The battle of Lepanto

From the very first Don Juan ascribed the triumph of his fleet to the powerful intercession of the Rosary Queen… “It was not generals nor battalions nor arms that brought us victory; it was Our Lady of the Rosary.”

In the middle 1500’s Christian Europe was an embattled fortress. Riddled by the Protestant Revolt that swept the North and England from the fold of the Church, she faced, almost in despair, yet another threat—the mounting attack of a centuries-old enemy, the Turk.


Like an angry sea not to be denied, the Turkish menace licked and growled at the frontiers. On the eastern flank in 1529, a Moslem army stormed up from prostrate Hungary, to be turned back only at the gates of Vienna. Increasingly, Turkish pirates boldly raided the shores of Spain and Italy, going so far as to sack Ostia, the port of Rome. In 1567, Spanish Moriscos, once subjugated by Ferdinand and Isabella, were in open revolt in the West and calling for a Turkish army to invade Spain. The real threat, however, was the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, an island in the east Mediterranean long held by Venice. In 1570, the Turks barbarously conquered all Cyprus except for the city of Famagosta where the Venetians grimly held on. Cyprus in their hands, the Moslems would sweep the Mediterranean with their powerful fleet, thus exposing southern Europe, especially Italy, to invasion.




It took the faith of a great saint—Pope Saint Pius V—to kindle anew Europe’s crusading spirit. The odds seemed hopeless. North and south Europe were split apart; William of Orange in Holland had actually intrigued with the Turks to invade Spain; jealous France held aloof from a common effort with Philip II of Spain. But Pius V refused to believe that the Moslem could not be defeated at sea, or that the Crusader’s faith was dead. Early in 1571 he appealed to Philip for help.


Philip, although his armies were at the other end of Europe and his treasury bare, wholeheartedly responded, naming his half-brother, Don Juan, to command the united Papal, Spanish, and Venetian fleets. And so, as a mighty Turkish fleet converged on beleaguered Famagosta in early summer of 1571, the Christian armada grew apace at Messina, readying to strike a great crusader’s blow in the historic battle of Lepanto off the west coast of Greece.


“Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?”


The Turkish fleet, about that time, was setting out from Constantinople, with instructions to find and destroy the Christian navies and to complete the conquest of Cyprus. Before Ali Pasha left for the Bosphorus with forty great galleys, four Christian prisoners were crucified, and others skinned alive, as sacrifices to Mohammed for victory. While an army of 70,000 began the siege of Dolcino, on the coast of Albania, the fleet proceeded to Chios (April eighth) where it was joined by forty more vessels under Mohammed-Bey, governor of Negro ponte. A second armada was preparing to follow from Constantinople, and Aluch Ali was cruising from Algiers with twenty more. Before the end of April the Grand Turk had almost 300 heavy warships, with a huge army of crack Janizaries and Spahis on board, on the way to Cyrpus.



On May nineteenth, Mustapha resumed the siege of Famagosta, which had held out heroically for nearly a year under the Venetian, General Bragadino.


Mustapha loosed all his fury upon this city for three months. The Italian women fought in the breaches with their men. The children carried dirt and ammunition. Hunger at last got the better of them, and, in August, Bragadino agreed to surrender, if the Turks would spare their lives. Mustapha agreed; but as soon as the Christians had laid down their arms, he had them tortured and butchered, women and children with the men. The valiant Bragadino was skinned alive. There were other atrocities too horrible to mention. Mustapha went sailing off to range the Mediterranean in quest of the Christian fleet, with the stuffed skin of Bragadino swinging from his yardarm.


It seems incredible that with such dangers hanging over their other eastern possessions, and even their own shores, the Venetians should have haggled over the details of the League treaty for fully two months after the Pope had signed it.


At last, however, the treaty was signed, on May twentieth. The news reached Madrid on the Feast of Corpus Christi, and the nuncio hastened to San Lorenzo, to notify the King. Philip was attending a solemn procession in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. It was a day he had long anticipated, for the monastery portion of the Escorial was finished, and he was formally handing it over to the Jeronymite friars he had chosen as its custodians. He would not grant Castagna an audience until the next day; but he had the Cardinal of Siguenza tell him of his pleasure over the good news, and say that Don Juan would start at once. Philip was waiting for confirmation of the news from his own commissioners. This arrived on the morning of June sixth. He then gave his orders. The Prince left Madrid at three o’clock the same afternoon, reaching Guadalajara, thirty-five miles away, the same night. He was at Barcelona on the fifteenth. Don Juan of Austria was riding to the sea at last.


