New Insights on the Gospels

March for Life 2012

Evil triumphs when good men do nothing - Edmund Burke

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Battle of Lepanto

If you belong to the generation that I am a part of, chances are you have not studied or heard a lot of the history of the Catholic Church. The tragedy of not knowing the History of the Catholic Church is that one is then forced to learn a warped version of Church history from the popular media. A consequence of this is that one ends up with wrong notions of the Crusades and the Knights Templar and one is unable to defend the Church in the face of such calumnies.

Our history lesson today covers one of the greatest naval battles in history; The battle of Lepanto.


(Please Click on Picture to see a large image of it. Mexico_San_Miguel_de_allende_atotonilco_chapel_of_the_rosary)

When Saint Pius V ascended the Papacy in 1566, Christendom faced perils both internal and external. One of the greatest external threats came from the agitated and violent followers of Mohammed. All the information and intelligence that Pope Pius V had been gathering indicated that the Ottoman juggernaut was about to roll across the Mediterranean and adjacent lands, spearheaded by the Turkish fleet. Its target was Italy and Rome. No nation could stand up to the marauding infidels and the candidates for an alliance were few. Northern Europe had risen up in armed rebellion against the Church with France deeply involved in the conflict, this was a part of the internal struggles in the Church. The Ottoman Empire felt that neutrality was the best policy after the Turks occupied a large chunk of its land in the Danube River Valley.

Only Spain and Venice had the resources to resist, and they hated each other with a deep mistrust. Yet Saint Pius through means of prayer forged an alliance with them as the core of an organized fleet of over 200 galleys. With his considerable tact and diplomatic skills, he not only kept them unified, but he convinced them to attack the enveloping menace.

A Christian naval fleet was assembled under the overall command of Admiral Don John of Austria. Although just in his twenties, Don John was a capable naval commander. The Spaniards were led by Santa Cruz, the Genoese by Andrea Doria, and the Venetians by Agostin Barbarigo and Sebastian Veniero. The fleet under Don John's command was some 300 ships strong, with over 100 ships and 30,000 men being supplied by Philip II of Spain alone. The Pope personally outfitted and supplied 12 Papal galleys, and provided funding for many of the others as well. The Venetian contingent was around 100 ships, manned in part by additional Spanish soldiers. In the Venetian fleet there were six galleys. Heavier, broader, and much slower than conventional galleys, they were nonetheless technologically advanced - the heavy gun platforms and battleships of their day. All total, over 50,000 men served the fleet as rowers, and another 30,000 were fighting soldiers.

In September of 1571, Don John moved the Catholic fleet East to intercept the Turks at Corfu, but the Turks had already landed, terrorized the population, and then moved on. While anchored off the coast of Cephalonia, news reached Don John that the Christian stronghold at Famagusta on Cyprus had fallen to the Turks, with all prisoners being tortured and then executed by the Moslems.

Don John then pulled up anchor and moved to engage the Turkish fleet in the Gulf of Lepanto, off the southern coast of Greece. The Turkish fleet, some 330 ships strong, under the command of Ali Pasha, had been reinforced by Uluch Ali, the Bey of Algiers, and head of the notorious band of Moslem corsairs (pirates) that had long terrorized Catholic ships in the Mediterranean.

On the night of October 6, with a favorable wind behind him, Ali Pasha moved his fleet westward toward the mouth of the Gulf of Patras to intercept the approaching ships of the Holy League.

At dawn, on October 7, 1571, the two fleets met. Don Juan split his fleet into three sections: on the left (north), the Venetians under Agostin Barbarigo; on the right (south), Andrea Doria led the Genoese and Papal galleys; in the center, Don John commanded his flagship and galleys. Santa Cruz, with a force of 35 Spanish and Venetian ships, was held in reserve. He ordered his captains not to fire until 'close enough to be splattered with Moslem blood.' The iron rams were removed from the Christian ships, as the plan was for boarding and close quarter fighting. Two of the large Venetian galleasses were towed into position in front of each of the three Christian divisions.

