The Banners of Lepanto: During the battle between Christian and Muslim in October 7,1571

The Banners of Lepanto: During the battle between Christian and Muslim in October 7,1571


A British explorer ship that sank in the Arctic in the 1840s while searching for the Northwest Passage, was located this year on September 3, remarkably intact under the ice. The HMS Terror was one of the ships that attacked Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814. Some of the “bombs bursting in air” may have been fired from her. The Star Spangled Banner has attained a secular sacredness and is displayed with due civil reverence in the capital’s National Museum of American History. There were actually two flags, one for inclement weather, but the official one was 30 x 42 feet, big enough to be seen from a distance by the expected British fleet. The work of its sewer, Mary Pickersgill, whose mother Rebecca stitched the Grand Union flag, is far better documented than the traditions of Betsy Ross. The 37-year-old widow was helped by her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, and an African-American indentured servant named Grace Wisher, and two nieces. The work took about seven weeks, starting at home and then, as things progresses, the materials were spread on the floor of an old brewery. The total cost was about $6,000 in today’s money. Restoration begun in 1998, repairing a rather botched job in 1914, cost $7 million plus another ten million or so for display and endowment costs.

Not to diminish the Battle of Baltimore, the Battle of Lepanto ranks as one of the greatest sea battles of all time, and in one sense it was the most important. There never would have been a Trafalgar or Jutland or Leyte Gulf without it and, as a matter of fact, it is likely that it made possible the survival of everything we know as civilization. Had the Christian fleets sunk off western Greece on October 7 in 1571, we would not be here now, these words would not be written in English, and there would be no universities, human rights, holy matrimony, advanced science, enfranchised women, fair justice, and morality as it was carved on the tablets of Moses and enfleshed in Christ.

Many banners wafted at Lepanto. The great one bearing an image of Christ Crucified was the gift of Pope Pius V to Don Juan of Austria. One of the admirals, Gianandrea Doria, a nephew of Andrea Doria often confused with his uncle, used as his ensign, if not a banner, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, this only forty years after her appearance in Mexico. The bishop there had commissioned five copies, touching each to the original tilma. The one gifted to the King of Spain, Philip II, was in turn entrusted to Doria for the battle. Then there was the sixteen-foot long silk banner of the Ottoman admiral Ali Pasha decorated with Quranic verses and the image of a zulfiqar, the double-bladed sword said to have been what Mohammed had used in his slaughterings, with the name of Allah stitched in gold 29,800 times.

Naval historians have extraordinarily detailed resources for studying the battle. Perhaps the most literate remembrance is that of Cervantes who fought heroically at Lepanto despite a severe fever and wounds; later he was able to write Don Quixote with his right hand, the left being totally useless after October 7. Pope St. Pius V never recorded the details of his astonishing vision on that day, but he saw the scene miraculously while in the church of Santa Sabina discussing administrative accounts with his advisor Bartolo Busotti, and announced the victory to him, nineteen days before a messenger of the Doge of Venice Mocenigo reached Rome with news—no longer new—of the great victory. “Let us set aside business and fall on our knees in thanksgiving to God, for he has given our fleet a great victory.” Five years later the astronomer and geographer Luigi Lilio died. He was a principle architect of the Gregorian calendar implemented in 1582. Trained minds like his, acting upon the testimony of witnesses, calculated by the meridians of Rome and the Curzola isles that the pope had received his revelation precisely as Don Juan leaped from his quarter deck to repulse the Turks boarding his vessel and when the Ottoman galley “Sultana” was attacked side and stern by Marco Antonio Colonna and the Marquis of Santa Cruz.

