By Peter O'Dwyer
"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?" ~Song of Solomon 6:10
The Rosary is a powerful weapon, as today's feast illustrates. Today the Church commemorates Our Lady of the Rosary, also known as Our Lady of Victory. That title was not given. It was earned, 444 years ago.
On October 7, 1571, two enormous fleets, one Muslim and one Catholic, would collide in a gigantic naval battle off the coast of Greece. The fight would involve 150,000 men, and would later come to be recognized as the most decisive naval battle in the 2,000 years that preceded it. Not since Salamis had the entire fate of Europe hinged on a single naval engagement.
It was during this decisive hour that Our Lady earned her title.
In 1571, the dreaded Ottoman Empire hung like the sword of Damocles over Christian civilization. Centered in Anatolia (what is now Turkey), the Ottomans, a dynasty of the Muslim Turkic people from Central Asia, succeeded in delivering the deathblow to what remained of the Roman Empire, completely overrunning Byzantium and setting up shop in the former capitol of that great civilization: Constantinople. The Turks never left, and occupy this land to this day.
The fall of Constantinople was just the overture. Greece, Bosnia and Croatia succumbed to the Muslim invaders in turn. The Ottomans were seeping unchecked across North Africa, eating up more and more coastline. By 1571, a successful Muslim campaign to completely conquer southern Europe was already wrapping up in the eastern half of the continent, and the Ottomans began to look to the West.
If the Ottomans wanted to take Europe, they needed to dominate the Mediterranean Sea. And if anyone throughout history was up to the task, it was the Ottoman fleet. In the previous 100 years the Ottoman navy never lost a major battle. The Ottomans were well trained, with superb morale, fresh from a string of conquests all along the coasts of the Mediterranean and across the globe. Previous attempts to check the Ottomans at sea were crushed utterly. The Ottoman navy was all but unstoppable, and it was gobbling up Christian holdings in the eastern Mediterranean.
Ottoman naval operations stretched into the Atlantic, with regions as distant as Scandinavia targeted for raids. Ottoman ships even visited the coasts of North America. To the East, the Ottomans prowled the Indian Ocean, rolling back Portuguese colonial gains and making their presence felt as far as Indonesia.
The Ottoman navy was a true global threat. Everyone living near the coast from the East Indies to Jamestown, Virginia and as far north as the Faroe Islands lived under the oar of the Ottoman fleet.
The Ottomans had to be stopped. No one kingdom could hope to match the sheer size of the Muslim fleet. So Pope St. Pius V took it upon himself to summon the Christian nations of Europe to war. Spain, the Republic of Venice and the Knights of Malta were among those who answered the call.
This was a thoroughly Catholic operation, so the combined nations titled their task force "The Holy League," and it was placed under the command of Don John of Austria, a pious and capable leader.
The Holy League's initial mandate was to rescue the besieged Venetians on Cyprus, but they were too late to save them.
The Venetians had held out manfully for a year. Holed up in their last stronghold at Famagusta, fewer than 10,000 Catholics checked the advance of 250,000 Turks, and surrendered only after being promised safe passage by the Muslims. When the terms were agreed on, the tiny garrison had inflicted 50,000 casualties on the Muslims and had been reduced to merely 900 men.
The promise of safe passage was not kept and a slaughter of Christians ensued. The Venetian commander had his ears and nose cut off and then was flayed alive. The treatment of the Christians in Cyprus left the Holy League no illusions about their fate should they be taken alive.
The gallant Venetians had lost Cyprus but probably won all of Europe. By tying up enormous numbers of Ottoman troops, they bought time for the Holy League to assemble a fleet.
Together, Christendom combined could muster up little more than 200 warships to challenge the Turkish fleet that numbered 250 strong — not equal terms, but it was a force that would not be ridiculously outmatched, either. The outnumbered and divided task force had their work cut out for them.
Stepping aboard a warship in 1571 to sail against the Turks took nerve. Naval warfare in the 16th century is vastly different from our own time. Even as far back as the battle of Jutland in 1916, it was considered point-blank range when British and German Dreadnoughts drifted within four miles of each other, mere specks on the horizon.
In 1571, naval combat was up close and very personal. The ships were primarily galleys, powered by hundreds of rowers and armed with a ram, crude cannons and musketeers or archers.
Combat would open at very close range. Ships had to press hard to bring their inaccurate weapons to bear. The archer's bow, too, was limited by the strength of the man pulling the string. The absolute maximum range to begin to consider firing with the big guns would be 500 yards. But since a captain would have about one good volley before closing to "knife fight" distances, an artillery duel between two vessels might occur within 100 yards, or about the distance of a football field. Catholic gunners and Muslim archers literally were individually taking each other head on.
A galley's primary weapon was its ram and its marines. Entire formations would collide as one and the rams would lock together. Marines would swarm across the bow of the ship and the battle would enter its most deadly phase: boarding.
