Cervantes at Lepanto and the Aftermath: In Captivity and with Don Quixote

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                         6 November 2019

Saint Leonard of Limoges (d. 559)

Saint Leonard of Reresby (d. 13th century)

The Death of Professor Josef Pieper (d. 1997)

Epigraphs

There are times when to open Don Quixote after closing Hamlet is like an escape from a clinic into a bracing gale in the High Pyrenees. Has it been said before? It can be said again.” (D.B. Wyndham Lewis, The Shadow of Cervantes (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962), page 189—my emphasis added)

***

“Truly will Cervantes say as he lays it [his pen] down at last [in 1616], ‘Don Quixote was made for me, and I for him.’….’For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; his to act and mine to record.’” (The Shadow of Cervantes, 174 and 178—my emphasis added)

***

It may be too that Cervantes felt, as many must feel on skimming one of these dusty folios [of chivalric romances], a nostalgia for that lost aroma, pure and lovely and fragrant, the true quintessence of chivalry, to be found in a thirteenth-century masterpiece like La Quest del Sainct Graal [The Quest for the Holy Grail]. Malory [i.e., Thomas Malory, the late medieval English knight and author] well conveys its [chivalry’s own] exaltation. ‘And when he came to the sacring of the Mass and had gone, he called Galahad, and said to him: Come forth, servant of Jesus Christ, and thou shalt see what thou has most desired to see. And then he began to tremble right hard when the deadly flesh (la mortel char [mortal flesh]) began to behold spiritual things….’ Throughout the Quest runs the golden thread of knightly reverence for womanhood in honour of the Immaculata which is native to the Grail Cycle, Celtic and French, and was in truth one of the saving graces of a rough and bloody age. ‘Then were the natural charities exaled/Afresh from out the blessed love of Mary…,’” (The Shadow of Cervantes, pages 120-121—my emphasis added)

***

“But Hamlet is a pale sceptic feigning madness, whereas the Don’s logic [Don Quixote’s logic] is the sanity of the genuinely and gloriously crazy. Amid the metaphysical gymnastics of the learned [like Hamlet] one may easily lose sight of the key to Cervantes’ achievement. It is that gentility, in the noble obsolete sense, already remarked on. The old soldier Miguel Cervantes, a man with his normal share of sins and weaknesses, much battered by life, finds the springs of mirth in the clash between the ideal and the actual, and his amusement is mixed with tenderness for all his kind. ‘Qui creâsti me, miserere mei!‘….The Don is pre-eminently lovable; the most gallant and courteous of crackpots, endearing even in his rages; perpetually thwacked and tumbled in the mud by a gibing [and often cynical] world; perpetually rising again with his dream unimpaired, heart and courage high, a radiance in his poor crazy eyes; an hildalgo at every turn of fortune, a blood-brother to Parsival [one of the Grail Knights, like Galahad], the pure and guileless Fool.

“Life had treated his [Don Quixote’s] creator little less roughly. Its [life’s] buffets could not impair an inviolable sweetness of nature and an unquenchable valiance of spirit, based on eternal verities, which stamp Miguel Cervantes as being all that has ever been meant by the word ‘gentleman’. Nobody could teach him anything about the bitterness of this world. In his seventieth year, just able to pen his very last piece of writing, he takes leave of it as such a man would.—’Farewell, graces; farewell, elegances; farewell, my jovial friends, for now I find myself facing death and desiring to see you soon, happy in the other life.’ Thus in his own story as in that of his Don, Cervantes offers a cordial to a fainthearted posterity on the brink of a new Dark Age.

Untainted by what is known as the Pelagian [Heresy] or British heresy, the dogma of the Fundamentally Decent Fellow in no need of any divine grace, he recognizes a spark of goodness in the worst of us. It has often been observed that of the nearly seven hundred characters in his enormous comedy [Don Quixote] not a single one is wholly bad….” (The Shadow of Cervantes, pages 22-23—my emphasis added)

***

In his mid-sixties late in his life, Miguel Cervantes—the beloved author of Don Quixote—wrote the following brief and vivid description of himself and his earlier life, especially about his military service and combative presence at the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571— as well as its aftermath, to include his Turkish captivity and ransom. Cervantes wrote his modest self-description in a third-person narrative:

