How Our Lady Saved Christendom

Before the famous Battle of Lepanto, one man, at least, saw the danger with great clarity; as the Turkish menace moved ever westward in 1570, Pope St. Pius contacted the chief rulers of the West to unite against an enemy that threatened them all. In vain. Elizabeth of England? “The cold queen of England is looking in the glass,” as Chesterton would write in his famous epic poem “Lepanto,” absorbed in herself, her rivalry with Spain, her intricate diplomacy, and her persecution of Catholics.

France? “The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass.” France at this time was actually a sometime-ally of the Turks, and in the 1570s the country was torn by religious warfare and ruled by the unstable Charles IX, one of a series of sickly sons of the Machiavellian Queen Mother, Marie de Medici. Even Philip II of Spain, champion of the Catholic cause against the Protestants, was much occupied with his new American empire and did not answer the papal summons in person.

Don Juan of Austria

He did, however, send his half-brother, Don Juan of Austria, a young man in his twenties, as well as dozens of ships. Once in Italy, Don Juan was joined by volunteers from all the Mediterranean countries and set about assembling a fleet in 1571. He managed to get about 208 ships (some eighty fewer than in the Turkish fleet), mainly contributed by the Papal States, Spain, and Venice, with a few from other Italian states. The allied states came to be known as the Holy League.

On  the  flagship of the  Genoese admiral, Giovanni  Andrea Doria, was a curious picture that Philip II of Spain had sent him.

Philip had received it from the archbishop of Mexico, who had commissioned it as a copy of the mysterious image of Mary that had appeared in 1531 on the cloak of an Aztec Indian. The archbishop, hearing the news from Europe of the Turkish offensives and the scramble to  organize an  effective defense, must have thought of the many miracles already associated with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. When the copy was finished, he touched it to the original and sent it to the king, advising him to have it displayed on one of the ships of the Holy League, in the hope of victory. Pope St. Pius was also seeking our Lady’s aid, through the recitation of the Rosary, which he asked all of Europe to pray for a successful outcome of the Christian offensive. When the ships set out from the Sicilian port of Messina on September 16, 1571, all of the men had rosaries too.

The great battle

In Rome, Pope Pius had been meeting with his treasurer. Suddenly he rose, went to the window, and stood gazing intently at the sky. Then, turning, he said, “This is not a moment for business; make haste to thank God, because our fleet this moment has won a victory over the Turks.” The day was October 7, 1571, and what the pope apparently saw in vision — for the news could not possibly have reached him by natural  means — was what has since been called the greatest sea battle since the Battle of Actium (between the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, on the one side, and Octavian on the other) in 31 BC.

Naval historians have analyzed it extensively, describing the maneuvering of the two fleets and the various tactics and weap- onry used, and several websites provide maps and pictures as well as details. I will not go into the technical questions here, but a few points should be mentioned.

The Turkish fleet was anchored in the Gulf of Corinth as the allied fleet approached. It probably outnumbered the Christian fleet, but the number of combatants seems to have been about equal; perhaps 30,000 on each side. The Christians had the considerable advantage of possessing six galleasses; these were larger than galleys and had side-mounted cannon — as opposed to the front-mounted cannons of the galleys. This allowed them to inflict great damage on any ship that came broadside to them.

Some accounts say that as the fleets came within fighting distance of each other, early in the morning of October 7, the wind favored the Turks and blew their ships forward against the Christian vessels. Then  the wind shifted, and Don John’s ships were able to draw close to the enemy. This was necessary, because sixteenth-century  naval warfare included hand-to-hand  fighting on the decks as well as bombardment by cannons and arrows.

Thus the Christian victory at Lepanto would be dearly bought. In Chesterton’s graphic words:


Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop

Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop

Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds. . . .

The sea was red with blood for miles around the battle site, when by the late afternoon of October 7, it was all over. The Holy League lost about 8,000 men and at least double that  number wounded, but only a dozen ships. Around the same number of Turks died, but thousands more were captured, fifty ships were sunk, and at least 117 vessels were captured.

An unforeseen development was the rising up, from the depths of the Turkish galleys, of several thousand Christian slaves who had been  forced to  row the  ships. Chesterton   describes the “Thronging of the thousands up that labor under sea, White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty. Vivat Hispania! Domino Gloria! Don John of Austria has set his people free.”

One famous Spaniard who fought in this battle, the author Cervantes, serves as a symbol in the final verses of the great poem:

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath

(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)

And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,

Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,

And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade.