The Pope was pleased with what he heard of his Generalissimo, and wanted him to come to Rome. King Philip refused to allow this. Pope Pius was compelled, therefore, to send the banner of the Crusade and the Admiral’s truncheon, which he blessed, to Naples, where, on August second, an immense crowd gathered to hear Mass, and to see Don Juan seated in a throne on the steps of the high altar in Santa Chiara, a noble figure in steel armor, spangled with gold, his shoulders draped with the decoration of the Golden Fleece, even his hair golden in the soft multicolored light of the old church. After Mass, Cardinal Granvelle, as viceroy of Naples and a Prince of the Church, presented to him the truncheon and the azure banner on which was emblazoned the figure of Christ Crucified, with the arms of the Pope, King Philip, Venice, and Don Juan at His feet.


“Take, O illustrious Prince,” said Granvelle, “the insignia of the true Word Made Flesh. Take the living symbol of the holy Faith whose defender you will be in this enterprise. He gives you glorious victory over the impious enemy, and by your hand shall his pride be laid in the dust.” “Amen!” A mighty shout like that of Clermont burst from the people. “Amen!”


On August twenty-third, when Don Juan arrived at Messina, the harbor was a cluttered forest of masts, the ancient town swarming with men of all nations. By September first, when the whole fleet was assembled, there were 208 galleys in all, 90 of Spain and her dependencies, 106 of Venice and 12 of the Pope; besides nearly 100 brigantines, frigates, and transports, mostly furnished by Spain; with some 50,000 sailors and galley slaves, and 31,000 soldiers; 19,000 of them paid by King Philip (including Germans and Italians), 8,000 Venetians, 2,000 papal troops, and 2,000 volunteers, chiefly from Spain.




Spanish galleys were by far the best built, best equipped, and best handled, and would bear the brunt of any fighting. The Venetian ships showed up so badly in a review that Don Juan inspected some of them, and found, to his disgust, that they were not even sufficiently manned. Some had hardly any crews. Others lacked fighting men. He distributed among the worst of them about 4,000 of the famous Spanish and Italian infantry. Then he held a Council of War, attended by seventy officers. Some favored a merely defensive campaign, since the Turks evidently outnumbered them, and the risk would be great, especially as the time for autumn tempests was at hand. Others said that if the Turk galleys were more numerous, they were not so efficient; and “something always had to be left to luck.” Don Juan himself apparently hesitated, thinking of the King’s instructions.”



The Papal influence was all in favor of fighting, whatever the odds. The invincible spirit of the old saint in the Vatican was perhaps the decisive factor. When Bishop Odescalchi, his nuncio, came to bless the fleet and to give a large portion of the True Cross for distribution among the crews, each vessel having a grain of the Precious Wood, he also brought to Don Juan the solemn assurance of Pope Pius V that, if he offered battle, God would give him the victory. If they were defeated, the Pope promised “to go to war himself with his gray hairs, to put idle youth to shame.” But with courage they could not fail. Had not several revelations, including two prophecies by Saint Isidore of Sevilla, described such a battle and victory as seemed imminent, won by a youth closely resembling Don Juan?


At the Holy Father’s suggestion, Don Juan adopted a modus operandi seldom if ever taught in naval academies. No women were allowed aboard the ships. Blasphemy was to be punished with death. While waiting for a good wind and the return of his scouting squadron with news of where the Turks were, the Generalissimo fasted for three days. All his officers and crews did likewise. Contemporary accounts agree that not one of the 1,000 sailors and soldiers failed to confess and to receive Holy Communion. Even the galley slaves were unshackled from their long benches and led in droves ashore, to confess to the numerous priests who toiled day and night at the Jesuit College helping chaplains of the galley.


When the last of the Venetians had arrived, the Armada began to put to sea, September fifteenth, in the order agreed upon. Doria led the vanguard with 54 galleys of the right wing, flying green banners. Don Juan followed next morning with the batalla or center, under azure banners, with the blue standard of Our Lady of Guadalupe over the Real. (The Pope’s Standard of the League was reserved for battle.) Marcantonio Colonna, on the flagship of the Pope, was on his right, Veniero, a cantankerous old Venetian sea-dog, at his left. The third squadron of the Venetian Barbarigo followed, with yellow banners: and the Marques of Santa Cruz (Don Alvaro de Bazan) brought up the rear with thirty Spanish galleys and some of Italy, all under white flags.


