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Charles V’s Expedition to Tunis, 1535

by Mike Grayer

Miniature Wargames No. 26, July 1985.


The Empire of Charles V in Europe and the Ottoman Turkish threat

1. Spain: 2. Balearic Islands (Spain): 3. The Netherlands: 4. Franche-Compte: 5. Charolais: 6. Milan (Spain): 7. Austria: 8. Sardinia (Spain): 9. Naples (Spain).

Charles V’s expedition to Tunis in 1535 ranks as one of the most complete military victories of his reign and a personal triumph for the emperor himself. It is with his achievement that this article is primarily concerned. However a knowledge of events in the Mediterranean, immediately prior to 1535, is invaluable — if merely to place the expedition in its proper context. A brief introduction should suffice.
    Under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the Ottoman empire reached its furthest expansion. During this period it posed the single greatest threat to the security of Christendom. The Turkish threat to Charles V’s empire was threefold: by land along the Danubian frontier; by sea across the Mediterranean and along the North African coast; and by its later ‘unholy’ alliance with Francis I of France.
    The accession of Charles to the crowns of Spain and Austria pushed him into the forefront of the Ottoman advance. Yet this in itself would have been of less consequence, but for several important factors, firstly the fall of the Hungarian kingdom in 1526 — long regarded as a buffer state by the Hapsburgs - gave the Turks an ideal position from which to threaten Vienna, the key to Europe and the capital of Charles’s Austrian inheritance. Secondly, the Turkish conquest in the early sixteenth century of Syria and Egypt; for naval operations were to play for the first time a major role in the Ottoman offensive. The capture of Constantinople in 1453 stimulated the development of Turkish naval power, whilst the above mentioned conquests considerably lengthened the coastline of the Ottoman empire. Lastly, the Ottoman alliance with the Barbary pirates of North Africa gave the Turks an ideal opportunity to attack Spain’s coastline and make frequent raids upon her Mediterranean possessions: the Balearic Islands, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia.
    Control of the Mediterranean was vital for all the European countries bordering it. The Turks virtually controlled the eastern part, with the exception of a few Venetian and Genoese outposts. One aim of the Turks was to eliminate these outposts and their subsequent alliance with the Barbary pirates made this viable. Also, by diverting Charles’s military resources and by escalating the Moslem threat in the western Mediterranean, the Barbary pirates were to play an important role in Ottoman foreign policy and have a decisive influence on events.
    The most renowned of all the corsair leaders was Khairredin Barbarossa, ‘the red beard’. Born the son of a potter on the Isle of Lesbos, Khairredin and his brother Horuc, ran away to sea at an early age and joined a crew of pirates. They rapidly became masters of their own vessels and rose to command a small fleet of twelve galleys plus many smaller vessels with which they carried on their infamous activities. Their fame, (or rather infamy) soon spread, as did their growing ambition and prosperity. In 1518 Khairredin became the Ojak of Algiers and placed himself under the authority of the then Ottoman Sultan, Selim I, who appointed him Beylerbey and sent Turkish reinforcements. In 1533 he was created Kapudan Pasha of the Ottoman fleet. In the intervening years he deservedly earned a reputation as the ‘scourge of the Mediterranean’. In 1534 Barbarossa occupied Bizerta and La Goletta and with Turkish help dethroned the weak, despised Hafsid Sultan of Tunis, Mulay Hassan. On 15 August, Hassan fled to Europe and offered to become a vassal of Charles V in return for the restoration of his throne.
    Charles — with the coasts of his dominions continually threatened by piracy and growing Ottoman sea power — seized upon this opportunity to rid the western Mediterranean of the Islamic threat. With an exalted view of his mission as the ‘Champion of Christendom’, and freed from European conflicts and obligations, Charles eagerly began preparations to invade Tunis, and ‘the united strength of his dominions was called out upon an enterprise in which the emperor was about to hazard his glory, and which drew the attention of all Europe’.
    German infantry embarked from the Low Countries, Italians and Spaniards mustered in Naples. The emperor, Spanish nobility, a Genoese fleet and a Portuguese contingent under the Infante, Don Louis, set sail from Barcelona on 29 May. The Pope furnished military assistance, as did the Knights of St. John — who made up in fanatical valour what they lacked in numbers.
    The forces assembled at Cagliari in Sardinia consisted of 62 galleys, 350 transport vessels and upwards of 25,000 troops, including 10,000 Spaniards. Andrea Doria was appointed admiral of the fleet, and command of the land forces (under the emperor) was given to the Marquis del Vasto, a veteran of the wars in Italy. On 10 June the expedition embarked for North Africa. Barbarossa’s fleet was driven off by Doria and by 15 June, the allied fleet was anchored before the ruins of Carthage.
    Barbarossa, however, had not been idle and prepared with equal diligence. All his corsairs were called in, together with forces from Algiers. He dispatched messengers to the Arab and Moorish princes of North Africa for help and ‘by representing Mulay Hassan as an infamous apostate, prompted by ambition and revenge, not only to become the vassal of a Christian prince, but to conspire with him to extirpate the Mahometan faith, he inflamed those ignorant and bigoted chiefs to such a degree, that they took arms as in a common cause’. He soon commanded 20,000 horse and as many as 30,000 foot — although in quality they were vastly inferior to the emperor’s troops and less likely to stand up in pitched battle.
    Charles’s first objective was to capture the fortress of La Goletta which commanded the entrance to the bay of Tunis. Barbarossa placed his chief confidence in the redoubtable defences of the fort and in its garrison of 6,000 Janissaries, under the command of Sinan, a renegade Jew. To capture La Goletta itself was a formidable task. Its fortifications were strong and contained no less than 360 cannon for its defence.
