“Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds, breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds, thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea white for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty. Vivat Hispania! Domino Gloria! Don John of Austria has set his people free!” – from Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton.
In war, whether it has lasted for a few years or recurs over centuries, one battle can be the turning point. October 7th, 1571, the Battle of Lepanto, was a major turning point in the ongoing conflicts between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary now falls on October 7th, but was originally celebrated under the name Our Lady of Victory. The feast was declared soon after this battle, due to the Virgin’s intercession, as implored by Pope Pius V.
Prior to the Battle of Lepanto, confrontation between Europe and Islam had existed since the 7th century, and increased with the emergence of the Ottoman Empire, a powerful and well organized state system, at the end of the 13th century. The Ottoman Empire grew, and was able to conquer more countries, and even the once-impenetrable Constantinople. Over these centuries, Europe and England were largely focused on internal problems, such as the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, and the Protestant revolt and resulting schism. These problems and Europe’s preoccupation with them (and therefore somewhat halfhearted interest in the advances of the Ottoman Empire) left them open and vulnerable to attack. While individual countries and cities rose up to try to resist the Ottoman Empire when they arrived on their shores or at their walls, there was not a large, organized effort of all of Europe to match the scale of the ambitious Ottomans.
In the 1560s, the Ottomans began their assault on the Christian Mediterranean and quickly conquered most of the eastern islands. They threatened to next attack Venice and Rome, the result of which could have been the collapse of Christian Europe. Pope St. Pius V saw the impending danger and in 1570 called on the leaders of the West to unite against the force that was a threat to them all. But the request was in vain. Queen Elizabeth in England was too preoccupied with her rivalry with Spain, France was a sometime-ally of the Turks and was at the time under the reign of a sickly and unstable Charles IX, and Phillip II of Spain was busy with his new American empire.
Phillip II did, however, respond to the papal summons by sending his half brother, Don Juan of Austria, and dozens of ships. With volunteers from Mediterranean countries, in 1571 Don Juan was able to gather together a fleet of about 208 ships – about 80 fewer than the Turkish fleet. The main contributors were the Papal States, Spain, Venice, and some other Italian states; these allies came to be known as the Holy League.
Before setting out, Giovanni Andrea, the Genoese admiral, had hung in his flagship a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which had been touched to the original image on Juan Diego’s cloak. Pope Pius V was also seeking Mary’s aid through the recitation of the rosary, and when the ships set out from Messina on Sept 16th, all the men on board had rosaries, too.
Early on Sunday, October 7th, 1571, the fleets of the Holy League and of the Ottoman Empire came within fighting distance of each other, somewhat south of the town of Lepanto. The Turkish ships outnumbered the Christians’ but the number of combatants was likely close to equal, about 30,000 each. The battle lasted for a good portion of the day and was bloody; it is said that the sea was red with blood for miles around by the end of the battle. The Holy League was victorious, but at a cost. 8,000 men were lost and even more injured; only about a dozen ships were lost. As for the Ottomans – around the same number died, but thousands more were captured. Fifty Ottoman ships were sunk and more than 100 more ships captured, and about 10,000 Christians that had been previously captured by the Turks, and working as slaves on the ships, were freed.
Back in Rome, Pope Pius V knew of the victory before a message could possibly have reached him by human means. During a meeting with his treasurer on October 7th, the saintly pope suddenly rose up and gazed out the window, saying “This is not a moment for business; make haste to thank God, because our fleet this moment has won a victory over the Turks.” When the official news from the fleet reached Europe, there was much rejoicing, and Pope Pius V gave credit to the Virgin Mary by declaring October 7th the Feast of Our Lady of Victory.
This battle would not be the end of the Ottoman Empire; it remained until 1923, though stagnating and then declining from around 1699 on, and especially throughout the 1800s. However, the victory of the Christian forces in the Battle of Lepanto was highly significant as a turning point in the Ottoman Empire’s strength, and advancement on Europe. Though the army would be rebuilt after this fall to the Holy League, the fact that the Ottomans were proven to no longer be undefeatable was significant. Not long after, an attempt on Vienna would result not only in another Ottoman defeat, but also the liberation of lands in Hungary and the Balkans that had been taken over by the Turks a few decades before. The Battle of Lepanto was the final major Turkish attack on the Mediterranean; the southern shores of Christendom would be safe and one of the two main pathways to conquering Europe was cut off.
– Adapted from Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know by Diane Moczar.
You might also be interested in one of our other books about Lepanto and the primary figures involved.
Listen to Chesterton's epic poem, Lepanto: