safavid shah of Iran, Tahmasp I.

In 1579 the Norfolk-born merchant William Harborne arrived in Constantinople to represent yet another new Elizabethan trading initiative: the Levant Company. Established to organise commerce between the Levant (modern-day Turkey) and England, the company was given royal assent just two years later. The Ottomans accepted Harborne and other Englishmen as dhimmi (‘zimmi’), protected guests who paid a tax to remain unmolested in Muslim territory.