(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

When the news reached Europe, there was general relief, rejoicing, and thanksgiving. As for Pope Pius, he gave credit where it was due, declaring October 7 the Feast of Our Lady of Victory; it was later changed to the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary — a name it still bears.

 A story without an end

The overwhelming significance of this great battle, the climax of the long Christian resistance to Muslim conquest, was that it ended any major Turkish attacks on the Mediterranean. The decimated Ottoman fleet would be partially rebuilt, and one or two islands and African coastal areas would later fall to Turkish attack, but never again would the Mediterranean be in such serious peril from the Turks as it had been before October 7, 1571. Spain would not be reinvaded by the Moors, and the rest of the southern shores of Christendom would be safe. One of the two main pathways to conquering Europe for Allah had been cut off for good.

True, the Ottoman armies were still intact, and in the following century would mount one last campaign against Vienna. It would be their downfall. From the successful defense of Vienna, Christian armies would go on to roll back Turkish conquests from Hungary and much of the Balkans, although a few areas would not be liberated until the earlier twentieth century. With the help of Mary, as both Our Lady of Victory and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Christian saints and heroes of the sixteenth century had begun that liberation.

This article has been adapted from Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know by Diane Moczar, available from Sophia Institute Press.

Diane Moczar


Diane Moczar, Ph.D., serves as an adjunct professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College. Her articles have appeared in various publications such as Triumph, Smithsonian, Catholic Digest, and National Review. She is the author of Islam at the Gates, about Europe's wars with Ottoman Turks, Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know, and Seven Lies About Catholic History. She earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and history at the Francisco College for Women, as well as a master's degree at Columbia University. Dr. Moczar also completed her doctoral work at the Catholic University and George Mason University.

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  • BillinJax

    How can one doubt or deny the power of our Mother Mary and
    her ability to intercede for us? What a wonderful account of church history
    which should bring all of us to our knees on this Oct. 7 when it is clear throughout
    the world that our faith is under attack by the forces of evil both seen and
    Thank you Diane
    God Bless

  • jenny

    excellent article !!!

  • samhille

    We fly to your patronage, O Holy Mother of God. Despise not our prayers in our necessities, but deliver us from all dangers, O glorious and ever blessed Virgin; Pray for us.

  • Daniele

    In his famous vision of the future victory of the
    Church over her enemies, St. John Bosco saw the Pope tie the church to two
    columns. One had our Lady on top with the word “Lepanto” written underneath.
    The other had the Eucharist on top. When the Pope accomplished this, the enemy
    boats in the vision were sunk both due to a storm and the ongoing battle. There
    are those who believe that Pope John Paul II was the pope of this vision.
    Although he was “killed,” afterwards, by the intercession of Our Lady of FATIMA
    (n.b. reference to the name of Mohammed’s daughter), the Pope is “resurrected”
    to take up his job anew. If Pope John Paul was in fact the pope of the dream,
    the tying of the Church would have been the year dedicated to Our Lady of the
    Rosary and the other year dedicated to the Eucharist. Without a doubt, since
    then the Muslim “fleet” has descended into chaos and confusion (e.g. the Arab
    spring and the Shiite-Sunni conflict).

  • Adrian Johnson

    I would agree with your last sentence except that the Arab Spring, etc. has caused a “Christian Autumn”, — horrific numbers of Christian martyrs and refugees.
    Triumphalism re the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart, as of this writing, looks premature.

  • KarenJo12

    Minor point: the French Queen Mother at this time was Catherine de Medici.

  • U.S. Catholic

    How about the defeat of the Spanish Armada ? Why do we in the Catholic church never seem to see the hand of God in that, although it was there in the form of natural elements and perhaps other ways as well. Why is Spain always the good guy and Britian the bad guy ? Evidently the Lord didn’t wish England to be re-conquered by force for the faith. Spain did try that in the New World with the native Americans. As far at the English go I guess Spain thought the military tactics they felt they needed to rid themselves of Islam were also appropriate for fellow Christians, “heretics” (Protestants) though they might have been.

  • ann

    Wonderful article. I used to teach “Lepanto” as a side piece to doing “Man of La Mancha”–a way to introduce high school students to Cervantes and Don Quixote and Chesterton. I loved teaching that unit. I had not known of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Wow.

  • Don Juan

    Sancta Maria Victoriae, ora pro nobis

  • Donald Link

    A brief comment of interest: Don Jaun was not a paticularly saintly person.he fact that God chose him to lead the Christian fleet is one of the mysteries of the battle but it is worth noting that sometime God uses the means at hand to achieve an end. Just a thought.

  • Tom Mellon

    Perhaps the true heroes or martyrs of Lepanto are the Christian slaves who refused to row.