Boarding actions by marines were gruesome, even by Medieval and Renaissance standards. In the cramped confines of a ship, with nowhere to retreat, the melee became particularly desperate. A good analogy would be to imagine two scorpions fighting each other to the death in a closed jar. Catholic sailors and marines would be fighting Ottoman Janissaries man to man. Meanwhile, nearby ships would feed more men into the meatgrinder. A boarding action could involve dozens of galleys and thousands of men from both sides.
On October 7, 1571, the two fleets encountered each other off the coast of a Greek town named Nafpaktos, known to the Venetians as Lepanto.
Political differences among those in the Holy League meant that Don John had to strike immediately before the alliance fell apart. The Ottomans had direct orders to engage the Catholic fleet from the sultan, and were eager to smash the coalition. It was now or never.
The night before, Don John led the fleet in praying the Rosary, and reminded his crews, "There is no Paradise for cowards." This was the last Rosary that many of his men would ever pray, and it doubtlessly helped steel their nerves for the coming fight.
The Duke of Wellington described the battle of Waterloo as "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life." This could equally apply to Lepanto.
The fighting technically started on the morning of October 7 in Rome. Pius V led an all-day Rosary procession through the streets, and all across Europe Catholics hit the beads. Their prayers would be answered.
Contact between the two fleets occurred at midday.
At first, the wind favored the Turks, as it was coming from behind their fleet. But suddenly, the wind reversed itself and began to blow into the faces of the Turks, and the Holy League found the wind to be at their backs. Being upwind of the enemy gives a fleet several advantages known collectively as the weather gauge. The Christian fleet was able to use their cannon more effectively and ram their opponents with more energy. The Turks would also have the sea spray in their eyes, a minor nuisance on a pleasure cruise, but the difference between life and death when trying to calculate range, steer a warship, or swing a scimitar at a Catholic marine's head. Our Lady had made her move.
On the left end of the Holy League's battle line, the Catholics were initially outflanked by a squadron of Ottoman vessels, but the Holy League was able to twist the situation to their advantage and trap the Turks between them and the shoreline.
The center of the line quickly became a hornet's nest. The Holy League created a picket line of brand new ships packed with cannon out in front of the main fleet. The Ottomans mistook them for lightly armed vessels and tried to take them head on. Catholic gunners took a murderous toll on the Turkish galleys and disrupted their attack formations.
As the Holy League's gunners chewed through Ottoman squadrons, the flagships of each fleet challenged each other directly. The two ships rammed each other and the boarding action seesawed back and forth. Don John personally managed to take the Ottoman flagship only after storming it three times with his marines. The Turkish admiral was killed instantly by a lucky musket ball. His head was lopped off and hung from the prow, and the prized Islamic banner was wrestled away from the Ottoman crew. Both these events broke the spirit of the Turks.
Crisis erupted on the Holy League's right when the Ottomans expertly exploited a gap in the League's lines. But the League had shrewdly kept a reserve of ships and threw them into the fray, narrowly warding off disaster.
As the battled raged, signs of divine favor for the Holy League abounded. At one point during the battle, a crucifix mounted on the ship literally dodged an Ottoman cannonball. Another crucifix shattered a sword that was being used to deface it. Meanwhile, the Ottomans seemed to be cursed with bad luck.
By four in the afternoon, owing to the bad wind, the psychological shock of losing their admiral and sacred banner, the superiority of Catholic artillery and quick thinking on both of the Holy League's flanks, the Ottoman fleet was spent. Unfortunately, the Holy League was not, and turned the retreat into a rout. The Ottoman fleet was decimated and barely a fifth of its fleet survived.
That very day Pius V was shown a vision by Our Lady herself showing the victory, and he called for prayers of gratitude to be said. This was over a week before any word of the victory could have reached the Vatican.
The roughly five hours of fighting at Lepanto were savage by any standard. The Ottomans took almost 30,000 casualties, while the Holy League took around 10,000 killed, wounded or missing. That equates to more than 100 casualties a minute.
The Holy League's ship losses were relatively light: only 17 vessels lost.
The vaunted Ottoman fleet was completely shattered. Fifty ships were sunk outright. Almost three times that number were captured. But there's more in a navy than ships. Trained personnel are key to any fleet, and the vessels of the time, which were powered by a combination of oar and sail, are much more difficult to sail than modern ships today. The Turkish fleet's manpower was gutted at Lepanto.
More importantly, Lepanto was a devastating psychological blow from which the Ottomans never recovered. The Turks themselves recognized the hand of God and grumbled that Allah had turned his face from them. For the Catholics, it was an overwhelming divine endorsement of their cause. Furthermore, Lepanto showed that the Turks could be beaten, even if the odds were tilted in their favor. Punctuating the psychological boost was the rescue of 12,000 Christian slaves that were forced to row in Ottoman vessels.
The Turkish navy rebuilt itself rapidly but became very gun-shy in the next few decades. While Christian holdings in southeast Europe kept falling to the Turks, the imminent danger of a seaborne invasion of the West was removed permanently.
Throughout Europe, the victory was universally hailed as a direct result of the intervention of Our Lady. Today's feast was established in gratitude for her intercession, and she was given the title Queen of Victory. And that's why 444 years later, Masses across the world are being offered in honor of the Queen of victory.