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In 1565 Jean de la Valette and the Knights of St. John defended the isolated Mediterranean stronghold from an Ottoman siege using gunpowder, steel, bare hands and bloody resolve
Jean de la Valette, grand master of the Knights of St. John, did all he could to fortify Malta against the inevitable Turkish assault. (Francois Xavier Dupre/Bridgeman Images)

Jean de la Valette, grand master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John, looked across Malta’s Grand Harbor at the charred, crumbling walls of Fort St. Elmo. He knew well the fort was doomed, but the longer its garrison held out, the greater the order’s chances of survival. By night Valette had sent fresh troops across the harbor and had the wounded evacuated. Even so he was astonished St. Elmo’s few defenders had held out for so long, that mortal men still drew breath within that cataclysm of fire.

Turkish forces had besieged the small fort for nearly a month, blasting its stout walls with cannons and regularly sweeping the battlements with harquebus fire. Thousands of fanatical Muslim troops then hurled themselves toward the ramparts, only to be beaten back again and again by the increasingly exhausted Christian knights. The defenders poured cauldrons of boiling pitch on the Turks and tossed down flaming cloth-wrapped hoops and incendiary bombs to set the attackers’ robes and ladders ablaze. Shattered and scorched corpses filled the ditches beneath the fort’s outer walls. The knights remained coiled within, creatures of flame and smoke and steel. At the last they stepped into the breaches blasted in the walls to meet their enemies with sword, battle-ax and pike.

All but a handful of Fort St. Elmo’s defenders would perish, but not before exacting a terrible toll on their enemy and giving their brother knights time to rally.

In 1565 the small Mediterranean dominion of Malta became a flash point in the centuries-long contest between Christianity and Islam for the soul of Europe. Fifty miles south of Sicily, the archipelago served as a strategic gateway between East and West. Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had sent his fleet to Malta to destroy the military Order of St. John and thus secure a stepping-stone for the invasion of Italy.

The appearance of the Ottoman fleet off Malta came as no surprise to Valette. Elevated to his position in 1557, the 71-year-old grand master had made every effort to speed preparations for the inevitable invasion. The same age as Suleiman and a veteran of many clashes with the Turks—having even served a year as a slave on a Barbary Coast galley—Valette possessed deep insight into the conflict, comprehending both the implacable enmity between the servants of the rival faiths and the strategic importance of Malta to control of the Mediterranean and the conquest of southern Europe. On sighting the approaching Turkish flotilla, Valette dispatched an Italian knight in a small boat to carry a succinct message to Sicilian Viceroy Don García de Toledo in Messina. “The siege has begun,” Valette wrote. “We await your help.” But the grand master put little faith in reinforcement—only the strength and determination of the knights themselves would see them through the coming storm.

The battle for Malta had deep historical roots. The Order of St. John (aka Knights Hospitaller) had been a thorn in the side of Islam for hundreds of years. Banding together after the Christian reconquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, the knights were both religious and military in nature, and in league with the Knights Templar they served as the backbone of the Christian armies in the Holy Land. When Muslims took the last major Christian stronghold at Acre in 1291, the Order of St. John withdrew first to Cyprus and then to Rhodes, where it remained for two centuries. Aided by the experienced Rhodian sailors, the Hospitallers turned to the sea, evolving from traditional knights into Christian corsairs who continually harassed Muslim merchant ships, disrupting their trade routes. The raids ultimately spurred their enemies to launch two assaults against the knights in the 15th century—one by the sultan of Egypt in 1444, the other by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1480. The magnificent fortifications the knights had built on Rhodes endured both attacks, but a six-month siege by Suleiman’s forces in 1522 finally broke their defenses. In recognition of their valor, the sultan allowed survivors to withdraw. The order again went in search of a new home.

