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Lepanto, 450 Years Later: Hope for Christendom in Crisis by Imre von Habsburg-Lothringen

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Essay

Lepanto, 450 Years Later:
Hope for Christendom in Crisis

The bottom half of the "Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto" (1571), 169 x 137 cm oil on canvas by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), located in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Venice.

Photo: Public Domain.

The Battle of Lepanto was one of the most decisive battles in European history. It is remembered as such in my family, not only because of its extraordinary technical achievement but also for its miraculous and providential aspects, and the long-lasting impact it has had on Europe. What was at stake, in short, was no less than the survival of Christianity, and the defence of Europe’s spiritual and cultural heritage.

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the battle. It is, therefore, an opportunity to reflect on the importance of Lepanto—not only for its time but for our moment in history—and to ask ourselves what lessons our ancestors can teach us: why did they risk their lives to engage in this combat? What kind of world did they hope to preserve, build, and pass on?

A call to unity

In May 1571, Pope Pius V officially proclaimed the establishment of the Holy League. That was, in itself, a challenge as Europe at the time was divided and in no position of power. The Habsburg Emperor Charles V, who had died several years earlier, had divided his enormous empire in two, creating a Spanish Habsburg line and a German-Austrian Habsburg line.

By the time of Lepanto, King Philip II ruled in Spain and his cousin Emperor Maximilian had succeeded Ferdinand II as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. While Maximilian had struck a peace treaty with the Ottomans back in 1568, his cousin Philip of Spain granted no concessions to the Ottomans and saw the Islamic forces as a threat to his kingdoms and to all of Europe.

The King of France, Charles IX, was not an ally of the Habsburgs. He inherited from his grandfather—the famous François I—the century-long competition between both families. Charles IX preferred to bargain with the Ottomans over trade to “buy” peace, and considered this new conflict in the Mediterranean an opportunity to further weaken his two Habsburg neighbours, the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Kingdom.

Adding to this political division, Europe experienced a strong spiritual and religious division. By 1540, the Reformation had spread to different parts of Europe. Despite the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 establishing a new set of rules for the peaceful coexistence of Protestants and Catholics, it became clear to the Ottomans that Europe would no longer fight as a single force. Now was the moment to strike.

Pope Pius V, conscious of the growing threat of a Muslim invasion, issued a powerful call to all Catholics to unite. From all over Europe, knights, soldiers, and courageous adventurers responded to the call and joined forces. Next to the Papal States, the Spanish Kingdom of Philip II provided half of the warships, and they were joined by Italians, Germans, Scandinavians, English, and Scottish contingents.

The supreme leadership of the fleet was given to Don Juan of Habsburg—better known as Don Juan de Austria—biological son of Emperor Charles V and younger brother of King Philip II of Spain. He was only 22 years old at the time but was already proficient in the art of war. Above all, he was determined to put an end to the Muslim forces in the Mediterranean. 

Don Juan was a religious man and considered this mission as coming from God. Furthermore, it was a natural way to continue in his now deceased father’s footsteps. Indeed, Charles V had seen the defence of Christian Europe as his raison d’être. On October 25, 1555, in Brussels, he proclaimed:

When I was 19, upon the emperor’s death, I undertook to be a candidate for the Imperial crown, not to increase my possessions but rather to engage myself more vigorously in … bringing peace among the Christian peoples and uniting their fighting forces for the defence of the Catholic faith against the Ottomans.

The Pope’s call to unity among Catholics was thus a challenge; but it worked and it brought together enough soldiers, sailors, vessels, and—above all—determination and courage to prepare for the great battle.

The long struggle over Europe

To grasp the significance of the Battle of Lepanto, it is important to consider the Three-hundred-year struggle between two world powers: the Habsburg-led Holy Roman Empire on the one side and the Ottoman Empire on the other—that is, Christianity on one side and Islam on the other. Both parties were monotheistic, but their conceptions of God and, in turn, their respective understandings of the human person were dramatically different.

Not only was Europe important for trading but it also possessed high culture and had tremendous influence on the world stage. Europe’s material and cultural wealth made it very attractive for conquest. Besides this motivation was the fact that in the Muslim tradition, once a territory had been conquered and then lost—as happened with several territories in southern Europe—it necessarily had to be re-conquered at any cost. Furthermore, by conquering Europe the Ottomans would conquer the very heart of Christendom.

After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans had become a powerful imperial power and conditions were soon right for expansion. The Muslim Empire had already gained a foothold in Europe—and this was only the beginning of a three-hundred-year struggle to advance further into Europe. The Battle of Lepanto was the turning point.

