Barbarossa’s fleet wintering in the French harbour of Toulon, 1543. (by: Matrakçı Nasuh)
French King Henry II renewed his father’s policy of alliance with the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, to mount joint operations of the French, Turkish and corsair fleets in the western Mediterranean. For both sides, these naval campaigns had the same strategic aim, to weaken imperial and Spanish power, but they had significantly different views on tactics. Destructive raids to garner booty and slaves were standard practice for the Turks and corsairs, but the French were often hoping to have the cooperation of local people. These differences meant that, even though the imperial fleet – still under the command of Andrea Doria, now aged well over eighty – was outnumbered, their joint enterprises did not give the French and Turkish fleets lasting superiority in the seas off the coast of Italy. On the whole, collaboration with the Turks proved counterproductive for the French in Naples and in Tuscany, and not as helpful as the French hoped in the war in Corsica.
In 1552, after raids on the Neapolitan coasts, the Turkish fleet waited from mid-June to mid-July off Naples for the French to join them. Contrary winds foiled an attempt to sail to Piombino and Elba, but chance brought a notable victory on 8 August in a night attack on Doria’s fleet, as he was transporting troops to Naples, unaware of the position of the Turks. Two days later, they left for the eastern Mediterranean, ten days before the arrival of the French fleet under Polin, baron de La Garde with Salerno on board. The French followed them, and overwintered with them in the east In early July 1553, the combined forces of 130 Turkish vessels under the corsair Dragut and 24 French galleys and three frigates returned to the coasts of Naples. Salerno insisted the people should not be harmed. In the end, he was able to have the population in areas where he had partisans spared, although other places were not so fortunate. In 1557, when an attack on Naples by land was being discussed, Salerno would tell Henry his Neapolitan friends had sent to warn they would not assist him if he came with a Turkish fleet, because of the harm that had been done in the past.
La Garde persuaded Dragut to sail for Tuscany, where the fleet was welcomed at Port’ Ercole on 9 August 1553. While the French prepared the force of 4,000 men Termes was to take from Siena to fight the Genoese in Corsica, Dragut pillaged Elba. The fleets transported the troops to Corsica, where the Turks blockaded the eastern coast of the island, while the French fleet attacked the west. When Bonifacio surrendered on 15 September, the Turks massacred the Genoese garrison and sacked the town. Frustrated because he could not enslave the inhabitants, Dragut exacted a ransom of 30,000 écus for them from the French, and then left. Disappointed by what he felt were meagre pickings from the expedition of 1553, Dragut brought his fleet into Italian waters only briefly in 1554, and refused to help the French in Corsica or in Tuscany. In 1555, an Ottoman fleet under a new commander, Piali Pasha, came to support the French besieging Calvi in Corsica, and disembarked 3,000 men for an unsuccessful assault on 10 August. A second unsuccessful assault, on Bastia, followed and then Piali received orders to leave. This was the last significant joint operation of the French and Turkish fleets. Another was planned in 1558, but Piali Pasha refused to attack any of the targets the French had in mind.
When unencumbered by their French allies, the Turks made the terrible raids for which they were so feared, ravaging, burning and enslaving. It was to deny them a potential base in Tuscany, as well as to deprive the French of their main supply route for the places they held onto in Sienese territory, that Marignano went to besiege Port’ Ercole in late May 1555. His attacks were combined with Doria’s fleet, which was patrolling off Tuscany, anticipating the arrival of the Turks. The French had surrounded Port’ Ercole with several forts, and it took until 18 June to capture them all and secure the town. When the Turkish fleet arrived in Tuscan waters in mid-July, it was feared they might seize Piombino instead, but the raiding parties put ashore were driven off. Elba, however, suffered another attack before the fleet left for Corsica.
The defence of Elba (since 1548) and of Piombino (since 1552) was entrusted to Cosimo de’ Medici, and he devoted much effort to building fortifications on Elba, constructing a stronghold at Portoferraio in which the people of the island could take refuge when the Turks or corsairs threatened. Cosimo hoped his possession would be permanent, but he would be disappointed. The activities of the Turkish fleet, and of the French in Tuscany, had given new strategic importance to Tuscan harbours. When Cosimo eventually succeeded in obtaining Siena from Philip in 1557, he had to give up Piombino and some ports on the Sienese coast.
What made Corsica a target for the French was its potential as a naval base, impeding the sea routes between Spain and Italy, and providing safe harbours and ship’s timber for galleys and supplies of food and fresh water for their crews. The island’s maritime significance was still greater for the Genoese, who were determined to keep it. In itself, Corsica was poor, and it was in a state of semi-permanent rebellion against the Genoese, who governed it through their iconic financial institution, the Casa di San Giorgio. A leading rebel, Sampiero Corso, was with the French, and his contacts and supporters helped the Turkish and French fleets to conquer all the island except for the town of Calvi within a month of their arrival in mid-August 1553. La Garde wrote to the Genoese, blaming the Turks for the attack. The French would not occupy the island, he said, if the Genoese would undertake to be neutral between France and Spain. Henry was annoyed that the Genoese refused to discuss neutrality, preferring to set about recovering the island by force.
By the time the Genoese had gathered their forces and sent them to Corsica in November under the command of Andrea Doria, Dragut’s fleet had left. Doria sent a squadron of galleys to relieve Calvi, disembarked the troops near San Fiorenzo and began to lay siege to it. Cosimo had sent around 2,500 troops and four galleys in support of the Genoese, and imperial troops also came from Naples and Lombardy, while a French naval squadron bringing reinforcements from Marseilles was dispersed by a storm. Yet the Genoese did not find reconquering the island as easy as the French had found taking it to be. There were heavy losses, mostly from disease, in the siege camp at San Fiorenzo, before the fortress finally surrendered on 16 February 1554. Andrea Doria was resolute, but so physically infirm he could not leave his cabin on his galley. He would have to return to Corsica repeatedly over the next few years; his failure to dislodge the French damaged his already diminished standing in Genoa still further. By late 1554, however, the Genoese had retaken most of the island. French hopes for help from Dragut were not realized, and their efforts were also hindered by mistrust of Sampiero Corso and by the inevitable complications attendant on reliance on a faction leader in an island so riven by factional disputes. On the other hand, they were aided by the abiding unpopularity of the Genoese with many Corsicans, a sentiment fostered by the reprisals against civilians by imperial troops in response to the guerrilla tactics of the rebels. By 1555, the Genoese held the eastern part of the island which had in the past generally been more under their control, and the French held the western side, where the powerful clans were dominant. The French offensive, aided by the Turkish fleet, in 1555, besieging Calvi and Bastia, did not break the stalemate. Henry ordered another push in early 1556, instructing his lieutenant in the island to seize as much territory as possible, before the general truce that Philip and Charles were seeking was concluded. When this truce of Vaucelles came into effect in mid-February 1556, leaving each side in possession of the territories they held at that moment, a large part of Corsica was in French hands.