The Battle of Lepanto

October 07, 2021

In these troubled times when Islam threatens the world again, and where the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to want to resuscitate the Ottoman Empire, of which he would be the new sultan, it is urgent to trust in Our Lady of Rosary formerly called Our Lady of Victory. It was she who triumphed in the Battle of Lepanto.

The naval battle of Lepanto took place on October 7, 1571. It opposed the Ottoman fleet, dominant in the Mediterranean at the time, and the fleet of the Holy League, formed on the initiative of Pope St. Pius V. It was composed of Spanish, Venetian, Genoese, Maltese, Savoyard, and Pontifical elements.

The Historical Background and Immediate Preparation

From the beginning of the 16th century, the Turks had made raids on the Italian and Spanish coasts, pillaging the coastal towns and taking many prisoners destined for slavery. In 1570, the island of Cyprus was invaded by the Turks. 20,000 Christians were massacred in Nicosia. This news prompted the Christian princes to listen to the voice of the Pope and to form the Holy League to secure the Mediterranean coasts.

The ships were assembled in Messina in the summer of 1571. The main leaders of the Holy League were Don Juan of Spain, chief admiral, Marcantonio Colonna, commander of the pontifical fleet, and Sebastiano Venier, Doge of Venice. The departure was set for September 16. The crews received the sacraments administered by the Capuchins and the Jesuits.

The Holy League fleet, divided into four squadrons, headed for the island of Corfu and anchored in the port of Gomenitsa. The spies discovered the Turkish fleet in the port of Lepanto, ancient Naupactus. The wait began.

On the night of October 6, despite the unfavorable wind, the fleet headed by night towards the Curzolari Islands, off the Gulf of Patras. By this maneuver, enemy ships were locked in a cove and forced to fight. The clerics in charge of the fleet gave general absolution. After a brief and fervent prayer, a cry arose from thousands of voices: Long live Christ!

The Turks lined up 222 galleys, 60 other ships, 750 cannons, 34,000 soldiers, 13,000 sailors, and 41,000 slave rowers. The Christians had 207 galleys - 105 Venetian, 81 Spanish, 12 pontifical, Malta, Genoa and Savoy 3 each -, 30 other ships, 6 galleasses, 1,800 cannons, 30,000 soldiers, 12,900 sailors and 43,000 rowers. Don Juan had divided the fleet into four squadrons.

The Venetian galleys constituted the vanguard and were to disorganize the Turks with their artillery. Behind them sailed three squadrons: on the left wing the Venetian Agostino Barbarigo, on the right Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria, and in the center Don Juan. The Fourth Squadron, under the command of Alvaro de Bazan, Marquis of Santa Cruz, formed the rear guard. The left wing of the Turkish fleet was commanded by the Calabrian renegade Uluds Ali (Verres), Pasha of Algiers, the right wing by Mohammed Saulak, governor of Alexandria, the center by Grand Admiral Muesinsade Ali.

The Course of the Fighting

Around noon, the wind, favorable so far for the Turks, calmed. Under the sun in a cloudless sky, the two fleets collided, one under the banner of the Crucifix, the other under the purple flag of the Sultan embroidered with the name of Allah. The Turks tried to outflank their enemies on both sides. To prevent them, Doria extended his line so far that a gap formed between the right wing and the center that would allow the enemy to easily enter. The fight then took a dangerous turn: Doria, with 50 galleys, was pushed into the open sea by the Turks’ skillful maneuvers.

Fortunately the battle on the left wing was progressing more favorably: the Venetians fought with tenacity as much as success, although their leader Barbarigo was shot with an arrow in the eye and would fall, mortally wounded.

The most violent battle was at the center. Don Juan, with 300 experienced Spanish soldiers on board, headed directly against Ali’s ship on which 400 janissaries were located. With him, the galleys of Colonna, Requesens, Venier, and the princes of Parma and Urbino valiantly participated in the bloody struggle which long remained undecided. The death of the Turkish Grand Admiral Ali brought about the decision around 4 p.m.

When the Turks learned of their center’s rout, their left wing also gave in, and as a result Uluds had to stop fighting with Doria and plan a retreat, which he made, at the cost of heavy losses, by opening the way with 40 galleys.

The exhaustion of the rowers and the outbreak of a violent storm prevented the pursuit of the enemies, but the victory of the Christians was nonetheless complete. The Turks lost about 20,000 men and 3,500 were taken prisoner; 117 of their galleys were taken and 50 sunk. The victors lost 12 galleys. There were 7,500 dead and 20,000 injured.

42 prisoners were from prominent Turkish families: among them were the Governor of Euboea and two sons of Grand Admiral Ali. But the best booty was the deliverance of 12,000 Christian galley slaves, including 2,000 Spaniards, who were released after the victory. Among the wounded Christians were Venier and a genius then unknown to the world, the poet Cervantes.

The Incessant Intercession of Pope St. Pius V

The thoughts of St. Pius V continually accompanied the Christian fleet. Day and night he  recommended it in ardent prayer to the protection of the Most High. At a consistory on August 27, the Pope invited the cardinals to fast one day a week and to give extraordinary alms. On September 26, 1571, he told the Spanish Ambassador that he fasted three days a week and devoted many hours a day to prayer.

His prayer must have finally been answered. On the night of October 21-22, a courier sent by the nuncio to Venice, gave Cardinal Rusticucci a letter containing the news of the great victory obtained at Lepanto under the command of Don Juan. But St. Pius V had supernaturally known about it from the evening of the battle.

Although the organization of the Ottoman Empire would quickly assemble a new fleet, the future would see the slow decline of the Turkish naval force: the nightmare of its invincibility had been driven away.

The Christian world immediately began to breathe. The churches echoed with the great hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum. St. Pius V had commemorative medals struck on which were engraved the words of the psalmist: “The right hand of the Lord has done great things; this comes from God.”

The Pope attributed the victory to the Rosary of Our Lady, as the battle was won on the first Sunday in October, when rosary processions were held in Rome. He therefore ordered that, each year, a feast of thanksgiving be celebrated in commemoration of the victory, on the anniversary, under the title of Our Lady of Victory.

His successor Gregory XIII decided that the feast would be celebrated under the title of the feast of the Holy Rosary. It received the current feast title of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1960.