Great Siege of Malta
gigatos | November 29, 2021
The Great Siege of Malta was conducted by the Ottomans in 1565 to take possession of the archipelago and drive out the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Despite their numerical superiority, the Ottomans did not overcome the resistance of the knights and had to lift their siege after suffering heavy losses. This victory of the Order ensured its presence in Malta and reinforced its prestige in Christian Europe.
This episode is part of the struggle for domination of the Mediterranean between the Christian powers, particularly Spain, supported by the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and the Ottoman Empire. The knights had been installed in Malta since 1530 after being expelled from Rhodes by the Turks in 1522. Faced with the pirate activities of the knights who harassed Ottoman ships in the Mediterranean and in order to secure a strategic naval base, Suleiman the Magnificent decided to send his army against the archipelago.
The victory of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem had a considerable impact throughout Christian Europe: it gave them immense prestige and reinforced their role as defenders of the Christian religion in the face of Muslim expansionism. The funds collected as a result of this victory made it possible to raise Malta”s defenses and ensure the Order”s lasting presence on the island. A new city was also built to defend the Xiberras peninsula against a possible return of the Turkish armies. Initially called Citta” Umilissima, it later took the name of Valletta, in homage to the Grand Master of the Order who defeated the Ottomans.
The Ottoman defeat, beyond the human losses, did not have important military consequences. It is however one of the rare failures of the army of Soliman, depriving the Turks of a strategic position which would have allowed them to launch many raids in the Western Mediterranean.
Driven out of Rhodes by the Turks following the siege of 1522, the knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem were looking for a fixed and independent place to stay that would allow them to continue the war of running, known as corso, against the Ottomans. Their desire for independence from national powers (the members of the Order were exempt from paying allegiance to their respective sovereigns) did not make their search any easier. However, after the final capture of Algiers in 1529, Emperor Charles V, worried about the rise of Ottoman power in the Mediterranean basin and anxious to protect Naples and Sicily, which were part of his possessions, offered to settle in Malta.
Indeed, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the western Mediterranean was pacified by the Spaniards during the Reconquista. The latter led the capture of many places in North Africa: Mers el-Kébir (1504), Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera (1508), Oran (1509), Béjaïa (1510), Algiers (1510) and Tripoli (it). Nevertheless, in the decades that followed, the situation deteriorated. The brothers Arudj and Khayr ad-Din Barberousse installed in Djerba (1510) disputed the Peñón of Algiers from 1516 to 1529 and inflicted on Spain its first reverses. After taking back the Peñón from the city of Algiers (1529), they even paid homage to the Ottoman sultan whose possessions threatened the Spanish coasts directly. Malta thus took on its full value in the struggle for control of the Mediterranean. For their part, for the knights, it was vital to regain an active role and a stable establishment in order to prevent their members from dispersing and in order to preserve their legitimacy as defenders of Christianity.
After much hesitation and negotiation resulting from mutual distrust between the Order, concerned about its sovereignty, and the Emperor, who was wary of their link with France, Charles V yielded to pressure from Pope Clement VII. On March 24, 1530, in Bologna, he signed the diploma granting the Order “in perpetual, noble and free fief, the cities, castles and islands of Tripoli, Malta and Gozo with all their territories and jurisdictions” in exchange for a hunting falcon offered to the viceroy of Sicily every All Saints” Day and the commitment not to take up arms against the Emperor. The knights finally accepted the Emperor”s offer, including the city of Tripoli, taken by the Spaniards in 1510.
On October 26, 1530, the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, led by Villiers de L”Isle-Adam, disembarked in Malta and took possession of the island. They were responsible for defending the archipelago, which locked off access between the western and eastern parts of the Mediterranean and controlled access to the south of the Italian peninsula from North Africa.
The knights were not very happy with their settlement on this arid island almost devoid of trees and resources. They abandoned the capital, Mdina, located in the center of the land to settle on the north coast, in the port of Borgho, today Birgu, in the center of the vast bay of Marsa, called today the “Great Port” and defended by the fort Saint-Ange. They began to build defenses around Birgu, while continuing their struggle against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean.
Installation in Malta
The naval activities of the knights led them to settle on the northern coast of the island of Malta. There are two large natural roadsteads, that of Marsamxett and that of Marsa (today”s Grand Port), separated by a rocky peninsula, the Xiberras Peninsula. Villiers de l”Isle-Adam, aware of the privileged location of the peninsula overlooking the two roadsteads, considered establishing the Order”s activities there for a time, but funds were lacking for such an undertaking. The knights therefore settled in the existing village of Birgu, on a peninsula on the other side of the bay of Marsa, which they set out to fortify. The Birgu peninsula was already defended at its end by the Saint Angelo castle, which was then reinforced. Under the government of Grand Master Juan de Homedes, in the 1540s, new works were undertaken: Birgu was reinforced with new bastions, Fort St. Michael was established south of Birgu to prevent access and finally Fort St. Elmo was built at the end of the Xiberras peninsula to prevent access to the bay of Marsamxett. Claude de La Sengle, Homedes” successor, developed and fortified the peninsula located south of Birgu, reinforcing in particular Fort Saint-Michel. In his honor, the peninsula takes the name of Città Senglea. Nevertheless, although the knights of the Order set about protecting the island from the moment of their arrival, and even more so after Dragut”s raid on the archipelago in 1551, they continued to think about returning to Rhodes and did not consider settling in Malta on a long-term basis.
