The Battle of Lepanto: What Christians Today Can Learn from This Historic Naval Conflict
October 7 will be remembered for years as the day Palestine-based Hamas found a chink in Israel’s nearly-impenetrable armor and wreaked havoc on the embattled nation. Days later, Palestinian Muslims sounded again the cry for a global jihad, a “holy” war against Israel, the West, and all whom the Muslim world derides as infidels. This battle cry has been heard many times before, and will probably be heard again, but in these days of turmoil and fear, it is well worthwhile for Christians to recall another October 7 nearly 500 years ago, when that terrific cry was silenced by Christian bravery and the power of prayer.
The Battle of Lepanto is considered one of the greatest naval battles ever fought, the first great victory for a Christian naval force over a Muslim fleet, and a pivotal moment in history. The Muslim Ottoman Empire had, for centuries, been seeking a foothold in Europe to carry out its global jihad and make the entire known world Muslim — either by proselytization or by the sword. Thus far, Christian forces had repelled the Ottoman efforts through a series of hard-fought defensive campaigns and crusades to reclaim fallen territories. In the very early 1570s, the Ottomans thought they’d finally found a way to launch an offensive into the heart of Christian Europe. They laid siege to the Venetian stronghold on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. From there, the Muslims could launch an invasion into Greece, Malta, and Italy.
In August of 1571, the Venetian town of Famagusta surrendered after months of siege. Marco Antonio Bragadin, the Venetian captain-general of Famagusta who had led the defense, negotiated terms with the Ottomans to ensure safe passage for his people off the island, but Ottoman commander Lala Mustafa Pasha wanted revenge for the 50,000 men he’d lost in the siege and so broke his word and imprisoned the Venetians. Many of the soldiers were beheaded, but Bragadin had his ears and nose cut off by Mustafa himself and was kept in a cage, baking in the hot Mediterranean sun for days. Bragadin was offered his freedom if he would convert to Islam, and when he boldly refused, he was slowly flayed alive. Bragadin spent his final hours praying and singing hymns, and his last words were Christ’s own: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). His flayed skin was stuffed with straw and put on board a boat along with the heads of the slain Venetians and was shipped back to Europe.
Such behavior was not a novelty. When the Muslim Ottomans had waged war with the Knights of Malta on the island of Malta just a few years earlier, knights who surrendered were promised quarter but instead crucified and beheaded and their headless bodies floated across the harbor on their crosses. When the capital of Cyprus, Nicosia, had been taken by the Muslims in 1570, Christian soldiers were promised terms of surrender, but were slaughtered; mothers in the town took the lives of their own daughters to spare them from being raped; and over 2,000 boys were rounded up to be sold as sex slaves. The fall of Famagusta meant Cyprus was now under the Ottoman Empire’s control, and so the Muslims began laying plans for an assault into the heart of Christian Europe.
While Famagusta was still under siege, Pope Pius V convened a coalition of Christian soldiers called the Holy League to defend Cyprus, if possible, and the whole of Europe if Cyprus were to fall. The coalition was a significant one at the time, coming in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, as it brought together Christians of several denominations, all united in their love of the faith and their devotion to their homelands and European heritage. Although comprised predominantly of Catholics, the force included Anglicans, Orthodox, Christians of various denominations serving as mercenaries, and even some European Jews.
Although the Pope sought assistance from the whole of Christian Europe, few volunteered ships or soldiers: the French outright spurned his call to arms, Queen Elizabeth I of England sent only a handful of ships, and even the Republic of Venice did not initially join the League, despite the brutalization of its colonies on Cyprus. Spain accounted for the bulk of the Holy League’s soldiers, sailors, ships, and funding, and was joined by the Papal States, Genoa and Tuscany, the Swiss Duchy of Savoy, and the Knights of Malta. The Venetians eventually agreed to join in force, more than doubling the size of the Holy League.
Pius V and the Spanish King Philip II assigned as the leader of the League Philip’s illegitimate half-brother, Don John of Austria, a skilled and highly educated military commander, a loyal ally of his half-brother, a member of the House of Habsburg, and a devout Christian. The author G.K. Chesterton immortalizes Don John in his poem “Lepanto”:
“Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.”
Don John stands out among the heroes of Lepanto as an example for Christians seeking God’s will, trusting in His might, and cooperating to achieve His will in this world. As a faithful Catholic, Don John had a particular devotion to Christ’s mother, Mary, and frequently prayed the Rosary, a Catholic devotion asking Mary to pray to her Son for Christians. Before setting off across the Adriatic Sea, Don John led his men in three days of prayer, asking God to bless their mission, protect them as He saw fit, and to preserve Christian Europe. He wore about his neck a splinter from the cross on which Christ had been crucified, given to him by Pius V.
The night before the battle, Don John led his men in praying the Rosary; back in Rome, Pius V knelt in his chapel, and all across Italy, Christians crowded into churches to pray for the Holy League’s success. Many of the ships in the League were rowed by criminals, and Don John armed them all and promised each man his freedom if he survived the battle. Don John divided his fleet into four squadrons, commanding the center and foremost squadron himself. Under the advice of the Genovese commander Gianandrea Doria, Don John removed the battering rams typically attached to the bow of warships, offering the ships’ cannons enough range to fire at the waterline of the enemy’s hulls, thus sinking ships faster. The move was a novel one and is thought to have heralded in the age of gunpowder in naval warfare.
The following morning, at dawn on October 7, the Holy League rowed their galleys into the Gulf of Patras and beheld their enemy. The League was equipped with 212 ships, six of them being small galleasses, while the Ottomans boasted nearly 300 ships, and their men outnumbered the Christians by several thousand. As the Muslims drew near, with the wind strong in their sails, they began banging gongs and cymbals and letting loose blood-curdling howls and screams, a scare tactic that had served the Ottomans well in the past. But the Christians were busy praying, and the Muslim war cries were met with complete silence. Unaccustomed to this response, the Ottomans themselves fell into uneasy silence and began to wonder what manner of enemy they were facing.
The League rowed their galleys slowly onward. Then their prayers were answered: the wind changed by 180 degrees. The Christian fleet was suddenly propelled forward with speed and the Muslims were left practically at a standstill, scrambling to take down their now-useless sails. Don John offered a final prayer, kneeling at the very front of his own ship, and then unfurled a massive banner depicting Christ crucified while his men erupted in cheers. The battle began shortly after.
Some of the Ottomans’ nearly 60 galliots, small and sleek and fast, managed to slip around the side of the League’s left flank, commanded by Venetian Agostin Barbarigo, and begin attacking as if from the shore. These galliots were shortly joined by the bulk of the Ottoman right flank. Miraculously, Barbarigo managed to spin his entire squadron to its left and pin the Ottomans against the shore. Slaughter ensued. Barbarigo himself was fatally shot through the eye with an arrow, but the Ottoman captain Mahomet Sirocco was slain and the fleet’s right flank was obliterated, with only a small handful of ships escaping in between the broken Christian lines. Christian slaves freed from the Muslim galleys joined their liberators in the fight. The League’s right flank, under Doria, drifted far enough from Don John’s center that Ottoman vessels slipped between the two squadrons and surrounded Don John from behind. Fortunately, the Holy League’s reserve squadron, under Don Alvaro de Bazan, was quick to come to the rescue.
Customarily, commanders’ flagships did not engage in battle directly, but Don John broke this convention. He sailed his ship directly against the Ottoman flagship captained by Muslim admiral Ali Pasha. The combat was brutal. Twice, Don John and his Spanish soldier boarded Pasha’s Sultana, and twice they were driven back. Don John always led the charge, and was wounded in the leg on the third boarding, but Pasha was shot through the head and the Ottoman flag, containing the word “Allah” stitched in gold and which Islamic tradition held was carried by Muhammed himself in battle almost a thousand years before, was torn down, plunging the nearby Ottomans into despair.
Doria sailed too far past his assigned position, leaving 15 galleys manned by the Knights of Malta to do battle against the Ottoman fleet’s entire left flank, commanded by the Italian traitor Occhiali. Once again, Don Alvaro de Bazan came to the rescue and prevented the Muslim forces from reaching the League’s center. Greek Christians enslaved aboard Occhiali’s galleys mutinied and turned the tide. All told, over 15,000 Christians were freed from slavery that day.
Occhiali managed to break away from the fighting in his flagship and escape, bringing almost 90 Ottoman vessels with him and informing Sultan Selim II that he was responsible for singlehandedly rescuing the fleet from crushing defeat. The Battle of Lepanto lasted only five hours, but the Muslims fought to the last, even hurling fruit at their enemies when they had run out of swords and musket balls. The Holy League lost a total of 13 ships and 7,500 men, while at least 50 Muslim ships were sunk, almost 140 were captured, and 30,000 men were slain.
Back in Rome, Pope Pius V met with his cardinals within an hour of the battle’s conclusion and, according to Catholic military historian Christopher Check, told them, “Let us set aside business and fall on our knees in thanksgiving to God, for he has given our fleet a great victory.” Pius V ordered church bells to be rung across the whole of Europe in celebration of the Christian continent’s triumph.
It took days for the Holy League to make it back home, and sailors and soldiers alike were shocked to find that their Christian brethren already knew of the great victory. Pope Pius V, King Philip II of Spain, Don John of Austria, and almost every Christian man who fought at Lepanto credited God with the victory and was certain that for all the swords and muskets and cannons that were drawn that day, prayer was the greatest of weapons. The Ottomans rebuilt a fleet, and Don John continued to defend Christendom from the Muslims, but Lepanto marked a definitive turning point and the end of the exponential Ottoman expansion.
Christians today can take heart from the heroes of Lepanto, knowing that God offers protection and even victory to those who humbly ask it of Him. Pius V stands as a fine example of Christian faith, trusting always in God and devoting himself entirely to prayer, while Don John is a model of Christian courage, praying for victory and braving all manner of perils to achieve it.
As the threat of Islamist warfare once again threatens much of the Western world and horrific war has broken out once again, it would be good for Christians to imitate the brave men who fought at Lepanto and place their trust in God, standing always ready to do His will.
“Confrontation at Lepanto: Christendom Vs. Islam” by T.C.F. Hopkins (TOR Publishing, 2006)
“Ten Battles Every Catholic Should Know” by Michael D. Greaney (Tan Books, 2018)
“The Galleys at Lepanto” by Jack Beeching (Scribner, 1983)
“From Cyprus to Lepanto: History of the Events” by Giovanni Pietro Contarini (1572)
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.