He is commonly called Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. He was a soldier for many years and a captive for five and a half, an experience that taught him patience in adversity. In the naval battle of Lepanto [7 October 1571] he lost his left hand as the result of a harquebus shot, a wound which, however unsightly it may appear, he looks upon as beautiful, for the reason that it was received on the most memorable and sublime occasion that past ages have known or those to come may hope to know; for he was fighting beneath the victorious banner of the son [Don John of Austria] of that thunderbolt of war, [Emperor] Charles V of blessed memory.1

Cervantes became a soldier at twenty-two years of age, in 1569, two years before Lepanto. He first enlisted in an infantry regiment where a few years later at Lepanto “his conduct in battle won encomiums from his officers, followed by extra pay and the ultimate offer of a commission [as an officer].”2 Moreover:

His motive for enlisting was not (as some troglodytes have surmised) dissatisfaction with Aquaviva’s service [with “the young prelate-diplomat Guilio de Aquaviva”(68)]. His patron, now a cardinal, was one of the most agreeable and cultivated of patricians, on the easiest terms with his entourage….We have to look elsewhere for the spring of his impulse to arms. It is not far to seek. He was fired with a chivalrous ardency of which the first volunteers of 1914 [at the outset of World War I] knew something, though in Cervantes’s case the motive was a nobler one than patriotism.

In 1570 the fate of all our civilization was at stake. A divided Christendom saw its doom advancing from the East like a thunder-cloud and heard a loud trumpet calling from Rome. The peril was nothing new. (71—my emphasis added)

Wyndham Lewis proceeds to give some apt details concerning these earlier and current perils:

Forty years previously [in 1530 or so] the Emperor Charles V, quoting the late fall of Byzantium [in 1453] and the current perfidy of [King] François I of France, Mahound’s ally, had predicted that without Almighty God’s intervention the Turk would before long be master of Europe. By the autumn of 1569 the process was seen to be actually taking shape. Sultan Selim II was now ready to take Cyprus from the Venetians as a preliminary to more far-reaching operations. Though a sot steeped in monstrous vices, the son of Suleiman the Magnificent was advantaged by inherited Oriental skill in exploiting the divisions of the Christian world, by vast resources, first-class armaments, and very capable commanders. (71—my emphasis added)

(Who, after reading this paragraph, does not also think of the strategic and moral situation today? Even the political divisions and the perfidy?! And not only in Europe.)

We shall now more closely follow and selectively quote Wyndham Lewis’ own compact and eloquent presentation of the history: especially the envious and fearful political factions and their resentfully stubborn divisions. We may thereby better follow the 7 October Lepanto battle itself and its discouraging aftermath:

Charles IX of France and Catherine de’ Medici, embroiled with [Admiral] Coligny and his Huguenots [Calvinists], were disinclined in any case to fall foul of the Turk. At Vienna Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, a genial nonentity, was sulking over the recent title of Grand Duke conferred by the Holy See on Cosimo of Florence, the first to suggest a league against Islam, and took no action. Elizabeth Tudor, recently excommunicated, was hardly likely to respond to any papal call; in fact her record as a businesswoman moved Selim’ Grand Vizier to assure the Emperor’s ambassador laughingly that after the first Turkish victory she and the English nobility would turn Mahometan overnight. Young Sebastian I of Portugal would have been eager to respond, but a severe recent plague-epidemic had put out of action his army, his galleys, and his munition factories alike. As for the Venetians, who had a reputation for neutrality [sic] in previous clashes with the Turk, they were in a chaotic state of alarm and shifting policy. At the Vatican conference on July 1, 1570, attended by representatives of the Holy See, Spain, and Venice, there was considerable wrangling over expenses as well. (72—my emphasis added)

Despite all of these varied, and often paralyzing, disputations, an unlikely but good surprise was to come from a gifted man of 23, which was also then the closely proximate age of young soldier Cervantes himself:

Laughing in the sun, Mustafa Pasha took Cyprus in September of that year [September 1570], except for the [Venetian Christian] garrison of Famagusta, which held out gallantly and might have been relieved under Colonna, but for the quarrels of the Venetians and the Genoese under his command. At the last moment a leader emerged: a man, as Pius V quoted thankfully later from the Gospel, sent by God, whose name was John [Juan]; twenty-three-years-old John of Austria, natural son of the Emperor Charles V by Barbara Blomberg, a soldier with a fearlessness matching his looks and his brains. Under his command as generalissimo of the forces of the Holy League some two hundred galleys and caravels sailed from Messina [in northeastern Sicily] to meet the Turk on September 15 and 16 [1571]. Among the troops aboard the Marquesa galley in Giovanni Andrea Doria’s squadron was Miguel de Cervantes. Don John engaged the Turk, coming from Cyprus and Crete, at Lepanto, in the gulf of Patras, 150 miles north-east of Athens, and after a day’s fierce battle [on 7 October] sent him reeling to the ropes [but not knocked out]. (72-73—my emphasis added)

