Lepanto, history's most decisive naval battle

Lepanto, history's most decisive naval battle

Bob Denahy

In the latter part of the 16th century, all of Christian Europe was in peril. It was rescued in a momentous, five-hour naval battle precisely 440 years ago which has been described as the most decisive naval battle anywhere on the globe since the Battle of Actium in 31BC. Had the former battle been lost, it is more than probable that Europe would have fallen to the forces of Islam.

The Battle of Lepanto was fought off the western coast of Greece on 7 October 1571. The Pope was a saintly Dominican who realised that the Muslims ruled the Mediterranean, and had won every significant battle at sea for many years. They were poised to conquer Europe, which was then, as G.K. Chesterton remarked, "in one of its recurring periods of division and disease."

Not only was it divided between Protestant and Catholic, but Catholic states were squabbling amongst themselves. Pope Pius V knew that unless a Holy League of Catholic states were formed, Europe would be lost.

With great difficulty he persuaded the leaders of some Catholic states to form a Holy League and contend with the forces of Islam who, under the aegis of Sultan Selim II, ruled from Constantinople much of the Balkans, Hungary, Romania, North Africa from Algeria to the Nile delta, as well as Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Greece. The Holy League comprised the Republic of Venice, Hapsburg Spain, the Papal States, the Kingdom of Naples, the Republic of Genoa and the Knights of Malta.

Don John of Austria

The fleet assembled in Messina, Sicily, in the autumn of 1571, and was made up of some 200 ships, propelled by 43,000 rowers and defended by a similar number of fighting troops. They were led by a young man who had already displayed remarkable leadership qualities, the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V, the 24-year-old Don John of Austria. The Muslim fleet, with around 300 vessels, was commanded by the experienced and capable warrior, Ali Pasha.

Every Christian sailor had been issued with a rosary and the Pope urged Catholic Europe to plead for victory to Our Lady.

The huge fleets met at around 11am on the morning of Sunday, 7 October. Each Christian ship carried a chaplain and Mass was celebrated at dawn.

And so, with the wind at their backs, the Turkish fleet sailed to meet their Christian counterparts to begin "one of the most splendid and appalling battles that ever stained the sea or smoked to the sun," as Chesterton described it.

Where the Christian fleet had been rebuffed by a headwind, it was suddenly surprised to find itself assisted by a tailwind. The five-hour battle resulted in a decisive victory for the Christian forces with the loss of only 12 galleys, compared with the Muslims' 240 vessels. Casualties on the Christian side numbered 9,000 as against 30,000 on the side of their opponents.

One of the injured Christians was Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.

The whole of Europe celebrated the great victory and even England's Queen Elizabeth I ordered a Te Deum of thanksgiving to be sung. Pope Pius ordered that the day be commemorated as the Feast of Our Lady of Victory, subsequently changed to Our Lady of the Rosary. It is celebrated to this day.

Of interest to Australians is the fact that the first opera to be composed and produced in Australia was titled "Don John of Austria." Its author was Isaac Nathan (c.1792-1864). His descendants included the late Sir Charles Mackerras, the famous conductor, and his brother Malcolm. Nathan migrated to Australia from England in 1841 and was a musical adviser to the synagogue and St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney.

The famous poem, "Lepanto", was completed by Chesterton on 7 October 1911.

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