Ali Pasha's fleet approached in a giant crescent formation, and seeing the opposing fleet, he also ordered his fleet split into three divisions. Ali Pasha himself took up the middle position opposite Don John, and charged forward to engage Don John's ships. The Venetian galleasses opened fire, and almost immediately eight Moslem ships were hit and began to sink. The Catholic galleys, their decks filled with soldiers, opened fire with arquebuses and crossbows as the Moslem ships drew alongside. Ali Pasha's men attempted to board the Catholic ships, but the Spanish soldiers were experienced and well disciplined. Attack after attack was beaten back with deadly shots from their crossbows and arquebuses.

Don John ordered the ship of Ali Pasha to be boarded and taken. Two times the boarding attack of the Spanish soldiers was beaten back, but on the third attempt they swarmed over the deck, now awash in blood, and took the ship. Ali Pasha was captured and beheaded on the spot (against the wishes of Don John), and the Battle Flag of the Ottoman Fleet came down off the mainmast. The head of the Turkish admiral was spitted on a long pike and raised on high for all the enemy ships to see. The Turkish attack in the center collapsed, and Don John sent his ships in pursuit of the retreating Turks, and also turned to aid in the battles raging on his flanks.

On the Catholic right, Uluch Ali and his pirates had broken through Doria's lines and managed to capture the flagship of the Knights of St. John. Santa Cruz, seeing what had happened, came up to the rescue, and Uluch Ali was forced to abandon his prize. The Genoese were in a fight for their lives with the remainder of Uluch Ali's ships, but after Don John had broken the enemy fleet in the center, he turned and came to the aid of the Genoese. The Algerian corsairs were finally overcome, and fled for their lives in full retreat.

Admiral Mahomet Sirocco, commanding the Turkish right (on the Catholic left), sailed close to the rocks and shallows on the northern shore of the gulf and was able to outflank Barbarigo's Venetian galleys. Barbarigo's flagship was surrounded by eight enemy galleys, and the Catholic Admiral fell dead from Turkish arrows. His flagship was taken for a time, but aid finally arrived, and Sirocco's flagship galley was sunk. The Turkish admiral was yanked out of the water, and, like Ali Pasha, killed right on the spot.

The engagement lasted, all total, around four to five hours. When it was all over, 8,000 men who had sailed with Don John were dead and another 16,000 wounded. The Turks and Uluch Ali's corsairs had over 25,000 dead, and untold thousands more wounded and captured. Over 12,000 Catholic galley slaves had also been rescued from the Moslems. The Venetian galleasses had taken a heavy toll on the Turkish fleet. It was a major victory for the Holy League and Christendom.

During this battle, Pope Pius V, a Dominican prelate before his elevation, did what Catholics have always done in times of acute danger: fly into the arms of the most powerful Mother of God. He ordered all monasteries and convents in Rome to increase their prayers for the impending battle and organized rosary processions in which he, as sick as he was, participated.

As the Christian fleet sailed toward the great clash of cultures, Mass was celebrated and the rosary recited daily on each vessel. This heartfelt request for divine assistance resulted in a crushing defeat of the Ottomans at Lepanto that ended their dominance in the Mediterranean.

At dawn, on October 7, 1571, as recorded in the Vatican Archives, Pope Pius V, accompanied by a group of the faithful, entered the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to pray the Rosary and ask Our Lady to intercede for a Catholic victory. The prayers continued in Rome as the Catholic and Moslem fleets battled far away in the Gulf of Lepanto. Later in the day, the Pope is said to have suddenly interrupted his business with some Cardinals, and looking up, cried out,

"A truce to business! Our great task at present is to thank God for the victory which He has just given the Catholic army."

The Pope, of course, had no way of knowing that the battle was taking place and being decided on that very day.

To celebrate Our Lady’s intercession, the Church has designated October 7 as the Feast of the Holy Rosary and Saint Pius V added Help of Christians (Auxilium Christianorum) to the Litany of Our Lady (Loreto).



(Pope Pius V Praying to Our Lady Mexico_San_Miguel_de_allende_atotonilco_chapel_of_the_rosary)


Sources : Tradition in Action and TFP

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