Monday, September 10, 2007


The Siege of Malta (also known as the Great Siege of Malta) took place in 1565 when the Ottoman Empire invaded the island, then held by the Knights of St. John.
The siege is considered one of, if not the greatest, in military history and, from the point of view of the defenders, the most successful. However, it should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, it was the climax of an escalating contest between the Spanish and Ottoman empires for control of the Mediterranean, a contest that included a previous attack on Malta in 1551 by the Turkish corsair Turgut Reis and which in 1560 had resulted in the utter destruction of the Spanish armada by the Turks at the battle of Djerba.

The Knights on Malta
After Djerba there could be little doubt that the Turks would sooner or later attack Malta again and, indeed, in August 1560 Jean de Valette sent out an order to all the Order's priories for the knights to be prepared to return to Malta as soon a citazione (summons) was issued.
Heedless of the danger, the Knights continued to prey on Turkish shipping. In mid 1564, Romegas, the Order's most notorious seafarer, captured several large merchantmen, including one that belonged to the Chief Eunuch of the Seraglio, and took numerous high-ranking prisoners, including the governor of Cairo, the governor of Alexandria, and the former nurse of Suleiman's daughter. Romegas' exploits gave the Turks a casus belli, and by the end of 1564, Suleiman had resolved to wipe the knights off the face of the earth.
By early 1565 Grand Master de Valette's network of spies in Constantinople had informed him that an invasion was imminent and he set about raising troops in Italy, laying in stores and finishing repairs on Fort Saint Angelo, Fort Saint Michael and Fort Saint Elmo.

Toward the Siege
The Turkish armada, which set sail from Constantinople at the end of March was, by all accounts, one of the largest assembled since antiquity. According to one of the earliest and most complete histories of the siege, that of the Order's official historian Giacomo Bosio, the fleet consisted of 193 vessels, which included 131 galleys, 7 galeottes (small galleys) and 4 galleases (large galleys), the remainder being transport vessels, etc.
Considering the capacity of sixteenth-century galleys, whose usual contingent of soldiers was between 70 and 150 men, it seems clear that Balbi's figure is an exaggeration, whereas Anastagi, who was attempting to convince the Viceroy of Sicily to send a relief as soon as possible, conceivably "lowballed" the numbers. We will probably never know the true size of the Turkish force, but given that several historians came up with specific--but not identical--lists totalling slightly under 30,000 (exclusive of the corsairs, who may have added another 6,000 upon arrival), that is a reasonable guess.
On the side of the defenders, Balbi's numbers may be somewhat low; there were indeed apparently only about 550 Knights on the island, but Bosio gives the total number of defenders as 8,500. Most of these, though, would have been Maltese irregulars, unschooled in the use of arms.
It may also be interesting to note that whereas Europeans consider this siege as one of the most important in early modern history, Turks think little of it. This could be because they lost the siege.

The Armies
The Turkish armada arrived at dawn on Friday 18 May, but did not at once make land. Rather, the fleet sailed up the southern coast of the island, turned around and finally anchored at Marsaxlokk (Marsa Sirocco) harbour, nearly 10 kilometers from the Great Port, as the Grand Harbour was then known. According to most accounts, in particular Balbi's, a dispute arose between the leader of the land forces, Vizier Lala Mustafa Pasha, and the supreme naval commander, Piyale Pasha, about where to anchor the fleet. Piyale wished to shelter it at Marsamxett bay, just north of the Grand Harbour, in order to avoid the sirocco and be nearer the action, but Mustafa disagreed, because to anchor the fleet there would require first reducing Fort St. Elmo, which guarded the entrance to the harbour. Mustafa intended, according to these accounts, to attack the unprotected old capital Mdina, which stood in the center of the island, then attack Forts St. Angelo and Michael by land. If so, an attack on Fort St. Elmo would have been entirely unnecessary. Nevertheless, Mustafa relented, apparently believing only a few days would be necessary to destroy St. Elmo, and after guns were emplaced, a bombardment opened at the end of May.
It certainly seems true that Suleiman had seriously blundered in splitting the command three ways--not only between Piyale and Mustafa, but ordering both of them to defer to Turgut when he arrived from Tripoli. Contemporary letters from spies in Constantinople, however, suggest that the plan had always been to take Fort St. Elmo first.. In any case, for the Turks to concentrate their efforts on it proved a crucial mistake.

