This detail view from a wider canvas shows the character of the galleys of the late 16th century Ottoman fleet. Note the way they are packed with soldiers (or marines as they would later be called). The Ottomans placed too much reliance on manpower, not enough on cannon: they were heavily outgunned at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Image: WIPL.

The galleys were the most effective vessel in Mediterranean naval warfare during the 16th century. This was the Indian summer of an ancient warship that gave primacy to oars over sails and, in a Renaissance context, a level cannon-bearing platform over a rounded keel – thus, in effect, turning sea battles into land battles.

The galley’s shallow draft and the primary use of human muscle power to propel the craft enabled the galley to move independently of winds and currents and to out-manoeuvre other types of vessels.

One of the keys to the galley’s success was the construction, from 1500 onwards, of platforms solid enough to support the weight of cannon. A full battery of cannon would typically weigh from 4,000 to 7,000 pounds, exclusive of the mount, and fire a cast-iron cannonball of from 40 to 50lbs.

The galley’s size, structure, and oar-based propulsion varied from one country’s fleet to another, but they all shared certain characteristics. All had hulls about 136 feet long by about 17 or 18 feet wide topped by an outrigger assembly. They were deceptively long and light, and they were capable of transporting large numbers of soldiers, who could be rapidly disembarked to storm a fortress or engage an enemy force.

In the 17th century, the galley, a vessel with more than 2,000 years of service in naval engagements, was gradually replaced by heavily-armed sailing ships, which began to transform the nature of naval warfare.

This is an extract from Jules Stewart’s article on the Battle of Lepanto in issue 67 of Military History Monthly.