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The start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 instituted many decades of religious and political instability throughout Europe. Christians would kill each other by the tens of thousands, yet a larger threat lay to the East. The Ottoman Empire was continuing to flex its expansionist muscles and had come to dominate large swaths of Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. For hundreds of years, a brooding sense of loathing and foreboding had haunted Christian sensibilities since the forces of Islam had first swept out of the Arabian Peninsula. By the 16th century, warfare between East and West was seen as an inevitable outcome of their interactions. The successes of the Ottoman Turks, including the capture of Constantinople in the previous century, had given them an aura of invincibility. Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the empire had reached its greatest extent and they were now determined to dominate the Mediterranean and open the way for an invasion of Italy itself.
To counter this threat, Pope Pius V organized the Holy League which formally came together in May of 1517 and was composed of a coalition of Papal States, Habsburg Spain, as well as various duchies and city-states such as Venice and Genoa. France, despite being overwhelmingly Catholic, had treaties with the Ottomans in an anti-Spanish alliance and did not join the effort, nor did the Portuguese. The Holy League assembled a vast fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria, the bastard son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the V and half-brother to Phillip II, Charles’ heir and king of Spain. Don Juan was only 25 years old with no naval experience, yet was well-respected because of his military exploits in driving Muslims from Spain.
The Ottoman fleet was commanded by the feared and capable Ali Pasha, who was a veteran of galley warfare. During the summer of 1571, the opposing forces slowly gathered, at Messina for the Holy League, while Ali Pasha’s fleet assembled in the Aegean. Both fleets were outfitted with galleys specifically made for the conditions in the Mediterranean. Long and sitting low in the water, their maneuverability was provided by rowers. Don Juan’s fleet had a secret weapon: six galeasses, which were larger ships propelled both by oar and sail, and heavily outfitted with cannons. They would lead the assault. On September 16, the fleet departed Messina in search of the enemy. The Pope urged the faithful to pray the Rosary to ensure victory over the Turks.
The rowers for both fleets, except for freemen on the galleys of the Venetians, were composed primarily of slaves, convicts, and prisoners of war. The typical galley would have over 100 such personnel, most of them chained to their rowing positions. They would live out their lives within a space about two-feet square, where they slept, ate, drank, defecated, urinated and then died. Rats and all manner of vermin thrived in the piles of offal which accumulated under their feet and enlightened captains made efforts to wash down the decks to prevent disease and preserve their manpower.
It was noted by several writers that if a person were downwind, a galley could be detected from a couple of miles away because of the foul odors which emanated from the rowing decks. When the infestations became intolerable, the ships were submerged with stones to drive out or drown the rats and insects. The rowers were generally well-fed and provided with adequate water–they had to be kept in good physical condition, but during battle, they were often pushed to their limits and beyond. Many men spent 30 years or more enduring such a life.
Ali Pasha made a fateful decision when the fleets came within striking distance. Instead of remaining in the narrower straits near the fortress of Lepanto and drawing the Christian forces under their fire, he decided to meet them in more open water. As they neared, Don Juan divided his forces into four divisions, with the six galeasses out front. A huge din arose from the Muslims as they pounded their swords on their shields, stamped their feet and shouted in unison, in a steady refrain, “Allahu Akhbar!”–“God is Great!” Priests led prayers on the Christian vessels in a much more subdued manner.
The galleases caused some confusion in the Ottoman ranks as some Turkish captains thought they were merchant vessels and rushed to attack them. The massive vessels unleashed withering volleys with devastating effect. Ali Pasha ordered his ships to avoid them, but that disrupted the line of battle, creating further chaos as the fleets merged and began to engage. The battle divided into innumerable ship-to-ship skirmishes.
The climax of the battle became legendary. Ali Pasha, on the Sultana, plowed into Don Juan’s flagship, the Real. Two massive boarding attempts by the Turks were repulsed and fighting intensified until a musket ball grazed Ali’s skull. A group of Christians rushed forward and one of them decapitated the admiral and brought the grisly trophy back to Don Juan. Against his wishes, the head was impaled on a stake and raised aloft for all to see. Although the Ottomans were disheartened, the fight would go on for several hours. Ultimately, the Turks were routed, as they suffered more than 20,000 casualties and lost all but about 30 of their fleet of over 200 ships, while Christian losses numbered around 7,500 with only 17 ships sunk. Although the Ottoman Empire would continue to be a major force for several centuries to come, any immediate threat to Italy was deferred. Christians throughout Europe rejoiced, and the day was first commemorated as “Our Lady of Victory.” Most American Catholics have no idea that October 7, the Feast Day of Our Lady of the Rosary is based on that decisive battle near the Bay of Lepanto.
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