In the 16th century the expansionist ambition of the Turkish Ottoman Empire was a major threat to the interests of other Mediterranean countries. When the Turks invaded Cyprus, Pope Pius V decided it was a step too far – Catholic Europe was in danger of being overrun by the infidel! He formed the Holy League in alliance with Spain, Venice, Genoa and the Knights of Malta. Overall command was given to Don John of Austria, the King of Spain’s half brother. He was an adept commander and he had soon assembled an awesome fleet of 212 ships which included six Venetian galleasses equipped with side-mounted cannons. They set off from Messina in Sicily to confront the Turks in the Gulf of Patras off Lepanto. The Ottoman fleet under Ali Pasha was even larger than that of the Holy League with 286 galleys and galiots (small galleys that used both sails and oars).
Straight away, the Turks made a fatal error of judgment: mistaking two galleasses in the vanguard of the Holy League fleet for supply ships, they immediately attacked. The galleasses responded by blowing eight Turkish galleys out of the water before the battle had even begun. Then, within hours of the opposing fleets engaging, the Turkish flagship was boarded by Spanish forces and, after a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, Ali Pasha was captured and executed on the spot. Seeing their commander’s bloodied head staring down at them from the end of a pike on Don John’s flagship, the Turks completely lost heart and the battle turned into a rout.
The cost in terms of human life was utterly appalling, especially considering how little effect the Battle of Lepanto had on the balance of power in the region. Any political significance was largely symbolic: the myth of Ottoman invincibility had been destroyed.
When was the Battle of Lepanto: October 7 1571
Where was the Battle of Lepanto: Gulf of Patras, near Lepanto, Greece
What was the Battle of Lepanto death toll: In a battle lasting less than five hours the Turks lost 210 ships with 25,000 dead. Many more thousands were wounded and 3,500 were taken prisoner. The Holy League lost only 15 ships with 7,500 men killed and 16,000 wounded (but at the same time some 10,000 Christian galley slaves were rescued from the Turkish boats).
You should know: The Turks were still a force to be reckoned with. Even though Lepanto prevented any further western expansionism, the Ottoman Empire had rebuilt its fleet within a year and not only held onto Cyprus but also continued to exert its influence in the Mediterranean.