October 7th 1571: Battle of Lepanto is won at sea
Today, the 7th October, in 1571 the Western Christian powers defeated a Turkish fleet off the South Western coast of Greece near the port of Lepanto.
The Turks’ losses were so severe that their naval power never recovered.
It was only because the threat of Turkish expansion was so great tat the Christian leaders even allied themselves, so great was the animosity amongst the many rulers.
The joint Christian fleet was led by a Spaniard, Don Juan of Austria and illegitimate half brother to King Phillip II of Spain. The Turkish commander was Ali Pasha and he commanded 274 ships, most were Galleys.
Galleys were sleek oared vessels, used since antiquity. The oarsmen were manacled and usually slaves or prisoners of war. On board were some 25000 fighting men.
The Christian fleet numbered some 200 ships, but on board they had better armoured and armed men, the best being 10000 Spanish troops. It was these men that made the difference today.
One of the things which makes Lepanto important historically is that it was the last major battle of the galley era. Galleys (even large ones) had little cargo-carrying capacity and were only really suited to relatively calm waters like the Mediterranean due to their low freeboard. By contrast, large purely sail-powered “round ships” could carry lots of cargo (and men and supplies) and could handle oceans like the Atlantic, but up until around the year 1500 their capabilities as warships were limited because their stability was compromised when too much weight was placed on their upper decks, which meant that they could carry only a few cannons. This changed around 1500 with the invention of the hinged gunport, which made it possible to mount a large number of heavy guns inside the hull in a low position which didn’t affect stability and which, as a bonus, gave the gun crews shelter from the weather as they worked. This eventually led to a fundamental shift in naval tactics: rather than coming into physical contact with enemy vessels (either to ram them or to board them), ships could now stand off from the enemy and engage him with gunfire alone (as Spain’s supposedly Invincible Armada learned to its chagrin). In modern terminology, warships became weapon platforms for the delivery of missile fire (in its original incarnation as solid shot), which is still basically what they are today.
Thank you Marc, as always, for your pertinent comments.
I rushed my post as it was time to collect Maddy from school. I had wanted to say more. You have said everything succinctly.
I hope you have been well.
I have no idea if there were any of the new Protestant nations represented at the battle.
I suppose they were mainly Northern ones, as the Med was surrounded by older Catholic ones.
It is weird to think the ships involved were the same type used two millennia before and that they were still rowed by slaves or prisoners of war. How many went down with the ships too?