The Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto commenced between the roughly equal number of men and ships off the coast of Corinth, Greece, after a traditional and formalized ceremony.   Both Muslims and Christians had about 30,000 men and slightly over two hundred vessels each. The lines of ships faced one another, one side firing one cannon shot.  If the enemy wished to engage in battle, one of its ships would fire two cannon shots.  At Lepanto, the Turks fired the first shot.  The Christians answered immediately, singing psalms together as they sailed forward to engage the enemy; then the battle descended into carnage and chaos, as one can imagine when, as in those days, it was basically sword wielding warriors fighting from ship to ship.

The exact statistics are not known, but estimates put the Christian loss at seventeen ships and seventy-five hundred men.  The losses on the Turkish side were stupendous — as many as thirty thousand men dead, fifteen ships sunk, one hundred seventy-seven captured and the others burned or run aground.  In addition, fifteen thousand Christian slaves, whom the Turks had chained in the galleys as rowers, were set free. (Note: Nearly four centuries later, the great G. K. Chesterton would write stirring lines commemorating those Christian slaves who were freed from the galleys in his moving poem, “Lepanto.”)

Lepanto was the culmination of recurrent Muslim incursions into Europe starting in the early eighth century.  The news of the great victory by Catholic forces caused Pius V to declare the feast of Our Lady of Victory on this date.  When the Turkish Sultan learned of the death of the holy pope less than a year after the battle, he ordered three days of public rejoicing! An interesting aside for trivia lovers is that the great Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, later to write one of the world’s literary masterpieces, Don Quixote de la Mancha, participated in Lepanto, and lost a hand for his efforts.

(Sister Mary Peter and Gary Potter both have articles that discuss this important battle.)