Bill O’Reilly’s idea of a mercenary force to defend what used to be called Christendom has some very old, if not exactly similar, precedents.
Many of the Orders of Chivalry — the Knights Templar and the Orders such as the Knights of St. John and St. Lazarus, originated to give both military protection against Muslim fanatics and medical care to Christian pilgrims travelling to and from the Holy Land.
They helped beat back Muslim raiders who had established strongholds in France and Italy, as part of a pincer movement to conquer and destroy Europe, and who had even sacked the Vatican.
The order of the Knights of St. John was originally established to set up outposts along the route to the Holy Land. One of the knights’ main tasks was to provide hospitals, and today their eight-pointed cross is seen on ambulances and first aid organizations. However, their military wing grew in importance and they became primarily a military order.
As a private order of chivalry, the Knights of St John long harried the Turks in the Mediterranean and after being driven from Rhodes, held their new headquarters of Malta in an epic siege from May to September, 1565.
They were eventually expelled from Malta by Napoleon but still exist as a charitable order, recognized as independent and sovereign by many countries. They have their own territory in various embassies, including one in the fortifications they built on Malta, and even their own micro-state between Rome and Vatican city. They are no longer a military order, but …
The crusaders could not exactly be called a mercenary force — they were in it to gain heaven, not for the money, and in many cases paid their own heavy expenses, but the idea was similar. The Crusades were a somewhat minimal counter-attack in response to ceaseless Muslim aggression, which had swept Christianity out of North Africa, conquered most of Spain and reached far into France.
Europe had been driven to the point where it had to fight back or perish as the Christian communities of North Africa like Carthage and Alexandria, relics of the Roman Empire, had perished under the Muslim onslaught, and hundreds of the knights, nobles, and petty kings of Europe spontaneously recognized this.
At times Popes have led forces against Islamic invaders personally.
It is not widely realized that, apart from the Muslim conquest of north Africa and most of Spain, and the drive towards Paris which was eventually stopped by Charles Martel near Tours, Muslim forces from the seventh century to the time of the calling of the First Crusade waged war against the Christian civilizations all over the Mediterranean World, including especially the schwerpunkt of Italy. The Popes organized much of the resistance to this and sometimes led it personally.
Practically all the anti-Muslim forces employed mercenaries, in the sense that they employed troops who had to be paid and before the Treaty of Westphalia gave rise to modern concepts of nationalism, and who often identified with Christendom more that a particular nation-state.
Constantinople was attacked in 673 and again from 717. It was eventually conquered in 1453. In 873 Muslim forces devastated Calabria in southern Italy, and the Saracens expressed an intention to destroy Rome, the city of “Petrulus Senex” (“The senile Peter”).
In 883 Muslims captured the fortress of Garigliano, near Anzio, and plundered the surrounding countryside for the next 40 years.
Returning from a synod at Ravenna in 882, Pope John VIII found a Saracen force threatening Rome and though in poor health, personally led a successful naval counter-attack.
Following the fall of Constantinople (formerly Byzantium) to the Turks it looked as if the Muslims would continue to sweep across the Mediterranean and into the heart of Europe.
As G. K. Chesterton put it in his poem, “Lepanto,” published in 1915:
White founts falling in the Courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
He has dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
He has dashed the Adriatic round the lion of the sea. [Venice]
There is nothing new in Pope Francis’s recent call for military force against Islamicists:
The Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the Kings of Christendom for swords about the cross.
Northern Europe, bitterly divided by the Reformation, hardly responded, and Spain was pre-occupied with its new conquests in America:
The cold Queen of England is looking in the glass,
The shadow of the Valois is yawning in the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.
In fact Spain did send some help, and some of the southern states of Europe, including Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Genoa and Savoy, knowing their existence to be at stake, put together a coalition led by an illegitimate son of the King of Spain, Don John of Austria:
Dim drums throbbing in the hills half heard,
Where only on a crownless throne a nameless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour for whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young…
A fleet was put together of Spanish, Venetian, and other ships, including some privately owned. The Christian coalition of 1571, promoted by Pope Pius V, had the initial object of rescuing the besieged Venetian colony of Farmagusta on Cyprus, last of a string of Venetian colonies, the others having been seized by the Turks in 1570:
The banner of the fleet, blessed by the Pope, was solemnly consigned to Don John on August 31, 1571. As the fleet moved out to sea news reached it of the fall of Farmagusta.
The Muslim commander, Lala Kara Mustapha Pasha, had assured the Venetians that if they surrendered they would be allowed to leave freely.
In fact he seized and enslaved the garrison, and the Venetian commander, Marco Antonio Bragadin, was flayed alive and his corpse hung on Mustafa’s galley together with the heads of the Venetian officers (sound familiar?).
This did not have the hoped-for effect of terrifying the Christian fleet into submission.
On October 7, 1571, the fleets met at Lepanto in a decisive battle for control of the Mediterranean and of Europe. The Muslim fleet outnumbered the Christian and must have appeared daunting as it approached in a vast crescent:
He flings great shadows forwards, making cross and castle dark,
He veils the plumed lions on the galleys of Saint Mark…
Each side had tens of thousands of casualties but the Christian squadrons gradually gained the upper hand:
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!
The Muslims were defeated and their fleet wiped out, and about 10,000 Christian galley-slaves freed from the Muslim ships before they sank. It was the end, for centuries, of the great Muslim pincer-movement against Europe.
Bill O’Reilly’s suggested force has not yet been given a name. I can think of several.
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