In the 16th century the Ottoman Empire, spreading medieval death and destruction west across the Mediterranean, threatened Christianity and trade. No single country had the power to halt its advance and so a coalition between Spain, Venice, the Vatican, Naples and the Savoy called the Holy League formed. The 26 year old Don Juan de Austria, in the flagship ‘La Real’, led the Christian fleet against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
Built in Barcelona in the very shed in which the reproduction is displayed, ‘La Real’ is a remarkable craft. A massively ornate stern with fine joinery, exotic wood, gold leaf and three huge lanterns rises high above the waterline, while at the other end a fine bow morphs into a long, long bowsprit and, teetering at the end, a golden figure mounted on a blazing dolphin. 240 rowers occupied the deck, four to each 30-foot oar. With long oar looms inboard of the locks the inner most rowers had to stand and walk backwards with their hands above their heads for the pull stroke and crouch for the return, gruelling work but the oarsmen were slaves and prisoners referred to as ‘chusma’ or scum and they didn’t evoke much pity.
Spare oars under the boat
Under oar power, on long waterlines galleys could really shift and, having the huge advantage over sailing craft of being able to head directly into the wind, they could be deadly. However, mounting their firepower only at the front and rear, they had a huge Achilles heel in their unprotected flanks. La Real mounts five canon on the foredeck, the largest, most central gun pointing straight at the gilt fellow on the bowsprit. Don Juan foresaw this problem and ordered the removal of all figureheads for the battle. But the Battle of Lepanto also saw a more significant innovation that would change the nature of naval warfare—the introduction of broadside-firing galleasses. Designed and developed in Venice the six new ships were the secret weapons that, being capable of pumping quantities of iron into galleys’ vulnerable sides, tipped the battle in favour of the Christian fleet.
Lepanto was a battle of rowing boats. There were more than 400 galleys involved in the battle and over 200,000 troops armed with arquebuses, bows, arrows and crossbows. And although, standing above that long deck, I can hear the clatter of oars, the thunder of canon, the shouts and screams, see the smoke and the raining arrows I am aware, from my cosy-armchair western viewpoint, that the imagination falls pitifully short.
One of the participants that might have detailed his experience was Miguel de Cervantes who embarked as a soldier aboard the galley La Marquesa. During the fray he was wounded twice in the chest and once in the left hand rendering it permanently useless and earning him the nickname ‘el manco de Lepanto’ the hand-less one of Lepanto.
Several years after the battle Cervantes, carrying a letter of recommendation from Don Juan de Austria, left Naples for Spain to pursue a military career. But it would be five years before he saw his native country. First a storm separated the small fleet of five galleys, then, near the Catalan coast they fell foul of Berber pirates. Cervantes was captured, taken to Algiers and, due to his glowing letter of recommendation, ransomed for 500 pieces of gold. Cervantes repeatedly tried to escape during his imprisonment until in 1581 monks of the Order of the Holy Trinity paid for his release.
When Cervantes turned his good hand to writing he didn’t in fact write about his impressions of Lepanto. His captivity, however, certainly inspired these lines from Don Quixote,
‘Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heaven has bestowed upon men; no treasures that the earth holds buried or the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honour, life may and should be ventured; and on the other hand, captivity is the greatest evil that can fall to the lot of man.’
Among the treasures concealed by the sea for centuries were the battle’s sunken remains. Here are some youtube links to a series of documentaries about an archaeological expedition to the site, which also takes a detailed look at the history leading up to the battle and at the dispute its self. One, two and three. The Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese