16th century Warfare

Warfare

The Changing Nature of Warfare in the early 16th Century

On Land

Until the 15th century armies consisted of the infantry (with swords, axes, and various other weapons for cutting and clubbing the enemy) protected by pike-men, bowmen (with crossbow or longbow), and the cavalry who had been the most highly valued units. The late 15th century saw the increased power of the infantry with the introduction of the mobile pike phalanx, initially by the Swiss mercenary forces. A massed body of foot-soldiers armed with 5 metre pikes had often successfully defended against a cavalry attack, especially when assisted by bowmen. But in the late 15th and early 16th centuries the Swiss made the phalanx manoeuvrable and capable of taking the offensive, under the right conditions. They achieved victories at Morat (June 1476), where they defeated a Burgundian army including 4,000 mounted knights1, and at Nancy (January 1477), where Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy had been killed. The success was repeated at Novara in 1513 where they were able to continue their advance, while under attack from the French cavalry, to defeat the army of Louis XII2. The pike phalanx was rapidly adopted by other armies.

Firearms had existed in medieval armies since the 14th century but it was only in the early 16th century that their power began to be fully utilised on the battlefield. The arquebus was a matchlock handgun, about 1.2 metres long, weighing about 5 kgs. It was successfully used by the Spanish troops of Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, the ‘Grand Capitan’, in the campaign against Granada (1484-92). It took time to reload and often misfired, but despite these problems it added considerably to the killing power of the infantry. An arquebusier could be trained in a few days, much more quickly than a bowman3. By adding arquebusiers to the pike-men in the mobile phalanxes Cordoba defeated the much larger French army at Cerignola (1503), and the arquebus was again an important factor in the Imperialist victory at La Bicocca (1522).4

This combination of pike-men, swordsmen and an increasing number of arquebusiers was to form the basis of the reorganisation of the Spanish infantry into the ‘tercios’. At full strength a ‘tercios’ consisted of ten companies each of 300 men, including two made up of specialist arquebusiers5 who could cause high casualties and create havoc in the massed ranks of opposing pike-men or cavalry. By mid-century the Imperial armies were increasing the numbers of arquebusiers, in some cases up to 50% of the infantry, though the French and English were rather slower to adapt. The impact of this increased use of firearms was to reduce the incidence of pitched battles and offensive tactics after 1530.

The cavalry was traditionally considered to be the elite of the army, dominated as it was by the nobility and those who could afford the expense of the horses, armour and other equipment required. They were associated with the bravery, virtue and honour of the chivalrous ‘Christian knight’, and the cavalry charge was much feared on the medieval battlefield. They were not invincible - Bannockburn, Crecy and Agincourt had shown that – but they were valued so highly that one mounted knight was reckoned to be worth ten infantrymen. With the development of the mobile pike phalanx and the increasing use of the arquebus, a cavalry charge was less likely to succeed and great casualties could be inflicted upon them. Cervantes, in Don Quixote, considered firearms to be ‘An invention which allows a base and cowardly hand to take the life of a brave knight.’6 The cavalry still had an important role in scouting, foraging, raiding, skirmishing and following up victory by pursuing fleeing troops, but they were not the strike force that they had once been and they were very expensive. The proportion of cavalry in the ever increasing size of armies in the early 16th century was reducing. It is estimated that half of the 18,000 soldiers that Charles VIII took into Italy in 1494 were cavalry, whereas at Pavia in 1525 they made up only 25% of Francis’ 24,000 strong army.7

Field artillery had a part to play on the 16th century battlefield. The typical cast bronze field culverins of the time fired iron balls and used gunpowder, giving them a good range. But they had serious limitations with a slow rate of fire, limited accuracy, and lack of mobility. Weighing 1,600 kgs. or more, they were simply too heavy to move swiftly around the battlefield at critical moments, and they could be captured by enemy light cavalry unless well defended. Nevertheless they did make an important contribution to French victories at Ravenna (1512), where the Spanish cavalry were badly damaged by gun fire, and at Marignano (1515), where seventy-two culverins caused high casualties among the Swiss pike phalanxes.

