Siege of Malta (1565)

Siege of Malta (1565)

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Siege of Malta
partof=the Ottoman wars in Europe and Ottoman-Habsburg wars

caption="The siege of Malta - Arrival of the Turkish fleet Matteo Perez d' Aleccio
date=18 May 1565 – 11 September 1565
place=Island of Malta
result=Decisive Knight Hospitaller victory
commander1=Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha
Piyale Pasha
Turgut Reis
Salih Reis Uluç Ali Reis
commander2=Jean de Valette
Melchior de Robles
Colonel Mas
Mathurin Romegas
casualties1= <25,000-35,000
casualties2=2,500 troops 7,000 civilians 500 slaves
Campaign|name= Ottoman-Habsburg wars|battles= Mohacs - Campaign of Ferdinand I - Balkan campaign of Suleiman - Vienna - Little War - Koszeg - Tunis - Osijek - Preveza - Campaign of Suleiman (1543) - Eger - Malta - Szigetvar - Lepanto (1571) - Thirteen Years War - Keresztes - Saint Gotthard - Vienna (1683) - Mohacs (1687) - Slankamen - Zenta - Peterwardein - Grocka

"For the 1940-42 siege see "Siege of Malta (World War II)"

The Siege of Malta (also known as the Great Siege of Malta) took place in 1565 when the Ottoman Empire invaded the island, then held by the Knights Hospitaller (also known as the "Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes, and Chevaliers of Malta")

The siege, one of the bloodiest and most fiercely contested in history, was won by the knights and became one of the most celebrated events of the sixteenth century. Voltaire may have exaggerated when he said, "Nothing is more well known than the siege of Malta," but it unquestionably put an end to the European perception of Ottoman invincibility and marked a new phase in Spanish domination of the Mediterranean. [Fernand Braudel, "The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II", vol. II ( University of California Press: Berkeley, 1995).] Nevertheless, the siege should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, it was the climax of an escalating contest between a Christian alliance and Ottoman empires for control of the Mediterranean, a contest that included a previous attack on Malta in 1551 by the Turkish corsair Turgut Reis and which in 1560 had resulted in the utter destruction of an allied Christian fleet by the Turks at the battle of Djerba.

The Knights of Malta

This Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem had become known as the "Knights of Malta" since 1530, when on 26 October of that year, Philippe Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Knights, sailed into Malta's Grand Harbour with a number of his followers to take claim of the island, which had been granted to them by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. [Abbe de Vertot, "The History of the Knights of Malta" vol. II, 1728 (facsimili reprint Mideas Books, Malta, 1989). ]

Seven years earlier, at the end of 1522, the Knights had been forced from their base on Rhodes by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent after a siege of six months' duration. Between 1523 and 1530 the Knights lacked a permanent home, until Charles offered them Malta and Gozo in return for one falcon sent annually to the Viceroy of Sicily and a solemn mass to be celebrated on All Saints Day. As a proviso, Charles also required the Knights to garrison Tripoli on the North African coast, which was in territory controlled by an Ottoman ally, the Barbary corsairs.

The Knights accepted the offer reluctantly because compared to Rhodes, Malta was a small, desolate island, and for some time many of the Knights' leaders clung to the dream of recapturing Rhodes. Nevertheless, the Order soon turned Malta into a naval base, continuing to prey on Islamic shipping. The island's position in the center of the Mediterranean made it a strategically crucial gateway between East and West, especially as the Barbary corsairs increased their forays into the western Mediterranean throughout the 1540s and 1550s.

In particular, the corsair Turgut Reis was proving to be a major threat to the Christian nations of the central Mediterranean. Turgut and the Knights were continually at loggerheads. In 1551, Turgut and the Ottoman admiral Sinan decided to take Malta and invaded the island with a force of about 10,000 men. After only a few days, however, Turgut broke off the siege and moved to the neighboring island of Gozo, where he bombarded the citadel for several days. The Knights' governor on Gozo, Galatian de Sesse, having decided that resistance was futile, threw open the doors to the citadel, and the corsairs sacked the town. Taking virtually the entire population of Gozo (approximately 5,000 people) into captivity, Turgut and Sinan sailed south to Tripoli, where they soon seized the Knights' garrison there. A local leader, Aga Morat, was initially installed as governor, but subsequently Turgut himself took control of the area.