In 1530 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V offered the Knights of St. John the Libyan stronghold of Tripoli and the Mediterranean archipelago comprising Gozo, Comino and Malta. While the islands were rocky, barren and bleak, Malta boasted two fine, large harbors and was the seafaring linchpin of the Mediterranean. The Hospitallers would command the east-west trade routes—everything crossing between Malta and Sicily or North Africa would be at their mercy. Indeed, their heavily armed galleys soon posed more of a nuisance to Turkish shipping than they had at Rhodes. In 1564 an aging Suleiman, exasperated beyond endurance and regretting his decision to have spared those “sons of dogs” 42 years earlier, resolved to deploy the full military might of the Ottoman fleet to crush the order and sweep it into the sea.

The Turkish armada that hove to off Malta on May 18, 1565, was enormous. Nearly 200 ships carried upward of 30,000 troops, the deadliest of whom were the sultan’s 6,000 Janissaries, elite harquebusiers famed for their discipline and order. The main body of the force comprised 9,000 Sipahis armed with swords, bows, crossbows and matchlock muskets. Joining them were some 4,000 fearsome Iayalars, religious fanatics who dressed in animal skins and feathers, smoked hashish before battle and charged in heedless of casualties. Rounding out the force were levies, support troops and sailors. The Turks brought at least 50 major pieces of artillery—including 8-pounders, 60-pound culverins and at least two massive basilisks, firing immense stone balls weighing 160 pounds—as well as 80,000 rounds of shot, thousands of pounds of gunpowder and supreme confidence no foe could withstand their might.

At first glance their confidence seemed well founded. Malta—17 miles long by 9 miles wide—was weakly garrisoned and had been hastily fortified. At the outset of the siege Valette had 600 knights and servants-at-arms, about 1,000 Spanish foot soldiers and harquebusiers, and a few thousand Maltese militia and irregulars under his command. He had distributed the troops in three main positions: Fort St. Angelo on the peninsula of Birgu; Fort St. Michael on the adjacent peninsula of Senglea; and Fort St. Elmo on the central peninsula of Sciberras, which guarded the mouth of Grand Harbor to the south and that of Marsamxett Harbor to the north. A short march west in the interior lay the capital city of Mdina, its once grand defenses old and undermanned. Valette earmarked it as a base from which to launch cavalry raids against the Turks.

Though the knights had considered the barrenness of the archipelago an inconvenience, it now proved an advantage. When besieging Rhodes, the Turks had been able to secure victuals from the nearby Ottoman mainland as well as the lush island itself. But there was little grain on Malta, and farmers had cut that in the spring, well before the siege. Fresh water was also scarce. The main source lay in the Marsa, a low-lying area at the far end of Grand Harbor. But at the first hint of invasion Valette had ordered his men to stockpile water in thousands of clay jars, then to foul Marsa’s springs and wells with ordure, animal carcasses and bitter herbs. Further, Malta’s relative geographic isolation meant the Turks would have to bring everything necessary for a siege with them—guns, ammunition, tents, sailcloth, even wood for cooking. Moreover, the attackers would have to capture the island before autumn. If the knights could hold out long enough, Valette knew, the Turks would have to choose between wintering on the ill-provisioned island or departing before rough seas endangered their fleet.

The Turkish fleet anchored in Marsaxlokk Bay, on the south end of Malta, and began to move the main body of the army ashore. While Valette sent his mounted scouting parties to harass the Turkish advance units, he wisely made no attempt to contain the invaders at the beachhead—a futile operation against such numbers that would have squandered his limited resources. By opting to defend from within the fortifications, the grand master would force Suleiman to sacrifice thousands of his own men in the attempt to breach the walls.

The Turks made several critical errors at the outset of the campaign. First, they failed to take the ill-fortified city of Mdina. Its fall would have not only deprived the knights of a base for their cavalry, but also given the Turks control of the north end of the island, effectively cutting communications with Sicily. Second, they failed to concentrate their attacks on the defenders’ strongpoints on Birgu and Senglea. Both sat atop low-lying headlands that could be brought under fire from higher ground just to the south. After an initial abortive attack on the bastion of Castile, at the landward end of Birgu, the Turks pulled back to focus instead on Fort St. Elmo. Their irresolution stemmed from a division of command and purpose.