Turkish decision to attack Malta
The capture by Romegas of the carrack armed by Kustir Aga, chief of the black eunuchs of the seraglio, caused a great stir in Constantinople and in the entourage of the Sultan, thus pushing him to intervene to rid the Mediterranean of Christian corsairs. Soliman the Magnificent kept in mind the strategic situation of Malta, with its vast and well-sheltered ports, in the center of the Mediterranean, with a view to a possible conquest of Sicily and southern Italy. The issue was first discussed at a military council in October 1564. The military advisors nevertheless emphasized the difficulty of such an undertaking and in particular the difference between Malta and Rhodes, which had been taken from the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem in 1522. Located near the Turkish coast and rich in agricultural resources, it was easy in Rhodes to provide for the needs of a siege army, unlike Malta, which was arid and isolated. Combined with the impossibility of external supplies due to the storms that swept across the Mediterranean in the autumn, this situation meant that the army had to be moved and defeated, or be defeated, in less than six months. Some suggested other objectives such as La Goulette or Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, or Hungary, or even Sicily directly. The strategic geographical location of Malta, as an outpost of a potential westward thrust, made it the preferred objective of Suleiman, head of the army, and Piyale Pasha, head of the navy, finally approved the idea of their sovereign who decided to launch the siege of Malta in the spring of the following year. Preparations for this expedition began in the arsenals of Constantinople.
Once the decision to attack Malta had been taken at the highest level of government, the Ottoman army assembled its forces under the authority of Mustafa Pasha and Admiral Piyale Pasha, to whom Soliman had entrusted the two-headed command of the expedition. If Mustafa Pacha receives the direction of the campaign, Piyale, commander in chief of the fleet, preserves the high hand on the whole of the naval operations. During all the winter 1564-1565, the preparations continue as well for the gathering of the troops as with regard to their equipment. Informed of the relative weakness of the defenses of the island, and limited by the question of the provisioning of a too numerous army, Soliman decides to engage only approximately 30.000 of his soldiers in the expedition (without counting the slaves, sailors, galley slaves and supernumeraries affected to the provisioning). It is however there the elite of the Ottoman army with in particular 6 000 janissaries and 9 000 sipahis.
To complete the strength of his army, Soliman invited Dragut and his pirates, Hassan pasha of Algiers, and Uludj Ali, governor of Alexandria to join the expedition. This multiplicity of leaders, all of great value, nevertheless had a downside, that of contributing to the splintering of the command of the operation, which complicated the decision-making of the general staff throughout the siege. To transport the entire army and its supplies, an armada of about 200 ships was prepared, mainly galleys. In addition to the men, the ships carried 80,000 cannonballs, 15,000 quintals of gunpowder and 25,000 quintals of gunpowder for the soldiers” firearms (arquebuses, muskets and others). The fleet left Constantinople at the beginning of April 1565 for Malta.
Defence of Malta
Preparations of such magnitude do not go unnoticed by foreign observers in Constantinople. The destination remains nevertheless hypothetical to them. In January 1565, the French ambassador in Constantinople reports however to Catherine de Médicis the rumours which intend the fleet to an attack of Malta. Philip II, as for him, is informed of it by don Garcia of Toledo. Earlier, other notices had already alerted Grand Master John of Valletta to the danger threatening the island, and he had recalled members of the Order from across Europe. On the island, the fortifications were strengthened, the moats were widened, and large quantities of gunpowder and food were stockpiled in the cellars of Castel Sant”Angelo. The knights also took advantage of Malta”s barrenness to provide no resources to the attackers: crops were either harvested or destroyed, and wells were poisoned. While the Order”s convent in Birgu was largely protected by the water and the Castle of St. Angelo, the defenses on the land side were much weaker and largely made up of earthen levees. The situation is similar in Senglea. The defense of Mdina was entrusted to its garrison of militiamen under the command of a Portuguese knight, Dom Mesquita, the bulk of the forces being concentrated in Birgu and Senglea. The cavalry was stationed in Mdina, in order to launch raids on the rear of the Turkish armies.
The Order”s forces included about 600 knights, 1,200 Italian and Spanish mercenaries, and about 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers from the Maltese militia. Slaves from the galleys and Greek residents of the island brought the number to about 6,000 to 9,000 men, less than half of whom were professionals.
