This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Enemy in Sight at Lepanto
Even before 1000 AD the Muslim powers pressured Europe. The invasion of Spain, then of France, constant raids on Italy, the repulse of the Crusades, the conquest of the Balkans and then in recent memory the conquest of Constantinople — all of this made the Muslim powers a threat to the European mind. Naval superiority in the Mediterranean was a foundation of that threat.
After the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent the Muslim Powers’ threat was worse than ever. In 1570 Spain, Venice, and the Papal States formed The Holy League to fight the threat. Their combined fleet was placed under the command of Don John of Austria, a Spanish soldier, illegitimate son of Charles V.
Stirling-Maxwell is the authoritative historian of his remarkable career. Sir William’s account of the important victory near Lepanto is one of our most interesting examples of military narration.
This selection is from Don John of Austria by Sir William Stirling-Maxwell published in 1883. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Place: Gulf of Patras
The Gulf of Lepanto is a long inlet of irregular shape, extending east and west, and bounded on the north by the shores of Albania, the ancient Epirus, and on the south by the coast of Morea, and closed at its eastern end by the Isthmus of Corinth. The bold headland on the north side, guarded by the castle of Roumelia, and the lower promontory on the south with the castle of the Morea, advancing from the opposite shores into its waters, divide the long inlet into two unequal parts. The first of these parts consists of the mouth of the gulf and the lake-like basin, together forming the Gulf of Patras. The second is the long reach of waters within the castled headlands called the Gulf (anciently) of Corinth, and now of Epakte or Lepanto. When the hostile fleets came in sight of each other, that of the League was entering the gulf near its northern shore, while that of the Turk was about fifteen miles within its jaws, his vast crescent-shaped line stretching almost from the broad swampy shallows which lie beneath the Acarnanian mountains to the margin of the rich lowlands of the Morea.
As the two armaments now advanced, each in full view of the other, the sea was somewhat high, and the wind, blowing freshly from the east, was in the teeth of the Christians. But in the course of the morning the waves of the gulf fell to a glassy smoothness, and the breeze shifted to the west, a change fortunate for the sailors of the League, which their spiritual teachers did not fail to declare a special interposition of God in behalf of the fleet which carried the flag of his vicar upon earth.
At the sound of the signal gun each captain began to prepare his ship for action. By order of Don John of Austria the sharp peaks of the galleys, the spurs (espolones) as they were called, had been cut off, it being thought expedient to sacrifice those weapons of offence, which were somewhat uncertain in their operation, to insure the more effectual working of the guns on the forecastle and gangway; and the bulwarks had been strengthened, and heightened by means of boarding-nettings. In some vessels the rowers’ benches were removed or planked over, to give more space and scope to the soldiers. Throughout the fleet the Christian slaves had their fetters knocked off and were furnished with arms, which they were encouraged to use valiantly by promises of freedom and rewards. Of the Moslem slaves, on the contrary, the chains which secured them to their places were carefully examined, and their rivets secured; and they were, besides, fitted with handcuffs, to disable them from using their hands for any purpose but tugging on the oar. The arquebusier, the musketeer, and the bombardier looked carefully to the state of their weapons, ammunition, and equipments; the sailor sharpened his pike and cutlass; the officer put on his strongest casque and his best-wrought cuirass; the stewards placed supplies of bread and wine in convenient places, ready to the hands of the combatants; and the surgeons prepared their instruments and bandages, and spread tables in dark and shaded nooks, for the use of the wounded.
While these preparations occupied their subordinate officers, the chiefs of the armament repaired to the flag-ship to learn the final resolution and receive the last instructions of Don John of Austria. Some of these went for the purpose of combating that resolution and objecting to those instructions; for that eagerness to fight, which pervaded the soldiers and sailors, was not unanimously shared by their leaders. Veniero, although he had been hitherto very desirous of meeting the enemy, was now anxious and dispirited. Doria and Ascanio de la Corgnia reminded their young commander that the Turk, who was evidently bent upon fighting, had a convenient harbor and arsenal behind him at Lepanto; while for the fleet of the League, far from accessible ports, a disaster implied total destruction. Some of their colleagues ventured to advise Don John to retire while it was still in his power to do so. He refused to discuss a question which had been decided at Corfu. “Gentlemen,” he said, “the time for counsel is past, and the time for fighting has come,” and with these words dismissed them to their ships.
While the galleys were taking up their positions, Don John of Austria, in complete armor and attended by Don Luis de Cordoba and his secretary Juan de Soto, transferred himself to a frigate remarkable for speed and armed with a single German gun, and ran along the line to the right of the flag-ship, embracing the whole extent of the right wing. As he neared each galley he addressed a few words of encouragement to the officers and men. He reminded the Venetians of the cruel outrages which the Republic had lately received from the Turk in the Adriatic, Corfu, and especially in Cyprus; and that now was the time to take signal vengeance; and he therefore bid them use their weapons as these recollections and the great opportunity required. To the Spaniards he said: “My children, we are here to conquer or to die as Heaven may determine. Do not let our impious foe ask us, ‘Where is your God?’ Fight in his holy name, and in death or victory you will win immortality.” His words were eminently successful. They were in all cases received with enthusiastic applause. The soldiers and sailors were delighted and inspired by the gallant bearing and language of their young leader. As he left them, shipmates who had quarreled as only shipmates can, and who had not spoken for weeks, embraced, and swore to conquer or to die in the sacred cause of Christ.
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