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.


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