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Lepanto, 1571: The Battle that Saved Europe

The clash of civilizations is as old as history, and equally as old is the blindness of those who wish such clashes away; but they are the hinges, the turning points of history. In the latter half of the 16th century, Muslim war drums sounded and the mufti of the Ottoman sultan proclaimed jihad, but only the pope fully appreciated the threat. As Brandon Rogers notes in the Ignatius Press edition of G. K. Chesterton's poem "Lepanto": Pope Pius V "understood the tremendous importance of resisting the aggressive expansion of the Turks better than any of his contemporaries appear to have. He understood that the real battle being fought was spiritual; a clash of creeds was at hand, and the stakes were the very existence of the Christian West." But then, as now, the unity of Christendom was shattered; and in the aftermath of the Protestant revolt, Islam saw its opportunity.
The Ottoman Empire, the seat of Islamic power, looked to control the Mediterranean. Corsairs raided from North Africa; the Sultan's massive fleet anchored the eastern Mediterranean; and Islamic armies ranged along the coasts of Africa, the Middle and Near East, and pressed against the Adriatic; Muslim armies threatened the Habsburg Empire through the Balkans.
The Ottoman Turks yearned to bring all Europe within the dar al-Islam, the "House of Submission" -- submissive to the sharia law. Europe, as the land of the infidels, was the dar al-Harb, the "House of War."
But the House of War was a house divided against itself. The Habsburg Empire was Europe's bulwark against Islamic jihad, but its timbers were being eaten away by the Protestants who diverted Catholic armies and even cheered on the Mussulmen, whom they saw as fellow enemies of the pope in Rome.
In 1568, the emperor Maximilian, of the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire, had agreed to a peace treaty with the Turk; and the Danube was reasonably, temporarily, quiet.
In Spain, the other great pillar of the Habsburg Empire was Philip II. And for him, things were not quiet at all. We think of Philip II as dark and brooding, and so he was -- to the degree that it is surprising to remember that he was blue-eyed and fair-haired. But the lasting image, especially to those of English (even Catholic English) blood, is Chesterton's sketch; as King Philip is in his "closet with the Fleece about his neck":
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in . . . .
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day . . . .
As a ruler, Philip was harsh, saturnine, and austere. He embodied a scrupulousness that went beyond a personal failing to become a public vice, where there was no room for charity and far too much room for plottings and calculations, which, though they always had the protection of the Faith as their goal, were too admixed with lesser, baser metals than the gold of the monstrance. 
Philip's knights had ranged into the New World and were carving out a vast empire, its extent virtually beyond imagining, whence came gold and other treasures. That, Philip knew, was the future. But to his immediate north was the menace.

Europe Divided
Philip was no friend of the Mohammedan, and the Mussulmen remained a persistent threat to Spain's possession of Naples and Sicily. Spanish vessels clashed throughout the Mediterranean with Barbary corsairs. At that very moment, Spanish infantry were suppressing the Morisco revolt of apparently unconverted Moors. But Philip trusted that Spain was well equipped to defeat the Mussulmen. That was old hat.
But Protestantism was something relatively new. It was treason and heresy. And, though Philip would not have been so eloquent, it was worse:
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee . . . .
Where the Austrian Habsburgs hoped against hope for conciliation with their own violent, Teutonic Protestants, Philip II trusted to his renowned Spanish infantry. They had the answer that Protestantism deserved.
The pope had no sympathy for Protestants either, but for him, as for previous popes, Islam remained the real threat. The pope felt he had many urgent tasks to attend to, but the vital one was confronting the Islamic challenge.
Pope Pius V, like Philip, was no exemplar of rubicund, jovial Christianity such as the Italians preferred. He thought the Church had seen too much of that, with the concomitant slackness in Renaissance morals and an excessive generosity to Protestant error. He had never known the high life. He was a former shepherd, an ascetic, a Dominican, and an inquisitor. Though much of a mind with Philip, he had a finer balanced spiritual core that kept him from Philip's failings. As a pope, he was a reformer, and brought a monastic purity to the organization and administration of the Church, to a review of the religious orders, to educating the faithful, to evangelizing, and to caring for the poor (which he did personally).
If Christendom was split asunder -- with even Philip disputing papal control of the Church in Spain -- the pope nevertheless had the spiritual and temporal authority, the presence of a future saint, to assemble a Holy League, a fighting force that included Catholic knights not only from the papal states and the Knights of Malta, but from Italy, Germany, and Spain; and even from England, Scotland, and Scandinavia, Catholics and freebooters, gentleman adventurers and convicts condemned to row the galleys. 
France, la belle France, would be present in the Knights, but not as a party itself. The great period of the fleur de lis had passed away with the end of the Crusader kingdoms. Now the king of France could support no venture in league with the Habsburgs, whose dominions surrounded him. Worse, he was quite willing to cut deals with the Mohammedans in order to turn Muslim corsairs against Genoese and Spaniards and away from Frenchmen (unless they were Knights of Malta, where Frenchmen of the old school continued to thrive). So the French king, from the line of Valois, Charles IX, pleaded exhaustion from having to fight the Huguenots. Even less willing to cooperate with the pope was Protestant England, whose Virgin Queen was establishing a cult around herself and a church subordinate to her will. The sad result of French realpolitik and English apostasy was that the sons of Richard Coeur-de-Lion sat this one out:
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass . . . .

A Rude Awakening for Venice
Others, who might also occasionally yawn at Mass, nevertheless were enthusiasts for a crusade against the Turk -- this was most especially true of the merchant Republic of Venice. It is one of the many commonly accepted myths of history that Protestants invented capitalism, but Venice is proof that Catholic states were exercising their capitalist muscles centuries before Luther burped into his tankard or Calvin had his first glint of his predestined salvation and others' predestined damnation.
The Venetians were prime exponents of the capitalist art. They were, in fact, something like the entrepreneurs of modern Hong Kong, to the extent that their city was built in a lagoon, the buildings actually resting on logs; and the Venetians enjoyed great economic success despite having no natural resources to speak of, save the sea.
No one knows exactly when Venice was founded, but it was during the Roman Empire, perhaps in the fifth century. By the early Middle Ages it was an established city-state and had carved out a commercial and territorial empire -- the territory necessary to protect and extend Venetian commerce.
As with all men of commerce, the Venetians' preferred mode of interaction was trade: They wanted to make money, not war. But they realized that, as the similarly minded Thomas Jefferson realized half a millennium later, "Our commerce on the ocean . . . must be paid for by frequent war." Still, given the choice, just as Churchill thought "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war," the Venetians thought ka-ching–ka-ching was better than war-war.
As such, crusades called by the pope merely for the sake of repelling the Mussulmen had no appeal to them. The Mohammedan was a customer, after all -- and the customer is always (at least up to the point of heresy) publicly right, even if the merchant secretly despises him.
The Venetians, however, had been forced to come to some sober conclusions about Islamic aggression in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1565, the Ottomans had laid siege to the island of Malta, which was defended by the Knights Hospitallers (also known as the Knights of St. John; or, given their new home, the Knights of Malta). For four months the gallant Knights threw back the besieging Turks, inflicting massive losses on the enemy, who finally called it quits after the Knights were reinforced by Spain. 
The Ottomans hated the Knights, but reckoned that Venetian-held Cyprus was easier pickings, and five years later it was Cyprus that was besieged. Now Venice, which had ignored previous papal calls to defend the Mediterranean against Mohammedan raiders, was itself in the firing line. As was good business practice, the Venetians were not caught unprepared. Their insurance policy was the Venetian Arsenal, which built and held the merchant republic's mighty naval forces. The arsenal, however, had caught fire in late 1569; and in February 1570 the Ottoman mufti Ebn Said, on behalf of Sultan Selim II, declared a jihad against the Christians on Cyprus. Selim was known as "the Sot" for his rather un-Islamic drinking habits. He also had the distinction of having blond hair. Despite his heavy drinking, he, like Philip II, was not a blond who had more fun. With his harem, free-flowing alcohol, and access to all the pleasures that the devout expected only to find in paradise, he tramped his palace in depression and rage against the infidel and Western decadence. While no soldier or sailor himself, he lent his full support to every corsair who would attack Western shipping, to every expansion of the Ottoman navy, and to the siege of Cyprus.

The Muslim Onslaught
The Turks came on with 70,000 men, including their shock troops, the praetorian guard of the sultan, the Janissaries -- Christian youths taken as taxation from their families, trained up in the art of war, converted to Islam, and given the power of the sword and the possibility of advancement.
The Catholic defenders of Cyprus were frightfully outnumbered -- by about 7 to 1 -- but then again, the Knights of Malta had faced even stiffer odds. The two key points in Cyprus were Nicosia and Famagusta. The city of Nicosia held out for nearly seven weeks. Finally, reduced to 500 soldiers, it surrendered, expecting the civilians to be spared, even as the Christian troops were enslaved. Instead, the Muslim attackers butchered every Christian they could find -- 20,000 victims, murdered regardless of rank, sex, or age, save perhaps for 1,000 women and children who would be sold as slaves. The Mussulmen knew something about commerce, too, and those with an eye for harem-flesh tried to spare the most valuable Europeans.
That left the former Crusader fortress of Famagusta as the only defensible point on the island. Inspired by the Turks' display of severed Venetian heads from Nicosia, the Christian soldiers put up a stiff defense and were at one point resupplied by gallant Venetian sailors.
But the man most devoted to the relief of Famagusta was Pope Pius V. It was his incessant diplomacy that finally brought together the forces of the papal states, the Knights of Malta, Venice, its smaller rival Genoa, the Savoyards, and, most important, Spain and its possessions Naples and Sicily to form the Holy League. The pope did not punish Venice for its failure to support previous papal calls to combat. He was above such pettiness. He only wanted to restore Christendom. He knew, however, that there were national and personal rivalries and hatreds aplenty within his League, and it would take enormous tact to hold the League together and lead it to victory against the Turk and to the relief of Cyprus. 
For the brave defenders of Famagusta, it was too late. In August 1571, after ten months of resistance, the Venetian commander Marco Antonio Bragadino gave in to civilian pressure and opened negotiations with the Turks. Terms were agreed: The garrison would be exiled, the people spared. The troops were disarmed and boarded transports -- and then they and their commanders were slaughtered. But for Marco Antonio, the Mohammedans reserved a special torture. He was not killed immediately. Instead, his nose and ears were severed, and, as T. C. F. Hopkins has it in Confrontation at Lepanto:
He was pilloried in Famagusta and dragged around the Ottoman camp in nothing but a loincloth and a donkey's saddle and made to kiss the ground in front of Lala Mustapha's tent. The Ottoman soldiers were encouraged to throw garbage and excrement on him, and to mock his misery, and to pull hairs from his beard . . . . Lala Mustapha himself came out to spit on the Venetian and to empty his chamber pot over the old man's head . . . .
And even that was not the end of it. Marco Antonio -- still, for the moment, alive -- was flayed, skinned like a trophy, and then his corpse was stuffed and sent to the sultan, who had the prize stored in a warehouse of other human trophies -- a slave prison.

