Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

Don John of Austria

A.D. 1547-1578

In the year that Cortez died there was born in Germany a son to a beautiful young girl named Barbara Blomberg. The child was taken from his mother when quite young and was sent to Spain, where he was brought up in the family of a hidalgo named Quixada. He grew up a tall, fine, handsome lad, fond of outdoor sports, and not very fond of his books; but so good-tempered and generous that every one loved him.

When he was thirteen years old, he was told by Quixada that King Philip wished to see hint, and sure enough, next day, as he was riding through the woods, he met the king, who alighted from his horse, gazed long and earnestly at the boy, and asked him:

"Do you know who your father was?"

Now that very question the boy had often put to himself and to Quixada without getting any answer. He flushed scarlet, and his breath came quick and fast; but he could not utter a word. The king spoke kindly:

"Don't be afraid, my boy; the Emperor Charles the Fifth, who is now in glory, was your father as well as mine." And turning to the courtiers he added, "Gentlemen, let me introduce my brother."

Up to this time the lad had been called Geronimo. Philip now ordered that his name should be John of Austria, though he had no more to do with Austria than you or I have.

He was given a household, and was sent to college, where he studied assiduously, and was particularly fond of histories of wars and books about soldiering. At eighteen he ran away from college in order to join the Knights of Malta in their fight against the Turks, but was stopped on the way by the king, who said he was too young for such work. Everybody in Spain heard of the affair, and men and women were never tired of talking of his gallantry.

When he was twenty-one his brother gave him the command of a small fleet which sailed to chastise the Corsairs. He was eight months away. During that time he gave the pirates such a lesson—sinking their vessels, thrashing them in fair fight, rescuing their Christian prisoners—that they were crippled for a long time, and Don John returned to Madrid triumphant.

The heart of the Spanish people went out to him. He was genial and sunny in manner; his smile was good-humored; his curling blond hair rippled as he swung it off his forehead; he was straight as a pine; he dressed in gold and white, with a crimson scarf loosely knotted over his chest; his cap was blue velvet, with nodding plumes. No one could ride or fence or dance or play at tennis as well as he. I can quite understand how the girls of Madrid thought there was no one in all the world as charming as he, and how they sat at their lattices watching for him to pass.

War breaking out again between Spain and the Moriscoes—I shall have something to tell you of it in the chapter after the next—and the Spanish commanders meeting with defeat after defeat, Don John was sent to lead the army. He was hampered by counsellors whom his brother sent to advise him; but at last he got his chance, and he put down the rebels in quick time.

The chief of the Moriscoes rode to the tent of the Spanish general and alighted. Don John stood by the door of the tent, surrounded by his officers. Said the Morisco:

"We implore your highness in the name of his majesty to show us mercy and to pardon our transgressions, which, we admit, have been great."

And he knelt before Don John, and handed him his cimeter, while the Moorish flag was thrown at his feet.

Stooping forward, Don John raised the Moorish general, returned him his sword, bidding him henceforth employ it in the service of Spain, and gave him a royal welcome to his tent.

After this there was nothing to keep Don John in Granada, and there was a general cry for him at Madrid. The King of Spain, the Republic of Venice, and the pope were fitting out a fleet to contend with the Turks for the mastery of the Mediterranean. The Sultan of Turkey had said he would make the Mediterranean a Turkish lake, and that no vessel should sail its waters unless it paid tribute to him. France did pay tribute; but Spain, Venice, and the pope refused.

They felt that sooner or later the mastery would have to be settled in fair fight, and though Turkey was admitted to be stronger than any one of them singly, they argued that the three together could more than hold their own against the Turks. So they gathered a great fleet and a powerful army, and when the question arose who should command it, every voice agreed, Don John.

The combined fleet contained three hundred royal galleys, besides smaller fighting ships, and on board them were twenty-nine thousand soldiers, and a great force of artillery. To meet them, the sultan mustered a fleet of two hundred and fifty royal galleys, besides smaller vessels; on board of them were one hundred and twenty thousand fighting men, besides galley-slaves who rowed at the oars. To these, who were Christians, the Turkish commander said, when the battle was expected:

If your countrymen win the day, Allah give you the benefit of it! If I win it, you shall surely have your freedom. If you feel that I do well by you, do then the like by me."

