On October 7, 1571, the Ottoman Empire’s fleet of 130 galleys met the combined fleets of the Holy League, led by Don John of Austria. The battle was a decisive victory for the Christian forces.
The who won the battle of lepanto is a historical event that took place in 1571. It was an Ottoman victory over the Spanish fleet.
A pivotal naval confrontation centuries before the major maritime battles of Trafalgar, Jutland, Midway, and Leyte Gulf briefly unified Christendom and ended Muslim dominance over the Mediterranean Sea.
The 1571 Battle of Lepanto, fought over a 5-mile front in the Gulf of Patras, west of the Ottoman-held Greek port of Lepanto, was a watershed moment in naval history (present-day Nafpaktos). The Holy League of Pope Pius V was faced against a stronger Turkish navy led by Ottoman Grand Admiral Ali Pasha in a fierce and bloody battle.
Lepanto was the end of the war galley, since the sailing boats that fought alongside their oar-powered sisters were the wave of the future.
To commemorate the victory, Pope Pius V sent the Holy League fleet under John of Austria and had these medals made (with the pontiff’s picture on the obverse). (Auctions for Antiques)
Political and theological tensions riven Europe in the late 16th century. Christendom—once centered on the Roman Catholic Church—had split into competing kingdoms and groups with the collapse of the Roman empire and the arrival of the Reformation.
The Islamic world, on the other hand, was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which was at the height of its power at the time.
The Turks explored Europe’s eastern borders in the early twentieth century. After pillaging most of the Balkans, the Muslims approached Vienna, seizing Buda and Pest separately.
Ottoman galleys attacked Italy’s, Syria’s, Egypt’s, and Tunisia’s coastlines, capturing Rhodes, besieging Malta, and invading Cyprus. Pius V began planning opposition against the Muslim kingdom following an appeal from the Venetian Senate. The Holy League was founded on March 7, 1571, by the pope, which included the papal powers, Spain, Venice, Genoa, Tuscany, Savoy, Urbino, Parma, and the Knights of Malta.
Though it was too late to prevent the Ottomans from capturing Cyprus, Pius ordered his united force to sail to Greece in the spring of 1571 in search of the Turkish navy, which was said to be holed up at Lepanto.
Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire had explored Europe’s eastern border and set his eyes on destroying Rome. (Photo courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum)
Sultan Selim II was gathering the troops, ships, and equipment needed to attack Rome in response to Ottoman victories in the Mediterranean. The Urbs Aeterna (“Eternal City”) was thought to be ripe for plundering.
The pope was concerned that if Rome fell, the rest of Europe would inevitably follow. Regardless, the Holy Roman empire (Germany, Italy, Burgundy, and Bohemia) rejected the pontiff’s coalition, while faraway England and France were uninterested in fighting the Turks. Venice and Spain were the two most powerful Christian naval forces in the Mediterranean, despite their long-standing feud.
In response to the papal call, the Holy League’s member nations sent ships, which gathered in Messina’s port. John of Austria, a 24-year-old illegitimate son of Spanish monarch and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and German soprano Barbara Blomberg, led the armada.
Philip II, John’s half brother, controlled Spain at the time of the invasion. The pope chose the blue-eyed, fair-haired “crownless prince” to head the frequently contentious league because he felt John was “someone who in council would rise above pettiness and jealousy, who in combat would lead without flinching,” as historian Jack Beeching described it.
John, a valiant fighter on land and sea, had put down a violent Christianized Moor rebellion in the Spanish Albujerras in 1568–70. However, he was now up against a much more dangerous foe.
Upon John’s commissioning, Pius informed him, “Charles V gave you life.” “I will bestow glory and grandeur onto you.”
The Christian fleet prepared in Messina throughout the summer of 1571. It gathered 206 galleys, which are long, flat-bottomed boats with a protruding bow spur intended to ride over and crush the oars of an opposing vessel.
The bows of the bigger galleys were armed with guns. 109 galleys were provided by Venice, 49 by Spain, 27 by Genoa, seven by the papal states, five by Tuscany, and three each by Savoy and the Knights of Malta.
The galleys were completed by privately owned ships serving in the Spanish navy. Six slow floating castles called as galleasses were also supplied by the Venetians.
Each carried a detachment of musketeers and/or bowmen, as well as upwards of 30 cannons, and was 160 feet long and propelled by 50 oars. 76 smaller boats were manned by Venetian, Spanish, Genoese, Portuguese, and papal sailors.