Don Juan Takes to the Sea
But for this outrage, the pope had an answer, and he had found the man to deliver it. Among all the courageous, experienced, jostling commanders in his unruly Holy League, he chose a handsome 24-year-old. The young man, raised on tales of chivalry, was a student of war and an experienced commander, with a track record of victory against the Moriscos. He was also the bastard son of the late, great Charles V, which gave him good bloodlines as bastards go. He was Don Juan of Austria.
Don Juan was also the half-brother of Philip II, who treated him with the cold, brooding calculation one might expect, and an apparent jealousy that one might not. Philip was pleased that Don Juan's elevation affirmed Spain's leading role in the Holy League. But he did everything he could to tie Don Juan's authority to his other Spanish commanders and thus to himself. When the decks were readied for action, however, such constraints had of necessity fallen away, and Don Juan the swashbuckler took full command.
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
His first victory was keeping the Venetians, the Genoese, and the Spaniards from killing each other. His second was more important: Against urgings of caution from some of his commanders -- most especially the Genoese Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria -- Don Juan of Austria pressed his fleet forward to the attack.
Andrea Doria had reason to fear. If defeating the Turkish fleet required the united naval force of Christendom, what chance had this cobbled-together coalition of fractious rivals commanded by a 24-year-old who, though he had fought corsairs, had sought instruction in commanding so huge a fleet from Don Garcia de Toledo? Don Garcia had once been renowned as a tough old naval warrior, but having run afoul of Philip II, he had been forced into retirement, his reputation blackened. Don Juan, however, trusted him, and believed his advice would be unsullied by Spanish politicking. And Don Juan, fortunately, was right, for in the words of Jack Beeching in The Galleys at Lepanto, he "had the fate of the civilized world placed in his hands." 

