Tag Archives: Lepanto

Lepanto: Our Lady’s Victory over Islam

On October 7th, 1571 a fleet of ships assembled by the combined forces of Naples, Sardinia, Venice, the Papacy, Genoa, Savoy and the Knights Hospitallers fought an intense battle with the fleet of the Ottoman Empire. The battle took place in the Gulf of Patras located in western Greece.  Though outnumbered by the Ottoman forces, the so-called “Holy League” possessed of superior firepower would win the day. This victory would severely curtail attempts by the Ottoman Empire to control the Mediterranean, causing a seismic shift in international relations from East to West. In some respects, and I do not want this claim to be overstated, the world that we know came into being with this victory. This event is known to history as the “Battle of Lepanto.”

Pope Pius V, whose treasury bankrolled part of this military endeavor, ordered the churches of Rome opened for prayer day and night, encouraging the faithful to petition the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the recitation of the Rosary. When word reached the Pope Pius of the victory of the Holy League, he added a new feast day to the Roman Liturgical Calendar- October 7th would henceforth be the feast of Our Lady of Victory. Pope Pius’ successor, Gregory XIII would change the name of this day to the feast of the Holy Rosary.   (Source:  Fr. Steve Grunow,  Our Lady of the Rosary and the Battle of Lepanto )

Lepanto is immortalized (as if Our Lady hadn’t!) in a poem which Hilaire Belloc declared Chesterton’s greatest poem and the greatest poem of his generation.  It only takes a few minutes to read.

Some things to consider as you read the poem:

  • The “Soldan of Byzantium” is Sultan Selim II, the Ottoman Turk reigning in Constantinople
  • The “Lion of the Sea” is Venice
  • The “cold queen of England” is of course the monster Elizabeth I
  • The “shadow of the Valois” refers to the French king Henri III (who couldn’t be bothered to aid the Pope and who was also known to sleep through Masses)
  • Mahound” is an archaic rendering of the Mohammed, who is depicted as being very agitated in his Islamic paradise when he learns that Don John (whom he considers a crusader every bit as dangerous as Richard Lionheart or Godfrey) is mounting a defense of Christendom
  • St Michael tries to rally Christians of northern Europe, but they are too distracted by the protestant revolt to aid the Holy League.
  • The Spaniard Cervantes lost his left hand at the Battle of Lepanto, but 50 years later would use his remaining hand to pen the greatest of Spanish novels, Don Quixote.

Lepanto

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.)

The Sea Battle That Saved the West (Oh, yeah, and it was Catholics who fought it!)

The Battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571) was a naval engagement in the waters off southwestern Greece between the allied Christian forces of the Holy League and the Ottoman Turks during an Ottoman campaign to conquer the Venetian island of Cyprus.  The battle marked the first significant victory for a Christian naval force over a Turkish fleet and the climax of the age of galley warfare in the Mediterranean.

The above summary can be found at  Britannica.com .    What this secular article won’t tell you is that this victory was won (against pretty daunting odds) through prayer and the intercession of Our Lady.

Pope Pius V, a Dominican prelate before his elevation, did what Catholics have always done in times of acute danger: fly into the arms of the most powerful Mother of God. As a follower of Saint Dominic, he knew the most effective means of imploring her help was through the recitation of the Holy Rosary. He ordered all monasteries and convents in Rome to increase their prayers for the impending battle and organized rosary processions in which he, as sick as he was, participated.

As the Christian fleet sailed toward the great clash of cultures, Mass was celebrated and the rosary recited daily on each vessel. This heartfelt request for divine assistance resulted in a crushing defeat of the Ottomans at Lepanto that ended their dominance in the Mediterranean.  (Source:  TFP Student Action )

The battle of Lepanto is not well-known in the English speaking world, owing in no small part to the effects of the Black Legend.  Lepanto was fought during the reign of that anti-Catholic monster, bloody Queen Elizabeth I of England.  A victory by a Catholic fleet was not going to get much positive press in Elizabethan England!

A few centuries later, however, it was an Englishman who helped to set the record straight.  On the eve of World War I, G.K. Chesterton wrote what some consider to be the best English language poem of the 20th Century.  If you haven’t read or listened to his epic Lepanto, you really ought to!

Brandon Vought says the following of Lepanto:

The great G.K. Chesterton wrote a poem about these events, appropriately titled “Lepanto”, which I’ve enjoyed several times. I must say, after devouring all of Chesterton’s novels, poetry, short stories, and the majority of his essays, I think “Lepanto” is my favorite piece of his writing. I’m not alone. Hilaire Belloc, Chesterton’s good friend, considered “Lepanto” not only Chesterton’s greatest poem, but the greatest poem of their generation, staggering praise from the usually reserved historian.  (Source: https://brandonvogt.com/why-you-should-read-g-k-chestertons-lepanto-today/ )

The YouTube video below is a dramatic reading by Tom O’Bedlam of Chesterton’s Lepanto.  With all the nonsense our kids learn in so-called “Catholic” schools these days, if only a brief block of time could be set aside to teach them this piece of literature, how it would strengthen their faith!