In 1571, The Turkish Ottoman empire was the superpower of the day. On land, the armies of the Turks, powered by slave soldiers known as Janisaries and with advanced weaponry and artillery carved its way through the Slovaks and eventually would reach the gates of Vienna. On the sea, Turkish galleys, powered by captured Christian slaves devastated mercantile commerce and raided coastal cities throughout the Mediterranean. Europe meanwhile remained divided and at war over territory and religion. Spain, the leading European power had recently overcome the Moors in the Reconquista and was expanding into the Americas. Venice was the commercial capital of Europe and held a monopoly over Mediterranean trade. From the papal states, Pope Pius V ruled as spiritual head over the Catholic nations of Europe, but it was threatened by the Protestant Reformation. In France, conflicts were breaking out, Britain was still a poor backward country that had become the cradle of Protestantism and waged piratical war against the Spanish and Portuguese trade in the new World.
What the Pope dreaded more was the spread of Islam by the sword over Europe. Over thirty years ago, Turkey laid siege to Malta and was narrowly driven back by an army of Crusader Knights and peasants. The stories of atrocities committed by the Turks ran shock waves throughout Europe. In 1570, the island of Cyprus was under siege by the Turks and would eventually fall 10 months later. Its commander, the Venetian Marcantonio Bragadino made a truce with the Turks for safe conduct of his army away from Cyprus when defeat was imminent. Marcantonio Bragadino however was unaware of the Islamic doctrine of Al-Taqyat, or lying for Allah. The Muslims violated the truce as soon as the gates opened, and the army of Greek and Venetian defenders were captured.
Michael Novak, esteemed historian and theologian documented what had happened afterwards. Bragadino was tied to a pole stripped naked and his nose and ears were cut off and he was humiliated in various other ways. In the end he was skinned alive. His skin was then stuffed with hay and kept in the sultan's quarters as a trophy. The Turks then slaughtered many of the inhabitants, forcing the rest to convert to Islam. The men were taken to be slaves on galleys, the women and children taken away to be slaves in the harem. The old and weak were killed.
Emboldened, the Ottomans repeated this in Greece and elsewhere. Pope Pius V had attempted to unite Europe against the Turks by forming a Holy League. Time and time again he failed but with the fall of Cyprus and increased attacks the League began to come about. In addition to this, spies had uncovered a ghastly plot by the Turkish Armada lead by Ali-Pasha to invade Italy. With the help of Don Juan of Austria, the son of the Holy Roman Emperor who would be destined to lead the attack, the League came together. The Holy League consisted of Spain, Venice, Savoy, Sicily, Malta and Genoa with the Vatican as head of the alliance. Admiral Marcantonio Colona was commissioned by the Pope to command the fleet. Colona had been a veteran of the war in Cyprus and was one of the few to escape. He was ordered by the Pope to set up an armada in the name of the Cross. This was to be a holy war; war to save Europe from the clutches of Islamic imperialism.
Don Juan and many of his men spent much of the night before battle in prayer. The fate of their civilization, they knew, depended on their good fortune on the morrow. The uncertainties of the changing winds and choppy seas, and the speed of the two onrushing lines of ships rapidly closing on each other, would erupt in unpredictable havoc. The odds against the Christians in ships were something like 350 ships to 250. But the Christians had a secret weapon.
In Venice and elsewhere, new innovations in naval warfare were being constructed. Among these was the Gallease, a new galley warship that was large with mounted swivel cannons. Its height made it resistant to boarding and its new cannons made it devastating. The Turks, though outnumbering the Holy League 3 to 1 could not keep up with the European mode of invention.
In the end, Don Juan and Colona organized 206 galleys and 6 galleases. This fleet of the Christian alliance was manned by 12,920 sailors. In addition, it carried almost 28,000 fighting troops: 10,000 Spanish regular infantry of excellent quality, 7,000 German and 6,000 Italian mercenaries, and 5,000 Venetian soldiers. Also, Venetian oarsmen were mainly free citizens and were able to bear arms adding to the fighting power of their ship, whereas slaves and convicts were used to row many of the galleys in other Holy League squadrons. Don Juan had also promised the galley rowers who were criminals their freedom if they succeeded.
The Ottomans armada consisted of 222 war galleys, 56 galleys, and some smaller vessels. The Turks had skilled and experienced crews of sailors, but were somewhat deficient in the number of their elite corps of Janissaries. They made up for it with 13,000 sailors and 34,000 soldiers. The slaves below were mainly Christian prisoners of war, some from the recent conquest of Cyprus. An important and arguably decisive advantage for the Christians was their numerical superiority in guns and cannons aboard their ships. It is estimated the Christians had 1,815 guns, while the Turks had only 750 with insufficient ammunition. They instead trusted on bowmen.
Note: Few historians mention that just before the departure, Philip II (King of Spain) presented Don Juan with a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe which she had caused to be miraculously imprinted on the cloak of the Indian peasant Juan Diego in Mexico 40 years before. Don Juan placed the picture in the chapel of the admiral-vessel, asking for Mary's protection of his expedition.
The Holy fleet departed from the Greek Island of Corfu and made its way to the Gulf of Lepanto. Ali Pasha was very confident of victory and brought with him his entire fortune including his Harem. The two forces met on October 7th 1571. Don Juan began by sailing his Gallease at full speed towards the heart of the Ottoman armada, breaking it in half. The other gallease' were placed in the front and used to attack the enemy galleys, sinking two initially. The vast majority of fighting however involved boarding other ships. Witnesses stated that the sea was blood red from the fighting. there were also dead bodies and turbans floating in the water. One of the biggest advantages to the outnumbered Christians was the christian slaves aboards the Turkish galleys. Sensing their chance for freedom, most of them joined the fighting, using their chains as weapons.
