Battle of Lepanto 1571
and the Order of St John
Today is the 450th anniversary of the battle of Lepanto that took place on October 7, 1571. The battle has been called so after the homonymous Gulf of Lepanto, termed so by the Venetians who once controlled that enclosed sea (today known as Gulf of Corinth). At the time when the battle occurred, the Gulf served as a station for the Ottoman fleet. However, the Battle of Lepanto actually unfolded just outside the Gulf’s isthmus, in the Gulf of Patras.
The casus belli
In July 1570, the Turks had all but taken over Cyprus from the Venetians. Only Famagusta remained under the hands of the Venetians, but was under siege for some eleven months. This Ottoman offensive as well many ongoing Turkish plundering of Venetian merchant ships in the region compounded one another and tensions escalated. The Venetians sought the assistance of various powers of Europe to quell once and for all the naval might of the Ottomans. Spain for one was eager to contribute to such a military solution not only to aid Venice. Philip II of Spain’s was concerned due to his North African possessions of Oran, Ceuta and Melillo that were under constant threat by the provincial beys of the Maghreb, subjects of the Ottoman Sultan. The Pope, in his guise as temporal sovereign as well as spiritual leader, had for some time been cherishing his utopic ideal of having a united Christian front annihilate the Ottoman-Muslim enemy.
The Holy League amasses near Messina
Numerous European and Mediterranean states agreed to join forces and arrest the Ottoman maritime threat once and for all. By July and August of 1571 various Christian states were amassing their maritime and military assets in the Strait of Messina, in preparation for a confrontation that was to take place closer to the Turkish Sultanate. This union became known as La Lega Santa (the Holy League). The naval and military forces hailed from Venice, the Papal States, the Spanish Empire that included its dominions of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia, the Republic of Genoa, and the Duchy of Savoia. The Order of St John also sent its modest squadron from Malta. The Order had a well founded interest to contribute as it anticipated an expansion in its privateering adventures in that region, using the Venetian base in Cyprus.
The fleet of the Holy League consisted of 206 galleys and six galleasses in all*. The Commander in Chief of the whole fleet was Don Juan of Austria, the half brother of King Philip II of Spain**. Venice contributed the largest part of the fleet, that is, 109 galleys and six galleasses. Eighty other galleys belonged to the Spanish Kingdom. The Papacy contributed 12 galleys which it hired from the Tuscan states. The Genoese Republic, the Duchy of Savoia and the Order of St. John provided three galleys each.
The Christian fleet was manned by 12,920 sailors. In addition, it was to transport almost 28,000 fighting troops made up of 5,000 Venetians, 7,000 German and 6,000 Italian mercenaries, and Spain’s 10,000 regular infantry. Incidentally, Miguel de Cervantes the renowned author of Don Quixote, was one of those enlisted on the Spanish vessel, Marquesa. In all, the Christian fleet had some 1,800 guns on board its vessels.
The contribution by the Order of St John
The Order’s contribution to the maritime force of the Holy League were the Capitana S. Maria della Vittoria, the Padrona S. Giovanni and the San Pietro. These were under the command of the Prior Fra Pietro Giustiniani of Messina. The year before, the Order had suffered the loss of three galleys and so was unable to contribute to the League a larger squadron. Ironically enough, the three galleys that had perished had succumbed to the corsair Uluj Ali, who in the battle of Lepanto was assigned by the Turks to act as a major aide to Admiral Ali Pasha. The fighting force on board the Maltese galleys amounted to some 600, not a negligible number, given that just six years earlier the Order had suffered terrible losses during the Great Siege of 1565.
The Turkish fleet
The Ottoman galleys were manned by 13,000 sailors and 34,000 soldiers. Ali Pasha, was supported by the corsairs Chulouk Bey of Alexandria and Uluj Ali, the corsair mentioned in the previous paragraph. Between them they commanded 222 war galleys, 56 galliots and other smaller vessels. This time around, the Turks were somewhat deficient in their elite corps of Janissaries, preferring to make use of their siphahis who it was believed could be more efficient in sea battles using their arrows. These bowmen were, however, opposed by arquebusiers on the Christian side***. The Turkish vessels had some 750 guns and so the Ottoman fleet was vastly outnumbered when it came to heavy firing armament.
Don Juan of Austria’s strategy for the forthcoming battle was to rely more on broadside cannon fire than on the traditional ramming of enemy ships, making good use of oarsmen to lunge at vessels by their armoured prows and then engage the enemy in hand to hand combat.
