The Ottomans in Europe
Geoffrey Woodward assesses how great an impact the Turks had on sixteenth-century Europe.
‘Now shalt thou feel the force of Turkish arms
Which lately made all Europe quake for fear.’
Christopher Marlowe’s observation in Tamburlaine (1587) held true for most of the sixteenth century. The Ottoman army was the largest in Europe, its navy ruled the shipping lanes of the eastern Mediterranean, and its capital Istanbul was five times the size of Paris. Its resources seemed limitless, and its capacity to sweep aside opposition in the name of Islam gave the Turkish Empire an awesome presence. Indeed between 1520 and 1565 its momentum seemed unstoppable. Well might Christians in western Europe ‘quake for fear’. This article sets out to trace some of the ways in which Europeans were affected by the Turkish Empire in the course of the sixteenth century. First, it considers the impact on the Balkans and the consequences for the Holy Roman Empire. Second, it looks at how Spain, Portugal and Venice were affected by the maritime expansion. Third, consideration is given to the argument that important military changes occurred in Europe as a result of Ottoman expansion. Finally, the strength of its Empire is evaluated and the question posed: did it really present a serious threat to Europe?
Ottoman western expansion
Since 1354 the Ottoman Turks had been advancing westwards, overrunning Constantinople (and renaming it Istanbul) in 1453, gaining control of the Black Sea and the main routes to the Balkans and driving on to the eastern Adriatic. Owing to the exploits of successive Sultans, the Ottomans were, by 1520, the undisputed leaders of the Muslim world. For the rest of the century they cast their shadow over western Europe.
Suleiman ‘the Magnificent’ (1520-66) seized Belgrade in 1521 and, upon capturing Rhodes, evicted the Knights of St John and removed the last remaining obstacle to his domination of the eastern Mediterranean. The effect upon Europe was dramatic. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, absent in Spain and Italy for most of the 1520s, delegated the administration and defence of his Austrian lands to his brother Ferdinand. It proved a timely move as Suleiman thrust aside the Hungarian armies at Mohacs, killed King Louis II of Hungary and, three years later, moved to the gates of Vienna. Though severe weather conditions led the Ottomans to withdraw after a two-month siege, Ferdinand and his court had been forced to flee and he never forgot how close he had been to losing his capital. In 1532 Charles himself stood in the way of the largest army ever seen in Europe and repelled its assault on Güns, 60 miles south of Vienna. This, however, was to be a temporary respite and Suleiman’s only military setback. In 1541 Ferdinand was forced out of Buda and six years later at Adrianople agreed to pay the sultan an annual tribute of 30,000 ducats in return for holding a small strip of western Hungary. Another abortive attempt to expel the Ottomans from Transylvania in 1550 confirmed that the Balkan frontier would remain 80 miles from Vienna and the Austrian Habsburgs would be treated as a tributary power.
In the second half of the century, the Habsburg emperors strengthened their frontier defences in anticipation of further Ottoman attacks and, apart from desultory fighting between 1552 and 1568, Austria was spared. In the wake of Suleiman’s death in 1566, Selim the Sot (1566-74) and his successor, Murad III (1574-95), called a halt to the landward advances and, for much of this period, the Turks concentrated on defence rather than expansion. Like other European states, they were feeling the strain of administering their massive empire, a fact reflected by the state debts recorded every year after 1592. Indeed, peace would have probably lasted longer if Emperor Rudolf had not refused to continue paying his tribute. When Murad retaliated, war began again.
The Long War (1593-1606) started badly for the Ottomans with revolts occurring in their own vassal states. Dnieper Cossacks pillaged their supply lines and, worst of all, Persia invaded Anatolia in 1599. Moreover, at Mezókeresztes (1596), Hungarian troops demonstrated superior firepower and inflicted upon the Turks their first military setback for over a century. Hungarian and Transylvanian towns were won and lost in a series of sieges until all sides agreed upon a treaty in 1686 at Zsitva-Török. The Habsburgs were confirmed in their possession of western Hungary, their tribute was annulled and Transylvania granted its independence. The Austrian-Turkish frontier had not moved since 1529 and it was now apparent that the western limit of the Ottoman Empire had been reached.
(i) Turkish rule in the Balkans
The impact of Turkish rule upon all sectors of Balkan society was profound. Most of its aristocracy were killed though a minority was absorbed into the ruling class when, in keeping with Ottoman practice, the sultan took over their lands. In contrast, the peasantry, who worked the land, paid most of the taxes and were liable for military service, were treated much better than before. They were protected by the new landlords and had their feudal services abolished. Apart from the frontier regions, most of the Balkans were spared that cultural and religious destruction usually associated with armies of occupation. Christians, though encouraged to convert to Islam, were allowed religious toleration and mixed marriages, and the comparative freedom and contentment enjoyed by its people is one of the most important explanations why the Balkans remained under Ottoman rule for over 400 years.
(ii) The impact on the Holy Roman Empire
Largely for reasons of geography, Charles V suffered more than most west European rulers. As ‘the Most Catholic’ King of Spain (1516-56) and Holy Roman Emperor (1519-58), he took his obligations seriously. The Ottomans were intent on a holy war against Christianity and the western Empire looked to him to counter them, but his political commitments consistently distracted him and forced him to confine his efforts to stemming the Turkish advance in north Africa. In this respect, he was spectacularly unsuccessful, losing at Tunis (1534), Algiers (1541), and Tripoli, Bougie and Peñón de Vélez in the 1550s. To add to his problems, German princes skilfully exploited the Ottoman threat by forcing him to make political and religious concessions. Charles himself later admitted that the Turkish threat had forced him to put aside religious issues. Indeed, at times of greatest peril – in 1527, 1532 and 1541 – Charles compromised religion to attend to the Turks, and significantly his only triumph against the Lutherans in 1547 was secured in the knowledge that Suleiman was engaged in wars against Persia. The Turks also received considerable help from France. It was Francis I who first encouraged them to attack the Habsburgs and allowed them free access to the ports of Marseilles and Toulon to reduce the Emperor’s power, Indeed, it can safely be said that the Ottoman Empire’s western expansion owed a great deal to the political and religious disunity of Europe.
Spain, Portugal and Venice
The effects of Ottoman expansion were felt as far west as Spain in the early sixteenth century. To reduce the possibility that Granadan Moriscos would receive help from Muslims in north Africa, King Ferdinand seized five coastal settlements, including Tripoli and Algiers, and secured Spain’s sea routes between Sicily, Sardinia and Tunisia. However, the creation of a powerful Turkish fleet enabled it to conquer Egypt and renewed the threat to Spain’s possessions. And the situation became critical when Barbarossa defected to the Ottoman fleet: Tunis and Algiers were lost and several north African settlements seized in the 1550s. Not only were Spanish communications with Milan, Naples and Sicily endangered but the mainland towns of Málaga, Cadiz and Gibraltar also suffered raids from corsair pirates. It was just as well that the main Ottoman army was pre-occupied with Persia.
Philip II of Spain responded to the Muslim threat in 1560 when his troops occupied the island of Djerba preparatory to an attack on Tripoli, but the expedition ended in disaster: 27 galleys were lost and 10,000 men were taken prisoner to Istanbul. The recovery of Peñón in 1564 renewed Spanish spirits but celebrations were curtailed with the news that Malta was being besieged by 40,000 troops and 180 Ottoman warships. The subsequent relief of the island in September 1565 by the viceroy of Naples saved Sicily as well as Malta and marked the limit of Ottoman expansion in the western Mediterranean but, in spite of Suleiman’s death the following year, its maritime power remained formidable. In 1570 Tunis, recovered by Spain in 1535, was again captured by the Turks and the Venetian island of Cyprus was attacked.
A Christian fleet, which was mainly Venetian but commanded by a Spaniard, Don John, met the Ottomans at Lepanto in the Gulf of Corinth. The ensuing battle (October 1571) saw two of the largest navies ever assembled and resulted in victory for the Christians. Though they lost 10 of their 208 galleys and 15,000 men, this was nothing compared with the losses sustained by the Turks. 117 out of 270 Ottoman ships were captured, 113 sunk and 30,000 men killed. It was their worst defeat since 1402 and dispelled the myth of invincibility. Most historians have viewed Lepanto as a crucial battle, that ended the long conflict between Muslims and Christians. Thomas Arnold has recently argued that: ‘After Lepanto, the Ottoman navy never recovered its earlier near-mastery of the Mediterranean’. The extant evidence in the Turkish archives, however, does not bear out this judgement, at least not in the short term. The sultan’s reaction to defeat was to rebuild his fleet and double his resolve to control north Africa and the sea routes via Malta and Sicily. Just six months after Lepanto, the Turks had built 200 new galleys and captured Cyprus – a reminder that their potential to inflict a serious blow was still formidable. In 1574 a massive Turkish fleet seized Tunis and put the Spanish garrison in La Goletta to flight. Yet just when it seemed that the Ottomans were resuming the initiative, Selim died, and with him passed the last competent sultan for over a hundred years. Western Europe had been saved by a hair’s breadth.
