War Against the Turks

Sembrose por la corte como negocio venido de la mano de Dios, y á todos nos parescia un sueño, por sir cosa que no se ha jamas visto oido esta batalla y victoria naval.

There is no man at the court who does not discern in it the hand of the Lord, and it seems to us all like a dream, in that never before has such a battle and victory at sea been seen or heard of.

Letter from State Secretary Juan Luis de Alzamora to Don John of Austria, 11 November 1571

The antagonism in Christendom towards the Ottomans was fundamental, the evidence for it pervasive. Yet beyond the calls to mobilize resources and efforts to defend a common faith lay debates in and around the councils of Christian princes about the best strategies and military techniques to deploy, and fundamental disagreements about whether what was needed was the defence of what remained in Christian hands (and in which regions to concentrate) or the recovery of what had been lost. Those divergences were occluded in the rhetoric of the double goal to bring peace to Christendom in order to confront the Muslim foe. The moral authority of the papacy and (to a lesser extent) the emperor were both implicated in the quest for that mostly illusory twin objective. Partly as a result of papal insistence, the diplomatic correspondence and international negotiations echoed to the importance of achieving a peace in Christendom in order to unite against the ‘common enemy’. Sent by Pope Julius III to negotiate an accord between the French king, Henry II, and Emperor Charles in 1554, Cardinal Pole wrote a discourse that was a classic statement about how true peace between Christian princes was a gift from God. That gift was the more to be sought after, said Pole, because ‘truly nothing but your dissensions and wars’ was to blame for the Ottoman capture of Belgrade or the fall of Rhodes. The papal dream of a united Christendom as the necessary precondition for a war against the Turk remained on the agenda throughout the sixteenth century since it was one to which Protestant and Catholic Christian princes jointly subscribed, even though little else united them.

That papal dream was still active at the end of the sixteenth century as the ‘Long War’ against the Ottomans in Hungary showed no signs of reaching a successful conclusion for the emperor’s forces. That conflict underlined Pope Clement VIII’s efforts to reconcile the French king, Henry IV, with Philip II, culminating at the Peace of Vervins (1598). The Cardinal-Nephew Pietro Aldobrandini wrote in October 1596: ‘These peace talks are of infinite importance to His Holiness because he sees in them a service to God and Christendom, and the true means of exterminating heresies and subjugating the Turk.’ That was the last moment in Europe’s major diplomatic encounters when the rhetoric of peace in Christendom in order to unite against the Ottomans played a significant role. Protestant powers in northern Europe ceased to take it seriously. The international diplomatic role of the papacy retreated. In the initial stages of the Westphalian negotiations in 1645–6, the papal nuncio Fabio Chigi corralled the delegates from the Catholic powers in Münster to arrive at a common peace in order to resist the Ottoman offensive in the Aegean, begun with the siege of Crete in 1645. His Venetian counterpart, the experienced diplomat Alvise Contarini, tried to do the same among Protestant delegates at Osnabrück, even exaggerating the dangers for the sake of the audience. Like Contarini, however, Chigi was dismayed by the results, confiding to the nuncio in Venice that evoking the Turkish threat worked ‘the opposite of what he had expected’. Delegates, he said, ‘hear the Turk spoken of as though it was merely a name, a creation of the mind, an unarmed phantasmagoria’. By the time the negotiations neared completion, the papacy had to make a choice between not sacrificing Catholic gains in Germany during the Counter-Reformation, and supporting peace in order to pursue the Turkish threat. It chose the former.

There was one occasion when the papal dream came close to being realized. In May 1571, negotiations for a Holy League were concluded in Rome on the initiative of Pope Pius V. The agreement was signed by a majority of the Catholic maritime states in the Mediterranean (the Papal States, Spain, Venice, Genoa, Tuscany, Savoy, Parma, Urbino and Malta). Their maritime assets combined to make up the League forces placed under the overall command of Don John of Austria. Twenty-six years old, the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V, and brought up almost as a brother to Philip II, he completed the repression of the Morisco rebellion in southern Spain before joining the fleet at Genoa in August. His flotilla then made for Messina, where other League ships assembled in September. On the 17th, Don John stepped ashore and made his way through a ceremonial parade of Spanish troops, arranged the length of the harbour, to attend Mass in the cathedral. In the bay were 208 galleys, six galleasses and a further sixty-six frigates. From one of the ships, Pope Pius V blessed the armada and presented it with the League’s crusading banner. The expeditionary force was crewed by 44,000 sailors and oarsmen. Its ships were armed with 1,800 guns and carried 28,000 soldiers. It was the largest naval force mounted by Christendom, and the largest ever deployed against Islam.

