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A Turning Point For Europe: The Siege of Malta 1565

A Turning Point For Europe: The Siege of Malta 1565

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The Siege of Malta was one of the most pivotal battles in European history. The Great Siege, as it is sometimes referred to, occurred in 1565 when the Ottoman Empire invaded the island, which was at the time held by the Knights Hospitalier – or the Knights of Malta as they were also known.

It was the end of a long-running contest between a Christian alliance and the Ottoman Empire who battled to take control of the entire Mediterranean region.

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A long history of hostility

Turgut Reis, an Ottoman Admiral, and the Knights of Malta, had long since been enemies. The island’s position near the very centre of the Mediterranean made it a prime target for the Ottoman Empire, and if the Ottomans’s could successfully capture Malta it would make it easier for them to take control of other surrounding European countries.

In 1551, Turgut and Sinan Pasha, another Ottoman Admiral, invaded Malta for the first time. But the invasion proved unsuccessful and they instead transferred to the nearby island of Gozo.

A fresco depicting the arrival of the Ottoman Armada at Malta.

Following these events, the island of Malta expected another imminent attack from the Ottoman Empire and so Juan de Homedes, the Grand Master, ordered the strengthening of Fort Saint Angelo on the island, as well the construction of two new forts called Fort Saint Michael and Fort Saint Elmo.

The following years on Malta were relatively uneventful but the ongoing battles over the control of the Mediterranean continued.

The Great Siege

At dawn on 18 May 1565, an invasion, which became known as the Siege of Malta, began when a fleet of Ottoman ships arrived at the island and docked at Marsaxlokk harbour.

It was the job of the Knights of Malta, led by Jean Parisot de Valette, to protect the island from the Ottoman Empire. It is thought that the Knights had just 6,100 members (around 500 Knights and 5,600 other soldiers largely recruited from the Maltese population and other armies from Spain and Greece) compared to the 48,000 strong Ottoman Armada.

When other islanders saw the imminence of the siege many of them took refuge in the walled cities of Birgu, Isla and Mdina.

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The first place to be attacked was Fort St Elmo, which the Turkish invaders thought to be an easy target that had little defence. Despite this, it took over four weeks to capture the Fort, and in the process several thousand Turkish soldiers were killed.

Undeterred, the Turks continued to attack the island and launched assaults on Birgu and Isla – but each time they found resistance of a much greater level than they anticipated.

Malta witnesses a bloodbath

The siege lasted for over four months in the intense heat of the Maltese summer. It is estimated that around 10,000 Ottoman deaths were inflicted during the siege, and that around a third of the Maltese population and original number of Knights were also killed – and it was one of the bloodiest battles in history,

But, however unlikely it seems due to the imbalance in the power of each side, the Ottoman Empire was defeated and Malta was victorious. It is one of the most celebrated events in history and marked a new era of Spanish dominance in the Mediterranean.

A Turning Point For Europe: The Siege of Malta 1565 - History

The Great Siege of Malta in 1565 was a turning point in history, as it marked the limits of Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean and the first real victory of the Catholic forces of Spain and the Italian states in defeating the force of the Ottoman navy. Malta was a strategic island sitting at almost the midpoint of the Mediterranean Sea. While the Ottomans controlled the eastern Mediterranean after their conquests of Rhodes, Cyprus, and especially the destruction of a Catholic fleet at the Battle of Djerba in 1560, the ability of the Ottomans to expand into the western Mediterranean was hindered by the Catholic outpost in Malta. Controlled by the Knights Hospitalier, a combined force of Knights, Spanish, and others successfully repelled the Ottoman assault on the island in 1565 over several months and stemmed the tide of Ottoman naval expansion. However, there were several points where the Ottomans could have attained victory at Malta and taken the island. The following presents a potential history if they had.

In 1565, the Ottoman Empire took full control of the eastern Mediterranean with the capture of the island of Malta against a group of defenders formed from several Catholic nations. Malta served as another launching point for the Barbary pirates to prey on Spanish and Italian shipping. Many pirates became bolder with their attacks, including the coastal attacks on Palermo, Agrigento, and Catania the 1570s.

The capture of Malta als marked the final phase of Ottoman expansion under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent who died in 1566. After Sultan Selim II secured the throne, he began thinking about wars of expansion of his own. In order to strengthen the Ottoman position, Selim further extended the alliance between the Ottomans and France to potentially bring an ally in Christian Europe into war with the Habsburgs in the event of another Habsburg-Ottoman war. With this alliance secured, Selim began plans to expand the Ottoman hegemony over the Mediterranean. After winning a war with Venice and other Italian states between 1570 and 1574, the Ottomans took control of Cyprus and all Venetian islands in the Aegean. Now only Crete and the Ionian islands remained as Venetian possessions outside the Adriatic Sea, and Venice was forced to pay a tribute to the Sultan to keep the islands. At the end of the war with Venice, Selim II died and was succeeded by Sultan Murad III.

During the regime of Murad III, the Ottoman Empire continued to focus on reigning in the Catholic powers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. As the pressure from the Safavids in Persia to the east had subsided while the dynasty was going through a succession crisis, Murad could focus on dealing with the situation in Europe. Ottoman diplomats continued to strengthen their ties with France as France was the main rival of both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. However, new develompents arose within the Catholic Church in the 1580s. The civil war in France had ended, and Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot, had achieved victory and was now king of France. Furthermore, relations between Spain and England had been worsening every year and the two countries were now on the brink of war.

Murad and his advisors managed to exploit these two events by drawing similarities between the Islamic faith and the practices of the Huguenots and others who had rebelled against the authority of the Pope in Europe. One major similarities noted by Murad III in correspondence with Queen Elizabeth I of England was that both the Protestant faiths and Islam rejected the worship of idols in their practices. Using these pretenses, the Ottomans became friendlier with both the French and the English, signing a trade agreement with England in 1587 for the importation of tin and lead to be used in Ottoman cannons.

These ties quickly developed into a military alliance as in 1588, Murad received an envoy from England stating that England had been attacked by a large armada sailing from Spain. Sir Francis Walsingham in England had requested military intervention by the Ottoman Empire to divert some of Spain’s naval forces. The Ottomans entered the war months later in early 1589 and began raiding Sicily and other Spanish islands in the Mediterranean. The war escalated quickly as Austria joined in against the Ottomans, France and the rebellious Low Countries declared war on Spain, and the German and Italian states sorted out their loyalties and entered the fray. By the end of 1590, virtually the entire European continent was at war. This war was like nothing the world had seen before and lasted for decades, with countries entering and exiting the war as the tides of the conflict constantly shifted.

Countries involved at the beginning of the war

Habsburg/Catholic side:
Electorate of Mainz
Electorate of Cologne
Electorate of Trier
Papal States

French/Protestant side:
Ottoman Empire
Electorate of Saxony
Electoral Palatinate
Electorate of Brandenburg

WI: Ottoman victory at Malta (1565)

They were discouraged by the Spanish and Italian navies,but the same thing about be said about the Spanish and Italian navies.After Lepanto,the Christians didn't have any successful venture into the east either,and the objective of the war,Cyprus,was lost.So the won the battle but lost the war.

Also,about Western Mediterranean,the Ottomans retook a good number of areas in North Africa,including Tunis.They are all in the Western Mediterranean.

You also have to take into account that the OE's probably overstretched and they have enemies other than the Spanish and the Italians.


They were discouraged by the Spanish and Italian navies,but the same thing about be said about the Spanish and Italian navies.After Lepanto,the Christians didn't have any successful venture into the east either,and the objective of the war,Cyprus,was lost.So the won the battle but lost the war.

Also,about Western Mediterranean,the Ottomans retook a good number of areas in North Africa,including Tunis.They are all in the Western Mediterranean.

You also have to take into account that the OE's probably overstretched and they have enemies other than the Spanish and the Italians.

I think your missing the point of the op's question. The Ottoman Empire was able to rebuild its navy but was not able to expand out of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea (Tunis being the exception).

Had the Ottomans destroyed the Italian and Spanish Navies and not have to rebuild theirs, how far could they have gone in additional Mediterranean conquests?

Also for the record, Tunis is part of the Central Mediterranean not West and since it's already in Muslim North Africa (which has a land border with the Ottomans), I wouldn't really say that it's reconquest of the Ottomans is a good example of continued Ottoman naval might after Lepanto. The Christian hold over the city wasn't that great and they were bound to lose the city sooner or later.


I think your missing the point of the op's question. The Ottoman Empire was able to rebuild its navy but was not able to expand out of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea (Tunis being the exception).

Had the Ottomans destroyed the Italian and Spanish Navies and not have to rebuild theirs, how far could they have gone in additional Mediterranean conquests?

Also for the record, Tunis is part of the Central Mediterranean not West and since it's already in Muslim North Africa (which has a land border with the Ottomans), I wouldn't really say that it's reconquest of the Ottomans is a good example of continued Ottoman naval might after Lepanto. The Christian hold over the city wasn't that great and they were bound to lose the city sooner or later.

I'm not responding to OP's question.I am just questioning his claim that Ottoman naval power declined after Lepanto.

As for Tunis,conquering it would require a navy.It's difficult to conquer cities or fortresses on the coast since they could be resupplied from the sea without a blockade.


What about having the Ottomans conquer Malta when they take the Island of Gozo in 1551, the disparity between the Knights and the Ottoman forces at that point was pretty ridiculous. The fortifications were weak or non-existant, the order was extremely weakened, most of the fleet was in Sicily, the Order was tearing itself apart through factionalism etc. It would honestly take very little for the Ottomans to take the Island in 1551.

