The Battle of Lepanto
From: The Battle that Saved the Christian West
By: Christopher Check
The Holy League
In a papacy of great achievements, the greatest came on March 7, 1571, on the feast of his fellow Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas. At the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, Pope Pius formed the Holy League. Genoa, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of Spain put aside their jealousies and pledged to assemble a fleet capable of confronting the sultan's war galleys before the east coast of Italy became the next front in the war between the Christianity and Islam.
The day was not a total triumph, though. Venice refused to join. Though at war with the Turks over Cyprus, the Venetians never failed to consider their economy. They might well lose Cyprus, but a fast peace afterward would lead to the resumption of normal trade relations with the Turks. Moreover, the loss of the Venetian fleet in an all-out battle with the sultan's galleys would be a disaster for a state so dependent on seaborne commerce. Walking back across the Tiber, the old monk wept for the future of Christendom. He knew that without the galleys of Venice, there was no hope of a fleet strong enough to face the Turks.
The rest of Europe ignored Pius's call for a new crusade. In fact, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, through her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, actively enlisted the aid of the Turks in her wars against Spain. France had openly traded with the Turks for years and as recently as 1569 had drawn up an extensive commercial treaty with them. For years the French had allowed Turkish ships to harbor in Toulon, and the oars that rowed Turkish galleys came from Marseilles. The cannons that brought down the walls of Szigetvar were of French design. With Venice at war with Constantinople, markets once filled by Venetian goods were open to France. Redeeming France from utter disgrace were the Knights of Saint John of Malta, who sent their galleys to join the Holy League, eager to do battle with Islam.
As the Pope prayed for Venice to answer a higher call, a new breed of fiery priests led by stirring preachers like St. Francisco Borgia, superior general of the Jesuits, inflamed the hearts of Christian Europeans throughout the Mediterranean with their sermons against Islam. Enough Venetians must have been listening, because on May 25 Venice at last joined the Holy League. By fits and starts, with hesitation and quarreling on the part of a few of the principal players, the fleet of the Holy League was forming.
The man chosen by Pius V to serve as Captain General of the Holy League did not falter: Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of the late Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and half-brother of Philip II, King of Spain. The young commander had distinguished himself in combat against Barbary corsairs and in the Morisco rebellion in Spain, a campaign in which he demonstrated his capacity for swift violence when the threat called for it and restraint when charity demanded it.
He was a great horseman, a great swordsman, and a great dancer. With charm, wit, and good looks in abundance, he was popular among the ladies of court. Since childhood he had cultivated a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin. He spoke Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, and kept a pet marmoset and a lion cub that slept at the foot of his bed. He was twenty-four years old.
Taking the young warrior by the shoulders, Pius V looked Don John of Austria in the eye and declared, "The Turks, swollen by their victories, will wish to take on our fleet, and God-I have the pious presentiment-will give us victory. Charles V gave you life. I will give you honor and greatness. Go and seek them out!"
The Death of Bragadino
In late summer of 1571, as Don John was making his way to the harbor at Messina to take command of his fleet, the situation on Cyprus was growing more desperate. The Venetian colonists had claimed the lives of some 50,000 Turks with their intrepid defense of Famagusta, but when their gunpowder and supplies were exhausted, when they had eaten their last horse, their shrewd governor, Marcantonio Bragadino, sent a message to the Turkish commander, Lala Mustafa, asking for terms. The Turks agreed to give the remaining Venetian soldiers passage to Crete on fourteen Turkish galleys in exchange for the surrender of the city. The Greek Cypriots would be allowed to retain their property and their religion.
On August 4, 1571, Bragadino, with a small entourage including several young pages, met with Mustafa and his advisors in the Turkish general's tent. Mustafa lecherously demanded Bragadino's page, Antonio Quirini, as a hostage for the fourteen galleys. When Bragadino calmly refused, he and his men were pushed out of the tent by Mustafa's guards. Bragadino was bound and forced to watch as his attendants were hacked to pieces. The pages were led off in chains. The Turks thrice thrust the Venetian governor's neck on the executioner's block and thrice lifted it off. Instead of his head, they cut off his nose and ears. To prevent his bleeding to death, they cauterized the wounds with hot irons.
The Venetian soldiers of the garrison, unaware that Mustafa had broken the terms of the surrender, began their march down to the galleys, expecting passage to Crete. Once aboard, the Venetians were set upon by Turkish soldiers, who stripped them of their clothes and chained them to the oars. From their benches they witnessed some of the horrifying ordeal to which the Turks now subjected Bragadino.
