Reviewed by Katya Rara
THE SULTAN AND THE QUEEN
By Jerry Brotton
352 pp. Penguin Books.
In a world where men have traditionally used women to further their own ambitions, Queen Elizabeth I—daughter of King Henry VIII and his mistress-turned-queen Anne Boleyn, devout Protestant, Virgin Queen—has always been a compelling historical figure. But few know that besides ushering in the golden age of England, she conquered new frontiers to initiate trade between England and the Islamic world.
The beginning of the end
THE SULTAN AND THE QUEEN begins with the end of Mary I’s reign. Though Mary was deeply unpopular, her death left England in a precarious position as a largely Protestant country in the midst of Catholic Europe, and it fell to the next queen to find allies.
And Elizabeth I aimed high, far beyond England and the rest of the continent, by approaching the most important player on the world stage: the Ottoman sultan, whose empire stretched from Egypt to central Europe.
And from there sprung forth an exchange of not only goods, but also assumptions, ideologies, and beliefs, that shaped the world as we see it today.
The people’s mirror
Brotton wove together official documents, missives, and journal entries to show how Elizabeth I and her envoys leveraged their skills, their trades, and their Protestantism to form an alliance against Catholic Europe.
But I particularly loved how he unpicked Elizabethan theatre, showing how ordinary people understood the changes around them.
Brotton showed how Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare revolutionized storytelling, turning one-dimensional Turks and Moors into complex characters who revealed uncomfortable truths.
He also added context to familiar stories, showing how fact and fiction intertwined—and making me want to give the Bard’s works another go.
Beyond the queen
Despite its title, THE SULTAN AND THE QUEEN isn’t Elizabeth I’s story. We read not about her innermost thoughts and relationships, but about her orders and how they were carried out across continents.
Throughout the book, Brotton describes the Ottomans and Muslims as they were seen by diplomats, merchants, and everyone in between… and it might feel strange at first to someone used to in-depth character studies. But these otherwise ordinary people can be as fascinating as Elizabeth, and are reminders of how small the world can be.
A look into a dozen lives
Though I enjoy historical nonfiction, I had more difficulty with THE SULTAN AND THE QUEEN because of the completely unfamiliar cast of characters—clerics, merchants-turned-diplomats, the works—and the faraway locales they visited on the orders of their queen.
But Brotton did a wonderful job bringing them to life, with lush descriptions of people, cities, and even clothing, and asides that show both the opulence and brutality of the time period.
THE SULTAN AND THE QUEEN isn’t light reading, nor is it the type of book to read if you’d simply like to Keep Up With The Tudors. But if you want to read specifically about the intricate, chaotic, and dangerous world around them, it’s perfect.
The Sultan and the Queen by Jerry Brotton is available at select Fully Booked Stores. To reserve a copy, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]