It may be difficult to believe that a peace-promoting government like the Vatican once had a navy of its own. It may also tax the imagination to accept the fact that this navy actually engaged in a shooting war, recruiting manpower from the local parish and training officers and crews in the art of combat afloat. Although it was not a large force at any time, this navy did more than its share to keep the peace in the Mediterranean Sea for about 1000 years. In its time it rescued hundreds of thousands of Christians from slavery, convoyed merchantmen, guarded the coast against barbaric invasions, and sent expeditions to the relief of Christian settlements in the Holy Land.
The beginning of the Papal Navy can be traced back to the 8th century A.D. and it remained a power, in its modest way, until about the middle of the 19th century. Throughout its entire history, the navy of the Pope fought but one enemy, the Mohammedan—traditional foe of Christianity. During these centuries, this fight was a siege of continuous warfare abating only for the time that it took for the invading barbarians to assemble new fleets to replace those sunk or lost in conflict.
One of the most heartbreaking handicaps for the Sovereign Pontiffs to face was the in difference of the European rulers to the menace of these ruthless hordes that were constantly raiding Christian shores and enslaving the people. From the very beginning, all efforts to unite the European States in a common cause were fruitless. Alliances that were made were often carried out with duplicity and treachery. When Spain banished all Moslems, many of them settled on the north coasts of Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea and they easily turned to piracy to avenge themselves, particularly against the Spaniards and generally against all Christian countries.
When the Saracens invaded the northern shores of the Mediterranean, they drove deep into the provinces of Italy. Defeated and chased back to the sea, they reformed their forces for another sortie ashore. Pope John VIII vainly tried to enlist the help of Charles the Bald, Emperor of the West, and Basil the Macedonian, Emperor of the East. At their refusal, the Pope decided to build his own fleet of galleys and meet the enemy at sea. These ships were propelled by oars, 100 to each galley, and carried a contingent of warriors armed with the latest ordnance. Headed by the Pope, in March 877, they routed and defeated the Saracen fleet off Terracina, capturing 18 galleys and setting free the 600 slaves who were chained to the sweeps. It was a costly venture for the Papal State, but it proved the advantage of having their own squadrons to stop the infidels before they had a chance to land. Other attempts were made by the Saracens before they were finally discouraged from these forays. War flared up again when the Christian renegade, Mogehid, landed 10,000 men in Sardinia. Benedict VIII drove them out with the help of the Pisans, Genoese, and Neapolitans. In the reign of Pope Victor III, a fleet of 300 ships was sent to meet the Saracens and the success of this victory aroused the European States to co-operate in the battles against the marauding Mohammedans.
But these ententes did not last very long and each succeeding leader of the Papal State had the same old problem in convincing the European powers to unite. In 1074, when the Turks joined the pirates from the African shore, Pope Gregory VII tried to awaken his neighboring rulers to the renewed outrages on ships and shoreside cities. But it was the same old story of the past; no one would listen to his warnings. Pope Nicholas IV also failed to arouse their interest and, in 1291, through sheer desperation, he had to charter 20 galleys from the Venetians and add them to his own ten of the Papal Navy to transport 2,500 soldiers to meet the forces from Egypt. In a desperate struggle, the Papal fleet was defeated but they did manage to rescue the Christian inhabitants and transport them to Cyprus.
By the 14th century, the Turks were showing such strength and audacity in their raids that Europe could not help but read disaster for all Christians unless something drastic was done. Under the guidance of Pope John XXII, an alliance was formed and the Ottoman fleets were sunk in the Sea of Marmora in spite of overwhelming odds. At the death of the Pope, the league fell apart and again the Papal State Navy was on its own defending the Christian shores. The emissaries sent to European capitals came home and reported their failure to form any alliances.
Forced to rely on their own resources, Pope Calixtus III built a shipyard on the Tiber and in a short time he had a fleet of fighting galleys and transport vessels. The Papal Navy was put under command of Cardinal Scarrampo who appointed Velasco Farinha, a Portuguese, as vice admiral. The Cardinal set sail with his squadrons in 1456 carrying 1,000 sailors and 5,000 soldiers. Their heavy armament consisted of 300 guns. This new navy cruised the Aegean Sea for nearly three years chasing the entrenched Turks from many of their island hideouts and releasing more than 100,000 slaves from bondage. The records show that no one had done more than Pope Calixtus III in relieving the pressure of the Mohammedans. It may seem incongruous to refer to this man of the cloth as a “fighting Pope,” but he certainly got results with his little navy that was headed by a Cardinal rather than by a salty warrior. In those three years of cruising, Cardinal Scarampo and his ships lowered the lamps in the tents of the barbarian hordes. His name and the Papal Navy were a cause of concern among Ottoman chieftains. All this was accomplished because Pope Calixtus III was a determined man, a man who did not rest on the paper promise of a European ruler.