The Battle Begins
The Turks had an estimated 328 ships, of which 208 were galleys, the rest being smaller supporting craft. Aboard them were nearly 77,000 men, including 10,000 Janissaries, but also 50,000 oarsmen, many of them Christian slaves. At Don Juan's command were 206 galleys, along with 40,000 oarsmen and sailors, and more than 28,000 soldiers, knights, and gentleman adventurers. He also had the blessings of the pope and the papal banner; the ministrations of Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Capuchins who accompanied the fleet; the prayers of the faithful; and the rosaries that were pressed into the hands of every Christian oarsman.
The Catholic armada had been spotted by Muslim spy ships (painted entirely black so that they cruised through the night unnoticed). They reported that the Christians would be no match for the Ottoman fleet. On October 7, 1571, Don Juan's lookouts raised the alarm as the Christian ships entered the Gulf of Patras. The Ottomans, from their naval base at Lepanto in the adjacent Gulf of Corinth, had formed a battle line, its front arrayed in three "battles," as were the Christians (though the battle had started before Andrea Doria, commanding the Catholic right flank, could bring his ships fully in line). Ahead of Don Juan's three battles was a wedge of galleasses -- slower, less maneuverable gunships that made up for their lack of mobility with their unrivaled firepower.
The battle was met, the galleasses drawing first blood, splintering Turkish decks and Turkish men. But the Ottomans sailed around them; the goal, to grapple with the Catholic ships and turn the battle into a floating melee of Muslim scimitars, bows, and muskets against Catholic swords, pikes, and arquebuses.
Cannons erupted, arrows rained on the Christians, and arquebuses spat back balls of lead. When the ships closed, grappling hooks threw them together; the Christians hurled nets to repel boarders and followed up with gunfire. Still, the fighting closed to hand-to-hand aboard decks. Catholics turned swivel guns on the enemy ships, and the Turkish bowmen fired dark volleys of arrows that claimed the life of Agostini Barbarigo, commander of the Catholic left wing, whose eye was pierced when he raised his visor to issue orders.
Ottoman ships tried to turn the left flank of the Christian line, and while they appeared to succeed, the Catholic ships responded -- amid a blinding hail of cannon blasts, arrows, grenades, and gunfire -- in pinning the Muslim ships against Scropha Point. There, against the shoals, the Muslim vessels were trapped -- and, at first, the Mohammedans fought with the ferocity of trapped animals. But more Catholic ships joined the battle, and what had been the right of the Ottoman line began to splinter, the Christian slaves on the Ottoman ships revolted, and Ottoman captains and crews, sensing disaster, beached their ships, hoping to escape to shore. By early afternoon, the Catholic left had emerged victorious.
At the head of the Catholic center was Don Juan aboard the flagship Real. For him, and for the Muslim commander Ali Pasha, the battle was a joust. They fired shots to announce their presence one to the other, and then drove to the clash, using their galleys as steeds. The ships crashed together, Don Juan in the lead, and everywhere the line erupted with explosions of cannons, bombs, gunfire, and the clash of swords and battle axes, while silent-flying deadly arrows thudded into timber and men.
It appeared that in this violent shipyard scrum, Don Juan's ship and men were getting the worst of it -- despite the handsome hero's pet monkey hurling Ottoman grenades back at the enemy -- until Marco Antonio Colonna, commander of the papal galleys, rammed his own flagship into Ali Pasha's. The surging Catholic forces, in what had become an infantry battle fought across ships' decks, swept the Muslims aside. Ali Pasha himself was killed and beheaded, and when Don Juan waved away the present of the severed head, it was tossed overboard. The Holy League's banner was raised aloft the captured Ottoman flagship, and Ali Pasha's banner -- the sultan's own undefeated standard made of green silk and with the prophet's name threaded through it 28,900 times in gold -- was Don Juan's.
On the right flank, Andrea Doria was engaged in a battle of maneuver that was anti-climactic to the battles on the Catholic left and center, save for the fact that in being drawn away from guarding the center battle's right flank, he allowed the Turks to pour through the gap. Some Catholic ships -- without orders -- pulled out of Andrea Doria's battle to plug the gap. But they were too few, and were forced to such desperate heroics as firing their own powder magazines. The Muslim lunge was then directed at the flagship of the Knights of Malta, who, like so many of their brave fellows before, fought to the death against overwhelming odds. (There were, perhaps, six survivors. The sources vary; six is a high guess. The one certain survivor was the Knights' commander, Pietro Giustiniani, though five times wounded by arrows and twice by scimitars.) Andrea Doria, having hardly distinguished himself thus far, wheeled around and chased away the remaining Ottoman raiders who were commanded by Uluch Ali Pasha, an Italian turned Barbary corsair. Uluch Ali had his prize -- the Knights of Malta's banner -- and he knew how to skedaddle when necessary. A realist, he knew the bigger battle was lost.

Victory at Lepanto
Not only was the battle lost for the Turk, but so were 170 of his galleys and 33,000 men killed, wounded, or captured, as well as 12,000 liberated Christian slaves. Lost was a generation of experienced Ottoman bowmen and seamen; and though a mighty fleet could, and indeed was, rebuilt, and though the sultan was committed to renewing the jihad by sea -- or if not by sea, then by land -- the threat of the Ottoman Turks dominating the Mediterranean was finished.
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!
Catholic losses were 7,500 dead -- though many of these were knights and noblemen -- and another 22,000 wounded (including Miguel de Cervantes). Pope Pius V, who had commanded the faithful to pray the rosary for victory, was convinced that it was prayer that had turned the tide. The Battle of Lepanto became the feast day of Our Lady of Victory, later of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Don Juan, a hero to the last, gave his portion of the captured booty to the Catholic wounded who had not been able to pillage for themselves, and redoubled his generosity by adding to their treasure the 30,000 ducats awarded him by the city of Messina. He also made gifts of two captured banners: The imperial Ottoman banner went to the pope; the fabulous green silk banner went to Philip II, along with his after-action report. He gave credit to everyone else and little to himself, though he had been wounded in the hand-to-hand fighting. Don Juan was everything a parfait gentil knight should be -- and, alas, as is often the case of the good and noble, died young, felled by fever; a romantic hero, a devoted and faithful Catholic and soldier (but one appalled at his half-brother's brutality in the Netherlands), in love with the charming Marguerite de Valois, whose blood was royal but whose character was far less admirable than his own. Still, Don Juan showed that chivalry could indeed live and breathe, even in the thinner air of a Europe no longer unified by the Catholic ideals that gave birth to chivalry.
And so:
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade . . . .
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
Today, Christendom is even more divided, and certainly more deracinated and less confident, than it was in Don Juan's time, but there are still fighting men, the valiant core of that civilization, who even now patrol the dusty villages of Afghanistan and the dirty streets of Mesopotamia. The enemy smiles as "suicide bombers" smile, but our fighting men -- some holding rosaries (the very same as I have, made by a Marine Corps mom) -- smile with thoughts of sweethearts, wives, and children; of football and cold beers by warm fires; and of Christmas. They are the inheritors of the men who saved Europe at Lepanto; and they are the men who will, with God's grace, save the West again. So in honor of Don Juan, of Lepanto, of who we are as Catholics, let us pray for them, for their safety and for their victory. St. George, St. Michael, Our Lady, pray for them -- and for us.

This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Crisis Magazine.


