Holy War: A 17th century message for our time


One of the key themes explored in Slave to Fortune is religious conflict, an issue that was at least as important in the 17th century as it is today.

The novel unfolds against the backdrop of two bloody and wide-ranging conflicts: that between Islam and Christianity, and that between Protestantism and Catholicism.

It is important to note at the outset that, just as today, what may appear to have been a conflict between religions or between factions fighting under religious banners, may – if we dig deeper – reflect a complex mix of geopolitical and socio-economic factors for which religion is only a pretext or a proxy, and a crude one at that.

Protestantism and Catholicism

In Slave to Fortune, the struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism is woven into the plot, as the Protestant Tom Cheke, whose memoir is purportedly the basis of the novel, is thrown into the company of the Catholic Edward Hamilton.

During the period covered by Tom’s memoir, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics was playing out in an institutional sense through the latter stages of the (Protestant) Reformation and the (Catholic) Counter-Reformation. It was also being waged on the battlefields of the Thirty Years War, which consumed a large swathe of Europe in bitter fighting and suffering in the first half of the 17th century.

The Battle of White Mountain (1620) between Protestant and Catholic armies in the early days of the Thirty Years War.

The Battle of White Mountain (Austria, 1620) between Protestant and Catholic armies in the early days of the Thirty Years War.

Sir Edward Hamilton, one of the central characters in the novel, is a Scottish knight of the Catholic Order of St John. His family’s religious affiliation is complicated. The aristocratic Hamiltons were supporters of (Catholic) Mary, Queen of Scots, during the struggle for the Scottish throne. The struggle was lost to the Protestant supporters of Mary’s young son, King James (the sixth of Scotland and first of England – and of Bible fame) and Edward’s parents left Scotland for exile in France. During Edward’s childhood, however, the Hamiltons converted to Protestantism as they re-established themselves in Protestant Scotland, leaving Edward isolated.

Scotland’s conversion to Protestantism during the 16th century had put an end (for a couple of centuries at least) to the Catholic Orders in Scotland. As in the rest of the United Kingdom, their lands were confiscated and institutions were pulled down. Edward describes how the English-speaking division of the Order of St John collapsed, forcing him to seek uneasy company with the French members of the Order.

Tom Cheke, in contrast, grows up on the Isle of Wight, which at that time was a hotbed of Protestantism. Even in such a staunchly Protestant part of the country, however, there was concern over ‘recusancy’ – i.e. people reverting from Protestantism to the Catholic faith – and in the opening scene of the novel it is notable that Tom’s mother has a rosary in her possession – a strong symbol of Catholicism but one that was still used by some more traditional Protestants at this time.

The struggle in France between the Protestant Huguenots and the Catholic monarchy is a driver for the plot in the latter stages of the novel. (This struggle had been raging for decades, as the painting below of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre illustrates – it depicts Paris in 1572.) During the novel, this conflict is focussed on the siege of La Rochelle in western France, where the Huguenots were holed up. There is an international dimension as the English Duke of Buckingham switched sides to support the Huguenots, much to the chagrin of Buckingham’s former ally, the French leader, Cardinal Richelieu. Tom and Edward become embroiled in the Cardinal’s plot to take revenge on the turncoat Duke.

St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, France 1572

St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, France 1572

As Tom and Edward learn during their travels, some prominent contemporary scholars, such as the Dutch polymath Hugo Grotius, were writing about the folly of such Christian sectarian conflict. Both Tom and Edward come to share that view, though for different reasons: Tom is ecumenical in his outlook; Edward believes that everyone should simply conform to the ‘True Faith’.

Of course, the vestiges of this Christian sectarian tension continue to this day, particularly in Northern Ireland – though the situation there has much improved since the dark days of The Troubles. An undercurrent persists in modern Scotland too, though its extent is debated; arguably it is mostly expressed through football rivalry and even here it is hopefully in decline.

Islam and Christianity

The second major conflict in Slave to Fortune is ostensibly that between Islam and Christianity. As noted above, it is worth recalling that the roots of this conflict extend far beyond religious differences.

The story is set around the time when the power of the Ottoman Empire reached its high point and the Sultan’s armies threatened to conquer much of Europe (see map).

The Expansion of the Ottoman Empire

The Expansion of the Ottoman Empire

Many Europeans, including people in Britain and Ireland, lived in fear of ‘the Turk’, which was the rather ignorant term used for describing all those fighting for the Ottoman Empire, whether they were Turkish or from a host of other ethnicities. This fear was fanned by Barbary Corsairs operating under the Ottoman flag – like Murat Reis and his crew in the novel – who captured and enslaved many thousands of Europeans. (Many of Murat’s crew, himself included, are deemed ‘renegades’ – that is, they have committed what was considered to be the sin of ‘apostasy’ by converting from Christianity to Islam.)

In one sense, therefore, Slave to Fortune belongs to a genre of historical novels that features this ‘Clash of Civilisations’. However, the treatment of the conflict between Christianity and Islam in Slave to Fortune can be viewed as an antidote to that found in typical novels of this genre. The standard formula for such novels describes how Christians (typically the heroes) are pitted against Muslims (the villains) and how the heroes prevail in the end.

Allied Christian naval forces fighting against the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto, 1571

Allied Christian naval forces fighting against the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto, 1571

By contrast, in Slave to Fortune, the treatment of the two religions is balanced. Though the opening of the book may deceive the reader into believing that this will be another typical treatment of the subject matter, with Muslim renegades brutally enslaving innocent Christian children, by the end of the book it is clear that the themes of tolerance and reconciliation have come to the fore. In a sense, this parallels Tom’s own journey in his memoir, as he matures from the prejudices with which he was indoctrinated in his childhood to a much more open and tolerant outlook on life, helped in part by a period of Islamic schooling and by his experiences in Algiers more generally.

Neither side in Slave to Fortune is portrayed as better than the other. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, its heroes and villains, its bigots and conciliators. Through the experiences narrated in his memoir, Tom becomes aware of the common humanity of people of all faiths and none. This is symbolised by the similarity between Christian rosary beads and Muslim misbaha prayer beads, which appear repeatedly throughout the novel – a common thread of humanity, perhaps.

RosaryMisbaha prayer beads

The folly of wars waged in the name of religion is a subject of discussion during Tom and Edward’s long voyage back to England, courtesy of the writings of the aforementioned Grotius. Tom develops these arguments beyond a critique of Christian sectarian conflict and makes the case against all wars fought in the name of religion. However, such thoughts are a hard sell to an ardent believer like Edward, who has committed his life to holy war and the defence of Christendom.

The novel ends with an important act of reconciliation, when Edward returns to Tom the Koran that had been entrusted to Tom in Algiers. This poignant gesture shows that, over time, even someone as indoctrinated in religious enmity as Edward can shift his beliefs towards tolerance and respect for another religion.

Therein lies a message of hope for our troubled times.

Minaret and Spire, Edinburgh

Minaret and Spire, Edinburgh