Today we give special thanks to Our Lady whose intercession led the armada of the Holy League to victory over the Ottoman fleet on October 7, 1571, at the mouth of what the Venetians called the Bay of Lepanto but what we today call the Gulf of Patras.
My good friends at Catholic Answers in San Diego published my account of the battle in their fine magazine, This Rock, which you can read here.
You can also order my three-lecture CD set on the battle and on G.K. Chesterton’s magnificent ballad celebrating the event here.
Folks who know me, my family included, probably find me a little hard to tolerate around October 7 since the event is one of my chief enthusiasms. On the walls of my office hang drawings of the 1:1 scale replica of Don John of Austria’s galley, Real, that is the glory of the Barcelona Maritime Museum.
In Barcelona’s cathedral hangs the crucifix from Don John’s galley, the corpus of which twisted during the battle to dodge a Turkish cannonball. In defiance of a sign forbidding photography, I snapped a picture of the crucifix when the Checks were there this time last year, prompting my wife Jacqueline to ask me if I thought I was special. “The sign does not apply to those of us who appreciate what we are looking at,” I told her, though, of course, she was right.
In any case, the moment in the battle that occupies my imagination this year took place just before Don John of Austria’s flagship, in a break with naval convention, directly engaged the Ottoman flagship Sultana. As the galleys closed and were about to collide, Don John, known throughout Christendom as a great dancer, broke into a galliard on the prow of his vessel. Imagine the 24-year-old captain general, consumed with anticipation of the impending clash, leaping and landing by the bow cannons and the cheer the sight of his manifest thrill must have sent throughout his soldiers. Seconds later, Spanish infantry, the world’s finest, would board Sultana, Don John himself leading the third charge and receiving, and brushing off, a wound to the leg that moments before was dancing.
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? In fact, we should expect nothing less from a Christian soldier staring at the face of evil. As Chesterton puts it in Book I of the Ballad of the White Horse:
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.
The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.
From Alfred the Great reduced to a marshy island the size of a football field, to Christopher Columbus reading aloud the Last Gospel every night at the bow of Santa Maria, to Thomas More cracking jokes on his approach to the shambles, to Don John dancing with sword drawn about to give battle, to the Carmelites of Compiègne singing at the scaffold, Christians have ever gone “gaily into the dark.” Why? Because they are possessed of the joy that comes from freedom. And the men of the East are not. They are, instead, slaves to fate.
Voltaire tried to argue that Lepanto was not decisive, and Michael Novak has tried to argue that the battle was a triumph of Venetian capitalism. Both men, working from the same revolutionary script, could not be more wrong. What was 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 fate. 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, so 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,” writes Chesterton,
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? Fate. 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.
Free Athenians repelling the servile Persians at Marathon and Salamis, and free Spartans joking that they will have their fight in the shade because the Persian’s “shafts benight the air”, as Housman put it, are also part of this merry band of western warriors who stood down the dark riddles of the East. From Dienekes to Don John of Austria, we thank them all today. Christendom looks less and less like Christendom each day, but that should not deter us from following these men gaily into the dark.