The Hero of Lepanto – Part II

“Every nation,” it has been said, “makes most account of its own, and cares little for the heroes of other nations. Don John of Austria, as defender of Christendom, was the hero of all nations.” He was the hero of “the battle of Lepanto which,” as Alison remarks, “arrested forever the danger of Mahometan invasion in the south of Europe.” As De Bonald adds, it was from that battle, that the decline of the Turkish power dates. “It cost the Turks more than the mere loss of ships and of men; they lost that moral force which is the mainstay of conquering nations.”

It is not necessary in this sketch of the life of Don John, to enter into any details about the tedious negotiations which preceded the coalition of the naval forces of Spain, Venice, and the Pope. Suffice it to say, that repulsed from Malta by the heroism of the Knights of St. John, the Turks next turned their naval armaments against Cyprus, then held by the Venetians. Menaced in one of her most valuable possessions, the Republic of Venice, too long the half-hearted foe of the[Pg 45] Turks, turned in her distress, for help to the Vatican and to the Escorial. St. Pius V. sat in the See of Peter. He turned no deaf ear to an appeal that seemed likely to bring about what the Roman Pontiffs had long desired—a new crusade against the Turks. Philip the Second, ever wary, ever dilatory, more able than the Pope to assist Venice, was less ready to do so. Spain would willingly have done what she could to destroy the Turkish power, but her monarch was not sorry to humble Venice, even to the profit of the infidel. So diplomatic delays and underhand intrigues delayed the relief of Cyprus, and the standard of the Sultan soon was hoisted over the walls of Famagusta—to remain there until replaced in our times—thanks to the wisdom of a great statesman—by the “meteor flag of England.”

The terror caused by the fall of Cyprus, brought about after many negotiations, a league between the Republic, the Papacy, and the Spanish monarchy. A mighty naval armament was to be gathered together, and its commander was to be Don John of Austria. His success in subduing the Moriscoes naturally designated him, in spite of his extreme youth, for this high command. His operations, indeed, had been so far chiefly on land, but in the sixteenth century, a man might one day command a squadron of cavalry and on the next, a squadron of galleys. General and admiral were convertible terms. There was, indeed, some division of labor. Sailors navigated and soldiers fought the ship. And, as there is more resemblance between the row-galleys of Don John’s epoch and the steam driven vessels of our times than there is between these and the ships which Nelson and Collingwood led to victory, perhaps we shall return to the old state of things and again send our soldiers to sea!

To return, however, to our hero, who has meanwhile subdued the Moriscoes and returned to Madrid before setting out to take command of the great fleet at Messina. One, however, there was who did not return with the Prince to Madrid, one who was no longer to be his “guide, philosopher, and friend.” The faithful Quijada had been struck by a musket-ball in a fight at Seron, in which Don John himself, in rallying his troops, had a narrow escape. After a week of suffering, the brave knight expired in the arms of his foster-son, February 24, 1570. “We may piously trust,” says the chronicler,[A] “that the soul of Don Luis rose up to heaven with the sweet incense which burned on the altars of St. Jerome at Caniles; for he spent his life, and finally lost it, in fighting like a valiant soldier of the faith.”

Before relating the episodes of the great victory of Lepanto, it will not be inopportune to glance at one of the great evils, that of slavery, which the Turkish power entailed on so many thousands of Christians. Nowadays, thousands of travellers pass freely, to and fro, from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Suez Canal, and from one part of the Mediterranean to another. Our markets are supplied with fruits and vegetables from Algiers. Our Sovereign has no fears, except as to sanitary arrangements, when she sojourns on the northern shores of the Mediterranean. A cruise in an unarmed yacht on its waters is the[Pg 46] pleasantest of pastimes. It is, therefore, hard for us to conceive what three centuries, nay, even three generations since, were the fears of those who dwelt along the coast of Southern France, of Spain, and of Italy, or, who, as pilgrims, merchants, or sailors navigated the blue waters of the inland sea. Every year, even after the battle of Lepanto, and still more before it, the corsairs of the northern coasts of Africa scoured the Mediterranean and carried into captivity hundreds of Christians, of all ages, nations, and of both sexes, from vessels they encountered or from villages along the shores of France, Italy, or Spain. Hence it is, that to this day, those shores are studded with the ruins of castles and forts, erected as defences against those corsairs. So great was, however, their boldness that even as late as the seventeenth century, Algerian pirates ventured as far as “the chops of the Channel.”

