The Battle of Lepanto (1571) was a great naval victory of the Habsburgs against the Ottoman Turks.
By Periklis Deligiannis
Eventually Joanna (Juana) was left the only heir to the Spanish throne, and she and Philip became the essential rulers of the Spanish Empire after the death of Isabella in 1504 (her father, Ferdinand of Aragon, had no formal rights to the throne of Castile, i.e. the bigger kingdom). Their son, Charles of Habsburg, the future Charles V, was meant to hold the greatest inheritance of thrones and territories in Europe and overseas. In 1506 Philip the Handsome died, and in 1507 Joanna was found unable to rule due to mental illness and was removed from the throne. Her father, Ferdinand, ruled Castile and Aragon as a regent until his grandson Charles come of age. The two federated Iberian kingdoms remained officially segregated until Charles later joined and assimilated them into the Kingdom of Spain (1516). Thus the Habsburgs absorbed the Castilian dynasty of Trastamara (both Ferdinand and Isabella were Castilians) as it had happened with the Burgundian dynasty.
A fine representation of Hapsburg Spanish harquebusiers of the 1st half of the 17th cent. (copyright: Adrian G Vzon)
Charles had inherited from his father Philip, the Netherlands which the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I retained for his grandson through his daughter, the vicereine Margaret of Austria. In 1515, Charles came of age and the Habsburg Netherlands were the first territory that came under his authority. The next year, his Trastamara grandfather Ferdinand died and thus the United Kingdom of Aragon-Castile and its overseas colonies also passed under his direct rule. As we have seen, in that year Charles officially joined the two kingdoms. In Spain he is known as Charles I (his Spanish royal name) but he is generally known by his German-Austrian imperial name, Charles V. Along with Aragon, he inherited the Aragonese Italian territories, together with the Habsburg Duchy of Milan in northern Italy.
In 1580 Philip II of Spain, Charles V’s son, became king of Portugal as well (because of his rights to the throne from his mother, Isabella of Portugal) and added the country and her colonial Empire to his realms. The English claim that the Portuguese hated their Habsburg king, is false because in 1589 when the famous English corsair/privateer/pirate Francis Drake attempted a naval campaign in order to install Don Antonio on the Portuguese throne (an offspring of the native Portuguese dynasty and pretender to the throne), the Portuguese people did not support him (as he was expecting) remaining loyal to Philip.
Eventually, the English fleet retreated with tremendous losses and Drake who had insisted for the campaign, was punished by Queen Elizabeth. The extensive Portuguese colonies around the planet were added to those of Spain, but the two kingdoms were never united officially and in 1640 Portugal regained its independence. In the years 1590-1640, the unofficial term “Kingdom of Iberia” was used for the United Kingdom of Spain and Portugal. But in 1640 the opportunity for the political union of the whole of the Iberian Peninsula in one state, was lost. If it wasn’t, today the national terms ‘Spanish’ and ‘Portuguese’ would not exist, giving their place to the name ‘Iberian’.
The Habsburg Emperor Charles V on horseback (supposedly during a battle). The armor concerns mostly visual representations and official ceremonies and not actual use. On the other hand, the pistol case in the saddle was essential.
The Holy Roman Empire
Maximilian I Habsburg, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, died in 1519 and thus the most likely and “atypically rightful” heir to the throne of the German Empire was his grandson, Charles of Spain. However, this succession was not certain at all, because the Holy Roman emperor was elected by the Electoral Assembly (College) of the Imperial Diet which consisted of three clerical electors (the Archbishops of Mainz, of Trier and of Cologne) and of four temporal princely electors (the Duke of Saxony, the Count Palatine of Rhineland, the Margrave of Brandenburg, and the King of Bohemia). The Electoral Assembly decided together with the emperor on his successor. In 1519 Maximilian had begun negotiations with the electors to be succeeded by his grandson Charles, in order to become emperor after his death. Thereby the German “Roman” imperial throne would remain to the Habsburgs, who already possessed it for the last 80 years.
