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In 1571, William Shakespeare was only 7 years old, but the naval battle that occurred that year was pivotal for England, and indeed the Christian world, that continued to be celebrated and written about for centuries after Shakespeare. The Battle of Lepanto is the last naval battle fought exclusively with rowing vessels, known as galley warfare, and overall was a surprising naval victory for Catholics. Even James VI wrote poetry titled Lepanto, that was in high demand as printed literature in England well into the start of the 17th century. Here today to discuss with us the geopolitics of the day and the Ottoman Empire that Shakespeare refers to as “the general enemy Ottoman” in 1603, is our guest and author of the book titled Battle of Lepanto, 1571, Nic Fields.  

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Dr Nic Fields earned his BA Ancient History (1989) – also awarded the Senior Johnson Prize in Classical Subjects  – and PhD (1994) at the University of Newcastle, UK. He was granted a Hellenic Government Scholarship (1991) to further his PhD studies at the British School at Athens, Greece. He is the author of his most recent book, The Battle of Lepanto, 1571: The Madonna’s Victory” that details the war history and naval history of this battle.

Learn More about Nic Fields

I’ll be asking Nic Fields about:

  • Give us an overview outline of the battle itself. What was the impetus for the battle, How long did it last, how many soldiers were on each side, and were they evenly matched militarily in terms of arms and armament?  
  • For decades, the Ottoman Turks had terrified Europe, ruthlessly persecuting Christians, and even Shakespeare refers to the Ottoman Empire as “the general enemy Ottoman” in his play, Othello. Nic, why were the Ottomans the scourge of Europe during this time and was the Battle of Lepanto the end of their reign of terror against Christians?  
  • Cervantes was present at the Battle of Lepanto, injuring his hand. Nic, tell us about Cervantes’ story at this event, and I believe there’s a legend surrounding Cervantes and Shakespeare we should share. 
  • …and more!

The Battle of Lepanto, 1571 by Nic Fields 

Guilmartin, J.F., Jr. 2003 [1974]. Gunpowder & Galleys. London: Conway Maritime Press 

Shiono, N., 2003. The Battle of Lepanto. New York: Vertical Inc. 

A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich

Confrontation at Lepanto by T.C.F. Hopkins Also available at Archive.org

The Military Revolution by Geoffrey Parker

Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam by Andrew Wheatcroft

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley

‘Fatall Turkes’ and the Limits of Epic: King James’s Lepanto (1591) by Jane Grogan

English Reprints. James VI of Scotland, I of England. The Essayes of a Prentise, in the Divine Art of Poesie. Edinburgh, 1585. A Counterblaste to Tobacco. London, 1604 by Edward Arber

The Ottoman Empire with Aisha Hussain

Our guest this week, Aisha Hussain, is here to take us back to the 16th century and introduce us to the Ottoman Empire, what it meant to be Turkish, and what we need to know about the Ottomans in Shakespeare’s plays.


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Here’s what inside this episode’s Detailed Show Notes:

  • Portrait of the Knights of St. John with their Grand Master, 15thC
  • 1572 painting of the battle commissioned by Pope Pius V
  • 17thC depiction of the Ottoman Navy
  • Diagram of a Galley ship
  • 1572 painting of the Battle of Lepanto
  • Paintings and Illustrations of Galleons, Galleasses, and Galiot ships
  • Quotes from Shakespeare’s plays about Ottomans, Turks, and Related references
  • Reproduction of a 1570 galley like what fought at Lepanto
  • Illustrations and paintings of the Ottoman Janissaries
  • Painting of the Janissary recruitment ceremony
  • 1570s paintings of the Knights of St. Stephen returning from the Battle of Lepanto
  • 16th century veneration paitings of the Battle of Lepanto
  • Portrait of John of Austria and the other victors of Lepanto
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Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you Against the general enemy Ottoman.

Duke of Venice

Othello (I.3)

The banner of the Holy League, flown by John of Austria on his flagship Real. It displays the crucified Christ above the coats of arms of Pius V, of Venice, of Charles V, and of John of Austria. The coats of arms are linked by chains symbolizing the alliance. | Public Domain| Source

The Christian Coalition

The Holy League was a group of nations put together by Pope Pius V. You may remember Pius as the Pope who excommunicated Elizabeth I. The group was made up of the Republic of Venice, The Spanish Empire, the Kingdom of Naples, The Habsburg monarchy, the Kingdoms of Sicily and Sardinia, the Papal States, The Republic of Genoa, the Duchies of Savoy, Urbino, and Tuscany, the Knights of St. John (also known as the Knights Hospitaller), and a few others.

Depiction of the Ottoman Navy at the Battle of Lepanto, detail from the painting by Tommaso Dolabella (1632) | Public Domain | Source

 …for his best force Is forth to man his galleys. To the vales, and hold our best advantage.

Antony and Cleopatra (IV.11)

The Last of the Galley Warfare

The Battle of Lepanto marks the last naval battle fought entirely with rowing vessels. Previously, galley ships, known as galleons, or galleasses, which are Venetian vessels armed with artillery, were the dominant ships on the ocean. They were known as the infantry of the sea. The ships themselves carried many men, who were hired to row the ships, but also functioned as fighting men during battle.

The Battle of Lepanto marks the end of this era of naval warfare, and generally serves as a marker for the beginning of the Age of Sail, which followed and dominated the mid-16th to mid-19th centuries.