Despite the Muslim defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1529, the Ottoman Empire was at its peak under Suleiman the Magnificent, having conquered Belgrade, Budapest, Rhodes and Temesvar after Aden, Algiers and Baghdad. It stretched from the Caucuses, Balkans and Anatolia to the sultrier climes of the Middle East and North Africa. One stubborn obstacle was Malta. Suleiman, rather like Herod with Salome, was cajoled by his chief wife Hurrem Sultan and the concubines of his harem to take it. Too old to lead the attack, he dispatched his fleet in 1565 with 40,000 troops among whom were 6500 Janissaries, the Navy Seals of their day, many of whom had been captured in youth and obliged to convert. The Turkish sails were spotted by the Knights of Saint John on May 18. The knights had confessed and attended Mass and, against all odds after a siege of four months, only 10,000 Turks survived to limp slowly back to Constantinople.

Suleiman, sulphuric in wrath, organized an army of 300,000 to march through the plains of Hungary toward Vienna. The Sultan knew that the Church had been weakened by the new Protestant schismatics, and was surprised that the forces Count Miklov Zrinyi in the city of Szigetvar, outnumbered fifty to one, held out for a month. Zrinyi refused the bribe of a princely rule over Croatia, and led his remaining 600 troops into certain death, led by a Cross and jeweled sword. The Turks massacred every civilian man, woman and child within the city gates. Suleiman had died from dysentery four days earlier, leaving the empire to Selim II, his alcoholic and sexually deviant son. Selim soon invaded Cyprus, meeting half-hearted resistance. The capital of Nicosia surrendered on September 9, 1570, and its 20,000 civilians were massacred while “two thousand of the comelier boys and girls were gathered and shipped off as sexual provender for the slave markets in Constantinople.”

This then was the efficient cause for the frail Dominican pope to summon Christians to battle, putting the Protestant calamity on the back burner to organize a Holy League against the immediate military threat of Islam. The League was announced in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, smoothing over differences to unite the Papal States, Spain and Genoa. Venice, its commercial interest paramount, was reluctant to offer the help of its galleys. No aid came from the Protestant queen Elizabeth, and France had already been compromised by trade agreements with the Turks immigrating into Toulon. French manufacturers in Marseilles even sold oars to the Turkish navy. While Chesterton may have been too self-conscious in some conceits of his poem “Lepanto,” he accurately summed up that scene: “The cold queen of England is looking in the glass; The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass…” Venice at last joined the League, urged by the preaching of saintly men like Francis Borgia.

The pope rather surprisingly chose Don Juan of Austria, natural son of the late Holy Roman emperor Charles V and half-brother of the Spanish king Philip II. He was everything the aged and arthritic pope, reared as an impoverished shepherd boy, was not and almost nothing of what the pope was save for his love of Our Lady: a beguilingly handsome flirt and elegant dancer and acrobatic swordsman, who kept a lion cub in his bedroom along with a pet marmoset. But he was well acquainted with war from experience with the Barbary corsairs. Embracing him, the pope’s rheumy eyes stared into the flashing face of the prince and said: “Charles V gave you life. I will give you honor and greatness.” Then he entrusted to him the banner of Christ Crucified for his ship. Like Cervantes, he was only twenty-four years old, roughly the same age as some modern youth on our college campuses who demand “safe spaces” to shelter them from lecturers whose contradictions of their views make them cry.

The pope knew that the enemy’s goal was Rome itself. Sultan Selim had vowed that he would turn the Tomb of Saint Peter into a mosque. In 997 the Muslim commander of the Ottoman caliph, Almansure, had desecrated the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, turning its bells upside down and filling them with oil as lamps in honor of Allah. Selim promised to do the same in Rome.

As Don Juan was approaching the harbor of Messina to take charge of the papal fleet of 206 galleys and 76 lesser vessels, Cyprus was under siege. When its governor Marcantonio Bragdino refused to yield his young page, Antonio Quirni, as a hostage to the lecherous Muslim commander Lala Mustafa, he was humiliated and tortured by inventive methods and flayed alive. His taxidermied body was hung from the main mast of Mustafa’s galley as it sailed off to Lepanto.

