The Ottomans in Europe

By Woodward, Geoffrey | History Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Ottomans in Europe

Woodward, Geoffrey, History Review

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 Guns, 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.

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