Although artillery on the battlefield had serious limitations, the use of siege artillery had become a significant factor by the early 16th century. Many different sizes were cast but the ‘half cannon’ weighing up to 2,000 kgs. (a ‘cannon’ weighed up to 3600 kgs.), needing 10 or 12 horses to move them, could be manoeuvred into place during a siege, where mobility was less important than on the battlefield. The power of these weapons was such that with continual, well directed fire against the base of the walls they could create breaches through which the attacking soldiers could surge. By this time the traditional isolated medieval castle had largely lost its value, but the increasing power of the cannon meant that no city could hold out for long with walls that had been made ever higher to defend against the scaling ladders and towers. In 1519 Machiavelli wrote: ‘there is no wall whatever its thickness that artillery will not destroy in only a few days’8.

For a short time at the start of the century this seemed to be the case. If cities could not be defended he believed that field armies would become larger and that wars would be decided in short campaigns and decisive battles9. However what Machiavelli had not taken into account were the new defensive constructions, the ‘trace italienne’ sometimes known as ‘star fortifications’, which were developed during the Italian Wars of the early 16th century as a response to the new weapons of attack. Walls were lowered and thickened, from typically 2 metres at the base to 12 metres10, constructed of earth and rubble faced with brick or stone. Rather than being vertical they were sloped, the combined effect being to reduce and absorb the impact of the cannonballs.

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At regular intervals around the defences there were triangular or arrow shaped ‘angled bastions’ jutting out so that there would be no ‘dead ground’, where the enemy would be invisible to the defenders. These would also provide positions from which the defenders could return fire with their artillery and fire arms. The whole wall would be surrounded by a widened ditch, sometimes filled with water to prevent mining, with sloping banks of earth in front of them to protect the walls from direct horizontal fire. The surrounding area would be cleared so that there would be little cover for the besieging army. Further refinements could be added when construction was not constrained by time or resources, such as free standing bastions (ravellins), double ramparts and covered infantry walkways. If a breach in the wall was made, attacking soldiers would have to pass through concentrated fire from both sides and could expect to be confronted with rapidly raised ‘half-moon’ earthworks once they had crossed the rubble.

These developments swung the advantage back towards defence. It was now much more difficult to capture a city or fortress built in this way. A victory on the battlefield did not mean that the war was won or that territory could be secured. It had been such new defences that had enabled Rhodes to hold out for so long against vastly superior Ottoman forces in 1522. In normal circumstances the longer a city could hold out, the more difficult it became to supply the necessary food and munitions for the offensive forces. However these defences were extremely expensive to construct. Not every city could afford them or be provided with them. The spread of the ‘trace italienne’ was therefore initially restricted to strategically important cities and borders.

The costs and dangers of a prolonged siege were high on both sides. If the attacking force failed to achieve a rapid breakthrough or early surrender the only other option was to attempt to starve the city into submission. The walls had to be surrounded with sufficient troops to defend against a relieving force attempting to end the siege and against sorties by the defenders. The longer it continued the greater the cost of maintaining the large numbers of soldiers required. It also meant that those soldiers could not be deployed elsewhere. However, the cost of a siege to the defenders and inhabitants should not be underestimated. Since food was going to run short, commanders often expelled non-combatants before or during a siege so that what supplies there were could be reserved for the troops. Houses and other buildings outside or adjacent to the walls were pulled down, since they would provide cover for the attackers. If the siege was ultimately successful it was usual for the victorious troops to be given three days of looting as a reward, at an enormous cost in lives and property to the residents.

Who was in these armies? Sometimes kings and princes led their armies. Charles V, Francis I, Henry VIII and Suleiman were all actively engaged in campaigns at some point in their reign. They stood to gain honour and enhance their reputation, but there was always the risk of defeat, capture or even death. It was usually more experienced noblemen who commanded on the field of battle, though sometimes mercenary commanders were bought in for a campaign. The cavalry were usually from the upper strata of society. While the nobility were expected to fight for their king and others volunteered in the hope of wealth or glory, the majority of soldiers were mercenaries. The time of feudal service to the lord had passed. There were no permanent, standing national armies in western Europe. Many rulers had serious reservations about having a body of well-armed local men close to home. They could not be relied upon to put down internal unrest and could themselves pose a major threat to the authority of the ruler – most knew their Roman history!

