Monday, 31 January 2011

The Ships

During the Sixteenth century, the basic war vessel for all the Mediterranean fleets was the war galley - the gallea sotil, or ordinary galley. This was the basic vessel that made up the bulk of all the fleets in the Mediterranean. Although there were differences between the vessels used by Muslim and Christian navies, the basic design of the galleys reflected a common standard right across the Mediterranean world. Typically a war galley would be around 38 – 40m in length and 5m in width and was powered by 22 – 25 banks of oars. At the beginning of the Sixteenth Century each rowing bank held three rowers, each with his own oar, giving a total rowing crew, or ciurma, of 144 to 150, or even up to 250, depending on the number of rowing benches and men per oar. This was known the alla sensile system and was retained by the Venetians and the Ottomans until after Lepanto. The rowers were usually free men, not slaves, and so could in theory provide extra fighters in a boarding clash. Firepower was provided by marines armed with bows (in the case of the Turks and North Africans) or crossbows and arquebusses, and by a battery of heavier guns. Unlike later sailing men-o’-war, war galleys’ guns were fixed to fire forward, so were placed in the bow of the ship, just behind a spiked prow that was intended to provide something of a boarding bridge after a ramming contact. This latter feature sometimes interfered with gunnery. Before the battle at Lepanto Don Jon ordered his ships to saw off the prow so that the galleys’ guns could have an uninterrupted field of fire. At the stern of the galley was a covered area that provided protection for the steering and the captain, and functioned as something of a command post. The galley was in fact so standardized that the navies of Venice and the Ottomans often made use of prefab models – the arsenals kept the relevant sections for ships in store and simply put them together as and when they were needed. Finding a crew was a bigger problem than finding a ship. As the warfleets got bigger, manpower shortages became more acute and, starting with the Spanish, states started to press criminals and other prisoners into the galleys. The navies of Venice and the Ottomans managed to avoid using such methods until after Lepanto, when they too were forced to follow suit simply because of the lack of other available manpower.

Very large galleys with up to 35 banks of oars were known as capitanas, patronas, bastardas or lanternas. These last are often translated as flagships, however, while most flagships were lanternas, not all lanternas were flagships. They carried extra troops and their function was to provide a strongpoint in the battle line from where attacks could be launched from, or conversely, from where a defence could be stiffened. Guilmartin describes their role as one of leadership rather than command. They carried extra large lanterns at the stern of the ship to indicate their role and position. The flagship proper was the capitana, which also carried extra large lanterns as a sign of command. The Museu Maritim in Barcelona ( has a beautiful full size replica of Don Juan’s lanterna, the Real, as it probably appeared at Lepanto and is a must-see for anyone with any interest in the period.

Also among the ‘big boys’ was the gallea grosse. As its name implies this was essentially a large galley, often a merchant vessel. They could carry a good battery of artillery and a large force of soldiers. Against this they were not specifically designed as warships and tended to be clumsier and less handy than the purpose-designed war galley. Venice succeeded in maximising their benefits and minimising their drawbacks by developing the galleass, a hybrid sailing ship/war galley based on gallea grosse hulls. The galleass featured a large armoured forecastle carrying (for a galley) an extremely heavy battery of artillery with a very wide field of fire, both frontally and to the sides; high sides (making boarding difficult) and numerous lighter swivel guns along the length of the ship. They were still slow and clumsy, but their sheer firepower made them formidable opponents.

At the other end of the scale was the galiot. Essentially this was simply a scaled down galley. Shorter and narrower, with around 12 – 18 banks of oars, these were light, fast craft less capable in a formal engagement, but much faster and far more effective when raiding. As such they were especially popular with the various Barbary nations. Some (like Barbarossa’s flagship) were the same size as a war galley, but most were smaller, carrying a less powerful battery of artillery and riding lower in the water. Smaller still were vessels known variously as bergantines, fregotas, etc. which were used for communication, scouting and reconnaissance. In a battle their role was to ferry troops between ships, providing reinforcements for those involved in boarding battles.


  1. Looks like I'm going to have to go to the library and get some books on the period.
    Did you see the BBC series by Francesco Da Mosto on the Venetians Empire? He took a sailing boat from Venice down the cost of the Balkans and on through Greece. A really good show if you can find it.

  2. Haven't seen it, I'll have to try to find it on the net. Books are something of a problem here; I really miss the inter-library loan services from home. You never really appreciate them until you haven't got them! All the books I mention I've had to buy; the wife is going crazy with the number of history books I've managed to accumulate.

    I'd recommend Guilmartin's "Gunpowder and Galleys" and "Galleys and Galleons", and Crowley's "Empires of the Sea". Jan Glete's "Warfare at Sea 1500 - 1650" is good too, but it all naval warfare, not just the Med.

    Happy reading!