First the Turks fitted the governor with a harness and bridle and led him around the Turkish camp on his hands and knees. Ass panniers filled with dung were slung across his back. Each time he passed Lala Mustafa's tent he was forced to kiss the ground. Then he was strung up in chains, hoisted over a galley spar, and left to hang for a time. Finally, the courageous governor was dragged into the city square and lashed to the pillory, where the Turks flayed him alive. Witnesses said they heard him whispering a Latin prayer. He died "when the executioners knife reached the height of his navel." The diabolical orgy did not end there. Mustafa had the governor's skin stuffed, hoisted it up the mast of his galley, and joined the Ottoman fleet headed west.
Don John Takes Command
As Bragadino was losing his life to the Turkish monsters, Don John was inspecting his ships. Of the 206 galleys and 76 smaller boats that constituted the Holy League fleet, more than half came from Venice. The next largest contingent came from Spain, and included galleys from Sicily, Naples, Portugal, and Genoa, the latter owned by the Genovese condottiere admiral, Gianandrea Doria. Not only was Doria renting his services and the use of his ships to Philip at costs thirty percent higher than Philip paid to run his own galleys, he was lending the money to the Spanish king at fourteen percent! The balance of the galleys came from the Holy See.
Don John took charge of his fleet and promptly forbade women from coming aboard the galleys. He declared that blasphemy among the crews would be punishable by death. The whole fleet followed his example and made a three-day fast.
By September 28, the Holy League had made its way across the Adriatic Sea and was anchored between the west coast of Greece and the Island of Corfu. By this time, news of the death of Bragadino had reached the Holy League, and the Venetians were determined to settle the score. Don John reminded his fleet that the battle they would soon engage in was as much spiritual as physical.
Pius V had granted a plenary indulgence to the soldiers and crews of the Holy League. Priests of the great orders, Franciscans, Capuchins, Dominicans, Theatines, and Jesuits, were stationed on the decks of the Holy League's galleys, offering Mass and hearing confessions. Many of the men who rowed the Christian galleys were criminals. Don John ordered them all unchained, and he issued them each a weapon, promising them their freedom if they fought bravely. He then gave every man in his fleet a weapon more powerful than anything the Turks could muster: a Rosary.
On the eve of battle, the men of the Holy League prepared their souls by falling to their knees on the decks of their galleys and praying the Rosary. Back in Rome, and up and down the Italian Peninsula, at the behest of Pius V, the churches were filled with the faithful telling their beads. In Heaven, the Blessed Mother, her Immaculate Heart aflame, was listening.
In the quiet of night, Don John met with his admirals on the deck of his flagship Real to review once more the order of battle. He had divided his fleet into four squadrons. Commanding the squadron on his left flank was a Venetian warrior named Agostin Barbarigo. The center squadron was commanded by Don John, assisted on either side by his vice admirals, the Roman Marcantonio Colonna, and the Venetian Sebastian Veniero. Directly behind the center squadron, Don John stationed the reserve squadron, commanded by the Spaniard Don Alvaro de Bazan, the Marquis of Santa Cruz. The right squadron was under the command of the Genovese Gianandrea Doria. Arrayed for battle, the mighty armada of the Holy League looked like nothing if not a Latin Cross.
Doria, despite his mercenary motives, had been the source of sound tactical counsel.
"Cut off the spars in the prows of the fleet's galleys," he told Don John. Galleys had been equipped with bow spars or rams since the days of Salamis. "This will permit the centerline bow cannons to depress further and fire their rounds at the waterline of the enemy hulls." Don John's famous order to remove these spars was a signal moment in naval warfare, heralding the age of gunpowder.
Doria also advised taking the League's six galleases and stationing them in the van, two before each of the three forward squadrons. A galleas was a large, multi-decked, Venetian merchant galley that had been outfitted with cannons not only on its bow, but also along its port and starboard sides. Where an ordinary galley was most vulnerable, a galleas packed heavy firepower. Don John increased their lethality by packing the decks with Spanish shooters (arquebusiers), bearing their handheld, smoothbore, heavy guns. Though slow moving, these six galleases would provide a powerful shock at the start of the battle.
Doria was an admiral, but he was also a shipowner. He looked at Don John, raised his eyebrows, opened his palm, and offered, "There is still time, your grace, to avoid pitched battle."
