Great Siege: Malta 1565 ;” by Ernle Bradford; Wordsworth Military Library(June 1999); ISBN-13: 978-1840222067

Most contemporary Americans, if they have heard of the Knights of Malta at all, know them only from the brief mention of the Knightly Order made by Sidney Greenstreet in the movie, “The Maltese Falcon.” But the Knights of Saint John, the Hospitalers of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, were far more important to European history than might be inferred from a snippet of colorful dialog in a ’40s Bogart film noir. For centuries, in fact, they were one of the great bulwarks of Christendom against Moslem expansion into the western Mediterranean.

The true story of the Knights of Malta, if it were not so hard to believe, would make an excellent movie in its own right. In the “Great Siege: Malta 1565,” Ernle Bradford narrates that improbable story in wonderful detail. The Order of the Knights of Saint John, the author explains, had been established in Jerusalem in 1113 as a hospitaler (nursing) order dedicated to ministering to those Christian pilgrims who were halt, lame, or who had fallen ill while on their way to visit the many Christian shrines in the Midle East. Unlike the Knights Templar, which was exclusively an order of warrior monks, the Hospitalers aided the sick and provided hospitals and other shelter to Christians throughout the Holy Land. Only secondarily did they bear arms — like the other religious knightly orders — to protect traveling Christian pilgrims, and to make war against the main rival to Christian influence in the Middle East, the increasingly assertive military and political power of Islam.

In 1291, Islam finally prevailed in the long struggle between Christians and Moslems for control of the Holy Land, and the Order of Hospitalers, like the other crusader orders, was finally driven from the last Christian fortresses in Palestine. The Knights of Saint John took temporary refuge on the island of Cyprus. In 1310, the order moved its headquarters and its base of operations to the eastern Mediterranean island of Rhodes. From this island stronghold, the one-time ministers to the sick turned their discipline, religious fervor, and energy towards mastering seamanship, and within a few short years, the “hospitalers” had become the most feared Christian corsairs in the Mediterranean. They had also become, the author explains, the most dedicated and fanatical of the Christian military orders in their implacable opposition to Islam. For over two hundred years the pirate galleys of the Knights of Saint John raided Moslem shipping between Constantinople and Alexandria, and between the ports along the west coast of Turkey. In 1522, the young Sultan of the Ottomans, Suleiman the First, invaded Rhodes with a Turkish army and, after a bitter fight, succeeded in driving the Knights from their island base. But this victory, gratifying though it may have seemed at the time to the young Moslem ruler, was not the end of the Sultan’s problems with the Knights of Saint John.

Siege of Malta: Siege and Bombardment of Saint Elmo, 27 May 1565. Oil by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio

In 1530, Emperor Charles Vth of Spain presented the recently displaced religious order with the barren collection of islands that form the Maltese archipelago of Malta and Gozo in the central Mediterranean Sea. These islands, lying only fifty miles south of Sicily, represented a natural chokepoint for commerce passing along the North African coast or moving between the eastern and western ports of the Mediterranean. The Knights of Saint John, the author points out, were quick to capitalize on the strategic position of their new base. From Malta and Gozo, the Christian corsairs now raided over the length and breadth of the Ottoman sea lanes, and the same Sultan who had driven their knightly order from Rhodes in 1522, and who had then marched his Moslem armies to the gates of Vienna in 1529, found he was powerless to stop them. Finally, in 1564, after the seizure by the Maltese pirates of a merchantman full of goods belonging to Suleiman’s head eunuch and many of the women in the Sultan’s own harem, Suleiman the Magnificent had had enough. Calling his council together in October 1564, the Sultan declared his intention to invade Malta and permanently put an end to the naval power of the Knights of Saint John. With his mind finally made up, the Sultan quickly saw to it that the appropriate orders were issued, but because of the extensive preparations required, the attack could not be mounted until the following spring.

