John of Austria (1547-1578), the illegitimate half-brother of King Philip II of Spain, distinguished himself as a military commander, notably at the Battle of Lepanto.
The most powerful man in Western Europe in the first half of the 16th century was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. As King Charles I of Spain, he inherited from his grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella, great wealth and importance in both the Old World and the New. Most of Charles's adult life was spent, however, responding to crises which arose in his German lands as a result of the Protestant Reformation and an accompanying movement for greater local independence from the Empire. Confronted by the challenge of the Schmalkaldic League, a union of princes determined to resist imperial power, Charles traveled in April 1546, to Regensburg, for a meeting of the Diet (imperial parliament) where he hoped to recruit allies for a war against the rebels. While in Regensburg, the ailing, middle-aged widower kept company with an attractive young woman of obscure origin named Barbara Blomberg. This brief liaison resulted in the birth of a male child on February 24, 1547, who would later become famous as John of Austria.
The emperor at first declined to acknowledge his new offspring, but he did have the infant taken from its mother and entrusted to an old friend, Luis Quijada, who arranged for its adoption by Francisco Massi, a musician at the imperial court. In 1550, Massi and his wife Ana retired to Spain and settled at Leganés, near Madrid. There they continued to care for the child, who at that time was known only as Jerónimo. When Jerónimo was eight years old, Massi died and Luis Quijada assumed responsibility for the boy's welfare once again, taking him to live at Villagarcía, his estate near Valladolid. Quijada and his wife Doña Magdalena de Ulloa, who had no children of their own, took great care in the rearing and education of young Jerónimo. Doña Magda-lena taught him Latin and read to him from romances of chivalry, while Quijada encouraged his interest in the hunt, horsemanship, and swordplay. Although the emperor seems to have intended his illegitimate son for a career in the Church, it soon became apparent that Jerónimo was better suited to a soldier's life.
In 1556, Charles abdicated as both king and emperor and retired to the Hieronymite monastery at Yuste, in western Spain. His imperial crown passed to his brother Ferdinand I (1558-64), while his only legitimate son Philip II (1556-98) inherited Spain and its American possessions, as well as Naples, Milan, Franche-Comté, and the Netherlands. Upon his death in 1558, Charles left instructions to Philip to acknowledge Jerónimo as his brother and to provide him with an annual income. The following year, the king brought Jerónimo to court, where he was given the name Juan de Austria, after the house of Austria, or Habsburg, the Spanish royal family.
Secretive and suspicious by nature, King Philip was jealous of this charming, athletic youth of whose existence he had not previously known. Don John's good looks and outgoing personality presented a notable contrast to the king himself and especially to his son and heir apparent, the morose Don Carlos. However, Philip was quick to make use of his newly discovered half-brother, taking advantage of Don John's strengths as well as of his insecurities. The monarch exalted the younger man above the grandees, or upper nobility, whose power and pretense he wished to curb, but at the same time he denied him the rank of infante (prince) and with it the right to be addressed as "highness."
Popular at court, Don John became close friends with two nephews of his own age, the heir apparent Don Carlos and Alessandro Farnese, the son of Duchess Margaret of Parma, an illegitimate daughter of Charles V by an earlier mistress. In 1561, the three youths were sent to study at the University of Alcalá, but their stay was interrupted when Don Carlos fell and sustained a serious injury to the head. Although he recovered from the accident, the prince's behavior, which was already bizarre, became even stranger. Expressing open hatred for the king, Don Carlos began to intrigue against him. In 1567, the heir apparent attempted to enlist his youthful uncle in a plot to assassinate Philip and seize power, but Don John warned the king. In an action that scandalized the courts of Europe, Philip ordered his son arrested and imprisoned. The unhappy Don Carlos died in captivity the following year.
Appointed General of the Sea
The loyalty, or at least the prudence, demonstrated by Don John of Austria in his handling of the Don Carlos affair led Philip II to entrust him with a series of significant military commands. In 1567, the king appointed Don John general of the sea, with responsibility for eliminating North African pirates from the approaches to Gibraltar. The ordinarily parsimonious Philip II provided his young general with a squadron of 33 galleys for the purpose, but his confidence in Don John was not absolute. The king may have intended Don John only as a figurehead commander, because he sent along a confidante of his, the experienced officer Luis de Requeséns y Zúñiga, to provide tactical expertise and to report on Don John's competence and loyalty. Apparently, Requeséns's assessment of the young man's performance was favorable, because Philip continued to employ his brother on important assignments.
In 1569, the king sent Don John to the Alpujarras region of southern Spain to suppress a rebellion of Moriscos, former Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity in order to avoid expulsion. Once again, Philip provided his brother with a mentor, his onetime foster father Luis Quijada, to whom he was expected to defer in military matters. Don John repeatedly defied the king's wishes, however, exercising command personally and exposing himself to enemy fire. Following Quijada's death in combat, Don John came into his own as a forceful commander, demonstrating both great courage and tactical skill. The emperor's illegitimate son emerged from the Alpujarras campaign a confident soldier, anxious to be employed again against his brother's enemies. "I should be glad to serve His Majesty on some business of importance," Don John wrote to Philip's minister Ruy Gómez da Silva. "I would that he would understand that I am no longer a boy."
Business of considerable importance was even then in the making and it would soon lead to Don John's finest hour. During the 16th century, the southern and eastern frontiers of Christian Europe lived under the constant threat of Islamic aggression in the person of the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish Empire was organized for the acquisition and distribution of plunder and could not, therefore, remain militarily inactive for long. During his long reign, the great sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), had expanded Turkish dominion into Eastern and Central Europe and along the northern coast of Africa, and was in the process of invading Hungary when death overcame him in September 1566. Suleiman's successor, Selim II (1566-74), forced to abandon the Hungarian campaign after some months without significant gain, decided instead to attack the island of Cyprus, an important outpost of the Venetian commercial empire in the eastern Mediterranean.
In spite of the threat posed by Turkish expansionism, there was at no time during the century a unified response on the part of the Christian powers. The division in the Roman Church created by the Protestant Reformation had weakened the West in the face of its adversary, but, even within the remaining Catholic world, jealousy and suspicion undermined attempts to organize a grand alliance. The Valois monarchs of France distrusted the Spanish and Austrian branches of the Habsburg family, and the French king, Francis I (1515-47), actually signed a formal alliance with Suleiman in 1536. Venice, for its part, was more preoccupied with Spanish intentions in Italy and the Mediterranean than with those of Constantinople. An early attempt by Don John's father Charles V to create a Holy League against the Turk collapsed when the Venetians made a separate peace in 1540.
By 1570, however, conditions were more favorable for an anti-Turkish alliance than before, in part because of the elevation to the papacy of Pius V (1566-72). A devout ascetic, the new pope called for renewed struggle against both Protestantism in the north and Islam in the east, giving priority to the latter because the threat it posed to Italy was more immediate; there was serious talk of a possible Turkish assault against Rome itself. Efforts to bring the major Catholic powers together benefited also from a change in attitude on the part of the Venetians, who ordinarily preferred to cooperate with Constantinople because of their extensive commercial interests in the East. Selim II's foolhardy decision to attack Cyprus in 1570 drove Venice into the arms of its traditional rivals, Spain and the papacy. More important, the Venetians feared the growth of the Turkish naval base at Lepanto on the Gulf of Patras. With free access to the Adriatic, the sultan's galleys raided at will along the eastern coast of Italy and came within sight even of Venice itself.
By May 1571, Pius had organized a new Holy League composed of Spain, Venice, Tuscany, Savoy, the Knights of Malta, and the papacy itself. Together these powers, large and small, assembled an enormous fleet of war galleys, which the pope proposed to place under the command of young Don John of Austria. Philip II readily agreed to the choice, possibly in order to protect his own investment in the enterprise. Once again, as at Gibraltar and in the Alpujarras, the king revealed his misgivings about his half-brother, stipulating that all orders must be countersigned by Luis de Requeséns. Philip's principal advisors may have shared his skepticism, but the young general's looks, charm, and uncomplicated piety counted for more with the rank and file. As Jack Beeching has observed, "hard-headed men in high places might have private reservations about entrusting the fate of Christendom to a royal bastard aged twenty-four. But to ordinary people, Don John was their man."
Turks Defeated at Lepanto
Don John joined the Spanish galleys at Barcelona and proceeded to rendezvous with the other League units off of Messina in August. The following month, with all of his forces gathered, he put to sea and headed east to Corfu, where he learned that the Turkish admiral, Ali Pasha had withdrawn his fleet to the safety of the base at Lepanto. There, on October 7, 1571, Don John led the forces of the Holy League against the Turk in the largest naval battle since Octavian had routed Marc Antony at nearby Actium in 31 b.c. Each fleet had more than 200 galleys, but, although it was a relatively even match in terms of numbers, the League had the advantage of superior gunnery. In particular, six immense Venetian galleasses (fast war galleys) served as artillery platforms from which to blast opposing vessels. The traditional techniques of galley warfare, which included ramming, closing, and boarding, had become less significant. By mid-afternoon, the sultan's fleet had been scattered, with a reported loss of 80 galleys sunk and 130 captured. Upon hearing the news, Pius V is reported to have quoted the Gospel, declaring, "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John."
In a few brief, bloody hours at the battle of Lepanto, Don John of Austria's fleet had destroyed the myth of Ottoman naval invincibility in the Mediterranean. There were celebrations throughout Western Europe, even in Protestant England where Elizabeth I ordered services of thanksgiving in the churches. At the height of his fame, Don John was the hero of the hour, the dashing young knight who had saved Christendom. Three and a half centuries later in his poem "Lepanto" (1915), the English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton echoed the spirit of the time: Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far." In Chesterton's vision, not only was Don John "the last knight of Europe" but also the battle of Lepanto itself was the last chapter in the history of Christian chivalry. Ironically, among the combatants present that day was the Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), who, although wounded twice, lived to satirize the idea of knight errantry in his great novel Don Quijote (1605).
The aura of romance about the memory of Lepanto endures, but the real outcome of the battle was less significant than it appeared at the time. The Holy League failed to follow up on its victory, in part because of Philip II's customary reluctance to put his galleys at greater risk than was absolutely necessary. Meanwhile, Venice once again made a separate peace with Constantinople in 1573. The Turks rapidly rebuilt their fleet and renewed their aggressive operations along the North African coast. Operating from his base at Naples, Don John seized the Turkish position at Tunis in 1573, but Spain was unable to hold it and the sultan took it back the following year.
Some historians believe that Philip II's unwillingness to support aggressive action against the Turk was due to his own jealousy of Don John's new fame. There is evidence that, as the king feared, his half-brother hoped to create somewhere an independent kingdom for himself. As early as 1569, Don John had considered leading an expedition to rescue Ireland from Protestant rule. Pius V is believed to have made a proposal regarding a throne for the emperor's son when the two men met at Rome on the eve of Lepanto. By 1574, Don John was at work on a new intrigue, which enjoyed the backing of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85). He planned to invade England and depose Elizabeth I. Mary, Queen of Scots, would be rescued from prison, married to Don John, and placed on the English throne. Such an ambitious scheme had no hope of success without the support of Philip II, who gave his brother only enough encouragement to keep him cooperative.
Don John's last royal assignment would come in the Netherlands, scene of the greatest challenge facing Spanish power in Europe in the 1570s. Prosperous and independent-minded, the Low Countries had come to Philip II as part of his father's Burgundian inheritance. Resentful of Spanish rule, many Dutch were also attracted to Protestantism. Anabaptism at first, then later Calvinism, made great advances, especially in the northern part of the territory (Hol-land). In 1567, when anti-Spanish disturbances broke out in the Netherlands, Philip sent the Duke of Alva with 20,000 troops, to suppress them. Alva's harsh measures generated greater resistance, of which William the Silent (1533-84), Prince of Orange, gradually emerged as the acknowledged leader. Alva stepped down in 1573 and was replaced by Don John's old mentor Luis de Requeséns, who died in 1576, having accomplished little.