Tripoli would likely fall soon afterwards. Without Malta it should ease the logistics between North Africa and the rest of the Empire. I think all you would need is for Sinan Pasha and Dragut Reis to get an idea of exactly how weakened the Order is. Another possibility would be for the Ottomans to realize that there were only about a dozen Knights in Mdina.


After Lepanto the Turkish fleet was never the same -- the quality of the ships were very poor being built so fast and the losses of quality seamen took a long time to recover. Increasingly the Westerners use of firepower also gave them a tech advantage.

Galleasses usually carried more sails than true galleys, and were far deadlier a galley caught broadside lay all but helpless, since coming broadside to a galleass, as with a ship of the line, exposed an attacker to her gunfire. Relatively few galleasses were built — one disadvantage was that, being more reliant on sails, their position at the front of the galley line at the start of a battle could not be guaranteed — but they were used at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, their firepower helping to win victory for the Holy League fleet, and some sufficiently seaworthy galleasses accompanied the Spanish Armada in 1588 (e.g. La Girona). In the 15th century a type of light galleass, called the frigate, was built in southern European countries to answer the increasing challenge posed by the north African based Barbary pirates in their fast galleys.

As to the battle of Malta i think if they had won but had the appalling losses of 25,000 - 36,000 it would have been a Pyrrhic victory. The distance form their true source of power in Constantinople made holding this outpost that much more difficult. I also thing the Holy League would have gained more support then it did from a Turk victory.

- More ships
- Better crusade on land that could have recaptured Constantinople?

The great siege of Malta: Tony Rothman recalls one of the turning points of early modern history, when a heroic defence prevented the rampant Ottoman forces from gaining a strategic foothold in the central Mediterranean.

AT DAWN ON MAY 18TH, 1565, one of the largest armadas ever assemb led appeared off the Mediterranean island of Malta. Its 200 ships had been sent by Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the vast Ottoman empire to destroy the Knights of Malta who had long been a thorn in his side. Aboard were crammed some 40,000 fighting men, including 6,000 of Suleiman's elite infantry, the Janissaries, not to mention another 9,000 cavalry and seventy huge siege cannon, one or two of which were capable of hurling 600lb stones a mile and a half. Opposing this force were just 600 knights, a few thousand mercenaries and a few thousand Maltese irregulars--in all between 6,000 and 9,000 men. Once Malta fell, which Suleiman's commanders thought should take a week, the Turks would evict the Spanish from Tunis and then invade Sicily and Italy.

Rarely in military history have the odds been so unequal and the stakes so high. Yet in dealing the first true defeat to the Ottomans in over a century, the Knights of Malta became the heroes of the age and the siege one of the most celebrated events of the sixteenth century. Nearly 200 years later Voltaire could write, 'Nothing is more well known than the siege of Malta'.

Yet, three centuries on and the events of 1565 have receded from the minds of even most military historians. No longer do you find it on lists of the 'seventy, most decisive battles in history'. Nevertheless, the siege captures the imagination of anyone who stumbles across it.

At the time the Ottoman empire was the most powerful in the European and Mediterranean world. Its slaving operations--and those of its vassals, the Barbary corsairs based on the coast of North Africa--were integral to its naval operations, although the empire itself allowed its citizens more freedom than many Christian states at the time. Religious refugees from Christendom made their way to the capital (and the world's largest city) Constantinople, where they could worship as they pleased. Suleiman himself was intelligent, highly educated, an accomplished poet and determined. He was also a highly experienced campaigner.

The stronghold of Suleiman's adversaries was decidedly not the setting of Christopher Marlow's Jew of Malta (c.1589-90), in which a rich Jew and the son of the Turkish Sultan could scheme against an unwitting governor. The island had been taken by Muslims in the ninth century, but reconquered by Norman Christians in the eleventh, and became part of the Kingdom of Sicily in 1127 it became part of the Spanish empire in the mid-fourteenth century. Malta was a rocky limestone island that had been deforested over the previous century by the demand for ship- and fire-wood, so what the inhabitants had to resort to burning cow dung for fuel. 'There was no such thing as any spring water, nor indeed, any well, and the inhabitants were forced to supply that defect by cisterns', in the words of one eighteenth-century historian. The population of Malta, and its neighbouring island of Gozo, totalled about 20,000, almost all of them poor, illiterate farmers or peasants who came to the small harbour town of Birgu--the Borgo--to labour at the docks. Such was the poverty that perhaps two-thirds of the women, whether married or not, worked openly as prostitutes. The main saving grace were two large harbours which could provide 'proper' anchorage for any fleet.

Since 1530 the Knights Hospi-taller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, as the Knights were properly called, had owned the island, which was ruled by the Order's Grand Master and its Council of Seigneurs. The Order, or Religion, as it was also known, had by then been in existence for over 400 years, having been founded during the First Crusade as an Order of nurses. Afterwards, it rapidly evolved into a unique organization whose first duty was to care for 'Our Lords the Sick', and whose second duty was to fight the infidel. In 1113, Pope Paschal II granted the Knights the right to choose their leaders without interference from the Holy See and the Order of St John became sovereign, beholden to none but Christ and the Pope.

The Religion's fortunes waxed and waned with the centuries. After the fall of Acre, the last crusader outpost in Syria, in 1291, the Knights seized Rhodes, where they remained for over 200 years, reinventing themselves into a naval force. With their tiny fleet (which officially never numbered above six or seven vessels), they preyed upon Turkish traders as part of the centuries-long guerre de course, or torso, between Muslims and Christians. The primary object of this legalized piracy was to seize the enemy's cargo, which included humans, who could be ransomed in order to fill the coffers of the treasury. Those who were not ransomed became galley slaves.

Since Sultan Mehmet II's capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans had increasingly dominated the Eastern Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the Knights' depredations on their shipping continued, and Mehmet laid siege to Rhodes in 1480. One of Suleiman's first acts upon ascending the sultanate in 1522 was to order the Knights off the island and when they refused, he commanded a second siege of Rhodes. After six months of resistance, the small garrison of Knights finally surrendered in exchange for Suleiman's offer of safe passage.

Seven years later, after endless negotiations with the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the latter offered the Order the islands of Malta and Gozo in perpetual fiefdom in return for one falcon sent annually to the Viceroy of Sicily.

The Knights reluctantly accepted the gift and there established a theocracy where the Grand Masters actively persecuted non-Catholics: in 1546 at least two members of the small Lutheran community were burned at the stake by the Inquisitor. The only Jews and Turks on the island were slaves, and carnal knowledge with either was punishable by ten years exile, or death by hanging.

Tensions between the Knights and the Ottomans continued to escalate. As part of his offer of Malta, Charles V had insisted that the Knights also garrison Tripoli on the Libyan coast of Africa, which lay within the territory of the Barbary corsairs but which a Spanish force had seized in 1510. However, the feared Turkish corsair and naval commander Turgut, or Dragut, Reis also had his eye on Tripoli. Born as early as 1485, by the mid-sixteenth century the ageing corsair was terrorizing the central and eastern Mediterranean with his small fleet of galleys.

In 1551 he and the Ottoman admiral Sinan decided to wrest Tripoli from the Knights. En route, they invaded Malta with a substantial force of 10,000 men. Only several hundred Knights were on the island and the assault might well have spelled the end of the Order of St John, but Turgut mysteriously broke off the siege, sacked Gozo instead and carried off the entire population of about 5,000 into slavery. Continuing on to Tripoli, he quickly forced the garrison there to surrender. Turgut became beylerbei, or governor, and the Ottomans controlled the entire eastern Mediterranean.

Anxious to be rid of the Turkish corsair, in 1560 Philip II of Spain assembled the largest armada in fifty years to evict him. But the expedition, which consisted of about fifty-six galleys and 14,000 men, was surprised and utterly destroyed by the Turkish admiral Piyali Pasha off the Tunisian island of Djerba. The surviving forces holed up in a fort on the island. After a siege of nearly three months the garrison surrendered. Some 9,000 men perished and 5,000 were taken in chains to Constantinople. It was Christendom's greatest naval disaster since the ill-fated invasion of Algiers in 1519.

The siege of Malta was the climax of this escalating chain of events. The match that ignited the powder-keg was the exploits of the Order's notorious seafarer, Fra Mathurin aux Lescaut, better known as Romegas. Nothing is known about Romegas' early career except that he was born in Provence, professed as a Knight in 1547 at the age of eighteen and quickly established a reputation as a fearless marauder. Within a few days during 1564, he captured several large Turkish merchantmen, one of which carried a cargo belonging to the Chief Eunuch of the Seraglio, valued at 100,000 Venetian gold ducats. Romegas took about 300 prisoners, among them the governor of Cairo, the governor of Alexandria and Giansevere Serchies, the former nurse of Suleiman's daughter, returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

By this time Suleiman, was eyeing Italy for an invasion. The Spanish still controlled La Goletta, off Tunis, the largest fortress on the Barbary coast and Christian forces had just seized the Penon de Velez, an important Moroccan fortress. Romegas' captures provided a causus belli. By the end of 1564, Suleiman had decided to wipe the Knights off the face of the earth.

Fernand Braudel, whose Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) is the standard history of the period, begins his discussion of the siege of Malta by asking, 'Was it a surprise?' No one has ever claimed it was. The Turks had sent spies disguised as fishermen to Malta the previous summer to survey the fortifications, later building a scale model of the island in Constantinople. The Grand Master Jean de Valette, meanwhile, had his own network of agents in place in Constantinople, headed by Giovan Barelli, which kept him informed of Suleiman's intentions. A master of languages, Barelli pulled off one of the greatest espionage coups of the age: to smuggle out a complete report of the Turkish invasion plans as they were being decided.