It was a sight to remember—the papal nuncio, a flaming figure in scarlet from head to foot, standing on the mole with hand uplifted to bless each ship as it passed, the crusaders kneeling on the decks, the knights and men-at-arms glittering with steel, the sailors in red suits and caps, the rowers with dark naked backs glistening with sweat, the brown sails bellying out to catch the first breeze; and on the lofty prow of the flagship, Don Juan in golden armor, like an avenging angel under the out flung blue banner of her who had trodden on the serpent’s head. Thus they passed into the open Mediterranean and formed in ranks, two by two. The six great Venetian galeasses, each a bristling fort with 44 heavy guns, led the way into the sapphire studded morning light. The galeasses kept a full mile ahead, to open the fray with a heavy bombardment. Two by two the whole Armada followed, almost in battle order, according to a plan carefully worked out by old paralyzed Don Garcia de Toledo. The plan was somewhat modified, apparently, to leave spaces between the squadrons, so that Santa Cruz could intervene where his help might be needed.



Don Juan left Corfu on September twenty-eighth. While the Turkish fleet was skirting the southern shore of Aetolia, making for the Gulf of Corinth (or Lepanto) the Christian Armada, using oars because the wind was contrary, nosed through the waters of the Ionian Sea, with the Albanian shore off the port bows, past Nicopolis and that stretch of sea lying off Actium where the spirit of the East had fled from the spirit of the West in the jaded galleys of Antony and Cleopatra, and around the coast of Santa Maura to Cephalonia, with the narrow isle of Ithaca hugged under its lee shore, still fragrant with the memory of Penelope and the unconquerable fortitude of Odysseus.


It was October fifth when the fleet cast anchor among the Curzolares. That day a brigantine from Candia came by with news of the fall of Famagosta, and the horrible atrocities perpetrated by Mustapha upon the helpless Christians who had surrendered. A quiver of rage passed through the floating city of armed men. Nothing could have been better timed to make them fight like holy madmen.


The wind was east, the sky overcast, the sea gray with fog. All day Saturday and well into the night, the fleet remained inactive, not knowing that the wind which kept them there had brought the Turkish fleet across the Gulf of Patras to the Albanian shore, and that Aluch Ali, with all his Algerian galleys, was still with them. With the falling of the starless night a dead silence settled over the sea.


About two o’clock in the morning of Sunday, the seventh, there came up a fresh steady wind from the west, across the Ionian Sea, sweeping the stars and the wide bay clear of the wraiths of fog. Don Juan, lying sleepless in the cabin of his Real, saw that he was in the middle of what seemed a huge lake, flooded with moonlight. He gave the word, the great anchors were weighed and the sails unfurled, the whips cracked over the straining backs of the galley slaves, the great ships hove through the choppy waters, as if racing the dawn to the Albanian coast. When the sun came flaming up over the Gulf of Lepanto, Doria’s lookout, in the vanguard, sighted a squadron of the enemy about twelve miles away, returning from a scouting trip to Santa Maura. The signal flag agreed upon was on the masthead of the royal frigate, where Doria was on watch.


“We must conquer or die here,” said Don Juan, exultantly, and ordered a green banner displayed as a sign for all to get in battle array. The multiple banks of oars on the six great Venetian galeasses plunged into the sea, driving the massive hulks to their positions, two of them a mile in front of each of the three sections of the battle line.


The Venetian Barbarigo, with sixty-four galleys, veered as closely as possible to the Aetolian shore, to prevent an encircling movement by the enemy on the north. Don Juan commanded the center or batalla of sixty-three galleys, with Colonna and Veniero on either side of him, and Requesens in the ship behind him. Doria’s squadron of sixty took the right wing, nearest the open sea, the most dangerous post of all. Thirty-five vessels were held in reserve in the rear under the Marques of Santa Cruz, with orders to give help wherever it might be needed. Thus the great fleet advanced into the Gulf of Patras, in a long arc extending over a league-and-a-half sea and gradually stiffening into a straighter line as the enemy came in sight.



The Turks, having a total of 286 galleys (for Hascen Bey had just arrived with 22 extra ones from Tripoli) against 208, had decided to fight, and were clearing their decks for action. Mohammed Siroco with 55 galleys opposed Barbarigo. Ali Pasha and Pertew with 96 faced the batalla of Don Juan. Aluch Ali with 73 took the side nearest the open sea, opposite Gianandrea Doria. There was also a squadron of reserve in the rear. The wind had shifted to the east, bringing on the Turks with bellied sails, while the Christians had to use their oars. Toward noon it almost died away. Four hours passed while both fleets made their preparations for combat.