Suleiman had placed Gen. Mustapha Pasha in command of the army and Adm. Piali Pasha over the fleet. The former was fixated on destroying the enemy, while the latter was more concerned with preserving the armada entrusted to him. Piali’s first order of business was to find adequate shelter for his ships. With Grand Harbor dominated by the guns of Fort St. Elmo and the bastions on Birgu and Senglea, and sea conditions in the south harbor less than ideal, the Ottoman admiral insisted the fleet must berth in Marsamxett, north of the Sciberras Peninsula. That meant the Turks must first reduce Fort St. Elmo before assaulting the order’s main positions—
a reasonable scenario, provided the fort were quick to fall.

After establishing their base camp at the Marsa end of Grand Harbor, the Turks moved the bulk of their artillery to the crest of Sciberras, chiseling trenches and gun emplacements into the bare rock. The Ottoman gunners then opened a relentless bombardment of the knights’ fortress, hurling balls of iron, marble and stone and concentrating on one point at a time. Day and night St. Elmo was wreathed in flame, and by month’s end its landward walls had begun to crumble. Every dawn that broke on the banner of the Order of St. John, its red-and-white cross waving defiantly from atop the broken fortress, was a surprise to besieger and defender alike.

The siege got its second wind with the arrival of Dragut, the greatest Muslim sailor of his age, who had wrested Tripoli from the knights and scouted Malta in 1551. The sultan ordered all three co-commanders to consult him in all things. Dragut promptly rebuked Mustapha and Piali for their folly in failing to secure the north island and for initiating the unnecessary siege of St. Elmo. To desist at that point would lower morale, however, so Dragut ordered batteries emplaced to the north and south of the fort to bring it under fire from three sides. He was also quick to perceive the garrison had survived so long because it was being supplied and reinforced. From then on Turkish patrol boats scoured Grand Harbor by night, choking off St. Elmo. Its heroic defenders nonetheless held out several more weeks, draining Turkish resources, demoralizing enemy soldiers and buying Valette precious time to strengthen the fortifications in Grand Harbor.

The small bastion held out for 31 days, until June 23, its battered knights resisting to the last. Two maimed Spanish captains, Juan de Guaras and Juan de Miranda, had themselves strapped into chairs and carried to the breach so they could face the enemy. They joined more than 1,500 of their fellow knights in death. But the capture of St. Elmo had cost the attackers four times as many lives. Dragut himself was mortally wounded by artillery, possibly his own. Doubtless more than one Turk turned his eyes toward the much larger bastions on Birgu and Senglea and wondered how much blood would be paid for their capture. In revenge for the Hospitallers’ stubborn defense, Mustapha had the knights’ bodies decapitated, crucified and set afloat in Grand Harbor. Valette upped the ante, decapitating all Turkish prisoners held in St. Angelo and ordering their heads fired from his cannons into the Ottoman lines. The exchange was clear. There would be no quarter, no mercy.

The death of Dragut, among the master naval commanders of his age, was a sore blow to already plummeting Ottoman morale. (Museum of Fine Art, Malta/Bridgeman Images)

By the time Fort St. Elmo fell it was high summer. As Malta simmered in oppressive heat, the whole Turkish army slogged its way around Grand Harbor to begin the offensives on Birgu and Senglea. As he awaited the assault, Valette received welcome news. A small relief force of 600 men and 42 knights from Sicily had managed to sneak through enemy-occupied territory by night and enter Birgu. Their arrival was a great boost to morale, and triumphal church bells echoed across the peninsula. Overestimating the size of the relief force, or perhaps simply growing weary of the overlong and costly struggle, Mustapha offered Valette the same terms the knights had been given at Rhodes—safe passage with all the honors of war. The grand master refused, replying that the only territory he would give the Turks was the ditch before the fortress wall, in which to stack their dead.

