The Great Siege

The average reader might not be familiar with the Knights of St. John or the Great Siege. The following somewhat sensationalized history is taken from Charles Owen's The Maltese Islands (Frederick A. Praeger Inc., Publishers, 1969).

In the early sixteenth century, as the economy continued to swing between prosperity and famine, powers in other lands were setting the stage for the most glorious period of Maltese history. The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem were soon to make their home on the islands. The Knights at this time - devout, aristocratic, warlike - formed one of the most powerful groups in Europe. They owned large tracts of land in several countries, were reputed to be almost as rich as the church itself, and boasted the bluest of blood among their members. But they had one major problem-they lacked a permanent headquarters of their own.

The Order had begun in the eleventh century in a simple hostel on the pilgrim route through Muslim-dominated Palestine into Jerusalem. From tending the poor and sick, the monks developed an efficient security service, providing armed escorts through the dangerous parts of Syria. After the successful First Crusade they had become a military order, confirmed by the Pope in 1113. Christian kings gratefully donated land and money, young aristocrats proudly joined up and when they died their wealth reverted automatically to the Knights. As the Order grew it was divided into eight branches, or langues, according to the original nationalities of the members - Aragon, Auvergne, Castille (including Portugal), England, France, Germany, Italy, and Provence.

When the kings of Jerusalem were forced to retreat from the Holy Land, the Order withdrew with them. After a long war the Knights won the island of Rhodes; from here they were able to knock hard at the Turkish infidel, enhance their reputation as defenders of the Christian faith, and become recognized as a bulwark to keep Europe safe. But the Turks were eventually provoked into launching a massive assault on Rhodes and in 1522, 90,000 of the Sultan's forces joined battle with 7,000 Knights and Rhodians. The island held out for six months, but superior force prevailed in the end. The sultan spared the Knights, allowing them to quit Rhodes with Honor, a leniency which later he had cause to regret.

The Knights went as a matter of course to the Pope, their supreme master. Clement Vii, himself a member of the Order, gave its grand master a warm but hesitant welcome. Any hasty move might have offended one or other of the powerful monarches, Francis I of France and Charles I of Spain. Charles I, seeing a good opportunity to establish another front against the Turks, suggested in 1523 that the Knights might take over the defence of Malta and Tripoli. Malta, a less attractive island than Rhodes, was at least a self-contained, defendable unit; but to hold Tripoli as well at that time would have meant stretching their small forces beyond their capacity. Moreover, Charles expected them to support him in any future Mediterranean war. This could have meant fighting France, and the Order's rules forbade members going to war against a Christian state. Besides, the French langue could hardly be expected to do battle with its mother country.

For the next six years the Order remained on tenterhooks while the European balance of power seesawed. Finally the two monarchs became friendly enough with each other and with the Pope for the Knights to feel safe in accepting Malta. Not that they viewed the prospect with much relish . Their first report had been gloomy.

The island of Malta is merely a rock of soft sandstone, about six or seven leagues long and three or four broad. The surface of the rock is barely covered with three or four feet of earth, which is likewise stony, and very unfit to grow corn and other grain... except for a few springs in the middle of the island there is no running water, nor even wells.

But by now the Knights were desperate for a home. The material conditions were simple: the Order was to give the King of Spain a falcon a year. Politically, the agreement was to prove more complicated. The Bishop of Malta was to be chosen from three nominees by the King of Sicily, who was to hold sovereignty over the islands, while Maltese rights and privileges were to be preserved. This last clause must have caused hollow laughter on the island; when King Alphonse had taken Malta under his wing he had granted a new charter which promised that the islands would never again be bartered without the inhabitants' consent. But no-one bothered to consult the Maltese in this latest transaction and they were hardly in a position to start a fight with Christianity's toughest soldiers.

In November 1530 Fra Philippe Villiers de l'Isle Adam, Grand Master of the Knights, entered Mdina, the capital of Malta. The Knights, venerated by rich and poor throughout Europe, were sensible of their power and glory. Behind the grand faŁade, however, they were not entirely supermen. Of their three vows - poverty, chastity, obedience - the first was by now redundant, the second in abeyance and the third somewhat dented by the younger members. But their reputation for valour was soon to be upheld. Christian Europe was generally in a weak state and in the next thirty years suffered repeated setbacks from the Turks, who ended up dominating most of the Mediterranean. Malta was a constant source of irritation to them and the Knights were perpetually threatened. In 1565, hearing of a massive build-up of troops in Constantinople, the Order sent out urgent appeals to Christian rulers for help in what they sensed would shortly become a do-or-die combat; at this time Grand Master de Valette had only eight war galleys and 9,000 men at his command.

