The Turks, in Chesterton’s rousing verse, had by the late 16th century, “dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,” and “dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea”: the Ottoman Empire was master of the eastern Mediterranean, and nowhere upon that “inmost sea of all the earth” was the might of the Turk, his great navy, and his dread shock troops the Janissaries, not felt. The great Christian city upon the Golden Horn, which for a thousand years had resisted the protean armies of the Crescent — the Greek city that called itself the Second Rome — had fallen a century before in a great shock to the Christian world. Venetian power (the Lion of the Sea) on the Albanian coast had suffered grievous blows. Malta, under the Knights of St. John, had by great valor and some good fortune narrowly escaped defeat and ruin; Cyprus, a Venetian possession, had not been so lucky. Massacre and enslavement was her fate. (But resistance endured to the end: on a ship full of young slaves, destined for the harems of leading Turks, a young woman of fierce pride would endure no such dishonor: she set fire to the vessel’s powder magazine.) In July of 1571, the fortress town of Famagusta on Cyprus had fallen after a year-long siege, and its Venetian ruler, his terms of surrender wantonly betrayed, was subjected to an unspeakable torture and humiliation. The Agony of Famagusta rang like a tocsin throughout Christendom; and on a cool October day in the Gulf of Corinth, the menace of the Turk on the Mediterranean was delivered a blow from which it would never fully recover.
The Battle of Lepanto can justly lay claim to being one of the single bloodiest battles ever fought, on land or at sea. Indeed, it was both: for the collisions between, on the one side, Italians and Spaniards, along with some German mercenaries, and on the other, Janissaries and Turkish conscripts; collisions which rapidly degraded into the great congestion of an infantry battle on the interlocked the decks of hundreds of galleys. 40,000 men lost their lives that day, more than 150 every minute. But it was also an enormous and complex naval encounter, where superior leadership and tactical maneuvering on the Christian side played a crucial role.
The alliance of Christian powers had been cobbled together by tenacious negotiation by the Pope himself.
Somehow Pius V managed, by his patience, persistence and prayer, to bring into an uneasy league the often-feuding maritime Italian city-states, imperial Spain, and some scattered other soldiers and sailors of Europe, many of the latter hired directly by the papacy. This alliance was an extraordinary achievement: the work, indeed, of a saint. Pius was as decisive and intransigent a foe of appeasement as Churchill.
The Swiss historian Burckhardt suggests the scale of the task facing the pope’s bid for a fleeting moment of Christian unity: “great as was the terror felt for the Turks, and the actual danger from them, there was scarcely a government of any consequence which did not conspire” with the successors of the Conqueror of Constantinople, the Emperor of the Turks. Yet on this occasion Pius succeeded. The intrigues were briefly set aside, and the unity of Christendom was revived. It was known as the Holy League and it flew a flag of Christ crucified. Chesterton gives a moving summary of the formation of the League:
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The Holy League’s commander was a young Austrian prince, Don John, the bastard son of the Holy Roman Emperor, who had cut his teeth as a soldier putting down a Moorish rebellion in southern Spain — and thereby acquired the skills of an infantry commander that would prove indispensable for the Christian side. Chesterton in his poem calls him, provocatively, “the last knight of Europe.” It is indeed doubtful whether any other man could have held in concert the squabbling captains of the Catholic world. But despite their squabbles, Don John’s lieutenants were an able lot: the cream of the European naval officer-corps. Nor were the Turks lacking for naval skill and experience: their commander was the famed admiral Ali Pasha, victor at Cyprus — though not the author of the massacre and torture — and, under him, Uluch Ali, Viceroy of Algiers, a dreaded pirate captain who had bested Christians all over the southern Mediterranean.
The experience of the oarsmen of these vast platforms of war (on the Muslim side mostly Christian slaves, on the Christian side some freemen, some slaves) was one of hardship and filth almost beyond the imagination. V. D. Hanson provides a vivid description of this miserable life:
Contemporary accounts also relate a number of bizarre details that only confirm the horror. Sailors, marines, and rowers all wore scented scarves — purportedly the origin of the Mediterranean male’s propensity to use strong perfumes — to mask the stench and prevent vomiting. When flies, roaches, lice, fleas, and rats had overrun a galley, and its four-inch-thick boards became inundated with offal, captains — particularly the more fastidious Knights of Malta — sometimes temporarily sank the boats right offshore, in hopes that a few hours of total submersion in seawater might rid them of their cargo of vermin. Plagues — most often cholera and typhus — could wipe out entire flotillas, and understandably so, when four or five men were chained day and night alongside each other, stewing in each other’s lice, fleas, excrement, urine, and sweat. Such were the conditions of service for the nearly 200,000 desperate seamen who collided on October 7, 1571.