In parallel to these preparations on the spot, Valletta was very active at the diplomatic level and he solicited the help of many European monarchs. However, they were generally uninterested in the situation of Malta and its knights: Emperor Maximilian was already struggling with the Turks at the gates of his empire, Charles IX”s France was torn apart by the Wars of Religion and felt little concern for what was happening in the Mediterranean, and Elizabeth I”s England had broken with the Pope and the Catholic religion, and confiscated the Order”s property. In Italy, most of the principalities were under Spanish rule, and the independent states of Venice and Genoa, in order to preserve their commercial interests in the Mediterranean, were not inclined to assist the Order. Among the powers likely to provide assistance to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, only the Holy See and Spain remained. The Pope finally sent financial aid but none of the troops requested by the Order. Only Philip II, whose possessions in Sicily and the coasts would be directly threatened in the event of the fall of Malta, promised to send 25,000 men as reinforcements, leaving the Viceroy of Sicily, García de Toledo, to organize the relief effort.
The Turkish galleys landed about 30,000 men in Malta. They quickly took control of the entire southern part of the island. They quickly established their camp on the heights overlooking the bay of Marsa and immediately laid siege to Birgu. On May 21, the Ottomans launched a first assault against the bastion held by the knights of the language of Castile, known as the “bastion of Castile”, a point designated as the weakest of the fortifications by the Christian prisoners captured during the first days, an assault that ended in failure. On 22 May, the Turkish war council met to decide on the strategy to adopt, although Dragut had not yet arrived. Two positions clashed. On the one hand, Mustafa Pacha, general of the land forces, wished to first take control of the whole island and Gozo and establish a complete blockade of Malta to prevent the arrival of any reinforcements. On the other hand, Piyali, admiral of the fleet, wished first to provide a safe shelter for his ships, exposed to the winds in the bay of Marsaxlokk. He advocated taking Fort St. Elmo, which commanded both the entrance to Marsa Bay and Marsamxett Harbour, where the galleys could take shelter. The capture of Saint-Elme would also make it possible to launch assaults on Birgu from the sea. In front of Piyali”s insistence, the second party won. Mustafa Pacha then ordered the transport of artillery from the bay of Marsaxlokk to the heights of the hill of Xiberras to bombard the fort. This strategy nevertheless allowed the knights to continue to reinforce the defenses of Birgu and Senglea while waiting for the main assault.
Battle of Fort St. Elmo: May 24 – June 23
Fort St. Elmo was built on the hill of Xiberras, at the sea end of the peninsula that separated the bay of Marsa from the harbor of Marsamxett. Its garrison, in view of the siege, amounted to 300 men, under the orders of the bailiff of Saint-Elme, Luigi Broglia. Informed of the Turkish strategy, the Grand Master had the garrison of Saint-Elme reinforced by about 70 knights and 200 enlisted men under the command of the knight Pierre de Massue-Vercoyran, known as “Colonel Mas”. It was reinforced, on the land side, by a ravelin that defended its entrance and, on the sea side, by a cavalryman, a raised site used as a platform for the cannons.
The Ottomans took place on the Xiberras peninsula on which the city of Valletta would later stand. On May 24, the artillery was in place and the siege of Saint Elmo began. At the same time, Jean de Valette received a reply from the Viceroy of Sicily who asked him for time to assemble a relief army and refused to send him small reinforcements. While the ramparts deteriorated under the effect of the continuous bombardment of the Ottomans, the garrison of the fort was still reinforced and the besieged tried some exits to slow down the advance of the Turkish foot soldiers. During the first days of the siege, the Turkish forces were further reinforced by the successive arrivals of the governor of Alexandria and the corsair Dragut. The latter disapproved of the strategy adopted in his absence to start with the attack on Saint-Elme; all the more so as the cavalry elements that had taken refuge in Mdina were constantly harassing the Turkish forces in search of food on the island. Nevertheless, the affair being largely committed, he decided to continue the attack of Saint-Elme. However, he had new batteries installed, notably on the Sottile point, located opposite Saint-Elme on the other side of the bay of Marsa, where Fort Ricasoli was later built, in order to cut off communications between Birgu and Saint-Elme, as well as on the Tigné point (en), on the other side of the Marsamxett roadstead.
On the evening of June 3, the Janissaries took the ravelin defending the entrance to Saint-Elme by surprise and narrowly missed entering the fort, stopped at the last moment by the lowering of the portcullis. The assault on the fort nevertheless continued throughout the night and the following day. The besieged managed to repel the Turkish attackers, inflicting heavy losses on them, thanks in particular to their incendiary weapons, grenades, wildfire and “circles of fire”, hoops surrounded by flammable wadding thrown on fire from the top of the ramparts and which made it possible to set fire to the attackers. The nighttime reinforcements ensured the renewal of the troops defending Saint-Elme, the passage of daytime reinforcements being made impossible by the installation of the Pointe Sottile battery.
On June 7, the janissaries attempted another assault on the fort”s walls. Following this assault, in view of the dilapidated state of the fort, which was subjected to constant fire, and the exhaustion of its defenders, the commanders of the fort sent an embassy to the Grand Master asking him to evacuate it and blow it up. Valette refused and asked them to hold on, in the hope that reinforcements from Sicily would soon arrive. A message received the previous days set the date of June 20 for the potential arrival of reinforcements. On June 8, the Turkish assaults continued and the despair of some of the defenders was such that some of them signed a petition to ask the Grand Master for an immediate evacuation. The latter was furious and sent three commissioners to assess the state of the fort. One of them, the Neapolitan knight Costantino Castriota, did not see the situation as desperate and volunteered with a hundred men to reinforce the garrison of the fort on the morning of June 10. This example as well as a contemptuous letter of the great master offering to those who wish it to take refuge in Birgu, decides the whole of the defenders to remain with Saint-Elme.
