The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle Between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John
By Bruce Ware Allen. 344 pages.
ForeEdge, 2015. $29.95.
Reviewed by Tony Rothman
Voltaire, writing in the 18th century, declared, “Nothing is more famous than the siege where Suleiman’s luck ran aground.” Yet in 2015, the 450th anniversary of that siege of sieges, little notice was taken of the earth-trembling events that transpired half a millennium ago. An exception was Bruce Ware Allen’s fine Great Siege of Malta (and a novel by this reviewer).
By 1565 the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had wearied of the depredations the Knights of Malta were inflicting on his shipping lanes. Resolving to expunge the knights from the face of the earth, he dispatched the largest armada since antiquity against the island. In the spring of that year 200 ships carrying 30,000 or more fighting men invaded a rock defended by 600 knights and 6,000 to 8,000 soldiers, half of whom were untrained. After four months of unimaginably vicious siege warfare, the Turks threw up their hands and left.
Allen’s welcome account may be regarded as a corrective to Ernle Bradford’s enduring Great Siege: Malta 1565, published in 1961, whose stylistic verve is matched only by the number of its inaccuracies and inventions. By contrast, Allen’s mastery of the subject is evident throughout, and his is the most extensive bibliography of relevant materials to date, including as it does previously unutilized sources. Yet the primary siege sources are contradictory and frequently irreconcilable, and Allen rarely informs the reader why he has chosen one version over another. As an example, there are several incompatible accounts of the death of the famous corsair Turgut Reis, including a newly discovered Turkish one that contradicts the others. Allen chose the most implausible of all, and though he surely has his reasons, they remain unspoken. Both Bradford and Allen also publish a stirring letter from the Knights in doomed Fort St. Elmo, begging Grand Master de Valette to permit them to die in a heroic sortie. According to Maltese historian Giovanni Bonello, the original document has never been found, and Giacomo Bosio, whose encyclopedic history provides the original source for the letter, indicates that the generally quoted letter is but a paraphrase.
Like Bradford, Allen has chosen the “narrative” style favored by popular historians, but the author might want to consider writing a second version for those with more academic leanings, one in which he critiques and weighs his considerable sources. MHQ
Tony Rothman is the author of 11 books, most recently The Course of Fortune (J. Bolyston, 2015), a three-volume novel about the great siege of Malta.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue (Vol. 29, No. 1) of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Reviews: The Great Siege of Malta.
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