When we read the annals of those religious orders devoted to the redemption of captives, we can more fully realize the terrible extent to which the Christian slave trade was carried by the infidels. As Englishmen, we do well to cherish the memory of Wilberforce. As Catholics we should not forget the religious men who risked all, slavery, disease, and death, to rescue Christians from the chains of slavery. Let us recall to mind a few facts about them. One single house of the Trinitarians, that of Toledo, during the first four centuries of its existence, ransomed one hundred and twenty-four thousand Christian slaves. The Order of Mercy, during a similar period, procured freedom for nearly five hundred thousand slaves. As to the number of slaves in captivity at one time, it may be mentioned that Charles the Fifth released thirty thousand by his expedition against Tunis, and about half as many were set free by the battle of Lepanto. It was estimated that in the Regency of Algiers, there was an average of thirty thousand slaves detained there. As late as 1767, in Algiers itself, there were two thousand Christians in chains. Of such slaves many were women, many mere boys and girls. And as late as 1816, Lord Exmouth, after the bombardment of Algiers, set many Christian slaves free. It is, as we said, hard to realize that in times almost within the memory of living men, Christians toiled in chains for the infidel, in the way some may have seen depicted by pictures in the Louvre. Similar pictures are kept in the old church of St. Giles, at Bruges, where a confraternity existed for the redemption of captives. This association is still represented in the parochial processions, by a group of children. Some are dressed as white-robed Trinitarians, leading those they have redeemed from slavery. Others are gorgeously attired as Turkish slave owners; others represent Turkish guards, leading Christian slaves, coarsely garbed and bound with chains. Happily Lepanto made such sights as these the processions of Bruges commemorate, of less frequent occurrence, until at length they have been relegated to pageantry, and the once powerful Turk is simply suffered to linger on European soil, because the jealousies of Christian nations will not allow of his expulsion.

Salamis, Actium, Lepanto and Trafalgar are the four greatest naval battles of history and of these Lepanto was perhaps the greatest. Salamis turned back the invasion of the East; Actium created the[Pg 47] Roman empire; Trafalgar was the first heavy blow dealt against a despotism that threatened to strangle Europe. Lepanto, however, saved Europe from a worse fate—the domination of the Turk. The name of this great victory is derived from the picturesque town, with its mediæval defences still left, of Naupaktos which the modern Greek designates as Epokte, and the Italian as Lepanto. The engagement, however, was in reality fought at the entrance of the Gulf of Patras, ten leagues westward from the town.

The facts of the fight of the seventh of October—a Sunday—of the year 1571, are so well-known, that we need merely recall to the memory of our readers the leading features of the contest. Spain, Venice, Genoa, Malta, and the Papal States were represented there, but “the meteor flag of England” was not unfurled in sight of the Turkish, nor were the fleurs-de-lys to be seen on the standards that gaily floated from the mast-heads of the great Christian armada. England, alas! was in the clutches of a wretched woman, and France was on the eve of a St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, and for all that France and England cared, at that time, Europe might have become Mahommedan.

Don John led the centre of the long line—three miles in length—of galleys, while on his right, Doria the great Genoese admiral, from whose masts waved the cross of St. George; and on the left, the brave Barbarigo, the Venetian, his flank protected by the coast commanded. Against the wind, the sun shooting its bright rays against the ships, the Turkish fleet, in half-moon formation, two hundred and fifty great galleys and many smaller craft, carrying one hundred and twenty thousand men, slowly advanced “in battle’s magnificently stern array.” The brave Ali Pacha led the van.

