This week marked the 450th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, when on Sunday October 7th, 1571 the outnumbered forces of the Holy League- a collection of various European Catholic states and kingdoms- decisively defeated the Ottoman Turks in one of the largest naval battles in the West since Salamis. In gratitude for the victory Pope Pius V, who had called the Holy League into existence and sought the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory. Pope Gregory XIII later transferred the feast to the first Sunday of October in 1573 and designated it as the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary, which remains with us to this day.
Prelude to Lepanto- The Wrath of the Turks
The Ottoman empire was at the peak of its power in the 16th century under Suleiman the Magnificent and his successor Selim II. They had taken upon themselves the mantle of the Islamic Caliphate and carried the banner of Allah on a campaign of empire building, which at the time of the Battle of Lepanto, spanned North Africa, parts of the Middle East, and the Balkans. Those places they did not conquer, they were content to make treaties with as the Ottomans were eager to trade with those who could provide them with wealth and arms.
However, the Ottomans did not always consider the treaties they made with unbelievers to be binding. So after years of raiding the island of Cyprus the Ottomans broke their treaty with Venice and laid siege to the Venetian colonial city of Famagusta on the island in the summer of 1570. The city of Famagusta was under the command of Marco Antonio Bragadin, and he held out for thirteen months before a shortage of food, ammo, and men led him to surrender in August of 1571.
The commander of the Ottomans, Lala Mustafa Pasha, agreed to the Venetian's terms of surrender, which promised the safe passage of the city’s inhabitants and any surviving soldiers back to their homeland. But given that Pasha had lost some 50,000 men (including his own son) during the siege of the city, he was not in a forgiving mood. Thus, he reneged on the surrender agreement with the Venetians, captured Bragadin, cut off his nose and ears, and paraded him through the streets in a humiliating fashion while carrying a load of dirt on his back. In the end, Bragadin was flayed alive, and his skin was stuffed with straw, and led around on a cow through Famagusta, before being turned into a sort of satanic windsock by being hung as a trophy on Pasha’s ship. Then, after all of the young girls and boys of Famagusta were carried off into slavery, the rest of Bragadin’s soldiers were put to the sword and the city was raised and most of its inhabitants were killed.
Meanwhile, in response to the siege at Famagusta, Pope Pius V called together all of the Catholic states of Europe and formed the Holy League which included: the Papal States, Spain (including Naples and Sicily) under Phillip II, the Republics of Venice and Genoa, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchies of Savoy, Urbino, Parma, and the remnants of the Knights of Malta (who had survived the Ottoman siege on that island in 1565). Fully aware of the Ottoman’s barbaric reputation and the danger their massive army and navy posed to Europe, the Pope entrusted the outcome of the battle into the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He ordered all monasteries and convents to keep prayer vigils in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and asked Catholics across Europe to pray the rosary for victory in battle.
However, by the time the Holy League was formed and assembled, news reached them of the fall of Famagusta and what had happened to Bragadin and the city’s inhabitants. With a renewed sense of urgency, the Holy League agreed to the appointment of the 24 year old Don Juan of Austria, who was the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and half-brother to King Philip II of Spain. Don Juan, who already had had some military experience, accepted the appointment and received the blessed holy banner of the Holy League in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Spain, before taking a galley to Sicily.
The Holy League fleet left Messina on September 16th and crossed the Adriatic Sea. However, despite all of the League’s high ideals and Papal blessings, it was nonetheless made of up of fallen men from contentious kingdoms, and on more than one occasion Don Juan had to preserve the peace within the League when scuffles broke out between its various members. This is why when the fleet’s scouts found the Ottoman fleet anchoring in the Gulf of Lepanto (modern-day Gulf of Corinth), and the members of the League proposed to gather a council to discuss what to do, Don Juan simply said, “The time for council is over, the time to fight is now.”
The Battle- the Power of the Cross and the Wane of the Crescent
On the morning of October 5th an Ottoman scout ship sighted the Holy League’s fleet. The Ottoman admiral Ali Pasha, who had standing orders from Selim II to attack Catholic ships on sight, raised a green flag that had Quranic verses and the name of Allah stitched 29,800 times on it, and assembled his fleet for battle. At his command were 228 galleys, 120 other ships, with 50,000 oarsmen (most of whom were Christian slaves) and 70,000 troops, including the famed Janissaries soldiers who were the elite troops of the Ottoman Turks.