    However, the emperor’s preparations were thorough and well organised. ‘As Charles had the command of the sea, his camp was so plentifully supplied not only with the necessaries, but also with all the luxuries of life, that Mulay Hassan, who had not been accustomed to see war carried on with such order and magnificence, was filled with admiration of the emperor’s power. His troops animated by his presence, and considering it as meritorious to shed their blood in such a pious cause, contended with each other for the posts of honour and danger’. Indeed an Italian general once claimed that on the battlefield the presence of the emperor himself was worth 25,000 troops!
    The Turkish garrison displayed equal courage and despite heroic feats by Charles’s troops, the siege lasted some weeks. The allied force endured disease and sorties from both La Goletta and Tunis, but eventually the breaches in the walls (from both the land and sea bombardment) became sufficiently weakened for a general assault to be launched.
    On July 14 the fortress was systematically bombarded from land and sea, then stormed on all sides. Three landward attacks were concerted; the Germans from the north, Spaniards from the east and Italians from the west. In addition the Knights of St. John attacked from the sea. The troops advanced along the saps and poured through the breaches made by the artillery. After a brief, but fierce, resistance the fortress fell. Few of the garrison survived. Sinan and the remnants escaped over a shallow part of the bay to Tunis. As Charles entered La Goletta he turned to Mulay Hasan who attended him: “Here is a gate open to you, by which you shall return to take possession of your dominions”. More importantly, Barbarossa’s fleet of 82 galleys and galiots - which had remained inactive, in the bay — together with the arsenal of La Goletta fell entirely into the emperor’s hands.
    With the loss of La Goletta, Barbarossa was left with two options: either to attempt to defend Tunis or meet the emperor’s forces in battle. As the wall of Tunis were extensive and extremely weak and as its inhabitants were unreliable, he naturally chose the latter course. Barbarossa, not wishing to have a mutiny on his hands, gave orders that the 10,000 Christian slaves imprisoned in the citadel were to be totally massacred before the army left. Yet, despite their ‘piratical depravity‘, the thought of such merciless barbarity filled his subordinates with such horror that Barbarossa changed his mind (it is noted rather from the dread of irritating his officers than by motives of humanity!).
    Although at first content with his initial success, Tunis remained Charles’s main objective. Water was becoming increasingly short, however, and Barbarossa’s troops held the wells in force. Nevertheless Charles marched to capture them, over burning sands and in a scorching heat. Many soldiers died of thirst and countless horses perished under the blazing sun. In the battle which followed Barbarosa’s troops were routed; the emperor particularly distinguished himself and even had a horse killed under him.
    After the ‘battle of the wells’, Barbarossa withdrew to Tunis where he found his fears realised. The thousands of Christian slaves (not wishing to be massacred!) had revolted. After breaking out of their prison in the citadel they overpowered their guards, seized arms and held the city in Charles’s name. However, disaster followed when the allied troops — particularly the Germans - on reaching the city, plundered it, allowing Barbarossa time to escape to Algiers with fifteen vessels and the remainder of his forces. Charles would have liked to pursue Barbarossa, but postponed any attack on Algiers because of the lateness of the campaigning season and the deterioration of relations with France. In fact from 1536-1538, Charles found himself yet again at war with Francis I. Since piracy needed no single base to work from, Barbarossa was able to continue with his raids from Algiers. In 1536 he rebuilt his own galleys in Algiers, then devastated Port Mahon in Minorca and raided the Valencian coast.
    Nevertheless Charles’s triumph was still a substantial achievement, measured purely by its success, rather than the importance of its consequences. Mulay Hassan was re-installed as ruler of Tunis and a Spanish garrison installed in La Goletta. A treaty was concluded with him with the following conditions: ‘That he should hold the kingdom of Tunis in fee of the crown of Spain, and do homage to the emperor as his liege lord; that all the Christian slaves now within his dominions, of whatever nation, should be set at liberty without ransom; that no subject of the emperor’s should for the future be detained in servitude; that no Turkish Corsair should be admitted into the ports of his dominions; that free trade, together with the public exercise of the Christian religion, should be allowed to all the emperor’s subjects; that the emperor should not only retain the Goletta, but all the other sea-ports in the kingdom which were fortified should he put into his hands; that Mulay Hassan should pay annually twelve thousand crowns for the subsistence of the Spanish garrison in the Goletta; that he should enter into no alliance with any of the emperor’s enemies, and should present to him every year, as an acknowledgement of his vassalage, six Moorish horses and as many hawks’.
    Following the success of the expedition, Charles’s prestige in Europe soared to its greatest height of his reign and he returned a conquering hero. G.R. Elton writes of him: ‘At last he had proved himself in battle, the leader of a true Crusade, fighting not Christians, as did the rest of Europe’s princes, but the enemy of Christendom himself. Not even the fact that the whole story has an air of romantic and chivalric improbability about it, and not even the rapid revival of Turkish naval power, should detract from the achievement. It had its uses, too, in practical terms. When Charles returned to Europe he was no longer the man who had so pitifully failed in Germany but the knight and hero who had conquered the seemingly invincible’ (1).
    When Charles reached Sicily in August, he was given a triumphal entry into Messina — as befitted the leader of such a romantic and chivalrous expedition.