In 1520, when Suleiman I—known as “the Magnificent”—became Sultan, he made it his mission to conquer Christian Europe. A year later, Belgrade was taken, and in 1522 the Island of Rhodes was also occupied. But the Sultan had a more ambitious goal in mind: first, Vienna, known as the gateway to Western Europe; then, Rome, the heart of Christianity. But first his army had to make its way through the Great Hungarian Plain. The Sultan soon won the 1526 Battle of Mohacs, which marked the beginning of 150 years of Hungary’s occupation by the Ottomans. Buda and the eastern part of the Danube became Muslim. The western side of Hungary—known as “Royal Hungary”—had a new King elected by the Hungarian nobility: Ferdinand I of the House of Habsburg. 

This was the beginning of a four-hundred-year period during which my family had the honour of serving the Magyar Kingdom, providing no less than 19 kings. The last Hungarian king was my great grandfather, Charles or Karl I of Austria, crowned Károly IV in 1916 with the very same crown that the first Hungarian king, St. Stephen, had received from Pope Sylvester II in the year 1000. My great grandfather recalled this event as one of the most important moments in his life, considering his duty as king a commission from God and offering himself totally, even unto death. 

He was captured by Allied members of the Peace Conference after the First World War during an attempt to return to Hungary as the rightful king. He died several months later in poverty, far from his peoples in Central Europe but surrounded by his family and consoled by a deep sense of having accomplished his duty as Emperor and King. He saw in his death a higher meaning and told his wife, “I have to suffer so much so that one day, all my peoples can be united again.”

After the Hungarian conquest in 1526, Suleiman launched what would be another decisive battle for Europe: the 1529 Siege of Vienna. Ottoman success would not only mean further domination in Europe, but it would be a big blow to the eastern part of the Habsburg Empire. Suleiman came with no less than one hundred thousand men to attack the Austrian capital. Vienna was ill-prepared and had far less manpower but held out for two weeks. Defeat seemed close when, thankfully, terrible October weather made it impossible for the Ottomans to stay and feed their troops. Their retreat was a victory not only for the Viennese, not only for Austria, but for all of Christian Europe.

But Suleiman did not abandon his dream of European conquest and, despite his old age, he assembled a large army and again marched towards Vienna in 1566. While advancing successfully into Hungary, the Sultan died at age of 72 right before the Ottoman victory at the Battle of Szigetvár. Whilst this siege was a success, their huge losses—twenty thousand Ottomans dead—combined with the death of their Sultan meant that yet another siege of Vienna was abandoned.

Despite the death of Suleiman the Magnificent, the desire for conquest remained alive among the Ottomans, but it was not until more than a century years later that the Sultan Mehmet IV and his grand vizier attempted again to conquer Vienna.

“The Battle of Lepanto: The Fleets Approaching Each Other” (1572), fresco by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), located in Sala Regia in the Vatican.

Photo: Public Domain.

The Battle of Lepanto

Advancement through Hungary proved difficult, but the Mediterranean was another way to access Christian Europe, as well as to gain influence, enlarge territories, and spread Islam. In 1565, the Ottomans laid siege to Malta, and even though they finally lost and retreated, the battle showed the rest of Europe how great the Ottoman desire was to further expand their Muslim presence in Europe. Several islands were soon taken in the Aegean Sea. The Ottoman advance worried the Pope who understood that trade and territorial expansion were not their only motivations.

As already noted, for Muslims, lost territories must be re-conquered at any cost. This was the case for Cyprus, which had been under Ottoman rule back in the 8th and 9th centuries. Its loss was enough of a reason for Sultan Selim II to break the peace treaty he had with the Venetians and attack Cyprus at the Siege of Famagusta in 1570. The extraordinary siege lasted more than a year and it finally ended with the Venetian forces surrendering to the Ottomans on the condition that the soldiers and the population would be given safe passage to leave. 

These terms were not honoured and, once they had surrendered, thousands of Venetians were slaughtered, and young men and women were sent to Constantinople as slaves. The Venetian city commander, Marco Antonio Bragadin, signatory of the surrender agreement, had his ears and nose cut off, and was then tortured as he prayed the Miserere and invoked the name of Jesus. Finally, he was skinned to death in the piazza amid the taunts of Ottoman soldiers. The Cathedral of St. Nicholas became a mosque and all remaining settlers were banished from the island.

This humiliating and devastating defeat was the trigger for Pope Pius V to call for a union of Christian forces so that they might put an end to the growing Ottoman threat. Answering the call, members of the Holy League knew they were not only fighting for their countries but for their faith and their God, knowing well that a defeat would mean a rapid advance of the Muslim army into Southern Europe and eventually the conquest and fall of Christendom’s capital, Rome. The Pope explicitly asked that all Christians throughout the whole world join in prayer for victory in battle.

