It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
When you think about Europe in the 1500s, what comes to mind?
Maybe the Renaissance, or the Age of Exploration; maybe the inventions, science, adventure, and innovation.
But the devout Catholics who were alive at that time were probably longing for the days of the Church’s medieval glory.
After all, the Protestant Revolt had wreaked havoc on Christendom. Christian unity had been shredded. Not only was the faith of many people shattered, but discontent was rippling around the continent in the form of uprisings and religious wars.
To make things worse, the resources and attention of the various empires were dangerously occupied with adventures in the vast New World.
Watching all this with great interest were those who embodied the thousand-year-old menace of Islam: the dreaded Ottoman Turks.
The Ottoman Threat
They were the heirs of those Muslims who had broken the might of Byzantium.
The Ottomans had, over the course of two centuries, developed a highly sophisticated political and military system, made inroads into eastern Europe, and added to their empire, conquering the seemingly-unconquerable Constantinople in 1453.
True, they had suffered some major setbacks in the latter half of that century—there was the legendary Christian defense of Belgrade under the leadership of John Hunyadi and St. John of Capistrano. There was also the stupendous story of Scanderbeg, the Ottoman warrior who turned into the “Champion of Christ” and saved Albania (for a time).
The Ottomans were relentless, however, and finally enslaved Albania after the death of Scanderbeg.
The terror was far from over, however, as the Ottoman empire—with all its successes—had not yet reached its zenith. That would come with the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled from 1520-1566.
Suleiman was the apotheosis of the Ottoman ruler. He implemented major reforms in such areas of domestic life as the legal system. Arts and culture blossomed under his rule. More critically for our story, he forged full-speed ahead with the Ottoman dream of conquering the world for the Islamic faith.
Among the Sultan’s tremendous territorial gains was the capture of Belgrade and most of Hungary after Europe’s leaders couldn’t—or wouldn’t—come to the aid of the nineteen-year-old King Louis at the disastrous Battle of Mohács. The King died in the retreat, with the greater part of his land falling to the Turks for two hundred years.
The armies of Suleiman kept coming. They snapped up the island of Rhodes near Crete, despite its heroic defense by the Knights of St. John who had guarded it since the 1300s.
As the Sultan took over other important locales, he was eyeing control of the Mediterranean and eventually all of Christendom, which seemed to be crumbling before his onslaught.
Suleiman then made an attempt on the all-important capital of Vienna in 1529 and on the island of Malta in 1565. He was thwarted both times, but these failures and his death the following year still did not stem the tide of Islam.
His uninspiring son, Selim “the Drunkard,” did not inherit his father’s charisma, but he continued the assault on the Mediterranean nonetheless. He wasn’t dreaming small, either: he wanted Rome, the very heart of his wounded enemy.
As to those Christians who were still nominally free and had heard of the persecution of their fellow Christians further east (imagine how distressing it was to hear about the fall of so many Christian strongholds), they must have known that their time was coming.
Who or what would save them?
The Western Response (Or Lack Thereof)
Despite these warning signs, most of Europe’s leaders were absorbed in their own issues and behaved with endemic apathy.
One of the few to recognize and act on the growing threat from the East was Pope St. Pius V.
He desperately appealed to the monarchs of the West to send troops to halt the advance of the Turks, but was met with the usual indifference from everyone who should have cared.
Elizabeth of Protestant England was hardly someone to fight for the glory of Catholicism; the French weren’t much help either, suffering as they were from poor leadership, internal wars, and questionable alliances with the Turks; Spain was distracted by her colonial activity in the Americas.
Philip II of Spain did more than the rest by sending his half-brother, Don Juan of Austria, with several dozen ships.
More volunteers were gathered and a fleet was cobbled together—the Holy League—composed of forces from Spain, Venice, the Papal States and other regions of Italy.
How different this was from the fearsome Christian armies and armadas that sallied forth against Muslim invaders with kings at their head, back in the glory days of the Crusades. But it wasn’t just that—the glory and power and well-trained armadas of the past.
It seems that a graver issue was at play, one that must have worried the astute minds of the time: the problem of zeal.
The marked difference between East and West—judging by the actions of the rulers of each—was that the Ottomans fought with a purpose that was slipping from the hands and hearts of Christendom’s lukewarm stewards.
Expanding their empire was part of the Ottoman religion, while protecting the lands and culture of God no longer seemed to motivate Christians. They didn’t seem to have eyes to see or the zeal to act.
Instead, the odd admixture of ships, fighting men, courage, and purpose which the Holy League managed to scrape together by the fall of 1571 would have to be enough.
The time of battle was approaching.
“…Terrible as an Army Set in Battle Array…”
The Turks were coming. The Christians were finally coming to meet them.
The final tally for the Christian forces was around 208 vessels and 30,000 troops, with the Turks boasting about the same number of fighting men and 80 more ships, totalling 288.
Among the reasons for confidence on the Christian side was a set of Venetian galleasses, ships with innovative side-mounted guns rather than just the bow-mounted variety. With their ability to fire from broadside, these would play an invaluable role in the fight and make their mark on the development of naval warfare.
But perhaps the most valuable contributions to the Holy League’s armaments were those made by the Archbishop of Mexico, half a world away, and by Pope Pius V himself in Rome.