Expecting another Ottoman invasion within a year, then Grand Master of the Knights, Juan de Homedes, ordered the strengthening of Fort Saint Angelo at the tip of Birgu (now Vittoriosa), as well as the construction of two new forts, Fort Saint Michael on the Senglea promontory and Fort Saint Elmo at the seaward end of Mount Sciberras (now Valletta). The two new forts were built in the remarkably short period of six months in 1552. All three forts proved crucial during the Great Siege.

The next several years were relatively calm, although the "guerre de course", or "running battle", between Muslims and Christians continued unabated. In 1557 Jean Parisot de Valette was elected Grand Master of the Order. He continued his raids on non-Christian shipping, and his private vessels are known to have taken some 3,000 Muslim and Jewish slaves during his tenure as Grand Master. [Godfrey Wettinger, "Slavery in the Islands of Malta and Gozo", (Publishers Enterprise Group: Malta, 2002), p. 34]

By 1559, however, Turgut was causing the Christian powers such distress, even having raided the coasts of Spain, that Philip II organized the largest naval expedition in fifty years to evict the corsair from Tripoli. The Knights joined the expedition, which consisted of about 54 galleys and 14,000 men. This ill-fated campaign climaxed in the battle of Djerba in May 1560, when Ottoman admiral Piyale Pasha surprised the Christian fleet off the Tunisian island of Djerba, capturing or sinking about half the enemy ships. For the Christians it was a complete disaster and it marked the high point of Ottoman domination of the Mediterranean.

Toward the siege

After Djerba there could be little doubt that the Turks would eventually attack Malta again. In August 1560, Jean de Valette sent out an order to all the Order's priories for the knights to be prepared to return to Malta as soon a "citazione" (summons) was issued. [Carmel Testa, "Romegas" (Midsea Book: Malta, 2002), p. 61.] The Turks in fact made a strategic error in not attacking at once, while the Spanish fleet lay in ruins, and the five year wait allowed Spain to rebuild her forces. [Braudel, op cit..]

Heedless of the danger, the Knights continued to prey on Turkish shipping. In mid 1564, Romegas, the Order's most notorious seafarer, captured several large merchantmen, including one that belonged to the Chief Eunuch of the Seraglio, and took numerous high-ranking prisoners, including the governor of Cairo, the governor of Alexandria, and the former nurse of Suleiman's daughter. Romegas' exploits gave the Turks a "", and by the end of 1564, Suleiman had resolved to wipe the Knights of Malta off the face of the earth.

By early 1565, Grand Master de Valette's network of spies in Constantinople had informed him that the invasion was imminent. Valette set about raising troops in Italy, laying in stores and finishing repairs on Fort Saint Angelo, Fort Saint Michael and Fort Saint Elmo.

The armies

The Turkish armada, which set sail from Constantinople at the end of March was, by all accounts, one of the largest assembled since antiquity. According to one of the earliest and most complete histories of the siege, that of the Order's official historian Giacomo Bosio, the fleet consisted of 193 vessels, which included 131 galleys, 7 galliots (small galleys) and 4 galleasses (large galleys), the remainder being transport vessels, etc. [Giacomo Bosio, "Histoire des Chevaliers de l’ordre de S. Iean de Hierusalem", edited by J. Baudoin (Paris, 1643).] Contemporary letters from Don Garcia, the Viceroy of Sicily, give similar numbers." ["Coleccion de Documentos Ineditos Para La Historia de Espana", vol. 29 (Madrid, 1856).]

The forces as given by the Italian-Spanish mercenary Francisco Balbi di Correggio in his famous siege diary are

The Knight Hipolito Sans, in a lesser-known account, also lists about 48,000 invaders, although it is not clear how independent his work is from Balbi's. [Arnold Cassola, "The 1565 Great Siege of Malta and Hipolito Sans's" La Maltea (Publishers Enterprise Group: Malta, 1999).] Other contemporary authors give much lower figures. In a letter written to Philip II only four days after the siege began, de Valette himself says that "the number of soldiers that will make land is between 15,000 and 16,000, including seven thousand arquebusiers or more, that is four thousand janissaries and three thousand spahis." ["Coleccion", op. cit., p. 367 ] On the other hand, in a letter to the Prior of Germany a month after the siege, de Valette writes, "This fleet consisted of two hundred and fifty ships, triremes, biremes and other vessels; the nearest estimate we could make of the enemy's force was 40,000 fighting men." [Celio Secondo Curione, "A New History of the War in Malta", translated from the Latin by Emanuele F. Mizzi (Tipografia Leonina: Rome, 1928).] That de Valette gives the enemy fleet as 250 vessels, a number much above any one else's, shows that the Grand Master himself was not above exaggeration.

