Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114)


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While the galley still remained the primary warship in southern waters, a similar transition had begun also among the Mediterranean powers. A Castilian naval raid on the island of Jersey in became the first recorded battle battle where a Mediterranean power employed a naval force consisting mostly of cogs or nefs , rather than the oared-powered galleys.

The battle of Gibraltar between Castile and Portugal in was another important sign of change; it was the first recorded battle where the primary combatants were full-rigged ships armed with wrought-iron guns on the upper decks and in the waists, foretelling of the slow decline of the war galley. The transition from the Mediterranean war galley to the sailing vessel as the preferred method of vessel in the Mediterranean is tied directly to technological developments and the inherent handling characteristics of each vessel types. The primary factors were changing sail design, the introduction of cannons aboard vessels, and the handling characteristics of the vessels.

Oared warships are generally long and narrow in order to limit hydrodynamic drag while allowing the maximum number of oarsmen and thus the greatest possible motive force for their preferred method of attack. While the preferred form of attack shifted from ramming to boarding as the trireme was supplanted by the galley; the way in which these vessels achieved their aim did not.

They closed rapidly with the enemy using the maneuverability afforded by the oared warship to attack the enemy from an advantage. The oarsmen necessarily took up a considerable portion of a galley.


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This left the extreme bow and stern as the only locations to mount cannons aboard. The stern, as in earlier times was the traditional place for command and control of oared warships. The bow remained the preferred of offensive armament throughout the employment of the galley whether it was a staging area for boarders, a mounting point for a ram, or cannons.

This allowed the galley to initially outperform the sailing vessel in early battles. The highly maneuverable oared vessel retained a tactical advantage even after the initial introduction of naval artillery because of the ease with which it could be brought to bear upon an opposing vessel.

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The galley did have disadvantages compared to the sailing vessel though. Their smaller hulls were not able to hold as much cargo and this limited their range as the crews were required to replenish food stuffs more frequently. The sailing vessel could also fight more effectively farther out at sea and in rougher wing conditions because of the height of their freeboard.

The Battle of Lepanto: Our Lady of the Holy Rosary (7-October 1571)

These advantages and disadvantages led the galley to be and remain a primarily coastal vessel. The sailing vessel was propelled in a different manner than the galley but the tactics were often the same until the 16th century. The real-estate afford to the sailing vessel to place larger cannons and other armament mattered little because early gunpowder weapons had limited range and were expensive to produce.

The eventual creation of cast iron cannons allowed vessels and armies to be outfitted much more cheaply. The cost of gunpowder also fell in this period. For logistical purposes it became convenient for those with larger shore establishments to standardize upon a given size of cannon. Traditionally the English in the North and the Venetians in the Mediterranean are seen as some the earliest to move in this direction. The improving sail rigs of northern vessels also allowed them to navigate in the coastal waters of the Mediterranean to a much larger degree than before. The larger vessels of the north continued to mature while the galley retained its defining characteristics.

Attempts were made to stave this off such as the addition of fighting castles in the bow, but such additions to counter the threats brought by larger sailing vessels often offset the advantages of galley. The Galley Subtle , one of the very few Mediterranean-style galleys employed by the English. Illustration from the Anthony Roll , c.


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Painting of the battle of Haarlemmermeer of by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom. Note the use of small sailing vessels and galleys on both sides. From around , three major naval powers established a dominance over different parts of the Mediterranean using galleys as their primary weapons at sea: the Ottomans in the east, Venice in the center and Habsburg Spain in the west. Only three truly major fleet engagements were actually fought in the 16th century: the battles of Preveza in , Djerba in and Lepanto in Lepanto became the last large all-galley battle ever, and was also one of the largest battle in terms of participants anywhere in early modern Europe before the Napoleonic Wars.

Occasionally the Mediterranean powers employed galley forces for conflicts outside of the Mediterranean.

Incidences and Consequences

Spain sent galley squadrons to the Netherlands during the later stages of the Eighty Years' War which successfully operated against Dutch forces in the enclosed, shallow coastal waters. From the late s, galleys were also used to transport silver to Genoese bankers to finance Spanish troops against the Dutch uprising. Around 2, galley rowers were on board ships of the famous Spanish Armada , though few of these actually made it to the battle itself.

Galleys had been synonymous with warships in the Mediterranean for at least 2, years, and continued to fulfill that role with the invention of gunpowder and heavy artillery. Though early 20th-century historians often dismissed the galleys as hopelessly outclassed with the first introduction of naval artillery on sailing ships, [50] it was the galley that was favored by the introduction of heavy naval guns.

Galleys were a more "mature" technology with long-established tactics and traditions of supporting social institutions and naval organizations.

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In combination with the intensified conflicts this led to a substantial increase in the size of galley fleets from c. They were also unequaled in their amphibious capabilities, even at extended ranges, as exemplified by French interventions as far north as Scotland in the midth century. Heavy artillery on galleys was mounted in the bow which fit conveniently with the long-standing tactical tradition of attacking head-on and bow-first.

