Battle of Lepanto, turning point for Chrisendom.
It is easy, in thinking about the international politics of the Tudor century, to overlook the fact that there was another major player besides the Hapsburgs, the kings and queens of France and England, and a papacy that at various times became involved as referee, cheerleader, or freelance utility infielder.
Easy, but a serious mistake. Because throughout the entire period a fourth force was at work, one more aggressive, more dangerous, and more powerful overall than any of the others. It was the Islamic empire of the Ottoman Turks, which at midcentury reached the zenith of its six-hundred-year history, controlled eastern Europe south of the Danube, and directly or indirectly was affecting the destinies of all the Christian powers. The fields of force that it projected, like some vast dark star at the edge of the universe of European nations, are a major reason why Elizabethan England was able to preserve its autonomy in spite of being smaller and weaker than France or Spain and potentially a pariah kingdom in the aftermath of its withdrawal from the old church. By sapping the strength of its principal rival, the Hapsburg empire, Ottoman Turkey contributed importantly to the survival of Protestantism across much of northern Europe.
When Elizabeth became queen, the Ottomans either ruled directly or controlled through puppet regimes not just Turkey but Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and much of Hungary. And that was only the European segment of their dominions, which also encompassed Egypt and Algeria and other strongholds in North Africa, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and some of the most important islands in the Mediterranean. They had been ferociously expansionist since their first emergence among the Turkic-Mongol peoples of Anatolia in the thirteenth century, and generation after generation they had consistently demonstrated their ability to outfight formidable adversaries on land and at sea. In 1453 they captured Constantinople, which had remained the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and of the Orthodox Church for centuries after Rome itself fell, turning it into the principal metropolis of the Islamic world. And because they were Muslims with entirely non-Western cultural roots, their success in pushing northward and across and even beyond the Balkans was seen, not without reason, as a mortal threat to European civilization itself.
The tenth and greatest of the Ottoman sultans, Suleiman I, was in the thirty-ninth year of his reign when Elizabeth began hers. To his subjects he was Suleiman the Lawgiver, having in the course of his awesomely fruitful career rewritten his empire’s entire legal code. Europe called him Suleiman the Magnificent, a title he richly deserved. Like his forebears, he was above all a soldier, having personally led campaigns that crushed a revolt in Damascus, captured Belgrade in Serbia and Buda in Hungary, taken much of the Middle East from the shah of Iran, expelled the Knights Hospitalers from the island of Rhodes, and twice laid siege to the Hapsburg capital of Vienna. But he was also much more than a soldier: an accomplished poet and goldsmith, a lifelong student of philosophy with a particular devotion to Aristotle, the guiding patron of a remarkable efflorescence of Islamic art, literature, and architecture. Impressive and even admirable as he was, however, he should not be sentimentalized. At the heart of his regime—of the entire Ottoman enterprise—lay something worse than barbarism. Suleiman’s father, Selim I, himself a great conqueror who nearly tripled the size of the empire in only eight years as sultan, cleared the way for his favorite son to succeed him by killing his own brothers, his brothers’ seven sons, and all four of Suleiman’s brothers. Suleiman, decades later, would watch through a peephole as his eldest son and heir, a young man much honored for his prowess in war and skill as a governor, was strangled by court eunuchs to make way for a different, younger, and (as time would show) totally worthless son. Fratricide on a grand scale became standard Ottoman practice; each new sultan, upon taking the throne, would have all his brothers and half-brothers murdered and those members of his predecessor’s harem who happened to be pregnant bundled up in sacks and thrown into the sea. Conquered peoples were treated little better. Eventually the viciousness of the regime would lead the whole empire to shocking depths of cruelty and degeneracy and finally, in the First World War, to collapse. But through much of the sixteenth century, under Suleiman, it appeared to be almost invincible. The possibility that it might break through into central Europe, and continue onward from there, not only seemed but was terrifyingly real.
The threat fell first and most heavily on young Charles Hapsburg, who became the seventeen-year-old king of Spain in the same year that Cairo fell to the Turks. By the time he was elected Holy Roman emperor two years later, the Turks had taken Algiers from Spain, the trade routes of Venice and the other seafaring cities of the Italian peninsula were in danger of being cut off by Turkish raiders, and the southern Hapsburg kingdoms of Naples and Sicily were under direct threat. Francis I was king of France by then and Suleiman was about to become sultan, and for the next three decades they and Charles (the three had been born within six years of each other, and all came to power between 1515 and 1520) would be locked in an almost continuous, endlessly complicated struggle. Henry VIII, from his safe haven on the far shore of the English Channel, would join the fray and withdraw from it as the mood struck him and the state of his treasury dictated.
Despite the size of his empire, Charles V usually found himself on the defensive, with Francis repeatedly trying to pry away substantial chunks of Italy and Suleiman both pressing northward out of the Balkans and seeking to clear the Mediterranean of European ships. Charles’s successes were almost always limited and his defeats were occasionally serious, but when the number and strength of his adversaries are taken into account (Germany’s increasingly numerous Protestant states were soon joining forces to oppose him), he merits recognition as one of the great commanders of the age. When Francis launched an attack on Milan in 1525, Charles not only destroyed his army but took him prisoner. But just a year later, with Charles occupied elsewhere, Suleiman invaded northward, inflicted a ruinous defeat on the Hungarians, and seized territories that the Hapsburgs regarded as theirs by ancient right. Next came Suleiman’s 1529 siege of Vienna, which Charles and his brother Ferdinand were barely able to lift after both sides suffered heavy losses, followed by the sultan’s attempt to take the island of Malta from the same order of crusader knights from whom, some years earlier, he had taken Rhodes. Emboldened by his success in saving Malta and killing thirty thousand Ottoman troops in the process, Charles decided to carry the war into enemy territory. He crossed to North Africa and, at Tunis, succeeded in expelling Suleiman’s client regime and installing one of his own.