Indeed, a letter written during the siege by the liaison with Sicily, Captain Vincenzo Anastagi, states the enemy force was only 22,000 and several other letters of the time give similar numbers. [Giovanni Bonello, Histories of Malta, Volume III, "Versions and Perversions" (Patrimonju Publishing Ltd: Malta, 2002)] [ "Coleccion", op. cit.] However, Bosio arrives at a total of about 30,000, that is, consistent with Balbi's "named troops." [Giacomo Bosio, op. cit.] Another early history gives essentially the same figure. [Richard Knolles, The "Generall Historie of the Turke" (London, 1603).]

Considering the capacity of sixteenth-century galleys, whose usual contingent of soldiers was between 70 and 150 men, it seems clear that Balbi's figure is an exaggeration, whereas Anastagi, who was attempting to convince the Viceroy of Sicily to send a relief as soon as possible, conceivably "lowballed" the numbers. We will probably never know the true size of the Turkish force, but given that several historians came up with specific--but not identical--lists totalling slightly under 30,000 (exclusive of the corsairs, who may have added another 6,000 upon arrival), that is a reasonable guess.

On the side of the defenders, Balbi's numbers may be somewhat low; there were indeed apparently only about 550 Knights on the island, but Bosio gives the total number of defenders as 8,500. Most of these, though, would have been Maltese irregulars, unschooled in the use of arms.

Arrival of the Ottomans

De Vallette prior to the arrival of the Turks ordered that all the crops be harvested, including unripened grain, thus depriving the Turks of any local food supplies. Furthermore all the wells were poisoned, with bitter herbs and dead animals. The Turkish armada arrived at dawn on Friday 18 May, but did not at once make land. Rather, the fleet sailed up the southern coast of the island, turned around and finally anchored at Marsaxlokk (Marsa Sirocco) harbour, nearly 10 kilometers from the Great Port, as the Grand Harbour was then known., which stood in the center of the island, then attack Forts St. Angelo and Michael by land. If so, an attack on Fort St. Elmo would have been entirely unnecessary. Nevertheless, Mustafa relented, apparently believing only a few days would be necessary to destroy St. Elmo, and after guns were emplaced, a bombardment opened at the end of May.

It certainly seems true that Suleiman had seriously blundered in splitting the command three ways--not only between Piyale and Mustafa, but ordering both of them to defer to Turgut when he arrived from Tripoli. Contemporary letters from spies in Constantinople, however, suggest that the plan had always been to take Fort St. Elmo first. ["Coleccion", op. cit., pp. 6-7] . In any case, for the Turks to concentrate their efforts on it proved a crucial mistake.

The siege

The darkness of the night then became as bright as day, due to the vast quantity of artifical fires. So bright was it indeed that we could see St Elmo quite clearly. The gunners of St Angelo... were able to lay and train their pieces upon the advancing Turks, who were picked out in the light of the fires."|20|20|Francisco Balbi, Spanish relief soldier [cite book|last=Grant|first=R.G.|title=Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat|location=London|publisher=Dorling Kindersley|year=2005|pages=p. 133]

Capture of Fort St. Elmo

Fort St. Elmo was manned by only 100 or so knights and 500 soldiers, but de Valette had ordered them to fight to the last, intending them to hold out for a relief promised by Don Garcia, Viceroy of Sicily. The unremitting bombardment from three dozen guns on Mt. Sciberras reduced the fort to rubble within a week, but de Valette evacuated the wounded nightly and resupplied the fort from across the harbour. Still, by 8 June the Knights were on the verge of mutiny and sent a message to the Grand Master asking to be allowed a sortie to die with sword in hand. This was the last thing that De Valette wanted. A heroic sortie would be futile, and de Valette was winning time. St Elmo delayed the main assault. De Valette's response was to pay the soldiers and send a commission across the harbour to investigate the state of the fort. When the commissioners returned with differing opinions, de Valette said he would send replacements if the Knights were too afraid to die as he had ordered them to. Thus shamed, the garrison held on, repulsing numerous assaults by the enemy. Turgut eventually interdicted the traffic across the harbour and finally, on 23 June, the Turks were able to take what was left of Fort St. Elmo, killing all the defenders but for nine Knights, who were captured by the Corsairs, and a few others who managed to escape. Turgut himself, however, died without savoring the victory. He was mortally wounded on 17 June, according to Bosio by a lucky shot from Fort St. Angelo, according to Balbi and Sans by an instance of "friendly fire" from Turkish cannons. Balbi says Turgut died before the day was out, while others have him languishing on until the day that St. Elmo was captured. Although the Turks did succeed in their objective in capturing St. Elmo, and Piyale's fleet was soon anchored in Marsamxett, the siege of Fort St. Elmo had cost the Turks over 4,000 men, including half of their best troops, the Janissaries. In that sense it was certainly a pyrrhic victory, but Mustafa had no intention of giving up.The bodies of the knights were decapitated and their bodies floated across the bay on mock crucifixes. In response, de Valette, had all his Turkish prisoners decapitated and their heads fired into the Turkish camp. This was a deliberate ploy, not a crude vengeance, as it sent the signal that no quarter would be given nor could the knights expect any, so it was imperative to hold out.Fact|date=April 2008