The battle of Lepanto
On September 16, the Christian fleet was complete and set sail towards the eastern side of the Adriatic to reach Kefalonia and the Gulf of Patras. By October 7, the fleet reached the innermost part of the gulf almost ready to enter the isthmus that was the gateway to the Gulf of Lepanto. The Turkish fleet set forth from Lepanto to halt the enemy in its tracks prior to entering the gulf.
Each side took tactical formation throughout the morning hours; by 11 o’clock the various squadrons were all positioned to engage in battle against specific naval targets. Both sides now approached one another and by noon the first combat contact began.
The fateful sea battle raged intermittently for many hours during which there were casualties and moments when one or the other side seemed to gain the upper hand. This was a very bloody sea battle held at close quarters. In spite of Don Juan’s proposed tactics in engaging the enemy with gun fire, at numerous times, ships rammed onto one another and bloody hand to hand combat ensued. At the start of the battle, many Turkish vessels had headed towards the six Venetian galleasses, mistaking them for supply vessels, thus believing that they would be easy capture. This proved to be a disastrous decision, as the galleasses turned their guns on the Turks and were able to provide superb fire power. It is said that they sunk up to 70 Turkish galleys.
At one time, the Capitana of the Order of St John was captured and Fra Pietro Giustiniani himself was severely hit and wounded by five arrows.
By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the battle was just about over in favour of the Christian fleet. The renowned corsair Uluj Ali was forced to flee with 16 galleys and 24 galliots, abandoning all but one of his captures. At the end of the day, some 7,500 Christian soldiers were killed and some 20,000 others wounded. The Turks lost some 15,000 soldiers. During the fighting Christian forces took a a multitude of ships as booty.
The fleet of the Holy League had freed some 15,000 Christian slaves from their enemy’s rowing benches. The Turkish fleet suffered the loss of about 210 ships—of which 117 galleys, 10 galliots and three fustas were captured and in good enough condition for the Christians to keep. On the Christian side, 20 galleys were destroyed and 30 were damaged so seriously that they had to be scuttled. One Venetian galley was the only prize kept by the Turks; all other vessels they had captured had to be abandoned and thus repossessed by the Christian captains.
The Outcome of the battle of Lepanto
The battle of Lepanto has been hailed as a decisive battle that decimated the Turkish armada to a mere shadow of its former self. The battle was not only a resounding success for the participating Christian states, but helped to raise the moral of Christian Europe as the victory proved that the Ottoman naval power was not invincible. Indeed, the loss of so many of the Ottoman’s experienced sailors at Lepanto, had sapped the fighting effectiveness of its navy, and confrontations with Christian navies in the years immediately after were minimal.
Nevertheless, in the span of the three years after the battle, the Turkish Sultan managed to rebuild a new fleet, strong enough to recapture Tunisia and La Goletta (1574). Meantime, in 1573, Venice and Turkey had reached an accord, and as it turned out, and in spite of the victory of Lepanto, Cyprus was completely released to the Turkish sultanate.
The Mediterranean remained an unsafe sea to journey, as corsairing was still rampant, not only from the Turkish side but also because it went unchecked on the French, English, Dutch and Maltese privateers.
After this battle, Pope Pius V claimed October 7 as the feast day of Victory for Christianity. Because he firmly believed that the day was won by virtue of the power of the Holy Rosary prayers, he also established October 7 as the feast of ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’. To the litany of the Holy Rosary the Pope added another titular praise to the list, by inserting the phrase: auxilium Christianorum – help of Christians.
October 7, 2021
* A galleass was a larger type of galley that had originally been devised as a merchant galley.
** This seasoned admiral was born in Regensburg but was raised in Valladolid, Spain under Philip’s patronage.
*** One must clarify however, that an arquebus, even though it was a firing weapon required an amount of time to prepare before shooting its musket balls, whilst a bowmen could shoot dozens of arrows at the enemy in the same amountof time required to prepare the arquebus for the next shot.
Bono Salvatore, ‘Naval Exploits and Privateering’, Hospitaller Malta, Ed. Mallia Milanes Victor. Mireva Publications. 1993.
Grima Joseph F., ‘The Battle of Lepanto – 7th October 1571’, The Sunday Times of Malta, 14 October 2018.
De Groot Alexander, ‘The OttomanThreat to Europe’, Hospitaller Malta , 1530 – 1798, Ed. Mallia Milanes Victor. Mireva Publications. 1993.
Novak Michael, ‘How the 1571 Battle of Lepanto saved Europe’. Catholic Education https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/history/how-the-1571-battle-of-lepanto-saved-europe.html
Parker Geoffrey Parker, Dorpalen Andreas, et al, ‘How Important was the Battle of Lepanto?’ History Today, Issue 71, October 10, 2021.
‘The Battle of Lepanto’, New World Encyclopedia.
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