1571 Battle of Lepanto: in 4 hours 40,000 dead

There is a fascinating story in the Catholic Herald which you should all be looking at.

Fighting for Christendom with oranges and lemons

The Battle of Lepanto ended with scenes of surreal horror, discovers John Hinton

26 September 2008

A detail from Paolo Veronese’s The Battle of Lepanto (1572)

Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley, Faber and Faber £20

It is a fair bet that Admiral Jacky Fisher, who ruled the serenely powerful British Mediterranean Fleet from Malta aboard his battleship Renown in 1900, must have pondered about a time when the whole of the Med was threshing with the great conflict between Christendom and Islam.

It was to resume in a sense with Churchill’s ill-fated plan to force a second front up the Dardenelles and bombard Istanbul with Jacky’s greatest battleship, the Queen Elizabeth, and others.

But Winston’s great First Sea Lord, and architect of the great dreadnought fleet which had its victory at Jutland, hated the plan – and sensationally resigned.

Back in 1453 the greatest jewel in Christendom, Constantinople, had fallen to the soldiers of Allah in the form of the Ottoman Turks under their fanatical ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent. Having charted this period when Islamic imperialism reached its zenith, author Roger Crowley now continues the momentous and bloody story in Empires of the Sea.

During most of the 16th century, Europe was threatened by Islam on every side. The flower of Hungarian chivalry was destroyed at Mohacs, and Vienna besieged. The proud Knights of St John were finally driven from their fortress island of Rhodes – from whose walls they could see the threatening cliffs of Turkey – after an endless siege in which every weapon was used, from cannon bombardments, to starvation and night raids – and fell back on Malta.

Barbary pirates in scores of galleys and corsairs from Tunis and Algiers raided throughout the Mediterranean with virtual impunity, and even carried off "white slaves" from the villages of Cornwall and Ireland. The Knights of St John were themselves also ruthless slavers. But the Islamic raiders made sure to vandalise any Christian churches, symbols or ornaments they found in their path.

The Venetians, the arch-conservative "Swiss bankers" of the age, were interested only in neutrality and gold, even when St Mark’s basin was blockaded. And the rest of Christendom squabbled hopelessly among themselves – Valois against Hapsburg, Catholic against Protestant – and failed to rally together.

In 1543, in fact, the treacherous French collaborated with the Turks to sack Nice, then a Hapsburg possession.

The great contest was fought over a huge front, from Istanbul to the Gates of Gibraltar, and featured the kind of characters you might not necessarily like to meet: Barbarossa, the pirate; the risk-taking Emperor Charles V; the Knights of St John, last survivors of the Crusades, and the brilliant Christian admiral Don Juan of Austria. Its brutal climax came in a six-year period, 1565 to 1571, including the siege of Malta itself, the battle for Cyprus and the last-ditch defence of Lepanto – one of the single most shocking days in naval and world history.

It is on these thrilling set pieces that Crowley largely concentrates. The Siege of Malta in 1565 (some 600 Knights of St John versus an Ottoman army of around 30,000) was arguably the single most heroic siege in history, and full justice is done to the relentless drama of those four scorching summer months, when the roar of Turkish cannon could be heard in Sicily, 120 miles away, and even Protestant England prayed for the salvation of Malta.

The European powers were puny and reluctant over actually coming to help – even though they knew that, should Malta fall to the Turks, Suleiman would then be Lord of the western Mediterranean as well as the east. The knights and their gallant Maltese auxiliaries fought on alone, with unimaginable bravery, with all "the visceral brutality of the Homeric bronze age".

The cruelty and valour – fighting madness – were awful and impressive. Here is Jean de la Valette, head of the Order of St John, refusing to give one inch of ground; the Spanish knight, Captain Miranda, wounded and unable to stand, hauled himself into a chair and fought on, sword in hand. Here is an Italian traitor, "tied to a horse’s tail and beaten to death by children with sticks".

When the outlying fortress of St Elmo finally fell, the Turks mutilated the last survivors and floated them across to St Angelo nailed to wooden crosses, a "gruesome flotsam". La Valette’s instant riposte: execute all his Turkish prisoners and fire their severed heads back over into the Ottoman camp.

Such granite resolution eventually wore down the Ottoman army, even the incomparable janissaries in their ostrich-feather shakos, advancing on the Walls of St Angelo time after time, chanting verses from the Koran.