We now hear about the moral and spiritual preparations for the momentous naval battle:

As befitted men sworn to save Christendom or perish, the entire army and fleet from Don John down to the smallest cabin-boy went to Confession and received the Blessed Sacrament at Messina before sailing, fortified likewise by a special indulgence dispensed by a papal legate and equal to that granted for the Crusades. (73—my emphasis added)

At the end of the day of 7 October 1571, “Uluch Ali turned with what survived of the Turkish fleet and fled” (74) and

Away in Rome that same evening St Pius V turned from the open window of his study to praise God for the great victory just won a thousand miles away…commemorated in the Roman Calendar thence-forward by Rosary Sunday….The great ode of Fernando de Herrera called Song of Praise to the Divine Majesty for the Victory of Señor Don Juan [John] is at once a silver fanfare and a humble breast-beating….“Blessed be Your clemency, Lord, for that [because] despite suffering our injuries, despite our punishable crime, You have broken the ruthless yoke of the enemy’s ancient pride.”….

On that day, away on the extreme left wing in the Marquesa galley under the immediate command of Francisco de San Petro, Miguel de Cervantes acquitted himself, as his officers testified, most valorously before being put out of action. When the Christian fleet sighted the Turk he was half prostrate with fever and ordered below. Appearing on deck as battle was joined, vowing that he would rather die in action for God than skulk under cover, and begging for a post of danger, he was given command of twelve men in a longboat from the San Petro galley and sent to an exposed position. Here, later in the day, he was knocked out in heavy fighting by three gunshot wounds; two in the chest, one in the left hand. On Don John’s triumphal return to Messina amid the banging of cannon and the pealing of bells Cervantes went into the hospital with the other wounded. Three months later he was still under the surgeon….How any soldier of the period survived even an ordinary bullet-wound is at times a matter for wonderment. (74-75—my emphasis added)

Soon after this admirable description of a “tough age” (74), Wyndham Lewis speaks to us of the combat-presence there of the future Saint Camillus de Lellis:

Cervantes never apparently encountered at Lepanto, or in Corfu, or in any subsequent campaign against the Turk, the big, cursing, brawling Italian soldier, later canonized as St Camillo de Lellis, who launched the first field-ambulance service of nursing brothers, with the Red Cross badge, in 1582. Nor can he [Cervantes] have seen, like de Lellis, his comrades reduced by hunger in one crisis to devouring dead Turks’ livers. He would certainly have enshrined such a recollection in the Captive’s story [in Don Quixote—Part I].

As for Lepanto, he [Cervantes] will never be able to forget it, and why should he? Did not Don John in person recommend him for a commission [as an officer] not long afterward? (75-76—my emphasis added)

Now we dare to approach some of the discouraging strategic aftermath of the tactical victory at Lepanto, and we now propose to consider the extent to which it was also a strategic victory. It is not long until Miguel Cervantes and his meritorious brother Rodrigo are also to be captured by the Turks:

And the Cervantes brothers returned with their regiment to resume garrison-duty in Naples, surely as dashed in spirit as their Commander-in-chief [John of Austria]. Worse was imminent. Before long all the heroism and glory of Lepanto were seen to be wasted. That swinging blow to the Turk was not to be followed by a knockout. In March 1573 the Venetians ratted [deserted]. On the day when their minister in Rome was pledging renewed loyalty to the [Holy] League [against the Turk] their minister in Constantinople was signing a treaty giving up Cyprus, returning the Albanian port of Sofoto—the only Venetian capture from the Turk so far—and engaging the Sublime Porte 300,000 ducats’ compensation. This act of treachery has been ascribed solely to terror. It might indeed be said in the Venetians’ behalf that the Turk’s first Christian objective had always been Venice; moreover it would take the Venetians some time to forget the fate of Marcantonio Bragadino after the storming of Famagusta [in Cyprus] on the eve of Lepanto; the fiendish torturing and flaying alive of their envoy, arrested during the negotiations for a capitulation, the stuffing of the disembowelled corpse with straw, and its final derisive hoisting to the yardarm of the Turkish admiral’s galley. Nevertheless the Venetian double-dealing and surrender shocked all Catholic Europe from the Holy See down. Pius V had died just in time to be spared seeing his hopes destroyed by this perfidy. His successor, Gregory XIII, minced no words. The Venetians had mortally wounded the League which had been formed to save them, and the blow fell of course most heavily on Don John of Austria, who, it now seemed, had swiped the Turk in vain. He, too, spoke his bitter mind. (77—my emphasis added)