This was not the case in the Ottoman Empire. Read More +

The structure of the Ottoman Empire meant that it could be on a war footing much more readily than Charles was ever able to be. The division of land within the empire was based on the provision of armed horsemen for war. Additionally, in the ‘devsirme’ (blood tax), Christian children from occupied areas (ideally aged over 10 years old, of obvious intelligence, physically sound, though not an orphan or an only child) were removed from their homes, converted to Islam and trained either for the army, to become the feared janissaries, or for administrative posts. Although officially slaves (kul), the most talented could rise to the highest positions as military commanders or ministers of the sultan. Suleiman therefore had under his command what was effectively a permanent standing army at least for the summer campaigning season. It was traditional for the sultan to lead his troops on campaign each year and return to the capital, Istanbul, as it was coming to be known, each autumn; the army expected the bonuses and plunder that came from a successful expedition and could be troublesome if idle for too long11

Whereas newly raised soldiers often had little training before being thrown into battle, mercenaries were trained, professional, well-armed units. They were contracted for a specific period or the duration of a campaign and could usually be relied upon to follow orders, so long as they were paid regularly and had the expectation of plunder when successful. The fact that many units had existed for years meant that there was a comradeship that made them all the more effective on the battlefield. The downside was that if there was no money to pay them, you would not have an army. If they were left unpaid then the commanders could lose control and the consequences were unpredictable, as was clearly demonstrated in the 1527 ‘Sack of Rome’.

The dangers that all those involved in warfare were exposed to meant that some reward was expected. As armies in the 16th century became larger the costs escalated. The pay of soldiers was increasing. It is difficult to generalise; some troops were valued more than others. An experienced infantryman in 1520 was paid about 3 ducats per month, rather more for arquebusiers, rather less for pike-men. By 1550 their pay was 5.5 ducats per month on campaign and 4.3 ducats on winter garrison duty12. The cavalry were paid considerably more, reflecting the additional costs of providing their own equipment. These were not high rates of pay, comparing unfavourably with that of a labourer. It is also doubtful whether the increases even matched the level of inflation that occurred in the same period. What must have tempted many, besides adventure, glory, despair or comradeship, were the hopes of booty from looting or the ransom of important prisoners.

Wars have always been very expensive. It was not always easy to get the money to the right place at the right time. Most rulers needed to have a secure source of revenue to be able to guarantee payment to the troops. This might be from their ordinary revenue, or subsidies voted for by representative bodies if they believed their own interests were at stake, but more often it was borrowed against future revenues or promised by allies. But an army needs more than just pay to survive. It needs weapons, medical care, but most of all food. The larger the army, the greater the logistical problems to be overcome. An army of 45,000 was larger than all but the greatest cities of the day. Even a force of 10,000 was larger than most towns13 which would have its established system of supply and distribution.

Such a system had to be created for an army on the move. Tons of bread, thousands of gallons of beer and hundreds of animals were needed daily. All this, along with other equipment, could only be moved by 1000’s of draught animals which in turn required vast amounts of fodder and water. In ‘home’ territory, administrators could organise large scale contracts with merchants to supply what was needed or a system of compulsory requisitioning of food supplies at a set price was used. On campaign such methods rarely worked. The campaigning season was generally considered to be from March to October because of the difficulty of feeding an army in winter. Any attempt to extend this usually ended badly. While occupying a town for a short time supplies might be brought from local merchants. For longer periods or while on the move this broke down under the weight of demand.

What then took over was foraging, wide scale plundering in which troops took what they could for themselves and their colleagues. This was accepted practice. Francis I had explained in 1521 to the English ambassador that: ‘I will march on straight and live upon my enemies’ countries, as they have done on mine’14. The inhabitants were subjected to the demands of any army which was passing through or, even worse, staying on their land. While there, they would take what they needed or wanted; when leaving, it was not uncommon for the troops to destroy the economic resources of the area, mills, bakeries, crops in the field, in order to deprive the enemy of their future use. On occasions troops carried out the deliberate destruction of resources in their own territory as they withdrew, as the French did in Provence in 1536, so that the advancing army would eventually run out of supplies.15

