Lepanto 1571- The Madonna’s Victory, Nic Fields

Lepanto 1571- The Madonna’s Victory, Nic Fields

The battle of Lepanto was the last major naval battle between two fleets of oar-powered warships, and the largest naval battle since Actium. Fields takes a rather unusual approach to the topic. We start with eleven chapters looking at the participants in the battle, but starting with a series of individuals and gradually building up to the major powers involved. The first chapter looks at Miguel de Cervantes , the author of Don Quixote, who during an adventurous life actually fought at the battle, as well as spending several years as a gallery slave after being captured by the Barbary pirates.  After that we build up to look at some of the major players, including Venice, the Knights Hospitallers, the Pope and of course the Ottomans. In these chapters we also get a great deal on the build-up to the battle, as seen from the point of view of the various participants.

This is followed by three chapters looking at the ships, the guns and the men of the battle. I found this section very valuable – I’m quite familiar with Ancient galley warfare, and with later sail powered naval warfare, but this period was unfamiliar to me. The galleys may have looked similar to their ancient precursors, but they were actually different in many key ways, including how they were rowed, the use of galley slaves (not a feature of ancient galleys), and most significantly the use of gunpowder. These galleys carried powerful batteries of guns in their bows, with one large central gun flanked by one or two smaller guns on each side, and many of the soldiers onboard carried firearms. This was thus truly a gunpowder battle.

All this builds up to a fairly short account of the campaign and battle, but this is rather justified. Lepanto was essential an encounter battle with the two sides simply running into each other while heading in opposite directions, and not the result of any lengthy pre-battle campaign. The battle itself was a brutal but against fairly straightforward affair, and much of the interesting material has already been covered in the earlier chapters.

Lepanto is a somewhat unusual battle, in that it was acknowledged at the time and since as a major Christian victory, but at the same time it had little impact on the balance of power in the Mediterranean. The Holy League failed in its original purpose, to defeat the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus, but the last Venetian outpost on the island had surrendered in August 1571, two months before the battle was fought. The Ottomans quickly rebuilt their fleet, and didn’t take too long to replace their experienced sailors, while the Christian fleet withdrew from the area soon after the battle, without really achieving anything concrete. The Ottomans remained active along the North African coast for some time after the battle.

I like this approach to the battle. It gives us an idea of how wide an influence it had, and how long it remained a dominating feature of many people’s lives. We also get to learn a great deal about the naval warfare of the period, which differs greatly from that of more familiar periods.

Part I: The Players
1 – The Veteran
2 – The Corsair
3 – The Emperor
4 – The King
5 – Spanish Steel
6 – The Bastard
7 – La Serenissima
8 – The Hospitallers
9 – His Holiness
10 – The Porte
11 – Invincible Infantry

Part II: The Pieces
12 – The Galleys
13 – The Guns
14 – The Men

Part III: The Contest
15 – The Approach
16 – Battle Arrays
17 – Sunday Seventh
18 – Barren Victory

Part IV: The Myth
19 – War Stories
20 – Mary’s Victory

Author: Nic Fields
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2020

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