Battle Of Lepanto – The Holy League & The Takeover Of Europe

On October 7, 1571, the Ottoman Empire and a Christian alliance known as The Holy League engaged in battle at Lepanto. Before the advent of the age of sail, it was the final significant battle between navies employing oar-powered ships. It is significant because it demonstrated to Europe that the Ottomans could be vanquished and that when unified, European civilization was a powerful force.

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In modern-day Turkey, in the latter half of the 13th century, a tiny Turkish emirate gave rise to the Ottoman Empire. As they soon grew, the Byzantine Empire was destroyed in 1453 when Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II overthrew Constantinople, its capital. Greek manuscripts were among the many volumes brought by Byzantine refugees who fled to the West, sparking the European Renaissance.

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The Ottomans, Russians, Austrians, and Venetians frequently engage in battle now that they share a border with Europe. There were several attempts to stop the conquest of Europe. However, nothing could stop the Sultan’s growth.

Venetian commercial shipping was supported by a vast land empire that included outposts in mainland Greece, Cyprus, and Crete. Before the Ottomans started constructing their own naval fleet around 1500, her war galleys ruled the eastern Mediterranean water routes.

The Ottoman Empire was unified and had a distinct plan for growth. The civilization of Europe is more dispersed. As a result, new ideas can proliferate and new defensive technology must be used to fend off threats from the military that are bigger and better organized.

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A map showing Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East in 1570. Shown in red is the extent of the Ottoman Empire. Created: February 2023

Invasion of Cyprus

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Fifth Emperor of the Turks.

Cyprus was viewed by the Ottoman Empire’s Sultans as a minor province. Given the tyrannical nature of the local governors, managing the island would be more work than it was worth. In order to start a Jewish colony on the island, a merchant by the name of Joseph Nasi persuaded the Ottomans to invade.

Cyprus served as the hub of Venetian business activities. Due to an agreement between the Ottomans and the Venetians, the island had been spared from invasion. Selim II could deploy his armed forces into the Mediterranean after Hungary experienced a brief period of calm. On March 28, 1570, a letter is delivered to the Doge of Venice. Salim demands that the Ottomans take over Cyprus on the grounds that the island has historically belonged to Egypt and that Egypt has already been subdued by the Ottomans:

“That the Kingdom of Cyprus by ancient right belongeth unto the Kingdom of Egypt, you are not ignorant; which being conquered by the Turks, is together with it become of right a part also of the Ottoman Empire; that island we come to challenge, leading after us two hundred thousand valiant Souldiers, unto which power, and Wealth of the Ottoman Kingdoms all the united Forces of the Christian Kings are not comparable; much less the Venetians, so small a part of Europe … Whereas if you shall before such wholesome Counsel, fondly prefer your vain hopes, you are to expect all the calamities of War.”

The Sultan’s requests are turned down.

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Famagusta (Ammochostos) fortress, Cyprus

60,000 Ottoman soldiers arrived the following summer close to Nicosia, Cyprus. Even those who surrender, all the locals are executed by sword. Famagusta (Gazimausa), a coastal town, repels the invasion with a garrison of 8,500 soldiers and artillery, under the command of General Marco Antonio Bragadin. The Ottoman army suffered appalling losses in a fight on September 17, 1570, with an estimated 52,000 casualties.

On August 2, after realizing that no troops were arriving from Venice, Bragadin negotiated a peace agreement. The Ottomans permit the evacuation of civilians but later accuse them of murdering prisoners, a charge they refute. The Ottoman military responded by murdering every adult, child, and person in Famagusta.

Europe is shocked by Cyprus’s barbaric treatment of its civilian population. The Vatican and the Hapsburgs put together an alliance to fight the Ottoman Empire in response. Salim built up a stronger naval fleet to intercept any military response out of concern that this coalition would try to retake their lost foothold on Cyprus.

The Holy League

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Holy League Coats of Arms
Habsburg Spain, Pope Pius V, Republic of Venice, John of Austria
Photo Credit: Gallica – National Library of France

John of Austria, often known as Don Juan, the son of Charles V, led the Christian alliance known as The Holy League. They organized 212 ships carrying 28,500 soldiers in total. 500 soldiers were provided by Venice, 500 by Germany, 500 by Italy, 8,000 by Spain, 1,500 by the Papal States, and 4,000 by unpaid volunteers from other regions.