In an attempt to avert an invasion, the Grand Master ordered a diversionary attack on Malvasia (known in Greek as Monemvassia) in the southeastern Peloponnese. This tiny island had been ceded by the Venetians to the Turks around 1540. Connected to the mainland by a causeway, Malvasia was a natural fortress akin to Gibraltar and hardly less impregnable. In September 1564 de Valette sent a small force led by Romegas to scale the rock at night and seize the garrison above. The plan misfired: Romegas' men failed to find a path to the summit and when news of the expedition reached Suleiman, it only increased his determination to eradicate the Knights.

But the Lord of Lords did not count on the ageing but remarkable Grand Master. Little is known about his early life. Universally referred to as 'La Valette', he was never called that during his lifetime. He was simply Jean de Valette, nicknamed Parisot, but in the decades following his death he became 'La Valette' in confusion with the name of the city he founded when the siege was over, La Citta Valletta. As a young Provencal, de Valette had survived the siege of Rhodes and was among those who arrived at Malta in 1530. He seems never to have left the island thereafter, except on his 'caravans' against the infidel. During one of these, in 1541 he was seriously wounded and made a galley slave Turgut himself evidently arranged for some leniency and after a year de Valette regained his freedom in a prisoner exchange. Captivity permitted him to add Turkish to his arsenal of French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic languages. The monument on Valette's tomb, erected twenty-three years after his death, gives his dates as 1494-1568, suggesting that he was seventy-one during the siege two eyewitness accounts, though, state that he was 'only' sixty-seven at the time.

De Valette rose in the ranks of the Religion, despite a violent temper: in 1538 he had nearly beaten a man to death and was sentenced to four months in a hole in the ground--then exiled for two years to Tripoli (as governor). In 1554 he was elected Captain General of the Knights' galleys. At constant loggerheads with the enemy, between 1557 and his death in 1568, de Valette captured nearly 3,000 Muslim slaves. At his death he reportedly owned 530, most of them probably as galley oarsmen.

As Grand Master he was a man of extremely conservative opinions. One of his first acts on being elected in 1557 was to ban stockings of mismatched colours, in order 'to avoid the ruin of man'. He hanged or gave long prison sentences to anyone who crossed him, and he also attempted to set up a collachio, an enclave in Birgu that isolated the Knights from the lay populace, in other words the prostitutes it failed.

Knowing an invasion was imminent, de Valette made preparations, recalling the Knights to the island, raising troops, laying in stores of food and water and improving the fortifications, which were already considerable. Decades of labour had gone into adding walls and bastions to the main stronghold on the Great Port, Castle St Angelo, which was by 1565 fairly impregnable. A smaller fort, St Elmo, which had been built in 1552, guarded the harbour entrance and a third, St Michel, built at the same time, protected Birgu from the inland side. But de Valette refused an offer of 3,000 troops from Don Garcia of Toledo, the viceroy of Sicily, telling him to send them to La Goletta instead. When the invading armada appeared on Friday, May 18th, de Valette was still frantically making preparations, but he was not surprised.

The exact size of the force Suleiman sent against Malta is in some doubt. The main eyewitness account, a diary of the siege written by the Spanish poet-mercenary Francesco Balbi, lists just under 30,000 'special forces', including the Janissaries and spahis (cavalry). He adds that the total number of invaders, including the corsairs who eventually arrived, numbered about 48,000. A lesser-known work by the Knight Hipolito Sans tallies quite closely with Balbi's. On the other hand, a letter from de Valette written four days after the Turks arrived says, 'the number of troops making land will be between 15,000 and 16,000', while in another letter written shortly after the siege, he gives 40,000 at the start. By any reckoning it was an overwhelming force, supplemented by nearly seventy siege cannon

A roll-call in early May had turned up 546 Knights and Serving Brothers. Balbi lists a total of exactly 6,100 defenders, half of them mercenaries, half Maltese irregulars. Giacomo Bosio, the Order's official historian whose massive account was published in 1588 and who seems to have had first-hand information, gives about 8,500 defenders. The disadvantages were not all on the Maltese side. Malta lies a thousand miles from Constantinople, and the Turkish fleet had to be provisioned en route for the army of 50-80,000 men to be fed on Malta, supplies needed to be brought from Barbary. Worse, Suleiman split the command between Vizier Mustafa Pasha, who was in charge of the ground forces, and Admiral Piyale Pasha who had routed the Christian fleet at Djerba Suleiman exhorted both to defer to Turgut in all decisions when the corsair arrived from Tripoli.

The bickering that resulted between the two commanders had disastrous consequences. Mustafa sensibly planned to attack the unprotected old capital Mdina, at the island's centre, then besiege the port of Birgu by land. Piyale, though, demanded to anchor his fleet in Marsamxett harbour, just north of the Great Port, both to shelter it from the sirocco and to be near the action. To do so required first reducing Fort St Elmo, on the narrow peninsula of Mt Sciberras and guarding both harbour entrances. Had Mustafa's plan been followed, the attack on St Elmo would have been unnecessary, but the Vizier relented, reasoning that to destroy the fort would take only a few days.

That is the traditional story. However, a letter dated December 7th, 1564, from 'one in Constantinople who usually tells the truth' (perhaps the spymaster Barelli), suggests that the Turks had planned from the outset to take Fort St Elmo first, establish a position at the mouth of the Great Port and besiege Castle St Angelo, even if that meant wintering on Malta. Perhaps Mustafa had thought better of the idea in the event attacking St Elmo proved a fatal mistake.

After three weeks of fighting, the fort still held. The few hundred soldiers stationed there withstood an unremitting bombardment from Turkish guns, which quickly reduced St Elmo to rubble, then fought off assault upon assault, some with as many as 8,000 attackers, according to Balbi. The defenders made extensive use of incendiary weapons--fire hoops, primitive flame throwers and grenades--while de Valette, determined to hold out until Don Garcia sent a relief, resupplied the fort each night across the harbour and evacuated the wounded. Nevertheless, by June 8th the Knights garrisoning the fort were on the verge of mutiny and wrote a letter--which despite publication in some popular histories has never been found--begging the Grand Master to allow them to sally forth and die with sword in hand. De Valette's response was to pay the soldiers, then shame them by offering to send replacements. Honour prevailed and the defence continued.

The siege of St Elmo left Mdina untouched by the fighting and it therefore served as a way-station for communication to Sicily, where Don Garcia was organizing a relief force. When Turgut arrived on Malta in early June, he saw that it was too late to correct the Turks' tactical error. Redoubling their efforts, the Turks eventually destroyed St Elmo and butchered the defenders almost to a man, but Turgut did not live to savour the victory. He died, probably on June 23rd, the day the fort fell, killed, according to Balbi and Sans, accidentally in an instance of 'friendly fire'.

Yet the Turks' success at St Elmo probably cost them the siege. They lost between 4,000 and 6,000 men, including half the Janissaries, while the defenders lost 1,300 men, including a quarter of the Knights. Disease, which would eventually kill another 10,000 or 15,000 of the besiegers, was also beginning to take its toll. Despite the losses, and Turgut's death, Mustafa persisted with the siege, in African heat, for another two months.

The bombardment of Birgu soon commenced. The town was surrounded by sixty-five to seventy large-calibre guns. Bosio speaks of two 'basilisks that could hurl stones of weight beyond measure'. The famous Turkish siege cannons screwed breech and barrel together to form a gun of twenty or more feet in length, and thirty tons in weight: Balbi mentions that their balls buried themselves 'thirty palms under the earth'. He also records that by the end of July, at the height of the bombardment, the thunder was so great it 'could be heard distinctly in Syracuse and even at Catania, forty leagues away', and that 'it seemed as if the end of the world had come'. The Maltese took refuge in large cisterns under their homes but ultimately, Balbi writes, 7,000 inhabitants perished.

Meanwhile, couriers were desperately passing to and fro between Mdina and Sicily. As word of the siege spread, soldiers and adventurers were arriving in Syracuse. In early July, apparently on the fourth attempt and aided by fog, the Viceroy's captain-general succeeded in landing 600 men and getting them into Birgu. This small relief lifted spirits, but Mustafa was unrelenting.

On July 15th, he launched a massive double assault on Senglea, a peninsula in the Great Port occupied by Fort St Michel at the inner end. The Turks ported a hundred small boats over Sciberras into the harbour and attacked Senglea by water, while 8,000 troops attacked the fort by land. The sea assault would have succeeded and Malta fallen that day, had not the Turkish boats come into range of a sea-level battery that de Valette had constructed at the base of Castle St Angelo. Several salvoes destroyed the vessels and most of the attackers drowned. He had also constructed a floating bridge to allow reserves to cross from Birgu to Fort St Michel, with the result that, after a day of ferocious fighting (costing the Turks, Balbi says, another 4,000 men), the fort held.

Still no end was in sight. On August 7th, Mustafa launched another massive assault against Fort St Michel, as well as against Birgu itself. This time, the Turks breached the town walls, the old Grand Master went forth to fight with his troops, and was wounded. It seemed as if the end had come, but the Turks miraculously broke off the attack and retreated, believing the Christian relief force had arrived. In fact, cavalry Captain Vincenzo Anastagi had sallied forth from Mdina, massacring the sick and wounded Turks left in the unprotected field hospital.