But Maximilian had not been convincing, and his sudden death in the next year left Charles of Spain in a very difficult position because two of his most threatening competitors for the throne were the Kings Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England. Their claim on the throne was lawful because any Catholic king could claim the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Although the Empire was essentially German, it was officially considered to be the continuation of the ancient Roman Empire because it had been founded by the Franks as a political counterweight to the true sequel to the latter, namely the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire which no longer existed since 1453 (Ottoman conquest of Constantinople). After much difficulty, expenses and regressions, Charles finally managed to win his election to the imperial throne in 1519, mainly due to his bribes to the electors and to his widespread propaganda. Charles bribed several electors with a lot of money, many of which he borrowed from the famous family of bankers, Fugger of Augsburg. Thereby King Charles became the Emperor Charles V.
What historians usually forget is that in 1550, Charles V of Habsburg was not only the holder of several of the leading European thrones, but also the potential emperor of the Aztecs and the Incas and the ruler of the Mayas, the Tlaxcalans, the Mixtecs, the Chimbchas and other civilized Indians. In 1521, two years after Charles’ election as the German ‘Roman’ Emperor, Hernan Cortes destroyed the Aztec Empire and soon the 4,000,000 inhabitants of the plateau of Mexico came under the Spanish Habsburg direct control, although in the following decades many of them died from diseases brought by the Europeans. By 1540, Pizarro and Almagro had gradually subjugated the Incan Empire bringing its 3,700,000 inhabitants under the Spanish Habsburg rule as well. Previously, the Spaniards annexed the kingdom of the Chimbchas (Muiska) in modern Colombia. Also by 1550 the Spanish Conquistadores had annexed the large majority of the Mayan city-states.
After the reign of Charles V, the unscrupulous Conquistadores went on annexing vast areas of North and South America, expanding even more the four-continent Habsburg Empire.
In 1556 Charles V abdicated voluntarily. He was succeeded in the Spanish throne by his son and in the thrones of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire by his brother, keeping these empires for the House of Habsburg. In 1558, Charles V died of malaria in Spain.
Thereby, the Habsburgs starting their career as rather insignificant aristocrats of Southwestern Germany (Southern Swabia, modern Switzerland), became one of the most powerful royal families in World History. Few dynasties had analogous royal careers, for example the Mongol dynasty founded by Genghis Khan (and in a very much shorter time).
But the success of the Habsburgs brought the envy and fear of their neighbors, especially the French. The latter seemed to be geopolitically and geo-strategically encircled by the Habsburg realms, but they surely were not some kind of a pushover (as their kingdom may look on an historical map of this era) because of their large population. Until the 19th century, France was the most densely populated country in Europe, and this advantage made her capable in the 16th-17th centuries not only to cope with the encirclement of the Habsburgs, but to be the one that exerted pressure on them. In the second half of the 17th century, France overtook Spain as the most powerful European state. Since the mid-16th century, England as well caused a lot of problems in Habsburg Spain with the raids of her ‘brave corsairs’ (Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins etc.) who in fact were nothing more than common pirates. Later the English claimed the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 (which was actually destroyed not by them but by the bad weather) without observing that the total English losses in 1588 and during Drake’s aforementioned naval campaign of retaliation in the Iberian Peninsula in 1589, were heavier than those of the Spanish.
Another persistent enemy of the Habsburgs was a Moslem empire, the Ottoman. The conflict of the Habsburg Empires with the Turks was proverbial, taking place in a colossal scale and resulting in the largest naval battle of World History (Battle of Lepanto, 1571) and in the two Ottoman attacks in the Habsburg metropolis Vienna (1529 and 1683), being two of the greatest campaigns of World History. The Habsburgs (Austrian and Spanish) along with their other Christian allies, were the great victors in these three great battles on land and water, defeating decisively the Ottoman navy and army, and saving Europe from the Turkish threat.