During the course of the battle, the Ottoman commander's ship was boarded and the Spanish tercios from 3 galleys and the Turkish janissaries from seven galleys fought on the deck of the Sultana. Twice the Spanish were repelled with great loss, but at the third attempt, with reinforcements, they prevailed. Ali Pasha was killed and beheaded, against the wishes of Don Juan. However, when his head was displayed on a pike from the Spanish flagship, it contributed greatly to the destruction of Turkish morale. Even after the battle had clearly turned against the Turks, groups of Janissaries still kept fighting with all they had. It is said that at some point the Janissaries ran out of weapons and started throwing oranges and lemons at their Christian adversaries, leading to awkward scenes of laughter among the general misery of battle.
The battle concluded around 4 pm. The Turkish fleet suffered the loss of about 210 ships of which 117 galleys, 10 galliots and three fustas were captured and in good enough condition for the Christians to keep. On the Christian side 20 galleys were destroyed and 30 were damaged so seriously that they had to be scuttled. One Venetian galley was the only prize kept by the Turks; all others were abandoned by them and recaptured. The Holy League had suffered around 7,500 soldiers, sailors and rowers dead, but freed about as many Christian prisoners. Turkish casualties were around 25,000, and at least 3,500 were captured.
The engagement was a crushing defeat for the Ottomans, who had not lost a major naval battle since the fifteenth century. To half of Christendom, this event encouraged hope for the downfall of Islam which they regarded as the "Enemy of the Christian." Indeed, the Empire lost all but 30 of its ships and as many as 30,000 men, and some Western historians have held it to be the most decisive naval battle anywhere on the globe since the Battle of Actium of 31BC.
The Ottomans ships were easily replaced, yet it proved much harder to man them, since so many experienced sailors, oarsmen and soldiers had been lost. Especially critical was the loss of most of the Empire's composite bowmen and jannisaries which, far beyond ship rams and early firearms were the Ottoman's main embarked weapon. Historian John Keegan notes that the losses in this highly specialised class of warrior were irreplaceable in a generation, and in fact represented the death of a living tradition for the Ottomans. Convicts also replaced Christians in the galleys.
In Europe, news of the victory was met with great jubilation. Throughout Europe, church bells tolled and there were great celebrations. The victory had been greater than any had hoped for.
Following the battle there were plans by the Vatican to invade Turkey herself, unfortunately, the nations of the Holy League once again began to fight amongst each other and plans were abandoned. After Lepanto the Holy League and other nations and alliances fought further wars and conflicts against Islamic Turkey. Some were victories, some defeats.
Efforts by archeologists to uncover the remains of the battle of Lepanto have unfortunately met with disappointment. The area where much of the battle was fought has receeded. The coast has moved outward. Much of the battleground is now farm land. Other coastal sites have been disturbed over the centuries by Greek fishing trollers, athough some wrecks were found by German and Spanish Archeologists.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the man who would later write Don Quixote participated in the battle of Lepanto. He lost an arm in the battle and was captured by Algerian corsairs years later where he spent 5 years as a slave before being ransomed. The events of Don Quixote such as the freeing of galley slaves were inspired by Lepanto.
As news of the great victory of October 7 reached shore, church bells rang all over the cities and countryside of Europe. For months, Pius V [who was canonized a saint in 1712] had urged Catholics to say the daily rosary on behalf of the morale and good fortune of the Christian forces, and above all, a successful outcome to the highly risky preemptive strike against the Turkish fleets. Thereafter, he declared that October 7 would be celebrated as the feast of "Mary, Queen of Victory." A later pope added the title "Queen of the Holy Rosary" in honor of the laity's favorite form of prayer. All over the Italian peninsula, great paintings were commissioned--whole galleries were dedicated--to honoring the classic scenes of that epic battle. The air of Europe that October tasted of liberties preserved. The record of the celebrations lives on in glorious paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, and many others.
[Slightly edited for spelling and grammar; Source: Free Republic, Catholic Caucus, Daily Mass Readings, October 15, 2009]
To see historian Michael Novak's much more comprehensive (and fascinating) article on this, click here. Novak notes that the Muslims went on to suffer a decisive (at the time) defeat in Europe at Vienna on September 11, 1683. He ends his article with these words:
Still, it should surprise no one that the date chosen to bring the new resurgence of modern Muslim ambition to the whole world's attention was also September 11, 318 years after 1683. The announcement came in the vivid orange bursts of blossoming flame and dark black smoke from two of the tallest towers of the West's financial capital. Muslim memory runs very deep, and so does the Muslim imperative to conquer the world for Allah, not just by force of arms but by conversion to Islam. The West has always refused to give this long and deeply rooted Muslim threat against the West's own soul the sustained attention it requires.
Nonetheless, four centuries after Lepanto, three centuries after Vienna, today in most of the capitals of once-Christian Europe, there are more Muslims attending services in mosques on Fridays, than Christians at worship on Sundays. In some ways, the pluralism of the West is a blessing, even an advantage to the West--and yet its profoundest historical weakness lies in its own divided spirit. The ultimate issue between Islam and the West is not military force. It is the depth of intellect and engagement. In matters of the spirit, we seem always to become tongue-tied, as if lacking in spirited confidence. We do not insist on presenting better arguments in recognition of the inalienable rights to human liberty that our totalitarian opponents deny. Mere secular force will not do, when the fundamental battle is spiritual. Thus, the same movie seems to be played over and over.
That is the historical record, it seems, at least in regard to October 7, 1571, and September 11-12, 1683, after Lepanto, and after Vienna.