The almost imperceptible lapping of the tide against the hull of the flagship, the stillness of the night, the breathing of the slaves slumped over their oars, and the spirited but hushed murmurs of the small assembly betrayed the fury of the battle that was just hours away. Tension and quiet. The young captain general, Don John of Austria, had mustered his admirals to his stateroom to review once more the order of battle. To the man each one had greater seafaring and war-fighting experience than he.
Among them was Spain’s greatest sea captain, Don Alvaro de Bazan, the Marquis of Santa Cruz. Also Venice’s greatest—Sebastian Veniero. At 74, Veniero had three times the years on his back as Don John of Austria.
Also among Don John’s admirals was a Genovese naval commander with an impeccable pedigree. Gianandrea Doria was the nephew of none other than Andrea Doria, who a generation before had served Emperor Charles V as imperial admiral. The elder Doria’s prowess under fire, to say nothing of his guile in politics, had made him one of the most powerful men in Italy. His nephew, heir to the Doria legacy, was, alas, more ship owner than sailor.
Gianandrea opened his palm, raised his eyebrow, and offered, “There is still time, your Grace, to avoid a pitched battle.” In the breast of the natural son of Charles V, however, beat the heart of a lion. He caught and held Doria’s gaze for a moment before looking each of his other admirals in the eye.
“Gentlemen,” said Don John in a low voice. “The time for counsel has passed. Now is the time for war.”
The outcome of the following day’s battle in the Bay of Lepanto we celebrate to this day: October 7, Feast of the Holy Rosary. The fleet of the Holy League sank or captured all but 13 of some 300 Turkish vessels, and Western Europe was saved from Islamic conquest. The sides were evenly matched and well led, but to each of his warriors Don John had issued a weapon more powerful than anything in the Turkish arsenal: a Rosary.
The men of the Holy League prepared for war by falling to their knees on the decks of their galleys and praying the Rosary. Back in Rome, and up and down the Italian peninsula, at the behest of Pius V, the churches were filled with the faithful praying their beads. In Heaven, the Blessed Mother inclined her ear toward her children and then, with her Immaculate Heart aflame brought down the full might of Heaven on the forces of darkness threatening to overshadow Christendom: “They fling great shadows foe-ward making Cross and Castle dark,” as Chesterton put it in his magnificent ballad celebrating the day.
Well known is this story, and many inspirations can we draw from it, among them is the intersection of freedom and joy.
As the fleets closed, Don John of Austria ordered his flagship, Real, to engage directly the Ottoman flagship, Sultana, commanded by his worthy rival Ali Pasha. As the galleys were moments from colliding, Don John, who was famous throughout Christendom as a great dancer, broke into a galliard on the prow of his vessel. Imagine the young warrior, overcome with anticipation of the impending clash, leaping and landing by the bow cannons. Imagine the cheers the sight of his manifest thrill must have sent throughout his soldiers. Seconds later, Spanish infantry—the world’s finest—boarded Sultana. Don John himself led the third charge. A Turkish blade put a gash in his leg. He brushed off the wound from the leg that moments before had been dancing.
What is this? Could the commander of a fleet of nearly 300 ships on the cusp of a battle at which the existence of Christendom was at stake really break into dance? We should expect nothing less from a Christian soldier squaring off against the forces of evil.
Chesterton describes in his Ballad of the White Horse King Alfred the Great who has lost all of his kingdom but a marshy island the size of a football field. Does Alfred curl up into a ball? No:
The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.
From Alfred the Great badly outnumbered by the Danes, to Christopher Columbus reading aloud the Last Gospel every night at the bow of Santa Maria, a second hand, sea-tossed vessel no more than 60 feet long, to Hernan Cortez conquering the demon-worshipping Aztec kingdom with 500 Spanish soldiers, to Thomas More cracking jokes on his approach to the shambles, to Don John dancing with sword drawn about to give battle, Christians have ever gone “gaily into the dark.” They have always, to borrow our Lord’s words to St. Peter, “put out into the deep.”
And they have always put out into the deep with joy.
It is this joy that is our patrimony as Christians. It is the one word with which we can best describe our faith. This joy is sanctified and made holy in the service of Christ but like all the great things in Christendom we find forecasts of it in antiquity as the world anticipated the Incarnation.
Remember the Spartans defending the hot gates at Thermopylae? The Spartans are outnumbered 500 to one by the armies of Xerxes. As they prepare for battle one Spartan declares that he has heard that the Persian army is so numerous that when they let fly their arrows they block out the sun.
And what does Herodotus report Dienekes said?
“Good. Then we shall have our fight in the shade.” That is joy. Battle joy.
Dienekes tasted what those of us who live in the world since the Incarnation know in full, the joy that comes from true freedom.
What was the battle of Lepanto? It was, of course, a contest between Christianity and Islam, but it was also part of an older legacy of battles between freedom and servility. Had these battles gone the other way, Europe would not be Europe, or better, Christendom would not be Christendom. Although the western understanding of freedom was sanctified and perfected in the Incarnation, it was written on the hearts of our Greek and Roman forbears. It should come as no surprise to us that some of these culturally decisive battles were fought before Christ.
Chesterton, in his masterpiece, The Everlasting Man, brilliantly explains the “War of the Gods and Demons”, that is, the Punic Wars, in this very light. The free choice of the Roman citizen to serve the army of the Republic stood in sharp contrast to the motives of the mercenary forces of Carthage comprising men who fought for plunder. Not surprisingly, they served a state that worshipped not only Baal but also Mammon. “Dark with all the riddles of Asia,” he writes,
and trailing all the tribes and dependencies of imperialism, came Carthage riding on the sea … an outpost or settlement of the energy and expansion of the great commercial cities of Tyre and Sidon … with a prodigious talent for trade…. They were members of a mature and polished civilization abounding in refinements and luxuries; they were probably far more civilized than the Romans.
And yet, Chesterton continues, “These highly civilized people really met together to invoke the blessing of heaven on their empire by throwing hundreds of their infants into a large furnace.”
What is that dark riddle of Asia revealed in the Carthaginian’s horrifying religious rite?
If Rome embodied the free choice of the citizen to fight and die for something greater than he, Carthage embodied servility to the material world and to the whims of a false god. The great battles of Christendom—Tours, Grenada, Lepanto, Vienna—are battles “between the Bible and the Koran,” as Jean de la Valette put it to his knights on the eve of the siege of Malta six years before Lepanto, but they are also battles between the free will of a man made in the image and likeness of God and the arbitrary will of a capricious demon, call him Baal or Mammon or Allah. “Mahound” (Mohammad) in Chesterton’s 1915 epic, Lepanto, understands the nature of the fight. He describes Don John of Austria as heir to the Christian soldiers who stormed the gates of Jerusalem, “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 at the gate!
And Muhammad knows why the Christian soldier dances in the face of battle, and he hates him for it:
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.
On this great feast we can focus our hearts on the most perfect kind of joy that freedom can give. It is the joy that comes from the free choice to say yes to God, and the perfect example is Mary’s fiat, without which we would have no Incarnation. The maternal solicitude of the Blessed Virgin Mary will preserve us through every possible challenge and trial, just as she preserved the Holy League. Remember, Our Lady is a mother most merciful, but she is also the fierce fighter who crushes the head of the serpent and is prefigured in the Song of Songs, “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array.”
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Battle of Lepanto of 1571” was painted by Juan Luna in 1887.