The biggest sea battle in history

Since the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 the threat from the East became stronger and stronger. (Just think about the two sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683!)

This constant conflict between East and West (Christianity and Islam) culminated in the biggest sea battle in history that was fought in 1571 against the Ottomans at Lepanto (Greece).

The holy league

Pope Pius V had decided to constitute a holy league with (amongst others) Spain, Genoa, Malta and Venice. This league was the only possibility to stand up to the overpowering Ottoman Empire.

The command of the fleet was assigned to Don Juan d’Austria, John from Austria (the illegitimate son of Carl V Habsburg).

The Christian fleet counted 208 ships manned with 50.000 rowers and 30.000 soldiers.

The Ottoman fleet consisted in 250 galleys.

Source: Wikimedia – Battle of Lepanto. Andrea Vicentino. Doge’s Palace (Venice).

On the 16th September 1571 the Christian fleet formed up at Messina and set sail together against the Ottoman enemy: In the evening of the 6th October 1571 the armadas met in the Gulf of Patras at Lepanto.

In the meantime the Ottoman fleet had conquered Cyprus (at that time part of the Venetian reign) and the city of Famagusta after nearly a year of siege, killing the Venetian Marcantonio Bragadin in the most cruel way: His destiny, for sure, motivated the Christian soldiers to give their best during the battle.

The battle of Lepanto on the 7th October 1571

The Christian armada lined up, tying up one boat with the other. The vanguard was formed by 6 Galeazze, a new type of ship created by the Venetian Republic: Contrary to normal galleys, the canons were not only deployed in the bow, but also in the rear and along the flanks of the ship (A novelty that the Ottomans didn’t expect!).

The Ottoman fleet was lined up like the Christian one.

Source: Wikimedia – Battle of Lepanto fresco. Vatican Museum.

The Ottoman Empire started the attack and quickly passed the Christian vanguard. They jubilated thinking that the victory was at their hand, but then the cannon balls of the Galeazze started to rain down on them. The surprise of the Ottoman gave the Christians an advantage: When 2 of the 3 Ottoman commanders were killed and the last one had fled, the victory was assured – at a high price: The bloody sea battle claimed on one day 40.000 deaths (in total on both sides).

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