Lepanto 1571: The Madonna’s Victory
In 1571, galley fleets from the Christian Holy League and the Ottoman Empire clashed at the mouth of the Bay of Corinth. The Battle of Lepanto, the last great naval battle fought by oar-powered vessels, culminated in a victory for the Catholic forces and marked the end of unquestioned Ottoman naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. In Lepanto 1571, Nic Fields describes the commanders, personnel, and technology which shaped the battle and campaign, as well as the contrasting naval strategies and paradigms between the Christian and Ottoman forces. The author’s deep dive into the personnel and technology which partook in the grand naval battle permits a deeper understanding of what led to a resounding Christian victory.
For instance, Fields charts the integration and development of gunpowder weaponry in the Spanish military from its earliest implementation in the fifteenth-century Italian Wars. By quoting contemporary French and Italian opponents of the Spanish harquebus, he captures their bewilderment at combatting such novel military technology, especially when their troop composition remained medieval in comparison. Spanish gunpowder and heavily armed Venetian galleasses proved the difference against the Ottoman Empire, so providing such background gives greater perspective on how the battle unfolded.
Great detail on the major commanders and leaders of the two forces further allows the reader to sense the scope of the impending conflict. Lepanto truly involved the entire Mediterranean, with the Ottoman forces comprised of those from the Barbary Coast and the Levant, and Pope Pius’ V Holy League, led by the Spanish admiral Don Juan de Austria and the Genoan commander Gianandrea Doria, alongside Venetian, Tuscan, and Hospitaller forces. Fields examines their motivations and military characteristics, providing context for their future decisions in the upcoming battle.
The breadth of Fields’ research reaches its zenith during his narrative of the Christian and Ottoman fleets approaching and engaging the other. He carefully outlines the order of battle, listing each ship and commander according to its position in formation, some accompanied by the vessel’s armament. The reader can then track the decisive ship movements which occurred during the battle with a degree of familiarity and understanding. Yet, the author’s narrative of the battle moves quickly and seems condensed. Since much of the primary documentation of the battle is subject to bias and exaggeration, which the author rightly identifies, it is undoubtedly difficult to delve into the minutiae of the engagement.
Fields concludes his book by revisiting his thesis; that the Christian victory at Lepanto was not necessarily the decisive battle contemporary Christian leaders proclaimed it to be. Despite the destruction of the Ottoman fleet, the Holy League did not press their advantage and take the fight to the Ottomans Empire. Instead, the Ottomans rebuilt their fleets and maintained their control of the eastern Mediterranean, effectively splitting the sea between the Christian states in the west and the Ottoman Empire in the east, and the Holy League broke apart and resumed fighting each other. Fields, however, hints at the more substantial result of the battle; the Ottoman navy no longer appeared invincible to the Christian forces.
All in all, Nic Fields’ Lepanto 1571, remains a wonderfully researched account of the characters, tactics, and technology which collided in the Bay of Corinth on October 7, 1571. He considers all aspects of the battle and its build up, fairly portraying both Ottoman and Christian forces. His conclusion does a wonderful job of explaining how the Holy League victory took on a mythos of its own and was celebrated throughout Europe in Catholic and Protestant states alike. Fields’ crafts a narrative which appeals to the hardened naval history enthusiast who aims to fully understand the motivations and context of the Lepanto campaign.
- Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2020
- 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xxxvii + 426 pages.
- Illustrations, maps, ,appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $42.95
- ISBN: 9781526716514
Reviewed by William Nassif, University of South Carolina