Carrack Santa Maria,with caravels Nina and Pinta.

Surprisingly, considering how much warfare occurred during the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, there was comparatively little naval warfare. The number of major conflicts at sea decreased, as did even the number of minor conflicts, i.e., single ship combat, piracy (both state-sponsored and not), skirmishing, trade disputes, and so on.

However, the fourteenth century did not start out as one of naval peace, with wars in both northern European seas and the Mediterranean continuing from the previous century. In the north, especially in the English Channel off Normandy and Flanders, the fleets of Edward I of England and Philip IV of France continued to spar against each other without decisive conclusion. Both had large treasuries, with which they could build a large number of their own ships and also buy the services of others, the English primarily using ships, captains, and sailors from the various Low Countries principalities, and the French using primarily those from the Iberian kingdoms. Edward and Philip were also powerful kings who saw negotiation and compromise with each other as weakness. They actually did not like each other personally, an enmity not helped even by the marriage of Philip’s daughter, Isabella, to Edward’s son, Edward (later King Edward II), a union that would produce the military headache of the next century and half: the so-called Hundred Years’ War.

In the Mediterranean, during the first half of the fourteenth century, Venice and Genoa continued to fight sporadically against each other, whether it was a new war, a continuation of the war (or wars) begun in the thirteenth century or a side-theater of the war that Venice was also then fighting with Byzantium. This matters only for historical interpretation, and for the fact that it is in this war that Marco Polo was taken prisoner, which allowed him to dictate his memoirs to fellow prisoner, Rustichello. However it is classified, the warfare ended in a draw, an indecisiveness that ensured the continuation of the fighting.

This continuation occurred in 1350 and again in 1378 (the third and fourth Venetian-Genoese wars, if counted separately). Ostensibly, the 1350 war was fought for the reason that earlier Venetian-Genoese wars had: Genoese trading in the eastern Mediterranean. Venice was allied with Aragon, which had its own conflict with the Genoese over trading in the western Mediterranean, Byzantium, and Pisa (although the latter would never be a naval factor after its defeat by Genoa at Meloria in 1284), and Genoa was allied with the upstart Ottoman Turks. But most of the actual fighting was between Venetian and Genoese ships. Both sides fought to a draw at the battle of the Bosporus in 1352, although the amount of destruction that had been done to its fleet forced Venice to withdraw from the region and restored Genoa to its trading monopoly with Byzantium. They then traded victories at the battles of Alghero and Zonklon in 1354 and signed a peace a year later.

Therefore it came as little surprise when fighting broke out again in 1378. Frequently called the War of Chioggia, it was started over possession of the island of Tenedos in the eastern Mediterranean. In the initial battles, Cape d’Anzio, Traù, and Pola, fought in 1378–79, little was decided, although the Genoese did claim victory, which perhaps gave them too much confidence, as in the following year they boldly took their fleet into the Venetian lagoon only to be defeated in a much larger battle fought off Chioggia. Their fleet almost completely destroyed, the Genose limped to the Peace of Turin (1381), their proud naval history essentially ended in a single afternoon.

Throughout the rest of the Mediterranean the seas remained peaceful during the fourteenth century. Part of this was certainly due to the natural disasters that paralyzed Europe—the Famine of 1315–17 and the Black Death of 1346–49—during which time maritime traffic declined markedly (especially as ships were thought to be primarily responsible for spreading the plague), and part also to man-made disasters—the Bardi and Peruzzi bank failures in the 1340s, the Hundred Years’ War, Flemish and Italian trade decline, and so on.

But also to be considered were the changes in design and construction of ships that made attacking these vessels no longer a simple feat. Piracy was ubiquitous; it always would be, and in fact it would significantly increase during the later fifteenth century with the rise of powerful Ottoman and Mamluk navies whose state-sponsored piracy against European ships would more than match the state-sponsored piracy of those ships against them. But it was harder and more expensive for smaller, non-state-sponsored ships (for they were rarely fleets—although that, too, would change in the early sixteenth century with, among others the Barbarossa brothers) to compete with the new, larger, and better-armed vessels. Perhaps economics could also be credited for the low number of national naval conflicts. As Pisa had proved in 1284 and Genoa in 1380, the loss of a fleet was difficult to recover from; building new ships was expensive and time-consuming, during which time other, non-military maritime activities, i.e., trade and fishing, ceased. Peace allowed for recovery, the building of larger fleets, and increased trade and prosperity. Even though there would be a slight resurgence in naval activity during the 1420s and 1430s, again between Genoa and Venice, the Mediterranean remained relatively calm until around 1480.