Heresies of Sea Power (1906), facing p. 75, reproduced from John Fincham, A History of Naval Architecture (1851), after a 1570s painting. | Public Domain | Source

Why, ’tis a boisterous and a cruel style; A style for challengers. Why, she defies me, Like Turk to Christian.

Rosalind

As You Like It (IV.3)

The Victors of Lepanto (from left: John of Austria, Marcantonio Colonna, Sebastiano Venier) | Public Domain | Source

Christian Fleet

The Ottoman Empire was a huge threat to all of Europe at this time. Every nation involved in the Holy League saw the Ottoman empire as a significant obstacle to safety, not only for their nations, but in international trade. The Mediterranean Sea was a major port for maritime trade, and the access point for Europe trading all over the world. None of the members of the Christian Coalition wanted the Ottomans to advance on the Mediterranean. Spain was a primary financial backer of the efforts, but because Spain was already involved in a major war along the Barbary Coast, they were reserving their ships for use in that conflict. For that reason, Spain reached out to allied nations for military support. The Pope joined the alliance, and placed the Holy League under the command of John of Austria. The main fighting force of the coalition was from Venice, under the command of Sebastiano Venier, Doge of Venice, and best remembered for his heroic fight at the Battle of Lepanto.

Jacopo Ligozzi, The Return of the Knights of Santo Stefano from the Battle of Lepanto. Oil on canvas. Church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, Pisa. | Painted when Shakespeare was 40 years old | Public Domain | Source

This is the English, not the Turkish court; Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, But Harry Harry…

Henry IV

Henry IV Part 1 (V.2)

The Battle of Lepanto, painted by Martin Rota, 1572 | Description translated from Latin by Google Translate: The Battle of Lepanto, engraving by Martin Rota [309 x 469 mm]: “The model of the naval victory, which on the ninth of October at the rocks of Echinad in Ionia. not far from the town of Naupactus. In the year from the Incarnation Sunday. Princes Marcus Antonius the Roman Column, John of Austria, son of Charles the Fifth Emperor, and Sebastianus Venerius the Veneto. He was not displeased that such a great Victory could be celebrated in every way, not only in every place, but in every way, and be held before the eyes of the people – Martinus Rota Sibenicensis, the inventor of Donatus Bertellus. | Public Domain | Source

The Battle Itself

The Battle was fought in the middle of the ocean, with fleets of ships attacking each other on both sides. At first, it seemed as if the weather conditions would favor the Turks, but ultimately, the Christians prevailed. During the battle, some of the fiercest fighters were the “Janissaries” you hear Nic talk about in today’s show. These fighters were on the Turkish side of the battle, and were so determined never to give up that even after the fighting was clearly useless, as the Christians had won, the battle was against the Turks, and the Janissaries had lost all of their weapons, contemporary accounts record that the janissaries picked up oranges and lemons from their ship and started throwing them at their adversaries. The scene was so pitiful and awkward, that there was laughter in the middle of all the misery of battle.

There were captured slaves on both sides of the battle, with Christian slaves being forced to work for the Turkish ships. In some cases the Christian slaves, along with the Greek rowers on Turkish ships, were able to orchestrate a mutiny to take over ships for the Christian side. By the conclusion of the battle, the Christians had taken 117 galley ships and sank or destroyed over 50 additional ships. Close to 10,000 Ottomans were taken prisoner, and many thousands of Christian slaves were rescued from their Turkish captors. The Christian side suffered around 7,500 deaths, the Turkish side about 30,000.

…shall not thou and I, between Saint Denis and Saint George, compound a boy, half French, half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard? shall we not? what sayest thou, my fair flower-de-luce?

Henry V

Henry V (V.2)

What Happened Next

The Ottoman Empire had been the scourge of the East for centuries, not having lost a major naval battle since the 15th century before Lepanto. It was thought that the Ottoman Empire could not be defeated, so this victory at Lepanto marked not only a significant blow to the seemingly impenetrable Ottoman Empire, but it was a massive moral boost for the persecuted Christian nations.

While the victory was not immediately utilized and cessation of Ottoman expansion would come later, this battle is credited with stopping Ottoman expansion into the Mediterranean and convincing the West that they could not only fight back, but winning was possible.

The Battle of Lepanto. The combined Christian navel forces (Holy League) of Spain, Venice, and the Papacy defeated the Turkish fleet at Lepanto, October 7, 1571. Vasari was commissioned by Pope Pius to commemorate the event in the Sala Regia in the Vatican. The foreground includes an allegorical representation of the three Christian powers. | 1572 | Public Domain | Source

News, friends; our wars are done, the Turks are drown’d.

Othello

Othello (II.1)

Veneration of the Battle

There are many period paintings that depict the battle even from the year it occurred, but certainly afterwards there are numerous paintings from Shakespeare’s lifetime and beyond that depict the victory at Lepanto. Poems, commemorations, paintings, and even sculptures were created in the years that followed to venerate the contributors to the battle and celebrate the Christian victory at Lepanto.

King James of England was still a child in Scotland at the time, but his publication titled Lepanto, was published in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The Battle of Lepanto, from 7 October 1571, a naval engagement between allied Christian forces and the Ottoman Turks | This painting is near contemporary, dated late 16th century, but is an imaginary rendering of the battle. Painting is attributed to H. Letter (active late 16th C), but is elsewhere listed as “unknown artist” so the painter is apparently debated. | Public Domain | Source

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