But the rising power of the commerce of the West was also present amid such grime and misery. Capitalism had armed the armada, as capitalism would eventually give the West mastery of the world. The Christian fleet at Lepanto was the first to employ a new naval weapon: enormous galleasses, newly launched from the Arsenal at Venice, bristling with cannon and capable of delivering as much firepower as six standard galleys. Six of these unwieldy floating behemoths (which had to be towed into position) were to lay waste to the Turkish fleet as it crossed their path.
A mere two days before this battle, news of the Agony of Famagusta, her Venetian governor flayed alive, reached the Holy League. As Paul Fregosi tell it: “Tough soldiers beat their heads with clenched fists in helpless rage and anguish, sobbing at the torment of the Venetian and the cruelty of the Turks.” The brothers of this unfortunate nobleman were commanders of two of the Venetian galleasses, and we may assume their fury was particularly pitiless. Another effort at calming diplomacy from Don John was still necessary, though: for some, especially among the Venetians, advised retreat, arguing that the loss of Cyprus already made the Holy League a failure. The bastard prince ended the debate: “Gentlemen, the time for counsel is past and the time for fighting has come.” On the other side, Ali Pasha had firm orders from the Sultan to find the Christian fleet and destroy it. R. C. Anderson, a naval historian, explains, “The position was thus that each commander wished to fight, but each thought it was for him to seek out the other. As a result the two fleets met early in the morning of October 7th almost unexpectedly.”
Priests of various religious orders said mass on the decks of the Christian galleys before dawn, and then the priests — many of them at least — took up arms themselves. The Pope had proclaimed a general absolution for any man who gave his life in service of the Holy League. Crucifixes adorned every ship. It is said that, “every man on broad, whether slave or free, held a rosary and implored the Blessed Virgin for victory in the coming battle.” In his poem Chesterton, with his customary whimsy, unabashedly compares these sailors and marines to the knights of the Crusades, the holy warriors of Christendom: “he whose loss is laughter if he counts the wager worth.”
Deployed against them in a vast crescent were the ships of Ali Pasha’s great fleet; on the mast of his flagship, the Sultana, flew the Ottoman Standard, emblazoned 28,900 times in gold with the name of Allah. The Prophet himself had carried this treasure, and it had never been taken in battle. And Don John’s final words to his men come down to us, perhaps apocryphally: “My brothers, we are here to conquer or to die as God ordains.”
Then, a kind of miracle occurred. The very wind, which had been opposing the Christian fleet, switched allegiance; it came completely around and began to blow against the Muslim fleet. Across the galleys of the Holy League, lateen sails were quickly raised just as Ottoman sails were hastily dropped. The sails of the Christian fleet filled as if from a “mighty and confident breath.” Throughout the Christian fleet, slaves and convicts who had been chained to their benches were unshackled and handed swords or half pikes. None doubted that a Mighty Providence had intervened on their behalf. They had all been promised freedom in the event of a victory. Favorable winds freed up thousands of Christians for the coming battle.
The fleets crashed together in a brutal embrace. Spanish marines armed with harquebuses — clumsy firearms to be sure, but nonetheless devastating at close-range — collided with agile and deadly Turkish bowmen. Again, as at the Battle of Tours, some eight hundred years before, it was a contest between the group discipline of heavy European infantry and the individual skill and personal valor of Muslim light infantry.
Christian technological superiority, along with finer leadership, proved decisive. The ships of the Sultan by and large lacked protective nets to prevent boarding, so the bulk of the fighting was on their territory. Turkish bowmen, skilled though they were, found themselves thwarted by the steal breastplates of the Christians; and they had no answer for the massed musketry of the harquebusiers. The Janissaries in particular (Ali Pasha’s most formidable troops) were devastated by the Spanish marines with their muskets. Don John had shrewdly ordered the beaks of his ships sawed off, “Surmising that the age of ramming was past and that [his] ships could be better supplied with cannon.” This decision, combined with the ruinous effect of the galleasses upon the Turkish fleet, gave him a fundamental advantage in artillery.
There were advantages of social organization on the Christian side as well. Virtually every soldier, sailor and oarsmen among the Turks was conscripted or enslaved; among the Christians, freemen were the rule, not the exception. Some were not even career military men. Their discipline in battle was freely given, and that discipline eventually overpowered the individual skill and heroics of the enemy.