Don Juan himself led his men in prayer before the naval battle. Holy Masses were said and confessions for the soldiers were organized. Before the battle, Don Juan, wearing his Golden Fleece neck chain—the highest order in the Empire—sailed in a small boat from ship to ship, urging his men to fight for Christ and showing his own willingness to die in the endeavour if necessary.

On October 7, 1571, the two hundred Holy League vessels encountered the more powerful Ottoman fleet of three hundred vessels not far from the Lepanto shore, in modern-day Greece. For five hours, Muslim and Christian forces engaged in a savage battle. During the conflict, the Ottoman fleet lost 210 vessels and their supreme commander, Ali Pasha, was killed. Losses were considerable on both sides, but the Ottomans finally surrendered, and 15,000 enslaved Christian rowers on the remaining Ottoman vessels were freed.

During the battle, many ships carried a large crucifix. On the captain’s galley, La Real, a wooden crucifix was carried that today hangs in the Cathedral of Barcelona, ​​as well as an image of the Blessed Virgin that today is in Madrid’s Naval Museum.

Miguel de Cervantes—a Spanish soldier and the future author of the famous Don Quixote —was ill with severe fever, but he did not want to miss a battle that he described as “the most important opportunity to fight in centuries.” He lost his left arm “in honour of his right one,” as he later wrote. Bravery and heroism were at their highest!

There is a strange connection between the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico in 1531 and the Battle of Lepanto. According to the story of the apparition (which took place forty years before Lepanto), a woman appeared to a recently baptized Aztec peasant named Juan Diego and announced that she was the Mother of God. The miraculous image she left on Juan Diego’s cloak—or tilma—would help to usher in the largest mass conversion in history: four million souls. But Our Lady of Guadalupe was not just for the New World. The bishop of Mexico City made a copy of the painting, touched it to the original, and sent it to Don Juan so he could carry it on the flagship of his fleet. Thus, Our Lady, known as the “Empress of the Americas,” fought alongside her European sons at the Battle of Lepanto. Indeed, her presence there highlights the fact that Lepanto was never just about saving Europe but about saving Christendom itself—and defending its ability to proclaim Christ to all the nations of the Earth.

To thank the Blessed Virgin, to whom the people of Europe had prayed the Rosary and of whom victory had been requested so fervently, the Pope added the title Auxilium Christianorum to her litany and declared the day of victory—October 7—the feast of Our Lady of Victories. Later, this feast day was renamed in honour of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Another Ottoman attack

While the Mediterranean was now secured, the Ottomans would strike again. In July of 1683, the Battle of Vienna began when the city was surrounded by a large, powerful Muslim army coming for revenge. But again, just like the first Siege of Vienna, the Austrians defended the city as much as possible (including underground, as the Ottomans were digging tunnels to blow up the walls of the city). 

It is important to note the central role of prayer, and the spiritual and moral support given to the soldiers. The great Marcus d’Aviano, a Capuchin monk, was a powerful preacher who played a crucial role in uniting the powers of the Holy League against the Muslim threat and motivating exhausted soldiers along the walls of Vienna to hold fast against the Ottoman assault. In fact, Marcus d’Aviano, beatified in 2003 by St. Pope John Paul II, is venerated in my family. To this day, male family members (including myself) are given the name “Marcus d’Aviano” in memory of this important figure and his legacy.

After two months of fighting, the Austrians were exhausted. Only one or two days were left before the city would be conquered. Time was critical. At this moment, the Polish King, Jan III Sobieski, and his mighty and respected Winged Hussars appeared. He had left Poland entrusting the protection of his kingdom to the Virgin Mary (still, to this day, the Virgin Mary has the title of “Queen of Poland.”) The Poles were fervent Catholics, faithful to the Pope, and great defenders of the Holy Roman Empire.

King Sobieski and his army arrived near the gates of Vienna on the Kahlenberg, and on September 12, they launched an attack on the Ottomans, inflicting a terrible defeat. This victory was attributed to the bravery of the Austrian defenders, led by Field Marshal Count von Starhemberg, to the essential help of King Sobieski and the allied armies, but, above all, to the strong faith of the Christian soldiers, to whose God this victory is ultimately attributed. In the words of Sobieski himself, paraphrasing the famous phrase of Julius Caesar: “We came. We saw. God Conquered.” As with Lepanto, the Virgin Mary had been invoked throughout Europe during the Battle of Vienna. Afterwards, the Pope declared September 12th the Feast of the Sweet Name of Mary.