But man is not immortal and, by the 16th century, new leaders had taken over on both sides of the Mediterranean. The pirates on the African shores were now in control from Algiers to Alexandria. Some of their best men were sent to the Turks where they held the rank of admiral and led the Ottoman ships on raids to Christian countries. Pope Innocent VIII was made aware of these infidel plans and to meet them, he formed a special squadron which consisted of four galleys with 50 oarsmen and 50 fighters in each. A rembata, or platform, was put on the bow for sharpshooting riflemen who scanned the horizon for the approach of raiding vessels. In this way the Papal Navy surprised the pirate enemies and they did not have a chance to land and pursue their kidnapping forays.
During this century, the navy of the Popes joined many of the expeditions to the Holy Land and was part of the raiding fleets sponsored by the European rulers. Pope Clement VII sent 12 galleys to take part in the campaign of Emperor Charles V when his fleet under command of Andrea Doria took a Turkish stronghold in the south of Morea. Again the Papal Navy had 12 galleys in the expedition that invaded Tunis and set free the thousands of slaves that were held by the infamous Barbarossa. It was a century that brought defeat as well as victory to the Papal Navy. In many of these campaigns that failed, the cause was traced to the deceit and duplicity of the European rulers who engaged in under-the-table agreements with the common enemy. Outstanding in guile and hypocrisy were Emperor Charles V and his son, Philip II of Spain. The Papal Navy sunk to its lowest ebb when all of its galleys were lost in the battle at Jerbah. When St. Pius agreed to join the Republic of Venice to defend Cyprus, he had to buy the 12 galleys from the Venetians and equip them at his own expense. The Turks had become bolder and their activities had moved much closer at a higher tempo than ever. The situation had become desperate and was relieved only when the Turks were defeated in the famous showdown known as the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The galley at this time and up until the end of the 18th century was a long slim vessel of 164 feet with a beam of 22 feet. It carried two masts with triangular sails. The fighting platform on the bow was increased in length and covered five cannon underneath. In the stern a poopdeck was raised and very often it was shaded with a brocaded awning embellished with gold fringe and tassels. Heavy sweeps 30 to 40 feet long were used when the wind failed or in conflict where a tight maneuver was necessary. To keep up with their opponents, the Barbary pirates, the galleys of the northern fleets shipped their oars and went into sail alone. They also increased the fire power of their cannon and met every tactic that their enemies used in their frequent raiding of Christian harbors. The Algerians long since had turned to sail and their swift vessels were flying the flags of any victim they started to chase. The subterfuge was seen too late before the pirate hordes fell upon the unfortunate ship, killing all on board and looting the cargo.
In the time of Pope Benedict XIV, the Papal Navy was based at Civitavecchia, the chief seaport. Money and the times had reduced the force to a negligible fleet of small galleys. Pope Benedict took an interest in bringing this force up to date and ordered two 30- gun frigates from Britain. The two ships, San Pietro and San Paolo, arrived at the base about a year later. Hardly a month had passed for a shakedown cruise and a familiarizing of the new ships’ armament and sailing qualities, when they were put into action. Both ships were sent off the Italian coast to guard the commercial shipping lanes. They surprised and chased a fleet of Algerian xebecs and pinks that were about to attack a formation of Dutch and Genoese merchantmen. In the fall of that year, the San Paolo, while escorting a Dutch convoy en route from the Levant, gave chase and captured a Barbary coast pink of 94 guns and 150 men. These two new frigates of the Papal Navy were not yet reported by Algerian scouts and were therefore all the more effective in their patrols. Shipowners and merchants were loud in their praise for the added protection and looked forward to more peaceful voyages.
Fifteen years later, both vessels were replaced by two larger frigates, the San Clemente and the San Carlo. Pope Clement XIII arrived at Civitavecchia, where they were built, for the blessing and the launching. A silver medal was struck to commemorate the occasion. Both vessels were three-masted with lateen-rigged sails. Elaborately carved ornaments and furbishings graced these ships from stem to stern. Delicately drawn figures followed the arched windows in the sterncastle with all carving highlighted in gold. Beneath their storybook appearance, however, a row of gunports on each broadside shadowed the muzzles of cannon. When H.R.H. the Duke of Cumberland and brother of George III, was making the Grand Tour,” the San Clemente was put at his disposal by the Pope.
During the time of the French Revolution, the Papal Navy had only two 20-gun corvettes and a few smaller vessels. When Rome was occupied by the French, the naval base of Civitavecchia was seized and used as a Port of embarkation for the Army of Egypt campaign. The Papal ships, naval and commercial, were confiscated and pressed into service to carry part of the ill-fated French troops to the African shore. Sunk or lost in the turmoils of war, the Papal Navy was out of existence at the beginning of the 19th century.
Bonaparte, with an eye to shoring up his flanks, perhaps, took a keen interest in reviving the Papal Navy. To show his good intentions, he presented Pius VII with two small brigantines of 16 guns. They were the San Pietro and the San Paolo. Under the carved names on the transoms, Napoleon ordered inscribed in letters of gold: "Donné par le premier consul Bonaparte au Pape Pie VII." The San Pietro was at one time in the British Navy as HMS Speedy, under command of Lord Cochrane. In 12 months, she had, under the British flag, taken 50 prizes with all their fine armament and was considered a topnotch fighting ship. Three French battleships cornered her to a surrender and she was taken as a prize of war and given to the Pope as a gift.
One of the greatest setbacks to the Mohammedan pirates of the African coast was their defeat at the hands of Christians who came 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to fight them in their own waters. When the American ships of war sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar to settle accounts with the Algerian war lords, they did not return home until they had left the Barbary Coast strewn with the rubble of pirate ships. The beys and deys from Alexandria to Algiers were glad to sign a treaty with these “barbarians from over the Atlantic.” It proved a terrible blow to their prestige and brought tranquility to both shores of the Mediterranean Sea. With the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, the outlook for a long and lasting peace seemed fairly reasonable and the Papacy saw no need for a navy. Efforts were concentrated on commercial ships instead and soon the Papal flag on merchantmen was seen in some of the principal ports of the world.
When the Mohammedan ruler of Egypt sought to gain favor with the Papacy, he presented the Pope with some alabaster monoliths. These can be seen today in the fabric of St. Peter’s-without-the-Walls in Rome. It was a nice gesture of the Mohammedan, but he might have done better had he delivered this weighty token of esteem to Rome. Instead, the Papacy had to send an expedition to Egypt in 1840 to transport the monoliths home. The freighting convoy consisted of the tartanes, San Pietro and San Paolo and the mistico, Fedelta. These were singlemasted vessels with lateen sail and jib. The Fedelta sailed up the Nile as far as Assuan before the expedition took on their cargo near Rosetta.
Upon returning to Rome in 1841, the ships were greeted by Pope Gregory XVI. In his speech of welcome and congratulations to his captains, he expressed a keen desire to enlarge the almost extinct Papal Navy. The first vessel, named for himself, was launched at Ancona. In September 1842, His Holiness took a short cruise on the 12-gun brig San Pietro e San Paolo. The trip whetted his enthusiasm still further and he planned a complete revival of the navy on a larger scale. His sincere determination enlisted Alessandro Cialdi in the cause and he was given charge of the entire promotion. Cialdi had been in command of the monolith expedition to Egypt and used the Fedelta as his flagship. He was a master mariner of deepwater ships having sailed to America many times before he served with the Papal Government vessels. Cialdi was not only a commander of sailing ships but also had a knowledge of machine driven vessels and in his time did considerable research on wave motion and the improvement of navigational instruments.
With the renewed interest in naval operations, the Papacy looked to improving its rivers and harbors. The Tiber River was the first to be considered because its sandy banks and shallows had long been a menace to navigation. Cialdi, of course, was the man to carry out this program and he was sent to England for the necessary vessels and equipment. Arriving in London, he made a tour of the shipbuilders and engineering concerns in that city as well as those in Liverpool, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. He finally ordered three paddlewheel tugs to be built at Blackwall. Powered with 30-h.p. engines, the iron vessels went to about 62 tons. They were christened Archimede, Papin, and Blasco de Garay, the first steam tugs to be brought into use in Italy. They were also the first ships to make full use of the inland waterways of France, traveling from the English Channel to the Mediterranean via canals and rivers. Their arrival in Rome was a festive occasion and was honored by the Pope who, on a tour of inspection of the vessels, congratulated Cialdi for the achievement.
The Papal States enlarged their navy by several more ships of the small steamer type intending to use them as coast guard vessels. All of them were purchased by Cialdi in England. The last ship to be bought for the Papal Navy, which was by far its finest, was the corvette Immacolata Concezione. Built by the Thames Ironworks at Blackwall, she was launched in May 1859 and Cialdi took delivery of her in August. She was a full rigged iron ship of 627 tons carrying a wealth of white canvas on her three masts. Her auxiliary was a steam engine of 160 h.p. driving a screw propeller. Under full sail with signal flags whipping in the breeze, her yacht-like lines made an elegant picture that caused much favorable comment in the current newspapers. A sumptuously fitted deck cabin was presumably for the Pope should he wish to go along on a cruise. Armed with eight 18-pounder brass cannon, she was planned as a protective vessel for the Papal State fishing interests. Her officers and crew of 46 men were smartly turned out in uniforms that closely resembled those of the British sailors.
The Immacolata Concezione served as the flagship of the Papal Navy until 1870 when the Temporal Power ended and the navy was taken over by the Italian Government. In the transfer of the Papal ships to the Italian Navy, the Immacolata Concezione was the exception to the arrangement and she stayed at her base in Civitavecchia for several years. In 1879, Pius IX presented the ship to the Dominican Fathers of the French naval training school, St. Elmo, at Arachon. One of her small saluting mortars could be seen on the parade grounds as late as 1940.
In 1883, the French school sold this beautiful ship to British merchants and she was used as a cargo carrier. She was recognized in 1905 at Algiers although registered under the name of Loire. Her days were ended on the beach near Ajaccio where she was run ashore after being totally destroyed by fire. The Immacolata Concezione was the last survivor of one of the oldest navies of Europe.
There is nothing in the records to show that the Papal Navy, small as it was, ever flinched in the face of danger. It did not carry the banners of the conqueror, and yet its yellow and white ensign with cross keys and tiara, fluttering at the masthead, was ever a welcome sight to vessels of all Christian countries. Its prime purpose was to preserve Christianity and protect it from the rapacious hordes of pirates. The Mediterranean Sea had been swarming with the most ruthless foes of all humanity that the world had ever known. The cutlass of the Barbary States and the scimitar of the Ottoman could not be parried with prayer alone if Christianity was to survive. The pontiffs of these uncertain eras realized that there is a time when one should turn the other cheek and also a time when the devil must be fought with his own fire.
The Papal Navy survived the onslaught of the infidel over these centuries because the men behind it knew how to light the fuse of a cannon as well as a candle.
Mr. Jenrich attended the Mount Hermon Boys School, Cooper Union School of Arts and Sciences, and Columbia College of Textile Design. He served in World War I with the AEF. For many years he has been a regular contributor to Yachting, Rudder, Motor Boating, Popular Boating, and Yankee Magazine. He is now retired after 35 years in the textile business and continues to do free lance writing in the maritime, naval and yachting fields.
Visit Scenic Orlieto
Upon the completion of a Sixth Fleet exercise off the Italian coast, our ship, along with many others, received a rather long and somewhat garbled message which read, in Part, “ . . . WILL PROCEED ORLIETO AS DIRECTED. . . . ” We were new in the Mediterranean, and a visit to an Italian port was just what we needed. Especially Orlieto. No one had ever been there. In fact, no one had ever heard of the place. We couldn’t find it on our charts. We couldn’t find it in any of the Hydrographic publications. We couldn’t even find it on an Italian road map. How could we sail to Orlieto if we didn’t know where it was?
At this point, our confusion was suddenly eliminated by a quartermaster who edited the baffling message with two strokes of a pencil. The message now read “. . . WILL PROCEED OR/LIE/TO AS DIRECTED. . . .”
Our visit to Orlieto was ended before we got there.
—Contributed by Captain Donald Gay, Jr., U. S. Navy
(The Naval Institute will pay $10.00 for each anecdote accepted for publication in the Proceedings.)