The Atlantic

The First Brexit Was Theological

The untold story of Queen Elizabeth I’s alliance with the Islamic world—and what Theresa May could learn from it today
Source: Angelo Hornak / Getty

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

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