John commanded about 80,000 soldiers, including roughly 50,000 sailors and oarsmen and 30,000 infantry, two-thirds of whom were in Spanish service. The troops were dressed in light armor and armed with swords. Each was equipped with a bow, harquebus, or the musket, the latter’s heavier version. Mercenaries, Muslim captives, and prisoners promised freedom on victory manned the oars.
Ali Pasha, the Ottoman commander, set out from Lepanto with a bigger force in order to outflank the Holy League fleet. (Alamy Stock Photo/Prisma Archivo)
Ali Pasha’s Ottoman fleet had 222 galleys, around 50 fast galliots (small oared boats), and many smaller vessels. A total of 50,000 sailors and oarsmen, as well as almost 34,000 troops, were on board.
Christians were among the 15,000 oarsmen seized at sea or during beach attacks. They, too, had a shot at liberty if John’s navy triumphed. Janissaries, elite contingents of plumed, booted slaves, were among the Turkish soldiers.
These Islamic converts were chosen as children from among Christian captives and were equipped with bows, short sabers, and harquebuses. The Janissary corps, founded in the 14th century, was modern Europe’s first standing infantry.
The Holy League fleet was ready to depart from Messina by mid-September. John received a papal legate and a standard to fly from the masthead of the admiral’s flagship, Real, from Pope Pius V.
The woven ensign had a blue backdrop and showed the crucified Jesus Christ surrounded by the Holy League members’ coats of arms. The Spanish ships were emblazoned with the coats of arms of Aragon and Castile, while the Venetian vessels were emblazoned with the winged Lion of St. Mark, Venice’s patron saint.
Thirty cross-bearing Capuchin friars were sent to the papal galleys. The astute pope thought that if priests fought with his sailors and soldiers, they would fight valiantly. Father Anselm of Pietramolara, a daring former cavalryman, led the friars. A half-dozen Jesuits and a smattering of Dominicans and Theatines made up the rest of the fleet padres.
Turkish sailors and troops used rebellious shouts, gunfire, and crashing gongs to frighten their adversary. The Holy League boats paused their fire amid the din, and an eerie stillness fell as the armadas drew in on one another.
Despite the threat of seasonal storms, the fleet weighed anchor and eased out of Messina port at daybreak on September 16, with John’s flagship leading the way. The papal legate blessed each passing vessel from the end of the pier, flanked by robed clerics.
The armada established a course to circle the Calabrian “toe” of the Italian peninsula and proceed on a northeasterly heading by mid-morning, filling the Strait of Messina with billowing sails and fluttering pennants.
Three days later, the fleet’s commanders got a concerning report while sheltering from a storm near the entrance to the Gulf of Taranto. The Turkish navy seemed to be scattering and may never encounter them.
A meteor, however, streaked through the sky that night, lighting up the sea’s surface before exploding into three fading trails. The Christian admirals saw it as a sign of good things to come.
After escaping the peninsular “heel” of Salento on September 24, John’s ships sailed eastward across the churning Adriatic Sea mouth toward the Greek island of Corfu. The Ottoman fleet had not dispersed, but had attacked Corfu and was returning to Lepanto, according to new missives.
Regardless, the Christian fleet was compelled to seek refuge in the shadow of the islands off the coast of northwest Greece due to bad weather. They sailed into Corfu port as the clouds cleared. Soldiers found the Turks had looted nearby towns and desecrated their churches when they went ashore to scavenge for food and water. Before departing port, the fleet commanders boarded 4,000 soldiers from the Corfu garrison and had one last official council meeting.
The Christian armada weighed anchor and sailed south against severe headwinds toward the Gulf of Patras. A connecting strait to the Gulf of Lepanto, defended by the eponymous fortified port of Lepanto, situated at the rear of the gulf.
Ali Pasha and his commanders discussed the best course of action while the Turkish navy rested and resupplied. Meanwhile, strong winds and dense fog compelled John’s fleet to seek shelter once again, this time in a safe port just beyond the Gulf of Patras.
On the evening of October 5, a Turkish informant—possibly a double agent—reported to Christian leaders that the Ottoman force had been reduced to 100 galleys, with the seamen plagued. In reality, the opposing fleet would leave Lepanto in search of combat within 24 hours.