At the center of the battle, the flagships met — in violation of a convention against such crudity — with Don John and Ali Pasha leading the boarding parties. The Janissary troops of the Sultana became entangled in the Christian boarding nets, savagely exposed to Spanish musket-fire. Almost a thousand men were locked in combat on the decks of these two huge ships. Reinforcements were shuttled over by smaller boats on both sides. The butchery must have been beyond description. Twice the Christian troops rallied to board the Sultana; only on the third time did they succeed. Don John was wounded; Ali Pasha fell in a hail of musket fire; he was beheaded and the grisly trophy hoisted on the quarterdeck of Don John’s flagship the Real. And at the sight of their admiral’s fall, the Turkish forces (near the center at least) began to lose heart.
On the Christian left, a veteran Venetian officer, Agostino Barbarigo, had struggled mightily, but with only marginal success, to resist an attempt by the Turks to outflank him along the coastline. The carnage there was also unspeakable. In many cases, entire ships were left without a single survivor. Barbarigo himself died of a head wound, though he lived long enough to hear of the victory, and his last words were, “I die contented.” On the right, the Algerian Uluch Ali had outmaneuvered a Genoese commander, Gian Andrea Doria, leaving that flank of the Christian flotilla dangerously exposed. Algerian ships darted through a large gap opened in the Christian formation and inflicted grievous blows on the rear of the Holy League main force, even taking captive the Maltese flagship. But this bold maneuver was eventually, at great cost, repelled by the timely engagement of the Christian reserve under an outstanding Spanish admiral. The victory was won; the captives set free; the power of the Turk on the Mediterranean broken. Chesterton again:
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.
How many, respectively, died in desperate combat, torn apart by cannon-fire, crushed in the ramming maneuvers, or merely cast into the sea to sink under the weight of armor and fatigue to a watery grave, we will never know. We do know that Lepanto was one of the deadily battles ever fought. The Sultan, we are told, later boasted that while the loss of his fleet was but “the shaving of a beard,” the loss of Cyprus was like the amputation of a limb; but this bluster is belied by his immediate reaction upon hearing news of the defeat: he ordered a massacre of every Spaniard and Venetian in his dominions. His Grand Vizier, possessed of a better diplomatic mind than the manic Sultan, eventually talked him out of this atrocity. In any case events disproved his boast; as Oliver Werner, a celebrated naval historian, writes in conclusion, “Never again did the Sultan contrive to assemble so powerful a fleet. Christians and Turks had been roughly equal in numbers, and they fought with equal courage. Victory went to the side with better weapons and better leadership.”
It is important to understand how close-run a victory this had been. A year before a large Christian flotilla had set out with the same purpose under a Spanish admiral, only to meet with debacle and return in disgrace. Venetian diplomacy in Constantinople, subtle and cunning as always, aimed at securing a separate peace with the Sultan even as the League was preparing its fleet. The Turkish Grand Vizier, a veteran of many intrigues, had flattered the agents of Venice with this chilling enticement to treachery: “You cannot cope with the Sultan, who will take from you not only Cyprus alone, but other dependencies. As for your Christian League, we know full well how little love the Christian princes bear you. If you would but hold the Sultan’s robe, you might do what you want in Europe, and enjoy perpetual peace.” Had Venice assented to the crouching peace adumbrated in this statement, the Holy League would have collapsed instantly. France, under a languid king called by Chesterton “the shadow of the Valois,” who “is yawning at the mass,” tacitly allied herself with the Ottomans, and many anticipated that she would make this friendship explicit soon enough, by giving the Turks access to French Mediterranean harbors. In northern Europe, and in pockets elsewhere, the revolt of the Protestants against the mad complacency and decadence of the Roman church had wrought division, strife, plunder, and bloodletting: “Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room.”
And beneath this revolt loomed another thing, destined to remake the world and drag everything of the secular order, and much of the spiritual order in its train: the rise of the modern nation-state. Already King Philip II was subjecting the Church in Spain to his policy, through the institution of the Inquisition. The succeeding generation would witness the rise of the France of Cardinal Richelieu, that ablest of nationalists, and the final consolidation of the nation, not the church, as the source of order and stability in the Western world. Out of this cacophony of the dying mediaeval age and the birth pangs of the modern, Pope Saint Pius V, Don John of Austria, and many thousands of simple Christian sailors and marines delivered to the West a great victory, and a last hurrah for Christendom.