Rather Turkish than Papist

European Alliances with the Turkish State

/ by Roman Vučajnk

In mid-March, the political conglomerate of the EU extended a generous hand to the Turkish giant, lounging between Syria and Greece, in hopes of reducing the pressure of migrations on the Balkan route towards the north. Cynics chirped that the EU kept the other hand on its head to balance an ill-fitted tiara with its famous yellow stars. Madam Europe is in trouble, and she needs as many good friends as she can muster, but some have raised concerns against going to bed with a power which cultivates a fundamentally different view on the values that Europe holds dear - the respect of human rights being one of them. The critics fear that certain articles of the treaty with an old terror of the Balkans may shove the EU down a very steep hill, especially as a swarm of conflicting national interests weakens a common European stand.


Titian's painting "Francis I and Suleiman" (1530)
Throughout the one-thousand year contact between the two persistently extroverted poles of power, ideology has played an important role. Images of bloodthirsty invaders, whether fuming Janissaries or foaming Crusaders, were literally burned into the social memories on both sides. Not without reason. And we still carry the baggage.


The current agreement between the European states and Turkey is just the last in a line of inventive arrangements between European powers and the mover-and-shaker of the Eastern Mediterranean.


A few cordial nods have passed between the archenemies during the time when calls for Crusades still echoed from the pulpits. Perhaps the most famous is the story of Prince Cem from the late 15th century, whose half-brother Sultan Bayezid struck a deal to keep the princely pretender to the Ottoman throne as a perpetual guest in European palaces, ultimately in Papal Rome, where Prince Cem was said to have enjoyed the company even of the Borgia boys. Sultan Bayezid flooded the Papal coffers with astronomic sums, which financed many political and artistic projects of the Holy See.


However, what we today would regard as a proper diplomatic alliance, rooted in secular political interests rather than purely religious ones, hatched a few decades later. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and, with the latest conquests in the New World, the ruler of the realm on which the sun never set, was on his way to creating a universal monarchy. King Francis I was reluctant to allow his proud realm of France to step aside.

Both monarchs played their game of high politics on the chessboard that spread all over the continent and beyond, and had a long-lasting effect on political development, which still resonates in our time.


In 1519, 19 year-old Charles and barely older Francis were rival candidates for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. As a part of their election campaign, they promised to renew efforts against the Christian enemy, the Ottoman Empire, which was expected of the Emperor. The electors placed their chips in favor of Charles Hapsburg, and Francis went to war with him.


At that time, Sultan Suleiman, who understood the importance of expanding his realm into Europe, ruled the Ottoman Empire. His predecessors had left him with a good foothold; therefore, he seized the opportunity of the Hapsburg engagements elsewhere and conquered Belgrade, the door to Central Europe, and the island of Rhodes, the control point of the Eastern Mediterranean, which amplified the European alarm.


The turning point was reached in 1525, when Charles’ armies captured Francis I at the battle of Pavia in Italy, and he was taken to Madrid. The French king, denied his Italian appetites and deprived of a great deal of pride, decided it was time to take drastic steps.


The ruler of the first modern state recognized by the Holy See, and named “the Eldest Daughter of the Church,” asked for Sultan Suleiman’s help against Charles.


Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri

Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without  forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

The Ottoman Empire saw the alliance with the French as a leverage against Charles’ efforts to make the Holy Roman Empire the single superpower of Europe, which would have had a paralyzing effect on the Turkish expansion, and offered help. At the same time, Suleiman attacked and conquered a large piece of Hungary, and pressed close to Hapsburg Vienna. Charles realized the danger and initiated diplomatic efforts to form an alliance with Persia, in hopes of threatening the Ottoman Empire from its back.


Figures were set and the opening moves played of the game that would last for the next three centuries.


However, the alliance between France and the Ottoman state reached beyond substantial military cooperation. A French embassy was established near the Golden Horn at Istanbul; it was allowed to build a Christian chapel, and the French seized custody of Christian holy places. French trade received a formidable boost, in the form of a privilege to trade in all Ottoman ports, which evolved into a long-lasting monopoly, with the power to approve or deny any other European merchant access to Ottoman markets.


The French King offered a similar gesture, and invited thirty-thousand Ottoman seamen and their ships, under the command of Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa, to spend the winter of 1543-44 in Toulon, a port in the south of France. The people of the town had to vacate their homes to make room for the Turks, and even the cathedral temporarily served as a mosque. A couple of years later, Ottoman Admiral Turgut Reis hid in Toulon, on the run from Andrea Doria, a Genoese admiral in the service of Emperor Charles.


The Ottomans used the alliance with the French to drive their policy further into continental Europe. The Schmalkaldic League, the first political union of German Protestant princes against Catholic Emperor Charles, seemed like a perfect ally. Suleiman wrote to the Reformed princes and fueled their fight against the Empire. He even flattered them by stating that he considered the princes close to the Muslims, as they also annihilated idols and opposed the Pope.


The Schmalkaldic League eventually lost to the Emperor at the Battle of Muehlberg in 1547, and we are left with a lovely souvenir of that event, in the form of the well-known equestrian portrait of Charles V by Titian, an important painter of the Venetian school who, coincidentally, also painted the portraits of Francis and Suleiman about fifteen years earlier.


Suleiman continued in his support of the Lutherans and the Calvinists against the Catholics, with the intention of deepening the cracks in the political map of Europe, keeping the Hapsburgs involved on as many fronts as possible, and weakening the defense against the Ottoman invasion of the Balkans and Hungary. Even after the passing of the original protagonists in this game of crowns - Charles, Francis, and Suleiman - their policies continued.


A Dutch slogan, “Liever Turks dan Paaps” (“Rather Turkish than Papist”), coined during the revolt of the Protestant Dutch against Catholic Spain in the late 16th century, illustrates the aversion towards the Catholic regime that had pressed on the Dutch. At the same time, the Dutch were content with the Ottoman military activities, which kept the Catholic forces occupied in the Mediterranean, rather than in the Netherlands.


As the Protestant states fortified their positions against the Catholic powers, their interest in alliances with the waning Ottoman Empire moved down the ladder of priorities.


Central and Eastern Europe were less attracted to forming pacts with the Ottomans, especially when the Hapsburgs consolidated their power there and, step by step, pushed the Ottomans back. The cruelty of the Ottoman conquerors and raiders left a chilling imprint on the lore of the Balkan and Greek peoples, who suffered centuries of stagnation and descend under the stern rule from the Topkapi Palace.


Whether the current political situation will bring Europe closer to Turkey remains to be seen, but it is part of a long history of unions, split frequently by wars, a give-and-take of two fundamentally different cultures, some might say ultimately incompatible, but now with an external concern over which to come together. 

Roman Vučajnk

(1977) is a translator. His first job was at an archaeological site and he was later threatened with adulthood as an Office IT Guy for an international employer. Roman also teaches 16th century European urban combat across the continent and enjoys rapier sparring with friends. In a fit of affection, he nicknamed his three kids as 'the Huns'.