October 7, 1571 Lepanto

Cross and Crescent met on this day in 1571, near a place called Lepanto. It’s been called “the Battle that saved the Christian West”. The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

Following the Islamic Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire  massively expanded under the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, “Selim the Grim”.  1516 – ’17 alone saw an expansion of some seventy per cent of Ottoman landmass, with the conquest of large swaths of the Arabian peninsula, historic Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.

Selim’s son and successor would become the tenth and longest-ruling Ottoman Sultan in 1520, until his death in 1566. He was “Süleiman the Magnificent”, in Turkish the “Law Giver”, a man who, at his peak, would rule over some fifteen to twenty million subjects, at a time when the entire world population numbered fewer than a half-billion.

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Suleiman I, “The Magnificent”

By 1522, Süleiman had managed to expand his rule to Serbia, placing the Ottoman Empire in direct conflict with the Habsburg monarchy, early predecessor to what we remember from WW1, as the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Catholic states of Europe were plunged into a morass of their own at this time, wracked by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, and by a series of wars for hegemony over the formerly-independent city-states of the Italian peninsula.

Italy_1494_AD.pngThe “Italian wars” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pitted no fewer than eight separate Christian alliances against one another, between forces of the Valois and Habsburg monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian republics. In time, republican Venice was alone in retaining her independence, aside from minor city-states such as Lucca and San Marino.

Venice attempted to check Ottoman expansion into the eastern Mediterranean until 1540 when, exhausted and despairing of support, signed a humiliating capitulation with Suleiman I.

This, the second of three conflicts between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, left the republic without her former buffer territories in Greece and the Serbo-Croatian territories of Dalmatia.

Hurrem Sultan, better known as “Roxelana”, was probably kidnapped from the Polish principality of Ruthenia, and sold into the slave markets of Istanbul, given by the Valide Sultan (legal mother of the Sultan and chief consort to Selim I), to her son Süleiman.

Roxelana-Wife-Of-SuleimanRoxelana is unique in all Ottoman history, rising from Harem slave and Sultan’s concubine, to Süleiman’s legal wife and “Queen of the Ottoman Empire.” It was she who began a 130-year period of female influence over the male line known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, though born to slavery, the wives and mothers of the Sultan wielded extraordinary political power over  affairs of the Ottoman Empire.

She was instrumental in driving the unlikely ascension of her son Selim II to the Sultanate, following the death of his brother Mehmed from smallpox, and the murders of his half-brother Mustafa and brother Bayezid, in coordination between himself and his father.

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The Walls of Famagusta

Surrounded as it was by Ottoman territory, the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus had long been “in the wolf’s mouth”, as one contemporary historian described it.

The island had long been a major overseas possession of the Venetian republic. The Turkish invasion force of 350-400 ships arrived on July 1, 1570, carrying somewhere between 80,000 to 150,000 men. First capturing the coastal cities of Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca, the Ottoman force moved inland to lay siege to Nicosia, the largest city on the island. The siege would last forty days, resulting in the death of some 20,000 residents and the looting of every church, public building and palace.

By Mid-September, the Ottoman cavalry arrived outside the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus, the east coast port city of Famagusta.

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Marcantonio Bragadin

At this point, Venetian defenders numbered fewer than 9,000 men with 90 guns, pitted against an invading force swelled by this time to over 250,000 with some 1,500 cannon.

The heroic defense of Famagusta would hold out for eleven months, led by the Venetian lawyer and military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. By the following August, five major assaults had cost the lives of some 52,000 invaders, including the first-born son of the Turkish commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha. Bragadin’s command was reduced to 900 sick, starving and injured defenders who, like local civilians, were begging him to surrender.

According to the customs of the time, negotiation before a city’s defenses were successfully breached allowed for terms of surrender, whereas the lives and property of a city taken by storm, were forfeit.

Terms of safe passage were agreed upon by the survivors yet, on presentation of the city, Bragadin was seized by Lala Mustafa Pasha, his ears and nose cut off, and thrown into a cell.