The Ottoman fleet had already left port in June 1571. It was composed of over 250 ships, crewed by 50,000 sailors and oarsmen, and carried 31,000 soldiers. Its first objective was an assault on the strategically important and rich Venetian colony on the island of Crete. Always vulnerable because of underlying Greek dislike of Venetian rule, it was additionally weakened by the Ottoman capture of Cyprus the year before. Although the island’s principal fortress held out, the island was ransacked before the Ottomans besieged Kotor on the coast of Montenegro, the fortress capital of the Venetian colony of Albania. The Ottomans were alert to the rumours of Orthodox Christian unrest in their Dalmatian sanjaks of Delvine, Avlonya, Ohrid and Elbasan. Open revolt had just broken out in the southern Peloponnese (the Morea), and Ottoman intelligence knew that its leaders had sent emissaries to Philip II and the Venetian Senate. The Ottoman amphibious force moved to suppress the rebellion in August before mounting an assault on Corfu, the Greek island at the entrance to the Adriatic.

Seeking the Ottoman navy, Don John’s fleet engaged with it in the Gulf of Lepanto, which was where the Ottoman fleet had their arsenal, on 7 October. The Turkish commander, Müezzinzade Ali Pasha, a senior figure in Ottoman councils and favourite of Sultan Selim II, promised liberty to his Christian galley-slaves if he won the day. John of Austria simply told the crew of his flagship: ‘There is no paradise for cowards.’ The battle was bloody and decisive. By four o’clock in the afternoon it was over; 7,000 or more League sailors and soldiers had perished, along with at least seventeen ships. Ottoman losses were overwhelming: 20,000 dead, wounded or captured, fifty ships sunk and a further 137 captured along with the mainly Christian slave crews. Ali Pasha himself was captured and decapitated, his head displayed on a pike above the mast of Don John’s flagship. Janissaries continued fighting, even after the battle had been lost. When ammunition ran out they threw oranges and lemons at the enemy.

The significance of the Holy League and of the battle of Lepanto did not lie in the destruction of the Ottoman navy or a decisive shift of strategic power. The ships were quickly replaced. When Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, the brilliant Bosnian janissary-trained administrator, was asked the following year about the losses at Lepanto, he replied: ‘The Ottoman state is so powerful that, if an order was issued to cast anchors from silver, to make rigging from silk and to cut sails from satin, it could be carried out for the entire fleet.’ Replacing the trained crews turned out, in fact, to be the harder task. The League failed to follow up their naval victory, never contemplating the recapture of the island of Chios (which the Ottomans had captured from the Genoese in 1566) or Cyprus (taken by the Ottomans after the long siege of Famagusta in 1571).

The League was disbanded in 1573. The Venetians made independent overtures to the Porte to safeguard their commercial Levantine interests, leaving Spain (now embroiled in a major war in the Netherlands) to summon alone what resources it could to defend its position on the North African coast. In touch with the Dutch rebels, the Ottomans mounted a successful attack on Tunis in 1574 with a naval force larger than either of those which fought at Lepanto. That gave them a secure base from which to invade Morocco in 1576 and unseat its dissident sultan, Abu Abdallah Muhammad II Saadi, and replace him with his compliant uncle and rival, Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik I Saadi. The Ottomans thus reminded Christendom that they could still bring war close to Europe’s heartlands. Abu Abdallah fled to Portugal and sought to engage King Sebastian in his restoration. Although he failed to interest Philip II in the project, Sebastian launched an expedition to Morocco which had all the hallmarks of a Crusade. His expeditionary force of 17,000 troops joined the 6,000 Moorish soldiers of Abu Abdallah, but they were overwhelmed at the battle of Alcácer-Quibir (‘Battle of the Three Kings’) on 4 August 1578. Sebastian was last spotted, Don Quixote-like, leading the Portuguese nobility into Ottoman lines of fire.

Alcácer-Quibir was a humiliation to be forgotten. Lepanto, by contrast, was turned into a fairy-story, complete with a handsome prince (Don John), wicked ogres (the Turks), a prize to be rescued (Christendom) and a fortuitously successful outcome. The naval battle’s significance was that it was commemorated in a surfeit of celebration. Don John became a crusading icon. Rome treated the commander of its galleys, Marc’Antonio Colonna, to a hero’s welcome. Sculpted bronze medals were distributed from the papal mint in memory of the victory, while Giorgio Vasari was commissioned by the papacy to undertake a fresco cycle for the Sala Regia (where it accompanied a painting to celebrate the massacre of St Bartholomew). In Venice, the captain-general of the Venetian galleys, Sebastiano Venier, was apotheosized in a painting by Tintoretto in which he was depicted standing on the deck of his flagship while the battle raged, assisted by a heavenly host. His renown secured him the election as the Republic’s Doge at the age of eighty.

The legend of Lepanto reassured those in Christendom who had come to believe that their internal divisions were so great that the Turk could never be defeated. Yet the reality was more sobering. Even after the League had been signed, there were anxieties that Venice was negotiating a separate agreement with the Porte to safeguard its maritime empire. Persistent disagreements over the command of the forces as well as their eventual objective had delayed the departure of the fleet. Key players in Christendom had stood aside from the League. Europe’s Protestants ostentatiously ignored it. King Charles IX of France preferred to hang on to the Capitulations of 1569, privileges offered to the French on the eve of the Ottoman Cyprus campaign in order to foster disunity among Europe’s princes. Emperor Maximilian, too, rejected the League in favour of an Ottoman-imperial accord which had been negotiated in 1568. Portugal pleaded its commitments in Morocco and the Red Sea.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the balance of forces in the Mediterranean reached an unstable equilibrium. In Hungary and the Balkans, a similar unsteady balance rested on the border defences in the Danubian marches and the relationships between the Ottomans and their Balkan and European protectorates. The Ottomans inherited fortresses hitherto in Hungarian Christian hands – those along the Danube and across to Lake Balaton in Transdanubia as well as those in the Novigrad Mountains and all the major castles along the river Tisza and its tributaries: some 130 installations which they garrisoned by 18,000 soldiers and 7,000 cavalry. The Austrian Habsburgs, confronted with their own weakness and the vulnerability of that part of Hungary remaining in their hands, chose appeasement as the only option, accepting in 1568 a truce which included annual payments of tribute to Constantinople. Gradually thereafter, the Habsburgs assembled their own defensive crescent along the 600-mile frontier from the Adriatic to northern Hungary, guarding it with over 20,000 soldiers. In 1590, they negotiated, albeit on disadvantageous terms, an eight-year extension of the truce. But conflict along this armed border escalated into a war that began in 1591 (as the Habsburgs saw it) and 1593 (as the Ottomans thought) and dragged through into the next decade, being concluded only by the Treaty of Zsitvatorok in 1606. Contemporary observers in Christian Europe were convinced that the Ottomans took advantage of the lull in the conflict with Persia in order to challenge the new Habsburg strategic fortifications.