This peace permitted Venice, Aragon, and, at least until 1460, Genoa to strengthen their maritime empires and even to recover some of their previously lost territories. Venice especially grew strong during this period, with large mainland holdings along the Italian peninsula, on the Dalmatian coast, in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean islands, including Crete and Cyprus, and a fleet that grew to an estimated 80 galleys and 300 sailing ships, the largest in the Mediterranean. (Only Ottoman Turkey would eventually compete with Venice in the east.)

Venice’s strength in the eastern Mediterranean was nearly equaled by that of Aragon in the western Mediterranean. Naples, Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Valencia, and Catalonia had been added during the long reign of Alfonso V the Magnificent (1396–1458); Castile was united to the kingdom by the marriage between Alfonso’s grandson, Ferdinand II, and Isabella in 1469; and Grenada was captured in 1492. This allowed Aragonese ships to travel virtually without danger around the Mediterranean between the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. Only Portugal competed with them in the Atlantic, which allowed Aragonese fleets free access to whatever lay to the west, and resulted, also in 1492, in Columbus’s voyage to the “new world.”

The Mediterranean peace also gave rise to new maritime powers. One of these, Florence, interestingly, did not lie on the sea but grew into a minor naval power after its conquest of Pisa in 1406. At the same time, the French, Burgundians (also landlocked), and the Knights Hospitaller also began to build their own fleets and to develop their own naval power. But no new naval power arose more quickly or had more impact than Portugal. With Aragon dominating the western Mediterranean, the Portuguese, under, among others, the able leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator, took a new approach to naval activity. Instead of venturing east into the Mediterranean, the Portuguese went south to the islands of the Atlantic, conquering Madeira, the Cape Verdes, and the Azores by 1410, and into Atlantic North Africa, conquering Ceuta in 1415 and adding to that throughout the century until, by 1471, Portugal had complete control of Tangiers and all the Moroccan ports south to Agadir. Traveling farther to the south along the African continent, by 1480 the Portuguese had reached the coasts of Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Congo, and, by 1487, Bartholomeu Diaz had landed at the Cape of Good Hope. Eleven years later, Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa and landed in India.

In the Indian Ocean the Portuguese encountered another European naval power, the Ottoman Empire, which had arrived there through a much more direct route, overland and down the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, but had the same goal in mind: trying to find an alternative to the Silk Road, which had essentially, if not actually, been closed due to the bellicosity of the Mongol warlords who controlled it. A secondary, although also similar, reason for the Ottoman presence was to seek converts for their religion, in this case Islam, as it was for the Portuguese to seek converts for their religion, Christianity.

The rise of the Ottoman Turks had been meteoric. Little more than a small tribe led by a central Asian Minor Turkish dynast, Ghazi Osman, in 1300, by the time the Portuguese ran into them off Africa and India shortly after 1500 they had come to be one of the most dominant political, military, and naval powers in the world. They had conquered all of Asia Minor, although not completely defeating the Byzantine Empire until 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople. By that time they had also captured Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro, Bosnia, Albania, Herzegovina, and Serbia; soundly defeated two pan-European “Crusader” forces sent to stop their progress—at Nicopolis in 1396 and Varna in 1444; outlasted the Timurid Mongols under Tamerlane, after an initial setback at the battle of Ankara in 1402, where they had been defeated and their Sultan, Bayezid I, captured (after being paraded around the Timurid lands in a cage for more than a year, he committed suicide by banging his head repeatedly into the metal bars of his cage); and survived several inheritance crises. Only the Hospitallers on Rhodes, the Serbs in Belgrade, and the Hungarians had halted Ottoman progress, although they would not be able to hold out past 1527.

Before 1453 almost all of the Ottoman conquests had been land-based operations, with few ships needed, other than for transporting men and supplies. Indeed, the Ottoman navy before the middle of the fifteenth century probably had more riverine than open-sea vessels. It even had difficulty keeping European ships from running the very meager blockade they had set up around Constantinople in 1453. However, Constantinople’s conqueror, Mehmed II, was determined to change this and, within a decade at most, had built a navy that could compete with any others in the world. Quickly, Eastern Mediterranean islands began to fall. Rhodes held out through his and his two successors’ reigns, but, after being resoundingly defeated in the 1499–1503 war against them, Venice kept only Crete and Cyprus by submitting to the harshest, and most expensive, peace treaties. Mehmed’s grandson, Selim I, used an even larger and more powerful fleet to defeat the Mamluks and conquer Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, Syria, Israel, and Egypt in 1516–17, and his great-grandson, Suleyman I the Magnificent, took an even larger and more powerful navy even farther, into the central and western Mediterranean, where he terrorized European and North African foes into the 1570s.

