The Battle of Lepanto and Its Influence on English History

The Mediterranean Sea has seen naval warfare since man took to water. But the sea battle that took place in 1571 off the coast of Greece near Lepanto was without precedent. 484 armed naval vessels confronted each other armed with cannons. The historic event shaped the future of the Mediterranean. But how great was its influence on English history?

In the middle of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire stretched over six million square kilometers and counted 25 million inhabitants. On the death of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, it controlled the Eastern Mediterranean with exception of Crete and Cyprus. It occupied the North to Bosnia in the West as well as the entire East from Turkey to Egypt; the South was under its influence from Egypt along the Barbary Coast to Tunisia. Raiders from North Africa attacked the coasts of Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy with frequency. During these raids, thousands of Christians were abducted into slavery. Trade routes and ports were under constant threat of Barbary piracy.

In 1570, an Ottoman army counting 56,000 men landed on Cyprus. They conquered Nicosia and laid siege to Famagusta. In a bid to save Famagusta, an alliance was formed between King Philip II of Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa and the Pope. The preparations of the alliance took too long came too late to help besieged Famagusta. Genoese fort commander Marco Antonio Bragadin capitulated after an 11 months’ siege when he received assurance of safety for Famagusta's inhabitants. Ottoman commander-in-chief Ali Muezzinade Pasha marched into the city and then calmly ordered the slaughter of all its 20,000 inhabitants. He had Bragadin skinned and his skin stuffed with bran. This effigy was later paraded through the streets of Istanbul.

A month later, on the 16th of September 1571, the allied fleet left the port city of Messina on Sicily. It was under the command of King Philip’s half-brother Don Juan of Austria. He was only 24 but had experience in conducting naval battles and held the esteem of the allied fleet commanders. The Venetians brought their newest naval warships to the allied fleet: The Galleass. These battle ships were so new that only six had been completed in time to join the fray. The rest of the allied fleets were made up of conventional galleys.

The traditional galley had the cannons concentrated at the bow. Their shooting direction was limited to forward in the direction the galley was sailing. The galleass was heavier and had an additional long deck stretching the length of the vessel for movable cannons. This allowed shooting in any direction. The advantage in fire-power made the galleass about five times as devastating in attack as a galley.

The allied fleet counted 212 ships when it encountered the Ottoman fleet in the Gulf of Corinth near Lepanto (today’s Nafpaktos in Greece) on the 7th of October 1571. The Ottoman fleet had the advantage in numbers with 272 ships, but Don Juan of Austria decided to attack all the same. His flagship La Real attacked the Ottoman flagship Sultana after Admiral (and former pirate) Uluch Ali managed to break through the allied lines. A Spanish rifleman was able to shoot the Ottoman commander-in-chief Ali Muezzinade Pasha. Upon his death, the Sultana surrendered.

The Venetian galleasses wreaked day long havoc, sinking one Ottoman galley after another. At the end of the day, the allies had lost 12 ships and 8,000 men. For the Ottoman Empire, the defeat was a catastrophe. They lost 170 ships and 30,000 men not counting the slaves. With exception of Admiral Uluch Ali, the entire Ottoman naval command was killed in action. The allies took 3,000 prisoners and freed 15,000 galley slaves. With the loss of 2/3 of its battle fleet, the Ottoman Empire had to change its naval policy in the Mediterranean from offensive to defensive. The huge loss of trained sailors in particular made it difficult to replace them. And replacing all the lost ships would have meant instant state bankruptcy.

Why does this historic event get scarce mention in British history lessons? In the 16th century, England and the rest of Northern Europe only had infrequent raids by Barbary pirates. In that sense, the impact of the Ottoman defeat had a negligible impact on England. Also, England under the Tudors wasn't a maritime power. The fleet built by Queen Elizabeth was in its fledgling state and just starting out; it is doubtful what impact it would have had on the Spanish Armada in 1588 had the latter arrived as planned by King Philip. On a political level, any plans for expansion lay in the west; England had no direct interests to look after in the Mediterranean Sea. So far, it is understandable that the battle of Lepanto doesn't loom large in history lessons dealing with Tudor times.

It was, on the other hand, the total defeat of the Ottoman fleet and the destruction of most of its ships that freed the hands of the Spanish king to look in other directions than to Spain’s South coast. If the allied fleet had lost, there wouldn't have been an Armada to try an invasion in 1588. Even if the battle had never happened, a considerable part of the Spanish fleet would have been kept tied down in the Mediterranean on coast guarding duties. Under such circumstances, it is doubtful that King Philip would have contemplated an invasion of England. In this sense, the Battle of Lepanto was key in leading up to a historic event in English history and should be treated as such.