Don John of Austria used an ivory crucifix to inspire his men before Lepanto

October 4, 2010

The Real, a historical galley replica in the Maritime Museum, Barcelona Photo by David Merrett

Calmness in the presence of danger had always been one of D. John of Austria’s great qualities, and it did not fail him in this crisis. He refrained from telling anyone of the fears and anxieties that Cecco Pizano’s information had inspired in him, and without wasting a second he at once began to take measures with that intelligence and orderly activity required by the art of war, seeing and taking in everything at a glance, making his arrangements without hurry or confusion.

He ordered that a little rowing and sailing galley, employed to transmit orders, should come alongside of the “Real,” and he embarked in her with Juan de Soto and D. Luis de Córdoba, to visit, one by one, all the galleys of the center division and of the right wing; those of the left he gave over to his lieutenant the Knight Commander Luis de Requesens.

Museu Maritimo, Barcelona, Spain Photo by Fritz Geller-Grimm

In all the galleys D. John gave orders, the forethought and prudence of which could be appreciated later. He ordered that in all the galleys the high peaks should be cut off, to ensure the more effectual working of the forward guns.

He made them take off the chains and give arms to those galley slaves who were condemned to row for ordinary offenses, promising them pardon if they gave a good account of themselves in the fight….

Pious tradition says that the reason the corpus leans to the side to such an exaggerated degree is that at the beginning of the battle, the Turks fired a cannonball at it, and the figure leaned to the side to avoid being struck.

D. John went unarmed, with an ivory crucifix in his hand, that he afterwards gave to his confessor, Fr. Miguel Servia, which existed in the convent of Jesus, outside the walls of Palma in Majorca until 1835. His words were not polished nor his arguments intricate; he only told them that they were fighting for the faith, and that there was no heaven for cowards. But he said it all so earnestly and courteously, and his declarations and promises so evidently came from his heart, that they filled all with enthusiasm and the wish to be brave, as if he were filling them with some of his own heroism.

Rev. Fr. Luis Coloma, The Story of Don John of Austria, trans. Lady Moreton, (New York: John Lane Company, 1912), pp. 261-262.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 13

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