At Sea

The key vessel in the Mediterranean in the 16th century, has it had been for centuries, was the war galley. Whilst having masts and able to use sail, in raids and battles it was the use of oars that gave them their particular value. The galley was relatively slender and low, with a shallow draught, fast and manoeuvrable, to some extent independent of adverse currents and moderate weather conditions. Galleys could stay close in to the shore and be run up on beaches for raids and for the collection of fresh water. Artillery could be mounted on the bows and be fired directly ahead from close to the waterline. However, it was prone to capsize in stormy weather so its campaigning season was usually limited to between March and October, and it could not travel large distances without collecting fresh water for the rowing crew. It depended on a regular supply of manpower, since mortality rates were high in the galleys even when not in battle. The men in the Ottoman galleys were often conscripted from their territories, but they, like the Christian fleets, also used prisoners of war, convicts and slaves captured on raids which were often planned for that purpose.

Such raids were a constant threat to the population of the Mediterranean lands. The Ottoman fleet under Barbarossa regularly pillaged coastal settlements in Italy, Spain and the Mediterranean islands, while vessels commanded by the Knights of St John, from their bases in Rhodes and then Malta, were just as ruthless in their attacks on Muslim shipping whether commercial or en route to mecca. Loses from storms and the occasional sea battle were high but well organised shipyards, such as those in Venice (the Arsenale) and Galata on the Golden Horn in Istanbul, were able to replace them at a remarkable rate. In the early 16th century the Venetian shipyard employed 16,000 people and could produce galleys at a rate of almost one a day using assembly line techniques.

There were usually between 100 and 150 rowers in each galley. The large Venetian galleys of the mid-sixteenth century had 24 rowing benches with 3 rowers on each bench, on both sides of the ship – 144 rowers in all. Most were chained to their benches, supplied with minimal food and water, allowed little sleep and when in proximity to the enemy driven with whips. If they survived such treatment they could well succumb to disease which thrived in the insanitary conditions on board. The galley was little better than a sewer. It is said that they could be smelt two miles off and the most effective way to cleanse them and remove the filth and rats was to sink the hull periodically.16

Major sea battles were relatively rare. Both sides had too much to lose, not just in terms of vessels but defeat would also mean the removal of naval defences for large expanses of the coastline and most commanders were not willing to risk this. The Christian fleets usually consisted of galleys from a number of different states – Spain, Venice, Genoa, the Knights of St. John – often rivals. While most were prepared to see their allies lose vessels they did not wish to lose their own! Therefore smaller scale skirmishes were more common. None were welcome to those on the rowing benches. When in conflict the galley slaves could expect death from being blasted by cannon fire, drowning if their ship was holed at or below the waterline, or being crushed in collision with an enemy vessel.

How were battles won in the early 16th century? The tactics of the generals in the field played a significant role, but so too did the changing nature of warfare in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and how effectively armies and their commanders adapted to these developments. A closer look at three battles help to show how these factors influenced the outcome of specific campaigns.

The Battle of Pavia 1525– provides an example of the tactics employed and the use of the different components of a sixteenth century army.

The siege of Florence October 1529 - August 1530 – shows the difficulties of storming a well defended city, as well as the logistical and financial problems of both besiegers and the besieged.

The Battle of Preveza 1538 - off the coast of Greece - reveals the advantages of the galley and the importance of a united force.

The Battle of Pavia

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The Battle of Pavia

1524 had not been a good year for Charles V. The French led by their king, Francis I, had repelled attacks on their territory, especially by the Duc de Bourbon in Provence, and invaded Italy. He took Milan in October, after Charles’ commander, Charles de Lannoy, viceroy of Naples, withdrew to Lodi in the face of 33,000 troops, more than double the size of his army. This success prompted Pope Clement VII to come to an understanding with Francis, as did Florence and Venice. Francis, however, failed to pursue the retreating troops and instead securing Milan before moving on the Pavia, defended by 9,000 Imperial troops under the command of Antonio de Levya.

By January 1525 the balance was slowly changing. Lannoy was joined in Lodi by the remaining troops of Bourbon’s army and 15,000 landsknechts (German mercenaries, mainly pikemen and supporting foot soldiers) under Georg von Frundsberg. They decided to go to Levya’s assistance at Pavia. Francis’ position had been weakened by his decision to send 6,000 troops to Naples, the departure of 5,000 Swiss mercenaries, and the initial failure of his assault on Pavia.