The Siege
Fort St. Elmo was manned by only 100 or so knights and 500 soldiers but de Valette had ordered them to fight to the last, intending to hold out for a relief promised by Don Garcia, Viceroy of Sicily. The unremitting bombardment from three dozen guns on Mt. Sciberras reduced the fort to rubble within a week, but de Valette evacuated the wounded nightly and resupplied the fort from across the harbour. Still, by 8 June the knights were on the verge of mutiny and sent a message to the Grand Master asking to be allowed a sortie to die with sword in hand. de Valette's response was to pay the soldiers and send a commission across the harbour to investigate the state of the fort. When the commissioners gave a divided opinion, de Valette said he would send replacements if the knights were too afraid to die as he had ordered them to.
Thus shamed, the garrison held on, repulsing numerous assaults by the enemy. Turgut eventually interdicted the traffic across the harbour and finally, on 23 June, the Turks were able to take what was left of Fort St. Elmo, killing all the defenders but for nine knights who were captured by the corsairs and a few others who managed to escape. Turgut himself, however, died without savoring the victory. He was mortally wounded on 17 June, according to Bosio by a lucky shot from Fort St. Angelo, according to Balbi and Sans by an instance of "friendly fire" from Turkish cannons. Balbi says Turgut died before the day was out, while others have him lanquishing on until the day that St. Elmo was captured. Although the Turks did succeed in their objective in capturing St. Elmo, and Piyale's fleet was soon anchored in Marsamxett, the siege of Fort St. Elmo had cost the Turks over 4,000 men, including half of their best troops, the Janissaries. In that sense it was certainly a Pyrrhic victory, but Mustafa had no intention of giving up.

Siege of Malta (1565) St. Elmo Captured
By this time word of the siege was spreading. As soldiers and adventurers gathered in Sicily for Don Garcia's relief, panic spread as well. There can be little doubt that the stakes were high, perhaps higher than at any other time in the contest between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. Queen Elizabeth of England is said to have remarked,
If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom
All contemporary sources indicate the Turks intended to proceed to the Tunisian fortress of La Goletta and wrest it from the Spaniards, and Suleiman had also spoken of invading Europe through Italy.
Although Don Garcia did not at once send the promised relief (troops were still being levied), he was persuaded to release an advance force of some 600 men. After several attempts, this piccolo soccorso managed to land on Malta in early July and sneak into Birgu, raising spirits immensely.

Panic
On 15 July, Mustafa ordered a double attack against the Senglea peninsula. He had ported 100 small vessels across Mt. Sciberras to the Grand Harbour, intending to launch a sea attack against the promontory, while the corsairs attacked Fort St. Michael on the landward end. Luckily for the Maltese, a defector from the Turkish side warned de Valette about the impending tactics 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 some of the Turkish boats come into point-blank range of a sea-level battery of five cannons that had been constructed by commander Chevalier de Guiral at the base of Fort St. Angelo which sole purpose was to stop 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.
The Turks by now had ringed Birgu and Senglea with some 65 siege guns and subjected the town to what was probably the most sustained bombardment in history up to that time. (Balbi claims that 130,000 cannonballs were fired during the course of the siege.) 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. On this occasion, the Turks breached the town walls and it seemed that the siege was over, but unexpectedly the invaders retreated. As it happened, the cavalry commander Captain Vincenzo Anastagi, on his daily sortie from Mdina, had attacked the unprotected Turkish field hospital, massacring the sick and wounded. The Turks, thinking the Christian relief had arrived from Sicily, broke off their assault.

The Senglea Peninsula
After the attack of 7 August, the Turks resumed their bombardment of St. Michael and Birgu, mounting at least one other major assault against the town on 19-21 August. What actually happened during those days of intense fighting is not entirely clear. Bradford (in the climax of the siege) has a Turkish mine opening the town walls and the Grand Master saving the day by running into the breach. Balbi, in his diary entry for 20 August, says only that the de Valette was told the Turks were within the walls; the Grand Master ran to "the threatened post where his presence worked wonders. Sword in hand, he remained at the most dangerous place until the Turks retired."

