Battles of Gorjani and Castelnuovo 1537

Battles of Gorjani and Castelnuovo 1537.On the sea, the Ottoman Empire was trying to consolidate its power after the victory at Preveza, while on land the conflicts around modern-day Hungary and Croatia continued towards their culmination at a number of sieges. After the failed siege of Vienna in 1529, the Ottoman Empire Sultan Suleiman I returned to his capital.

Although his vassal John Zapolya managed to restore his position in Hungary, the situation in the region was still very much in flux, and the Habsburg heir Ferdinand was not planning to stay idle. According to the Ottoman sources, his messengers visited Constantinople in 1530 and demanded Suleiman stop supporting John, which was refused. In response, Ferdinand moved his troops and attacked John, starting the so-called Little Battles.

History of Sultan Suleiman

The Habsburg advances were largely successful but weren’t able to take the capital, Buda.  New ambassadors were sent to Constantinople by the end of 1530, but despite the fact that their tone was more conciliatory this time, no agreement was reached, and Suleiman started gearing up for a new campaign against the Habsburgs. According to the sources, the Sultan mobilized more than 100 thousand troops for this offensive. 

The army left in April, and by July many Habsburg fortresses in Hungary fell to the Ottomans, while the lands in modern-day Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, and Croatia were raided. Suleiman’s forces outnumbered Ferdinand’s, leaving an 800-strong garrison under the Croatian noble Nikola Jurišić to defend the crucial fortress of Kőszeg. At the same time, in order to avoid an open conflict against the Protestant leaders of the Empire, while he was still fighting the Ottomans, Ferdinand was forced to sign the Nuremberg Religious Peace.

Battles of Gorjani and Castelnuovo

The sources are conflicted regarding the siege of Kőszeg, but it seems that the Ottomans thought that it had a much bigger garrison, since it defended a road to Vienna, so first the vizier Ibrahim Pasha, and then the Sultan, surrounded it and used all the artillery and siege tactics they had in their repertoire. The garrison repelled 20 assaults and refused to surrender. The rains started early that year and the Imperial army was forming up in Regensburg to move into Hungary, so Suleiman decided to retreat to Constantinople.

Emperor Charles V and his son Ferdinand knew that a new Ottoman invasion may happen in the future, so they sent several envoys to the Safavid Shah Tahmasp I between 1529 and 1533, renewing the treaties previously signed with Tahmasp’s father Ismail. In 1533 the Safavid Shah started inciting rebellions against Suleiman in the frontier regions, and that was enough to make the Ottoman Empire sultan sign the treaty of ConstConstantinople533 with the Habsburgs.

Ottoman Empire

John Zapolya was recognized as the king of Hungary, while Ferdinand was to keep the western portion of the country and pay 30,000 guldens in yearly tribute to the Ottomans. According to a peculiar clause in the treaty, Emperor Charles promised to only use the title of “emperor” regarding the Ottoman sultan.  With that, Suleiman started his campaign against Tahmasp. He sent letters to the Shaybanids, and they attacked the Safavids in Central Asia, which pulled the Tahmasp’s forces away from the front.

This allowed the Ottomans to take the enemy capital Tabriz and then Baghdad with ease, but further invasion was stopped by the Safavid shah somewhere in the Zagros mountains. The Ottomans lost tens of thousands during the battle there, and due to the weather conditions, Suleiman decided to abandon the campaign. Still, the Ottomans gained territories in the Western Caucasus, Iran, and Iraq. Back in Europe, John and Ferdinand were constantly raiding and counter-raiding.

About Mehmet Pasha

The apparent passivity of the Sultan emboldened Ferdinand, and in 1537 the Habsburgs attacked the Ottomans both on land and at sea. A 24,0024,000-strong under Johann Katzianer moved to attack the Ottoman Empire territories directly and take Osijek in modern, which was crucial for the Ottoman supply lines in the region. Although the Ottoman garrison was just 3 thousand strong, the fortress itself was well constructed, once again, the bad weather conditions, slowed the investment process down.

