The conversion of the Ottoman Turkish Empire into a great power and the supremacy of the Muslims in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Byzantine Empire and throughout much of the 16th century puts into international perspective the enormous success that Spain under the Catholic Monarchs had enjoyed in the West, the culmination of the Reconquista, the seizure of several positions in North Africa and the preservation of the kingdom of Sicily and the strategic Maltese archipelago, which extended the territory of the Christianitas in the far west of Europe and turned the Western and Central Mediterranean into a virtually Christian lake.
Felipe II, by Anguissola, Sofonisba
This situation, however, took a turn in favour of the Ottomans during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566). Under him, the Turks had stormed the Balkans, reduced the great Christian kingdom of Hungary to a minimum and even besieged Vienna, which miraculously did not fall thanks to the combined Austro-Spanish troops. The successes at sea were as impressive as those on land. In 1538, the Turks defeated an alliance of the Papal States, Venice and Genoa. In 1541, Carlos I of Spain failed to take Algiers, while ten years later the Turks responded successfully by taking Tripoli, ravaging Sicily, defeating Andrea Doria’s navy and, through their Algerian allies, occupying the rock of Velez and the city of Bejaia. Barbary piracy threatened the Spanish Mediterranean coasts and the Balearic archipelago. Spanish offensives in North Africa failed time and again, probably because the concerns of central Europe prevented Carlos I from drawing on resources and concentrating on the fight.
Precisely for this reason, when Felipe II began to reign, the Mediterranean was in serious danger of becoming a Muslim sea. With the situation in France under control and urged on by his advisors such as the Duke of Medinaceli (“May our majesty sell us all and me first, but may he become the master of the sea”, he told him), the monarch decided to use his forces to fight against the Turk and his allies. In 1564, a Spanish fleet recaptured the rock of Vélez, while the following year the Turks failed in their attempt to take Malta. It was then that Felipe II found his best ally in Pope Pius V, who was determined to unite all Christians against the Ottomans. The pontiff was to be the initiator of the Holy League that would unite Spain with the Papal States, Venice and Genoa to take the offensive to the Turkish coasts. The victory of Lepanto, on the Greek coast, was in the making, which on 7 October 1571 would put a stop to Turkish pre-eminence in the Mediterranean and prevent Europe and, in particular, the Italian peninsula from following the fate of the extinct Byzantium. As Fernand Braudel argued, with Lepanto, Christian fleets reappeared in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Ottoman presumption of invincibility suffered a severe blow that would ultimately prove definitive.
Battle of Lepanto, by Juan de Toledo y Mateo Gilarte
The context of the battle
In the Mediterranean, the front line against the Turks was the Adriatic shore of the Italian peninsula, the island of Malta defended by the Knights of St John and the Spanish enclaves in North Africa. The Italian peninsula was divided into a multitude of independent states, generally very rich but weak in terms of political and military power. They, therefore, needed the protection of the great hegemonic power that was Spain. Moreover, Spain was directly involved in the defence of the peninsula because the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily belonged to the Spanish Monarchy. The Republic of Genoa was a permanent ally of Spain, and the Serenissima Republic of Venice joined the Holy League because its dominions on the Dalmatian coast and Cyprus were in danger.
The Holy League was a military alliance formed in 1571 at the instigation of Pope Pius V, who feared the Turkish advance that had already occupied the Greek side of the Adriatic Sea. Ancona and Ravenna, papal cities, were a stone’s throw from the Turkish-invaded Albanian coast. It was also a Europe-wide problem with Christendom at odds internally after the Lutheran Reformation and its political consequences. The Pope needed Felipe II, for without his help the small Italian states could not stand up to the Turks. The king answered the call and the Holy League was formed between the Holy See, Spain, Venice and the Order of St. John. Spain and Venice were the main powers; Venice was a local power, limited to that theatre of operations. Spain, on the other hand, was the only one with sufficient weight to unite the efforts of all. It was therefore the key to the alliance. The aim of the Holy League was to fight and stop the Ottoman Empire at sea.