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1570-1576 Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. Researchers speculate that Bragadin’s flaying provided the inspiration for this painting.

A massacre followed in which every Christian left alive in the city, was murdered. Bragadin himself was later removed from his cell, his untreated wounds raging with infection.  He was skinned alive in the public square and his hide stuffed with straw, reinvested with full military insignia and sent with the heads of his officers to Istanbul, as a gift to Sultan Selim II.

Pope Pius had tried since 1566, to put together a “Holy League” to oppose the Ottoman invasion. In the end, Marcantonio Bragadin was betrayed, put to death in the most hideous manner, imaginable. Yet, the heroic defense against impossible odds of September 17, 1570 to August 5, 1571 gave a coalition of Christian maritime states time to assemble naval forces, in numbers sufficient to defend the Mediterranean coast.

The Crescent met the Cross on this day in 1571 near a place called Lepanto, in what’s been called “the Battle that saved the Christian West”.  The European side was outnumbered, with 212 ships and as many as 40,000 soldiers and oarsmen, to a Muslim force numbering 278 vessels and as many as 50,000 soldiers and oarsmen.

The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

What the Holy League lacked in numbers however, was made up in equipment, and experience. The Christians possessed some 1,815 guns, to fewer than half that number on the Ottoman side.

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Ten thousand would be lost to the Christian side, compared with four times that number, for the adversary.  The Ottoman fleet was crushed, losing 200 ships burned, sunk or captured, compared with 17 for the Europeans.

While the European victory at Lepanto put a halt to Muslim expansion into the western Mediterranean, zero lost territory was regained while the Sultan solidified his control, over the east. The Ottoman fleet was rebuilt within six months, including some of the largest capital ships, then in existence.

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Ottoman Empire, Expansion. H/T Britannica.com

Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, Chief Minister to Sultan Selim II went so far as to taunt the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro, that the Christian triumph at Lepanto amounted to little:  “You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor”.

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January 2, 1492 La Reconquista

A Christian military force under Pelagius,(aka “Pelayo”), the future first King of Asturias, met the invaders at “Covadonga”, meaning “Cavern of the Lady”.  The Arabic name for the place is “Sakhrat Bilāy” “the Rock of the Affliction”.  The two names tell the tale about the outcome, of the battle.

The manner by which Roderic ascended to the throne of the Visigothic Empire is unclear. His history as any other, was written by the victors.  Unbiased contemporary sources do not appear to exist. What Is known is that someone in the early 8th century Iberian Peninsula, thought Roderic an illegitimate King.

al-andalusThat someone appears to have gone to Mecca looking for help from the BanūʾUmayya, the “Sons of Umayya”, the second such center of Islamic power since the time of Muhammad and known to history as the Umayyad Caliphate.

In 711AD, a force of some 1,700 Arab and North African horsemen, the Berbers, landed on the Iberian Peninsula led by Tariq Ibn Ziyad.  384 years before the first Christian Crusade, the Umayyad conquest of Hispania was on.  Within ten years, most of what we now know as Portugal and Spain had become “al-Andalus”; five administrative districts under Muslim rule, save for the fringes of the Pyrenean mountains, and the highlands along the northwest coastline.

The first significant Christian victory and what may constitute the beginning of reconquest, “La Reconquista”, took place along that northern fringe. That sliver of Christianity was the Kingdom of Asturias. The refusal to pay the Jizya, the Muslim tax on “unbelievers”, brought them into conflict with an Umayyad force in the summer of 722.

A Christian military force under Pelagius, (aka “Pelayo”), the future first King of Asturias, met the invaders at a place called “Covadonga”, meaning “Cavern of the Lady”.  The Arabic name for the place is “Sakhrat Bilāy” “the Rock of the Affliction”.  The two names tell a tale about the outcome, of the battle.