His fleet having crossed the Adriatic Sea and anchored between Corfu and the west coast of Greece before moving into the Gulf of Petras, Don Juan enjoined upon his soldiers a three day fast, as priests of the orders, Dominican, Theatine, Jesuit, Capuchins and Franciscan heard confessions on deck. Prisoners who had been galley rowers were released and armed, and every fighter was given a Rosary. By the day of battle, the future Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, perhaps by providence disguised as happenstance, the Christian fleet took the form of a Cross and the Muslim fleet was arrayed as a Crescent.

At midday on the flagship Reale, Don Juan unfurled the blue banner the pope had given him and the troops cheered, trying to drown out the intimidating sound of cymbals, gongs, drums and conches from the Muslim fleet. The battle lasted five hours, during which a sudden 180-degree change in the wind favored the Christians who unfurled their sails as the Turks struck theirs. In blood-reddened water, the Reale clashed against the Sultana, and a musket ball killed the Muessunzade Ali Pasha, while Don Juan survived a leg wound. The engagement of flagships was uncommon in naval protocol, but such was the intensity of the battle. More unusual was the presence on the Reale of Maria la Bailadora (“The Dancer”), the lover of a Spanish soldier, who disguised herself as a man in armor. She promised to avenge all women violated by the Turks. A trained arquebusier, she also engaged some Turks in hand to hand combat and dispatched one with several thrusts of her two-edged sword. While the fleets were matched pretty evenly, the Christians made unprecedented use of gunpowder and heavy artillery against the Turkish arrows. Almost all of the Turkish vessels were lost or captured, more than 30,000 Turks died, and fifteen thousand Christian slaves were freed.

The image of Guadalupe from Admiral Doria’s ship is now enshrined in the Church of San Stefano in Aveto, Italy. Don Juan’s papal banner is in the Escorial. Admiral Marco Antonio Colonna’s threadbare standard is in Gaeta’s Pinacoteca Communale. One of Ali Pasha’s banners is in the Church of Santo Stefano in Pisa. Another is in the Palazzo Ducale of Venice. Pasha’s flagship banner decorated with Quranic verses from the 48th surah Al-Fath (The Victory) hung near the tomb of St. Pius V in Santa Maria Maggiore. In 1965 Pope Paul VI attempted a gesture of goodwill by returning it to the Turks. Indulging some antiphrasis, it is not necessary to comment that Paul VI was not a military man. The gesture was perplexing to those who harbor a memory of sacrificial valor, and it must have been an awkward reminder to descendants of the defeated. The banner now hangs in the Naval Museum of Istanbul.

Sloganeers avow that some wrong roads are paved with good intentions. The altruistic return of the banner of Lepanto has not enhanced “peace for our time.” In 2011, construction of the 300-foot corvette Heybeliada was completed: the first modern warship built in a Turkish shipyard. The prime minister, Recep Erdogen, attended the dedication ceremony and pointedly remarked that it was the 473rd anniversary of the Battle of Preveza, when an Ottoman fleet led by Hayreddin Barbarossa defeated a Holy League organized by Pope Paul III. Erdogen made no allusion to the subsequent defeat of the Turks at Lepanto. In 2014 he became Turkey’s first directly elected president. One can only speculate about what he would eventually want to do with Ali Pasha’s banner.

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Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest book is He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016).

The Lepanto Moment Arrives Again This Week

On the 445th anniversary of Lepanto, Our Lady of the Rosary can again hand us the victory if we follow history


Circle of Andries van Eertvelt (1590-1652), “The Battle of Lepanto”

Friday, Oct. 7, marks the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary and also the 445th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto.

Some people have taken up Lepanto’s call and showing us what we can do to turn the tide of the battle in our country over secularism, immorality, antagonistic unbelief, and laws downright hostile to Christianity.

Many who have been faithfully praying the 54-Day Rosary Novena for our Nation will be heading to Washington, D.C., for the conclusion of the novena with the National Rosary Rally and hopes a Lepanto-like victory will happen again. Many others whould be joining them too.

Why a Lepanto moment? Lepanto became the model for other lopsided victories to come in favor of saving Christianity in Europe and elsewhere.