Painting of the Battle of Lepanto of 1571 by H. Letter
The combined navy had a serious drawback, namely the dissensions between the heads of the fleets of the various states that made it up, which had led to some failures on previous occasions. A person of the highest prestige and authority was needed to command it. Don Juan of Austria, Felipe II’s half-brother, was chosen. Although he was a young man, he already had experience in high command, having successfully commanded the forces that fought the Moorish revolts in Granada in 1568. The ships would be mixed, with each naval division consisting of ships from all the allies, except the reserve, which would be made up only of Spanish ships. The costs were to be divided into six parts: three were to be paid by Spain, two by Venice, and one by the Holy See.
Portrait of Andrea Doria, by Sebastiano del Piombo
The armada was assembled in Messina, Sicily. It consisted of 208 galleys, 6 galeazas (large galleys), 20 heavy ships and 76 light vessels. The main component was from Venice and Spain, which in turn comprised, in addition to the Spanish, ships from the Republic of Genoa and Savoy. The Venetians were short of soldiers, so they had to be reinforced with 1,600 Spaniards. The galleys were the typical warships of the Mediterranean. They were propelled by oars, had two auxiliary lateen sails and their most common dimensions were: 140 feet in length, 20 feet in breadth and 9 feet in depth. They had a crew of 300 to 400 men: the “rabble” (the oarsmen, usually forced), the “seamen” (sailors) and the “people of war” (soldiers). At the bow they carried a bronze or wooden spur, reinforced with iron fittings, to ram enemy ships, as well as artillery pieces. A magnificent replica of the royal galley, in which Don John of Austria was on board, can be seen in the museum of the Reales Atarazanas in Barcelona.
The fleet’s banner, blessed by the Pope, is a piece of embroidered blue damask, 16 metres long and five metres wide, with two points. It has a large crucifix painted on it, proportionate to the length of the standard, and the coats of arms of Pope Pius V, Spain, Venice and Don Juan de Austria. It was given by the latter to the cathedral of Toledo and is now kept in the museum of the Holy Cross in that city.
The Turkish navy was concentrated in the port of Lepanto, perfectly protected at the bottom of the Gulf of Patras, which has a strait leading to the Gulf of Corinth. It was therefore protected by the castles on both sides of the strait. It included 210 galleys, 63 galiots, 5,000 soldiers, including 2,500 janissaries, infantrymen of great fighting value. It deployed for the battle in four divisions: right horn, 54 galleys and 2 galiots, commanded by Mahomet Siroco; battle or centre, 87 galleys and 8 galiots, commanded by Ali Baya (commanding general); left horn, 61 galleys and 32 galiots commanded by Uluch Ali; and the reserve: 8 galleys and 21 galiotscommanded by Murat Dragut. The galiots were light galleys.
Marco Antonio Colonna, by Scipione Pulzone.
Having put to sea, the Messina fleet, through the strait of the same name, headed for Reggio (Calabria), then Otranto and the island of Corfu, on the southern coast of Albania. There they stopped and held a council of generals. The scout ships, commanded by Gil de Andrade, informed them that the Turkish fleet was at Lepanto. It was decided to go to meet them. On 30 September 1571, the squadron left Corfu and adopted the following disposition: the vanguard under the command of Don Juan de Cardona, general of the Sicilian galleys, 1st division Juan Andrea Doria; 2nd Don Juan de Austria; 3rd Agustín Barbarigo, who replaced Viniero; 4th Álvaro de Bazán, Marquis of Santa Cruz, with instructions that they would line up for the battle at the front and from left to right in the following order: 1st on the left, the 2nd in the centre – it was the strongest and the generalissimo was in it – and on the right the 3rd. Don Álvaro de Bazán would constitute the reserve and in principle would form the rearguard of the centre.
The navy sailed along the coast of Greece towards the Gulf of Patras, the gateway to the Gulf of Lepanto, and as they rounded the Scrofe point, from which they entered the gulf, they spotted the Turkish fleet, deployed for combat, which was advancing driven by a favourable wind. They then discovered that the fleet was larger than John of Andrade had estimated. The generals had a moment’s hesitation and asked for a council. Don Juan cut to the chase: “Gentlemen, this is not the time for deliberations but for combat”. He had been supported by Don Álvaro de Bazán, who turned up at the meeting armed to the nines.
The clash of the armadas
Juan de Austria deployed the fleet, which was in column formation, in the manner previously mentioned, but Juan Andrea Doria went too far to his right to make room for the left and centre, which produced an excessively long gap. Don Juan passed in a frigate in front of the whole fleet haranguing the men. He ordered the oarmen to be unshackled, promising them their freedom if victory was achieved.