The Holy League was founded by Pius V to combat Ottoman expansion in Eastern Europe and to limit Selim II’s aspirations in the Mediterranean. (Photo courtesy of Steve Walkowiak)
The Holy League fleet weighed anchor once again at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, October 7, and weaved its way south through the islands and shoals of western Greece. The water was rough, and a southwesterly breeze blew in John’s seamen’s faces.
John requested that Mass be performed across the fleet as dawn dawned and the Christian vanguard reached the entrance of the Gulf of Patras. Watchmen on Real’s maintop saw two distant sails, then four, then eight, before the priests had completed giving absolution to the sailors and soldiers.
Within minutes, the whole Turkish armada was visible on the horizon, coming down on the Christian fleet, pushed westward by a favorable breeze.
John sailed across the line of 64 ships in his center squadron, clambering over the rail of his flagship onto a light galley to cheer his sailors and troops. “My children, you have come to fight the cross battle—to conquer or to die!” he said, raising a crucifix aloft.
“However, whether you die or conquer, perform your job now, and you will be assured of a beautiful immortality!” After that, he returned to Real. His flagship was in the center of the Christian battle line, powered by 70 oars and manned by 400 oarsmen and an equivalent number of soldiers.
The commander knelt at the bow and prayed for victory, as did officers and soldiers throughout the fleet. Capuchin friars walked among the anxious oarsmen and soldiers aboard the dozen papal galleys, offering each man a plenary indulgence from the pope in return for fighting for the religion. Before departing Messina, each Christian was given a rosary.
The Turkish battle line, which covered the entrance to the gulf, was 3,000 feet longer than the Christians’. As a result of the mist and strong headwinds, John’s army was at a disadvantage.
Turkish sailors and troops used rebellious shouts, gunfire, and crashing gongs to frighten their adversary. The Holy League boats paused their fire amid the din, and an eerie stillness fell as the armadas drew in on each other.
Father Anselm, a former cavalryman, became concerned when he realized that he and his fellow Christians faced a genuine threat of loss in terms of power and numbers. He prayed to the Virgin Mary, clutching his crucifix, begging her to intervene.
The Madonna came in the skies above John’s fleet, looked down with loving eyes, and blessed it, according to the historian Boverius. The tide turned in favor of the Christians at that point.
To keep their ships moving, both sides depended on the slave labor of galley oarsmen. They might anticipate gradual death from illness or beatings if they were chained to benches belowdecks in filthy, close quarters circumstances, but they risked instant death if the galleys sank.
Galley captains pushed their oarsmen into motion as the Muslim fleet lost speed due to a fading wind. Meanwhile, John is said to have ordered galley prisoners and criminals across the Christian fleet to be freed and given swords or pikes to use in the upcoming ship-to-ship combat.
The Holy League fleet was commanded by John of Austria (at left), who was ably assisted by papal commander Marco Antonio Colonna (middle) and 75-year-old Venetian admiral Sebastiano Venier (right). (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum)
Crewmen shook out lateen sails along John’s battle line, which rapidly filled. Agostino Barbarigo, a soft-spoken and respected Venetian admiral, led 53 galleys on the Christian left.
John, backed by the capable papal commander Marco Antonio Colonna and 75-year-old Venetian admiral Sebastiano Venier, a scarred veteran fighter, led from the middle. The reserve squadron’s 38 galleys, commanded by Spanish admiral lvaro de Bazán, the Marquess of Santa Cruz, followed immediately behind.
Giovanni Andrea Doria, great-nephew of the famous Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, commanded 53 galleys on the Christian side.
The Muslim fleet extended from coast to coast in front of them, with Ali Pasha’s flagship Sultana in the front, right opposite John’s Real. Each Ottoman squadron had about 60 galleys, with a smaller reserve at the back.
The opposing fleets were deployed three squadrons abreast, much as they were in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC—fought just 50 miles to the north, but 16 centuries earlier—with the vessels in each group likewise in line abreast. As a result, the armadas came closer together.
Despite the fact that it was against naval protocol for flagships to engage an adversary, Real and Sultana led from the front. The Turkish flagship fired a cannon in salute while still many kilometers away, shattering the quiet. Real responded with a gunshot. Another Christian cannon responded to a second Turkish shot. The combat lines gradually drew closer until they were approximately 500 yards apart, then charged forward to engage.