The expansion of the Ottoman Empire had two further direct effects upon Spanish affairs. For 20 years after Philip II’s accession (in 1556), the problem had drawn resources away from the Netherlands and northern Europe and enabled the Dutch Revolt to gather momentum. Second, there was widespread belief in the 1560s that the Spanish Moriscos were in secret contact with the Muslims and the Ottoman court in Istanbul. Though some 4,000 Turkish and Berber troops fought alongside the Granadan Moriscos in their rebellion of 1598-70, letters from local Turkish rulers in 1574 suggest that the sultan was indeed contemplating a co-ordinated attack on Spanish lands. Philip II and the Inquisition continued to investigate reports of collusion. Though nothing was proved, it served to perpetuate the myth of the ‘Turkish menace’.
Portuguese interests were affected both positively and negatively. Portuguese merchants in their search for gold had developed an alternative route to the Far East and Spice Islands that avoided the Turkish controlled east Mediterranean. This gave Portugal in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries ‘premier league’ status. But its territorial and commercial expansion came at a price. Its long sea routes needed defending from the Turks, who had also reached the Red Sea by 1500 and the Indian Ocean by the mid-sixteenth century, and they were equally keen to secure the lucrative pepper trade with the Far East. Portugal, however, was more than up to this challenge. Its efficiently designed and well defended barracks saw off Turkish galleys which were less manoeuvrable in ocean waters, but the struggle for dominance of the spice trade was not won quickly or cheaply. Moreover Portugal had limited resources. As competition with Spain increased, it could ill-afford a struggle with the Ottomans for mastery of the Indian Ocean. It was precisely this threat of over-stretch which made Portugal so vulnerable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, due not so much to any Turkish incursion – this had long since passed – but to English, Dutch and French colonials, merchants and privateers.
The Turkish threat to Mediterranean trade in general and to Iberian possessions in particular receded in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, but its impact was none the less considerable. A principal beneficiary for much of this period was the city-state of Venice. Since 1479 it had paid a tribute to gain access to the Middle East overland routes to Aleppo and Alexandria, and under Ottoman sufferance it remained the major maritime power in the eastern Mediterranean, handling most Ottoman trade with the west and successfully competing with Portugal for control of the pepper trade. Of course, Ottoman wars in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Mediterranean had disrupted trade but for most of the sixteenth century Venice itself avoided armed conflict. Indeed, by strengthening its fortresses and doubling the size of its fleet, it enjoyed rising profits from trade at least until the 1570s. However, the loss of Cyprus in 1571, rich in grain and wine, and Venice’s failure to recover it, proved a turning-point in its history. In 1573 it gave up its claims to Cyprus and Dalmatia, returned lands in Albania and agreed to pay a large indemnity to normalise its trade arrangements with the sultan. The 1570s also brought new trading competitors when first French and then English merchants received Turkish ‘capitulations’ or privileges to compete with Venetian traders. By 1600, French merchants had displaced Venetians in the Levant, Dutch traders had won control of the east African trade and the English East India Company was ready to exploit the weakening condition of Spain, Portugal, Venice, and the Ottoman Empire.
The Turks and the ‘military revolution’
Historians have long recognised the significance of the wars with the Turks as an important, if not vital, element in the development of the ‘military revolution’ of western states. Victory for the cross over the crescent carried more than ideological and religious superiority. It proved, at least as far as west Europeans were concerned, that their military and naval tactics, equipment and application were also second to none.
There were some important differences between European and Turkish military developments. One lay in the line of fortifications built by several Christian towns in the 1520s which were modelled on the trace Italienne: these were earthen ramparts, low-walled bastions, and strategically located cannons which could repel the main Turkish assaults whether human or artillery. Although some fortresses fell to the Turks – Szigeth in Hungary (1566), Nicosia in Cyprus (1570) – they were the exceptions to the rule, and Vienna, Güns, Corfu and Malta all successfully withstood lengthy sieges.
A second important difference was that European armies placed more emphasis on drill and discipline, on practising defensive infantry formations of squares of pikes and arquebusiers, and of combining infantry, artillery and cavalry, confident that they could repel a Turkish cavalry and infantry attack. Treatises on military tactics encouraged generals to believe the way forward was to innovate. In one writer’s opinion, a well-trained pike and arquebus detachment could withstand a Turkish cavalry assault, and another author claimed that a disciplined infantry would enable ‘a few men to defeat the great multitudes of the Turks’. Although contemporaries could not prove it – there were no battles between Turks and Europeans in the sixteenth century – their confidence was not misplaced, as campaign after campaign confirmed in later centuries.
Third, the Turkish navy never developed the flexibility in ship design or strategy achieved by its European counterparts. As the Spanish and Portuguese adapted their ocean-going galleons to sail the Mediterranean and modified their galleys into three-masted carracks capable of both trading and fighting, so they were able to counter the Ottoman fleet and merchant shipping which was composed solely of galleys. Though the Turks almost always put more ships to sea, the Christians had a better fleet and superior cannon fire. After Lepanto, Turkish fleets warily avoided further engagements.