Don John sailed by way of Naples, and there had hard work to tear himself away from the beautiful Neapolitan girls, who would far rather have let the Turks have their own way with the Mediterranean than that such a darling as he should run the risk of being killed or his splendid face disfigured by wounds. But Don John was on too serious business bent to let them beguile him. He speedily joined the allied fleet at Messina.


Spanish Galleys in a sea-fight.

Thence, on October 7th, 1571, he weighed anchor, and sailing eastward over the blue Ionian sea, he descried at the mouth of the Gulf of Lepanto the great Turkish fleet spread in a half-circle, with the crescent flag floating aloft, evidently waiting for their prey. A council was held, and most of the admirals and generals were for waiting and engaging the Turk in the open sea, where his vast force of soldiers would not help him. But Don John, having heard them all, bade his officers hoist the signal for battle, and battle in close order.

He leaped into a boat and gave a short order to each division commander to be read to his men. It ran as follows:

"You have come to fight the battle of the cross—to conquer or to die. But whether you are to conquer or to die, do your duty this day, and you will insure a glorious immortality."

At noon the fleet engaged on a front three miles long; the battle lasted till four in the afternoon. At that hour one hundred and thirty Turkish vessels had been taken, eighty had been burned or sunk, and the rest had escaped. The Turkish admiral had been killed, and the slaves to whom he had promised their freedom got it from Don John. The Christians lost fifteen galleys and about eight thousand men; the Turks are said to have lost in killed and prisoners thirty thousand.

Ali Paella, the Turkish admiral, had been thrown clown by a boarding party, who made for him to kill him. He told them where he kept his money and his jewels, and all but one left him to secure them. That one, thinking that Ali's head was the most valuable jewel he could capture, cut it off, and carried it to Don John.

"Wretch!" said the young commander, "what do you bring me that for?"

And the ordered the man out of his sight. Ali had two sons, young boys, who were on board his ship. Don John sent for them, took them into his own cabin, treated them as if they were his friends, and at the first opportunity sent them home to Constantinople. For this their sister sent him a jewel of great price, but he returned it, saying that a Spanish gentleman could not accept such presents, and that he had only done his duty.

His prize-money resulting from the victory was so large as to be a fortune; he distributed every dollar of it among the wounded sailors and soldiers of the fleet, and the orphans of those who had fallen.

There were not honors enough, nor smiles enough, nor flowers enough at Messina to heap on the conqueror when he returned. Men roared themselves dumb in cheering him, and the fairest ladies of the beautiful Sicilian city scrambled and fought with each other to kiss his hand.

When the news reached the pope he fell on his knees, and cried in the language of the Bible:

"There was a man sent from God, and his name was John!"

The victory did indeed save Christendom on the Mediterranean. If it had been lost, that sea might in reality have become a Turkish lake.

But I suspect that there was one man who was not overwhelmed with joy at the victory. That was John's brother Philip. For I notice that the king began to show signs of envy and jealousy which boded no good to his half-brother.

John was appointed to command in the Low Countries, where, after Alva, no Spaniard could hope to win the goodwill of the people, or prevent the province from slipping out of the grasp of Spain. And Philip took care that Don John should not have men enough or money enough to accomplish anything.

He did the best he could with the means at his command. Once he nearly lost his life in an ambuscade set for him by the angry Netherlanders; he was rescued just in time by his nephew, Alexandre Farnese, the son of the man-woman Margaret. Another time he was penned up so long in a swamp that he caught a fever, and never recovered from it.

The books differ about the cause of his death. Some say he died of the fever. Others pretend that he was poisoned, which I think is likely. At any rate, when he died, King Philip said it would be too expensive to bring his body home in a cavalcade, he had it cut into three pieces, and brought home in bags tied to the saddlebows of horsemen. When it reached Madrid, the pieces were sewed together with silver wire, and the body was shown to the people.

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