John planned to destroy the Ottoman line of 273 galleys and galliots with his 206 galleys and six large galleasses. Ali Pasha, seeing a threat, sent his right and left wings to surround the Holy League ship. (Photo courtesy of Steve Walkowiak)
According to historians, Pius V was meeting with financial advisors in the Vatican at that same hour when he abruptly paused, opened a window, and gazed up at the sky. He informed his treasurer, “This is not the time for business.” “Give praises to God, for our navy is going to face the Turks, and God will grant us victory.” After that, Pius knelt in prayer.
The Christians hoped to shatter the Ottoman line with their big galleasses more than 500 miles to the southeast in the Gulf of Patras, while the Turks, fearing their light galleys would be mauled in a head-on confrontation, planned to outflank the Christians right and left, then fall on John’s fleet from behind.
Four of the six Venetian galleasses, armed but too large to move quickly, had been pulled by galleys to fixed positions 1,000 yards forward of the Christian right and center. The two on the right were unable to deploy in time for the initial cannonades, which rang out over the gulf about midday.
The approaching Turks suffered heavy casualties from the broadsides of the galleasses wherever they were forced to maneuver around them. The opposing lines were broken, although not decisively, by the floating bastions. Thirty minutes later, ship-to-ship battles began as the opposing fleets swung together, each stretching out 5 kilometers.
In the breach that had formed between his squadron and the center on the right of the Christian line, the overly cautious Doria was almost outflanked. However, his galleys and the reserve galleys cooperated to unleash deadly fire at opposing vessels’ waterlines, sinking several with a single salvo.
Meanwhile, Barbarigo’s galleys on the left fought their way into the shallows to prevent Turkish efforts to outflank them. The Venetian commander was fatally wounded by an arrow to the left eye when he lifted his visor to be heard better. By 1:00 p.m., The opposing armadas’ main bodies were completely engaged. The air was filled with smoke, flame, and the cries and screams of battling and dying soldiers as the galley bow cannons roared.
As galleys collided and boarding teams battled with opposing crews on slick, bleeding decks, the fight devolved into a general brawl. For hours, the perplexing activity raged. The Holy League ships opened fire at point-blank range on the Turkish galleys. The harquebusiers and musketeers’ following volleys were especially deadly, clearing the battle decks of several Ottoman ships before they could be boarded.
The pandemonium in the middle of the lines, where the opposing flagships — John’s Real and Ali Pasha’s Sultana — were engaged in close combat, is shown in this aerial representation of the fight in the Gulf of Patras. (Images courtesy of Heritage Images/AKG Images)
As Sultana, with 300 Janissary harquebusiers and 100 archers, closed down on Real, the fiercest combat occurred between the two flagships. The rigging of the Christian flagship was torn by Ottoman gunners, and Turkish troops attempted to board Real twice.
When Colonna’s galley, Capitana, rammed Sultana, his harquebusiers raked the enemy flagship’s deck with deadly fire, the tide finally turned. Ali Pasha fell to the ground after being struck in the head by a round.
Men from both Real and Capitana rushed onto the Turkish flagship and seized it moments later, replacing the Muslim flag with the Christian banner. The remainder of Sultana’s crew was quickly subdued by the boarders.
Ali Pasha’s head was cut by one of John’s more experienced men, who leapt off and swam across to Real to deliver it to the admiral. The gruesome prize stood on a pole at the Christian flagship’s stern for a short moment before being thrown into the sea by some kind soul.
The Holy League chaplains were in the midst of it, hoisting crucifixes high in the air to encourage the troops, consoling the injured, and praying for those who were dying. One Italian monk clung to the topmast’s pinnacle, screaming jubilantly, “Vittoria, Vittoria!” When a bunch of Turks entered Father Anselm’s galley, he snatched a sword off a dead Muslim and began swinging it.
Seven enemy troops were dead at his feet before he understood what he was doing. The remainder of the Turks were driven from the galley by Anselm’s fellow Christians, who were inspired by the spectacle.
A 24-year-old Spanish ordinary soldier who would go on to become a famous novelist was among the numerous Christian heroes at Lepanto. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was a member of Doria’s Marchesa, a ship that saw a lot of combat.
Cervantes, despite being sick with malaria, carried a sword and was one of the first members of his squadron to board one of the Turkish galleys. He was shot three times, one of which left him with a crippled left hand—“for the glory of the right,” said the future Don Quixote writer.
