"Are we turned Turks?": English Pageants and the Stuart Court


In early June 1613, Queen Anne made a westward progress, stopping for a few days in Bristol. Part of the pageant entertainment that greeted her was a sea battle on the Severn, allegedly between Christian and Turkish forces. This paper tries to answer why Turks should be represented in several pageants in the Stuart period by situating the pageants in the context of England’s understanding the Ottoman Empire’s threats and attractions.

Much of the fascination with and fear of the Turks derives from the Battle of Lepanto (1571) between the Turks and Christian forces over the fate of Cyprus. King James gave poetic voice to this important battle in his poem, The Lepanto of James the sixt (published in 1591, probably written in 1585). Decades later writers still refer to James’s poem, which celebrates Christian virtues against Turkish barbarian and pagan qualities. Richard Knolles’ Generall Historie of the Turkes (1603) honors the Turks while acknowledging their threat; Knolles pays considerable attention to Lepanto. In the royal entry pageant of 1604 that welcomed King James into London, the Gracious street arch made explicit reference to James’s poem about Lepanto.

One part of the various entertainments that commemorated Prince Henry’s creation as Prince of Wales in June 1610 included a sea battle on the Thames between Christians and Turks, containing a spectacular victory for the Christians. The year 1613, a memorable one in the Stuart court’s life, focused several times on Turks, including a performance of Othello, whose first two acts highlight the Turkish threat, which Othello has been sent to Cyprus to quell. Othello worries that in their disarray his own soldiers might act like Turks. This court performance in early 1613 led up to Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Frederick on 14 February.

Indeed, on the day immediately before the wedding, a massive sea battle took place on the Thames between Christians and Turks. Commentators saw explicit links to the battle of Lepanto. Great swaths of the river had been cordoned off in order for this pageant to take place. Reminiscent of this battle, a similar one took place in Bristol, which Anne visited in early June. Thousands of citizens lined the Severn to see the battle, which, not surprisingly, the Christians won.

The Stuart pageants underscore the cultural anxiety that the English experienced about the Turks, including an odd and unequal mixture of fear and admiration. The pageants offer a means to confront the Turks in fiction, which can represent the thrill of battle against the enemy without experiencing any serious risk. The sea battles thus become a means of discharging anxiety, controlling it, and supplanting it with the assurance of victory.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.