In early July the Turkish batteries opened fire as Mustapha launched simultaneous attacks on Senglea from the landward side and by sea from the Marsa. In this action the Maltese irregulars, who had erected palisades and placed underwater obstructions all along the peninsula, proved invaluable. Excellent swimmers, they knifed the Turks in their immobilized boats and dragged them into the water to drown them. Soon the shoreline was choked with enemy corpses. Hoping to capitalize on the distraction of these assaults, Mustapha also sent 10 large boats filled with Janissaries to scale the low walls on the other side of Senglea. This attempt, too, was thwarted when a hidden battery at water’s edge blew the boats to kindling, sending more than 800 men to the harbor floor.

Realizing his men could not take the fortresses by storm, Mustapha ordered preparatory bombardments to precede a siege of the walls. The island trembled and smoked. The barrages went on for days and could be heard 100 miles away. When the firing finally ceased on August 7, the war cries of thousands of men broke the silence as they rushed the battered walls of Birgu. The Turks managed to breach the main wall, but the knights had prepared well, constructing inner defensive walls that penned in the enemy troops, trapping them in a murderous crossfire. A simultaneous Turkish onslaught on Senglea met with more success, gaining the battlements and a foothold in Fort St. Michael itself. But at that moment, to the amazement of both sides, a trumpet sounded the retreat. Mustapha had received word of a relief force and pulled back his forces to meet the threat. In fact, a small body of horsemen from Mdina had chosen that moment to pilfer and burn the Turkish camp and slay its inhabitants, including all the wounded. When he learned a mere raid had deprived him of victory, Mustapha was furious.

As August wore on, the artillery volleys continued. The Turks were also mining the walls of Senglea and the bastion of Castile. Nervous elders on Birgu pleaded with Valette to withdraw the knights and all able-bodied troops into Fort St. Angelo. The grand master refused, knowing there would be neither safety nor honor in such a retreat. Exposed on the seaward end of the peninsula, St. Angelo would come under withering fire from all points of the compass. Moreover, Valette would never abandon the brave Maltese who had suffered alongside the garrison and played such a heroic part in its defense.

On August 18 a mine exploded beneath the Castile, felling a large section of the bastion’s main wall, through which the Turks streamed before the dust had even settled. Panic threatened to immobilize the Christian troops, when into the breach strode the 71-year-old grand master himself, wearing a borrowed helmet and wielding a pike. His example heartened the dazed defenders, who rushed forward to engage in a vicious hand-to-hand struggle. Though wounded in the leg by a grenade, Valette refused to withdraw until the Turks were repelled.

As the siege dragged on, dissension between the Turkish commanders increased. Piali kept an anxious eye on the sea, while Mustapha calculated whether he could acquire sufficient supplies from Tripoli, Greece or Constantinople to overwinter his army on Malta. But morale had plummeted, and the final blow to the Turks’ fighting spirit came with the news a Christian relief force of some 8,000 men had landed on the north island. On September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Turks called off the siege and began to withdraw. Days later the ragged defenders gazed in wonder at the abandoned siege works and trenches. The island was scarred and scorched, the bastion walls blasted and cracked, the survivors exhausted and bloody—but they had endured.

On Malta in 1565 the Knights of St. John had checked the westward expansion of Turkish power, setting the stage for a concerted pushback from the Christian West. Six years later a fleet of the Holy League severely challenged Ottoman maritime dominance of the Mediterranean when it destroyed a Turkish fleet just outside its naval base of Lepanto in the Ionian Sea. As they had for hundreds of years, the galleys of the Knights of St. John once again sailed against their old enemy. 

Justin D. Lyons is an associate professor at Ohio’s Ashland University. For further reading he recommends The Siege of Malta, 1565, by Francisco Balbi di Correggio, and The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford.