St. Fort Elmo and the Siege of Malta, 1565
Backstory and Context
It was a crisp May morning on the shores of Malta, along the deep blue Mediterranean. The pale morning sun cast its yellow rays on the beige cut stone of fortifications from millennia ago, standing beside freshly mortared walls. The tall barges clustered on the shores of the harbor, much like the city spires themselves. 70-year-old Jean Parisot de La Valette stood restlessly on the walls of Fort. St. Elmo, with his 500 Hospitaller Knights scrambling to find any able-bodied citizens in the 20,000 or so population. La Valette has seen much in his lifetime before the siege, yet the war of Ottoman aggression would mean no rest for the weary. It had been more than thirty years since the Ottoman Empire expelled the St. Johns Knights from Rhodes: it had been their last proud bulwark. Given the small island of Malta to protect, just 246 square kilometres, they once again stood under the enormous odds of the Ottoman threat. The year 1565 was certainly not a golden age for any knight order, especially the Hospitallers. By this point in history, artillery and gunpowder was slowly replacing the fear that fully armored knights once struck in soldier's hearts. The crusades were long over since the unification of the Middle East. A good shot from an Ottoman hand gun could pierce the armor of the most cunning and experienced European knights. The loss of this island would be the third defeat at the hands of the Ottomans for these Hospitaller Knights. Losing this island would surely spell the dissipation of the order as a whole. However, the sheer strength of European arms and tactics would prove itself in the long, brutal siege.
Jean Parisot de La Valette was a French nobleman. When he was 20, he left and never returned to France or to his family. The young nobleman fought in the Great Siege of Rhodes, where the knight order had been forced out of its last strong bulwark. Jean Parisot was a strong commander but would only succeed the grand-master while under the threat of the Ottoman Empire.
The Knights of Hospitaller are older than the Ottoman Empire itself. After the successful occupation of Jerusalem, a group of knights fostered none other than a hospice, growing as they aided and protected the sick and healthy Christians of the holy land. On February fifteenth, 1113, Pope Pascal II recognized this Knight Hospitaller order as a sovereign order. After Jerusalem was lost in 1187, the order moved to Acre, in Palestine. They would later move to Cyprus, and then Rhodes. In March of 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, donated Malta to the order. The emperor hoped they would open the sea to important trade and naval activity.
As the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum was all but dissolved in the late twelve-hundreds, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) was divided into principalities. Of these principalities, Osman I conquered many Byzantines towns and regions, further reducing Byzantine control. This tension ended with the successful siege of Constantinople in 1453, where the use of cannons completely castrated the once impregnable defense walls of this great Christian city. After this, Ottoman expansion and influence skyrocketed. By this time, the Ottoman Empire was nearly at its strongest in over its near 500 year existence. The maps above show the extent of the Empire.
Timelines suggest that Suleiman I (Sultan of the Ottomans) and Mustafa Pasha (commander of Ottoman land forces) were close to the same age as La Valette. Suleiman I, known as Suleiman the Magnificent was the tenth and longest-lived ruler of the Ottoman Empire. He was responsible for conquering Belgrade in 1521, and conquering Rhodes in 1522. He also broke the military prowess of Hungary, killing Hungarian King Louis II in the battle. At this point in history, the Ottoman Empire was nothing short of a military and influential juggernaut. Another key figure in this battle, Turgut Reis (In English, referred to as Dragut) was a participating Ottoman naval general. His military past was more colorful than the robes which signified it. Displaying his talents at a young age, he would go on to become one of the greatest sailors and siege tacticians in the Empire’s history. Turgut Reis was the lead commander of the center rear wing of the Ottoman fleet. This very fleet destroyed the Holy League of European Christian states, in the battle of Preveza in 1538, in which Turgut was outnumbered 60,000 to 12,000 soldiers. Turgut now found himself among an army of 40,000 soldiers strong, besieging an island with no more than 6,000 able bodied men. Mustafa Pasha was the ground commander of the Ottoman forces.
Gozo, a small island, just northwest of Malta, also played a key role in the battle, especially in the folly of overextension by the Ottoman Forces during this siege. Though it fell quickly, the enslavement of the island could be considered a waste of resources and labor for the Ottoman Fleet.
Francisco Balbi di Correggio, serving in the Spanish corps, reported that a Turkish army of 40,000 soldiers arrived the island on Friday, eighteenth of May, 1565. This force boasted 6,000 elite cavalrymen, 9,000 professional Janissary and Spahi footmen, and 25,000 corsairs, mercenaries, and
various servants. These forces were transported by over 300 ships, easily making it one of the largest fleets ever assembled. The Knights themselves numbered only 500, along with 5,000 soldiers, servants and volunteers. The military technology of this era was far more advanced due to the increased use of gunpowder. Though little more than one hundred years since
the end of the medieval era, which many consider the fall of Constantinople, the increased use of cannons and handguns completely changed the nature of warfare. Francisco Balbi di Correggio describes in his translated account of the battle, that one of the same massive cannon used to siege Rhodes was shipped all the way down to Malta. The relic of defeat would once again rain stone upon
the battered Knights. Sieges no longer required mass movements of troops into an undamaged fortification. Trebuchet and siege equipment were no longer the only methods of breaches. A lot less soldiers had to risk getting close to the walls of a fortification, making even the largest cities vulnerable. This change was especially significant in this siege, because even though Malta was large enough to occupy and encamp for the Ottomans, the cannons were far more effective and replaced the massive engineering required for once crucial siege towers and trebuchets. An Empire as large as the Suleiman The Magnificent could now deploy this new groundbreaking technology across land and sea. This strengthened his domination and reputation across the Mediterranean.
The smaller island Gozo was the first to fall to the might of supreme commander of Naval Forces Turgut (or Dragut). The population was vastly enslaved, and now Malta stood completely alone in a sea of Turkish hostility. After such a fell swoop, the Turgut turned his eyes and artillery to the famous Fort St. Elmo, located on the tip of the peninsula in the large bay east on the island. Master engineers within the Turkish corps thought that the Fort would fall in 3 days, only to discover that the might of European military and logistics was nothing to overlook. Jean Parisot de La Valette knew the significance of this protruding Fort (see Fort St. Elmo, in the map above) and ordered half of the Order’s artillery to the Fort. With tremendous return fire, La Valette felt a barrage of cannons would not so easily melt the walls. Though the Fort eventually fell to rubble, the operation was a gargantuan blow to the Ottoman army.
Three dozen guns on top of Mt. Sciberras, west of and elevated from the Fort (see the info map above) , unloaded on the Fort on May twenty-seventh , 1565. The Fort fell in layers, which was eventually a pile of rubble that was constantly supplied by La Valette. The Grandmaster even focused his guns upon the ranks of Turks, who were firing their artillery on St. Elmo. This caused panic among the ranks of the Turks, costing far more losses than necessary by operating from two mere forts. This moment is absolutely crucial in understanding the strategy of the Knights Hospitaller. The fact Fort St. Elmo and Fort St. Angelo worked in tandem, created a much larger target for the Ottoman Empire to destroy. He also refused to retreat his troops from the Fort, intent on wasting as much time as humanly possible. Three times, would the decrepit remaining garrison repel the Ottomans, causing hundreds of casualties. This lasted until June 23rd, when the last of the defenders were killed, totaling 1500. This was near thirty days, ten times longer than what Turgut's engineers anticipated. The Ottomans lost nearly 6,000 men, including half of their elite janissaries and their supreme commander himself, Turgut. Though cannon shrapnel was a likely culprit, the fog of war will never allow us a clear answer. However, it is suggested that the death of Turgut resulted in a squabble among his senior officers, reducing the autonomy of the attacking Ottoman Forces.
With Fort St. Elmo in ruin, the Knights now stood pressured into the peninsulas of Burgu and Senglia. With the Ottoman army already standing inland, Fort St. Elmo would have better off been ignored and squashed when it had no support from across the harbor. Because of this, unnecessary attrition struck the ranks of Mustafa and Turgut over a small position, and the Knight’s refusal to be vanquished proved that this siege would be brutal for both sides. With Fort St. Elmo’s mockingly long defense finally over, Mustafa begrudgingly turned his entire artillery corps towards the peninsula of Senglia. La Valette, being able to focus on only his immediate surroundings, set a battery and spikes along the shore to repel an invasion. Through this, he was able to drown hundreds men attempting to land on the shore. On August 7th, Mustafa ordered 12,000 men, still supported by the three dozen cannons on Mt. Sciberras, to scale the walls of Senglia and Birgu (see the two peninsulas in the labeled map). With now fewer positions to focus on, Mustafa eviscerated the walls of Birgu and Senglia with granite and stone shot cannons. The Turkish force then swept over the walls, followed brutal close quarters combat among the rubble and street corners. During this desperate stand though, it is claimed that no more than 100 Spanish and Knightly cavalry converged on an unguarded Ottoman camp. This lead the superior Turkish force to believe a larger relief force had encountered the camp, forcing them to retreat. Without such timely and confusing maneuver, La Valette’s Knights would surely have collapsed under the focused attack, but once again they found disarray among their aggressors. After the failed invasion of Fort St. Angelo, Mustafa marched upon the inland city of Mdina, which was horribly undefended and near out of ammunition. When Mdina was still greatly out of range, the few soldiers shot a bluff barrage from remaining cannons there. A long range an inaccurate artillery barrage led Mustafa to believe they were well defended and supplied, since being able to waste a barrage before an effective distance was gained. Mustafa retreated back to the camp. On September 7th, the mixed relief force of Spaniard Don Garcia sailed onto the island. This caused the remaining Ottoman forces to retreat entirely, with hundreds being slaughtered by over eager knights and fresh troops. Suleiman The Magnificent’s army was nearly demolished. With well over 10,000 Ottoman troops dead, thousands of more losses occurred with deserters and casualties. It is reported that 30,000 Turkish soldiers were lost, as opposed to the 2,500 soldiers lost on Malta.
Speculation implies that even if the island fell, a Spanish relief force would have squashed it nonetheless. Though a small number St. Johns Knights still destroyed a disproportional amount of Ottoman troops. And if the island eventually fell, the attrition was so severe any relief force would have taken it back. What also must be acknowledged, is that the crippled Turkish army wasn’t given a chance to fortify or occupy the island, meaning the island would not serve as an Ottoman bastion any time soon. Ottoman supremacy didn’t have the invincible tone it once had. The siege of Vienna in 1529 magnificently proved otherwise. It would not mean the end of the Islamic threat on Christianity, and made way for higher tensions between Europe and the Eastern Empire.
La Valette is nothing short of a military genius for the efficiency of such a small standing army. His critical thinking, and constant action and counter attacks were vital to surviving the siege, especially in the age of long ranged, heavy artillery. This is a story of heroic figures, and devastating odds. The details of the siege are based on the accounts of the mercenary Spaniard Francisco Balbi di Coreggio.
Cathedral Museum of Mdina: https://vassallohistory.wordpress.com/the-militia-list-of-1419-20/ (Accessed February 29, 2020)
Tony Bunting, “Siege of Malta,” Last modified March 24, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/event/Siege-of-Malta.
di Correggio, Francisco Balbi. The Siege of Malta 1565. Edition 1568. Woodbridge, England. Boydell Press, 2005.
Guettelet, Hamelin de. Grand Maître Jean De Valette Par Antoine Favray - Palais Des Grands Maîtres - La Vallette - Malte. October 19, 2010. Wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_de_Valette_-Antoine_Favray_(cropped).png.
Suleiman I. January 16, 2011. Widimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suleiman_the_Magnificent_of_the_Ottoman_Empire.jpg.
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