Siege of Malta: Capture of St Elmo, 23 June 1565. Oil by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio

On 29 March 1565, Suleiman the First’s vast fleet — an armada of some 200 galleys — rowed out of the Bosporus and towards the ports from whence they would embark the 6,300 Janissaries and 33,000 other troops that would form the Sultan’s invading army. The supplies necessary to support the Turkish undertaking were enormous. Tons of gunpowder, holds full of canon, cloth, wood, and virtually everything else that an army would need to survive in a desert was loaded aboard the galleys to supply the expedition. The expedition’s leaders knew that the seventy-year old Grand Master of the Knights of Saint John, Jean Parisot de la Valette, would leave nothing outside the walls of Malta’s several fortresses for use by an invading army. And surprise, the Moslem commanders knew, was out of the question.

The Sultan's men were correct in their assessment; Grand mMster de la Valette had been alerted by spies about the Sultan’s plans just as soon as preparations for the invasion began in Constantinople and the other Turkish staging ports. De la Velette was no fool; there could be no other target for such a large Ottoman seaborne attack but the Christian stronghold on Malta. Thus, the Grand Master and his 9,600 knights and soldiers set about feverishly preparing the island’s defenses for the attack they knew was certain to come. On 18 May 1565 the sails of the Turkish fleet were at last sighted from the Maltese forts of St. Elmo and St. Angelo. Suleiman the First’s great assault on the pirates of Malta had finally begun.

Siege of Malta: Assault on the Post of the Castilian Knights, 21 August 1565. Oil by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio

The great siege, which was expected by the Sultan and his commanders, Mustapha Pasha and Piale to only last a few weeks, continued without letup from 19 May, to 11 September 1565. The Ottoman forces were finally compelled to abandon their attack when a relieving fleet bearing some 8,000 fresh volunteers from all over Europe at last arrived off the coast of Malta on September 8. The story of the suffering, courage, and determination, both of the beleaguered defenders, and of their fearless and fanatical attackers, is almost the stuff of legend. The defense of the small fortress of St. Elmo, and its fall after a month of bitter fighting that left virtually every one of its 1,500 defenders and over 8,000 of the attackers dead, is representative of the resolve of both sides to prevail in this bloody struggle. The costs in both Christian and Moslem lives from this protracted campaign were nothing short of staggering. By the end of the siege, it is estimated that the Ottomans had probably lost as many as twenty thousand men, while the Knights of Saint John suffered approximately 5,000 dead. It is an amazing and stirring story, and the author tells it extremely well.

Siege of Malta: Composite of the Varioius Stages of the 1565 Siege. Engraving by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio

The “Great Siege”, however, is more than a study of a single battle; it is also a fascinating look at some of the great historical characters of the time. Perhaps, even more importantly, Bradford's book is also an excellent account, brought alive by clear and graceful writing, of a pivotal moment in the clash between Christendom and Islam that is seldom revisited by most contemporary students of history. Yet the defense of Malta, along with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, decisively blocked Moslem expansion into the western Mediterranean and quite probably preserved Christian control of Sicily and southern Italy. Suleiman the Magnificent, it is clear from Bradford’s research, intended to use Malta, once captured, as a safe haven and base for both Moslem naval operations and for further military expansion into Christian Europe.

I bought my own copy of this book — the Harcourt, Brace & World, first edition — in 1962, when I was still in high school. It was, I am pretty sure, the first military history book that I had purchased up to that point; however, its clear and exciting prose, and the book’s engrossing subject hooked me on the “military history” genre from there on out. I should also note that besides being an excellent read, the “Great Siege” shows a great deal of careful scholarship. The author relies heavily on primary sources and, as he notes in the book’s foreword, any dialog that is presented is based on actual historical records. The main shortcoming, at least in my copy, is that the only reference maps appear on the inside of the book’s covers and fly leaves; there are no maps or diagrams included with the text. Needless to say, more detail would have been very helpful. None the less, I strongly recommend this book both for the casual reader, and for those interested in military history. This book allows the reader to look back on a historical period about which most of us know far too little.

For those who enjoy videos, this DVD chronicles the thousand plus year history of the Knights of Malta.


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