The ordnance on galleys was heavy from its introduction in the s, and capable of quickly demolishing the high, thin medieval stone walls that still prevailed in the 16th century. This temporarily upended the strength of older seaside fortresses, which had to be rebuilt to cope with gunpowder weapons. The addition of guns also improved the amphibious abilities of galleys as they could assault supported with heavy firepower, and could be even more effectively defended when beached stern-first.

Older ranged weapons, like bows or even crossbows, required considerable skill to handle, sometimes a lifetime of practice, while gunpowder weapons required considerable less training to use successfully. Guilmartin, this transition in warfare, along with the introduction of much cheaper cast iron guns in the s, proved the "death knell" for the war galley as a significant military vessel.

As offensive weapons, firearms could be stored for years with minimal maintenance and did not require the expenses associated with soldiers. Manpower could thus be exchanged for capital investments, something which benefited sailing vessels that were already far more economical in their use of manpower. It also served to increase their strategic range and to out-compete galleys as fighting ships. Oared vessels remained in use in northern waters for a long time, though in subordinate role and in particular circumstances.

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In the Italian Wars , French galleys brought up from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic posed a serious threat to the early English Tudor navy during coastal operations. The response came in the building of a considerable fleet of oared vessels, including hybrids with a complete three-masted rig, as well as a Mediterranean-style galleys that were even attempted to be manned with convicts and slaves. English galliasses very different from the Mediterranean vessel of of the same name were employed to cover the flanks of larger naval forces while pinnaces and rowbarges were used for scouting or even as a backup for the longboats and tenders for the larger sailing ships.

There were two types of naval battlegrounds in the Baltic.

One was the open sea, suitable for large sailing fleets; the other was the coastal areas and especially the chain of small islands and archipelagos that ran almost uninterrupted from Stockholm to the Gulf of Finland. In these areas, conditions were often too calm, cramped and shallow for sailing ships, but they were excellent for galleys and other oared vessels. The Swedish galley fleet was the largest outside of the Mediterranean, and served as an auxiliary branch of the army.

Very little is known about the design of Baltic galleys, except that they were overall smaller than in the Mediterranean and they were rowed by army soldiers rather than convicts or slaves. The Battle of Lepanto in , naval engagement between allied Christian forces and the Ottoman Turks.

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Warfare (1450–1789)

Atlantic style warfare based on heavily armed sailing ships began to change the nature of naval warfare in the Mediterranean in the 17th century. In , a small Spanish squadron of five galleons and a patache was used to cruise the eastern Mediterranean and defeated a large fleet of fifty five galleys at the battle of Cape Celidonia. By , war galleys were used primarily in the wars between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in their struggle for strategic island and coastal trading bases and until the s by France and Spain but for largely amphibious and cruising operation, not for large fleet battles.

Even a purely Mediterranean power like Venice began to construct sail only warships in the latter part of the century. For small states and principalities as well as groups of private merchants, galleys were more affordable than large and complex sailing warships, and were used as defense against piracy.

France had by the s become the most powerful state in Europe, and expanded its galley forces under the rule of the absolutist "Sun King" Louis XIV. In the s the French Galley Corps reached its all-time peak with more than 50 vessels manned by over 15, men and officers, becoming the largest galley in the world at the time. In the first half of the 18th century, the other major naval powers in North Africa, the Order of Saint John and the Papal States all cut down drastically on their galley forces. Its primary function became to symbolize the prestige of Louis XIV's hard-line absolutist ambitions by patrolling the Mediterranean to force ships of other states to salute the King's banner, convoying ambassadors and cardinals, and obediently participating in naval parades and royal pageantry.

The last recorded battle in the Mediterranean where galleys played a significant part was at Matapan in , between the Ottomans and Venice and its allies, though they had little influence on the final outcome. Few large-scale naval battles were fought in the Mediterranean throughout most of the remainder of the 18th century.

The Tuscan galley fleet was dismantled around , Naples had only four old vessels by and the French Galley Corps had ceased to exist as an independent arm in Venice, the Papal States and the Knights of Malta were the only state fleets that maintained galleys, though in nothing like their previous quantities.

The second battle of Svensksund in between the Swedish and Russian navies was the last major naval battle between forces that included large numbers of galleys and other oared vessels. Galleys were introduced to the Baltic Sea in the 16th century but the details of their designs are lacking due to the absence of records.

They might have been built in a more regional style, but the only known depiction from the time shows a typical Mediterranean vessel. There is conclusive evidence that Denmark became the first Baltic power to build classic Mediterranean-style galleys in the s, though they proved to be generally too large to be useful in the shallow waters of the Baltic archipelagos.

Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114) Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114)
Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114) Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114)
Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114) Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114)
Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114) Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114)
Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114) Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114)
Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114) Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (Campaign, Volume 114)

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