Doria meanwhile came back in a swift frigate to consult with Don Juan and the others. According to one account he was averse, at the start, to giving battle to an enemy with so large a preponderance of heavy ships. He wanted a council of war, at least. But Don Juan cried, “It is time to fight now, not to talk”; and so it was agreed. Cabrera says Doria not only drew up the final battle order of the fleet, but suggested that the Generalissimo have the espolones cut away from the bows of his galleys. These were sharp spurs, fourteen feet long which could crash through the side of an enemy ship, doing great damage when propelled by the arms of a hundred galley slaves. It was obvious that in fighting at close quarters, hand-to-hand, ship locked to ship, they would be useless. Without them, too, Don Juan could place his bow guns lower, and hit the Turkish hulks nearer the water line. The plan was adopted. One after another down the long line the espolones splashed into the calm sea.


The young Admiral, now in his golden armor, went in a fast frigate from ship to ship, holding up an iron crucifix for all to see. “Hey, valorous soldiers!” he cried. “Here’s the chance you wanted. I have done my part. Do you now humble the pride of the enemy and win glory in this holy fight. Live or die, be conquerors; if you die, you go to Heaven.” The sight of the gallant young figure and the sound of his fresh voice had an extraordinary effect. A mighty shout answered him from each ship. There passed across the sparkling sea a long broken cheer as the Pope’s banner of the League with the image of Christ Crucified catching the glint of the high sun, rose above the Real beside the blue flag of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the forward mast of his flagship Don Juan had hung a crucifix which alone of all his effects survived the fire in his house at Alcala.



As the Turks advanced in a great half-moon he knelt on the prow and in a loud voice begged the blessing of God on the Christian arms, while priests and monks throughout the fleet held up crucifixes before the kneeling sailors and soldiers. The sun was now directly overhead. The clear water, almost unrippled, flashed back a tremulous replica in vivid colors of a thousand standards, streamers, pennons and gonfalons, the cold brilliant glitter of weapons and armor, the gold and silver of armaments, all wavering kaleidoscopically between the blue sea and the dazzling sky. A hush like that which comes just before the consecration of the Mass fell over the whole Armada. The Turkish side replied with the usual blood-curdling chorus of screams, hoots, jibes and groans, the clashing of cimeters on shields, the blaring of horns and trumpets. The Christians waited in silence.


At that moment the wind, which had thus far favored the Turks, shifted to the west and sped the Christian galleys on to the shock. Ali Pasha, in the Moslem center, opened the battle with a cannon shot. Don Juan answered, with another. As the Turkish oarsmen churned the sea, the six great galeasses of Venice opened fire with their 264 guns. This bombardment was not as devastating as had been expected, but it had the effect of breaking the enemy’s line. The Turkish right was racing now to gain the open water between the Venetians and the Aetolian shore. Five ships closed upon the galley of Barbarigo, while the Moorish archers let fly clouds of poisoned arrows, which they preferred to firearms and used with more deadly effect. Ship to ship they were lashed now, fighting hand-to-hand. Huge Barbarigo fought like a lion, until, taking his shield from his face to shout an order, he was pierced through the eye with an arrow.


It was the Christian right that stood the heaviest attack. Doria was held in fear and respect by the Moslems. Moreover, he occupied the most dangerous post, where strategy and good sailing counted. If there was a match for him among the mariners of the Mediterranean, it was Aluch Ali, the Italian apostate. As the Turkish left tried to gain the open sea, to attack by poop and prow, Doria extended his line farther to the right, leaving a space between his squadron and the batalla. Aluch Ali swiftly changed his course and came crashing through the open space with his best ships, while his slower sailing galleys took the Genoese on the side toward the open sea. Doria, heavily outnumbered, fought a magnificent engagement. On ten of his vessels, nearly all the soldiers were killed in the first hour of the conflict. The handful of of survivors fought on, desperately holding their ships in the hope of succor.


Santa Cruz’ reserve, however, had gone to the aid of some of the Venetians on the left, and the whole batalla was locked in mortal conflict with the Turkish center. As soon as Ali Pasha saw where the holy flags flew over the galley of Don Juan, he drove straight for it. The two enormous hulks crashed prow to prow. Ali’s ship was higher and heavier, and manned with 500 picked Janizaries.


The wisdom of Doria’s advice to cut away the espolones was now apparent; while the Turk’s artillery fired through the rigging of the Real, Don Juan’s poured death into the ranks of the Janizaries as the ships grappled. Hand-to-hand they fought from one deck to the other, for two hours. Seven Turkish ships stood by to help the Sultana. As fast as the Janizaries fell on the decks, they were replaced by others from the hulks of reserve. Twice the horde of yelling Turks penetrated the Real to the main mast, and twice the Spaniards thrust them back. But Don Juan, with heavy losses, had only two ships of reserves. Fighting gallantly in a little ring of chosen Spanish cavaliers, he was wounded in the foot. His situation was extremely perilous, in fact, when Santa Cruz, having saved the Venetians, came to his aid and rushed 200 reserves aboard.