At the Holy League fleet, the chaplains said mass and gave general absolution to all the soldiers, as Don Juan traveled from ship to ship in a small launch, and implored the men that “we are here to conquer or die. In death or victory you will win immortality.” After which, he raised the Holy League’s flag as well as an image of the Spanish Our Lady of Guadalupe on another ship, and ordered the fleet into its battle formation. The fleet included 206 galleys, 6 gallasses, with 40,000 oarsmen, and some 28,000 knights, soldiers, sailors, and other adventurers who had answered the Pope’s call to join the crusade against the Ottomans.
At first the wind was in the Ottoman’s favor, but it changed direction against them as the Ottomans, in their crescent-shaped battle formation, drew near to Holy League. While the Ottoman fleet was still a mile out, the Holy League unleashed its most potent weapon, the six gallasses that the Venetians had brought to the battle. Two of which were captained by Ambrogino and Augustino Bragadin- the brothers of Marco Antonio Bragadin from Famagusta. These ships were larger and taller versions of the typical galley of the time, and were festooned with cannons- in particularly at the bow of the ship, which was relatively new at the time. These cannons were larger and more powerful than anything the Ottomans had, and they let loose a fusillade of both cannon balls and anti-personnel shot into the oncoming Ottoman fleet. As many as 50 of the Ottoman’s ships were sunk or damaged before they even reached the Holy League.
When the two fleets collided, the fighting was brutal. The Ottoman Janissaries and sailors shot clouds of arrows into the Holy League ships, while their own gunners fired into the fleet. The Holy League fired back with bows, crossbows, and arquebuses (a large mounted musket), until at last Don Juan’s ship, the Real, came alongside Ali Pasha’s galley, the Sultana. Drawing his sword, Don Juan lead the boarding party onto the ship and within an hour Ali Pasha was shot in the head with a musket ball, and the ship was taken. The Ottoman’s flag was pulled down and the Holy League’s flag was hoisted up, which helped break the morale of the remaining Ottomans. It also encouraged the Christian slaves on the Ottoman ships to take advantage of the chaos of the battle, and rise up and turn on the Turks.
By late afternoon, five hours after the battle had begun, it was over. Some of the remnants of the Ottoman fleet fled south with the Holy League pursuing after them, until Don Juan called them back. At the end of the day, the Holy League had destroyed 50 ships and captured over 130 of them. They killed over 30,000 Turks and took over 10,000 of them prisoner, while freeing around 12,000 thousand Christian slaves from the Ottoman ships. The Holy League lost 13 ships and suffered somewhere between 7,500-10,000 deaths.
Pope Pius was in a meeting with his cardinals when he suddenly got up and went to a window and began to weep, for in some way he was informed that the battle had been won and that his prayers had been answered. On October 21st official news of the victory reached him and he recited the Nunc Dimittis and ordered all the church bells in the city to be rang. On the following Sunday he celebrated a mass of thanksgiving in St. Peter’s Basilica and announced that October 7th would be the feast day of Our Lady of Victory.
As a final note, while historians have noted that the Ottomans suffered a humiliating and decisive defeat at the Battle of Lepanto, they were actually able to rebuild their fleet in a short period of time and were once again raiding in Mediterranean and moving armies into Europe. Nevertheless, in the long run the Battle of Lepanto was really the nadir of the Ottoman Empire as they began a slow descent from power over the next few centuries. The Ottomans were not innovators, and so the “new” fleet they built was the same as the old one, which were copied from older European designs. Moreover, as famed Classical historian Victor Davis Hansen has written the Battle of Lepanto “was really the last gasp of the Ottoman Turks” as it signified the end of the era of oared galleys and the beginning of the age of sail.
More to the point though, the Ottomans would never again be a major power on the sea or in the field, and they were far more careful about the fights they picked in the future. The truth is that Lepanto was a historical crossroad where an increase in science and technology, funded by the capitalism coming out of Venice and Florence, led the West into the future. Meanwhile the continued rigidity and top-down rule of Islamic culture would ultimately leave the Ottomans unable to fully cope with an ever-changing world.