Anastagi's actions have subsequently been excused with the observation that the concept of mercy in battle was nonexistent. When Mustafa took Fort St Elmo he had beheaded and disembowelled the bodies of the commanding Knights and floated them across the harbour to St Angelo de Valette had retaliated by decapitating his Turkish prisoners and firing their heads across the harbour. Yet, Bosio described how after the assault on Senglea some Turks 'threw down their arms, demanding "good war"'. To no avail: such was the thirst for vengeance on the part of the Maltese that the Grand Master had these prisoners tortured and thrown to the crowd.

After the battle of August 7th, the spirit of the Turks seems to have flagged, though they continued the bombardment and launched at least one more major assault against St Michel and Birgu. At some point in August the Council of Seigneurs made a decision to abandon the town and retreat to Castle St Angelo. De Valette refused to desert his subjects who had fought so bravely, and vetoed the proposal. He apparently realized that the enemy was becoming as exhausted as the defenders, and, indeed, the Turks did not at once re-attack.

Accounts of the siege's final weeks are hazy as Balbi's diary becomes increasingly sparse. A deadly and ingenious game ensued, of mining and countermining, with single combats between men carrying flamethrowers. The Turks attempted to build a bridge to St Michel in order to storm it a Maltese engineer lowered himself over the fortress wall in a protective shell to cut a hole to allow a cannon to be trained to destroy the bridge. The Turks raised a siege tower, but the engineers tunnelled out through the rubble of the fort and with a point-blank salvo of chain-shot destroyed the tower's legs.

Increasing desperation overtook the Turks. Towards the end of August the Janissaries mutinied, then Mustafa ordered an abortive attack on Mdina in order to winter there. A long letter from Captain Anastagi, the liaison with Sicily, of August 11th, to Ascanio della Corgna, one of the commanders of the assembling relief force, observes:

Anastagi's letter drips with disdain for the enemy, but his job was to persuade the leaders of the long-awaited relief that Malta would be a romp. Indeed, he claimed that only 22,000 troops arrived to begin with, a number closer in line with de Valette's initial estimate than with Balbi's perhaps the Turks lost simply because they didn't bring enough men, and Balbi and others later inflated the size of the invading force.

Eventually, the siege ended in exhaustion. By September the weather was turning in the rain the survivors had to resort to using crossbows instead of arquebuses. Food was running low but the defenders were not starving: Balbi speaks of exchanging bread for melons with the Turks, and Anastagi writes that in Mdina, cattle remained plentiful, although the wine had run out.

The Turks knew that winter was upon them. After the abortive march on Mdina they began embarking their artillery and by September 8th, the siege was over. The day before, about 8,000 of Don Garcia's men had finally arrived from Sicily. On September 11th they engaged the demoralized Turks at the battle of St Paul's Bay, after which the survivors scrambled into their galleys and vanished over the horizon.

How many men died? According to Balbi, 35,000 Turks Bosio, 30,000. An anonymous Breve Narratione states precisely 26,654, while yet another source gives 23,000. About a third of the defenders perished, and a third of the Maltese population. Traditionally, it is said that by the end only 600 of de Valette's men could walk.

Money now poured into Malta, allowing the slow reconstruction of Birgu, which had been levelled by 100,000 cannonballs, as well as the construction of the first modern planned city, the fortified La Valletta, named after the Grand Master, on the slopes of Mount Sciberras.

For his slowness in organizing the relief expedition, Don Garcia became the villain of the piece and most writers have him dismissed from his post, although he remained viceroy until 1568 and served as chief adviser to Don John of Austria at Lepanto three years later. Moreover, the correspondence between de Valette, Don Garcia and Philip II of Spain makes it fairly clear that if Don Garcia was cautious, he was cautious because the King Philip was more so.

Partisans of the Turks have pointed out that the failure of the siege did nothing to alter the balance of power, that the Ottomans continued to control the eastern Mediterranean, just as they were quickly able to do even after the battle of Lepanto off Corfu, six years later, which saw the destruction of the Turkish armada at the hands of a Christian armada led by Don John. Even so, the stand on Malta prevented another battle for North Africa at La Goletta, which the Turks had intended to take immediately afterwards, and stopped a possible invasion of Italy. And it showed that the previously invincible Ottoman empire could be halted. In that sense Malta was more decisive than Lepanto, and the Knights--and especially de Valette, who died before his new city was complete and now lies in its cathedral--were showered with honours.

Francesco Balbi di Correggio, The Siege of Malta, 1565, translated by H.A. Balbi (Copenhagen, 1961) Abbe deVertot, The History of the Knights of Malta, vol II (London: 1728 reprint Malta, 1989) Giovanni Bonello, Histories of Malta, vols. I-III (Valletta, 2000-2002) H.J.A. Sire, The Knights of Malta (Yale University Press, 1994) Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (University of California Press, 1995) Godfrey Wettinger, Slavery in the Islands of Malta and Gozo (Malta, 2002) Francisco Balbi di Correggio, The Siege of Malta 1565, trans, by Ernle Bradford (Folio Society, 1965 Penguin reprint 1985).

See page 62 for related articles on this subject in the History Today archive and details of special offers at www.historytoday.com

Tony Rothman has recently completed a novel about the Great Siege of Malta whose working tide is The Course of Fortune. He lectures in physics at Princeton University.

Fortification of the island

A painting from shortly after the Great Siege, showing the overall geography and defenses of the Great Harbour area.

After the invasion of Gozo and loss of Tripoli, the Knights were quick to build more fortifications. The slight silver lining to these defeats was that the Knights’ forces no longer needed to be divided: Tripoli was now in Ottoman hands, and there was no longer any real need to fortify or even garrison Gozo, leaving the Knights to focus on Malta itself.

The site of the siege to come

The Knights’ presence on Malta was centered around the Grand Harbour area, on the northern side of the island. The geography of the area is just about perfect for defense: two bays directly adjacent to each other, sharing the mountainous Xiberras peninsula as a common harbour wall and with both harbour mouths extremely narrow.

In addition, the eastern harbour is broken up by a further two peninsulas with narrow bases jutting out westward from the eastern shore – Birgu and Senglea – that are home to towns of the same name, and whose tips come close to the Xiberras peninsula. At the time, the eastern bay was referred to as the Grand Harbour, while the western bay was known as Marsamxett.

The Forts St Elmo, St Angelo, and St Michael

At the time of the first attack, the only major and up-to-date fortification in the area was Fort St Angelo, at the tip of the Birgu peninsula (the northern of the two fortified peninsulas). This dominated the interior of the Grand Harbour and provided refuge for the inhabitants of Birgu and Senglea.

After the attack, the Knights significantly strengthened Fort St Angelo, and constructed two new forts: St Michael, protecting the base of the Senglea peninsula, and St Elmo, which they constructed at the very tip of the Xiberras peninsula, overlooking the entrances to both the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett. These were all gunpowder fortresses designed using the latest in defensive technology, and featured thick, angled, cannon-resistant walls, overlapping fields of fire, multiple layers of defense, and deep, difficult ditches that attackers have to cross while under fire.

In addition, the Knights had by this point installed a thick, firmly anchored chain across the mouth of the Grand Harbour, another between the tips of Birgu and Senglea, and a third between the bases of Birgu and Senglea. These chains, when slack, would lay along the seafloor. When tightened, however, they formed a line near the water’s surface. Any ship that tried to pass the chain would have its wooden bottom ripped off, and cutting the chain from a boat while under fire from the forts would be just about impossible. Thus, the harbours were secure as long as the forts held.

Mdina, the old capital

Significantly inland from the Grand Harbour is the city of Mdina. Before the arrival of the Knights, it had been the capital of the island, and the seat of its nobility. However, the Knights immediately snubbed the attempts of the city’s officials to cozy up to their new lords. Instead, the Knights opted to have their capital at the much more defensible city of Birgu, on the Grand Harbour, where their all-important fleet would be based.

However, Mdina remained an important city on the island, and while its defenses were not turned into arguably the greatest in the world, as at the Grand Harbour, the Knights did opt to reinforce them in the 1530s. The city was thus defensible enough that taking it would require significant investment, while simultaneously being completely non-vital to the Knights’ operations.

It would certainly not fall as easily as the Citadella of Gozo had.

The Grand Siege of Malta 1565 – Part 4

The siege of St Michael, showing the Christian Knights cut off from the sea and surrounded in their remaining fortresses of Birgu, St Angelo and St Michael.
Royal Museums Greenwich [Public domain]

Senglea and Birgu

On the day St Elmo fell La Valette received news that a relief force had landed in the north of the island. Under pressure from the Order, the Viceroy had sent two of his galleys to accompany two ships of the order. The relief force was under the command of Chevalier de Robels and consisted of 42 Knights, 20 Italian gentlemen volunteers, three Germans, two English soldiers of fortune who had been forced to flee England because of their Catholic beliefs and 600 Spanish troops. Upon landing they learned that St Elmo had fallen and decided to attempt to slip through Turkish lines to Birgu at night. The force skirted the Turkish camp in an unseasonal mist Boats were waiting to ferry them across to Burgu and they arrived without losing a single man. They had been extremely lucky. To wild cheering, the next morning their banners were displayed in the town so that the Turks could clearly see them.

Mustapha blinked. A few weeks ago he had wanted to slaughter every Christian on the island, but his losses at St Elmo led him to the decision to offer the Knights the same terms that they had been offered at Rhodes. He sent an old Christian slave from his household to offer these terms. The old man was led blindfolded through the city and stood before La Valette. The Grand Master listened passively while the slave outlined Mustapha’s terms and then said, “Hang him.” The old man fell down and begged for his life, which was what La Valette had wanted. He then showed the slave the defences, the ditch and his cannon and gave him a message to send back to his master: “Tell your master this is the only territory I will give him. There lies the land he may have for his own, providing he fills it with the bodies of his Janissaries.”