The age of sail had not yet arrived in 1571. The main warship, the galley, would ram an adversary’s vessel before boarding it with troops. Six Galleasses, specialized naval forces, were sent out by the Holy League. They had four castles with gunpowder cannons and were 200 feet long and 20 feet broad, making them wider than galleys. Despite having two masts and 290 oarsmen, they were dragged into place by other ships because they could not go forward on their own. Instead of using prisoners or slaves, Venice deployed talented citizen rowers who were armed to aid in close-quarters combat.

Terseos, a type of elite pikeman who fought in squads of 30, were used by the Spanish. They carried muskets and hand cannons, a hefty weapon.

The 278 ships that made up the Ottoman fleet, most of which were galleys with a few light cannons, were under the command of Müezzinzade Ali Pasha. 10,000 janitors and 31,500 troops were all aboard. The foundation of the Ottoman army were the elite foot soldiers known as janissaries. These were soldiers assigned permanently, and marriage was prohibited. They occasionally used muskets, and there was always a problem with their loyalty.

Bows and swords were primarily employed by Ottoman soldiers. They also took in recruits from Christian families whose children had been kidnapped, sold as slaves, and brought up as Muslims.

Positioning

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A map showing the positioning of fleets at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

By the beginning of September 1571, the Holy League set sail. On September 3, John of Austria traveled 100 miles north of Lepanto to Igoumenitsa Bay on the west coast of Greece. The Ottoman navy is directed toward the island of Crete by false intelligence. However, they quickly discover that the Christian fleet is in the Adriatic Sea and start sailing for Greece. The largest island under Venetian control, Kefalonea, has a harbor where the Christian navy moors.

The Ottomans are currently stationed in Lepanto (modern-day Nafpaktos), about 50 miles to the east, where they will stay for about a month. The same fleet that touched down in Cyprus is included in this. Using the castle fort at Lepanto as a base of operations, Müezzinzade had been raiding Venetian strongholds on the Adriatic coast. The Holy League learned about the raids through the survivors, which allowed them to gauge the size of the Ottoman fleet.

The Battle

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The Holy League fleet was sighted by the Ottomans off the island of Kefalonia on October 5. According to Müezzinzade, his fleet is far bigger than that of his rival. On October 6, he departs Lepanto and travels 10 kilometers to Gelata.

The Holy League fleet moved south through the strait between the island of Oxia and Mount Malkantone around six in the morning on October 7th, 1571. Before 7:30 AM, as they enter the Gulf of Patras, they spot the Ottoman navy.

Due to their respective sizes, neither fleet could possibly catch the other off guard. It took two hours for them to finally meet after seeing one another off in the distance.

The commander of the Christian fleet’s left wing, Admiral Agostino Barbarigo, was the first to observe Müezzinzade forming battle formations 3 miles south of Scroffa Point, the bay’s entrance. The Christians were arranged in a mile-long line facing east. The League was prepared for contact by 9 AM.

Three parts of each fleet confront the other. Barbarigo and Mahomet Sirocco were on the left (North), Giovanni Andrea Doria and Uluch Ali were on the right (South), and John of Austria and Müezzinzade were in the center. Both had auxiliary ships in tow.

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Lepanto Battle Formations
Photo Credit: A History of Sea Power by William Oliver Stevens and Allan F. Westcott

John of Austria commanded that all ships observe mass. In an effort to draw the enemy’s attention to the Christian flagship, he commands the Real (League Flagship) to fire one cannon shot.

Initially blowing against the Christians, the wind had turned in their favor by lunchtime. The opening salvo is fired at 10:20 AM by a galleass. They destroyed the first Ottoman galley after being fired from a mile away.

Trying to flank along the northern shore is Sirocco. Barbarigo closes the distance and repels attempts to board his ships. Though a few Ottoman ships manage to get past the left flank and start attacking the League from behind, the flanking maneuver is ultimately unsuccessful. Now there is intense combat on the left. When Müezzinzade notices that the flanking move isn’t working, he commands the addition of more ships to the fray.

Barbarigo tries to issue an order about midday, but he is unable to do so because the Ottomans are attempting to board the flagship. He raises the visor on his armor, and almost soon an arrow pierces his eye. His injury is fatal. The fleet is now under the command of Captain Federico Renier.

Now, the battle’s momentum is shifting in the Christians’ direction. The sailors of numerous Ottoman ships abandoned the ship and retreated to mainland Greece. They come under instant fire. The survivors are pursued inland by boarding parties, and abandoned Ottoman ships are captured.

