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05 September 2008

Contest for the Center of the World


What is it that gets me all teary-eyed about a tiny bunch of men fighting for their lives against a far superior force? Like the Spartan 300, who died to a man defending their mountain post. And the Siege of Malta in 1565.

When the Turks took over the Byzantine Empire in 1453, no one dreamed they would
expand into an Ottoman Empire which would threaten the portals of France (Marseille), Italy (Naples and Ravenna), Germany (Vienna), and Spain. But threaten they did. The Turks wanted control over Mediterranean shipping and ports, and planned to invade Europe through Italy. The stumbling block in their way was Malta.

Malta is a desolate island barely 4 miles wide, a neighbor of Sicily and an ally of
Spain and a crucial gateway between the Christian West and the Muslim East. In residence were 500 Knights Hospitaller of St. John (known as the Knights of Malta) and 5,600 assorted soldiers, servants, galley slaves, and Maltese natives.
Grand Master of the Knights, Philippe Villiers, claimed the island after the Turks shoved them off Rhodes. This was to be their last stand against the Ottomans, who numbered about 50,000, including cavalry, Janissaries (elite soldiers), adventures, corsairs, and "religious fanatics."

In 1551 a Turkish corair, Turgut Reis, had attacked Malta and destroyed the allied Christian fleet. Malta then becomes a fortified naval base, preying on Islamic shipping and taking 3000 Muslim and Jewish slaves. In 1565 the Turkish Sultan, Sulieman the Magnificent, resolves to wipe the Knights of Malta off the face of the earth.

Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette's spies inform him that invasion is imminent, and he immediately lays in stores of food, finishes repairs on the stone forts, and recruits troops from Italy. Then he orders all the crops harvested--ripe or not--and poisons the wells to deny the invaders food and water.

The Turkish armada, one of the largest armadas assembled since antiquity, comprises 193 galleys and transport ships. The Christian Maltese forces have only small boats and a few expert swimmers who serve as spies.

Orders at the fortress of St. Elmo are to "fight to the end" and pray for reinforcements from Sicily. St. Elmo crumbles within a week, but the garrison holds on for 14 days. All but 9 Knights are killed and these are captured by the Corsairs.

Long story short: The Knights of Malta manage to hold on to the other two forts with a battery of five cannons; when the Turks venture too close, two salvos sink all but one vessel and kill 800 attackers. Relief forces cross a floating bridge and save Malta for the day.

The Turks rally and retaliate, breach the town walls and just when it appears all is lost, they retreat to address a rear-flank attack! But the bombardment of Malta continues; the Turks devise a siege engine covered with shields and a full-blown siege tower. Maltese entineers tunnel out through the rubble and destroy these constructions.

The Turks launch assault after assault on the few remaining Knights of Malta and their fortress, which is all but leveled, but somehow the small band of desperate, thirsty, brave men hold on. An eye-witness reports: "Our men are in large part dead... the walls have fallen; it is easy to see inside, and we live in danger of being overwhelmed by force."

According to another account: "When [Grand Master] La Valette hears a suggestion that the Knights retreat to the tip of the peninsula to make a last stand, he has its drawbridge blown up. There would be no retreat.'

By September, the weather is turning and the Turkish troops haven't the stomach for another assault. The Ottomans retreat, leaving burning villages behind, and the enraged Christians attack the retreating forces. Turkish deaths mount to 30,000. Malta loses one-third of its Knights and one-third of its inhabitants. More than 9,000 Christians had withstood a siege of 50,000 Turks for more than 4 stifling hot summer months.

The Turks never attempt to attack Malta again. The Siege of Malta is the first real defeat of the Ottoman Empire in a century.

Sources: Empires of the Sea, Roger Crowley; Wikipedia.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I have to admit, Lynna, that the history of the Knights of Malta is a great confusion to me -- an odd admixture of religious order and nobility that survives to this day and has accrued a body of legend and an air of conspiracy about it. Not to speak of a fictional role in the backstory of The Maltese Falcon and the finale of Thomas Pyncheon's amazing, enigmatic novel, V.

Do you know some good sources of their more modern history?

9:32 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Thanks, Lynna, for a great synopsis on the Knights of Malta!

I've always a little unsure of the players and the sequence of events. Now its clearer to me.

Tell me, did you need to research this for your next historical?

1:05 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Pam,
As I understand it, the Knights of Malta were actually the Knights Hospitaller... the Turks shoved them off their base on Rhodes and they later settled on Malta and took the name Knights of Malta.

There's so much mythology about the Templars and Hospitallers and other military orders. The air of conspiracy works well for fiction--Maltese Falcon type story...
but the real story is (I think) much more pedantic. Hospitallers were formed to lend medical aid to Christian pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Kathrynn, actually I stumbled on the book and while reading about the Siege of Malta I got an idea for a book. Still mulling it over.
Lynna

2:23 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Lynna! Have you read Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles? Part of the third book, "Disorderly Knights," takes place on Malta with Knights of Malta (including de Valette) as characters.

12:21 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Lynna, for such a terrific history of the Knights of Malta. They're an intriguing bunch and I knew very few details about them before this.

I know that the Grand Master wanted to confer knighthood on Caroline of Brunswick's retinue during her Italian sojourn (when she was Princess of Wales) but she demurred because they were all Protestant, with the exception of her lover, her chamberlain Bartolomeo Bergami, who was a Catholic.

2:42 PM  

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