Unlike Rhodes, which eventually gave in, Malta stood firm and the Turks eventually sailed home.

Some may see comparisons in our own time. In World War Two Malta was besieged from the air by German and Italian bombers; the island’s only defence in the early days: three frail Gloucester Gladiator biplanes called Faith, Hope and Charity flown by RAF pilots who, once reinforced by Spitfires, brought the blitz to an end and secured, once more, the safety of the island.

The Battle of Lepanto in 1571 was the largest naval engagement until Jutland in 1916 and this time a shattering defeat for the Ottoman Empire, now ruled by Suleiman’s son, the unprepossessing Selim the Sot.

With a novelist’s eye for vivid scene-painting Crowley tells all: towards the end of the battle, in a scene of surreal horror, both Christians and Turks were running so short of missiles that they started throwing oranges and lemons at each other amid exhausted, hysterical laughter, adrift in a sea jammed solid with corpses. Forty thousand men died in four hours. Not until Loos in 1916 would this rate of slaughter be surpassed. But once more, Christendom was saved.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Anon says:

    Great post! This is one, of several history lessons, we should never forget.

    For those interested in praying for the renewal of Christendom, there is something for lay people to this effect – http://www.corpuschristianum.org

  2. Howard says:

    WOW! There’s another book I’ll have to read!

  3. stuart chessman says:

    Indeed it was a great victory that should be better known. This article however,
    has too many factual errors to help that cause. For example,Suleiman the Magnificent (who died in 1566) did not conquer Constantinople in 1453. And to suggest that the British were fighting the equivalent of the Lepanto/Malta crusades in WWI and WWII is to take license.

  4. Mila says:

    Stuart, those were my thoughts, too: A great victory that should be better known, and the factual errors in the article, the most glaring of which is Suleiman the Magnificent conquering Constantinople in 1453. If memory serves, it was Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople. And from the date you give for his death, he was not around for Lepanto, either.

  5. wsxyz says:

    But… but… we have just been informed that there are no just wars.

  6. TJM says:

    No, the only war in history that is unjust is the Iraq War, because that is the left-wing world’s judgment. No matter that the rape rooms
    and human shredders were shut down. Or that Iraq’s neighbors are no longer threatened. Irrelevant. Tom

  7. Father Z,

    This Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 11:30 AM my Knights of Columbus Council with guests from the Knights of Malta and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and Dames will attend the annual Mass in Honour of Our Lady of Victory and the Battle of Lepanto. It is held at the Toronto Oratory Church of the Holy Family. It has been a Latin Mass in the Ordinary Form.

    The difference is that this year it will be a Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. This is first for the Oratory and probably the first in Toronto (non SSPX) for over 45 years!

  8. Chironomo says:

    I too would see a bit of a stretch in drawing an analogy between Lepanto and WWI (or WWII), however the article seems only to have compared Lepanto to the desperation of the situation in Malta in WWII as well as to the rate of casualties in Loos in 1916. It didn’t seem to be the intention to compare either WWi or WWII to a Christian Crusade.

  9. tertullian says:

    Richard B Parker, a retired US diplomat, wrote “Uncle Sam in Barbary, a Diplomatic History” that covers this subject from the US perspective of the 18th and 19th centuries.

    A worthy read.

  10. The historical facts may need some revisions, the numbers may not be perfect. But to ponder that 40,000 souls died in 4 hours? It’s maddening and saddening that human beings who have so much capacity for Love and perfection, created in the perfect image of the Absolute Love Himself, may end up this way. Lord, we lift up our troops from our side and from the other side into Your hands. May the words “Peace on Earth” spread beyond Christmas. Pro peace!

  11. Jim says:


    Have you spotted the issue here?

    Militant Islam was attacking Catholic Europe, after having conquered Catholic Jerusalem, Catholic Constantinople, Catholic North Africa etc.

    At Lepanto a great victory was won through the invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her prayers.

    ‘Pro Peace’ meant subservience to Islamic dictators and the eradication of Catholic believers in Muslim-ruled lands….Jerusalem, Constantinople, North Africa etc

  12. Ben Trovato says:

    It’s worth reading Chesterton’s poem Lepanto – a great Christian celebration of the victory, but not without some very telling lines (The shadow of the Valois is yawning in the Mass etc…)

  13. Fr Francis Coveney says:

    The second Great Siege of Malta during World War II ended when a relief convoy arrived on August 15, 1942, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady.

    In his poem “Lepanto”, GK Chesterton wrote:
    “The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
    (Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
    The hidden room in a man’s house where God sits all the year,
    The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.”

    The Pope was of course Pius V, who had called for the Rosary to be said before the battle, and who then instituted the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary to be celebrated on October 7th.

    And eight years after the ending of the Second Siege of Malta, Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption of Our Lady in 1950.

    Incidentally, Chesterton wrote “Lepanto” long before he became a Catholic!

  14. Thomas says:

    I’ll throw my two cents in on Chesterton’s LEPANTO, too. You can read it online or get a fantastic book from Ignatius Press. Everyone who hasn’t read it should do so immediately.

    It’s a day late now, but the Chesterton Society blog called for a novena beginning yesterday on the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel and ending on October 7, the Feast of the Rosary and anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto.

    Don John of Austria, chosen by Pope St. Pius V to lead the Holy League in battle when only 24 years old, distributed rosaries to all his fighting men. St. Pius later made it the feast day (under a different name at the time – possibly Our Lady of Victory, I can’t remember).

  15. Jacques says:

    It is puzzling to see how the heroic Knights besieged in Malta victoriously resisted the Turks in 1565 and how shamefully they surrendered Napoleon while he sailed to Egypt. Not a single cannonshot was fired

  16. Fr Francis Coveney says:

    The strategic importance of Malta in World War II cannot be overstated.

    It stands on the crossroads of the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa and was ideally placed to enable the Allies to intercept supplies and reinforcements to the German and Italian armies in North Africa – and so prevented the Axis powers from capturing the Suez Canal and threatening the Persian Gulf.

  17. Jacques says:

    In addition it is important to emphasize that a good part of the Navy’s French officers who served in the French fleet during the American Independence war were formed as midships on the Malta’s galleys in a time where the battleships number was not enough to offer them a job.
    Malta’s galleys were a strict but efficient sea school.
    So began the illustrious admiral De Grasse who won the Chesapeake battle in 1781

  18. Fr. Coveney: Good to see you… again! Thanks for lunch in London the other day, the Steak and Kidney Pudding and London Pride!

  19. Mike B. says:

    What a wonderful meal that must have been, FatherZ.!

    And Jim, thanks for your great response above!


  20. Willebrord says:

    I find myself disagreeing with this article a bit. That the Christians (particularly the Knights of St. John) were ruthless slavers seems to me ridiculous. According to my history teachers (well-learned historians), at the battle of Lepanto, there were no slaves on the Christian side; the rowers were actually given weapons to fight alongside them (even the three ships of the Knights of Malta, already weakened from their fights against the Moslems). Of course the Christians were able to free many prisoners taken by the Moslems as well.
    Furthermore, in Don Juan’s flagship there was a replica of the image of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, which had occured not long before (an interesting story of how Don Juan came to hear of it, and acquired that replica).

    Furthermore, as many of us know, Our Lady appeared at the battle, the Moslems saw her, and were frightened.

  21. Joe from Pittsburgh says:

    It was worth mentioning, but I didn’t notice it here, of another recent anniversary of a great victory by Christendom over Islam – September 11, 1683, the Battle of Vienna.

    King Jan Sobieski and his Polish Hussars defended Vienna from the Turks, thoroughly routing them. According to a quote I saw on Wikipedia (not the most reliable, I know), Sobieski said, “I came, I saw, God conquered!”

    We should remember that on January 2, 1492, the Moors completed their surrender of Granada to Queen Isabel the Catholic and her husband, King Ferdinand. The battles against radical Islam stretch back far in history.

  22. Jayna says:

    After reading Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, just seeing the word Lepanto makes me lapse into a coma. Not to say that it isn’t something that should be remembered and learned from, of course (I’m an historian, saying that is tantamount to heresy in my line of work), but longue durée has scarred me for life.

  23. Emilio III says:

    Jayna, I started to read Braudel’s work a couple of times, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort to finish. OTOH, I think John Francis Guilmartin’s Gunpowder and Galleys (Naval Institute Press) is absolutely wonderful (but unfortunately out of print).

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