Model of D. Juan de Austria’s galley in the Naval Museum in Barcelona
The battle began formally, with a cannon shot fired by the royal galley in which Don Juan was sailing. It was answered by another from the Turks, signifying their acceptance of the battle. The allied fleet put the galeazas in the vanguard, four in number. The size of these powerfully armed vessels made them invulnerable to the galleys and their fire partly disorganised the Turkish line when it crossed them in its advance. The right horn of the Turks was the first to make contact with the left wing of the coalition. It was a fortunate circumstance that the wind swung the other way, which favoured the Spanish fleet.
Sebastiano Venier, by Jacopo Tintoretto
Naval combat in the Mediterranean then proceeded as follows: two main galleys, distinguished by their position and the fact that they carried lanterns, rammed each other with their bow spurs, at the same time firing their front guns; then the ships clung to each other with grappling hooks, were held solidly together and the soldiers carried by the ship collided on the gunwales. Those who won would board the opposing ship and take it over. Those of their division would usually come to the aid of the main galley, and the combat was generalised. The Spanish infantry was very adept at this close combat: first, they would fire their arquebuses, then board the enemy galley, using the pikes to keep the Turkish soldiers at bay, and then finish the melee with their swords. The Spanish infantrymen were unbeatable marksmen, very skilled with the pike and superb with the sword.
The left wing of the coalition defeated the Turk, not without the timely intervention of Don Álvaro’s reserve, and the ships that had not been captured escaped to the coast to beach themselves so that the crew could flee ashore.
In the centre, Alí Bajá’s galley rammed Don Juan’s royal galley, penetrating its spur up to the fourth rowboat. A fierce battle ensued between the soldiers of both ships, lasting more than an hour and a half, in which numerous galleys and the reserve were joined. The Marquis of Santa Cruz was the most experienced and veteran sailor in the fleet. That is why the reserve was handed over to him and he went to reinforce the line at the right time and place. Alí Bajá died fighting gallantly. A Spanish soldier, perhaps Andrade, cut off his head and put it on a pike, which demoralised the Turks.
On the right side of the coalition deployment, Juan Andrea Doria had left a gap in the formation which the Turkish left horn general, Uluch Ali, took advantage of to make a flank attack on the centre and reserve. However, the reaction of Don Juan de Cardona and Don Álvaro de Bazán neutralised the dangerous attack by the Turk, who had to retreat to avoid being engulfed by Juan Andrea Doria, who came into the fight at full speed. Uluch, in order to retreat more quickly, had to abandon the Christian ships he had taken in tow, including the captain of the Order of Malta.
The victory was splendid, celebrated all over Europe, even in the London of the English, Spain’s enemies. Impressive booty was taken and distributed proportionately among the allied nations. It was the subject of countless paintings. One of the most estimable was by the Englishman H. Letter, which is preserved in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London.
The Battle of Lepanto by Ignazio Danti
Most importantly, the Ottoman Empire was unable to achieve its goal of controlling the Mediterranean. Cervantes’ assertion that it was the “highest occasion that the centuries have seen” is not hyperbolic. That is why he was proud to have taken part in Lepanto all his life. There were those who did not want to miss it and went to fight, without pay, just for the honour of having been in that battle. There were 1,500 of them. Those were times of brave men and gentlemen.
- Cesáreo Fernández Duro, Historia de la Armada Española, t. II, 1515-1587,
- Pedro Aguado Bleye, Manual de Historia de España, t. II, Madrid, Espasa-Calpe 1959.
Historia de las Fuerzas Armadas, t. I, Barcelona, Planeta, 1983
- Historia de la Infantería española, t. I, La Infantería en torno al Siglo de Oro, Madrid, Ediciones Ejército, 1993
- Historia Militar de España, t. V, Campañas, batallas y hechos militares singulares, Madrid, Defence Ministry, General Technical Secretariat, Publications Service, 2017.
- Luciano Serrano, España en Lepanto, Madrid, Swan, 1986.
- “Relación de la batalla de Lepanto”, letter from Nicolás Augusto de Benavides to Lope de Acuña. Internet: www.patrimonionacional.es/realbiblioteca/gondo.html