On June 10, two galleys of the Order, bringing from Syracuse some reinforcements, notably the knights who had not been able to reach Malta before the beginning of the siege, tried to reach Birgu. They were prevented from doing so by the blockade of the Turkish fleet. Fearing the arrival of more important reinforcements, Dragut and Piali decided to reinforce the surveillance of the coasts by a hundred ships. The cavalry of Marshal Copier having destroyed the battery of the Sottile point, Dragut decided to re-establish it and to reinforce it to definitively prevent the communications between Birgu and Saint-Elme. He sent a large body of troops to settle there while a new cannonade pounded the fort. Convinced of the exhaustion of the defenders of Saint Elmo and exasperated by the resistance of the fort, which had always held out since the beginning of the siege, Mustafa decided to launch a new assault on the night of 10 to 11 June, which he hoped would be final, led by Aga, the head of the janissaries. At dawn, the assault was finally repulsed and the attackers withdrew. Assaults and bombardments continued during the following days. On June 15, Mustafa proposed to the besieged to surrender in exchange for their lives, a proposal refused by the defenders of the fort. On June 16, the Ottoman galleys joined in the shelling of the fort, adding to the land batteries the fire of their cannons, laid out from the sea. This bombardment was followed by a new assault which ended in failure and a retreat ordered at nightfall.
On 17 June, the Turkish officers held a new council of war. They decided to take new measures to neutralize the southern battery of Saint-Elme, which caused numerous losses among their troops at each assault, and to definitively prevent the passage of reinforcements at night towards Saint-Elme. For this purpose, a new artillery battery was built on the Kalkara peninsula, opposite St. Elmo, and a wall of stone and earth was built opposite the Castel Sant”Angelo, to protect the Turkish arquebusiers who could then fire on the troop transport boats. During the preparations for the implementation of these measures, Dragut was mortally wounded by a piece of shrapnel on June 18. However, the measures taken quickly made it impossible to reinforce the garrison any further, or to evacuate it.
Displacement and reorganization of the fighting: June 24 – July 4
After the fall of the Saint-Elme, Mustafa had the corpses of the knights beheaded and mutilated and threw them into the sea. For the chiefs of the fort, he had their heads placed on pikes facing Birgu. In front of the mutilated corpses of the knights which are stranded in Birgu brought by the tide, Jean de Valette makes decapitate all the Turkish prisoners captured by the marshal Copier, and send their heads in the enemy lines as cannonballs. Each side thus reaffirmed its determination in the upcoming engagement. The two parties then took their dispositions for the continuation of the operations.
On the Turkish side, Mustafa had the cannons moved from the hills of the Xiberras peninsula to the heights of Corradino and Mount St. Margaret, which surrounded the peninsulas of Birgu and Senglea. The Ottomans reinforced their positions by creating trenches and building walls to prevent the exits of the besieged. At the end of June, 112 pieces of artillery, 64 of which were large caliber, were ready to bombard the two peninsulas held by the knights. For his part, Valletta reinforced the garrisons of Birgu and Senglea with five companies brought from Mdina. Food was still plentiful in the besieged positions and they also benefited from a natural spring springing up in Birgu itself. In a speech to his troops, the great master insists on the shortage of provisions and ammunition among the attackers, affected moreover by the disease because of the poisoning of the sources of the island.
Throughout the siege of Saint Elmo, the viceroy of Sicily, don Garcia de Toledo, hesitated to commit his troops to the defense of Malta. The attack of Malta being able to be only one preliminary to a future invasion of the south of Italy, he fears to weaken Sicily by sending troops, potentially in pure loss for the hypothetical safeguard of Malta. In the same way, he fears to have to answer in front of Philip II of Spain for the loss of Spanish galleys in a confrontation with the Turkish armada. By prudence, it thus seeks to delay the engagement of its troops according to the evolution of the situation in Malta. Philip II had in addition formally ordered to him not to engage his armies recklessly. On the insistence of the Grand Master and pushed by the knights of the Order who had not been able to join the island before the beginning of the fights, don Garcia resigned himself to let leave four galleys at the end of June, with on board approximately 700 men of which 42 knights and a detachment of 600 infantrymen of the Spanish infantry commanded by the knight Melchior de Robles. The command of the fleet was entrusted to Juan de Cardona. The troop landed on the island during the night of June 29 and managed, by diverted routes, to bypass the enemy lines and to reach Birgu by the creek of Kalkara. The piccolo soccorso (“the little reinforcement”) arrived at the right moment to reinforce the defenses of Birgu and the morale of the besieged.
The next day, June 30, Mustafa decides to propose to Valletta a surrender, with the saving of his life and the passage to Sicily in exchange for the abandonment of Malta. His offer was refused by the Grand Master.
