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Holy Leagues Of The 16th Century
Part 3: 1538-40 and 1571-73

 More of this Feature
• 1: Introduction & 1495
• 2: 1510-13, Santa Junta
• 4: Wars of Religion
 Elsewhere On The Web
• The Ottomans
Holy League of 1538 - 40
An alliance between the Papacy, Venice and Charles V - ruler of the massive Habsburg Empire - was agreed in the early months of 1538, with the intention of shattering Ottoman control in the Mediterranean and 'near' east. The Ottomans had been expanding since the fourteenth century, but after 1520 they were ruled by Süleyman the Magnificent, who pushed his forces deep into Eastern Europe, whilst also attempting to dominate the Mediterranean sea. Venice and Charles V had been involved in separate, but partly successful, conflicts with the Ottomans during the 1530's: Charles had recaptured Tunis and won a large naval victory over Barbarossa, while the Venetians fought to keep their trade routes active and safe from attack. Despite this, they had made no real inroads into the Turkish threat. Additionally, France had been involved in both economic and military alliances with the Ottomans, although the latter had been largely covert.

Charles had grand ideas that included, at their greatest and most imaginary, a crusade to reconquer Constantinople; however, Venice and the Emperor distrusted each other, and it took the involvement of Pope Paul III, and the possible pretext of a crusading fleet, to create an alliance. The result was the Holy League, and it's fleet gathered at Corfu in the spring of 1538. Crucially, this alliance hadn't removed any of the hostility between Venice and Charles, and at the battle of Prevesa in 1538 the reluctance of Imperial forces to allow a victory from which Venice could benefit allowed the Ottomans to crush the League's fleet. Internal wrangling prevented any further large-scale action, and in 1540 an angry Venice withdrew from the alliance to deal with the Ottomans alone: the League collapsed, a total failure. Charles led a campaign against Algiers in 1541, but weather destroyed the fleet before it could reach its target, and the Ottomans were left largely dominant in the Mediterranean, hampered only by problems elsewhere within their Empire.

Holy League of 1571 - 73
This alliance between the Papacy, Spain and Venice, as well as several smaller Italian states, was organised by Pope Pius V in the first half of 1571. Their goal was to counter the ever-growing Islamic activity in the Mediterranean, which included both the Ottoman Empire and Barbary Pirates, who attacked from the eastern north coast of Africa. Although there had been renewed conflict between the largely Christian forces of Spain, Italy and the Habsburg Empire on one side, and the Ottoman Turks and their protectorates on the other, for nearly a century, the Ottomans were still resurgent, and at the start of the 1570's Islamic forces conquered Cyprus and attacked Tunis. Cyprus was a Venetian possession and a major focal point for Christian activity in the Eastern Mediterranean, while Tunis was a key Christian territory in the centre of the North African coast, securing the relatively narrow passage into the Western Mediterranean.

The threat was enough to drive the allies together. Spain provided almost half of the total resources used, but in return they were allowed to name the force's overall commander, Don John. On October 7th 1571 he led the Holy League to a massive naval triumph over the Turks at Lepanto, destroying well over a hundred enemy galleys for the loss of only twelve. However, further action was undermined by the death of Pius in 1572, removing the alliance's central hub: Spain was reluctant to send the League's forces into the Eastern Mediterranean, preferring to concentrate on the West, while Venice wanted the opposite, and a chance to retake Cyprus.

Consequently, the League collapsed in March 1573 when a financially exhausted Venice left to make its own peace with the Turks. Don John continued to command the Spanish forces in the West, but by 1574 the Ottoman fleet had been rebuilt, negating any advantage Lepanto may have brought.

Next page > Wars of Religion > Page 1, 2, 3, 4

For Citation And Footnotes
Title: Holy Leagues of the 16th Century
Author: Robert Wilde
Date: 2001

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