The contest seesawed back and forth year after year, as Charles and Suleiman traded blows along the Danube and in the Mediterranean but neither could gain a decisive advantage. For a time Henry of England joined with Charles against Francis, later switching sides and finally turning away from the continent to focus on Anne Boleyn and his conflict with the church. One development that shocked many Europeans, who saw in it a betrayal of all Christendom, was Francis’s entry, in 1536, into an alliance with Suleiman and the Turks. Once again he was grasping at Milan, though he like Charles was very nearly at the end of his financial resources. An important side effect was that Henry VIII was left alone and unthreatened as he completed his break with Rome and fattened on the wealth of the church. Under other circumstances a crusade against England’s schismatic king by the Catholic powers of the continent might have been at least possible. Under the circumstances actually prevailing in the mid-1530s, nothing of the kind could be seriously considered. Neither Charles nor Francis was in any position to make trouble for England. Either would have been grateful for Henry’s active friendship.
In 1538 Suleiman’s great admiral Khayr ad-Din, called Barbarossa by Westerners because of his red beard, defeated the Hapsburg navy in a battle so conclusive that it made the Turks dominant in the Mediterranean for the next thirty-three years. In 1541, as Charles tried and failed to restore Algiers to Spanish control, Suleiman resumed offensive operations in the north. He had sufficient success to impose a humiliating peace on the Hapsburgs: Archduke Ferdinand was obliged to renounce his claim to the throne of Hungary and to become a Turkish vassal, pledging to pay an annual tribute for the portion of Hungary he was permitted to retain. In 1542 Charles and Francis were once again at war, and when the French king asked Suleiman for assistance, the sultan cheerfully agreed. He dispatched a fleet of one hundred galleys, warships powered by oars, to France’s south coast, permitting them to pause along the way to pillage Charles’s kingdoms of Naples and Sicily and the city of Nice, also a Hapsburg possession. On all fronts, Suleiman appeared to be gaining in strength.
Fortunately for Europe, Suleiman like Charles had multiple enemies and more than the conflict between their two empires to deal with. By the late 1540s the shah of Iran had recovered much of the power that had been shattered by Suleiman’s father thirty years earlier, and was making himself troublesome. From 1548 to 1550 Suleiman waged war on the shah, and must have been taken aback to find himself making little headway. He settled in for a time at his sumptuous Topkapi Palace, indulging in the pleasures of the court and involving himself in domestic-dynastic intrigues. (It was during this interlude that he had his son Mustafa murdered, so that the son of the Russian slave girl he had made his wife could become heir.) In 1554 he returned with his army to Iran, finally securing a peace in which he received Iraq and eastern Anatolia but relinquished any claim to the Caucasus. By this time his old ally Francis, along with the distant Henry of England, had been dead for seven years. The emperor Charles, spiritually and physically exhausted, was beginning the process by which, over the next two years, he would give the crown of Spain to his son and that of the Holy Roman Empire to his brother and retire to a monastery. Suleiman alone—older than any of the others except Henry—remained vigorous and actively in command. His enemies were not free of him until 1566, when, at age seventy-two, he suddenly died. At the time, he was leading an army northward to Hungary, making ready to reopen the war there. We can only guess at what Europe may have been spared by his passing.
After Suleiman the Ottoman dynasty went into an abrupt decline. His successor, for whose sake the splendid young Mustafa had been eliminated, was a drunkard who reigned in a stupor for eight years before falling in his bath and fracturing his skull. His successor specialized in copulation, fathering 103 children in his twenty years as sultan, and every Ottoman ruler after him proved to be utterly incompetent or deeply degenerate or both. The empire, however, was slower to decay; its administrative machinery would wind down only gradually over the next three centuries. To the end of Elizabeth’s reign it would remain a formidable presence.
A major turn in Europe’s favor came just five years after Suleiman’s death. In 1571, off the western coast of Greece, the Ottoman navy met the forces of Christendom in what was, for the latter, a desperate last stand. On the Turkish side were 222 galleys supported by numerous smaller vessels and carrying some thirty-four thousand soldiers. Opposing them was a smaller fleet contributed by members of what called itself the Holy League: Venice, Spain, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the Knights of Malta, the Papal States, and such places as Genoa and Savoy.
It was the last major battle ever fought entirely with ships powered by oarsmen, one of the biggest naval battles in history, and according to some historians the most important since Mark Antony lost the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and his rival Octavian became master of Rome as the emperor Augustus Caesar. When the Battle of Lepanto was over, all but forty of the Turkish galleys had been captured or destroyed, perhaps twenty-five thousand Turks had been killed or captured, and ten thousand Christian slaves had been freed. The league, by contrast, had lost only twenty galleys and thirteen thousand men. It was not the end of the Ottoman Empire, not even the end of the empire as a great power, but it did bring the empire’s mastery of the Mediterranean to a permanent close. The momentum of Turkish expansion was not yet entirely exhausted—the capture of Cyprus and recapture of Tunis still lay ahead—but the Ottomans would never again be quite the threat they had been in Suleiman’s time, and they had been deprived of the vast opportunities that a victory at Lepanto would have opened to them.
The commander of the Holy League fleet was the twenty-four-year-old Don John of Austria, Charles V’s illegitimate son by a Bavarian girl of common stock. Second in command, himself only twenty-six, was Alessandro Farnese, great-grandson and namesake of Pope Paul III, son of Charles V’s illegitimate daughter Margaret, future Duke of Parma. The two, though scarcely more than boys, had changed the course of history. We will encounter both in connection with another of the great conflicts that shaped the Tudor century.