Tag: 1571, Lepanto, Zimperialism, qfightback

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How Our Lady Saved Christendom

Diane Moczar

by Diane Moczar on October 7, 2013 · 2 Comments


Before the famous Battle of Lepanto, one man, at least, saw the danger with great clarity; as the Turkish menace moved ever westward in 1570, Pope St. Pius contacted the chief rulers of the West to unite against an enemy that threatened them all. In vain. Elizabeth of England? “The cold queen of England is looking in the glass,” as Chesterton would write in his famous epic poem “Lepanto,” absorbed in herself, her rivalry with Spain, her intricate diplomacy, and her persecution of Catholics.

France? “The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass.” France at this time was actually a sometime-ally of the Turks, and in the 1570s the country was torn by religious warfare and ruled by the unstable Charles IX, one of a series of sickly sons of the Machiavellian Queen Mother, Marie de Medici. Even Philip II of Spain, champion of the Catholic cause against the Protestants, was much occupied with his new American empire and did not answer the papal summons in person.

Don Juan of Austria

He did, however, send his half-brother, Don Juan of Austria, a young man in his twenties, as well as dozens of ships. Once in Italy, Don Juan was joined by volunteers from all the Mediterranean countries and set about assembling a fleet in 1571. He managed to get about 208 ships (some eighty fewer than in the Turkish fleet), mainly contributed by the Papal States, Spain, and Venice, with a few from other Italian states. The allied states came to be known as the Holy League.

On  the  flagship of the  Genoese admiral, Giovanni  Andrea Doria, was a curious picture that Philip II of Spain had sent him.

Philip had received it from the archbishop of Mexico, who had commissioned it as a copy of the mysterious image of Mary that had appeared in 1531 on the cloak of an Aztec Indian. The archbishop, hearing the news from Europe of the Turkish offensives and the scramble to  organize an  effective defense, must have thought of the many miracles already associated with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. When the copy was finished, he touched it to the original and sent it to the king, advising him to have it displayed on one of the ships of the Holy League, in the hope of victory. Pope St. Pius was also seeking our Lady’s aid, through the recitation of the Rosary, which he asked all of Europe to pray for a successful outcome of the Christian offensive. When the ships set out from the Sicilian port of Messina on September 16, 1571, all of the men had rosaries too.

The great battle

In Rome, Pope Pius had been meeting with his treasurer. Suddenly he rose, went to the window, and stood gazing intently at the sky. Then, turning, he said, “This is not a moment for business; make haste to thank God, because our fleet this moment has won a victory over the Turks.” The day was October 7, 1571, and what the pope apparently saw in vision — for the news could not possibly have reached him by natural  means — was what has since been called the greatest sea battle since the Battle of Actium (between the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, on the one side, and Octavian on the other) in 31 BC.

Naval historians have analyzed it extensively, describing the maneuvering of the two fleets and the various tactics and weap- onry used, and several websites provide maps and pictures as well as details. I will not go into the technical questions here, but a few points should be mentioned.

The Turkish fleet was anchored in the Gulf of Corinth as the allied fleet approached. It probably outnumbered the Christian fleet, but the number of combatants seems to have been about equal; perhaps 30,000 on each side. The Christians had the considerable advantage of possessing six galleasses; these were larger than galleys and had side-mounted cannon — as opposed to the front-mounted cannons of the galleys. This allowed them to inflict great damage on any ship that came broadside to them.

Some accounts say that as the fleets came within fighting distance of each other, early in the morning of October 7, the wind favored the Turks and blew their ships forward against the Christian vessels. Then  the wind shifted, and Don John’s ships were able to draw close to the enemy. This was necessary, because sixteenth-century  naval warfare included hand-to-hand  fighting on the decks as well as bombardment by cannons and arrows.

Thus the Christian victory at Lepanto would be dearly bought. In Chesterton’s graphic words:

Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop

Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop

Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds. . . .

The sea was red with blood for miles around the battle site, when by the late afternoon of October 7, it was all over. The Holy League lost about 8,000 men and at least double that  number wounded, but only a dozen ships. Around the same number of Turks died, but thousands more were captured, fifty ships were sunk, and at least 117 vessels were captured.

An unforeseen development was the rising up, from the depths of the Turkish galleys, of several thousand Christian slaves who had been  forced to  row the  ships. Chesterton   describes the “Thronging of the thousands up that labor under sea, White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty. Vivat Hispania! Domino Gloria! Don John of Austria has set his people free.”

One famous Spaniard who fought in this battle, the author Cervantes, serves as a symbol in the final verses of the great poem:

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath

(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)

And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,

Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,

And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade.

(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

When the news reached Europe, there was general relief, rejoicing, and thanksgiving. As for Pope Pius, he gave credit where it was due, declaring October 7 the Feast of Our Lady of Victory; it was later changed to the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary — a name it still bears.

 A story without an end

The overwhelming significance of this great battle, the climax of the long Christian resistance to Muslim conquest, was that it ended any major Turkish attacks on the Mediterranean. The decimated Ottoman fleet would be partially rebuilt, and one or two islands and African coastal areas would later fall to Turkish attack, but never again would the Mediterranean be in such serious peril from the Turks as it had been before October 7, 1571. Spain would not be reinvaded by the Moors, and the rest of the southern shores of Christendom would be safe. One of the two main pathways to conquering Europe for Allah had been cut off for good.