Cardinal Raymond Burke “wholeheartedly” endorsed the novena and the Rosary Rally on this Oct. 7 anniversary. “I urge as many as are able to participate in these great spiritual works for the sake of our entire nation,” he said on the novena website.

Engaging in today’s Lepanto, all those who will come to the rally will hear speakers and pray the four Mysteries of the Rosary right by the Capitol (see exact location) for these intentions: “respect for life at all stages of development; the sanctity of marriage and families; upholding constitutionally protected religious freedom; and the return of our nation to God and Holiness.”

Leaders and speakers will include Father Rick Heilman, the president of Holy League, Austin and Cathy Ruse, president of Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute,

EWTN co-host of Life on the Rock Doug Barry, and Father Stephen Imbarrato of Priests for Life and EWTN co-host of Defending Life.

Remember Lepanto

That Lepanto victory 445 years ago was a miraculous event. When all seemed on the brink of being lost for Christian Europe, heaven provided the victory through our Blessed Mother. Her Rosary was the chief weapon, the spiritual one par excellence.

That tremendous Mediterranean battle off the coast of Greece, one of the greatest sea battles in history, saw an outnumbered Christian fleet defeat a superior Turkish Moor armada of the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful naval force of the time, about to invade Europe. The fate of Western Christian Europe was in the balance.

The Catholic naval forces primarily from Spain, Venice, and Genoa, called the Holy League under the command of Don Juan of Austria, had to fight the Turkish fleet in what would be the last battle at sea between “oared” ships. At the time, the Moslem force was the most powerful navy in the world, with between 12,000 to 15,000 Christian slaves as rowers for their hundreds of ships.

Knowing that the Christian forces were at a distinct material disadvantage, the holy pontiff, St. Pope Pius V called for all Catholics, all of Europe, to pray the Rosary for victory. Christians answered his call. All the churches in Rome were continuously open.

The fleet’s major weapon became the Rosary.

The patchwork team of the smaller Catholic fleet was powered by the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Holy League’s 65,000 Christian sailors and troops also received Communion and prayed the Rosary together.

Although facing a much superior enemy, the winds seemed to inexplicably change to favor the Holy League fleet, and the victory they won was decisive, preventing the Islamic invasion of Europe by the Turkish Moors, and evidenced the Hand of God working through Our Lady.

At the hour of victory, St. Pope Pius V, who was hundreds of miles away at the Vatican in the days of no phone, telegraph or means of instant communication, got up from a meeting, went over to a window, and exclaimed with supernatural radiance: “The Christian fleet is victorious!” He shed tears of thanksgiving to God.

The Credit Goes To

Our Lady of the Rosary. Don Juan of Austria, Commander of the Christian fleet, credited this major upset victory to the intercession of the Blessed Mother through the Rosary. And the Venetian Senators officially proclaimed it was not courage, not arms, not leaders, but Mary of the Rosary that made them victors.

Our Lady of the Rosary got all the credit from the saintly pope on down to the simple sailor. She didn’t have that title yet, but it was soon to come.

As a constant reminder and to commemorate the victory, St. Pius V first instituted and called it the feast of Our Lady of Victory for celebration on Oct. 7.

Later in 1683, at Vienna, 140,000 Muslim troops were defeated by 41,000 Christian defenders through the intercession of Our Lady of Czestochowa and praying the Rosary.

After another victory over the Turks in Hungary in 1716 (on the feast of Our Lady of the Snows), that was again credited to the Rosary, the Oct. 7 feast was extended by Pope Clement XI to the universal Church was renamed Our Lady of the Rosary.

Popes Have Their Say

Blessed Pope Pius IX said, “Among all the devotions approved by the Church none has been so favored by so many miracles as the devotion of the Most Holy Rosary.”           In one of Leo XIII’s 11 encyclicals on the Rosary (here )  he devotes a long section to the Lepanto victory, saying, “those who were unable to take part formed a pious band of supplicants, who called on Mary, and unitedly saluted her again and again in the words of the Rosary, imploring her to grant the victory to their companions engaged in battle. Our Sovereign Lady did grant her aid…the Christian fleet gained a magnificent victory, with no great loss to itself, in which the enemy were routed…”

St. John Paul II singles out Leo XIII’s encyclical in his own apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (On the Most Holy Rosary), especially noting the Rosary is “an effective spiritual weapon against the evils afflicting society.”