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Covadonga

The Arab chronicles record Covadonga as a small skirmish while the Spanish record a great victory, but two things are near certain. In 770 years, no Muslims force ever returned to Asturias.  Without Pelagius’ victory at Covadonga, we’d almost certainly never have heard of Ferdinand and Isabella, let alone a certain Italian explorer whom the pair sent off in 1492, in search of a sea route to China.

It was close to 400 years before the crusading knights of Europe came to the aid of the Iberian Kings. With help from the Knights Templar and Hospitaller. Alfonso VI captured Toledo in 1085, beginning a long period of gradual Muslim decline.

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The Portuguese nation was a mere county in the early 12th century, dependent on the Crown of León and Castile, one Alfonso VII. His cousin, three year old Alfonso Henriques, followed his father as the Count of Portugal in 1122.

At the age of 14, the age of majority in the 12th century, the boy proclaimed himself a knight and raised an army against his cousin. The county’s people, church and nobles were demanding independence when, his cousin vanquished, Alfonso Henriques declared himself Prince of Portugal. Following ten years of near-constant fighting against Moors and rival Christian Kingdoms alike, Alfonso was unanimously proclaimed the King of an Independent Portugal on July 25, 1139.

Portugal would be annexed to Spain in 1580, regaining its independence sixty years later and leading many to believe that Portugal is the younger between the two countries. It isn’t so. Portugal was an independent, self-governing nation, more that 350 years before her Spanish neighbor.

Following the Christian re-conquest of Córdoba in 1236, the Emirate of Granada was all that was left of al-Andalus. Granada became a tributary state to the Kingdom of Castile two years later.  Finally, on this day in 1492, Emir Muhammad XII surrendered the Emirate of Granada to Queen Isabella I of Castile, and her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

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Ferdinand & Isabella. March 31, 1492 Edict of Expulsion

For the six years I’ve written “Today in History”, the first thing I do is search on a date, and select an interesting topic from the list.  To date, I’ve written about seven hundred. 

As I review these lists, I am perpetually surprised and not a little horrified, at the never ending recurrence of barbarity against the Jews of the world. It’s not the pogroms and the massacres which surprise me, but rather their appalling frequency, over 2,000 years.

The paroxysm of cruelty and paranoia now known as the Spanish Inquisition begun in 1478, was not a standalone event. In part, this passion for religious unity was the result of 700+ years of Muslim domination of the Iberian Peninsula. One of the early results of this manic drive for ideological purity was the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, resulting in the forced conversion of some quarter-million Spanish Jews, the “conversos“, and the expulsion of as many as 100,000 more.

Untold numbers lived lives of “marranos” (from the Hebrew marit ayin: “the appearance of the eye”), secretly practicing Jews forced on pain of death, to adopt the outward signs of Christianity.

Maimon-Marrans

This date, originally selected to signify Ferdinand and Isabella’s final defeat of the Islamic conquest of Spain, has yet another significance. It is only within living memory that descendants of Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, have returned in any significant numbers to their homeland. The first native Jewish child born in Spain since Christopher Columbus discovered America, was born on this day, January 2, 1966.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 10, 732 The Hammer

Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer”.

In the early middle ages, the Mayor of the Palace of the Frankish Kingdom was the power behind the throne, King in all but name, controlling the royal treasury, dispensing patronage, and granting land and privileges in the name of a figurehead monarch.  In 688, Pepin of Herstal was Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia; the Frankish domain occupying what is now northern France, Belgium and parts of Germany.

Pepin kept a mistress, a noblewoman named Alpaida, with whom he had two sons, Childebrand and Charles. The former went on to become Duke of Burgundy, best remembered for expelling the Saracens from France.  The latter went on become the founding father of the European Middle Ages.

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“St. Hubert of Liege offers his services to Pepin” – H/T Wikimedia

Pepin’s only legitimate male heir predeceased his father in 714, and touched off a succession crisis when he his 8-year-old grandson Theudoald, his True Successor. The child’s grandmother, Pepin’s wife Plectrude, threw Charles in prison to nullify any threat, but he escaped and rose to power in the Civil War which followed.