Heartened by this fresh blood, the Spanish threw themselves on Ali and his Janizaries so furiously that they hurled them back into their own ship. Three times the Christians charged, and three times the Turks cast them out over decks now red and slippery with blood, piled with heaps of dead men, ghastly mangled trunks, severed arms and legs still quivering. The two fleets were locked in the embrace of death, ships lashed by twos and threes in water already streaked with crimson from floating bodies and limbs. The din of musketry, screams of rage and pain, clash of steel on steel, thunder of artillery, falling of spars and lashing of bloody waters between rocking timbers resounded horribly all through the Sunday afternoon. Splendid and terrible deeds were done. Old Veniero, seventy years old, fought sword in hand at the head of his men. Cervantes arose from his bed of fever to fight and to lose his left hand. Young Alexander of Parma boarded a Turkish galley alone, and survived the experience. The moment was critical, and the issue still in doubt, when the magnificent Ali Pasha, defending his ship from the last Christian onslaught, was laid low by a ball from a Spanish arquebus. His body was dragged to the feet of Don Juan. A Spanish soldier triumphantly pounced upon it and shore away the head. One version says that Don Juan reproved him for this brutality. Another, more likely, says that the Prince impaled the head on the end of a long pike and held it up for all to see. Hoarse shouts of victory burst from the Christians on the Real, as they brushed the disheartened Turks into the sea and hoisted the banner of Christ Crucified to the enemy masthead. There was not a single hole in this flag, though the spars and masts were riddled, and the mainmast bristled with arrows like a porcupine. From ship to ship the shout of triumph was taken up, with the word that Ali was dead and the Christians had won. A panic seized the enemy, and he took to flight.


As the sun sank over Cephalonia, Doria’s right wing was still furiously engaged with the Algerians. Gianandrea was red from head to foot with blood, but escaped without a scratch. When Aluch Ali saw that the Moslem fleet was getting the worse of it, he skillfully withdrew between the right and the center of the Christians. In the rear of Doria’s fleet he came upon a galley of the Knights of Malta, whom he especially hated. He pounced upon it from the stern, slew all the knights and the crew, and took possession of the vessel; but when Santa Cruz attacked him, he abandoned his prize and fled with 40 of his best ships toward the open sea and the crimson sunset. Doria’s fleet pursued him until night and the coming of a storm forced him to desist.


The Christians took refuge in the port of Petala, and there counted their casualties, which were comparatively light, and their booty, which was exceedingly rich. They had lost 8,000 slain, including 2,000 Spanish, 800 of the Pope’s men, and 5,200 Venetians. The Turks had lost 224 vessels, 130 captured and more than 90 sunk or burned; at least 25,000 of their men had been slain, and 5,000 captured; 10,000 of their Christian captives were set free.


Don Juan at once sent ten galleys to Spain to inform the King, and dispatched the Count of Priego to Rome. But Pius V had speedier means of communication than galleys. On the afternoon of Sunday, October seventh, he was walking in the Vatican with his treasurer, Donata Cesis. The evening before he had sent out orders to all convents in Rome and nearby to double their prayers for the Victory of the Christian fleet, but now he was listening to a recital of some of his financial difficulties. Suddenly he stepped aside, opened a window, and stood watching the sky as if astonished. Then, turning with a radiant face to the treasurer, he said,


“Go with God. This is not the time for business, but to give thanks to Jesus Christ, for our fleet has just conquered.”


He then hurried to his chapel to prostrate himself in thanksgiving. Afterwards he went out, and everybody noticed his youthful step and joyous countenance.


The first news of the battle, through human agencies, reached Rome by way of Venice on the night of October twenty-first, just two weeks after the event. Saint Pius went to St. Peter’s in a procession, singing the Te Deum Laudamus. There was great joy in Rome. The Holy Father commemorated the victory by designating October seventh as the Feast of the Holy Rosary, and by adding “Help of Christians” to the titles of Our Lady in the Litany of Loreto.



From the very first Don Juan ascribed the triumph of his fleet to the powerful intercession of the Rosary Queen. The Venetian Senate wrote to the other States which had taken part in the Crusade: “It was not generals nor battalions nor arms that brought us victory; but it was Our Lady of the Rosary.”

(taken from: The Angelus, October 1986, Volume IX, Number 10)

© - Riproduzione riservata.

Lascia un commento

Il tuo indirizzo email non sarà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *