On 29 May 1453, after seven weeks of siege warfare the city of Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottoman forces of the Sultan Mehmed II, and with it the Byzantine Empire which had stood for over a thousand years as the gateway to the East and defender of the faith in lands far removed from the influence of Rome. Its demise had dealt a tremendous blow to Christian Europe even if few had been so distressed as to come to the assistance of the great city of Byzantium in the hour of its need.
Constantinople, or Istanbul as it was soon to be renamed, was to prove more than a mere bridge across the Bosphorus from Asia Minor to the European shore, it would become the centre of Ottoman power in the world, provide control over much of the Eastern Mediterranean, and serve as the base for 250 years of Islamic expansion West.
Muslim incursions into Christian lands would not proceed uncontested of course, and at the forefront of the resistance were Military-Religious Orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.
The Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Order of St John the Baptist, had long been a thorn in the side of Islam, though it hadn’t always been that way. Founded in the 1060’s by the Italian merchants of the Amalfi, they had received permission from the Sultan of Egypt to establish a hospice in Jerusalem and it wasn’t until the Crusaders captured the Holy City in 1099 that they became a warrior caste dedicated to the protection of Christian pilgrims in the East.
Made to leave Jerusalem after it surrendered to Saladin in 1187, they were forced to abandon the Holy Land altogether following the capture of the last great Crusader fortress at Acre in 1291 and the virtual elimination of the Outremer, or Christian presence in the region.
The Knights Hospitaller settled on the island of Rhodes but having successfully resisted siege sixty years earlier they were finally ejected by the Ottomans in 1522. The Order was to remain itinerant for the next seven years during which, with no base to operate from, they were to lose much of their wealth and most of their property. Indeed, so diminished had their status become that there was talk in Rome of dissolving the Order just as the Knights Templar had been 250 years earlier, if for very different reasons.
They were rescued from seemingly terminal decline by the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who granted them rights in perpetuity over the islands of Malta and Gozo along with the city of Tunis in return for their guarantee of protection for all three. The Charter made clear their obligation was to:
“Perform in peace the duties of their religion, for the benefit of the Christian community, and employ their forces and arms against the perfidious enemies of holy faith.”
The Emperor’s reward for his largesse was a single Maltese Falcon delivered to his person every All Saints Day, November First.
With no home of their own and little prospect of finding one the Knights Hospitaller had little choice but to accept the Emperor’s offer, even though they knew it to be a poison chalice for even the merest glance at a map of the Mediterranean would identify the strategic significance of Malta, situated as it was some 60 miles south of Sicily and almost equidistant between the Italian mainland and the North African shore. It commanded the main channel by which any shipping east to west or vice-versa must pass and with one of the best natural harbours in the Mediterranean was a haven for those raiding Ottoman shipping. It was already marked for conquest and any further Muslim expansion west would make it a prime target.
The Maltese Archipelago consists of two main islands, Malta some 18 miles long and 9 miles wide and Gozo some 8 miles long and 4 miles wide. They are separated by a narrow channel in which lies the small isle of Camino. It was a hot and dry landscape, 120 square miles of barren limestone and rock but what it lacked in comfort it more than made up for in importance and should it fall to the Ottoman’s it would not only give them control over the Mediterranean but be a stepping stone to the conquest of Sicily and an invasion of southern Italy, possibly even an advance on Rome itself.
By the 1550’s, the Mediterranean and its invaluable trade routes long fought over was a place of almost perpetual conflict as the Barbary Corsairs operating from ports on the North African coast increased their attacks on Christian shipping with one man in particular more feared than any other.
Turgut Reis, also known as Dragut or the ‘Drawn Sword of Islam,’ was almost 80 years old and had terrorised the Christian West for decades both as a Barbary Corsair and as an Admiral in the Ottoman Fleet and servant of the Sultan. Time and again he had defeated opponents more powerful than himself capturing hundreds of enemy ships and repeatedly landing on the shores of Italy and elsewhere to pillage and burn taking captive thousands for sale in the slave markets of North Africa.