The siege at Rhodes had taught the Knights to leave the countryside bare of people, animals and crops, and turn the fortifiable points into war cities, fully stocked with food, water and ammunition. As the inland capital of Mdina seemed vulnerable, Malta's defence rested defence rested ultimately on the Grand Harbour complex, particularly St Elmo fort at the seaward end of Mount Sceberras (now Valletta), St Angelo fort at the tip of Birgu (now Vittoriosa), and St Michael's fort on the Senglea promontory.

As the sun rose on 18 May, the horizon filled with white sails emblazoned with the Sultan's red crescent, and the Great Siege of Malta began. The 38,000 invaders were confident that they would soon subjugate the small band of islanders. But four elements were to help the Order: clever tactics, heroism, luck and a brilliant leader. De Valette was tough, brave, and single-minded; when the odds seemed hopeless, he imbued his men with religious fervour and a real sense of destiny. On the other hand, the Turkish command was virtually split between three leader, the cause of several fatal mistakes.

The naval commander, obsessed by the need to gain an anchorage for his fleet, persuaded his colleagues to concentrate their opening assault on St Elmo, manned by 100 knights and 500 soldiers. These de Valette ordered to fight to the last, knowing that the Sicilian monarch had promised to help on the condition that the Knights still held the fort. Its garrison, aware that the length of their survival would determine the outcome of the whole campaign, hung on as men died and walls collapsed under day and night bombardment. Besieged from the sea and from the high ground of Sceberras, they could not expect to hold out indefinitely. The Turks had estimated three days; they finally occupied it, massacring the last few defenders, in five weeks. Replacements crossed the Grand Harbour to the fortress up to the last week, knowing that the outcome of their bravery was almost certain death. But the sacrifice made all the difference, giving the Knights time to consolidate the defences of the other forts.

Never was Malta's unique position more important. All Europe realized what was at stake. As Queen Elizabeth of England said, "If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom." Italy, France and Spain would be open to Turkish invasion...

The advance force from Sicily arrived despite the fate of St Elmo. It numbered only 600 men but, achieving surprise, it made a vital difference. The Knights, their luck holding out, were warned by a Turkish deserter about a plan for Senglea to be attacked from the south, and this gave the Order time to build a line of defensive stakes which successfully repulsed the attack.

The defenders were now ringed by Turks, with St. Michael's fort, the weaker of the two survivors, crumbling daily under the massive onslaught of guns and men. Yet again fate came to the aid of the Knights. One thousand Turks, sailing across the harbour, fell into a well-prepared trap: hidden guns caught them broadside on and destroyed them. Then, at a crucial point in the battle, a Turkish post in the rear was caught unawares by a band of Christians. Word spread through the Turkish forces that a large army of Sicily was about to attack and the commander, believing himself outnumbered, sounded the retreat. But the supposed van of the Christian battalions was found to be merely a local force from Mdina that had come along to see if it could help.

The Turks then tried to take Senglea with the aid of two huge towers, built like scaffolds, by which troops could scale the walls. But the Knights demolished one by shooting unexpectedly through openings at the base of the walls, and the other by a hand-to-hand attack through the same openings. Just as de Valette had exhorted St Elmo to fight to the end, so now he wrought every ounce of courage out of the besieged in St Michael's. During the toughest phase, he crossed from his headquarters in St Angelo to join in the battle himself - he was seventy-one.

The untenable was held and, as de Valette had planned, the Turks were forced to divide their fire between the two forts. Under continuous bombardment, few of the defenders remained uninjured. ... The Knights fought in high summer temperatures in full armor, with leather or quilted jerkins underneath; not surprisingly, a few of them died from heat stroke. Requests for assistance were smuggled repeatedly out of the island. The Maltese were one with the Knights, determined, whatever the cost, to be rid of the Turkish invader-though of the nobles there is barely a word in contemporary records; presumably they sat it out in their palaces in Mdina.

The Turks were now weary and despondent, with nearly a third of their forces killed, large numbers struck by disease and food and ammunition in short supply. The quick blow had passed through slow strangulation to stalemate, with the aggressor's suffering no less than the victim's.

The nervous Turks were tricked once more when the main relief force set out at last from Syracuse with 8,000 Spanish and Italian soldiers. A storm prevented half of them from landing but the Muslim commanders, unaware of this setback, hastily embarked their troops. Learning the truth, they made one more assault on Malta but the fresh opposing forces were too much for their dispirited men and on 8 September, the feast of the Birth of the Virgin, the Turks sailed home with only a quarter of their army intact, leaving Malta to its tattered peace.

Malta had lost 219 Knights and 9,000 inhabitants. Fortifications, villages, farms, crops were in ruins. But de Valette's genius quickly rekindled the islanders' spirit with a massive peacetime project; the building of a fortified city on Sceberras, the lofty spit of land between the two main harbors. This he called Valletta.

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