The old man was sent back to the Turkish lines where Mustapha flew into a rage at the way his terms had been rejected. All of the Knights would die. On 15 July, Mustafa ordered a double attack against the Senglea peninsula. He had transported 100 small vessels across Mt. Sciberras to the Grand Harbour, thus avoiding the strong cannons of Fort St. Angelo, in order to launch a sea attack against the promontory using about 1,000 Janissaries, while the Corsairs attacked Fort St. Michael on the landward end. Luckily a defector warned La Valette about the impending strategy and the Grand Master had time to construct a palisade along the Senglea promontory, which successfully helped to deflect the attack. Nevertheless, the assault probably would have succeeded had not the Turkish boats come into point-blank range (less than 200 yards) of a sea-level battery of five cannons that had been constructed by Commander Chevalier de Guiral at the base of Fort St. Angelo with the sole purpose of stopping such an amphibious attack. Just two salvos sank all but one of the vessels, killing or drowning over 800 of the attackers. The land attack failed simultaneously when relief forces were able to cross to Ft. St. Michael across a floating bridge, with the result that Malta was saved for the day.

Mustapha moved up 65 siege guns to ring Birgu and Senglea and subjected the two peninsulas to what would be the most sustained bombardment of that time that could be heard 100 miles away. Having largely destroyed one of the town’s crucial bastions, Mustafa ordered another massive double assault on 7 August, this time against Fort St. Michael and Birgu itself. Despite being 70 he personally led his Janissaries into action, his sword drawn. On this occasion, the Turks breached the town walls and it seemed that the siege was over, but unexpectedly the invaders retreated. Mustapha had received a message that a large force of Christians were attacking his rear echelon.

Destruction of the Turkish Camp

The latter part of the siege – Google Map on Power Point slide

With their attention focused on Fort St Angelo on Birgu and Fort St Michael on Senglea, the Turks had only a few guards on their camp. Mdina was able thus far to operate unhindered, which would not have been the case if the Turks had followed their original plan. Hearing the huge bombardment from Birgu and Senglea, Mdina’s governor made an inspired decision and ordered Chevalier de Lugny to attack the Turkish camp with his cavalry. The mounted force skirted well down to the south and formed up to attack. The cavalry wrought havoc in the camp, cutting away tent ropes and slaughtering all in the Turkish field hospital. Horses were captured and those than couldn’t be taken were hamstrung. When Mustapha surveyed the carnage for himself he grimly said: “By the bones of my fathers I swear that when I take these citadels, I will spare no man. All will be put to the sword. Only their Grand Master will I take alive. Him alone I will lead in chains to kneel at the feet of the Sultan.”

A few days later La Valette and Sir Oliver Starkey were reading the latest dispatch from Don Garcia de Toledo, which promised a force of 16,000 troops before the month’s end. The Grand Master was sceptical and observed: “We can rely no more on his promises.” That night he addressed his council with these words: “I will tell you now, openly my brethren, that there is no hope to be looked for except in the succour of Almighty God, the one only true help. He who has up to now looked after us, will not forsake us, nor will he deliver us into the hands of the enemies of the Holy Faith. My brothers, we are all servants of Our Lord and I know well that if I and all those in command should fall, you will still fight of for liberty, for the honour of our order and for the Holy Church. We are soldiers and we shall die fighting. And if by any evil chance the enemy should prevail we can expect no better treatment than our brethren who were in St Elmo. Let no man think that there can be any question of receiving honourable treatment, or of any escaping with his life. If we are beaten we shall all be killed. It would be better to die in battle than terribly and ignominiously at the hands of a conqueror.”

In fact the Viceroy’s view was that Malta would fall and he was reluctant to throw the empire’s troops into what was a lost cause. Sicily and Southern Italy would be next and these troops would be better served defending their homelands. However, the islands had been King Phillip’s gift under feudal law and the Knights had always acknowledge their obligations under this law. The Viceroy seemed to finally understand his responsibility, but time was running out.

The Endgame

Mustapha now undertook a more conventional approach to siege warfare and begun mining operations and built siege towers. The mine would extend under the walls, propped up by timbers, which could be pulled away, packed with explosives or burned to collapse the walls above. Egyptian engineers toiled below in the darkness while the defenders listened avidly for the sounds of mining. Even with the bombardment the faint sounds of mining could be heard. Mustapha’s mistake was in concentrating his bombardment of Senglea in the one place the mining and siege tower would attack.

The Turks were hoping that an attack on Senglea would drew Christian troops across from Fort St Michael, where Paili waited with his troops to attack. Mustapha’s forces made a mass attack on Senglea but La Valette did not summon reinforcements from Birgu. In frustration Mustapha ordered the mine to be exploded and a vast portion of the defensive walls heaved and crumbled. Panic spread and the Christian troops began to fall back. La Valette was in his forward position in the town square but he was not wearing armour. He grasped a pike from one of his guards and ordered his entourage to follow him to the breach. This inspiring act of leadership prevented a rout.

Other Knights fell in with him as well as townspeople and they hacked their way into the breach. La Valette was wounded by splinters from a grenade and was advised to withdraw. The Grand Master knew this could reverse the situation and he carried on in the thick of it with his men. The Turks fell back and their banners were captured to hang in the church of the Order. At dusk the bombardment resumed as did the constant attacks. The hospital became choked with casualties and there was no concept of “walking wounded.” If one could walk one was not wounded. The Grand Master had his wounds dressed and remained in the breach, while all through the night attackers and defenders were doused by flame weapons. An attempt was made to destroy the siege tower, during which La Valette’s nephew, a knight in the Order was killed. The siege tower couldn’t be destroyed by fire as it was covered with water soaked leather and by now it was positioned so that the Turkish snipers could fire down at the defenders on the walls. La Valette ordered a hole to be made, low on the wall near the base of the tower with the outer stone remaining in situ until the attack. The wall was breached for a cannon, which raked the base of the tower, the entire structure crashing down on the Turkish attackers. The hole in the wall was immediately repaired to prevent a counter-attack.

By now the Turks were having problems. Their troops were becoming more reluctant to attack and face almost certain death. Their supply ships were being picked off by the increasing numbers of Christian galleys and their food supplies were running low. If Mustapha did not leave in the next few months, the winds would hamper him making the trip back to Constantinople. Piali’s concern for his ships looked like the Muslim forces would fail in the campaign. However, the Christian defenders were still having to stave off attacks, with 8,000 Turks attacking St Michael. A second tower was constructed at Birgu, this time with a reinforced base and it was ran up against the walls. La Valette ordered the base of the wall to be dug away again and this time, a body of knights climbed up the outside of the tower and hewed their way through the snipers at the top, moving down to clear it. This time it was occupied by the Christians and became part of the defences.

On the 23rd August the Grand Council met and every Knight was asked for his assessment of the situation. It was generally felt that the walls of Birgu were so weakened by shot and mining that the town should be abandoned with the forces moving into St Angelo. La Valette disagreed, pointing out that the fort was too small to take the population of Birgu and he would not abandon the Maltese to their fate with the Turks. He would leave only sufficient men in St Angelo to man the guns and had the drawbridge that connected the fort to the town destroyed. On the walls of Birgu they would be either victorious or fight to the death. No abandonment, no retreat, no surrender.

The Turks had arrived with sufficient supplies to support a siege lasting four weeks. The defenders had gathered all of the harvest and moved all the livestock into the defences. The Turkish troops had to move in supplies from North Africa and they were short of powder. Some of the guns were wearing out and the short bombardments preceded an attack. Mustapha had expected a large supply ship from North Africa, but he learned Christian galleys had captured it. They now had barely enough rations to make it home. At the beginning of September, the weather was turning and Mustafa ordered a march on Mdina, intending to winter there.

Mdina was believed to be poorly defended and ready to fall like a ripe plum, however the attack failed to occur. It looked impressive but the walls were old and crumbling and apart from the cavalry, the garrison was tiny. But Chaveliar don Mesquita was a clever man as demonstrated by the destruction of the Turkish camp. The poorly-defended and supplied city deliberately started firing its cannon at the approaching Turks at pointlessly long range this bluff scared them away by fooling the already demoralised Turks into thinking the city had ammunition to spare.

The End of the Siege

Lifting of the Siege of Malta by Charles-Philippe Larivière (1798–1876). Hall of the Crusades, Palace of Versailles.
Charles-Philippe Larivière [CC BY-SA] In Sicily the Knights of the Order were becoming angry at the Viceroy’s prevarication and demanded to be sailed to Malta On 25th August a relief force of 25 galleys and 9,000 men headed for Malta, but were turned back twice by storms. Meanwhile, La Valette concocted a plan to further undermine Turkish morale. He had a Muslim slave working in the counter-mines overhear officers discussing a relief force of 16,000 troops, that was landing in the north of the island. He then arranged for the slave to escape and reach Turkish lines, where he duly repeated the overheard conversation to Mustapha, who dolefully ordered an evacuation of the island.

By 8 September, the Turks had embarked their artillery and were preparing to leave the island, having lost perhaps a third of their men to fighting and disease.

On 22nd August the relief force under the naval command of Don Garcia, finally set sail. Bad weather again split the fleet, but Admiral Paili failed to act and attack the advance guard of the Christian ships, which would have been heavily outnumbered. The vanguard of some 4,000 Christian troops were landed on the north of the island and they immediately advanced to Mdina. After making contact with the garrison, they marched east towards a deserted St Elmo, finding no sign of the Turks. One of the Knights ran up the colours of the Order and Fort St Elmo was re-occupied by the Hospitallars. Everything the Turks had gained in two months was lot in 24 hours.

Even while loading the Turks learned of the relief force and Mustapha reasoned that defeating this small number would put new heart into the Turks. The forces met south of Mdina and the Knights of the Order charged downhill, supported by the Order’s cavalry, which hit the Turkish forces in the flank. The Turks who had thought that they were going home after an easy skirmish with the infidel, broke in panic. The Janissaries made a fighting withdrawal back to the ships, constantly harried and cut down by the smaller Christian force. The fighting continued into the water and several Knights died of heat exhaustion in their armour, while the Order’s gunners poured fire down on the boats and crews of the ships. There was carnage and confusion in the bay, as the Turks struggled to reach their ships. Mustapha was in the last boat to leave and the Turks left the shores of Malta, never to return.

Mustapha sent a dispatch by fast ship to inform Sultan Suliman what had happened, hoping his anger would have subsided by the time they reached Constantinople. The Sultan vowed to personally lead an attack on Malta the next year, but he died on a campaign in Hungary. The Turkish commanders slid into obscurity and the decline of the Ottoman Empire began, something that the world can be profoundly grateful for, but it didn’t come soon enough for the Armenians.

The pope offered to personally present La Valette a “red hat,” but as he was already a cardinal, the Grand Master declined. He had no wish for he, nor the members of the Order to become embroiled in Vatican politics. During the remaining three years of his life La Valette strengthened Malta’s defences and built the town of Valetta. He died in 1586 and the Order laid the last of the Crusader Knights in the newly-built cathedral of St John. Sir Oliver Starkey wrote the following epitaph:

Here lies La Valette, worthy of eternal honour. He was once the scourge of Africa and Asia and the shield of Europe, whence he expelled the barbarians, the first to be buried in this beloved city, whose founder he was.

Queen Elizabeth I expressed her views on the siege and wrote while it was underway:

If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.

On news of the victory she ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to give thanks in special services, three times a week for six weeks. Somewhat ironic given that Sir Oliver Starkey and the other two Englishmen present at the siege could have been put to death in their homeland for their faith.

In 2003, of the estimated 3,000 Muslims in Malta, approximately 2,250 were foreigners, approximately 600 were naturalised citizens, and approximately 150 were native-born Maltese. That was sixteen years ago so what is the demographics of the population now? Malta created its Office of the Refugee Commissioner (ORC) in 2001 and it began functioning in 2002. Since then, the country has received more than 15,000 asylum seekers, primarily from the Middle East and Africa. Malta ranked 10th out of the countries with the most refugees per capita, with 14 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, according to a UNHCR report. Malta’s fertility rate is below the EU average. However, the population has continued to grow in the last few years because of a large number of refugees and other immigrants. Only 9.2 percent of asylum seekers in Malta receive refugee status. The majority, 62.1 percent, receive subsidiary protection status. This allows them some, though not all, of the rights given to refugees. In 2005 the foreign population was 12,112 at 3.0% of the population. In 2019 it was 98,918 at 21.0%. That is not sustainable for a small island or any country for that matter.

Clearly Europe is facing an uncannily similar threat from a rapacious, invading horde, constantly sweeping in from the continent’s southern flanks. Europe has taken its eyes off the ball and is united under a new, “one true faith” the cult of environmentalism and its messiah, an unpleasant, deeply troubled, exploited and manipulated little girl. Children always have, and always will, play an important role in revolutionary history. Often seen as the future success, rising powers will devote a large portion of propaganda to training children. In Orwell’s 1984, all children take part in a group called the Spies. George Orwell’s ideas are based on some revolutionary powers of the 20th century, particularly Hitler Youth, and youth groups like the Spies have arisen since then (for example, North Korea’s Young Pioneers).

Even if Britain had the will to defend itself from this threat, which it doesn’t, it lacks the resources which are being ploughed into a socialist nirvana, the National Health Service. It’s pointless trying to stop the hordes because a stupid German woman wanted to expunge the legacy of National Socialism and prove to a world that the Huns are really quite nice. Because of her and the EU’s madness, they are already here.

Wargaming the Siege

For those one or two wargamers out there, the Siege of Malta has everything for an interesting campaign: a naval element with raids on the supply ships, the attrition of siege warfare on the forts and cavalry raids behind the lines. The book Malta 1565, published by Osprey ISBN 978 1 85532 603 3, has sensible additional rules to reflect firing, morale and close combat. It also has instructions in constructing the defensive walls and ditches in plaster of Paris, although expanding foam in a cardboard former is lighter and easier to work. For rules, try: George Gush’s Wargames Rules for Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries (1420 – 1700), ISBN 978-1-326-62827-7.

Malta vs. Ottoman Empire in 1565

The Knights Hospitaller The Ottomans
500 Knights Hospitaller 600 Spahis (cavalry)
400 Spanish soldiers 500 Spahis from Karamania
800 Italian soldiers 6000 Janissaries
500 soldiers from the galleys (Spanish Empire) 400 adventurers from Mytiline
200 Greek and Sicilian soldiers 2500 Spahis from Rumelia
100 soldiers of Fort St. Elmo 3500 adventurers from Rumelia
100 servants of the knights 4000 "religious" servants
500 galley slaves 6000 other volunteers
3000 soldiers from the Maltese population various corsairs from Tripoli and Algiers
Total: 6100 Total: 28500 from the East, 40000 in all

Although Ottoman forces earlier had taken Gozo and while Suleiman had won numerous battles elsewhere to expand the Ottoman Empire, the nearly four-month siege of Malta was unsuccessful for the invaders. The invasion though repelled by Maltese forces prompted additional use of limestone, as the new port city Valletta was founded in 1566, featuring towering limestone fortified walls.

The siege proved to be a singular turning point in the history of Malta, securing a strategic location in the defense of Europe. Malta’s cultural, economic, and military foci then never strayed from Europe, eventually extending to Malta’s entrance into the European Union in 2004 and the Eurozone in 2008. Additionally, the role of knights, prominent in Europe, gained prominence in Malta, with Europe’s Knights of St. John (the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem or the Knights Hospitaller) being headquartered there from 1530 to 1798.

Europe’s hold on Malta continued, but altered course with Napoleonic takeover of Malta in 1798, only to be quickly supplanted by British rule, starting in 1800. Malta remained a British colony until independence in 1964 with subsequent conversion to a republic in 1974.

Malta. Cartography by James McGinty

The second key point in Malta’s military history was World War II. As a British colony, obviously, Malta fought on the side of the Allies. This siege, 1940-1942, of course involved attacks by air as well as by sea. German and Italian aircraft bombed Malta repeatedly, as Allied forces sought to withstand and to repel the attackers. Winston Churchill likened Malta to “an unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Malta’s strategic value was at its highest during the war’s campaigns in North Africa. Overall, in three years of attacks, Malta’s military and civilians were put on alert over 3000 times. In fact, Maltese and Allied forces withstood the siege and defended Malta successfully. Malta’s usefulness as a base for navy and air force was important for the overall Allied victory in the war. British King George awarded the Maltese people in general the George Cross as a recognition of heroism. This George Cross became part of Malta’s national flag.

Photo by Zoltan Masi on Unsplash

E is for European. As a result of Malta’s victory over Ottoman invaders in 1565, Malta’s regional focus remained centered on Europe and did not turn toward the Muslim world. Subsequent rule by French and then British before eventually independence held that European perspective. One aspect of European culture in Malta is seen in language. Although the native language is Maltese, almost everyone can speak English. Two-thirds of the population can speak Italian and one-sixth French. Maltese language itself is a curious mix that reflects the island’s geographic position. Maltese is a Semitic language in the same family as Arabic, but a majority of its words have Latin derivations and it uses a modified Latin alphabet. Of the top ten countries sending tourists to Malta, the United Kingdom is number one, while the USA at number nine is the only non-European country in the top ten. Britain’s influence is seen in a variety of ways, including driving on the left side of the road.

FOE. Fortified Old European. Malta.

DId You Know?

The famous rock arch on Gozo known as the Azure Window collapsed in 2017 during a big storm.

The local soft drink is Kinnie, a bitter orange soda.

Mdina, Malta – Photo by Karl Paul Baldacchino on Unsplash.

On Malta, the walled city Mdina takes its name from the Arabic word “medina” which means “city.” This is a reminder that Arabs were one of many groups to live on the island.

The Grand Siege of Malta 1565 – Part 3

Fort St Elmo. The towers on top of the bastions are concrete coastal defences built in World War II
Juliana da Costa José [CC BY-SA 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

The Attack on Fort St Elmo

The Grand Master assumed that the Turks would continue to attack the forts of St Angelo and St Michael, but two Christian renegades who had become Muslims to save their hides defected to the Knights. One of them had been in Mustapha’s bodyguard and had been present and the stormy conference between Mustapha and his admiral Paili. The Grand Master learned that the primary objective would be Fort St Elmo, which gave the Knights more time to strengthen the defences of the southern forts. News was sent to St Elmo’s bailiff, Luigi Broglia that he would have the honour of receiving the first assault. Chevalier Pierre de Massuez had recently arrived from Messina with 400 men, who were fed into St Elmo’s garrison along with 64 knights who requested the honour of being in the vanguard of the fight. The Grand Master’s message to the garrison was simple: “St Elmo is the key to Malta.”