Charles proved himself a brilliant Military tactician when he crushed a far superior army at the Battle of Ambleve.  He returned victorious in 718, and then did something unusual for the time. He showed kindness to the woman responsible for his incarceration, and the boy for whom she had acted.

Charles-Martel-PicCharles consolidated his power in a series of wars between 718 and 732, subjugating Bavarians Allemanii, and pagan Saxons, and combining the formerly separate Kingdoms of Nuestria in the northwest of modern day France with that of Austrasia in the east.

At this time a storm was building to the west, in the form of the Muslim Emirate of Cordoba. The Umayyad Caliphate gained control of most of Hispania (Spain) beginning in 711, before invading eastward into Gaul. Umayyad forces suffered a setback in 721, when forces under Odo the Great, Duke of Acquitaine, broke the siege of Toulouse.

The Emir responded with a strong force out of Yemen, Syria and Morocco and, in 732, invaded again. This time, Odo was destroyed in a crushing defeat at the Battle of the River Garonne. So great was the slaughter of Christians that the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 said “God alone knows the number of the slain”.

Odo fled to Charles asking for help.  The table was set for one of the most decisive battles in world history.

The Umayyad Caliphate had recently defeated the two most powerful military forces of its time. The Sassanid empire in modern day Iran had been destroyed altogether, as had the greater part of the Byzantine Empire, including Armenia, North Africa and Syria.
Other than the Frankish Kingdom, no force existed, sufficient to stop the advance of the Caliphate. Historians believe that, if not for the Battle of Tours, the Islamic Conquest would have overrun Gaul and the rest of Western Europe, resulting in a single Caliphate stretching from the Sea of Japan to the English Channel.

Carolingian Empire Map

Estimates vary regarding the size of the two armies. The forces of Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi are estimated to have had 80,000 horse and foot soldiers on the day of battle. There were about 30,000 infantry on the Frankish side, and no cavalry.

Each of Charles’ tough, battle hardened soldiers wore up to 75lbs of armor. They’d been with him for years, and every one of them believed in his leadership. Outnumbered two to one, Charles had one decisive advantage.  He was able to choose the ground on which to give battle.

The Frankish army took to high ground between the villages of Tours and Poitiers, and drew itself into a great, bristling square formation to withstand the shock of the cavalry charge. For seven days, the two armies faced one another with little but skirmishes between them. Finally, the Emir could wait no longer. It was late in the year and his men were not equipped for a northern European winter. On the seventh day, estimated to be the 10th of October in the year 732, al Ghafiqi ordered his cavalry to charge.

History offers few instances when a medieval army was able to withstand the charge of cavalry, but Charles had anticipated this moment. He had trained his men for years, and they were prepared. The Mozarabic Chronicle reports:

[I]n the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”

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Charles de Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732 depicts Charles Martel (mounted) facing Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours.

A few Umayyad troops succeeded in breaking into the square and went directly for Charles, but his liege men surrounded him and would not be broken. The battle was still in flux when rumors went through the Muslim army that Charles’ men had broken into the Umayyad base camp. Afraid of having the loot they had plundered at Bordeaux taken from them, many broke off the battle to return to camp. Abdul Rahman tried to stop the retreat, when he was surrounded and killed.

Wary of a “feigned flight” attack, the Franks did not pursue, and resumed their phalanx. There they stood until the next day, until it was discovered that the Islamic host had fled in the night.

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Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer“.

New Umayyad assaults would threaten northern Europe in 736 and 739, until internal conflicts divided the Caliphate against itself.   Forces of the Ottoman Empire conquered the last vestige of the eastern Roman empire in 1453.  Ottomans attempted the conquest of Europe near a place called Lepanto in 1571 and twice more in 1529 and 1683, only to be stopped at the gates of Vienna. The threat was far from over in 732, but Christian Europe in the west would never again be so grievously challenged.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.