Pope Clement VIII, following in the footsteps of Pius V, tried to turn the Hungarian conflict into an opportunity to unite Christendom under papal initiative. This time, however, Protestants were not even solicited to join in, so deep-rooted had become Europe’s religious fracture. Instead the ‘Long War’ became the moment when the revived forces of a globalizing Catholic Christianity were brought into play. Venice, Savoy, Ferrara, Mantua, Parma and Urbino, Genoa and Lucca were all approached to support what the emperor declared to be a Crusade. Princes and their spouses found themselves the object of solicitous letters from the Holy See. To the east, the pope sought a commitment from the king of Poland and, beyond Europe, he dreamed of a grand alliance with the Cossacks, the grand duke of Muscovy and Shah Abbas I of Persia. An embassy from the latter was received in Rome with suitable ceremony in 1601. International subsidies were raised, and money transhipped through financiers and intermediaries largely outside Habsburg direct control. Yet the results in material terms were disappointing. The papacy despatched three forces under Francesco Aldobrandini and additional subsidies, but Spain proved a reluctant backer, at least until after 1598. The fleets of Naples and Sicily, on which Pope Clement had relied to launch diversionary sorties in the Mediterranean, limited themselves to cautious sallies, save for one ambitious raid on Patras in 1595. Henry IV of France was as generous in his support for the principle of intervention as he was hard-headed and reluctant to deliver anything material. The Habsburgs managed to finance their war-effort only thanks to a generous reading of an agreement at the 1570 Diet of Speyer to the effect that imperial territories were obliged to provide quarter and subsistence for an army engaged in the common defence of the empire.

In the end, the outcome of the ‘Long War’ turned not on the lack of unity in Christendom but on the behaviour of the Ottoman client-states. The military hostilities in central Hungary destabilized the loyalties which the Turks had developed among the competing dynasties in Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania. These regions were as seriously affected by the climatic irregularities of the 1590s as the rest of the European landmass. In addition, the greater demands for raw materials, foodstuffs and subsidies to support the Ottoman forces in Hungary sharpened resentments towards their overlords. An important contingent of the armies fighting for the Ottomans in Hungary came from the Crimean Tatars (they furnished over 50,000 troops in 1595 and succeeding years). Each year, the sultan despatched ‘boot money’ to the Crimea in order to enlist their support. Once it was received, the Tatar host set forth along one of several routes, one of which took them across Transylvania, and another through Moldavia and Wallachia, and then up the right bank of the Danube. The Tatar reputation for laying waste the lands through which they passed, stealing animals and capturing peasants to sell as slaves was amply deserved.

With Ottoman attempts to limit depredations bearing little fruit, local opportunists offered to protect local people from Tatar predators and seized the moment to lead revolts against their Ottoman overlords. Leaders, looking for support from the Habsburgs, the Ottomans and Poland came and went in rapid succession. Aaron Emanoil (‘Aaron the Tyrant’) in Moldavia was twice prince before he was captured in Transylvania and imprisoned by Sigismund Báthory. Michael Viteazul (‘Michael the Brave’) became prince in Wallachia with Ottoman support in 1593 but, even as the Long War began in Hungary in earnest, Pope Clement VIII tempted him into an alliance with neighbouring upstart princes. He was variously prince of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia (and, for a brief period, of all three at once) until he was assassinated on the orders of the Habsburg imperial commander, Giorgio Basta, in 1601. Sigismund Báthory held on in Transylvania, partly because of his dynastic connections with Poland, but also thanks to a 40,000-strong army, led by a Hungarian Calvinist nobleman, István Bocskai. But, with Ottoman military pressure too great for him, Sigismund eventually resigned in October 1598 in favour of one of his Polish cousins, leaving the region in turmoil.

Giorgio Basta attempted to reimpose Catholicism by force in Transylvania after 1599, following the initiative set by Archduke Ferdinand in Styria. His effort was thwarted, however, by an uprising, organized by Bocskai with covert Ottoman support. Bocskai’s army went on to defeat the Habsburg forces in two crucial battles (Álmosd and Bihardiószeg). In 1605, Bocskai was elected prince of Hungary and Transylvania at the Diet of Szerencs. The Long Turkish War drew to a negotiated conclusion in 1606 with the Ottomans having little but modest fortress gains on the Hungarian plain to show for their efforts, but with much more to be hoped for from the Transylvanian insurrection against the Habsburgs. Sultan Ahmed I despatched a crown to Bocskai, offering him the kingship of Transylvania in return for nominal vassalage to the Turkish Porte. Bocskai prudently refused the offer in favour of a deal with the Habsburg Archduke Matthias, who was compelled to recognize the authority of a Calvinist prince in Ottoman Hungary and Transylvania.