The main problem the Turks faced was the nature of the ground over which they were fighting. It was solid rock that prevented mining and there was no cover as siege lines could not be dug. Instead they used Gabions (baskets filled with stones) and it took several days to position the siege guns. These guns were huge and included 80 pounders and a 160 pound Basilisk. On the 24th May the bombardment began. Within hours the outer walls of St Elmo began to crack and Turkish snipers picked off any of the defenders who were careless in exposing themselves. By late May Mustapha repositioned some of his guns to fire on St Angelo, which was somewhat premature.

On the day the siege started La Valette heard from the viceroy of Messina that help from the rest of Europe would take some time. The Viceroy wanted to gather together a large relief force rather than feed small forces piecemeal into Malta for them to be slaughtered. The Knights were for the time being, on their own. Every fort had to be bitterly contested and the Grand Master was less than delighted when a delegation from St Elmo arrived telling him that the trench work and outer defences were crumbling and the fort was doomed. La Valette offered to go to St Elmo with a band of hand-picked Knights, but shame got the better of the delegation and they begged to be allowed to return. However, volunteers went to St Elmo on the boats every night to bolster the defenders. The Turks pushed their siege lines ever closer to the fort and the sniping intensified, from cover provided by cut vegetation. Admiral Piali was wounded when a Christian cannon ball sent up a shard of rock and then there was an unexpected sea battle.

Chevalier St Aubin had been on patrol off the African coast and he was one of the Hospitallier’s most able sea captains. The Grand Master had warned him that battle would already have been joined by the time he returned. St Aubin instead of turning away when he arrived off Malta and saw the Turkish blockade, sailed straight at the enemy ships. Piali sent out six ships to deal with this evident lunatic, but St Aubin engaged them with his bow chaser guns. It became obvious he couldn’t run the blockade and the ship turned away. Only one Turkish ship followed and St Aubin performed the classic move of turning his galley in its own length by stopping one side of oars and pulling hard with the other. The Turkish ship ran and St Aubin headed for Sicily. All of this had been witnessed by Piali who was beside himself with rage, because a single Christian ship had humiliated his fleet. He had been wounded twice in one day.

At dawn on 29th May, a sortie from St Elmo raided the Turkish siege trenches and sent into flight the Muslim vanguard and the engineers. Mustapha knew he must act quickly and he ordered the Janissaries forward into the attack and they went in vast numbers, driving the Knights back to the fort. When the dust and smoke cleared, the Janissary banners were seen on the outer defences of the fort, overlooking St Elmo’s inner walls. The next day the Turkish fleet was seen to manoeuvre close to the walls, each ship firing its guns at the fort’s harbour walls. It was a ceremonial rather than a tactical move as the guns of the ships were ineffective against the seaward outer walls and at least one of the Turkish ships ran aground. Also on that day, Dragut arrived from North Africa.

Although he was never officially appointed as such, Dragut was effectively Suliman’s de facto commander-in-chief and he was most displeased at what he found on his arrival. He believed that Mustapha’s original plan of capturing Mdina and the north of the island first, before moving on the Grand Harbour had been a good one. But the Muslim forces were where they were and the campaign was too far developed to change strategy at this point. He realised the reason St Elmo hadn’t fallen was the nightly re-supply boats from Fort St Angelo. He wanted to position ships off St Elmo to attack the boats coming across the harbour, but Paili would not countenance putting his ships in the harbour until St Elmo fell. Dragut’s final instructions were that the fort’s outer defences must be totally cleared and occupied, then he went and set up his camp in the siege lines. Dragut was 80, but he was still a fighting soldier and used to the privations of campaign life.

The Turkish positions during the siege. Note that the town of Valetta and the mole didn’t exist in 1565 – Power Point slide

The Knights watched in trepidation the setting up of Dragut’s guns on Gallows Point, where they would join the bombardment and enfilade the fort. The renewed bombardment began on 3rd June, St Elmo’s Day and the Order’s cavalry sallied out of Mdina and attacked the Turkish supply train, gun teams and put one of Dragut’s new batteries out of action. In the greater scheme of things this action would have no lasting effect, but it did tie down resources to protect the Turk’s vulnerable rear echelons.

Just before dawn on 6th June, a party of Turkish engineers were reconnoitring the area around St Elmo’s ravelins and saw no movement or sign of life. They were astonished to find the guards were asleep and they slipped away to make a report. The Janissaries were formed up silently and they advanced with scaling ladders. He silently climbed up on top of the ravelin and then an Iman shouted: “Lions of Islam! Now let the swords of the Lord separate their souls from their bodies, their trunks from their heads! Liberate spirit from matter!”

The white robed Janissaries surged forward. The ravelin was connected to the fort with a plank bridge and the survivors dashed back across it, while a cannon pice over the portcullis kept the Turks back. However the Janissaries surged up to the portcullis and began to fire on the defenders through it. The Knights had prepared for such an occasion and the brought their secret weapon into action, Greek fire. It was deployed in thin, ceramic containers, hurled up to 30 yards like a Molotov cocktail. They also had the Trump, a form of flamethrower fed by sulphur, resin and linseed oil, as well as hoops of wood, soaked in brandy and wrapped with wool impregnated with oil and black powder. The flowing Turkish robes caught fire and screaming human flares blundered around under the walls, setting their brothers on fire.

Seeing the carnage Mustapha called off the attack. The Turks had 2,000 dead and severely wounded against 10 Knights and 70 soldiers, but the Turks could afford to take so many casualties. That night the Knights went to offer prayer in the fort’s chapel and found one of their number, a mortally wounded knight had dragged himself in there and died in front of the alter. It was a grim reminder of the fate that awaited all of them and a touching reminder of the faith and heroism of Malta’s defenders. Where are our Knights Hospitallar today? I often ask myself?

The Fall of St Elmo

The commanders of St Elmo had come to the conclusion that the fort was no longer defensible. They sent Chevalier de Medran, a well-respected Knight to the council. Because he had been in the thick of the fighting since the outset, his views were listened to. In the meeting de Medran explained that the fort could no longer be defended, that all who garrisoned it would die and be unavailable to continue the defence of Malta elsewhere. Either way, the fort would fall. Some agreed with this assessment but the Grand Master did not. He pointed out that the Viceroy of Sicily would not risk his relief fleet if the harbour was occupied by the Turks and pointed out: “We swore obedience when we joined the Order. We swore on the vows of chivalry that our lives would be sacrificed for the faith, wherever and whenever the call might come. Our brethren in St Elmo must now accept this sacrifice.”

They all knew this was a death sentence, as did the 15 Knights and 50 soldiers from the Mdina garrison who volunteered to go back to St Elmo with de Medran. When he returned some of the younger Knights were less than delighted at the prospect of waiting for their fate in a crumbling fort. The begged to be allowed to sally out of the fort and meet their deaths taking on the Muslims in close combat, and sent a messenger to the Grand Master. His reply was curt and to the point: “The laws of honour cannot necessarily be satisfied by throwing away one’s life when it seems convenient.”

The Grand Master did however, commission a second report from three Knights from separate Langues. Two were of the opinion that the fort could hold out for perhaps two more days while the third, Chevalier Castriota was of the opinion that St Elmo could be held indefinitely with fresh men and a fresh approach. His views caused consternation, but the Grand master gave him leave to raise a force and 600 men volunteered to go into St Elmo. On his arrival Castriota read out a proclamation to those who had been conducting the defence: “A volunteer force has been raised… Your petition to leave is now granted… Return… to the convent… where you will be in more security… I shall feel more confident when I know that the fort… is being held by men I can trust implicitly.” After the letter was read out, nobody would have dreamed of leaving their post and a swimmer was sent across to the Grand Master, begging him not to relieve them. In the final event only 15 knights and 100 soldiers were sent to reinforce St Elmo, but the disquiet was settled and the defenders awaited their fate.

On the Turkish side Dragut was becoming frustrated. Despite the attacks the fort had still not fallen and he repositioned some of his guns to fire at the fort’s harbour walls. Mustapha decided on a night attack on 10th June so the bombardment was kept going all of that day. As night fell the attack came. The Turks also had flame weapons and these turned the night into day. Wave after wave of Turks crashed against the forts walls and they were forced back with cannons, sword, pike and fire. St Elmo’s defenders were wearing armour rather than silk robes and they had positioned vats of water to jump into if the Turkish flame weapons enveloped them. The Turks didn’t and once again human torches were dying under the walls in screaming agony. By the end of the attack the Turks lost 1.500 to the Knights’ 60.

The Turks had other worries as well. Two Christian galleys had been spotted to the north of the islands as some of the reinforcements being gathered in Sicily were becoming bored with the Viceroy’s tardiness and decided to make their own landing. They were pursued by Turkish ships, but they were much faster and easily outran them, returning to Sicily. Admiral Piali was once again thrown into a rage, realising how vulnerable his ships were until he could get them into the harbour.

This battle was very personal to Dragut as his brother had been killed on Gozo and he had a premonition that he too would die in the territory of the Knights. Both he and Mustapha were extremely brave in battel, right in the thick of the action, directing and leading the Turkish troops. They wore sumptuous garments, encrusted with gold and jewels, as did their staff officers. On the 18th June one of St Elmo’s master gunners noticed this clump of finery on the battlefield and took careful aim. The solid ball failed to hit anyone, but as it hit the rocky ground it blew up shards and splinters of rock. One of these pierced Dragut’s turban and entered his skull just above the right ear. Dragut fell to the ground with blood pouring from his ears and nose. Mustapha remained calm and believing Dragut to be dead, had him covered with a cloak and carried to his tent, so not to harm the morale of his troops. He lingered on for a few days but played no further role in the planning or conduct of the campaign. This was a disaster for the Muslim forces.

