History of the Church: Early Modern Times - Notre Dame

The Turks in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

[Illustration] from Church - Early Modern Times by Notre Dame

The struggle between the Turks and European Christendom up to the fall of Constantinople has been narrated. The Turks had, by this great victory, become a European as well as an Asiatic power, and it was not long before the influence of their presence was felt in political circles. Sovereigns, such as Francis I. of France and Henry VIII. of England, had no scruple in courting the ancient enemy of Christendom and forming alliance with a Moslem power. But princes nearer the Turkish frontiers found them far from peaceful neighbours, and for a century and a half the struggle went on between them with varying success.

Suleyman the Magnificent, contemporary with a the three great western monarchs of the first half of the sixteenth century, won many victories over Christian powers. He conquered Belgrade, drove the Knights of St. John from Rhodes (1522), invaded Hungary in 1526, overthrew and slew the Hungarian sovereign, Louis II., at the Battle of Mohacz, and made the country tributary to Turkey. A renewed invasion in 1529 brought Suleyman to the gates of Vienna, but he was driven back, and in 1532 he made a truce with Charles V. Some years later he annexed Hungary, and governed it as a Turkish province. The constant danger from the Turks tied the hands of this emperor in his dealings with his revolted Lutheran subjects. Up to 1566, when Suleyman died, wars and sieges were almost uninterrupted. But the Empire was not the only power attacked. Turkish corsairs swept the Mediterranean and kept the states along the coast in a condition of abject terror. The Knights of St. John alone withstood the terrible admirals of Suleyman, and one of the most awful sieges in history, that of Malta, was sustained by them with success, in 1565, against the whole force of the Turkish navy. The infidels were checked, but not disheartened. Though Selim II., who succeeded in 1566, was not equal to his father in talents and enterprise, his generals and admirals were as determined as before to contest the power of the Christians at least by sea. They seized Cyprus in 1571, and treated their captives with merciless cruelties and revolting atrocity.

Pope Pius V. determined to stem their career of conquest, and to come to the aid of the Cypriots. He could turn for help to Spain only, the one Catholic state with power and will to help a forlorn cause. Philip II., who, whatever his faults, never turned a deaf ear to pleading in favour of distressed Catholics, sent his half-brother, Don Juan of Austria, with a splendid fleet to co-operate with the Venetians—the traditional enemy of the Turks—and the Knights of St. John, who volunteered their aid. The Catholic forces were headed by a small band of brave men, strong in the justice of their cause and in the knowledge that all Catholic Christendom was in prayer for their success.

Pope Pius V. had organized a crusade of prayer. He had sought for spiritual arms with the more diligence that human aid was but small. The Rosary Confraternities were indefatigable in their correspondence with the wishes of one who was their Pontiff and their brother, for Pius V. was a Dominican. In spite of the outcry against pilgrimages which, in consequence of Protestant teachings, had resounded throughout Europe, no day but saw its streams of pilgrims wending their way to the famous shrines of Our Blessed Lady. Loretto especially attracted thousands.

The Catholic fleet gathered at Messina, a magnificent spectacle witnessed by an enthusiastic crowd. Sail was set for the old battle-ground of the Peloponnesian War—the open sea south of the entrance to the Adriatic—and there, just oft the famous Naupactus, now called Lepanto, the Catholics came in sight of the Turks. It was Saturday evening, and preparation for the battle went on during the night. The soldiers all made their confession, and as day dawned, showing them their mighty enemy, they knelt to pray. The signal was given, and the ships advanced to meet the splendid crescent of four hundred and thirty vessels bearing down on them before a steady wind as to assured victory. But before the fleets met, the wind suddenly fell and then rose from the opposite quarter, throwing the Turks into confusion, but sweeping the Christian fleet with swelling sails down on their crowded foe. All day the fight went on, stubbornly contested. Towards nightfall a panic seized the Turks, and they strove to turn their prows to flee. A fierce storm broke at the same time, and completed the havoc. The Christians followed in hot pursuit, and captured many vessels, while ship after ship of the Turks was driven shorewards by their terrified crews and wrecked rather than that they should fall into the hands of the enemy. The loss on both sides was tremendous. Thirty thousand Turks are said to have been slain; forty vessels of their proud fleet alone remained to them. The moral result of the fight was incalculable. The Turks never recovered their lost prestige, and though several desperate attempts to re-establish their power have been made by successive sovereigns, their decline dates from the Battle of Lepanto. It is well known that on the memorable Sunday which Rome had spent in prayer, Pope Pius V. assisted in vision at the victory which he announced to those around him at the very moment it occurred. The Festival of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary commemorates this triumph which the voice of Christendom attributed to Our Blessed Lady.

Turkish attempts to gain a foothold in Central Europe still went on. The Protestants of Hungary in 1683 invited the Turks to their assistance. Moslem armies had been making inroad into Poland, and had been repeatedly driven back by the great patriot warrior Sobieski, who in 1675 had been elected King of Poland.

The Turks readily entered into a league with the insurgents, and advanced through Hungary plundering and slaughtering all in their way. At length they laid siege to Vienna, which was reduced to extremities. The Pope and the emperor called on Sobieski to come to the rescue. Though the monarch had settled down to the much-needed work of restoring order and prosperity to his kingdom, he started at once to give the demanded aid. A rapid march across the plains towards Vienna, and a daring ascent of the Kahlenberg mountain with his whole army and artillery, brought him to the heights above Vienna before the Turks had time to realize that he was coming. The sight of the king at the head of his army, as they dashed down by five steep valleys to confront the enemy camped round the city, so paralyzed the Turks that at first they dared not offer much resistance. Despair, however, nerved them to a desperate struggle, but they finally gave way and fled, leaving the ground strewn with silks and jewelry, splendid tents, and all their implements of war. The Emperor Leopold I. treated the heroic deliverer of Vienna with scant courtesy, but Pope Innocent XI. thanked Sobieski in the name of Europe for his victory over the Moslems. From this time the Turks almost disappear from the pages of Church history.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Modern Times by Notre Dame