Mustafa then ordered to transport, by land, galleys from the roadstead of Marsamxett to that of Il-Marsa, thus avoiding the cannons of the castle Saint-Ange. This maneuver allowed him to attack Senglea both from the sea and from the land, concentrating his attacks on Fort Saint-Michel, supposedly the weakest fort after Saint-Elme. Once Senglea fell, the Ottoman forces could then attack Birgu and Fort Saint-Ange on all fronts. Informed of these intentions by a deserter officer of the Turkish army, Valletta responded by building a coastal barrage with piles driven into the sea, connected by an iron chain, and building a pontoon between Birgu and Senglea to facilitate communication between the two positions.
Siege of Birgu and Senglea: July 5 – September 7
On July 5, the guns of the Ottoman army opened fire on the whole of the Christian positions, which they encircled on all sides. At the same time, in order to prepare the attack of the galleys by sea, the best swimmers of the Turkish army were sent with axes to try to break the barrage built by the defenders along the coast of Senglea. They were repelled by Maltese armed with knives who fought in the water. The next day, the Turks tried again to destroy the palisade with capstans and cables operated from the shore they controlled; but this attempt also failed.
Meanwhile, Hassan Pacha, the beylerbey of Algiers, arrived to reinforce the Ottoman army with about 2,500 to 5,000 of his men and 28 ships. The new arrivals mocked the Turkish army for having remained in check for so long before Saint-Elme. Mustafa allowed them to carry out the next assault, planned for July 15, which aimed at taking Senglea. The strategy adopted that day was that of a double attack on this peninsula: by land against Saint-Michel and by sea, thanks to the galleys brought from the roadstead of Marsamxett, against the southern coast of Senglea. Hassan led the land forces while his lieutenant, Candelissa, led the sea assault. On the side of San Michele, the attack was met with resistance from the men of the Knight of Robles, the leader of the piccolo soccorso. Meanwhile, on the sea side, the attackers managed to gain a foothold on the shore. The sudden explosion of a powder magazine located near the bastion of the point of Senglea put down a part of the ramparts and opened a breach to the Ottoman attack. Near to invest the place, the Turks are finally pushed back thanks to the arrival of reinforcements accourus from Birgu by the pontoon established previously. Monitoring the attack, Mustafa decided to open a third front by making a new landing on the point of Senglea, on the northern side, to take the defenders from behind. For this purpose, a corps of 1,000 Janissaries was prepared on ten boats, ready to intervene. However, the boats were wiped out before they could disembark by a battery hidden just below the Castel Sant”Angelo. Only one of the ten ships managed to reach the coast, the other nine sank in the bay of Marsa. The attack continued on the first two fronts for nearly five hours, until Hassan, noting the extent of his losses, nearly 3,000 men, resigned himself to sounding the retreat.
Warmed up by this failure, Mustafa Pacha decided to use a strategy that was less costly in terms of men than this great frontal assault. He decided to continuously bombard the two peninsulas. Once the breaches opened in the ramparts, the Turks could give the assault. Mustafa also counts on the tiredness of the defenders and on the exhaustion of their provisions. The Ottoman forces carry out at the same time the complete blockade of the two peninsulas: the fleet of Piyale Pacha which crosses with the broad prevents any unloading of reinforcements while the ground forces and the establishment of batteries supplement the encirclement of the knights in their entrenchments.
During this period, in the absence of reinforcements from outside, the only help that reached the besieged was the news of a plenary indulgence granted by the pope to all those who would give their lives for the defense of Malta. Jean de Valette used this element to stimulate the will to resist of the Maltese civilian population.
On the morning of August 2, the cannonade increased in intensity, and was heard as far away as Sicily in Syracuse and Catania, a prelude to a Turkish assault that same day on a breach in Fort Saint-Michel. After five attacks repulsed in six hours, the Ottomans abandoned the fighting in the early afternoon to resume their bombardment.
On 7 August, Mustafa decided on a new general assault, combined on Birgu and Senglea. While Piyali, at the head of 3,000 men, led the attack on Birgu and the bastion of Castille, Mustafa himself led 8,000 men against Senglea and Fort Saint-Michel. The assault on Birgu was repulsed with difficulty by the defenders. On the other hand, Mustafa”s troops managed, through several breaches opened in Saint-Michel, to invest this bastion and directly threaten Senglea. The fighting continued fiercely, with the civilian population also taking part in the defence of the city, and the attackers were contained with difficulty. Attacked separately, the two peninsulas could not help each other. Mustafa himself leads the assault in the middle of his troops. While the situation seems critical for the defenders, the retreat is suddenly ordered by Mustafa, warned of the attack of the camp of Marsa by a Christian force. Fearing the arrival of a relief army, Mustafa brought back all his troops to defend the camp, which he found devastated but without any trace of an army. In fact, the camp underwent the attack, at the initiative of Dom Mesquita, governor of Mdina, of the detachment of cavalry taken refuge in the capital of the island. Mesquita”s men, finding the camp poorly defended, raided it quickly, massacring the wounded and the horses, setting fire to the tents and destroying the provisions. Furious about the affront caused by a small troop of men on horseback, as well as the missed opportunity on Senglea, Mustafa swore to make no quarter once the island was taken. He renounces however to leave for the assault the same day, conscious of the fatigue of his men.