In northern Europe, the conflict of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries between France and England developed by the middle of the fourteenth century into the Hundred Years’ War. From its outset naval warfare became a prominent, if not frequent, feature of this war. The first major engagement, fought at Sluys in 1340, was a naval battle, with the navy of Edward III sweeping down on the moored French and mercenary Iberian and Genoese fleet with, as contemporary chronicler Geoffrey le Baker writes, “the wind and sun at his back and the flow of the tide with him.” The English prevailed and the French fleet was either captured or destroyed. They would prevail again over a much smaller French-employed Castilian fleet at the battle of Winchelsea in 1350. Together these victories allowed the English almost unhindered access to the Channel, and they used this freedom to transport large armies back and forth across the water, which helped achieve further victories at Crécy, Calais, Poitiers, and elsewhere. But the French eventually recovered and, again with the help of mercenary Castilian ships and sailors, at the battle of La Rochelle, fought in 1372, they responded with an impressive victory against the English, destroying most of the latter’s fleet, but also leaving their own fleet in ruin. This Pyrrhic victory for the French, coupled with the financial problems of both them and English—for example, after the death of Edward III in 1377 the English were forced to sell off many of their ships to pay the royal debts—essentially meant the end of the naval phase of the Hundred Years’ War. This decline continued into and throughout most of the fifteenth century, with neither France nor England desiring to engage each other on the sea, although piracy and privateering continued to be sponsored by the two kingdoms against each other until well past the end of the war.

The cog continued to be the most prominent ship of the late Middle Ages, especially in the north, both as a cargo vessel and as a warship. So dominant were cogs in England, for example, that they made up more than 57 percent of the vessels in that navy between 1337 and 1360. Their popularity also extended to the Mediterranean, but there the great galley continued to be a most favored cargo and warship, as it would into the eighteenth century. Its long, thin shape was perfect for the relative calm of the Mediterranean, its speed ensured by capable oarsmen—although these began increasingly to be replaced by enforced rowers—and lateen sails. Some galleys also had square sails. Galleys were also known in northern Europe, with several involved in the naval battles of the early Hundred Years’ War. One interesting reference to galleys comes from Burgundian Duke Philip the Good’s construction of five galleys in Antwerp to deliver a large dowry of arms and armor, together with his niece, for her marriage to King James II of Scotland in 1449.

By the fifteenth century, other vessels also began to appear. One was the balinger, a small-oared cargo ship of indeterminate design, although probably similar to a barge, which served as a coastal cargo transport primarily along the English, French, Low Countries, and Scandinavian coasts. A second was the extremely large northern European buss, the principal herring fishing ship of the growing Dutch fleet. And a third new ship was the caravel, a two-masted ship of Middle Eastern and North African influence, which used lateen and square sails together to allow for both speed and maneuverability. It was 20–30 meters long, 4–5 meters wide, with a shallow draft and a cargo capacity of 50 tons or more (150–200 tons by the end of the fifteenth century), and it could also travel long distances with relative ease. The caravel was favored by the Portuguese and Spanish for their lengthy voyages of exploration, with Columbus’s Nina and Pinta being the most famous examples.

However, the most important new ship of the fifteenth century, as both a cargo ship and a warship, was without doubt the carrack. Essentially a modification of the cog, the carrack (sometimes erroneously called a nef in the fifteenth century) was a large ship with two and later three or four masts. Its enormous size, sometimes as large as 38 meters long and 12 meters wide, with a previously unprecedented cargo capability of 1,000 to 1,400 tons, made it an excellent cargo ship, capable of carrying heavy bulk cargoes, while its carvel construction, sternpost rudder, and multiple sails allowed it to withstand both Atlantic and Mediterranean travel. Like the cog, primarily a cargo ship, the carrack was also capable of easily being both warship and cargo vessel, and was often outfitted with fore and aft castles on which could be set crossbowmen and cannon. By the end of the fifteenth century, the carrack, which counted Columbus’s flagship the Santa Maria among its number, had already replaced the cog as the ship of choice among late medieval admirals and sailors, and it would become the model of the great sailing ship-of-the-line of the early modern era.

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