“Don John of Austria is going to the war.” G. K. Chesterton’s stirring line rings out from his poem “Lepanto,” bringing us back 450 years to that fateful October 7, 1571. Many renowned authors have written about this incredible day, when the small but determined Holy League defeated the mighty Turkish navy in a tremendous sea battle.
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
And the masterful Anthony Esolen brings the dire situation to life for us in an essay for How the Church Changed the World:
We are on board the royal ship of the Christian fleet, off the port of Lepanto, on October 7, 1571. The pope had ordered that all the men aboard should be shriven before battle, and should pray the rosary. Strict discipline must be maintained. No coarse or blasphemous language; no grumbling; no excess of meat or drink. Don John was meeting with the other chiefs. What should they do? The weather was poor, and they appeared to be outnumbered, and the Turk had long been master of the sea. Many of the chiefs recommended delay, to wait for a more propitious time.
“My lord,” said one of the admirals, “I am not a learned man, nor can I tell the future, but Peter has commanded the attack, and I will put my trust in him!”
“So be it then!” said Don John. “We will attack!”
The courage and conviction pouring forth from these writers is compelling and should be read in full. But with so many perspectives to this incredible battle, a key one should not be forgotten. In the Catholic tradition, today marks the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, originally honored under the title of Our Lady of Victories, a celebration instated by Pope Pius V. We believe that it was through her intercession that this great battle, this mighty contest which changed the course of European and world history, was won by Don John and his compatriots. October is the month of the Rosary, a beautiful devotion you, and anyone else who is interested, can learn more about here.