In the 16th century the Ottoman Empire was on the march. Having established rule over almost all of North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and modern-day Iraq, they had set their sight on expansion into Europe. Greece, the Balkans and much of Southern Ukraine was conquered, and by 1529 the armies of Suleiman the Magnificent had reached Vienna. Their siege was eventually lifted, but the threat remained. Europe was composed of a mass of small, competing states, divided by religion, language and bitter rivalries. Many wondered how a fragmented continent would be able to resist the unified might of such an empire.
In the decades following their rebuff in Austria, the Ottomans looked to the sea, and by the 1560’s they controlled much of the eastern Mediterranean. Powerful fleets of galleys dominated these waters. In 1570, the Turks used their maritime power to invade Cyprus, the last Christian stronghold in the region, and by the summer of 1571 had conquered the whole island.
The loss of Cyprus, proved to be the catalyst that allowed Pope Pius V to persuade bitter Christian rivals to unite into a single Holy League against the new power in the east. His proposal was that the various wars and disputes between them should be placed to one side, and a combined fleet assembled to fight their common enemy. The members of the League consisted of most of the Catholic Mediterranean powers, with the major exception of France. Spain and Venice supplied the majority of the fleet, with a large number of smaller states providing other contingents. This force was gathered in Messina, Sicily, in the late summer of 1571, under the command of John of Austria, the half-brother of King Philip II of Spain, and then headed east, seeking battle.
The two fleets met near to Lepanto, off the coast of Greece, on the 7th of October. John of Austria was desperate to fight, because the awkward coalition he commanded was on the point of disintegration, as the relationship between all his various contingents began to fragment. The day before the battle, open fighting had broken out on his ships, between Venetian and Spanish soldiers. Fortunately, the Turkish fleet, under Ali Pasha had been expressly ordered to fight by the Sultan.
Both forces consisted entirely of galleys. In this respect, Lepanto was a throwback to the battles between oar-powered warships that dominated ancient naval warfare. At a time when the latest sailing galleons armed with cannon were plying the oceans of the world, fleets in the Mediterranean were still dominated by these more primitive craft. Most galleys only carried a handful of the artillery pieces, relying instead on masses of soldiers to board their opponents. Although none of the participants at Lepanto knew this, they were about to take part in the last major battle to be fought between two fleets rowing into action.
The Christian powers had 212 galleys to the Turks 278, but this apparent discrepancy in numbers was not the whole picture. Many of the Holy League vessels were bigger, so that a comparison between the number of soldiers they carried shows a narrower difference. John of Austria had 28,500 soldiers to Ali Pasha’s 31,500. Furthermore, while all the Turkish rowers were slaves, including some 12,000 who were Christian, many of the Venetian galleys were manned by free men, who might also join in any fight.
The battle was fought in the narrow waters of the Gulf of Patras, which also played to the Christian’s advantage, since the land encroaching from the north and south restricted the Ottoman’s ability to use their superior number of ships to outmanoeuvre their opponents. The two fleets approached each other in solid lines, their vessels side by side, the Christian’s from the west, and the Turks from the east.
The battle started around noon, when the rival squadrons at the northern end of the two lines crashed into each other. The sea became choked with galleys, their oars jammed together, with soldiers scrambling between them. The battle effectively became an enormous land battle, that happened to be fought at sea. Things were balanced for a while, but then the intervention of the rowers from the Venetian vessels, together with Christian oarsman freed and armed from captured Turkish ships, swung the fighting in favour of the Holy League.
A little while later, the centres of the two fleets met, with both admirals targeting each other’s flagships. That of Ali Pasha smashed into John of Austria’s galley Real with the bow penetrating as far as the fourth rowing bench. Once the two badly damaged ships were locked together, the troops on both sides fought it out, while similar fights erupted in the mass of galleys that now carpeted the sea around them. The Real had a large body of heavily armoured Spanish Tercio infantry on board, who gradually overwhelmed their opponent’s flagship. Ali Pasha was badly wounded in the fighting and was subsequently beheaded, after which the Holy League’s flag was unfurled on the Turkish flagship. This caused consternation amongst the rest of the Ottoman fleet, and the fight swung further in the Christian’s favour.
Only on the Holy League’s right did the fighting not go well. Here a ragbag of various small contingents had been put together into a single squadron, and confusion seems to have reigned. Some components, like the galleys supplied by the Knights of Malta, fought well, while others did not. The Turkish squadron opposing them began to get the upper hand, threatening to break through and envelope the Holy League’s centre, but the intervention of John’s reserve squadron held them off until the battle was won.
Isolated fighting continued into the evening, with some Turkish galleys still resisting long after the battle had been lost. In the final reckoning the Holy League captured or destroyed 187 of Ali Pasha’s galleys, and inflicted close to 30,000 casualties, while suffering about 7,500 themselves. There was widescale rejoicing throughout Europe at the news that the Ottoman’s had been defeated at last. Unfortunately, after the victory, the members of the Holy League promptly fell out with each other, resulting in little long-term strategic benefit. In subsequent years, the arrival of modern sailing ships with broadsides of cannon shifted the balance of naval power away from galleys, and no battle like Lepanto ever occurred again.
As a footnote, several notable figures fought in this action. A young Sir Richard Grenville was there, and would go on to win fame as an Elizabethan sea captain, dying heroically defending the galleon Revenge against overwhelming odds twenty years later. Fighting alongside him was Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, who lost an arm in the fighting.