The weary Muslim crews bombarded the Christians with oranges and lemons when they ran out of cannon balls, shot, and arrows. John’s men laughed as they threw them back.
A harquebusier onboard the flagship Real, who turned out to be a young lady in disguise, was another Spanish hero of the fight. To avoid being separated from her officer boyfriend, Mara la Bailadora (“The Dancer”) had joined the expedition. Mara allegedly leapt nimbly to the opposing ship’s deck and killed a Turk with a single sword stroke while grappling irons held Real and Sultana fast and a boarding party rushed aboard the latter. She was rewarded by being permitted to stay in her regiment’s pay.
John created a visible target by standing near Real’s mainmast under the Holy League flag. He refused to go belowdecks, despite pleas from his advisers. Venier, whose Capitana was likewise engaged in battle with Sultana, was also battling from the front.
Because instructions were useless in the midst of the chaos, Venier just stood at his prow and shot a blunderbuss into the enemy lines while a servant reloaded his weapon. According to a contemporaneous writer, the elderly admiral “did the feats of arms of a young man.”
The Ottoman fleet was in disarray by 2 p.m., with Ali Pasha dead and his flagship sunk. Christian boarders found and seized the Turkish commander’s personal wealth of 150,000 Venetian gold sequins, which he’d foolishly decided not to deposit in Constantinople, deep in Sultana’s hold.
The Turks were driven back by the ability of John’s sailors and the greater firepower of his troops, with those trapped against the beach by ships on the Christian left being massacred by the hundreds. The few Ottoman galleys that were still fighting in the middle were destroyed. Their weary crews assaulted the Christians with oranges and lemons after running out of cannon balls, shot, and arrows. John’s men laughed as they threw them back.
The conflict degenerated into ship-to-ship battles, with armed boarders fighting with harquebuses, muskets, swords, and bare hands, when John’s lieutenants foiled the Ottoman flanking tactics. (Photo courtesy of Steve Walkowiak)
The Gulf of Patras was crimson with blood and littered with shattered ships, corpses, and wreckage when the fight concluded at 4 p.m. While a few flaming hulks blazed on the darker water, the Holy League fleet withdrew to a berth just outside the gulf that night.
Both teams suffered crushing defeats. Sixty Ottoman galleys were lost or destroyed, while 117 galleys and 20 galliots were seized. Approximately 30,000 Turks were drowned or died in combat. The Holy League fleet suffered 13 galley losses, with 7,600 men dead and almost 8,000 injured.
The majority of the 15,000 Christian slaves who had manned the oars of the enemy galleys were freed as a result of the victory.
When word of the triumph reached Rome, it was credited to the Virgin Mary’s intervention, and Pius V wept with delight. Despite his growing clout, the pope attributed it all to his astute admiral.
He echoed the biblical allusion to John the Baptist, saying, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.”
The Turks had been defeated decisively for the first time in history, and a flood of relief and renewed confidence swept through Christian Europe. Church bells rang, Venice bonfires burned, Christian writers penned poems, and mints produced celebratory coins.
The final major crusade battle, Lepanto, was both decisive and inconclusive. The Christians halted Turkish dominance in the Mediterranean, but Pius V died the next spring, and his Holy League collapsed soon after, having failed to match its naval victory with a concerted ground defense.
For decades, the Turks controlled Cyprus, Muslim vessels maintained their plundering, and North African Barbary pirates preyed on Western commerce.
The battle of Lepanto was the last significant example of naval combat as a kind of land warfare, with troops battling on the open seas. It also marked the beginning of the Age of Sail. The sailing ships that fought against Lepanto were faster, had greater offensive capability, and were more seaworthy than the galleys.
At sea, combat would never be the same. Cannons and sails gradually replaced swords and oars, and Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Navy destroyed her brother-in-law Philip II’s Spanish Armada only 17 years later. MH
Michael D. Hull, a late newspaperman and novelist, was a regular writer to Historynet publications. For additional reading, the editors suggest Colin Thubron’s The Venetians, Angus Konstam’s Lepanto, 1571, Paul K. Davis’s 100 Decisive Battles, and E.B. Potter’s Sea Power.
This essay was published in Military History in November 2022. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Facebook for additional updates.
The lepanto map is a map of the battle of Lepanto. It shows the Spanish fleet and Ottoman fleet in relation to each other.