Now we consider the beginning of another surprise and consequently bitter challenge: the capture and protracted retention in Algeria of the Cervantes brothers cruelly held by the Turk:

Miguel de Cervantes began bestirring himself vigorously [in the early autumn of 1575]….Backed by his commanding officer he was at length granted leave by G.H.Q. [General Headquarters] to return to Spain and apply for a captain’s commission in one of the new infantry regiments being raised for foreign service. A couple of letters of recommendation signed by Don John and the Viceroy in person accompanied the grant and testify to Cervantes’ standing in his superiors’ eyes. On September 20, 1575, we find him at Naples accompanied by his meritorious [elder] brother Rodrigo and, one may imagine, in the highest spirits, boarding the Sol galley, one of the flotilla bound for Spain under Captain Sandro de Leiva.

He must have been still in high feather when six days later, off the Provençal coast near Les Saintes Maries, three fast Turkish galleys captained by an Albanian renegade swooped of the Sol, which had been temporarily separated from the rest, and after a brisk hand-to-hand fight [the Turk] fled from the onrush of Leiva’s [Christian] main flotilla, carrying with them to Algiers a score of Spanish prisoners, the two brothers Cervantes among them. Those precious letters [of recommendation] carried by Miguel were shortly to prove no blessing. (79-80—my emphasis added)

For, in Algeria, as we are soon to be told in Chapter 3, the situation was cruelly bleak:

The sight everywhere of ragged Christian captives chained for transit or working under the lash—all these tokens, like a bad dream, of the presence and power of Mahound must have chilled even the stout blood of Miguel de Cervantes as he tramped that October day [in 1575], hustled by guards and linked to his fellow-prisoners, from quay to gaol [from the wharf to his jail]. (81—my emphasis added)

It is so that Wyndham Lewis’ Chapter 3—“Nor Iron Bars a Cage” (81-117)—will thoroughly and quite vividly present to the reader what Cervantes himself largely had to endure during his long captivity (and his several resourcefully attempted escapes) until his eventual ransom, which was achieved with the indispensable help of the chivalric order of the Trinitarians.

And yet, despite his cumulative suffering, Miguel Cervantes’ later writing in Don Quixote is so warm and generous—and so graciously forgiving and splendidly magnanimous.

We may recall now afresh what Cervantes intimately wrote near the end of his life: “Don Quixote was made for me and I for him….For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; his to act and mine to record.”

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1 See Samuel Putnam’s edition and translation of Cervantes’ Prologue to his own Exemplary Novels, in The Portable Cervantes (New York: The Viking Press, 1951), page 706.

2D.B Wyndham Lewis, The Shadow of Cervantes (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962), page 70. Henceforth all references to this excellent and detailed work of some 190 pages will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay. Our focus in this essay will be on two of the five chapters of this book: Chapter II—“Drum, Trumpet, and the Turk”; and Chapter III—“Nor Iron Bars a Cage.” Although we shall not be able to present a fuller depiction of Cervantes’ Captivity by the Turks (especially in Algiers) and his belatedly successful ransom back to Spain (indispensably helped by the chivalrous, self-sacrificing Trinitarian Order), we earnestly recommend to the reader a thorough savoring of Chapter III.

2 thoughts on “Cervantes at Lepanto and the Aftermath: In Captivity and with Don Quixote

  1. I am writing about the war in the Falkland Islands – Malwinas, which ended with the British capturing the Argentine base ‘Coberta Uruguay’ on Thule Island on June 20, 1982. That day, English Catholics celebrate Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead, Horsham, and West Sussex. Hilaire Belloc was a parishioner here and has a grave at the church – I think he is the patron of peace in the Atlantic. As a Frenchman he reconciled (at least temporarily) in Malvinas (= Saint Malo) Englishmen with Argentineans. Saint Malo traveled with Saint Brendan in search of the Paradise of Saints, did they reach Ultima Thule?

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