7 October 1571

This portrait by the Portuguese-born artist Alonso Sanchez Coello (1531–88) depicts the governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, Don John of Austria, as a decorated military commander. Only a few years after this painting, in 1578, John died aged thirty-one of ‘camp fever’ (probably typhus) while campaigning in Belgium.

It is hard to imagine a more extraordinary battle scene than the carnage at the decisive clash between the Muslim and Christian fleets in the narrow strait dividing mainland Greece from the Peloponnesian peninsula. Grand paintings made to celebrate the Christian victory give some sense of the tumult and the innumerable dead. More than 450 ships rowed by tens of thousands of oarsmen, most of them slaves, crashed together in the narrow seas. What the paintings fail to show is the slender but probably decisive advantage enjoyed by the Christian fleet: large, heavily gunned ‘galleasses’, bristling with cannon and men armed with light muskets (the ‘arquebus’), whose raking fire broke up the Ottoman line, were an innovation that stunned the enemy vessels and left more than eighty of their number at the bottom of the sea.

The battle came about as a result of the increasingly desperate efforts of the Spanish emperor and the Papacy to hold back the moving tide of conquest of the Muslim Ottoman emperor, Selim II. In 1571, the Turks seized Cyprus from the Venetians with an orgy of cruel violence, massacring 20,000 inhabitants in Nicosia and seizing 2,000 young captives for sexual slavery. The cautious Venetians, whose whole empire in Greece and Dalmatia now seemed open to Ottoman ambitions, finally joined with Spain, Genoa and the Papal States in a Holy League to free the Christian world from the looming threat to Italy, and to frustrate the Ottoman boast that St Peter’s in Rome would soon become a mosque. King Philip II of Spain, who later sent the Armada to conquer Protestant England, gave command of the fleets of the Holy League to Don Juan de Austria, the title given to his brother Gerónimo, the illegitimate son of the Habsburg emperor, Charles V. It proved an inspired choice. Don Juan (Don John in English) was an able commander, a skilful diplomat between the differing forces assembled under his flag, and an inspiration to the thousands serving under him.

The seizure of Cyprus was completed with a long siege of the Venetian fortified town of Famagusta. After the garrison negotiated surrender, the Venetian commander had his ears and nose cut off, was exhibited in chains on all fours and was finally flayed alive, his skin then stuffed with straw and paraded as a Turkish trophy. The commander of the Turkish fleet, Admiral Ali Pasha, next took his force, which numbered in the end 251 galleys, galliots and smaller vessels, to the advance Ottoman naval base at Lepanto, on the southern coast of mainland Greece. He had with him perhaps 50,000 men, militia, archers, slaves and the better armed elite janissaries. It was late autumn and Ali was uncertain whether he would winter there unmolested. Sultan Selim sent him a messenger to say that if the fleet of the Holy League appeared, he was to seek battle.

Unknown to Ali Pasha, Don John had succeeded in assembling a large fleet, eventually some 208 vessels, including 154 galleys, 38 smaller vessels or ‘lanterns’, and six new ships put together in the dockyards at Venice. These giant galleasses carried 40 guns apiece, 30-pound guns on the deck, 50-pounders down below. The regular galleys carried perhaps four or five guns. The object was to send them out ahead of the main fleet, with 500 men aboard armed with the standard musket or ‘arquebus’, to smother the enemy decks with fire. Don John also ordered galleys to remove the large prow used for ramming an enemy ship, so that the forward guns could fire directly down at the Turkish waterline. It has been estimated that the Holy League had 1,334 guns to the Ottomans’ 741. Concentrated gunfire in Mediterranean warfare was a novelty and its effects were devastating.

There were risks for Don John in seeking battle. To lose would again open the West to Ottoman conquest, but the autumn weather was treacherous, holding his fleet in harbour on 5 October after its arrival in Greece, with the wind against them. The fog, however, helped to shield the Christian fleet’s approach. On the morning of Sunday, 7 October, Mass was said aboard the whole Christian fleet. As if in answer to Christian prayers, the wind suddenly changed direction, swelling their sails but forcing the enemy fleet to row. Then silently the whole body of Christian ships moved into the strait, suddenly sighting the vast Ottoman fleet, arranged in its traditional long crescent so that it could envelop and destroy the enemy. The right wing was commanded by the Turkish admiral Mehmet Scirocco, the left by a notorious corsair, the savage and disfigured Italian renegade, Uluch Ali (Occhiali).

Don John had drawn up a battle plan that deviated from the conventional approach. He divided his forces into three contingents, with the galleasses out in front, and a reserve force behind. This gave the whole Christian line more flexibility, as long as it held. The northern wing was commanded by the Venetian Marcantonio Quirini, the southern by Gianandrea Doria from Genoa. Don John and his flagship Real led the centre. In the morning sunlight the two fleets slowly crept towards each other, the Turks noisy with coarse shouts and music, the Christian vessels menacingly quiet. Suddenly as the Turkish galleys approached, the galleasses opened up. The deadly salvos quickly broke up the Turkish line while the fire from the massed musketeers wrought havoc among the lightly dressed Ottoman soldiers. Then the other Christian galleys began their cannonade; freed from the oblique angle required with a large fixed prow, their guns sank galley after galley of the enemy.

Don John soon found himself engaged with the flagship of his enemy, the substantial Sultana, flying a large pennant dedicated to Allah, whose name was embroidered in gold 28,900 times. The two ships crashed together and Don John’s crew swept aboard. In the savage fighting Admiral Ali was shot through the forehead. A galley slave, one of the thousands released by Don John to fight the Muslim enemy, hacked off Ali’s head and displayed it on a pike. The Sultana was seized along with a remarkable hoard of gold. The flag of Allah was hauled down and later taken to Spain as a trophy.

A sixteenth-century painting depicts the Battle of Lepanto at the height of the action on 7 October 1571. The Christian Holy League built heavy galleasses – large ships with extra cannon – which engaged the Ottoman fleet first and caused wide destruction.

On the left wing, the Venetians had at first faced encirclement, but superior gunfire and the help of Christian galley slaves, who slipped their shackles to attack their enslavers, turned the tide. Scirocco was killed and his head, too, displayed on a lance to his demoralized followers. The battle in the centre and north swung firmly towards Don John. In the south, Uluch Ali tricked the Genoese admiral by sailing south as a feint.

As the Christian line stretched, it lost contact with the centre and Uluch Ali swiftly took his light corsair galliots through the gap and attacked ships in the rear belonging to the Knights of Malta. He seized their flagship and made off westwards trying to avoid the rest of the Christian fleet, which was now free to engage him. He had to abandon the flagship prize and in the end only eight of his ships managed to escape. The rest were sunk or beached. By 4 p.m., a historic victory had been won. Uluch Ali fled back to Constantinople where he reported the disaster to an incandescent Selim.

Accounts of the battle convey its messy and sanguinary character, the sea full of the dead or dying, the decks awash with blood, freed galley slaves murdering their Ottoman tormentors with zeal. Christian losses are put at between 7,000 and 8,000, with a further 4,000 dying of their wounds. Ottoman dead are estimated to be at least 26,000, with 3,500 taken captive and 12,000 slaves freed. The vast Ottoman fleet was reduced to around 40 ships; of the rest, 127 were captured and 84 sunk or burnt. The Holy League lost perhaps 33 vessels, but these could be more than replaced with those they had captured. The gunships had done their work. The Ottoman menace had not entirely receded, but it was held at bay for seventy years and Christians in Europe could get back to the familiar task of fighting each other.