During the following days, Mustafa Pacha decided to use the undermining of the ramparts to help the artillery in its demolition work. This technique, which was impossible to implement at Fort Saint-Elme, which was built on rock, was much better suited to the ramparts of Birgu, which were built on earth. Teams of Turkish and Egyptian sappers dug tunnels in order to undermine the main rampart of the Castille bastion. At the same time, Mustafa had a siege tower built that would allow, with the help of a raised drawbridge, to pour attackers over the walls. His new plan of attack was as follows: after launching a major attack on Saint Michael, once the defenders of Birgu had crossed the pontoon to help Saint Michael, the Ottomans would blow up the mine located under the bastion of Castille. The breach thus opened would allow Piyali”s soldiers to carry out a new assault on the bastion, whose defenses had been weakened and abandoned by some of its defenders, while at the same time the siege tower would lead the attack on another part of Birgu”s ramparts. On August 18, the teams of sappers announced that the mine was in place and that it would allow the rampart to collapse.
On the side of the attackers, the contingent of elite troops is seriously reduced by the losses suffered since the beginning of the siege. The survivors, less experienced, are more and more reluctant to go on the attack.
On the morning of 18 August, Mustafa advanced his troops on Senglea and fort Saint-Michel. In spite of the intensity of the assault on Senglea, Valette refused to clear the defenses of Birgu, where the undermining work of the Turks was spotted, although its state of progress was still unknown. Mustafa nevertheless decided to carry out his plan and ordered the firing of the mine located under the rampart of the bastion of Castille. The explosion of the mine tore down a section of the wall, a breach in which Admiral Piyali”s troops rushed in. Faced with the disarray of his troops, Valette himself took up arms and decided to participate in the defense of Birgu. After having retreated, the Turks resumed the assault at nightfall, without managing to definitively invest the bastion of Castille. The assault nevertheless caused heavy losses among the defenders and the fortifications of Birgu were seriously weakened.
All day long on August 19, the Ottomans resumed the attack to seize Saint Michael and the Castille bastion. The siege tower was also advanced. A sortie to destroy it ended in failure and the death of Valette”s nephew, who led the attack. The defenders finally succeeded in destroying it by firing two cannonballs linked by a chain that cut part of the tower”s base. Meanwhile, Mustafa also tried to use some kind of bomb filled with nails and other projectiles to decimate the defenders, but the latter managed to throw the bomb back over the ramparts before it exploded. During this day, while still participating in the fighting, Valette was wounded in the leg by the explosion of a grenade. On August 20, the fighting continued, both against Birgu and Senglea, without the Ottoman forces being able to force the decision.
In front of the blocking of the situation, Mustafa Pacha starts to consider the possibility of spending the winter on the island. After mid-September, the army would no longer have the possibility of withdrawing, the Mediterranean being too dangerous for the navigation of galleys from autumn. Admiral Piyale Pacha categorically refused this eventuality, because he did not judge the roadstead of Marsamxet, too exposed to the winter winds and insufficiently equipped for the maintenance of the ships, as a sure shelter for the Turkish fleet. The repeated failures in front of Birgu and Senglea, combined with the dysentery which raged in their ranks, also affected the morale of the Ottoman troops. On the side of the defenders, after a new assault suffered during the day of August 23 and in front of the state of dilapidation of the defenses, the Council of the Order proposed to Jean de Valette to withdraw in the fort Saint-Ange, the only one which was still intact. Valetta did not give in. St. Angelo was too small to house all the defenders and the necessary provisions, and the Grand Master refused to abandon the Maltese men and women who had been actively participating in the defense of the island since the beginning of the siege. More pragmatically, he was perfectly aware that under the concentrated fire of an enemy master of Birgu and Senglea, Saint Angelo could not resist for long. The besieged, as long as they managed to hold Birgu and Senglea, forced their besiegers to disperse their forces, thus reducing the effectiveness of their bombardments and attacks.
At the end of August, the Turkish army began to run out of gunpowder, and some cannons became unusable after several weeks of intensive use. At the same time, the ships carrying supplies from Tunisia were attacked by Christian privateers and food supplies began to be scarce. Faced with this unfortunate situation, Mustafa considered turning to Mdina, which seemed to be an easy target, in order to get hold of the city”s provisions and benefit from a success against the island”s capital. The fortified city of Mdina, located on a rocky promontory, was defended by only a small garrison. Dom Mesquita, governor of the place, decided to have the numerous peasants who had taken refuge in the city dressed and armed, and posted them on the ramparts to make them believe that there was a large garrison. The Turkish soldiers, scalded by the resistance of Saint-Elme, gave up trying to take a place that finally seemed well defended.
The siege of Birgu and Senglea continued in particular in the form of a mine war between defenders and attackers. The Ottomans nevertheless regularly launched attacks against the bastion of Castille and Saint-Michel.