True, the Ottoman armies were still intact, and in the following century would mount one last campaign against Vienna. It would be their downfall. From the successful defense of Vienna, Christian armies would go on to roll back Turkish conquests from Hungary and much of the Balkans, although a few areas would not be liberated until the earlier twentieth century. With the help of Mary, as both Our Lady of Victory and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Christian saints and heroes of the sixteenth century had begun that liberation.

This article has been adapted from Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know by Diane Moczar, available from Sophia Institute Press.

Another anniversary this month to note in our Fight back! 

We are not alone in this struggle both now and in history.  We must not forget.  Here is another angle on this important battle to help us remember the cost of freedom in this very long war.



October 7: The Feast of Our Lady of Victory

How the 1571 Battle of Lepanto saved Europe.

By Michael Novak

The Pope, the Rosary and the Battle of Lepanto

10/07/2015 Comments (7)

Circle of Andries van Eertvelt (1590-1652), “The Battle of Lepanto”

On October 7, Catholics remember Our Lady of the Rosary.

The feast was actually instituted under another name: In 1571 Pope Pius V instituted “Our Lady of Victory” as an annual feast in thanksgiving for Mary’s patronage in the victory of the Holy League over the Muslim Turks in the Battle of Lepanto. Two years later, in 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of this feastday to “Feast of the Holy Rosary.” And in 1716, Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the whole of the Latin Rite, inserting it into the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, and assigning it to the first Sunday in October. In 1913, Pope Pius X changed the date to October 7, as part of his effort to restore celebration of the liturgy of the Sundays.

The Battle of Lepanto

On October 7, 1571, a patchwork fleet of Catholic ships primarily from Spain, Venice and Genoa, under the command of Don Juan of Austria, was at a distinct disadvantage. The much larger fleet of the Ottoman Empire—a force with 12,000 to 15,000 Christian slaves as rowers—was extending toward Europe.

However, St. Pope Pius V, realizing that the Muslim Turks had a decided material advantage, called upon all of Europe to pray the Rosary for victory. Christians gathered in villages and towns to pray as the sea battle raged; and at the hour of victory the pope—who was hundreds of miles away at the Vatican—is said to have gotten up from a meeting, walked over to an open window exclaiming “The Christian fleet is victorious!” and shed tears of joy and thanksgiving to God.

The toll of the sea battle was great: The Holy League lost 50 of its galleys and suffered some 13,000 casualties. The Turks, however, lost much more: Their leader Ali Pasha was killed, along with 25,000 of his sailors. The Ottoman fleet lost 210 of its 250 ships, of which 130 were captured by the Holy League. Coming at what was seen as a crisis point for Christianity, the victory at Lepanto stemmed Ottoman incursion into the Mediterranean and prevented their influence from spreading through Europe. Through the intervention of Our Lady, the Hand of God prevented the Muslims of the East from overcoming the Christian West.

The epic victory has been commemorated in literature: Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish soldier wounded in the battle, recovered to become a novelist, poet and playwright; and he was so inspired by this battle that he incorporated elements of it in his own acclaimed novel, Don Quixote. And philosopher/writer and Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton retold the story in his 1915 ballad, Lepanto. Here, an excerpt from that great narrative poem:

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.

The ignorance of Islam by the present Pope notwithstanding, the Catholic Church can never forget this crucial and famous battle.  Through the rosary, a common means of prayer and spiritualty; and the designation of the mother of Jesus as Our Lady of Victories, Lepanto will be forever embedded in the heart of Catholicism.  Memory is important for knowledge and from this will grow resistance.


October 7, 2016
The Banners of Lepanto
Fr. George W. Rutler battle_of_lepanto_1571

A British explorer ship that sank in the Arctic in the 1840s while searching for the Northwest Passage, was located this year on September 3, remarkably intact under the ice. The HMS Terror was one of the ships that attacked Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814. Some of the “bombs bursting in air” may have been fired from her. The Star Spangled Banner has attained a secular sacredness and is displayed with due civil reverence in the capital’s National Museum of American History. There were actually two flags, one for inclement weather, but the official one was 30 x 42 feet, big enough to be seen from a distance by the expected British fleet. The work of its sewer, Mary Pickersgill, whose mother Rebecca stitched the Grand Union flag, is far better documented than the traditions of Betsy Ross. The 37-year-old widow was helped by her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, and an African-American indentured servant named Grace Wisher, and two nieces. The work took about seven weeks, starting at home and then, as things progresses, the materials were spread on the floor of an old brewery. The total cost was about $6,000 in today’s money. Restoration begun in 1998, repairing a rather botched job in 1914, cost $7 million plus another ten million or so for display and endowment costs.

Not to diminish the Battle of Baltimore, the Battle of Lepanto ranks as one of the greatest sea battles of all time, and in one sense it was the most important. There never would have been a Trafalgar or Jutland or Leyte Gulf without it and, as a matter of fact, it is likely that it made possible the survival of everything we know as civilization. Had the Christian fleets sunk off western Greece on October 7 in 1571, we would not be here now, these words would not be written in English, and there would be no universities, human rights, holy matrimony, advanced science, enfranchised women, fair justice, and morality as it was carved on the tablets of Moses and enfleshed in Christ.