A Feast Day Worth Memorializing and Why it Still Matters Today
Christian Europe always knew of Islam’s rapacious appetite for conquest, but the thought of what happened at Famagusta coming to their homeland created a terror in them, that may be hard for us to fully appreciate. It was because of that fear of the Ottoman Turks, that Pope Pius V created the Holy League to deal with them and why he was so grateful when, against all odds, the Ottomans were utterly defeated. Out of that gratitude came the feast day of Our Lady of Victory and eventually Our Lady of the Rosary. However, there are two other reasons why the story of the victory at Lepanto is worthy of a feast day, and of being handed on to our children.
The first has to do with how, in a similar way that the sacraments are visible signs that confer grace, the victory at Lepanto was its own visible sign of our Lord’s grace and providence working in the world, and in particularly through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As bloody and horrific as the battle was, it was (and is) a vivid reminder that we are not just fighting among ourselves but, as St. Paul tells us, “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
For make no mistake about, while it may not be politically correct to say, it is certainly ecclesiastically correct to acknowledge that Islam is, and always has been a source of both worldly and spiritual wickedness. Islam’s teachings are the “weed seeds” mentioned in our Lord’s Parable of the Weeds, that were sown in the darkness and have sprouted and grown alongside the rest of the crop since the eighth century. And for better or worse it will be with us until “harvest” time.
Which leads to the other reason why it is important that we should always remember the victory at Lepanto- because we are still fighting the long battle against the green banner of Allah today. The Ottomans may be gone and the Turks are obviously not what they used to be, but in their place are other militant Islamic groups such the Taliban, ISIS (which apparently, like Covid, has its own variants), Boko-Haram, Hezbollah, or Al-Shabaab. And unfortunately, thanks to Biden's dishonorable retreat from Afghanistan, the Taliban will now complete its own reconquista of the country, which will in turn embolden other Islamic militants around the world. When Taliban soldiers recently posed for a picture of them raising the Islamic flag in the same fashion as the iconic photo of U.S. Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima during WWII, they were mockingly letting the world know that the U.S. has once again become Osama Bin-laden’s proverbial weak horse.
The fight against these Islamic forces will sometimes involve war and conflict such as the numerous low-intensity clashes U.S. special operators and our allies have engaged in across the world for the last two decades. Or it might be outright Christian persecution such as recounted in Raymond Ibrahim’s 2013 book Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians. More likely than not though, the Islamic invasion will arrive in our homelands as guests.
In Mark Steyn’s 2008 book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, there is a chapter entitled “Eurabian Nights” where Steyn recounts all of the cultural conflicts that occurred in Western Europe as a result of the massive waves of immigrants from Muslim countries, and the danger it will cause in the future. He was proved right when, after the fall of Libya in 2011 and the reopening of the North African slave markets, massive waves of migrants came into Western Europe between 2011-2015. Through a combination of shaming the Europeans as racist and xenophobic, having larger families than the locals, and the occasional act of terror such as train bombings in Madrid, shooting sprees in Paris, and butchering British soldiers in London, Islam has been able to subdue or cow far more Europeans than the Ottomans ever did.
Hopefully though, the battle against Islam will mostly be through words and ideas, and rededicating ourselves and our families to our Catholic faith. For in as much as the teachings of Islam are the "weeds", it will continue to exert its influence on all those it comes into contact with and demand submission through shame, sham, or sword. However, as someone who used to work in the lawn care business, I can tell you one of the best ways to get rid of weeds in your lawn, is to grow a strong lawn with weed-n-feed and constant overseeding. Thus if we want to live out the victory at Lepanto in our own lives (perhaps as a kind of anamnesis) then we must resolve to continuously “overseed” the world around us by preaching the gospel in all seasons.
So take up your cross, gird yourself with your rosary, and carry high the banner of the Holy League, or better yet form a new one as Cardinal Burke has suggested. But be proud of this feast day, pray the rosary, and above all be brave and learn to project the same kind of strength that came from our Blessed Lady’s intercession 450 years ago. For as Don Juan and the Holy League’s chaplains also reminded the troops on the day of the battle, “There is no paradise for cowards!” (cf. Rev 21:8)