French diplomats and royal publicists were the first to find the arguments which would become widely accepted to justify alliances with the Infidel. When the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius came to publish his Law of War and Peace (1625), he asked ‘whether it was permitted to make treatises and alliances with those who are not of the true religion’. The issue was as relevant to princes making alliances across the European confessional divide as to powers making common cause with those outside Europe. Grotius’s answer was straightforward: ‘that caused no difficulty because, by the law of nature, the right to make alliances was common to all mankind generally, such that a difference of religion created no exception’. Even so, Grotius was obliged to refute the biblical arguments against the proposition, and to counsel caution. Prudence dictated, he advised, that one should not enter into such an alliance if ‘it put Pagans and Infidels in a position of overwhelming power’. Europe’s rulers should see themselves as belonging to a Christian family with a shared duty to ‘serve Jesus Christ’ and help one another when ‘an enemy of [their] religion smites the states of Christianity’. It was the customs of international diplomacy among the European ‘society of princes’, with their permanent embassies and diplomatic immunities, and shared (albeit often contested) conventions of precedence which the Ottoman state refused to acknowledge and participate in. In this respect Europe had created a sense of its political identity by 1650 which necessarily consigned the Ottomans (their political system now increasingly regarded as ‘despotic’) to the margins.


The rhetoric of anti-Turkish mobilization eventually wore thin through overuse as well as through an increasing mismatch between the idealistic commitments that it evoked and the political and strategic realities on the ground. The word ‘Crusade’ entered the English and French vocabularies in the later sixteenth century, just as the reality was vanishing over the horizon. But there would still be those in whom the call to war against the Infidel found an echo. Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, wanted to respond in 1529. Philippe-Emmanuel de Lorraine, duke of Mercoeur, was inspired to put the military experience he gained in the French Catholic League to good use in the Long Turkish War. Leaving France in 1599, he led the imperial forces which recaptured Székesfehérvár, home of the mausoleum of the kings of Hungary, from the Ottomans.

The dream of a Crusade in defence of Christendom infected the imaginations of more modest individuals too, both Protestant and Catholic. The Elizabethan adventurer Edward Woodshawe was arrested in 1575 for attempting to levy men in his English locality for a ‘journey against the Turk’. John Smith, whose expedition to Chesapeake Bay and survey of the lower Potomac led to the publication of the map of Virginia in 1612, earned his title of ‘captain’ by fighting the Ottomans in Hungary and Transylvania. In 1616, the Capuchin François Le Clerc du Tremblay was given a mission to Rome by Louis XIII’s new secretary of state, Cardinal Richelieu. He presented a project for a European Christian militia, open to both Catholics and Protestants, whose mission would be to protect Christendom against its Muslim aggressors. The scheme was the brainchild of Charles de Gonzague, duke of Nevers. The idea was to divert the destructive energies of religious discord into the common cause of a renewed Respublica christiana, albeit organized no longer under the banner of the Church but of those of its crowned heads. Meanwhile, the duke of Nevers sought the backing of the emperor and even equipped five galleons to transport the Crusaders to Greece in 1621. This was, perhaps, Christendom’s last truly crusading act. No sooner conceived, it was consigned to oblivion by the onset of war in Europe. The Thirty Years War demonstrated the destructive power of Europe. In doing so, it put paid to Christendom.

For nobles, the call of Crusade offered an opportunity to perfect their military training and to acquire chivalric glory. But the overwhelming majority of those who found themselves engaged in military or naval operations against the Ottomans were mercenaries for whom it was simply a campaign, the deprivations and brutality of which eroded any sense of idealistic engagement they might have had. Even the Knights of Malta (and their equivalent, the Italian Order of San Stefano) found their fervour fell on increasingly deaf ears towards the close of the sixteenth century. Christian corsairs disturbed ordinary commercial relationships, said Venetian senators, who succeeded in persuading the authorities to confiscate the property of the Knights of Malta. Their views were echoed by French consular representatives in the Levant in the early seventeenth century, Henry IV forbidding French subjects from undertaking privateering in the eastern Mediterranean. The papal Curia, anxious to protect the lives of Christians in Ottoman custody, not to mention its investment in the port of Ancona, multiplied its representations to the Grand Master of Malta against Christian corsairs.

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