St. Michael and Birgu
Nevertheless, the situation was sufficiently dire that at some point in August the Council of Elders decided to abandon the town and retreat to Fort St. Angelo. de Valette, however, vetoed this proposal. If he guessed that the Turks were losing their will, he was correct. Although the bombardment and minor assaults continued, the invaders were stricken by an increasing desperation. Towards the end of August, the Turks attempted to take Fort St. Michael, first with the help of a manta, a small siege engine covered with shields, then by use of a full-blown siege tower. In both cases, Maltese engineers tunneled out through the rubble and destroyed the constructions with point-blank salvoes of chain shot.
At the beginning of September, the weather was turning and Mustafa ordered a march on Mdina, intending to winter there. However, his troops by then hadn't the stomach for another assault and the attack was aborted. By 8 September, the feast of the Birth of the Virgin, 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.
The previous day, however, Don Garcia had at last landed about 8,000 men at St. Paul's bay on the north end of the island. They engaged the disspirited Turks once more on the 11th of September, after which the surviving invaders hurridly departed.

Fort St. Michael and Mdina
The number of casualties is in as much dispute as the number of invaders. Balbi gives 35,000 Turkish deaths, which seems implausible, Bosio 30,000. Several other sources give about 25,000. Malta had lost a third of the knights and a third of its inhabitants. Birgu and Senglea were essentially leveled. But such was the gratitude of Europe for the knights' heroic defense that money soon began pouring into the island, allowing de Valette to construct a fortified city, La Valetta, on Mt. Sciberras, which was designed so as never to allow the Turks to occupy the position again.
The Siege of Malta did little, if anything, to alter the balance of power in the Mediterranean, but it was the first true defeat of the Ottoman Empire in a century and lifted European morale immeasurably.

The Aftermath
Modern authors have attempted to capture the desperation and ferocity of the siege with varying degrees of success.

Angels in Iron by Nicholas C. Prata remains faithful to the historical narrative and tells the story from a distinctly Catholic point of view. Ironfire (British edition called,"The Sword and the Scimitar") by David Ball takes a somewhat less sympathetic view of the Catholic Knights of St. John and maintains a more romantic approach.
Also, there was a reference to the Siege of Malta in Age of Empires 3, where Morgan Black, supposedly one of the Knights of Saint John, battles the Ottomans and later travels to the New World to fight them there among other enemies. His grandchild, great-grandchild, great-great-grandchild, and great-great-great grandchild continue the plot later on.
The novel The Religion by Tim Willocks tells the story of the siege through the eyes of a fictional mercenary called Mattias Tannhauser, who is on Malta fighting (at times) alongside the Knights (referred to primarily as The Religion), whilst trying to locate the bastard son of a Maltese noblewoman. In this attempt his opponent is a high-ranking member of the Inquisition. The story, which might be found by some to be overly gruesome, by others as simply realistic, presents a very vivid picture of both sides of the conflict without romanticising or sanitising the content for modern consumption.
The novel ["Blood Rock"[1]][1] by James Jackson tells the story of the siege with a focus on a fictional English mercenary called Christian Hardy. Throughout the siege, Hardy works to discover the identity of the traitor within The Religion who works to ensure a Moslem victory. The traitor works on behalf of the French king, Francis I, who believed that peace with the Ottoman Empire was in the French interest and that the marauding Knights of St. John, by annoying the Sultan, threatened the security of France.
The novel Ironfire: An Epic Novel of Love and War by David Ball is the story of kidnapping, slavery and revenge leading up to the siege of Malta.
Pirates of Christ graphically chronicles the Siege of Malta; the titanic struggles of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John and the people of Malta against the invading Ottoman armies of Sultan Suleman and his Turkish Armada. Authoritative graphic descriptions of both naval and land warfare, exhaustively researched by Edward Lamond over an eight year period, result in an artfully told story of love and intrigue, murder and passion. Downloadable as an illustrated eBook See also

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