Our Lady of the Rosary and the Battle of Lepanto

October 06, 2017
Source: District of the USA
An artist's depiction of the battle

The battle between Christendom and Muslim forces is not a new struggle, but one that has a history stretching back almost 1,400 years.

In 622, the false prophet Mohammed initiated his goal to conquer as much of the civilized world as possible for his fabricated god. Within a hundred years, the armies following his diabolical inspiration had conquered a large swath of Northern Africa, as well as nearly every Christian capital of the Middle East - including Antioch - as well as parts of Spain.

This advancement continued until the Christian forces turned the tide in the mid 700s, after the decisive battle of Poitiers in 732. At last a Christian leader, Charles Martel - known as "The Hammer" - pushed the Muslims back from their highest point in Western Europe. From this battle, they retreated to Spain, where they remained for another seven centuries before the Reconquista led by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492. 

The speed at which they initially conquered huge areas of Europe, and the force with which they held those lands for centuries show a long-standing thirst for temporal control of lands under the name of Allah - one that is far from over.  In fact, the Islamic bombers who spread terror at a Madrid train station stated that they did so in order to avenge the Reconquista.

The Reformation's Effects on the Spread of Islam

Even though the control of western Europe was slowly turning towards the side of the Christian armies, conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean continued unabated.  The bloody sack of Constantinople in 1453 gave the Muslim armies thousands of Christian slaves as well as a launching point for naval strategy in the Mediterranean. After the Reconquista, the Muslim armies were not deterred; their ultimate goal of controlling Europe, with Rome as the crown jewel, was not forgotten. They simply shifted their strategy to a naval offensive, which was beginning to strengthen under the sponsorship of numerous maritime focused sultans.

Cunningly noticing that Europe's relative unity under one Faith was being shaken by the effects of the Reformation, especially after 1540, the Turks anticipated that this was their best moment since the seventh century to recapture Christian lands and reach their final objective. With this emotional momentum, they launched a massive sea attack on Malta. Though the Christians suffered heavy losses, the Muslims were eventually repelled from Malta. However, their forces rebounded and they immediately aimed a naval-supported land offensive northwards.  Using this combination of naval power and the launchpad of Constantinople, they planned an attack up through the Balkans to conquer Budapest, and from there take Slovakia, Poland, and capture Vienna. 

With Christian forces reeeling by politics as well as losses from the battle of Malta and other lightning strikes by the Turks on coastal cities, this devious plan seemed bound for success. If the Muslim forces captured Vienna, Italy would essentially be ensnared and cut off.

The Holy League

In order to bolster their forces for this offensive, the Turks sent small parties - what we could today almost consider guerilla forces - to raid Christian coastal towns with virutal impunity during the 1560's. The men of these towns were especially valuable to the Turks for galley slaves. After hearing news of the slavery of Christians, profanation of sacred places, destruction of towns, and horrifying stories of Christian women and girls being shipped off to eastern harems, Don Juan of Austria, the younger brother of the King of Spain, was outraged and declared action. 

Already for more than three years, Pope St. Pius V had been appealing to Christendom to join together to defeat this growing threat. He urged the regions and kingdoms to put aside their temporal squabbles and form a Holy League so that the Turkish plan could never be realized. With his urging, various kingdoms and regions had pledged their support. But help from Spain and Portugal would be needed as well...

Fortuitously, Don Juan of Austria was already making plans to obtain the blessing of Pope St. Pius V for the same venture with the support of his older brother's fleet. He made a vow to the Holy Father destroy the Turkish naval power - which had in a short span become the most intimidating force in the known world. His blood boiling, and bolstered by fresh support from the Venetians - who up to that point had sought peace with the Turks for their Asian trade business - Don Juan made sail towards the harbor of Lepanto where the Turks were retooling and reinforcing their fleet.

Knowing that objectively, the odds were not in favor of the Christians, the Holy Father had been urging Christendom to pray for success in this battle, which would have undoubted consequences throughout Europe both temporally and spiritually. He asked the bishops to keep churches open day and night, and especially recommended the holy rosary be said.

The Battle of Lepanto

On October 7, 1571, facing a stronger and Christian slave-powered fleet of 300, Don Juan led a force of 250 ships, and met the Turks outside the harbor of Lepanto. The Christian fleet split into 4 distinct parts, the battle lasted only hours - the Spanish ships under Don Juan attacking with sheer ferocity in the center, the Venetians with their surprising naval technology overwhelming the Turks on the left flank, and the skilled Maltese fleet outmanuevering the Turks on the right.

With 40,000 dead and thousands more wounded, the bloodiest battle in history to that point came to an end, with the few remaining vessels of the Turks limping to various ports, fearful of a follow-up attack at Lepanto. While they did rebuild their fleet to some extent, the Muslim naval presence would never be the same, nor pose the same threat. 

The victory was received throughout Europe with the ceaseless ringing of church bells and Christians praising both the determination of Don Juan, and the technological advances that allowed an outnumbered Christian fleet to decisively win the day.

But Pope St. Pius V knew the real reason for the victory was neither grit nor technology, but hundreds of thousands of faithful praying the rosary for months. Thereafter, he declared the day to be known as the Feast of "Mary, Queen of Victory."  His successor would revise the title to the name we know it today: "Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary," in honor of the laity's prayerful support.

As it was more than four centuries ago, it remains true today; the power of the rosary, coupled with faithful Christians' reception to the will of God, can achieve success in the face of seemingly overwhelming evil.

Don Juan of Austria


- By G.K. Chesterton

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain—hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri’s knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunset and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees,
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be;
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,—
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, “Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done,
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces—four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate ;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.”
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still—hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.

St. Michael’s on his mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
      Domino gloria! 
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial, and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed—
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
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.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria! 

Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

Source: The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (1927)