Overestimating the importance of the Christian army, Mustafa Pacha ordered the lifting of the siege and the retreat of the men. On the morning of September 8, the heights overlooking Birgu and Senglea were deserted. Nevertheless, after having received the reports of his scouts, he becomes aware of his haste to raise the camp. The relief army amounted to only about 6,000 men, mainly Spanish tercios, far from the 16,000 initially announced. A Turkish council of war decided on the immediate landing of troops to take the initiative in the fight against the recently landed Christian forces.
On the evening of September 7, La Corna, advancing cautiously and unaware of the Turks” retreat, set up camp on the heights not far from the village of Naxxar.
The next day, September 8, messengers from Valletta informed him that the Turkish army, 9,000 strong, had disembarked and was heading towards him for a confrontation. Posted on the heights, the men of La Corna charged the Ottomans who arrived to meet them. Weakened by the long month of siege and demoralized by their failures, the Turkish soldiers suffered a rout and only just managed to reach the bay of Saint-Paul where the galleys of Admiral Piyale Pacha were waiting for them. At the head of his men, Mustafa was almost taken prisoner. On the evening of September 8, after a final confrontation during the reembarkation of the Turkish army, the entire Ottoman fleet regrouped off the coast of Saint Paul Bay and headed back to Constantinople, definitively abandoning the siege of the island.
The Ottoman defeat, beyond the human losses, does not have important military consequences. It is however one of the rare military failures of Soliman the Magnificent. Following numerous Christian defeats, such as the battle of Djerba, this failure however deprived the Turks of a strategically located base which would have allowed them to launch numerous raids in the western Mediterranean.
For the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, the victory over the Ottomans gave it immense prestige in Christendom and reinforced its role as defender of the Christian religion in the face of Muslim expansionism. An ordinance of Grand Master John of Valletta prescribed that the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin (September 8) be celebrated with particular solemnity in all the churches under the control of the Order, in thanksgiving for the victory won over the Turks. The funds collected as a result of this victory made it possible to raise the defenses of the island, which was never again troubled by the Turkish invaders. Despite a few alerts during the 17th century, the island was never attacked again, while, on the contrary, the Order continued its harassment activity against Ottoman ships in the Mediterranean.
Human and material balance
On both sides, the human toll was very heavy. On the Turkish side, 30,000 lost their lives on the island according to Francisco Balbi, who added “including Dragut and many notable men” coming from the Barbary Coast under the command of the bey of Algiers. Only 10,000 survivors managed to reach Constantinople. On the Christian side, at the end of the siege, Valletta had only 600 able-bodied men left: 250 knights were dead, as well as 2,500 mercenaries and more than 7,000 Maltese.
After the departure of the Turks, the island was devastated: many villages were burned, the countryside was pillaged, the fortifications were destroyed and the towns of Birgu and Senglea were in ruins. The water and food reserves were exhausted and the coffers of the Order were empty, especially after the distribution of rewards to the mercenaries who had come to the rescue of the island.
Attitude of the Maltese
At the time of the installation of the knights in Malta, the local population, and in particular the nobility, did not show great enthusiasm towards them. Most Maltese gentlemen withdrew to their palaces in the city of Mdina, remaining relatively indifferent to these knights, whose arrival was imposed on them by Charles V. Since the Norman conquest of Malta in the eleventh century and the end of the Aghlabid domination, the island was regularly subjected to attacks by Muslim privateers. In the decades preceding the siege, Dragut carried out several raids on Malta, leaving the island devastated. When the arrival of a Turkish army was announced, the Maltese, mostly Catholic, sided with the knights. 3,000 to 4,000 Maltese volunteered to defend Birgu and Senglea. Although they were not professionals, these men nevertheless proved to be of decisive help to the knights and the mercenaries. They were particularly noted for their knife fighting during the spectacular battles in the water against the Turkish soldiers who had come to try to dismantle the sea wall. The Maltese, with their knowledge of the waters of the archipelago and the topography of the island, also proved indispensable for communication between the various Christian positions, such as between Birgu and Mdina, or even with Sicily, with which communications were never cut off during the entire siege. Some Maltese distinguished themselves as spies and messengers, notably the famous Toni Bajada, who became a popular Maltese legend still alive today. Attempting to create dissension among the defenders, Mustafa Pacha proposed, during the siege, that the Maltese surrender their weapons in exchange for fair treatment. He counted on the weariness of the civilian population and on his enmity for the knights, reported by his spies. He also presumed an affinity of the population towards the Ottomans, because of the long Arab domination on the island between the IXth and XIth centuries; Maltese is moreover an Arab dialect. Its offer is ignored by the natives, deeply attached to the Christian faith. None of them went over to the enemy during the siege of Birgu and Senglea. Finally, in addition to the volunteers who fought every day alongside the knights, the entire civilian population, including women and children, also participated in the defense of the fortifications, bringing ammunition to the soldiers or even throwing projectiles, boiling water or molten pitch at the attackers. The women also contributed to the care of the wounded. The contribution of the local population was decisive in the defense of the island and Valletta, recognizing its value, refused to abandon it to take refuge in the Castle of Saint Angelo. At the end of the siege, the peasants nevertheless found their lands devastated as never during the previous raids of the corsairs.
