The Ottoman Empire suffered a setback that marked the beginning of its decline

Battle of Lepanto: this was the Ottoman defeat before a coalition led by Spain in 1571

It was one of the most decisive battles in the history of Europe, as it marked the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Today marks the 451th anniversary of that feat.

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Turkish hegemony in the Mediterranean in the mid-sixteenth century

A century after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 to the Turks, the Ottoman Empire, allied with France, had become the hegemonic power in the Mediterranean. In 1570 the island of Cyprus fell, which it had been conquered by the Christians during the Crusades at the end of the 12th century. It was the final collapse of all that remained of the Crusader States in the Middle East. It was a harsh blow to Christianity.

Don Juan of Austria, brother of King Philip II of Spain, was the generalissimo of the Holy League in the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks (Painting by Alonso Sánchez Coello).

The formation of the Holy League with the support of Spain

After that defeat, Pope Saint Pius V proposed the formation of a Holy League to stop the Turks. The King of Spain, Philip II, agreed to join it, and his brother Don Juan de Austria would be the commander of the Christian squadron, which would also have troops from the Papal States, the Republics of Venice and Genoa, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Savoy and the Order of Malta, among others, adding more than 300 ships and 91,000 men. Despite the efforts of the Pope, Austria, France and Portugal gave the back to this company. France, instead of helping the other Christian kingdoms, preferred to ally with the Turks in an attempt to weaken her great rival, which was Spain.

The Holy League chose the port of Messina, in Sicily (then part of the Spanish Empire), as a meeting place for the fleet, which arrived in the summer of 1571. Together with Generalissimo Juan de Austria there were three general captains: the Spaniards Álvaro de Bazán and Juan de Cardona and the Genoese Andrea Doria. The Christian fleet put to sea on September 15, sailing in demand from the Gulf of Taranto. The most abundant type of ship was the galley, propelled by sail and oars and used since ancient times in the Mediterranean by the Greeks and Romans. On September 30, the fleet arrived at the Albanian port of Leguminizi, from where, after supplying supplies, it left at dawn on October 3. The Turkish fleet, made up of almost 300 ships, had concentrated in the port of Lepanto (the current Greek city of Naupactus), forming a crescent, the symbol of Islam.

The order of battle at Lepanto. On the left the Christian fleet, and on the right the Turkish (Painting by Ignazio Danti).

The spiritual aid to the Christian fleet and the sudden change of wind

To provide spiritual assistance to the Christian forces, Pope Saint Pius V convened a public rosary for the success of the Holy League and prayed it throughout the day on the day the battle was fought. Christian sailors and soldiers, at the request of the Pope, also prayed the rosary before going into combat. At the moment of entering into battle, the wind suddenly changed direction and began to blow from the west, favoring the Christians, a fact that they interpreted as divine intervention in their favor.

On October 7, the Christian and Muslim fleets met off Lepanto. The fleet of the Holy League was made up of three groups: in the center, the one led by Generalissimo Don Juan de Austria; to the north, the group led by the Venetian admiral Agostino Barbarigo, and to the south the group led by the Genoese Andrea Doria. Following Don Juan de Austria's group, there were also two smaller groups of reserve ships, captained by Álvaro de Bazán and Juan de Cardona.

The Spanish Tercios had a very prominent role in the Battle of Lepanto, thanks to the use of their pikes (Juan Luna's painting).

A storm of fire and steel over the Ottomans

The Turkish fleet tried unsuccessfully to surround the Christian one. The clash between the two fleets was brutal, and a bloody battle broke out on the decks of the ships with shots and smoke from cannons, arquebuses and muskets, together with the war cries and laments of the fighters. The Spanish Tercios, numbering more than 20,000 men, played a decisive role in the battle with their pikes, sweeping away the Ottoman forces. For the Muslims, the battle was as if a storm of fire and steel had fallen on them: for every Christian killed in combat, the Turks had four killed, and also lost 200 ships, compared to only 13 Christian ships. they lost. In addition, 12,000 Christians were released from captivity as galley slaves by the Turks.

Miguel de Cervantes, author of "Don Quixote", was wounded in the left hand in the battle (Painting by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau).

Some famous names of that battle

Among the 8,000 Christian wounded there was a Spaniard, a native of Alcalá de Henares, named Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who was crippled in his left hand. In 1605 he published a work that would make him world famous: "Don Quixote". Don Juan de Austria covered his name with glory, as did Álvaro de Bazán, who had a prominent and decisive role in the Christian victory. Another famous Spanish soldier born in Rome also fought in Lepanto: Alejandro Farnesio, nephew of Philip II and who years later would become one of the most famous commanders of the Spanish Tercios in Flanders.

The Royal Galley that transported Generalissimo Juan de Austria at the Battle of Lepanto (Painting by José Ferré Clauzel).

The origin of the day of the Virgin of the Rosary

In memory of the victory of Lepanto, Pope Saint Pius V established the feast of Our Lady of Victories on the first Sunday of October, a celebration that in 1573 his successor, Pope Gregory XIII, > moved definitively to October 7, naming it the Virgen del Rosario. A festive day that is celebrated year after year by a force that played a very prominent role in that battle: the Spanish Marine Infantry, created in 1537 and which Today it is the oldest in the world.

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