As the hostile fleets met, the two admirals exchanged shots. At noon, the Christians, among whom was one of the greatest soldiers and one of the ablest authors of that age—Farnese and Cervantes—knelt to receive absolution from their chaplains, and then rose up to fight. In many a quiet village away in the Appenines, or in the Sierras of more distant Spain, the Angelus was ringing, and many a heartfelt prayer was aiding the Christian cause, then a wild cry arose from the Moslem fleet and “from mouth to mouth” of the cannon the “volley’d thunder flew.” The combat deepened and became hand to hand. The two admirals ships grappled together in a deadly struggle. Don John, foremost in the fray, was slightly wounded. At a third attempt, Ali Pacha’s galley was boarded, captured, himself slain, and the Standard of the Cross replaced the Crescent. Victory! Victory! was the cry from one Christian ship to another. In less than four hours, the Turkish ships were scattered, sunk, or burning, until darkness and storm drove Don John to seek shelter in port, and hid the wreckage with which man had strewn the sea. The Christian loss was eight thousand, the Turkish four or five times greater. Don John hastened to console and comfort his wounded. Did he not, perchance, visit, on his bed of suffering, the immortal Cervantes? After the wounded, he turned to his prisoners, whom he treated with a generosity to which the sixteenth century was little accustomed.

One there was, let us not forget it, who not bodily present, had a[Pg 48] lion’s share in the victory. A second Moses, with uplifted hands, St. Pius V., had prayed God and Our Lady, to aid Don John’s arms. “The night before the battle, and the day itself, aged as he was, and broken with disease, the Saint had passed in the Vatican in fasting and prayer. All through the Holy City the monasteries and the colleges were in prayer too. As the evening advanced, the Pontifical treasurer asked an audience of the Sovereign Pontiff on an important matter. Pius was in his bedroom, and began to converse with him; when suddenly he stopped the conversation, left him, threw open the window, and gazed up into heaven. Then closing it again, he looked gravely at his official, and said, “This is no time for business; go, return thanks to the Lord God. In this very hour our fleet has engaged the Turkish, and is victorious.” As the treasurer went out, he saw him fall on his knees before the altar in thankfulness and joy.”

The great writer, from whom we have taken the above account of St. Pius the Fifth’s supernatural knowledge of the victory, remarks “that the victories gained over the Turks since are but the complements and the reverberations of the overthrow at Lepanto.”

Here we may take leave of the hero of Lepanto, leaving him in the midst of his glory, receiving the thanks of Christendom, from the lips of a Saint—its Supreme Pontiff. We need not follow Don John of Austria on his expedition against Tunis—a barren conquest his too imaginative mind dreamed of converting into a great African empire. Nor need we follow him when he goes, disguised as a Moorish page, accompanied by a single cavalier, to undertake the bootless task of pacifying the revolted Netherlands. The incidents and intrigues of this task rather belong to the history of the Low Countries than to the story of our hero. In the midst of them, worn out by too ardent a spirit, or stricken by an epidemic, Don John expired, in his camp near Namur, at the early age of thirty-two, on October 1, 1578. The task of saving a part of the revolted provinces to the Spanish crown, he left to the strong arm and genius of his cousin Alexander Farnese.

Don John’s desire was to be buried beside his father in Spain. His body, says Strada, was dismembered and secretly carried across France, onwards to Madrid, where it was, as it were, reconstructed and decked with armor to be shown to Philip, who might well weep at such ghastly display. The heart of the hero is kept, to this day, behind the high altar of the Cathedral of Namur.

Generous, high-spirited, courageous, he was a true knight-errant, the “last Crusader whom the annals of chivalry were to know; the man who had humbled the crescent as it had not been humbled since the days of the Tancreds, the Baldwins, the Plantagenets.” Endowed with a brilliant imagination, he dreamed of founding an African empire, and it faded away as the mirage of some oasis amid the deserts of the dark continent. With his sword, he thought to free, some day, Mary Queen of Scots, from her prison, and to place her on the throne held by Elizabeth. But the object of his ravings died on the scaffold, while he himself passed away, leaving behind him little more for history to record than that he was the brilliant young soldier—the Hero of Lepanto.


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