The Ottoman failure is incontestable, in particular because of the loss of many elite troops. Furious about the defeat of his armies, Soliman prepared to start a new campaign against Malta. He announced: “My armies only triumph with me, next spring, I will conquer Malta myself”. Soliman immediately launched the preparations for a new expedition and, from the autumn of 1565, the arsenals of Constantinople redoubled their activity. But a fire ravaged the construction sites at the beginning of 1566, making it impossible to launch an attack on Malta during that year. Soliman then decided to lead his armies to Hungary. He died during this campaign at the siege of Szigetvár at the age of 72. During his long reign, Suleiman, victorious in numerous campaigns in Africa, Asia and Europe, only suffered two defeats, in Vienna in 1529 and in Malta in 1565. His son Selim II succeeded him, but the latter did not launch any immediate expedition against Malta. The naval defeat of Lepanto in 1571 tempered Ottoman expansionism in the western Mediterranean and Malta was no longer worried.
For the knights, this victory was of considerable importance. The Order would have had great difficulty in recovering from the successive loss of Rhodes, and then Malta, in less than half a century. Thanks to this victory, the glory and prestige of the Order were assured for a long time, and a long period of prosperity began for Malta. The victory was announced throughout Europe, which became fascinated with the Order. It was celebrated even in the Anglican England of Elizabeth I, who rang church bells as a sign of victory.
The two cities of Birgu and Senglea were renamed respectively Vittoriosa, “the victorious” and Invitta, “the unconquered”, in homage to their heroic resistance. Messages of support for the Order poured in from all over Europe and many sovereigns subscribed to the Grand Master”s appeal for funds to raise the island”s defenses. The personality of the Grand Master was widely celebrated throughout Europe. Philip II offered Valletta a sword of honor of great value as a token of his esteem. The pope proposed to the grand master the dignity of cardinal which this one refused politely, preferring to devote himself to the reconstruction of the island. Jean de Valette, already old at the time of the siege, died in 1568. His remains were buried in the co-cathedral of Saint John in the city that bears his name, Valletta.
In Malta, King Philip II sent 15,000 soldiers to protect the island while its fortifications were being rebuilt. Thanks to the money that flowed in from Europe in the form of donations, John of Valletta oversaw the reconstruction.
The Great Siege of 1565 made the knights of the Order aware of the illusory side of a return to their previous island of Rhodes. After this event, which assured their prestige, they became fully committed to the protection of the island without any spirit of return. A new city was built on the Xiberras peninsula, the humilissima civitas Valettae, which took the name of the Grand Master and whose foundation stone was laid on March 28, 1566. Unaware of Soliman”s plans to return quickly to the island, Valletta became active. The installation of the convent of the Order on the heights of the peninsula, in the new city, made it possible to prohibit the enemy artillery from settling on this strategic position which had led to the fall of Saint Elmo. The position was also much less exposed than Birgu, which was controlled on all sides by the surrounding hills. For its part, Saint-Elme was relieved and reinforced, while the defenses of Birgu and Senglea were rebuilt.
The Order which, before the siege, had somewhat neglected the defense of the island is then animated by the obsession of a potential return of the Turks. Several waves of works, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, systematically completed and reinforced the defenses of the cities massed around the bay of Marsa, until it became one of the most imposing fortified complexes of the modern era.
The Great Siege, by the repercussion that it had, remained in the memories and marked durably the imaginary of the peoples bordering the Mediterranean. Voltaire, writing two centuries after the events, is credited with the following sentence: “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta”.
Nowadays, it is frequently described by Alain Blondy, historian specialist of the period, as the “Verdun of the sixteenth century”; his colleague Michel Fontenay comparing it to the battle of Stalingrad about the echo it had in the Christianity of the time. According to Fernand Braudel, it is “one of the peaks in the internal fever of Spain”, which is manifested in the mistrust of the Moriscos, Muslims converted to Catholicism in Spain.
Arts and museums contribute to keep this historical episode in the memories. Museums and literature also act in this sense. Two rooms of the Istanbul Naval Museum, in Top-Hane, are dedicated to the Great Siege.
In France, the castle of Lacassagne, in Saint-Avit-Frandat (Gers) has a room that is a reproduction of the “Supreme Council Room of the Palace of the Grand Masters of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem” in Valletta. Fourteen large paintings, made on the spot by painters of the Italian school of the 17th century, relate the different episodes of the siege. Forty cartouches on the ceiling beams depict landscapes of Malta. This replica was commissioned in the 17th century by the owner of the place, Jean Bertrand de Luppé du Garrané, knight of Malta.
The Siege of Malta, written in 1570 by the Cretan writer Antony Achelis, in the years following the events, is a classic of Cretan Greek literature. The Scottish poet and writer Walter Scott also wrote a novel entitled The Siege of Malta, in 1831-1832. This work was not published until 2008.
The 1565 Siege of Malta is evoked in several modern works of fiction, such as Tim Willocks” historical novel The Religion (2006), which tells the story of the siege through the eyes of a fictional mercenary, Mattias Tannhauser.