Dragut and the other Corsairs had become such a problem, even raiding along the coast of Spain, that Philip II had raised a fleet to destroy them once and for all but the campaign ended in disaster when they were routed at Djerba off the coast of North Africa in May 1560.
The Ottoman Empire now had almost total control of the Mediterranean and an attack upon Malta appeared imminent but for the next five years little happened as Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent dithered. Either complacent in victory or distracted by problems further east he failed to exploit his dominance during which time the Catholic nations recovered their strength.
In 1557, the Knights Hospitaller elected the 62 year old French nobleman Jean Parisot de Valette as Grand Master, an ill-tempered man of violent disposition who had once been sentenced to four months in a ‘guva,’ quite literally a hole in the ground, for beating to death a man who had dared cause him offence. He did not then suffer fools easily but as a member of the Order for more than forty years and a veteran of many campaigns against the Turk including the fight for Rhodes he was both trusted and admired, if not much loved. He had also made himself a wealthy man attacking and capturing Muslim galleys during which he crossed swords with Turgut Reis many times, even on one occasion being taken prisoner and forced to serve as a galley slave upon one of his vessels before being released in a prisoner exchange.
When the previous Grand Master Claude de la Sengle died unexpectedly he was the obvious choice to replace him - it would prove a wise decision.
Regardless of Suleiman’s dithering Valette was not naive to his intentions and preferring coercion to persuasion he now co-opted Malta’s populace into rebuilding its fortifications and ordered that Knights Hospitaller elsewhere in Europe return to the island and make ready for war.
In the meantime, the Order’s galleys continued to attack Turkish shipping and in June 1564 its most notorious raider Mathurin d’Aux Lescout, known as Romegas, captured a number of ships that not only carried a great deal of treasure but many high-ranking Ottoman officials and one of the Sultan’s beloved daughters. Suleiman was furious and rumours soon spread that he was preparing for war, rumours Jean de Valette knew to be true for his spies in Constantinople had told him so.
An Ottoman Fleet comprising 193 ships carrying 40,000 troops set sail for Malta on 22 March 1565, under the command of Piyale Pasha, the victor at Djerba; but he wasn’t to be in sole command, responsibility for the campaign was shared with the Chief of the Army Mustafa Pasha, and the friction between the two was clear from the outset.
Piyale Pasha, whose primary concern was the Fleet, insisted that it be moored in Marsamxett Bay as near to the Grand Harbour as possible where it would be sheltered from any adverse weather and be protected from enemy attack but this would mean having to subdue Fort St Elmo which stood as the mouth of both harbours. Mustafa was no less adamant that the army should be landed on the other side of the island where it could advance on the weakly defended town of Mdina, gain control of the centre, and assault Fort St Angelo and Fort St Michael from the rear. It was a sound strategy but Piyale Pasha was adamant that the Fort would fall in just a few days and it was his argument which prevailed.
Valette had under his command some 500 Knights Hospitaller, 400 Spanish regulars, 800 Italian mercenary soldiers, and 3,000 Maltese volunteers, fewer than 6,000 men in total. A motley collection perhaps, but it had at its core well-trained and divinely inspired warriors for Christ.
By focussing his attention on Fort St Elmo, Piyale Pasha had inadvertently played into Valette’s hands. The Grand Master knew that he did not have the resources to be strong everywhere at the same time and now he didn’t have to be, at least for the time being.
The bombardment of Fort St Elmo began on 27 May from guns placed on Mount Sciberras overlooking the Fort and from batteries deployed north of Marsamexitt Harbour, some 60 guns in total including among them the ‘Great Bombard’ which fired a 155ib cannonball from a range of 3,000 yards.
In response, Valette sent more than half his cannons to the Fort which despite being of much smaller calibre firing a 10ib cannonball some 800 yards were to prove numerous and effective but he did not increase its garrison of 150 Knights, 400 regular/mercenary troops, and 1,000 militia instead sending reinforcements and supplies across the bay from his headquarters in Fort St Angelo at night and only when required.
Fort St Elmo was to come under the most intense and protracted bombardment then known to history but as long as it held out it bought Valette valuable time, time to strengthen his defences elsewhere, and time for the Viceroy of Sicily Don Garcia to assemble his forces and come to their relief as promised.