The victory at the Battle of Vienna can be seen as the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s stagnation and decline. During the 18th century, several battles enabled Austria and her allies to push the Muslim Empire further east, and in the process liberate Hungary and the Balkans. This culminated in the 1820s with the Greek War of Independence. Thus, starting with the siege of Vienna in 1525, the 300-year Habsburg-Ottoman struggle finally came to an end. 

A 16th century painting of the Battle of lepanto, from the collection of De Agostini Editorial.

Photo: Courtesy of DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI via Getty Images.

Lepanto’s lesson for our time

Four hundred and fifty years after Lepanto, Europe faces a profound crisis of identity and faith. Like the Europe of the 16th century, Europe today is profoundly ill-prepared to deal with pandemics, immigration, growing nationalism, and religious conflicts. Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher, has even spoken about a “civilizational crisis.” 

One reason for this crisis is that we appear to easily forget (or even reject) our heritage, our roots, our history—even our very recent history. Indeed—as our late head of the family, my great-uncle Otto used to say—if we ignore or reject where we come from, then how can we know where we are going, as we do not know where we are or who we are. It is essential that Europe “rediscovers its soul” in order to regain its identity and better discern its vocation.

At the time of Lepanto, despite Europe’s lack of political and religious unity, Don Juan, Pope Pius V, the leaders of the Holy League, and its many soldiers and sailors all knew that the battle was a pivotal moment for the Church, for their Christian heritage, their civilization, and their very identity. If Europe’s identity is to be rediscovered and reaffirmed in our own time, it is fundamental to unite around Europe’s vocation—which is to live up to the faith it received two thousand years ago and communicate it to the world, promoting a vision that respects the dignity of the human person. Just as the Holy League and the Holy Roman Empire fought in defence of Christianity against Ottoman invasions over centuries, Europe’s identity cannot be understood without its Christian heritage—philosophically, spiritually, and culturally.

Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, the Austrian politician and philosopher, said that within the Holy Roman Empire, “Europe felt its unity far more strongly than it does today.” Despite internal division at the time—due to the Reformation and ongoing power struggles—there was an awareness of being part of a greater entity. This could only be the case because of a decentralization of power, respect for local culture, and the autonomy of the many principalities within the Empire. One might claim that the principle of subsidiarity was better applied in the 16th century than in today’s European Union. Too many matters are today dealt with at the highest level for efficiency’s sake. Subsidiarity, however, requires the opposite: starting with the family and local communities. Only then is a real European patriotism possible, enabling European nations to unite for a higher cause.

The Battle of Lepanto and the three-hundred-year-long struggle needed strong leadership. Today, Europe is searching for similar leadership. At the time of Lepanto, leaders were animated by strong convictions and bravery. They were ready to die serving their cause and their country. Today’s politicians are instead often motivated by elections and have a vision that rarely goes beyond four or five years. Europe needs statesmen: men and women who think about the next generation, not the next election; people like Don Juan of Austria and Blessed Emperor Karl, animated by a deep sense of service, ready to put the interests of their peoples before their own. More than ever, there is a need for people who guard the truth and communicate it to others, men and women who are well connected, innovative, and capable of changing the course of history.

The men and women of the 16th century were deeply aware of their own mortality and lived in the hope of the life to come. They knew the power of personal and communal prayer. They trusted that, despite suffering and death, the Lord was with them. During the Battle of Lepanto, a hidden army all over Christendom brandished the Rosary as their weapon of choice and stormed the throne of God with prayers and petitions placed trustingly into the hands of the Mother of God. The ships flew her banner as a sign of trust. Unable to resist the pleas of His Immaculate Mother on behalf of her children, her Son heard their prayers and, time and again, gave Christian Europe miraculous victories just when defeat seemed imminent. 

The message of Lepanto is thus one of extraordinary hope. Today’s Europe again faces terrible foes and seemingly insurmountable obstacles—many of its own making—that threaten its very existence. As we fight the manifold threats of disease, economic uncertainty, moral confusion, religious division, and even the same ancient foe of a violent and radical Islam, may we be inspired by the example of our ancestors, knowing that the Lord will not abandon those who trust in Him.

HIRH Imre von Habsburg-Lothringen, Archduke of Austria, is the great-grandson of the last emperor and king of Austria-Hungary, Blessed Karl, and his wife, the Servant of God, Empress Zita. A husband and father, he is the managing partner of MultiPlus Finance in Geneva and founder of Aliter Invest, a company specializing in ethical investment funds. He is also the president of the European Fraternity.

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