7 October 1571: Catholics crush the Ottomans
The Holy League prevails in the battle of Lepanto, one of Europe’s great turning points
The year 1571 found the young Miguel de Cervantes serving in the Spanish naval marines, stationed in Naples. And although he could hardly have known it, the future novelist was about to be caught up in one of the most dramatic naval battles in history. For decades, the Ottoman empire had been expanding into the Mediterranean, and that spring the pope had urged the formation of a Holy League to push them back. The key players were Venice and Spain, which is where Cervantes came in.
In August, as the fleet assembled in Sicily, the young Spaniard was on board. And on the morning of 7 October, as they headed towards the Gulf of Patras, they spotted the Ottoman fleet – and battle was joined. The fighting lasted all day, the air thick with bullets, the water stained scarlet with blood. On the Holy League’s flagship, the pope’s great-nephew blazed away with his arquebus, while a nearby officer’s head was blasted from his shoulders. Nearby, on a crippled Venetian galley, a wounded captain waited until his adversaries had scrambled aboard before igniting the last powder-barrels, blowing his ship into fragments.
As the Ottomans fell back in disarray, the sea, wrote one onlooker, “was full of dead men, of planks, of clothing, of some who were drowning, of many shattered remains of ships that were burning and of others that were sinking”.
For the Ottomans, Lepanto was a disaster, shaking their air of invincibility and checking their advance through the Mediterranean. And what of Cervantes? Though stricken with fever, he fought gallantly and was hit three times by gunshots, one of which rendered his left hand permanently useless. He used his other hand to write his great book Don Quixote, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615. He had “lost the movement of the left hand,” he said later, “for the glory of the right”.
Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…
7 October 1492
A month after leaving the Canary Islands on his first voyage, Christopher Columbus ordered his fleet to change course to follow a large flock of birds. Five days later they sighted land in what is now known as the Bahamas.
7 October 1571
Led by Don John of Austria, the fleet of a confederation of Catholic states known as the Holy League decisively defeated the main Ottoman fleet in the battle of Lepanto.
7 October 1708
Henry of Nassau, Lord Overkirk (Ouwerkerk), dies in his tent during the siege of Lille. One of Marlborough’s most trusted generals, he lived at Overkirk House in London – now part of 10 Downing Street.
7 October 1710
Actress and singer Lavinia Fenton was born, probably at Charing Cross. She later eloped with the Duke of Bolton who she married on the death of his estranged wife. Her most successful role was that of Polly Peachum in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.
7 October 1747
HMS Dartmouth blows up in action off Cape St Vincent.
7 October 1849
American writer and poet Edgar Allen Poe died, aged 40, four days after being found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a state of delirium. The cause of his death remains a mystery.
7 October 1915: A British nurse is tried for treason in occupied Brussels
Edith Cavell calmly admits to sheltering Allied soldiers
Brussels in the autumn of 1915 was a city under occupation by the German army. In the gilded Senate chamber, decorated with scenes from Belgian history, the chairs were full of German officers, leaning intently forward.
They had not come for an ordinary meeting. Rather, they were here to witness the trial of 35 prisoners, many of them charged with espionage and treason. The first of the accused, a 49-year-old Englishwoman, stepped forward to testify. Her name was Edith Cavell.
The daughter of a Norfolk country vicar, and a woman of deep seriousness and intense religious faith, Cavell had been working as a senior nurse in Brussels when war broke out in 1914. Although she was supposed to be strictly neutral she had joined a secret resistance network run by two Belgian aristocrats. She sheltered dozens of British, French and Belgian soldiers, keeping them hidden until they were ready to leave for the Dutch border. It was, she thought, her patriotic duty.
When the Germans unravelled the network in the summer of 1915, Cavell saw no point in lying. Her parents had brought her up as a good Christian girl who would always tell the truth. And now, on 7 October, facing conviction for treason, with the German officers observing proceedings closely, she made no effort to hide the truth. “She spoke without trembling,” reported one observer, “and showed a clear mind.”
Twenty-four hours later, the court announced her sentence: death. Then, on 12 October, to the horror of much of the world, Edith Cavell took her place before a German firing squad – and passed into legend.