The young Captain General stood surrounded by men older and with greater seafaring and military experience than he. Silence filled the small stateroom as these men waited to hear his response. He caught their eyes, each one of them, as he looked around.
"Gentlemen," he said. "The time for counsel has passed. Now is the time for war."
The Divine Breath
It was. At dawn on October 7, 1571, the Holy League rowed down the west coast of Greece and turned east into the Gulf of Patras. When the morning mist cleared, the Christians, rowing directly against the wind, saw the squadrons of the larger Ottoman fleet arrayed like a crescent from shore to shore, bearing down on them under full sail.
As the fleets grew closer, the Christians could hear the gongs and cymbals, drums and cries of the Turks. The men of the Holy League quietly pulled at their oars, the soldiers stood on the decks in silent prayer. Priests holding large crucifixes marched up and down the decks exhorting the men to be brave and hearing final confessions.
Then the Blessed Virgin intervened.
The wind shifted 180 degrees. The sails of the Holy League were filled with the Divine breath, driving them into battle. Now heading directly into the wind, the Turks were forced to strike their sails. The tens of thousands of Christian galley slaves who rowed the Turkish vessels felt the sharp sting of the lash summoning them up from under their benches and demanding they take hold of their oars and pull against the wind.
Don John knelt on the prow of Real and said a final prayer. Then he stood and gave the order for the Holy League's battle standard, a gift from Pius V, to be unfurled. Christians up and down the battle line cheered as they saw the giant blue banner bearing an image of our crucified Lord.
The fleets engaged at midday. The first fighting began along the Holy League's left flank, where many of the smaller, swifter Turkish galleys were able to maneuver around Agostin Barbarigo's inshore flank. The Venetian admiral responded with a near impossibility: He pivoted his entire squadron, fifty-four ships, counterclockwise and began to pin the Turkish right flank, commanded by Mehemet Sirrocco, against the north shore of the Gulf of Patras. Gaps formed in Barbarigo's line and Ottoman galleys broke into the intervals. As galley pulled up along galley, the slaughter brought on by cannon, musket ball, and arrow was horrific, but the Venetians in time prevailed. Barbarigo took an arrow to the eye, but before he died he learned of the death of Sirrocco and the crushing defeat of the Turkish right line.
In the center of the battle, breaking a convention of naval warfare, the opposing flagships engaged-Don John's Real with Muezzinzade Ali Pasha's Sultana. Twice Spanish infantry boarded and drove the Sultana's Janissaries back to the mast, and twice they were driven back to the Real by Ottoman reinforcements. Don John led the third charge across Sultana's bloodied deck. He was wounded in the leg, but Ali Pasha took a musketball to the forehead. One of Real's freed convicts lopped off the Turkish admiral's head and held it aloft on a pike. The Muslims' sacred banner, with the name of Allah stitched in gold calligraphy 28,900 times, which Islamic tradition held was carried in battle by the Prophet, was captured by the Christians. Terror struck the Turks, but the fight was far from won.
On the Holy League's right flank, Doria was forced to increase the intervals between his galleys to keep his line from being flanked on the south by the larger Ottoman squadron under the command of the Algerian Uluch Ali. When the space between Doria's squadron and Don John's grew large enough, Uluch Ali sent his corsairs through the gap to envelop the galleys of Don John's squadron from behind. Don Alvaro de Bazan, commanding the Holy League's reserve squadron of thirty-five galleys, had carefully kept his ships out of the fray until the moment came when he was most needed. Now he entered the fight, rescuing the center of the Holy League from the Turkish vessels that had surrounded them before turning his squadron south to aid the outmanned Doria.
The fighting lasted for five hours. The sides were evenly matched and well led, but the Divine favored the Christians, and once the battle turned in their favor it became a rout. All but thirteen of the nearly 300 Turkish vessels were captured or sunk and over 30,000 Turks were slain. Not until the First World War would the world again witness such carnage in a single day's fighting. In the aftermath of the battle, the Christians gave no quarter, making sure to kill the helmsmen, galley captains, archers, and Janissaries. The sultan could rebuild ships, but without these men, it would be years before he would be able to use them.
The news of the victory made its way back to Rome, but the Pope was already rejoicing. On the day of the battle, Pius had been consulting with his cardinals at the Dominican Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. He paused in the midst of their deliberations to look out the window. Up in the sky, the Blessed Mother favored him with a vision of the victory. Turning to his cardinals he said, "Let us set aside business and fall on our knees in thanksgiving to God, for he has given our fleet a great victory."