To salvage a seemingly hopeless situation, Philip II turned reluctantly to Don John of Austria, whose appointment as governor-general Alva himself had urged as early as 1574. Philip, who hoped to take advantage of his brother's royal connection and fame as the victor of Lepanto to win the Dutch back to their traditional allegiance, was also prepared to be conciliatory, and he empowered Don John to make significant concessions, including the withdrawal of Spanish troops. As usual, Philip considered his brother useful but did not fully trust him; his minister Antonio Pérez planted a spy in Don John's entourage to keep the court informed of his actions.
During a stopover in Paris on his way to his new post, Don John met and became infatuated with the beautiful and uninhibited Marguerite of Valois, sister of King Henry III of France (1574-89), whom she detested, and wife of King Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV of France, 1589-1610), whom she regarded as a mere convenience. Although he never married, the hero of Lepanto was fond of women and had in his time a number of mistresses, by two of whom he had illegitimate daughters. But none of his previous lovers was as powerfully connected or as dangerous as Marguerite. She recognized his usefulness to her own designs, especially in the Low Countries, while, back in Spain, Philip II could not have been pleased to learn of this new affair. According to Jack Beeching, from the time he met the queen of Navarre, "every step Don John took led him downhill."
The new governor arrived in the Netherlands at an unpropitious time. In the so-called "Spanish Fury" on November 3, 1576, the very day on which Don John reached Luxembourg, the king's troops sacked Antwerp in a destructive rage that cost some 8,000 lives and raised anti-Spanish sentiment to new heights. Shortly thereafter, Catholic and Protestant elements joined together to call for the immediate withdrawal of Spanish forces, a demand which Don John had little choice but to grant in February 1577. The agreement called for the evacuation of the troops by land, which meant that Don John must abandon his cherished project of invading England. Without soldiers, he was isolated in the Netherlands, unable to restore Spanish authority or even to keep the peace when Catholics and Protestants fell once again to fighting among themselves.
Deprived of material support from Spain because of demands elsewhere on Philip II's resources, Don John began to take matters into his own hands. In July 1577, without authority from Madrid, he seized the castle of Namur at the strategic confluence of the Sambre and Meuse rivers, a position crucial to military control of the southern, Catholic provinces (Belgium), not to mention a convenient spot to arrange a tryst with Queen Marguerite. Don John also began to reintroduce Spanish troops into the Netherlands, summoning to his side his nephew, friend, and fellow Lepanto veteran Alessandro Farnese, now prince of Parma.
Spanish troops achieved a stunning military victory over the rebels at Gembloux on January 31, 1578, but the triumph resolved nothing. It strengthened the resolve of the Dutch to resist and it failed to regain for Don John the confidence of his royal brother, which apparently he had now lost once and for all. As the situation in the Netherlands deteriorated, so did Don John's health. He suffered several bouts of fever during his time in the Low Countries and visiting dignitaries reported that he had become thin and sallow of complexion. On October 1, 1578, delirious with typhus, the hero of Lepanto died at Bouges, near Namur. On his deathbed, he transferred his command to the prince of Parma and willed his earthly belongings to his brother Philip. It was reported later that among his last words was the declaration that, "During all my life I have not had a foot of land I could call my own." Then he recalled the words of Job, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return." Don John of Austria's body was smuggled across France and into Spain, where it lies next to that of Charles V in the royal tombs at the Escorial.
Further Reading on John of Austria
Beeching, Jack. The Galleys at Lepanto. Scribner, 1983.
Chuboda, Bohdan. Spain and the Empire, 1519-1643. University of Chicago Press, 1952.
Elliott, J. H. Imperial Spain, 1469-1716. St. Martin's Press, 1963.
Lynch, John. Spain Under the Habsburgs. 2 vols. Oxford University Press, 1964.
Maxwell-Stirling, Sir William. Don John of Austria, or Passages from the History of the Sixteenth Century. 2 vols. Longmans, 1883.
Merriman, Roger Bigelow. The Rise of the Spanish Empire in the Old World and the New. 4 vols. Macmillan, 1918.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. Cornell University Press, 1977.
Parker, Geoffrey. Philip II. Little, Brown, 1978.
Slocombe, George. Don John of Austria: The Victor of Lepanto (1547-1578). Houghton, 1936.