Turgut Reis arrived in Malta on 31 May, too late to change the strategy already adopted (though he did try) and angry that the Fort had not already fallen. He immediately ordered St Elmo completely invested and that galleys patrol the harbour to prevent its resupply. He also added his 30 guns to those bombarding the Fort directing them to target those defences already weakened by the barrage.
The Turks had stormed the ravelin and outer defences early during in the siege but any further advance stalled against the massed ranks of pike and musket they encountered at every breach made in the walls, and they too came under heavy bombardment. Francisco Balbi, a Spanish soldier who witnessed events from across the bay described the scene:
The darkness of the night then became as bright as day, due to the vast quantity of artificial fires. So bright was it indeed that we could see St Elmo quite clearly. The gunners of St Angelo were able to lay and train their pieces upon the advancing Turks, who were picked out in the light of the fires."
With supplies running low and little prospect of relief some in St Elmo began to despair but Valette ignored the reports of low morale and a breakdown in discipline determined that the Fort must be held as long as possible. When on 8 June he received a request that St Elmo be abandoned he was unequivocal in his response:
“If you will not die defending the Fort, then I shall send men who will.”
Shamed into remaining where they were, the siege continued.
Spirits were raised among the defenders when on 18 June Turgut Reis was mortally wounded by a cannon which having lowered its aim on his orders fired directly into the trench where he was standing. The legendary old Corsair died a little later plunging the Ottoman Camp into mourning and a deep sense of foreboding.
The pressure on Fort St Elmo continued however, and with more than 70,000 cannon balls having been fired at them so many breaches had been made in its walls it was no longer possible to defend them all.
On 23 June, after almost a month of bitter fighting Fort St Elmo fell - the defenders had fought almost to the last man just as the Grand Master demanded with only six who managed to swim the bay to safety surviving.
The following day was the Feast of St John the Baptist, Patron Saint of the Hospitallers, and Valette regardless of events insisted that the festivities go ahead as usual. The sound of hymns being sung and the torchlight processions as night infuriated Piyale Pasha who ordered the corpses of those Knights who had fallen to be decapitated, tied to rafts in imitation of the crucified Christ and floated in the bay with their chests and stomachs ripped open. Valette responded by ordering that all his Turkish prisoners be similarly decapitated before firing their severed heads into the Ottoman lines.
Piyale Pasha’s frustration had only been increased by the 6,000 men, many of them elite Janissaries who had been killed capturing a fort he had confidently predicted would fall in days.
The loss of St Elmo was greeted with dismay across Europe. If Malta should fall so might the entire Mediterranean. In England Queen Elizabeth wrote:
“If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.”
But no help was forthcoming from the Protestant States of Europe but 600 troops did arrive from Sicily. They were a welcome addition but too few to change the dynamic.
There was now a lull in the fighting as Piyale and Mustafa Pasha redeployed their forces for an assault on Fort’s St Angelo and St Michael. Meanwhile, Valette had put to good use the time gained by the heroic defence of Fort St Elmo; walls had been reinforced with earthworks, ramparts constructed, traps set, a chain laid across the channel that separated the Forts to prevent Turkish ships from entering, and a pontoon bridge hastily built. He had also drilled his troops in how to defend a fixed position – they were disciplined and they were ready.
On 15 July, Mustafa Pasha ordered an amphibious landing to be made on the Senglea Peninsular in preparation for an assault on Fort St Michael – it did not go well.
As the slow moving flotilla of 100 small craft carrying 1,000 Janissary troops and weighed down with supplies passed within 200 yards of Fort St Angelo and the 5 cannon that had been sited at ground level specifically to counter just such a move they were sitting targets. Unable to manoeuvre or make haste chaos ensued as again and again the cannon fired their shot ripping into the boats, tearing them apart, and smashing them to pieces. Not one survived to land its cargo and 800 men were drowned.
The disastrous attempt at an amphibious landing was just part of a more general assault, however.
