As a British historian of the Tudor period, I knew it wasn’t completely right when some of my compatriots called Britain’s decision to leave the European Union unprecedented. It was the first time that an EU member state had voted to leave the bloc, but it wasn’t the first time Britain had renegotiated its relationship with Europe—with catastrophic consequences. Theresa May’s explicit strategy in her negotiations with the EU to restrict the free movement of workers, limit migration, and pursue free trade deals in Asia all have surprising historical equivalents in the policies of a much earlier (and far wilier) ruler of England.
In February 1570, Queen Elizabeth I was formally excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Pius V. The act was a long, drawn-out consequence of Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII’s formal split from Rome, following his divorce from his first wife and marriage to his second. It was a theological Brexit that labeled Elizabeth illegitimate and branded her a heretic who had embraced the Reformation beliefs of Luther and Calvin. Protestant England was condemned as a rogue state isolated from the rest of predominantly Catholic Europe, and its exports were blocked in some areas. A theological iron curtain fell across the English Channel. Elizabeth faced imminent invasion and economic ruin. Her advisers counseled that the only way to survive was to assume that your enemy’s enemy is your friend. So, Elizabeth reached out to the 16th-century global superpower also condemned by its papal adversary as heretical: Islam, and in particular the Ottoman Empire.