The French army was entrenched in secure positions outside Pavia, most encamped in the Mirabello hunting park to the north of the city, surrounded by almost eight kilometres of walls. A short distance away, having advanced to relieve the town, were the Spanish and Italian soldiers under Lannoy, Bourbon, the marquis of Pescara and Frundsberg’s German landsknechts. These Imperial commanders no longer had sufficient funds to pay their troops and needed to act before desertions and mutinies destroyed their army. They decided to tempt Francis’ army into the open and force a battle or, failing that, achieve some minor success before withdrawing.

Under cover of dark during the night of 23rd/24th February engineers moved through heavy rain from their position east of the town towards the north of the park. They were followed by the main body of Lannoy’s army. An artillery barrage directed at the French siege lines was maintained to help conceal these movements. The engineers managed to create a major breach in the walls. They had achieved some element of surprise as they advanced through the walls but the French were soon able to direct heavy cannon fire against them. As the advance began to falter Francis, confident of success, ordered a full scale attack.

His cavalry, with the king in the vanguard, was initially successful and broke through enemy lines. This however put them in direct line of fire from their own artillery which had to cease fire, a significant blow as they had three times as many cannons as the Imperial army. The French, with their remaining Swiss mercenaries, were also exposed to the deadly fire of 3,000 Spanish arquebusiers. These had entered the park before dawn, moved through the woods, and by 6.30 a.m. seized Mirobello castle. The remaining Imperial foot soldiers, now safe from the artillery, rallied and got the better of their opponents, driving them from the battlefield. With the talented commander, Pescaro, now directing operations, they added to the onslaught on the French cavalry and were joined by Leyva’s troops, who had overcome the French troops left in the siege lines and joined the attack from the town.

The battle was over by 9 a.m. and the French army crushed. Many thousands fell on the battlefield or drowned in the River Ticino attempting to escape. The loss of life among the French nobility was immense, comparable with Agincourt over 100 years before. Among the dead were the senior commanders Guillaume Gouffier seigneur de Bonnivet, Louis II Le Tremoille, the newly appointed governor of Milan, Francois de Lorraine and Richard de la Pole, the last Yorkist claimant to the throne of England. Francis suffered the humiliation of seeing his army destroyed. His horse was shot from beneath him and although he continued to fight on foot, he was surrounded and captured along with other generals, Robert de la Mark, seigneur de Flourance, and Anne de Montmorency, Marshal of France. Several knights later claimed the honour of capturing the king, but he always maintained that he surrendered to the viceroy, Lannoy.

The siege of Florence

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The siege of Florence

In 1529 Charles committed himself to restoring Florence to the Medici in order to secure his coronation by the Medici pope, Clement VII. The family had been expelled by the citizens in 1527 and a republic established, but the new government had made the mistake of supporting the French, who were again defeated by Charles’ forces. The position of the Florentine republic therefore looked hopeless. Some favoured capitulation but after internal disputes Francesco Carducci was appointed as the new gonfaloniere (the leader of the government) and military resistance was planned.

Florence raised a militia of about 8,000 men from the surrounding rural areas and added another 4,000 from the city itself. Money was also raised from the citizens to pay for the employment of mercenary soldiers, and Malatesta Baglioni, the condottiere and ruler of Perugia, was appointed as commander. They reinforced the city defences, at San Miniato for example, and demolished parts of the city outside the main walls in order to make them more defensible . Michelangelo Buonarroti, as ‘Governor of Fortifications’, was responsible for the improvements and extensions made to the walls before and during the siege, evidence of the esteem in which he was held in the city, but a far cry from his work on the statue of David or the St. Peter’s Pieta.