These were contributions of neither troops, nor guns, nor ships, but they would prove more powerful than any weapon of war.
Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Battle of Lepanto
Hearing of the threat from the Turks and the efforts to gather a force, the Archbishop of Mexico commissioned a copy of the miraculous image of Our Lady that had appeared but forty years before on the tilma of a poor Mexican Indian, Juan Diego.
The Archbishop touched the replica to the original and sent it to Philip II, telling him to mount it on one of the ships sailing against the Turks.
His directive was obeyed. Our Lady’s image sailed into battle on the mast of the ship of the Genoese admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria.
That was not all. Pius V asked that all the inhabitants of Christian Europe pray the Rosary for the success of the offensive. The Holy League’s forces prayed it as well, with every man being given a set of rosary beads before the battle.
[Don Juan] then issued to every man in his fleet a weapon more powerful than anything in the Turkish arsenal: a rosary. On the eve of the battle, the men of the Holy League prepared their souls by falling to their knees on the decks of their galleys and praying the Rosary. Back in Rome, and up and down the Italian peninsula, at the behest of Pius V, the churches were filled with the faithful telling their beads. In heaven, the Blessed Mother, Her Immaculate Heart aflame, was listening.Christopher Check, Apologist and President of Catholic Answers, Institute of Catholic Culture presentation
Thus, it was not merely a human force—not merely ships and guns—that the Ottomans sailed out to meet from their anchorage in the Gulf of Corinth on the morning of October 7th, 1571. God and His Mother were with the Christian forces.
We can wonder: did the Turks catch sight of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe?
What must they have been thinking when they saw—affixed to the mast of a Christian admiral sailing against them—the image of a beautiful maiden, shining like the sun, with stars on her mantle—and the crescent moon, the symbol of Islam, under her feet?
Perhaps their thoughts were similar to the sixth chapter of the Song of Songs:
Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array?Song of Solomon 6:9
Had they but known her power, they would have surrendered immediately.
As it was, the fierce fighting commenced.
Our Lady of Victory
The battle began with the Christians at a disadvantage: the wind was against them as they tried to maneuver their ships.
Before the fleets met, however, the wind somehow changed direction. In fact, it changed 180 degrees, propelling the Christian ships right where they needed to be. It seems that Our Lady’s hand was already laid to the helm.
The hard-fought battle lasted until the early afternoon. It was bloody and costly for both Christians and Ottomans.
Imagine more nearly 500 ships clashing on the seas—the bloody clash of men, the noise, the chaos.
The fighting lasted for five hours. The sides were evenly matched and both were well-led but the Divine favored the Christians. And once the battle turned in their favor, it became a total rout. By one count, all but thirteen of the Turkish galleys were captured or sunk.Christopher Check, Apologist and President of Catholic Answers, Institute of Catholic Culture presentation
In the end, the Holy League claimed the victory for Our Lady.
Back at Rome, on that very day, Pius V was busy in his study.
Suddenly he rose and went to the open window.
He said to his secretary:
“This is not a moment for business; make haste to thank God, because our fleet this moment has won a victory over the Turks.”
There was no human way he could have known this. Report of the victory would not reach Rome until October 26th.
Pope Pius V had been granted divine knowledge.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Christians lost about 8,000 men, with a similar number of Turks killed and thousands more captured.
But the Holy League lost only twelve vessels compared to at least 167 Turkish ships lost or captured.
The freedom of Christian Europe at large was not the only fruit of victory: 12,000 Christian slaves, who had been forced to row the ships of the Ottomans, came up on deck as free men.
Interestingly, two weeks previously on older Roman calendars was the feast of Our Lady of Ransom, a commemoration of the religious order founded in the 13th century to ransom Christian slaves from the muslims.
Lepanto was the last time the Ottomans seriously threatened Christian Europe from the Mediterranean.
They would make one last, futile attempt to take Vienna in 1629; their star then waxed and waned at intervals until their empire finally fell into ruin after World War I.
The Legacy of Lepanto
In 1572, the year after the Battle of Lepanto, Pope Pius V established the feast of Our Lady of Victory in thanksgiving for her intercession at Lepanto. It was later renamed the “Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary” by his successor, Gregory XIII.
It is this great feast that we celebrate in our current day, remembering the salvation of Christian Europe that Our Lady brought about through the faithful recitation of her Holy Rosary.
It is not just Lepanto that we remember, however.
We also celebrate all the victories of the Rosary, great and small, be they as famous as Lepanto, as hidden as the conversion of a single soul, or as ordinary as a safe trip home from work.
The Rosary has rescued nations, healed the incurable, and saved the most recalcitrant souls.
Perhaps we can endeavor to recount today the particular graces Our Lady has given to us through the recitation of the Rosary.
If you are not in the habit of saying the Rosary, now is a great time to start.
No earthly or spiritual struggle is beyond the Blessed Mother’s love and care. She has shown us time and again throughout history what she will do for those who have recourse to the Rosary.
Fear nothing. Take up Our Lady’s weapon and go bravely into battle.
What does the Battle of Lepanto mean to you?
How do you celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Month of the Rosary, and the Rosary itself?
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Share them with us in the comment section below!