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Don Juan commanding The Real

Admiral Sirocco of the Ottoman right is captured. He is severely injured and requests execution. The Ottoman line is broken in the middle. Despite temporarily boarding the League flagship, Müezzinzade is ultimately made to leave. Fighting moves to the Sultana, the Ottoman flagship, by 12:20 PM. Cheers are heard from the nearby Christian fleet when the green battle standard of the Sultan is taken. Though his whereabouts are unknown, Müezzinzade is very definitely dead from the combat at this point.

Now a large-scale Ottoman surrender is underway. Their north flank is retreating inland and being annihilated, and their center has been completely destroyed.

The fighting had not even started on the South wing. The Ottoman left southern wing commander Uluch Ali pushed southwest in an effort to flank. Juan de Cardona, in charge of 16 ships in the League right wing’s group, proceeded south to thwart an additional Ottoman flank effort, indicating that both had broken away from their respective fleets. Both of them are currently far beyond the range of reserves, and Cardona is outnumbered. In order to get him to come back, John of Austria dispatches light ships, but by the time they get to him, circumstances have changed.

Uluch shifts his direction to the north. There is a chance he might move north and undo the Ottoman victory if he can beat the Christian south group. Cardona’s 16 were attacked by Uluch’s 75 galleys.

Cardona receives backup fire from two galleasses, but he is outnumbered and most of his men surrender, as Doria (the commander of the League’s right) stands back and observes. The Venetian “Resurrected Christ” commander destroys five Ottoman gallies by exploding his ship’s magazine. Around 1:00 p.m., Doria shows up. She pushes through Cardona’s force and recaptures all but two of the League ships.

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Venetian galleas at the Battle of Lepanto, PX8356

Uluch withdraws toward the focal point of the conflict. However, it is already too late by the time he arrives at the battle. The Ottoman center is crumbling and Müezzinzade Ali Pasha is dead. But he manages to defeat a group of Knights Hospitaller and capture three Ottoman ships.

Most of the Christian navy is now heading in that direction, Uluch. Uluch might have saved Müezzinzade if he had come 30 minutes earlier. He now realizes that continuing to fight is pointless. He tries to run away but is pushed north. At roughly 2:00 PM, Uluch successfully escaped with about 30 vessels. The rest have been taken.

Since a storm was predicted to arrive by evening, John of Austria decided against pursuing Uluch. The triumphant navy needed to locate a harbor. Around 7 o’clock, the fleet and 170 captured Ottoman ships anchor five miles to the north, off the island of Petalas.

Results

Prior to 1571, the Ottomans had never experienced a defeat as severe as that in the Battle of Lepanto. Only 30 Ottoman ships made it. A total of 30,000 Ottomans were killed, injured, or taken prisoner.

The liberation of 15,000 Christian galley slaves. 21,000 people were injured, 8,000 Christians perished, and 10 gallies were lost.

The last significant galley fight in human history was the fight of Lepanto. Because they employed gunpowder more skillfully, the League was able to win. They used the most cutting-edge equipment and strategies since they knew they were up against a huge foe.

History Carries On

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Doges Palace San Marco, Venice by Canaletto
Photo Credit: Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The League left port on October 9th, 1571, but they were not prepared to reclaim Cyprus. Between Venice, Genoa, and Spain, there is still a rivalry.

Up until roughly 1830, the Ottomans continued to conduct raids on the Mediterranean coasts in search of gold and slaves, sending raiding teams as far as Scotland and Ireland. The Ottoman Empire nevertheless possessed a wealth of assets. Within six months, 250 new galleys were constructed. Overall, the conquest of Cyprus represented a significantly greater loss for the Christians than the Ottomans suffered in the Battle of Lepanto.

In psychological terms, Lepanto’s importance is frequently discussed. It was the first time a sizable Ottoman force had been routed, and it was made possible by a unique coalition of Christian soldiers from across Europe. The notion of Ottoman invincibility was thus destroyed.

When an Ottoman invasion was stopped in Vienna in 1683, Western Civilization won another battle. The Ottoman Empire declined to a minor power as a result of this victory, which was more decisive than Lepanto. You could think of Lepanto as Vienna’s forerunner.

In the future, the Ottomans might have tried to invade Italy if they had prevailed in the Battle of Lepanto. Major maritime and land triumphs made it possible for Western Civilization to successfully withstand outside invasion and pursue the results of The Renaissance.

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For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.
2 Timothy 1:7

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