Many banners wafted at Lepanto. The great one bearing an image of Christ Crucified was the gift of Pope Pius V to Don Juan of Austria. One of the admirals, Gianandrea Doria, a nephew of Andrea Doria often confused with his uncle, used as his ensign, if not a banner, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, this only forty years after her appearance in Mexico. The bishop there had commissioned five copies, touching each to the original tilma. The one given to the King of Spain, Philip II, was in turn entrusted to Doria for the battle. Then there was the sixteen-foot long silk banner of the Ottoman admiral Ali Pasha decorated with Quranic verses and the image of a zulfiqar, the double-bladed sword said to have been what Mohammed had used in his slaughterings, with the name of Allah stitched in gold 29,800 times.

Naval historians have extraordinarily detailed resources for studying the battle. Perhaps the most literate remembrance is that of Cervantes who fought heroically at Lepanto despite a severe fever and wounds; later he was able to write Don Quixote with his right hand, the left being totally useless after October 7. Pope St. Pius V never recorded the details of his astonishing vision on that day, but he saw the scene miraculously while in the church of Santa Sabina discussing administrative accounts with his advisor Bartolo Busotti, and announced the victory to him, nineteen days before a messenger of the Doge of Venice Mocenigo reached Rome with news—no longer new—of the great victory. “Let us set aside business and fall on our knees in thanksgiving to God, for he has given our fleet a great victory.” Five years later the astronomer and geographer Luigi Lilio died. He was a principle architect of the Gregorian calendar implemented in 1582. Trained minds like his, acting upon the testimony of witnesses, calculated by the meridians of Rome and the Curzola isles that the pope had received his revelation precisely as Don Juan leaped from his quarter deck to repulse the Turks boarding his vessel and when the Ottoman galley “Sultana” was attacked side and stern by Marco Antonio Colonna and the Marquis of Santa Cruz.

Despite the Muslim defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1529, the Ottoman Empire was at its peak under Suleiman the Magnificent, having conquered Belgrade, Budapest, Rhodes and Temesvar after Aden, Algiers and Baghdad. It stretched from the Caucuses, Balkans and Anatolia to the sultrier climes of the Middle East and North Africa. One stubborn obstacle was Malta. Suleiman, rather like Herod with Salome, was cajoled by his chief wife Hurrem Sultan and the concubines of his harem to take it. Too old to lead the attack, he dispatched his fleet in 1565 with 40,000 troops among whom were 6500 Janissaries, the Navy Seals of their day, many of whom had been captured in youth and obliged to convert. The Turkish sails were spotted by the Knights of Saint John on May 18. The knights had confessed and attended Mass and, against all odds after a siege of four months, only 10,000 Turks survived to limp slowly back to Constantinople.

Suleiman, sulphuric in wrath, organized an army of 300,000 to march through the plains of Hungary toward Vienna. The Sultan knew that the Church had been weakened by the new Protestant schismatics, and was surprised that the forces Count Miklov Zrinyi in the city of Szigetvar, outnumbered fifty to one, held out for a month. Zrinyi refused the bribe of a princely rule over Croatia, and led his remaining 600 troops into certain death, led by a Cross and jeweled sword. The Turks massacred every civilian man, woman and child within the city gates. Suleiman had died from dysentery four days earlier, leaving the empire to Selim II, his alcoholic and sexually deviant son. Selim soon invaded Cyprus, meeting half-hearted resistance. The capital of Nicosia surrendered on September 9, 1570, and its 20,000 civilians were massacred while “two thousand of the comelier boys and girls were gathered and shipped off as sexual provender for the slave markets in Constantinople.”

This then was the efficient cause for the frail Dominican pope to summon Christians to battle, putting the Protestant calamity on the back burner to organize a Holy League against the immediate military threat of Islam. The League was announced in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, smoothing over differences to unite the Papal States, Spain and Genoa. Venice, its commercial interest paramount, was reluctant to offer the help of its galleys. No aid came from the Protestant queen Elizabeth, and France had already been compromised by trade agreements with the Turks immigrating into Toulon. French manufacturers in Marseilles even sold oars to the Turkish navy. While Chesterton may have been too self-conscious in some conceits of his poem “Lepanto,” he accurately summed up that scene: “The cold queen of England is looking in the glass; The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass…” Venice at last joined the League, urged by the preaching of saintly men like Francis Borgia.

The pope rather surprisingly chose Don Juan of Austria, natural son of the late Holy Roman emperor Charles V and half-brother of the Spanish king Philip II. He was everything the aged and arthritic pope, reared as an impoverished shepherd boy, was not and almost nothing of what the pope was save for his love of Our Lady: a beguilingly handsome flirt and elegant dancer and acrobatic swordsman, who kept a lion cub in his bedroom along with a pet marmoset. But he was well acquainted with war from experience with the Barbary corsairs. Embracing him, the pope’s rheumy eyes stared into the flashing face of the prince and said: “Charles V gave you life. I will give you honor and greatness.” Then he entrusted to him the banner of Christ Crucified for his ship. Like Cervantes, he was only twenty-four years old, roughly the same age as some modern youth on our college campuses who demand “safe spaces” to shelter them from lecturers whose contradictions of their views make them cry.

