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G - 17 : "Are you seaman to fill your casks with wine rather than powder?" - the Siege of Nice


The Bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer is a natural Harbour which was used by the US 7th Fleet


5 August 1543 was not a good day for people living in Villafranche. In the early morning hours, a fleet of 120 Turkish and 40 more French galleys crept into the bay, quickly sized the small town, shepherd the 500 citizens away for sale in North Africa’s slave markets and started unloading the big guns necessary for the siege of Nice.

Turkish Painting of the Landing of Ottoman Forces in Villefranche on 5 August 1543


Since 1536, the French King Francis I and Sultan Suleyman the Great were allied to fight the Habsburg Empire - Europe's dominant power at the time. The decades-long war was fought in the Mediterranean, Hungary, the Netherlands, southern France, Savoy, Italy and Greece. Albeit the planned, French-Turkish invasion of Italy from North and South in 1537 came to naught, it eventually led to a joint attack on Nice in 1543. The following winter Francis I evacuated Toulon and let the Ottoman Fleet commanded by Admiral Hayrettin Barbarossa winter there. Toulon’s main church was temporarily converted to a mosque. Barbarossa’s 30’000 men took quarters in the town. The galley were refurbished in Toulon's royal docks.

The French and Turkish Fleet before Nice during the Siege in 1543


The bombardment of Nice with siege artillery commenced on 12 August 1543, only a week after the landing in Villefranche. On 15 August, the lower town walls were breached, but the ensuing assault repulsed. The attackers suffered heavy losses. Three days later, the guns breached the medieval wall in two more places. The town had to negotiate its capitulation. The citizens offered to hand over their homes with all their possessions if they were allowed to leave as free individuals.

Nice in 1624 - the Citadel is protected by modern Bastions - the Townwall is medieval


The omens for such a solution were not good . The same day, Ottoman troops raided the adjacent valleys and took 500 – 1’500 people prisoners. The exact number is unclear. These unfortunate individuals were immediately brought to the shores and shipped to North Africa for sale. As luck would had it, the prisoner convoy run into a Spanish naval patrol west of Sardinia and all prisoners were liberated.

Nice from the Air today - the "Chateau de Cimiez" or the "Rock of Nice in the Center


But the Ottoman corsairs were hell bent on taking prisoners. Too many comrades were killed in the assaults. Had it not been for the French Commander in Chief, Francois, Count of Enghien, the 5’000 citizens of Nice would probably have been captured. But he could not let the Christian population his boss Francis I claimed for his kingdom, be sold into slavery. Under his personal protection, they were allowed to leave and given temporary accommodation behind French lines.

The dominant "Chateau de Cimiez" seen from Nice's Main Pier


The military garrison in the citadel above Nice had no intention to surrender though. Thus heavy bombardment continued to 7 September - without much success. Attacks were launched and failed. It was a bloody mess. But the garrison was too well stocked and could hold out for far longer. In a way they were in the same position as the Ligurian fortress towns we discussed in the previous blog. News that a relief army was on the way from Savoy forced the French-Turkish alliance to lift the siege on 9 September. The failure led to considerable tensions within the coalition and Admiral Barbarossa is said to have muttered his famous sentence to the French: “Are you Seaman to fill your casks with wine rather than powder?” Don’t know whether there is any truth in this. But French warfare was definitely more civilized than the Corsairs’ modus operandi.

To prevent further Ottoman Attacks, the ruler of Savoy, Charles I, built the Fort of St Elme in Villefranche-sur-Mer. The Fort houses today the town's Marie.


How much the French respected the Citadel atop of Nice was shown a good 150 years later when it was finally taken. In 1705, Louis XIV ordered the citadel to be leveled so it could never been used again. French military engineers blew it to pieces with several tons of black powder. It would never been used for defence again and is today a lovely park, a peaceful green island in the middle of busy Nice with impeccable views.

And the Fort on Mont Alban on the Ridge between Nice and Villefranche-sur-Mer. The Fort is open for visitors.






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