To decide whether the Ottomans were in decline by the end of the 16th century, we must realise that ever since the seventh century the Turkish Empire had been expanding. As it did so, it became a military state geared for conquest and holy war. The sultan exercised, at least in theory, unlimited authority. The only conceivable challenge to his position came from his family, and such threats were negated by the traditional Ottoman practice of fratricide. By 1520, the Ottoman Empire was self-sufficient in food, minerals and land; the Islamic faith bound its people together and its army was second to none. Suleiman possessed the best field artillery, 87,000 devoted cavalry (known as sipahis) and 16,000 highly disciplined infantry (janissaries), whose sole objective was to wage war. Its western vassal states formed a buttress to defend the core principality of Anatolia, and so, of necessity, its frontier was in a permanent state of war. Since the fourteenth century, the Ottoman family had provided very able sultans. It was they who gave the Empire its dynamism. Under Suleiman, who fought 13 successful campaigns and some 40 battles, they had a leader capable of putting the fear of Allah into all Christians. Indeed, only his death in September 1566 prevented an estimated 300,000 troops from advancing upon the Austrian-Habsburg lands. The last naval engagement between Christians and Muslims may have been in 1573, but Spain’s north African and Italian possessions remained vulnerable targets and Philip II considered it prudent to keep a fleet in excess of 100 ships in the Mediterranean for the rest of his reign.
The Ottoman Empire’s strengths, nevertheless, hid long-term weaknesses. First, the sultans Selim, Murad and Mohammed, who followed Suleiman, began a line of ineffectual rulers whose authority was seriously undermined by a series of palace revolts. Second, by fixing Istanbul as the administrative capital, the Ottomans had unknowingly established limits to their western and eastern Empire. Some 99 days were needed to transport 100,000 troops from Istanbul to Hungary. This reduced the campaigning season to a few months at best, and made communications and supply lines difficult to sustain. Similarly, to reach Malta by sea entailed a journey in excess of a thousand miles, which raised questions as to the point of wanting to sail beyond it. Third, the Ottomans were beginning to fall behind western Europe in naval and military technology and tactics. In fact, it can be argued that only the lack of political and spiritual unity within Europe prevented western states from exploiting Ottoman weaknesses. Already by the end of the sixteenth century Turkey’s northern frontier of Azerbaijan and its central Asian trade were being challenged by the emerging state of Muscovy and its eastern frontier was threatened by the Safavids of Persia. For much of the century, the Ottomans had seen off challenges from these old rivals but victory eluded them in the Long War. It now seems clear that when both its western and eastern frontiers ceased to advance, the Ottoman state was vulnerable, and this was its condition at the end of the sixteenth century.
The impact of the Ottoman Turks on sixteenth-century Europe was far-reaching. This explains why Charles V regarded them as a greater threat to Christendom than Luther; why Ferdinand II devoted the best part of his life to defending the Austrian heartlands; why Spain feared for its trade and dominions in the western Mediterranean and became paranoid over suspected links with Granadan Moriscos; why Portugal was prepared to neglect its transatlantic trade and colonies in order to defend its pepper monopoly with Asia; and why Venice saw its livelihood hang by a thread as Turkish fleets threatened to cut off its sea-borne trade. It also contributed to the ‘military revolution’ as European armies and navies learned how first to defend and then to defeat superior numbers and, in so doing, forged ahead of their eastern rivals. In this, as in so many other ways, the Turks played an important part in shaping European history.
- 1453 Fall of Constantinople - renamed Istanbul
- 1459 Serbia captured, followed 4 years later by Bosnia
- 1480 Turkish fleet siezes Otranto in southern Italy
- 1499 Battle of Zonchio (Navarino) gives Turkey control of Venetial trade
- 1517 Syria and Egypt are conquered; Turkey controls Levant trade routes
- 1522 Rhodes is captured from the Knights of St John
- 1526 Battle of Mohacs - Hungary is overrun
- 1529 Siege of Vienna begins
- 1532 Battle of Guns relieves Vienna
- 1533 Khaireddin Barbarossa, King of Algiers, becomes Admiral of the Turkish Fleet
- 1536 Ottoman ships winter at Toulon
- 1549 Austria begins its tribute to the Turks
- 1551 Barbary corsairs capture Tripoli
- 1560 Spanish fleet fails to take Djerba off the coast of Tunisia
- 1565 Siege of Malta
- 1571 Battle of Lepanto
- 1578 Truce between Spain and Turkey, confirmed 3 years later
- 1593 The Long War begins between the Ottomans and the Austrian Habsburgs
- 1606 Treaty of Zsitva-Torok ends the Long War