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.
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
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.
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.
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.
H. W. Crocker III is the author most recently of Don’t Tread on Me: 400 Years of America at War, from Indian-Fighting to Terrorist-Hunting. His prize-winning comic novel The Old Limey and his books Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History and Robert E. Lee on Leadership are available in paperback.
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