Decisive Victory for the West
At this time of year, it is timely to remember one of the greatest victories of the west against the Islamic world. On the 7th October in 1571, Don Juan and the Holy League, led by Admiral Doria, defeated the larger Ottoman fleet in the Battle of Lepanto, saving Europe from the Turks and militant Islam. The Holy League was a coalition of different armies - of the Republic of Venice, the Papacy (under Pope Pius V), Spain (including Naples, Sicily and Sardinia), the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy, the Knights Hospitaller and some others.
Pope Pius V knew the significance of the battle – that Europe would be overrun by Islam if the Turks won – so he called all Europe to pray as never before. As there was no internet at the time, messengers on horseback were sent to as many places as possible to spread the word. There was certainly a feeling of unity of will – politically and spiritually in Europe and the response to the Pope’s call was immediate and positive, even if the Holy League was not that good a navy.
The Holy League’s Don John, aboard the galley Real, divided his force into four divisions, with the Venetians under Agostino Barbarigo on the left, himself in the center, the Genoese under Giovanni Andrea Doria on the right, and a reserve led by Álvaro de Bazán in the rear.
As one military history site describes it:
As the battle opened, the Holy League's gallasses sank two galleys and disrupted the Ottoman formations with their fire. As the fleets neared, Doria saw that Uluj Ali's line extended beyond his own. Shifting south to avoid being flanked, Doria opened a gap between his division and Don John's. Seeing the hole, Uluj Ali turned north and attacked into the gap. Doria responded to this and soon his ships were dueling with Uluj Ali's.
Lorck Melchior: Sultana - the flag galley of Ali Pasha
To the north , Chulouk Bey succeeded in turning the Holy League's left flank, but determined resistance from the Venetians, and the timely arrival of a gallass, beat off the attack. Shortly after the battle began, the two flagships found each other and a desperate struggle began between Real and Sultana. Locked together, Spanish troops were twice repulsed when they tried to board the Ottoman galley and reinforcements from other vessels were needed to turn the tide. On the third attempt, with aid from Álvaro de Bazán's galley, Don John's men were able to take Sultana killing Ali Pasha in the process. (source)
It seems that Don John did not want to behead Ali Pasha after he captured his galley, but someone took it on himself to do so. After this the Ottomans lost heart and retreated. Many Christian slaves were released and Europe was saved from an Islamic takeover. The victory at Lepanto stemmed Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean and prevented their influence from spreading west. However, the hoped for recapture of Constantinople – from a new thrust from the west did not eventuate.
The Pope got news of the victory on the evening of the 7th October and declared the day to be a feast day in honour of the Virgin Mary –originally called the feast day of ‘Our lady of Victories’ - as the prayers had especially asked her to ask God to help those fighting the Turks. The name of the feast day was changed in later years to that of ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’, in remembrance of the prayers said on rosary beads throughout Europe prior to and on that day. However, if you visit Rome, you will find many churches bear the name ‘Our Lady of Victories’ and this title refers to the victory of the battle of Lepanto.
The defeat of the Turks at Lepanto was an important strategic victory for the west and should be better known by schoolchildren. Is it taught widely as part of history courses? One hope it is. It certainly puts part of Europe’s history in clear perspective.
As another site says:
The engagement was a crushing defeat for the Ottomans, who had not lost a major naval battle since the fifteenth century. … Indeed, the Empire lost all but 30 of its ships and as many as 30,000 men, and some Western historians have held it to be the most decisive naval battle anywhere on the globe since the Battle of Actium of 31 BC. (source)