Thursday, July 31, 2014

Holy League: The Victors of Lepanto

Battle of Lepanto (by Juan Luna)
Conflict between the Muslims and Christian had raged for centuries dating back to the time of crusades. The whole of Christendom in Europe hoped to halt or even to push back the advance of Muslims during the Crusades. And during the time of Renaissance, the Muslims, in form of the Ottoman Empire threatened the whole Europe itself. And so in 1571, the Pope called upon the creation of the Holy League.

The situation during the conception of the Holy League was eventful. The Ottoman Empire continued planning to expand its interest to Europe. The Catholic Church, under Pope Pius V faced challenged in form of the Protestant Reformation. Philip II of Spain ruled a vast colonial empire with a powerful navy at its lead. And in the Italian Peninsula, the mercantile empire of Venice began to crumble as trade shifted from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic.

The sign of the decline of Venice was its failure to defend its garrisons and territories overseas. In 1570, the Ottoman Turks invaded the island of Cyprus. It threatened the Venetian controlled cities of Nicosia and Famagusta. The Venetians, however, saw that any form of retaliation or attack to the Ottoman navy would futile and disastrous. They predicted that most of their fleet would be destroyed. Their resources and manpower were limited compare to the vastness of it in the Ottoman Empire.

In order to save its face in the island of Cyprus, the Doge Alvise Moncenigo desperately looked for allies. He sent ambassadors to powerful rulers in the continent: the Pope, King of Spain, Holy Roman Empire, France, Portugal etc. They also tried to sue for a peaceful settlement within the Ottomans in vain. Venice knew that the decision made in past could hamper their plea of support. During the time of the Crusades, it did not support any of them except in form of transportation and the sacking of Constantinople. They made friends with the Ottomans in order to gain trade concessions. And so most in the Venetian government were pessimistic towards gaining of enthusiastic support.

Thankfully, Venice plea for aids were not in vain as they saw a staunch ally in form of Pope Pius V. Pope Pius V was a well-known conservative. During his rise, he became part of the Inquisition, rooting out heresy and witchcraft. Later on, during his time as Pope, he would continue and support the Inquisition. He was not afraid to use his influence to rally Catholic monarchy towards his interests. And nothing was more visible to his ardent support for Christianity by rallying towards the fight against the Muslims.

In August of 1571, Pope persuaded the King of Spain, Philip II, to come to Venice’s aid. King Philip II, however, had concern over an alliance with the Venetians. The Venetians were competitors for his influence in Italy. As a signed of hesitation of the alliance, the King sent a commander who came from a rival state of Venice. Andrea Doria was an admiral came from the Republic of Genoa, a staunch rival of the Republic of Venice. Doria was sent by the Spanish King along with 49 galleys from Sicily.

In September 1570, the alliance naval forces gathered near the port of Candia in the island of Crete. Doria’s forces arrived to rendezvous with the 120 Venetian galleys under Girolamo Zanne. They were then accompanied by another fleet coming from the Papal States. A squadron of 12 galleys under Marantonio Colonna was sent by Pope Pius V.

However, the multinational fleet was short live. En route to Cyprus, the fleet received the news that Nicosia fell. On September 29, Ottoman forces under Lala Mustafa Pasha breached Nicosia’s defense. Women and children were sold as slaves. Men were killed. Defenders executed. The leader of the Venetian, Niccolo Dandalo, was tortured, beheaded and his head sent to the second well-frotified Venetian city, Famagusta. Upon hearing the news, there was no reason to continue the expedition. In addition, a threat of a large Ottoman fleet threatened their communication and supplies from Candia. Furthermore, the Spanish fleet commander, Andrea Doria mentioned that his fleet must returned at the end of September. With the Spanish contingent leaving, the alliance fleet disbanded.

But the alliance just took a break. As Famagusta continued its defense on the following year, Europe began once again to assemble a fleet to counter the Ottomans. On May 25, the Holy League was formally created by Pope Pius V. Spain, the Papal States, Republic of Genoa, Duchy of Saxony, Urbino, and the Knights of Malta heeded the call to arms of the Pope in support of Venice. Andrea Doria and Marcantonio Colonna took part once again of the fleet. As the Commander of the overall fleet, the half-brother of King Philip II, Don Juan of Austria, was appointed.

The Holy League Fleet was impressive. It was composed of 207 galleys. 24 Great Ships also accompanied the Galleys. But the secret weapon of the League were large and heavily armed galley of Venice called galleasses. Although strong this ships were strong and large. 6 of this galleasses were at the fleet’s disposal. In addition to ship, marines were needed in order to board the ships. 20,000 soldiers accompany the ships for the conquest.

The Holy League fleet faced the Ottomans near Lepanto at the Gulf of Patras. The Holy League faced a more formidable navy. Under Ali Pasha, 300 galleys along with 16,000 battle hardened soldiers of the Ottoman Empire would face the Holy League. The Ottoman Turks formed a crescent formation. While the Holy League attacked in three fronts. At the lead of the attack were the 6 galleasses, protecting the galleys at its back.

The Battle of Lepanto was a spectacular victory for the Holy League. It killed the leader of the Ottoman Fleet, Ali Pasha. It also captured 117 Ottoman galleys. Along with the galleys, it freed it slave Greek oarsmen.

The Holy League’s victory in Lepanto proved to be undecisive to Christendom’s defense against the Ottomans. In fact it became a show of how disunited Christian Europe was. In 1573, the Venetians did not follow through the victory Lepanto and sued for peace to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1573. Spain, although interested in defeating the Ottoman followed suit in 1578.

The Holy League of 1571 was a legacy of continuous tension between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. With enough reasons, Europeans could rally temporarily against the Muslim Ottoman. Nevertheless, it was only temporary as national interest of each nation always hampered the continual unity in form of these alliances.

See also:
Delian League: The Athenian Empire
German Customs Union: Zollverein
Hanseatic League: Economic Group of Germany
Kalmar Union
Schmalkaldic League
Swabian League

Konstam, A. Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003.

Sider, S. Handbook to Life in Renaissance Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Tucker, S. Battles That Changed History: An Encyclopedia of World Conflict. California: ABC-CLIO LLC, 2011.

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