On Sunday, October 7th, in the year of Our Lord 1571, an outnumbered, fragile coalition of small Christian states and one small part of a big Christian state defeated an empire at sea just off the coast of Greece. All of Europe rejoiced at the time, even the Christian states that refused help. Now, among the shards and remnants of that civilization which is called the West and extends far beyond Europe, the doubtful heirs reflect upon this event in more diverse and more ambiguous ways. The predominant mode is to ignore it, in the modern sense of acknowledging it on Wikipedia and then rejecting its importance, hand-waving away its unexpectedness, and belittling the idea that Our Lady of the Rosary had anything to do with it. Another approach takes the event seriously as a landmark in the history of warfare, of economics, and of the West, but still leaves Our Lady out in their attempts at explanation.
And finally, there are those who see it as a miracle, and miracles always imply the involvement of our Lady, because she is the greatest miracle of all. G.K. Chesterton’s “Lepanto” is in its own category, set apart from any of these approaches. It does not belittle the importance of the battle. It does not ignore the supernatural. But it stands, so to speak, on the threshold of an acknowledgement of Our Lady; it is a poem about an unexplainable event brought to flower by an untimely knight. It pauses at the unlooked-for, brilliant wonder of the event and does not proceed further. But this wonder is an important and necessary step in itself. It is the kind of wonder that, once arrived at, can only lead to reverence for Our Lady. It is a tribute to knightliness, and a knight means nothing without his lady fair.
It might be helpful to talk about the battle of Lepanto in a broader historical context before discussing the poem itself, if only because the battle must be seen as a real crisis for Europe even to a non-Christian who investigates the event honestly. It is a battle that comprises not only endings but also beginnings. Not all that ended was evil nor all that came out of it good, and appreciating the complexity surrounding the event should not dull but sharpen the appetite for the cosmic drama that it was in essence.
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Chesterton’s opening lines introduce the impending conflict well:
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…
Waged between the Venetian-Spanish Holy League and the Ottoman Empire, the battle of Lepanto was one of the last major encounters between galleys in history and heralded a less chivalric age in naval warfare. After this, sea battles would be decided more on the basis of sails and cannons rather than rowers and ramming. Lepanto hastened this process; the main reason for the Christian victory considering matériel were the six Venetian galleasses, bristling with cannons, which sailed at the forefront of the fleet and reduced many of the Turkish ships to smoking hulks within minutes. To oppose both the elite Turkish janissaries (think Turkish Navy Seals) and the poorly armed masses who manned the Turkish galleys, the Christians were armed with guns produced cheaply and in large quantities. One of the conditions that made room for Christian victory was an emerging system of “getting and spending” that has characterized both the rise of European prosperity and the decline of European piety.
Here one can move on to more uplifting contrasts. For while the whole Turkish army was an army of slaves (even Ali Pasha, the admiral of the fleet, was technically the slave of the Sultan), the Christian navy was mostly composed of free men, many of whom had relatives who had been captured or enslaved by the Turks and who were therefore fighting for their freedom as well as for the Cross.
All this, however, is ultimately beside the point; anything looks possible after it is accomplished, but no one could have predicted what would happen before the battle of Lepanto began. The Christians were outnumbered in ships and in men. Their coalition, consisting of a handful of vessels from the Spanish navy, the double-dealing Venetians who would remake their alliance with the Turks two years hence, and the small Papal armada, was fraught with mutual suspicion. They were up against a Turkish navy that was undefeated in recent history. Material, economic, and social situations can explain why the battle became a rout, but there is no explanation for the initial daring that led up to it. And this is where Chesterton’s poem comes in. This daring was the result of the leadership of Don John of Austria, illegitimate brother of King Philip II and “the last knight of Europe.” Knighthood, as Don John showed, is the key concept to appreciating the outcome of Lepanto.
Though Chesterton’s poem is named “Lepanto,” the actual battle plays only a small part on his textual canvas. This is not by accident. Chesterton is focused on knight and Cross. Chesterton knew that the greatest test of the knight is his preparation for battle—his watching, praying, and suffering—before, and not in the actual contest itself. He also knew that the drama of the Cross takes part in secret, in the “hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year.” And so, everything leading up to the last quarter of the poem is accompanied by the persevering approach of Don John to the battle, in an “enormous silence, tiny and unafraid.” In that enormous silence of a Christian world grown cold, the great powers of Europe play politics and the great power of the East hastens to crush this “last and lingering troubadour.”
Even with battle joined, Chesterton pays the service of only a few but powerful lines to the progress of the fighting before turning his attention to the freeing of the Christian galley-slaves. This poem is about freedom after all: freedom versus fatalism, the freedom of the knight, the freedom of the Christian, and the freedom of the Christian knight to fight for the Cross. And this is as far as Chesterton takes us in this poem. Why? One might suggest that it is because he writes this poem when not yet a Catholic. One might also suggest that he is imitating the knight himself, laboring and fighting to quietly, respectfully, and unobtrusively lay a great conquest at the foot of the woman who stands at the foot of the Cross. Can such an interpretation really be amiss? Anyone who is familiar with Chesterton knows of his reverence for Mary even before his conversion, as evidenced in “Lepanto’s” homage, calling her the one “that God kissed in Galilee.”
Though the prayer is not mentioned in the poem, the relevance of the Rosary of Our Lady to its main themes and to the actual event warrants some mention. Pius V had recommended the Rosary to the whole Catholic world as the battle approached, and the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary was instituted to thank her for victory. Considering the poem, the harmony between it and the Rosary is striking and perhaps not coincidental. The Rosary is a most knightly prayer: a persistent prayer, a persevering prayer, the prayer most associated with spiritual warfare, and a prayer that can be said on horseback, on deck, or in battle if need be. Taking up the Rosary is taking up the Cross, and taking up the Cross is to crusade.
The battle of Lepanto was indeed the last crusade. What does Chesterton, then, hope to achieve by writing about a lost cause? There’s an inkling in the last words of the poem. Returning as victors, one of the soldiers at Lepanto, Miguel Cervantes, is described as seeing “a lean and foolish knight” who “forever rides in vain.” This knight is Don John, but it is also, of course, Don Quixote, the last and also the most renowned knight of literature. In Don Quixote, Cervantes states that “those Christians who died there were even happier than those who remained alive and victorious.” Chesterton was not merely following in the literary footsteps of Spain’s greatest writer; he was also following this incredible insight: whether we live or die, we are only happy if we take up the Cross and go on crusade.
Chesterton wrote about Lepanto not only because it was a last crusade, but also because every crusade is the last crusade. He encourages us to prepare for the last crusade of our own lives. True, Lepanto was the last time the Turks would menace Europe with a naval force; but at the siege of Vienna 111 years later, it was only John Sobieski’s last-minute jaunt under the same Cross that saved Europe again from Turkish invasion. When the Carmelite nuns faced their last crusade at the scaffold during the Reign of Terror, they, like Don John, braved death singing. A similar spirit is seen in Witold Pilecki, the Polish Catholic who infiltrated and then escaped from Auschwitz and who was finally condemned to death at a Communist show trial: “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.” Read this call of the last crusade by G.K. Chesterton, read “Lepanto”—and read it out loud, for it gallops like a horse or a well-prayed Rosary—and prepare to encounter the hour of your death with joy rather than fear.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Battle of Lepanto” painted by an unknown artist in the late sixteenth century.