The imperial army was commanded by Philibert, Prince of Orange, along with Ferrante Gonzago of Mantua. Spanish troops were added to by companies of both German and Italian soldiers, who, with the end of the main war with France, were now left without other employment. Recruits from throughout Italy gradually increased their numbers to 40,000, vastly outnumbering the defending forces. However the financial and logistical problems of keeping such a force in the field for a prolonged period of time were immense. These problems and the resulting difficulties are clearly shown in the correspondence between Charles and the Prince of Orange, during the 10 month siege.19

Philibert constantly wrote to Charles pointing out the lack of money to pay the troops, his lack of artillery and the shortages of food. Even before the start of the siege the prince had written to Charles that if the troops were not paid ‘the Italians will desert to the enemy who will buy them, which is what they are keen to do. The Germans will mutiny and leave, at the very least. The light and heavy Spanish cavalry will refuse to obey any orders at all.’ On October 24th 1529, Orange’s troops began the siege with a bombardment of San Miniato. The walls could not be breached and a pattern developed of artillery exchanges and minor skirmishes. By the end of the month Orange wrote: ‘relieve me of this command and give it to another who can do what I must do without money, I beg you. At least, spread a rumour that your troops and artillery are on the way from Bologna, with money’. In reply Charles explained that he was constantly putting pressure on Pope Clement VII, who had promised funds since Florence was being besieged for his family’s benefit, that Genoa was late with a payment, and that he hoped to raise funds from Flanders, Venice, Milan and Naples. He concluded: ‘I beg you cousin, to make the best of things’.

The loyal Orange persevered but shortly after Charles’ coronation in February 1530 he informed the Emperor that: ‘it is impossible to keep an army as large as this alive on promises’. Money and food were not only in short supply for the imperial troops. It was increasingly important for the Florentines to secure their lines of supply as food became scarce in the city. In this, control of the city of Volterra to the south-west was vital. Florence still controlled the fortress there, but when the Imperial troops attacked, it was necessary to send soldiers from Empoli, further north between Florence and Pisa, under Francesco Ferrucci to assist. Ferrucci was initially successful, but instead of remaining there he marched back to Empoli, which allowed the Imperial army to seize Volterra in a second attack.

By July 1530 the pressure was building on both sides. Orange told Charles that their Spaniards were demanding six months wages and that he had some sympathy, referring to them as ‘poor devils’. He continued that the ‘Germans say they want to leave, even if they were paid, because of the plague’ which was beginning to take lives amongst the troops. Inside the walls the Florentines, with supplies running dangerously low, ordered Ferrucci to march to the city with a relief army. If only they could have waited longer; it might have been only a matter of weeks before the Imperial army started to disintegrate.

At this crucial stage the distrust of mercenary soldiers and their leaders held by some of the Florentines proved to be well-founded. Baglioni, who had already agreed with the opposing Imperial forces that he could return to Perugia at the end of his contract with Florence, opened secret negotiations with the besieging commanders. He agreed not to launch a supporting counter attack from Florence to assist Ferrucci. The city had been betrayed. Orange, with no fear of attack from behind, was able to march to meet Ferrucci’s forces at Gavinana, near Pistoia on 3rd August 1530. In a decisive conflict the Florentine relief troops were crushed. Both commanders perished. Orange died as a result of two wounds in the chest from arquebus shot, and Ferrucci, having been captured, was hacked to death by Fabrizio Maramaldo, the commander of the Imperial reinforcements. Florence, now suffering from starvation and plague, had little option but to surrender nine days later.

There was to be no repeat of the sack of Rome. Pope Clement had made sure that the city to which his family was restored would survive the onslaught. Funds were provided from a number of different sources. Money was borrowed from Italian and German banking houses. Florence had to pay 80,000 ducats towards the dismissal pay of the besieging army20. The following year a 600,000 ducat subsidy from Naples ‘was, according to comment by Gregorio Rosso, used for the arrears of the Naples-based troops who had fought in the siege of Florence the year before – or for the bankers who had paid their arrears’21. Some leading members of the republic, such as Francesco Carducci, were executed; others were exiled.

The Battle of Preveza

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The Battle of Preveza

Since the late 15th century Ottoman naval forces had been gradually making gains in the eastern and central Mediterranean. Islands had been seized and coastal settlements raided, despite the efforts of the Papacy, Italian coast cities and Spain to resist. By the 1530’s the two rival admirals were Andrea Doria of Genoa, who since 1528 had commanded Charles fleet, and Hayrettin Barbarossa, originally a privateer who rose to become the Ottoman commander. Skirmishes were frequent but rarely did the two come into direct conflict. In 1537 Barbarossa captured island after island from the Venetians in the Aegean – Naxos, Paxos, Ios, Syros, Aegina – and then moved into the Ionian Sea. He raided Corfu but failed to capture the island. This brought about a new determination on the part of the Christian powers to resist. Venice and the Papacy now looked to Charles for support and a short lived anti-Ottoman Holy League was created in February 1538.

