The Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto by Andrea Vicentino.
The Battle of Lepanto by Andrea Vicentino.

A neutral observer in the sixteenth century would have concluded that it was only a matter of time before the armies of Islam conquered all of Europe. Since the Arabs had burst from their desert fastnesses in the seventh century they had carried all before them. The first surge had seen all the previously Christian lands of north Africa and much of the middle East become Muslim, while the Persian Sasanian empire had also fallen. By 750 Islam ruled all the countries in a broad band from Spain in the west to what is now Pakistan in the east. Only the Byzantine Empire, the Christian successor to Rome founded by Constantine, prevented the advance of Muslim armies into Europe.

Centuries of consolidation and gradual expansion followed, as the strength of the Byzantines was gradually whittled away until, a millennium after its foundation, Constantinople fell in 1453 to the forces of the expanding Ottoman empire and its great sultan, Mehmet II, who was aptly nicknamed ‘the Conqueror’. Internal struggles temporarily halted the Ottoman onslaught, but with the accession of Suleiman I (1520-66) the attack on Europe resumed. Hungary was conquered and Vienna besieged in 1529. If freak rain storms had not caused Suleiman to abandon his artillery it’s almost certain that Vienna would have been taken, leaving the advance into Germany clear.

So by the 16th century the Christian world had been reduced to a remnant of its former extent and Europeans gloomily forsaw a time when Islam would have conquered all. Even the Crusades, which we so often see as some sort of imperialist adventure, were more like a desperate attempt to turn an inexorable tide. Sebastian Brant, in one of the most widely read books of the era, The Ship of Fools, summed up the mood:

Our faith was strong in th’ Orient,
It ruled in all of Asia,
In Moorish lands and Africa.
But now for us these lands are gone
‘Twould even grieve the hardest stone….

Four sisters of our Church you find,
They’re of the patriarchic kind:
Constantinople, Alexandria,
Jerusalem, Antiochia.
But they’ve been forfeited and sacked
And soon the head will be attacked.

In this light, it’s no wonder that the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a Christian fleet commanded by the 24-year-old Don Juan of Austria defeated the hitherto invincible Ottoman navy in one of the great naval encounters in history, caused rejoicing all over Europe. Poets, painters and writers celebrated the victory, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I decreed services of thanksgiving for the triumph of the Catholic Holy League and Pope Gregory XIII declared 7 October, the anniversary of the battle, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. For once, Europe was united. Miguel de Cervantes, who fought in the battle, losing the use of his left hand, called it ‘The most noble and memorable event that past centuries have seen or future generations can ever hope to witness.’

The Museu Marítim in Barcelona has a full-scale replica of Don Juan’s flagship, La Real, on whose forecastle ‘the last knight of Europe’ danced a joyful galliard in the face of an enemy fleet that stretched to the horizon.

Constantine the Great

It’s rare for an emperor to earn the title ‘the great’. It’s even rarer for that same emperor to also be called a saint. So with Constantine I we’re dealing with no ordinary man. Now, while Constantine’s right to be called a saint is disputable – saints not being generally known for executing both son and wife – what is not open to question is that he was the greatest emperor of the late Roman Empire.

Bust of Constantine.
Bust of Constantine.
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California Forming – the life of Junipero Serra

California is a state of contradictory perceptions: the golden land of opportunity on one hand, the diseased home of the tarnished American dream on the other. So it’s no surprise that Junipero Serra, the man who could be called the founder of California, should attract a similar range of views. But who was Junipero Serra and how did he earn such differing evaluations?

Junipero Serra
Junipero Serra

The facts are straightforward enough. He was born in 1713 in Majorca and entered the Franciscan order at the age of 16. For 20 years he followed the usual path for a bright Franciscan: study, ordination, teaching. If he had continued in that vein Serra would have merited no more than a footnote in obscure textbooks of theology. But the man wanted something more and, inspired by the missionary example of St Francis, set off to Mexico to…do more of the same for the next nine years. But a hint that that would not remain the case forever was given by the fact that he walked from the port all the way to Mexico City, some 200 miles. Another was his unusual practice, when preaching on repentance, of pulling his habit down from his shoulders and whipping himself. Apparently this was done not only to mortify himself but to encourage contrition in his congregation.

And sure enough, things did change for Serra. Spain, worried about a Russian claim on the Pacific coast (remember that at this time the Tsar still owned Alaska), wanted to establish priority in Alta (upper) California and to this end the governor agreed to fund missions there. Serra was placed in charge, setting off at the age of 56 and, 24,000 miles, nine new missions and 14 years later, he died at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. The missions he founded, including San Francisco de Asis (or Dolores), were linked by El Camino Real, a dirt road that eventually stretched some 600 miles, along the length of present-day California.

And here’s the controversy. Was Serra the ecclesiastical face of Spanish hegemony, pulling the free-spirited Native Americans of the coast into a life of stifling monastic discipline in the missions, the unwitting vector of the exotic diseases that killed thousands of natives and the general of the forces of cultural genocide? Or was he a man burning with an ideal of love that we find today hard to comprehend, a priest who continually fought with the secular authorities to protect the Indians  and who offered up his life and labours for their salvation? The question seems inextricably bound up with our as yet unresolved questions about the nature of our own society, and because of that the legacy of Junipero Serra seems likely to remain uncertain for many years to come.

The First Iconoclasm

Individuals fall prey to illness, but the contagions that infect a civilisation are ideas. In the 8th and 9th centuries a Byzantine civilisation reeling before the onslaught of expansionist Islam was simultaneously torn apart by a controversy that might seem ridiculously abstruse from our vantage point: whether or not it was permissible to paint images of Christ and the saints. But to conclude that the Byzantines were wasting energy desperately needed for the defence of the empire is to make the mistake of judging them with the myopic gaze of the 21st century. Icons expressed the civilisational core of Byzantium, therefore their creation or destruction was vital to how New Rome saw itself.

Interior of an Orthodox church.
Interior of an Orthodox church.
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Emperors and Sultans

This article first appeared in the Time Out Guide to Istanbul a few years ago.

On the face of it, wielding absolute power as the emperor of the Byzantines or sultan of the Ottomans might seem like a good job. You got to be the main man in what was, for much of the time that both empires endured, the most magnificent city on earth. The Imperial reception rooms of the Byzantine Emperor had golden lions that roared and golden birds that sang. The Ottoman sultans were certainly not outdone in ostentation, although their displays could sometimes take rather charming turns, such as when Selim II wrote to an official in Aleppo: ‘I need about 50,000 bulbs for my royal gardens… I command you in no way to delay.’

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In the Pink on Yeavering Bell

Yeavering Bell is an Iron-Age hillfort in Northumberland, one of the largest in the country. The tumbledown ramparts, still clearly visible in the photograph below, were originally 10 feet high and they enclose an area of  some 12 acres.

Yeavering Bell with ramparts clearly visible.
Yeavering Bell with ramparts clearly visible.

The hillfort looks over the site of Ad Gefrin, Edwin’s royal palace and the place where Paulinus baptised for thirty days in the River Glen at the bottom of the valley. Ad Gefrin is now a wind-swept field of grass, but it remains a hugely evocative place.

The field of Ad Gefrin, with Yeavering Bell in the background. 'Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.'
The field of Ad Gefrin, with Yeavering Bell in the background. ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’

The rock that was used to build the ramparts of Yeavering Bell is a local andesite that, when first quarried, is bright pink, before lichens and weathering grey it. Where a stone has tumbled, revealing a previously hidden face, it’s possible to see just how Barbie-esque the fortifications would have been when first built.

The salmon pink of fresh andesite - once all the hills were laced with it.
The salmon pink of fresh andesite – once all the hills were laced with it.

There is, to my mind, something wonderful about the thought of these grim hills – almost all of them had hillforts on them – necklaced in salmon pink.

Unlikely London Clubs

London is the most clubbable of cities, but the true heyday of societies and associations was the late-19th century. Then, alongside the clubs and societies that have continued through to the present, there were many others whose loss I mourn. They included the Surly Club, where men met to practice contradiction and foul language, as well as a Lying Club and a Mock Heroes Club, a No-Nose Club and a Farting Club. There was the sinister Man-Killing Club, which required members to have done what it titled itself, and the melancholic Club of Broken Shopkeepers, for bankrupts and failed businessmen. And, my favourite of all, the Humdrum Club, for men who ‘meet at a tavern, smoke their pipes & say nothing till midnight’.

Book review: Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies


OK, I admit it, in the end I didn’t read all 848 pages. Some of the kingdoms were just too obscure, the characters too interchangeable, and the permutations too complicated (Burgundy, I’m thinking of you) to prevent my eyes glazing over. But where I did know something about the background history, Davies was downright brilliant. In particular, the chapter on Alt Clud, the Kingdom of the Rock, that endured upon the twin humped lump of granite overlooking Dumbarton for four centuries during the Early Medieval period was wonderful. It brought the old British kingdoms vividly to life, and was worth the price of the book (or at least the reservation charge at the library) on its own. So, particularly recommended for periods and places that you know a little about, and want to learn more about.