The pope knew that the enemy’s goal was Rome itself. Sultan Selim had vowed that he would turn the Tomb of Saint Peter into a mosque. In 997 the Muslim commander of the Ummayed caliph, Almansure, had desecrated the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, turning its bells upside down and filling them with oil as lamps in honor of Allah. Selim promised to do the same in Rome.

As Don Juan was approaching the harbor of Messina to take charge of the papal fleet of 206 galleys and 76 lesser vessels, Cyprus was under siege. When its governor Marcantonio Bragdino refused to yield his young page, Antonio Quirni, as a hostage to the lecherous Muslim commander Lala Mustafa, he was humiliated and tortured by inventive methods and flayed alive. His taxidermied body was hung from the main mast of Mustafa’s galley as it sailed off to Lepanto.

His fleet having crossed the Adriatic Sea and anchored between Corfu and the west coast of Greece before moving into the Gulf of Petras, Don Juan enjoined upon his soldiers a three day fast, as priests of the orders, Dominican, Theatine, Jesuit, Capuchins and Franciscan heard confessions on deck. Prisoners who had been galley rowers were released and armed, and every fighter was given a Rosary. By the day of battle, the future Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, perhaps by providence disguised as happenstance, the Christian fleet took the form of a Cross and the Muslim fleet was arrayed as a Crescent.

At midday on the flagship Reale, Don Juan unfurled the blue banner the pope had given him and the troops cheered, trying to drown out the intimidating sound of cymbals, gongs, drums and conches from the Muslim fleet. The battle lasted five hours, during which a sudden 180-degree change in the wind favored the Christians who unfurled their sails as the Turks struck theirs. In blood-reddened water, the Reale clashed against the Sultana, and a musket ball killed the Muessunzade Ali Pasha, while Don Juan survived a leg wound. The engagement of flagships was uncommon in naval protocol, but such was the intensity of the battle. More unusual was the presence on the Reale of Maria la Bailadora (“The Dancer”), the lover of a Spanish soldier, who disguised herself as a man in armor. She promised to avenge all women violated by the Turks. A trained arquebusier, she also engaged some Turks in hand to hand combat and dispatched one with several thrusts of her two-edged sword. While the fleets were matched pretty evenly, the Christians made unprecedented use of gunpowder and heavy artillery against the Turkish arrows. Almost all of the Turkish vessels were lost or captured, more than 30,000 Turks died, and fifteen thousand Christian slaves were freed.

The image of Guadalupe from Admiral Doria’s ship is now enshrined in the Church of San Stefano in Aveto, Italy. Don Juan’s papal banner is in the Escorial. Admiral Marco Antonio Colonna’s threadbare standard is in Gaeta’s Pinacoteca Communale. One of Ali Pasha’s banners is in the Church of Santo Stefano in Pisa. Another is in the Palazzo Ducale of Venice. Pasha’s flagship banner decorated with Quranic verses from the 48th surah Al-Fath (The Victory) hung near the tomb of St. Pius V in Santa Maria Maggiore. In 1965 Pope Paul VI attempted a gesture of goodwill by returning it to the Turks. Indulging some apophasis, it is not necessary to comment that Paul VI was not a military man. The gesture was perplexing to those who harbor a memory of sacrificial valor, and it must have been an awkward reminder to descendants of the defeated. The banner now hangs in the Naval Museum of Istanbul.

Sloganeers avow that some wrong roads are paved with good intentions. The altruistic return of the banner of Lepanto has not enhanced “peace for our time.” In 2011, construction of the 300-foot corvette Heybeliada was completed: the first modern warship built in a Turkish shipyard. The prime minister, Recep Erdogen, attended the dedication ceremony and pointedly remarked that it was the 473rd anniversary of the Battle of Preveza, when an Ottoman fleet led by Hayreddin Barbarossa defeated a Holy League organized by Pope Paul III. Erdogen made no allusion to the subsequent defeat of the Turks at Lepanto. In 2014 he became Turkey’s first directly elected president. One can only speculate about what he would eventually want to do with Ali Pasha’s banner.

Fr. George W. Rutler

By Fr. George W. Rutler

Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest book is He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016).

JUST TOO COOL! Holy League Battle Flag of LEPANTO reproduction!

I received this:

A group dedicated for the defense of persecuted Catholics around the globe (Ordo Militaris) has designed a faithful reproduction of the famous flag of Lepanto to
raise funds for their organization.

They have a vendor printing it in Europe currently, and have just found a new vendor to print it in the US for the first time.

*IF* they can secure 100 pre-orders, it will be available to anyone in the US in a doublesided, gold trimmed version for just $135 each.

Depicted on the Flag at the Foot of the Cross are the Heraldic Shields of King Philip II of Spain, Saint Pius V, the Republic of Venice, and Don Juan of Austria.

The actual flag will NOT have the white border.


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