John Paul II proclaimed in the same apostolic letter, “At times when Christianity itself seemed under threat, its deliverance was attributed to the power of this prayer.”

Lepanto Possible Again

Whether you are or are not taking part in the 54-day Rosary Novena, or going to the rally on Oct. 7, don’t forget the Rosary and Lepanto in these dire times.

Here on earth can’t forget we’re the Church Militant. The Church Militant must be ready for spiritual combat.

St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina told us what the arms for this reenactment of the Battle of Lepanto were. Remember, he very strongly stated: “The Rosary is the weapon.” It’s time to pick up our weapon — the Rosary — to fight back.

Just as Europe was once saved, following the Church’s wisdom proves how the victory can be won to save this country from many different enemies trying to take it over. Heaven gave the answer several times loud and clear. It’s through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, through the Rosary.

Our Lady of the Rosary has proven over and over again how the victory is won. She told us at Fatima too — now approaching its 100th Anniversary Year.

Blessed Pope Pius IX proclaimed: “I could conquer the world if I had an army to say the Rosary.”

Heaven is waiting to hand us the victory and has given us the most powerful weapon of all to triumph — the Rosary.

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About Joseph Pronechen

Joseph Pronechen
Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared regularly in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared inFairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds BS and MS degrees and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside in Connecticut.

When the Rosary Saved Christendom: The Extraordinary Miracle of Lepanto

Public Domain, Wikipedia / ChurchPOP

To say that Christendom was in dire straights would be an understatement.

In the late 16th century, Christian Europe was weak and splintered. Politically, Europe was just a collection of small, warring kingdoms. And their fragile unity in the Catholic faith had just been broken by the Protestant Reformation, which was now in full swing across the continent.

The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, was strong and growing, having not lost a significant naval battle in a hundred years. Its forces had already conquered the remains of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, including “New Rome” Constantinople. And now, their seemingly unstoppable forces set their sights on conquering Rome, and from there, the rest of Europe and the New World.

Desperate for survival, Pope Pius V convinced as many Catholic rulers of the Mediterranean as possible to band together to stop the Ottomans, forming what they called the Holy League.

It was originally formed to save a Venetian colony on Cyprus that was under Ottoman attack, but the colony fell before they were able to arrive. The Ottoman commander captured the Venetian leader, had him flayed alive, and hung up his corpse along with the corpses of other Venetian leaders. So the Holy League sailed to meet the Ottoman navy at their naval station Lepanto in Greece instead.

The odds were against the Holy League: Despite the fact that many nations were banded together in the Holy League, the Ottoman forces still had more boats and were practiced in fighting together, rather than being cobbled together just for the occasion.

And the stakes were high: If the Holy League failed, the Ottoman’s would appear to have a cleared way to the heart of Europe in Rome.

Knowing that the circumstances were desperate, Pope Pius V did the only thing those back at home could do: pray. On the day of the battle, he organized a public procession in Rome to pray the Rosary.

And then a miracle happened: they received word that, against all odds, the Holy League had won! Overjoyed, and convinced that their prayers had been decisive, the Pope created the new Feast of Our Lady of Victory. A few years later, it was changed to the Feast of the Holy Rosary, and finally to the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in the 20th century, which it remains today. It is celebrated every October 7th.

Historians say that the battle truly was decisive in world history: it once and for all stopped the advance of Ottoman forces deeper into Europe, preserving the independence of the western half of Christendom.

When things seem desperate, pray the Rosary!

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[See also: The ORIGINAL Rosary Dates Back All the Way to the Holy Family]

[See also: The 15 Promises of the Virgin Mary For Those Who Pray the Holy Rosary]

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