(1) Reformation Europe; G.R. Elton, p.159

Wargaming the Period
Ohviously for the land actions any scale of figures, and most ‘Renaissance’ rules will suffice. For vessels- galleys and suchlike — Navwar produce a range in 1/200th scale. Heroics and Ros produce a Renaissance range of figures in 1/300th scale and the two could be used in conjunction, despite the disparity. The Wargames Research Group (W.R.G.) “rulettes” for 16th Century Galley warfare cater for naval and amphibious actions, although in a rather simplistic form. Navwar rules for the period cover galley warfare in greater complexity; both sets are worth a look. The Tunisian expedition is an interesting example of 16th Century Mediterranean amphibious operations and combines most of the elements of that particular brand of warfare. It was however only one of many expeditions, full-scale battles, sieges, and piratical raids that dominated the Mediterranean during this militarily fascinating era. I would therefore suggest the following three reference works for anyone seriously interested in the period as a whole. All are historical masterpieces in their own right.
Beeching, J. The Galleys at Lepanto.
Braudel. F. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the age of Philip II. Vol. II.
Guilmartin, J. F. Gunpowder and Galleys — changing technology and Mediterranean warfare at sea in the Sixteenth Century.

Appendix 1: Letter by Charles V from Tunis
    ‘To the comendador mayor of Castile, our faithful Don Juan de Zuniga. Written in the citadel of Tunis, on the twentieth day of August, Anno Domini 1535. Sir, the following lines are to inform you that no further levies are necessary in Castile, for God has granted victory to our Christian arms.
    On the twenty-second day of June, I pitched my army tent before the city of Tunis; and with surprising speed I succeeded in storming the fortress of Goletta that was defended by the Jew Sinan. As this fortress constituted the main defence of Tunis, which could scarcely be held without it, Khair-ed Din, the Red Beard, made a sortie with his whole army, about fifty thousand men, against my greatly outnumbered troops, to try his luck again in open battle. The immense hordes of the infidels hurled themselves upon us with wild yells; but we — Spaniards, Italians and Germans — arrayed ourselves in triple rank and let them run into our lances like wild boars.
    Then we moved slowly against the fierce enemy who, despite the shouts of Red Beard, soon began to waver, finally the whole disorderly mass of men rolled back like an avalanche, unfortunately carrying their leader with them; for we would gladly have captured him.
    We expected further resistance in Tunis itself. But meanwhile the Christian slaves had freed themselves from their fetters and occupied the citadel. All the gateways and streets were crowded with fugitives carrying away their belongings. Taking advantage of the confusion we occupied the city. Regrettably our own troops, especially the German lansquenets, got out of hand, and plundered the city, murdering many infidels.
    The keys of Tunis were handed over to us, and ten thousand Christians were freed from captivity. Our booty is great, for we took all of Red Beard’s fleet and three hundred and sixty bronze guns from the walls of Goletta. We put Muley-Hassein on the throne of Tunis. He declared himself to be our vassal and promised to send us an annual tribute of six falcons and six Arab Horses.
    We hope that piracy in the western Mediterranean has now been checked forever, through the immeasurable grace of God and the good fortune of our arms.
    We thank you, Sir, for your efforts on behalf of the Prince Philip, our son.

‘I the King.’



See also The Attack on La Goleta, Conquest of Tunis tapestries
Illustrations of Spanish & North African Costume & Soldiers
16th Century Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers