Our Lady of the Rosary & The Battle of Lepanto

A stage set for battle…

Western Europe watched with little interest as the Ottomans besieged the Island of Malta in May of 1565 and at Zigidfar, Hungry in August of 1566. In both instances, the European states wagered personal short term interests rather than considering the long term status of Europe not to mention the people in those cities under siege. The victory at Malta was an unexpected surprise to the whole of Europe and though Zigidfar was a defeat, the month long siege caused such carnage, the Ottoman forces halted their march on Vienna. Both conflicts protected Europe from any further Ottoman invasion. 

Europe finally heeded the wake up call when Selim II made his debut as Emperor of the Ottoman Empire by leading a victorious siege on Venetian held Cyprus. Though not a leader with particular interest in military action, Selim understood his responsibility to uphold the legacy of his father, Suleiman the Magnificent, as well as the Ottoman army’s reputation.

John of Austria in Armour by Alonso Sánchez Coello, 1567.

Catholic Europe centered in Rome was fighting two fronted, theological and militaristic battles in England with the Reformation and in the East with the growing force of the Ottoman Empire. The great Pope Saint Pius V issued a call to arms and prayers to protect Europe from the imminent Ottoman invasion. 

On March 7th 1570 the Pope formed the Holy League with Genoa, Spain, and the Papal States. The Venetians, though in open war with the Turks over Cyprus, refuse to join the league. Without the Venetians, the Holy League would have small chance of defeating the Ottomans at sea. It was not until corsair cannon-fire was within range of St. Marks Basilica that Venice finally joined forces with Rome. France and England openly ignored the call.

The fleet forming was to led by Don John of Austria, the bastard son of Charles V and half brother to Philip II of Spain. An accomplished young man, 24 years of age, was known for his great bravery in battle and mercy on those he defeated.  

Up until this point, the Venetians continued to hold the Eastern most corner of Cyprus at Famagusta but by August 1571 supplies had run out. The surrender preceded the brutal slaughter of soldiers and civilians at Famagusta and fueled the Ottoman charge on the West.

At this same time, young Don John prepared his men to set sail from the coast of Sicily. The fleet comprised ships from Venice, Spain, Naples, Portugal and Genoa. Strict order and morality was set in place for the soldiers under Don John. 

The Battle

The Holy League met the Ottoman forces at the Gulf of Patras off the coast of the town Nafpaktos (“Lepanto” is the Venetian pronunciation perversion of Nafpaktos). By this time, news of the brutal Famagusta ordeal had reached the fleet and justice was ready to be served

Both the Turks and the Christians understood this battle to be as much a spiritual one as it was physical. The eve of battle darkened with uncertainty, the Christian fleet cut through the sea with soldiers on their knees praying the Rosary. In Rome, Pope Pius and overflowing churches prayed the same beads in hope for Christian victory. 

When the sun rose on October 7th the Christian fleet found themselves rowing against the tide toward the Ottoman force. As the two fleets drew closer, the shouts and drums of the Turks could be heard within earshot, the Christian fleet strode silently in prayer. The physical met the spiritual in the formation each belligerent chose to enter into battle: the Christians in the shape of a cross and the Ottomans in the shape of a crescent. 

All at once, in a single, miraculous breath, the wind changed 180 degrees and in favor of the Christian force. The Blessed Mother and her Holy Rosary, who we honor today, heard the prayers of Christendom and came to their rescue. With a cheer the League met the Turks with the wind at their back and a banner of Christ Crucified stretched in the wind.

Iglesia de Santa Maria Magdalena Seville, Spain

Pius V receiving a vision of the victory. Artist, Unknown.

The Christians rammed the Ottoman flagship replacing the Turkish banner with one of Christ on the Cross. The battle ensued on the decks of the ships, men meeting there demise in the most swift and gruesome fashion. The Christian galley slaves filed through their chains and stormed the Ottoman decks. In a moment of uncertainty, the Spanish reserve forces came to the rescue of the struggling Christians. The Holy League was victorious.

The day of the battle, Pope Pius V received a vision of the victory and called for celebration and thanksgiving. 

The Christians and Ottomans were well matched and well lead. The defining factor rested in the divine intervention of Our Lady and the Rosary. The crushing defeat of the Ottomans, the loss of men, generals, weapons and ships, forced the Turks to stagger back to Constantinople and ensured the protection of Rome and the borders of Christendom.

The cannon and musket fire from both sides of the fighting caused inconceivable carnage. The battle lasted five hours resulting in a death toll of almost 50,000 men, a casualty number for a single battle that would remain unmatched for nearly 400 years until the cruelty of the First World War.

An event that continues to inspire…

The battle inspired the hearts and souls of many as well as incredible literature. The celebrated author of Don Quixote, Cervantes, fought along side Don John in the Battle of Lepanto and penned an account of the battle in chapter 39 when the captive tells of his adventures. Hundreds of years later G. K. Chesterton’s poem Lepanto would grace the newspapers with unmatched rhyme and meter as well as historical significance.

Pope Saint Pius V declared a great feast to the Blessed Mother in honor of the victory. Pope Gregory XIII gave the feast the formal name we celebrate today, Our Lady of the the Rosary. The feast day shares the anniversary of the battle, October 7th; for it is truly Our Lady and the power of the Rosary that deserve the credit of the miraculous victory in 1571.





Lepanto: The Battle that Saved the West

A riveting lecture by Christopher Check detailing an account of the Battle as well as background on Don John of Austria and Chesterton’s poem. The audio format proves perfect for car rides and the content is invaluable to your own edification. A must purchase.