A few assault attempts failed and Katzianer decided to wait the defenders out.  This allowed the Ottoman Empire governor of Belgrade Mehmet Pasha to gather a cavalry force of 8,000 and march to assist Osijek. The details are unclear, but according to the sources the Ottomans attacked the Habsburg army from multiple directions, and the latter suffered heavy casualties before they managed to form up and drive Mehmet Pasha’s cavalry back.

The Habsburg Army

The fact that only horsemen attacked made Katzianer think that the rest of the Ottoman Empire army would arrive soon and he decided to abandon the siege and retreat. During this retreat, which continued for a few days, the Ottoman light cavalry constantly harassed the imperial troops, until both armies reached the area called Gorjani. The Habsburg army finally saw that the Ottoman army was much smaller than expected, and their commanders decided to counter-attack. 

It seems that it was what the Ottomans were waiting for, as they feigned a retreat, luring the fastest Habsburg units into a trap, where they were attacked by the garrison of Osijek from both sides and by the cavalry itself from the front. With a portion of the Imperial army destroyed, Katzianer fled the field, and the rest of the Habsburg units were shattered. The Ottomans lost just a few hundred troops in this battle, while the Habsburg losses were more than 20,000.

Struggles of Sultan Suleiman

At the same time, the united Christian fleet had seized the coastal town of Castelnuovo, off the coast of modern-day Montenegro. Castelnuovo was not just a coastal outpost. At the height of their power, the Holy League had intended to use it as a staging point to launch a unilateral invasion deep into the Ottoman heartland. However, after the battle of Preveza, the momentum had shifted. The Holy League dissolved, the Venetians had capitulated to the Ottomans for peace, and without Venetian ships, the former invasion plan was in shambles.

In the winter following the victory at Preveza, Sultan Suleiman commanded Barbarossa to replenish his fleet and prepare it for an offensive in the Spring of 1539. Their plan was simple in execution: they would launch a two-pronged attack upon Castelnuovo. The red-bearded Admiral would blockade the coastal fortress from the sea, while the governor of Ottoman Bosnia, a man named Ulamen, would lead an assault from land, sandwiching their target from two sides. Barbarossa embarked around 10,000 infantry regulars on his fleet of 200 ships, on top of a force of 4,000 elite janissaries.

Greek Soldiers

Meanwhile, the inland army numbered 30,000 strong. With a combined army pushing 50,000 men, the sheer might of the Ottomans would surely win the day. Meanwhile, the Habsburg garrison inside Castelnuovo was paltry compared to the colossal legions descending upon them. The defending force was a single Tercio, a unit of Spanish pikemen and arquebusiers, led by one Francisco de Sarmiento. The tercio itself was only 3,500 strong, supplemented by a few light cavalry and Greek soldiers.

Nevertheless, they were resolved to put up a fight. In the months leading up to the Ottoman Empire’s arrival, Sarmiento fortified his position, repairing walls and bastions and building new fortifications. He sent letters for aid across Habsburg domains, to no avail. Andrea Doria, who had abandoned the fight at Preveza a year earlier, refused to risk his now smaller fleet to fight Barbarossa, and by the time the call for aid reached Spain, it was too late.

Ottoman Empire Galleys

On the 12th of June, a vanguard of 30 Ottoman Empire galleys arrived at the Gulf of Kotor on Barbarossa’s behest, blockading it. They disembarked an advance party of 1,000 soldiers onto the Hinterlands outside Castelnuovo to forage for food, and water, and to capture locals for intel. The Spanish were soon made aware of their foe’s landing, and Sarmiento dispatched a force of three companies, 900 infantrymen in total, to meet them.

A ferocious sortie erupted, with the experienced Spanish pikemen and arquebusiers managing to drive the Ottomans back onto their ships. Yet in the afternoon, the Turks once more tried to sortie out onto land, only this time to be beaten back by a 600-strong force led by Sarmiento himself, with heavy casualties inflicted. Barbarossa arrived on the 18th of June with the bulk of the Ottoman fleet and immediately ordered his soldiers to disembark and establish a beachhead.

Ottoman Empire’s Construction

The Ottoman governor arrived with his army a few days later from inland, and together they began digging a network of trenches around the fortress and setting up ramparts for the 44 heavy bombards that had been disembarked from the ships. This was a slow and laborious process, which Sarmiento intended fully to exploit. Spanish soldiers sallied out of their fortress and launched several surprise raids to disrupt the Ottoman Empire’s construction process.

These sorties cost the Ottomans dearly and provoked the Janissaries to retaliate by storming the walls of the fortress. However, they were caught unawares by a force of 800 Spaniards, who devastated the Janissary ranks. Barbarossa was furious, as the Janissary corps was his most elite unit, and the hardest to replace. He ordered his troops to remain cloistered defensively around the trenches until they were ready to launch a full assault.

The Ottoman Army

The defenders simply didn’t have enough men to drive the massive Ottoman army from their beachhead entirely, so they retreated behind their walls and prepared for the siege to come. Ottoman fortifications were prepared by the 23rd of July, and Barbarossa was ready to bring the full might of his army to bear upon Castelnuovo. He sent an olive branch to Sarmiento, offering him peace and safe passage to Italy if he surrendered, even bribing each of his soldiers with 20 golden ducats if only they laid down their arms.

The defenders refused, preferring to die in the service of Charles V.  And so, the bombardment of Castelnuovo began. For the entire day, the Great Bombards shelled the fortress proper while the regular infantry stormed the walls. As darkness fell each night, the Ottoman Empire forces would withdraw, giving the defenders time to shore up their battered defenses, while a Bishop by the name of Jeremias confessed the dying and kept morale high.

The Spaniards

Soon after the first wave of assaults, a Spanish contingent of 600 infantrymen sallied out of the city at dawn, launching a blitz upon an unaware Ottoman Empire camp. Even the remaining Janissaries were routed by the sudden raid, tearing up their camp in an attempt to flee. The Spaniards came dangerously close to Barbarossa himself, who was forced to board a galley and head off-shore to safety.

Nevertheless, still lacking in manpower, the raiders had to eventually retreat to Castelnuovo before the bulk of the Ottoman Empire army rallied and overwhelmed them. Up until this point, the bulk of the defending Spaniards had held up in the upper citadel overlooking the town proper, but by August 4th the Ottoman Bombards had all but shelled it into rubble. That same day, the Turks launched a full-scale offensive on this vulnerable position.

Castelnuovo’s Civilians

The defenders fought valiantly, and managed to inflict yet more heavy casualties, but were eventually forced to retreat into the relatively more intact walls of the town, leaving Barbarossa to occupy the citadel. Fierce fighting continued on the following day. The defenders, battered and weary, still made the Ottomans pay dearly for every inch of ground taken. They defended the town valiantly, and the Turks were only able to capture a small section of the walls centered around a watchtower.

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Sarmiento dispatched a team of sappers to have this watchtower destroyed, but the fuse was lit prematurely, blowing up the sappers before they reached the tower. By August 6th, Ottoman Empire artillery had rendered the town’s walls moribund, and Sarmiento was forced to retreat deeper, to a fortified castle in the town’s southern district. Most of Castelnuovo’s civilians were held up there, and the entrance had been barred.


There remained no time to retreat within the fortification, for the Ottomans were encroaching quickly upon them. One of the townsfolk offered Sarmiento a rope to climb, but he refused, resolving to die alongside the rest of his men in a final last stand. Only 600 Spanish soldiers remained, and as the Turkish army fell upon them, they fought side by side until all were slain or captured. At the end of the day, only 200 defenders remained. Half were executed, while the rest were sold into slavery in Constantinople.

On the Ottoman Empire side, more than 10,000 men lay dead, though some sources claim that their casualties were as high as 37,000.  The victory had come at a great cost, and the Spaniards had put up a historically valiant fight in the name of their Habsburg overlord. Nevertheless, it was over, Castelnuovo was in Ottoman Empire hands, and Habsburg’s in the eastern Mediterranean had been snuffed out, at least for now.

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