The medieval period was marked a number of naval battles, most of them confined to the Mediterranean Sea. This was primarily because Byzantine Empire was pre-eminent naval force in naval Europe and most of the naval battles in the medieval period involved the navy of the Empire, pitted often against the Muslim navies.
Until the 7th century, Byzantine Empire held sway over the waters of the Mediterranean but this changed as the Arab Caliphate began to expand westwards north-westwards out of Arab and Levant. The Caliphate came in conflict with the Byzantine Empire and consequently, many major naval battles involved the navies of the two rivals.
The Battle of the Masts was one of the most significant naval encounters between the Byzantine Empire and the expanding Arab might. It was also one of the earliest maritime stand-offs between the two powers. The battle took place in 655 near the Phoenician coast.
Byzantine Emperor Constans directly overlooked the Byzantine fleet which comprised of 500 ships according to historical sources. The Muslim navy was led by Abu’l-Awar and included 200 ships. The fighting which took place was fierce and after both sides had sustained heavy losses, the Muslim navy stood victorious.
The Byzantine fleet was destroyed and the Emperor barely escaped with his life. The battle marked the ascendancy of the Arab navy in Mediterranean waters, an ascendancy which would intermittently remain all the way until the 11th century.
Battle during Siege of Constantinople
In the early 8th century, Arab armies repeatedly laid siege to the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, aiming to take the city and bring about the end of the Empire. After early siege attempts failed, a large Arab army laid another siege to the city in 817. In doing so, it was accompanied by a sizable fleet of Arab ships.
The fleet was a key part of the war effort since it brought provisions and men to the Arab army on land. The Byzantine navy famously used its lethal weapon, “Greek fire”, which successfully destroyed the Arab fleet near Constantinople.
Two further fleets were sent by the Arabs in 818 but the Byzantine navy was able to destroy both of them as well. The victory at sea became crucial to the ultimate defeat of the Arab campaign and ensured the continued existence of the Byzantine Empire for many subsequent centuries.
Battle of the Gulf of Corinth
By the late 9th century, the Muslim armies had reached as far as southern Italy and successfully annexed Sicily as well as Crete to the Arab Empire. The Battle of the Gulf of Corinth took place in 873 between the naval might of Cretan Saracens and the Byzantine navy.
In this battle, the Byzantine commander famously had his fleet hauled across the Isthmus of Corinth. This was highly unexpected for the Saracen vessels since hauling a fleet across the Isthmus was historically considered nearly impossible. Once across the Isthmus, the Byzantine navy took the Saracen naval might by surprise and destroyed most of the fleet, putting an end to their raiding along the Peloponnesian coast.
Battle of Stelai
The Battle of Stelai was fought in 879, at a time when Sicily had already been lost to the Muslims and the Byzantine Empire was struggling to maintain its supremacy around the coasts of southern Italy. The battle took place between the Byzantine Empire and the Aghlabid Emirate of North Africa.
The Byzantine fleet commanded 60 ships in the battle which were able to defeat the Aghlabid navy and gain complete control of the seas near the Italian Peninsula. Many of the Aghlabid vessels were captured by the Byzantine navy.
Battle of the Straits
In the late 10th century, the Byzantine Empire lost control of Messina. This was also the period when the Fatimid Caliphate was rising in North Africa and had begun to manifest its might in the waters in western Mediterranean. When the Byzantine Empire lost its strongholds in Messina, the Byzantine troops set sail for the Italian mainland for safety.
On their way, they were intercepted by the navy of the Fatimids. The Fatimid navy deployed an extraordinary strategy whereby it used individual divers to swim to the Byzantine ships and torch them using their special weapon “Greek fire” which was fired from a Siphon. The tactic was used with exceptional success and most of the Byzantine fleet was destroyed. The victory established firm control of the Fatimids in Sicily and the waters near the lower Italian Peninsula.
Battle of Arnemuiden
The Battle of Arnemuiden took place in 1338 as one of the naval encounters between the French and English which laid the basis for the subsequent Hundred Years’ War. The English fleet in this conflict comprised mainly of trading vessels while the French fleet comprised of vessels carrying soldiers.
The French easily managed to take over the English cogs, seize the shipments and kill most of the men overboard. The French ships used artillery in this battle, being one of the earliest instances of the use of artillery cannons in maritime warfare. The battle sounded the alarm for the Hundred Years’ War which would soon reach French soil and ravage there for well near a century.
Battle of Sluys
The Battle of Sluys was another maritime confrontation between the French and English vessels and is considered a part of the Hundred Years’ War. The battle took place in 1340 and is notable for the fact that the navies on both side of the conflict by the respective monarchs of England and France.
The French navy was commanded by Philip IV while the English navy was commanded by Edward III. The English used vessels which were higher than those of the French while the French tied together multiple vessels as a secure station for defence.
The English strategy proved effective and their higher vessels used longbowmen to shoot down hails of arrows on French vessels. After suffering heavy casualties, the French had to face the English who climbed overboard their vessels and killed most of the men. The French navy was effectively destroyed in this battle and established the supremacy of England in the English Channel.