In the late summer fleets from the Papacy (under Marco Grimani), Venice (under Vincenzo Capello), the Knights of St. John, Spain and Genoa assembled off Corfu. Doria was given the overall command. In total there were 300 vessels, though almost two-thirds were sailing vessels, many of them barques, which were far less manoeuvrable than the galleys. Barbarossa, with a fleet of over 120 galleys and galiots (sometimes known as half-galleys), sailed into the Ionian Sea, taking Kefalonia before putting in at Preveza, at the mouth of the Gulf of Arta on the west coast of Greece. Barbarossa sent troops to take the fort of Actium (near the site of the famous sea battle between Octavian and Mark Antony and Cleopatra) opposite Preveza, from where they could fire upon any approaching vessels. The larger combined fleet of the Holy League blockaded them for three weeks, but Doria was unable to take the offensive, deterred by on-shore winds that might drive him onto a hostile coastline. Holy League attempts to land forces and take Preveza were repelled.

On the night of 27th/28th September, as the winds dropped, Doria moved much of his fleet south to near Lefkada planning then to threaten the Ottoman base of Lepanto in an effort to draw Barbarossa out. He was taken by surprise when Barbarossa chose this moment to venture out as well. It took Doria several hours to give the order to ready for battle. Once in positon Barbarossa was able to take advantage of the lack of wind and cause much damage to the less mobile barques of the opposition. His fleet also moved quickly to take on the Venetian and Papal ships in the rear and those of the Knights of St. John on the right wing of Doria’s fleet. Doria himself hesitated to commit his vessels in the centre of the Christian force. That day the Holy League lost 50 vessels, 36 of which had been captured, the others destroyed (either sunk or by fire). The Venetians who bore the brunt of the fighting had lost most. The Ottoman fleet suffered far less damage – no vessels lost and perhaps four hundred dead.

The next day Doria decided to take advantage of favourable winds to withdraw, opting to preserve his ships, despite the wishes of most of his commanders who wished to continue the fight. The lack of co-ordination between the Christian forces was obvious. Doria was accused of holding back and failing to support the Venetians, Genoa’s old enemies, and being unwilling to risk his galleys, many of which were his personal property. The chance of preventing Ottoman dominance in much of the Mediterranean had been lost for a generation until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Then Christian forces led by Don John of Austria (Charles V’s natural son, born in 1547) defeated the Ottoman fleet under Ali Pasha, in the greatest sea battle of the 16th century, which made the western Mediterranean safe from further Ottoman incursions.


1Jones, M. D.W. Clash of Empires: Europe 1498-1560 (2000) p.96   
2Jones p.97   
3Jones p.98   
4Tallett, F. War and Society in Early Modern Europe 1495-1715 Routledge, London (1992) p.24   
5Tracy, J.D. Emperor Charles V, Impresario of War. CUP (2002) p.31   
6Jones p.114   
7Tallett p.29   
8Machiavelli (in Jones) p.102   
9Tallett p.51   
10Jones p.102   
11Imber, C. Ottoman Empire 1300-1650: the structure of power.Palgrave, MacMillan (2002) p.43   
12Tracy (2002) p.111   
13Tallett p.54   
14Knecht, R. p.110-111   
15Brandi, K. The Emperor Charles V. Transl. C.V. Wedgewood. First published 1939. Humanities Press (1980) p.380   
16Crowley, R. Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean 1521-1580. Faber and Faber (2008) p. 85   
17Hare, C. A Great Emperor – Charles V. (1917) p99   
18Hibbert Ch.15 Siege and Murder   
19Blockmans, W. in Boone and Demoor. Charles V in Context. Ghent Univ. and Brussels Univ. Press (2003) pp.35-46   
10Tracy (2002) p.123   
21Tracy (2002) p.285