Death of Dragut by Giuseppe Calì.
National Museum of Fine Arts [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

They had more luck the following day when the powder mill in Fort St Angelo blew up killing six men. Fort St Elmo was now surrounded by batteries to the north, south and west, as well as the guns on the ships to the east. A message was sent to the Grand Master that said that the fort was likely to fall within hours and that no reinforcements were to be sent to die there. The council suggested an evacuation, but it was now too late as the Turkish guns covered every approach.

The 21st June is the Feast of Corpus Christi, which the Knights celebrated every year and 1565 was no exception. The Grand Master and all available Knights donned their ceremonial robes of red with a white cross and walked through the town in procession. In the Order’s church they offered prayers to St Elmo’s defenders and while they were there the Turks captured the outer defences of the fort. The Turks positioned snipers in such numbers they could not be dislodged and the Christian guns could not fire because of the risk of hitting their own confreres. The garrison was now under musket fire from the rear, indicating that the cavalier had fallen. The Turkish troops were on the walls which collapsed and the Janissaries made a rush towards the breach.

As the defenders fell back, St Elmo’s governor Chevalier Melchior de Montserrat had a cannon brought to bear on the cavalier to sweep it of the snipers. It was cleared bur de Montserrat was killed by a musket ball. The battle continued to rage for 6 hours until Mustapha sounded the recall. The Knights had held on but they lost over 200 defenders that could not be replaced. The Grand Master did attempt to send in five boats of reinforcements, but these were driven off by the Turkish guns. The defenders knew that their time had come and the best they could hope for was a swift death in battle the next day. They gathered in the chapel under the slow tolling of a single bell and their last confessions were heard. They burned all of the holy objects so they could not be desecrated by the Muslims.

At dawn the following day they saw Piali’s ships heading towards the fort. They fired their bow chasers and peeled off to head back out to sea. It was the signal for the final assault by the entire Turkish forces. The Knights stood to and waited for death. Even the aircrews of Bomber Command could console themselves that they had a chance of survival and it would be someone else who got the chop. Many did survive their tour of ops, some more than one tour and thank God they did, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. All the Knights had to console them was their unswerving faith in God and the guarantee of eternal life after death.

De Guras and De Miranda were too badly wounded to stand, so they ordered the Knights to put them in chairs at the breach. When the attack surged through the breach De Guras was cut down but he fought back with a pike before he was decapitated. Colonel Mas was torn to pieces and the few left of the Knights made a last stand in the chapel. Five Maltese soldiers jumped from the rocks and swam across to Birgu. Nine Knights were taken prisoner, 5 Spaniards, 3 Italians and one Frenchman. The Muslim losses were horrendous, 8,000 men against 1,500 Christians. Mustapha sent word to the dying Dragut that St Elmo had been captured.

The Muslims wreaked a horrible revenge on the captured Knights and other troops. Some were flayed alive, some sawn in half, suspended by the ankles and the rest were impaled to die slowly. The following morning across the water in Fort St Angelo, the defenders saw a gruesome sight as the light improved. The heads of St Elmo’s defenders stared across at them from poles lining the fort’s walls. The incoming tide brought across crosses to which the bodies of the naked and decapitated Knights and defenders had been nailed.

There now followed what the appeasers of Islamic atrocities and the re-writing of history would call the siege’s most “controversial” act, conveniently omitting what had led up to it. The Knights Hospitallar followed a rather “muscular” version of Catholicism and they had been fighting Islam since the end of the First Crusade. They didn’t go in for shrines, tea lights, meaningless cards pinned to railings, cuddly meerkats or piles of cheap flowers. The Grand Master went to survey the desecrated bodies on the crosses for himself accompanied by the only English Knight present at the siege, Sir Oliver Starkey. La Valette would show the Muslims that they weren’t intimidated by sending a message of his own. This was a fight to the death with no quarter being given. He ordered that the Muslim prisoners being held for ransom were to be decapitated. His guns then fired across at Fort St Elmo, not with stone or shot, but with the heads of the executed Muslim prisoners.

The Grand Master then addressed his council: “What could a true Knight more ardently desire than to die in arms? And what could be more fitting for a member of the Order of St John, than to lay down his life in the defence of his faith? We should not be dismayed that the Muslim has at last succeeded in planting his accursed standard on the ruined battlement of St Elmo. Our brothers – who have died for us – have taught him a lesson which must strike dismay through his whole army. If poor, weak, insignificant St Elmo was able to withstand his most powerful efforts for upwards of a month, how can he expect to succeed against the stronger and more numerous garrison at Birgu? With us must be the victory.”

He then addressed his troops and townspeople: “We are all soldiers of Our Lord, like you my brothers. I am quite sure that you will not fight with any less resolution.”

Words & Numbers

On a map of the Mediterranean, Malta is a dot of an island in the Strait of Sicily, between Europe and Africa. This position, plus Malta’s natural harbors, made it a naval prize for many conquerors over thousands of years. The Wikipedia article on the subject mentions, in chronological order, the Phoenicians, Romans, Fatimids, Sicilians, Knights of St. John, French and British. Malta achieved its indepenence from Great Britain in 1964.

I visited Malta recently, which led to reading The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford. My father-in-law suggested it, saying it told an incredible story. He was right. The book deserves its five-star rating on Amazon across 23 reviews. At a few hundred paperback pages, it is a concentrated dose of military conflict in extremis.

In 1565 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire at its peak, sent a force of 200 ships and at least 30,000 men against 9,000 men at Malta. The goal was to take Malta and destroy the island’s rulers, the Knights of St. John, a Christian religious order that was the sworn enemy of Suleiman’s Islam. The Knights themselves only totaled 600 on the island and, for purposes of this battle, had no naval counterforce. Thus, their only option was to dig into fortresses and repel the Turkish hordes as they came.

The Turks expected Malta to fall in less than a week. But the Knights’ leader, Jean Parisot de la Valette, correctly anticipated most of the Turkish moves, including the bad ones, and exploited them. Most critically, the Turks went straight for the kill, failing to first sever the Knights’ communication and reinforcement lines, both within the island and to the outside world. This mistake allowed the Knights to hold Fort St. Elmo, a weaker fort at the first line of defense, for a month through nighttime reinforcement. In the last days of Fort St. Elmo, the nightly reinforcements knew the goal was not to win but rather to die in the process of prolonging the enemy’s advance. Hundreds of volunteers went willingly.

Here we have a key feature of the conflict. On both sides were holy warriors whose highest purpose was to die in service of the faith. The Turks had the Janissaries, which were something like today’s Special Forces except they were conscripted and trained for this elite role from the age of seven, when they were taken from Christian families living in the Ottoman Empire. Janissaries were subject to the harshest training and discipline, denied marriage or any familial connections, and were singularly forged for war. On the other side, the Knights were elite fighters drawn from the aristocracy of many nations, with hundreds of years of warfare lessons and lore. The Knights had the added fervor of those fighting for their order’s very existence. With these ingredients in the mix, the chance of a limited, gentlemen’s war was nil.

For example, after Fort St. Elmo was conquered, the Turk leaders floated the mutilated bodies of several Knights across the harbor as a calling card. In response, la Valette had Turk prisoners decapitated, then fired their heads from canons back at the Turks. Bradford neither spares such details nor glorifies them, yet he uses them to substantial effect in illustrating the conflict’s brutality.

The book was published in 1961, and Bradford’s battle descriptions have an appropriately old-school, epic quality:

For six hours the Turks attacked, hurling themselves regardless of losses against the thin line of defenders. For six hours the battle swayed back and forth, trembling sometimes in the balance, but always&mdashas the smoke and dust clouds cleared away&mdashrevealing the besieged still active with arquebus, cold steel, or artificial fire.

At several key junctures, the Knights could have lost. But through a combination of luck, crafty deceit, and superhuman effort, they withstood months of continuous bombardment, plus regular all-out assaults aimed at delivering the final blow.

The most dramatic turning point was when the Turks burrowed underground and mined one of the last walls protecting the Knights. The explosion breached the wall and surprised the Knights. Seeing the chaos that ensued as the Turks charged the breach, the seventy-year-old la Valette grabbed a pike and personally led the counterstrike, rallying his men to drive the Turks out.

While one might question whether such heroics were exaggerated over the years, the siege was documented in detail at the time, as it happened. Bradford draws from those primary sources. He adds insightful analysis about the strategies pursued, as well as missed, by the various players.

After nearly four months under siege, the Knights prevailed. The Turks had been taking losses on the wrong side of a 4 to 1 ratio. Demoralized, depleted, and increasingly infested with disease, the Turks gave up when they saw Spanish reinforcements for the Knights arrive.

The vastly outnumbered Knights&mdashalong with allied soldiers and, near the end, seemingly every man, woman, and child of Malta at the barricades&mdashhad beat back one of the most powerful military machines of the time. Although long ago disbanded as a military force, the Knights of St. John are now better known by history as the Knights of Malta.

If it was fiction, the story of the 1565 siege would be a gripping enough tale. As fact, it is a true legend, well told by Bradford’s The Great Siege: Malta 1565.

[Update, 9/7/2009: I didn’t notice that Amazon, where I usually point book links, does not stock the book. The third-party sellers on Amazon start at $57 used, although there is another paperback edition at Amazon starting at $29 used there is no Kindle edition. Also, Alibris has some used listings starting around $20. Of course, that’s all as of 9/7/2009. If you’ve wandered to this page at a much later date, the prices will be different.]

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Watch the video: Great Siege of Malta 1565 - Ottoman Wars DOCUMENTARY (July 2022).


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