The bombardment was sustained by the ships moored offshore some of which had been dismantled to make siege engines which they then covered in leather strips and doused in water to protect against fire while troops attacked the two forts from the landward side. Valette ordered his artillery to focus their fire on the siege engines while any breaches made in the walls were defended by a mass of pike and musket.
Impeded by fire loops (wheels covered in combustible materials and set alight) rolled down from the hillsides on the approaches to the forts the Turkish attacks were repulsed time and again. With casualties mounting the Turks now began to mine beneath both forts but the rocky terrain rendered their efforts fruitless.
Unable to make progress against the forts on 18 August Mustafa Pasha shifted the focus of the attack to the less well defended town of Birgu to their rear. He had probed the town’s weaknesses earlier on 7 August in an attack that had been so successful it appeared it might fall there and then but they had been forced to withdraw fearing an attack from the rear following a fearful massacre at the Ottoman Field Hospital carried out by a cavalry detachment commanded by Vincenzo Anastagi skirmishing out of Mdina.
Anastagi had been fortunate in stumbling across the main Ottoman Field Hospital and finding it undefended but for many of the Turks it was the final straw and their morale never recovered. Even so, Mustafa Pasha would try once more and this time it appeared he might succeed as the town’s fortifications were easily breached and panic soon took hold of the defenders. Indeed, so bad was the funk that as the Turks swarmed into the town it was only the personal intervention of Jean de Valette who took up a pike and led his men in a desperate last ditch defence that saved the day.
The Turks had finally been ejected from Birgu but only after hours of bitter hand-to-hand fighting but encouraged by how close they had come to success they would try again the next day and this time they would bring their siege engines to bear. It was not something that could be done in secret and Valette forewarned acted accordingly. He had the stone chipped away from the walls where the siege engine stood and placed cannon in the space that had been made armed with chain shot. As the fighting reached a peak of intensity he had the cannon blow away the base of the siege engines causing them to collapse killing hundreds of men and creating chaos. A bloody debacle now ensued as Valette ordered a counter-attack and the Turks fled in panic and confusion.
A deep depression now descended upon the Ottoman Camp, a campaign that had been expected to be decisive and short had now dragged on for three months and with casualties mounting, ammunition low, supplies dwindling, and disease rife there was still no prospect of an end in sight.
Despite the victory of 19 August with much of the town reduced to rubble the elders of Birgu demanded that Valette allow them to withdraw to Fort St Angelo. He refused telling them the Turks were at breaking point and that it was no time to show weakness – he was right.
By the beginning of September the winds and the tides were changing and if they did not leave soon they would be forced to winter on the island where they would surely starve. Unable to remain any longer the Turks began to disembark their army. A week later after repeated pleas to do so Don Garcia, Viceroy of Sicily landed on the north of the island with a relief force of 8,000 men who attacked with fury and little mercy a weary enemy desperate merely to flee and survive.
By 13 September the Ottoman Army had departed leaving behind 15,000 dead while many of those evacuated were malnourished, sick with disease, and carrying wounds – their defeat had been total.
Behind their defences Maltese casualties had been much lower with some 2,500 killed, though this amounted to around one-third of the total a high percentage of which were Knights Hospitaller.
Some 7,000 civilians had also been killed either in massacres or while labouring for the Turks.
A sense of relief swept Europe upon the news Malta had survived, and also a feeling of pride for it was in many respects the last great Crusader battle. It had been the Warriors of Christ not the soldiers of a King that had defeated the Muslim menace - it was then, God’s victory.
Following the siege Jean de Valette was much lauded but he declined the many honours that were offered including the Pope’s desire to appoint him a Cardinal. Instead he remained on Malta to supervise the building of a new fortified town that was to be named Valetta in his honour.
Old and worn out by his exertions he did not live to witness its completion. He died amid much lamentation on21 August 1568 aged 73, a hero of his time.
Piyale and Mustafa Pasha squabbled over who was to blame for the defeat but neither was singled out for punishment. Indeed, Piyale Pasha was promoted to the rank of Vizier and would go onto command what remained of the Ottoman Fleet following its defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The failure to capture Malta had halted further Islamic expansion west but it had not dimmed their ambitions and they would return again and again over the next century and a half – there was still much fighting to be done.