By this time, word of the siege was spreading. As soldiers and adventurers gathered in Sicily for Don Garcia's relief, panic spread as well. There can be little doubt that the stakes were high, perhaps higher than at any other time in the contest between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. Queen Elizabeth I of England is saidFact|date=April 2008 to have remarked: cquote
If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom
All contemporary sources indicate the Turks intended to proceed to the Tunisian fortress of La Goletta and wrest it from the Spaniards, and Suleiman had also spoken of invading Europe through Italy.

However, modern scholars tend to disagree with this interpretation of the Siege's importance. H.J.A. Sire, a historian who has written a history of the Order, is of the opinion that the siege represented an overextension of Ottoman forces, and argues that if the island had fallen it would have quickly been retaken by a massive Spanish counterattack. [H.J.A. Sire, "The Knights of Malta" (Yale University Press, 1996).]

Although Don Garcia did not at once send the promised relief (troops were still being levied), he was persuaded to release an advance force of some 600 men. After several attempts, this "piccolo soccorso" managed to land on Malta in early July and sneak into Birgu, raising the spirits of the besieged garrison immensely.

The Senglea Peninsula

On 15 July, Mustafa ordered a double attack against the Senglea peninsula. He had ported 100 small vessels across Mt. Sciberras to the Grand Harbour, intending to launch a sea attack against the promontory using about 1,000 Janissaries, while the Corsairs attacked Fort St. Michael on the landward end. of five cannons that had been constructed by Commander Chevalier de Guiral at the base of Fort St. Angelo which sole purpose was to stop such an amphibious attack. Just two salvos sank all but one of the vessels, killing or drowning over 800 of the attackers. The land attack failed simultaneously when relief forces were able to cross to Ft. St. Michael across a floating bridge, with the result that Malta was saved for the day.

The Turks by now had ringed Birgu and Senglea with some 65 siege guns and subjected the town to what was probably the most sustained bombardment in history up to that time. (Balbi claims that 130,000 cannonballs were fired during the course of the siege.) Having largely destroyed one of the town's crucial bastions, Mustafa ordered another massive double assault on 7 August, this time against Fort St. Michael and Birgu itself. On this occasion, the Turks breached the town walls and it seemed that the siege was over, but unexpectedly the invaders retreated. As it happened, the cavalry Commander Captain Vincenzo Anastagi, on his daily sortie from Mdina, had attacked the unprotected Turkish field hospital, massacring the sick and wounded. The Turks, thinking the Christian relief had arrived from Sicily, broke off their assault.

t. Michael and Birgu

After the attack of 7 August, the Turks resumed their bombardment of St. Michael and Birgu, mounting at least one other major assault against the town on 19-21 August. What actually happened during those days of intense fighting is not entirely clear, however one account provides some detail of the strenuous Turkish effort:cquote|Wells were poisoned while the intense summer sun felled knights in heavy armor from heatstroke. Wounded defenders propped themselves up in chairs so they could strike one more blow before they were cut down. Men fought like moles in mines, while swimmers with knives performed a deadly underwater ballet over sharpened stakes in a scene that could have come from any action movie. [ [ Suleyman the fierce]

". [ Bosio, op. cit., p. 552.]

Fort St. Michael and Mdina

The situation was sufficiently dire that, at some point in August, the Council of Elders decided to abandon the town and retreat to Fort St. Angelo. De Valette, however, vetoed this proposal. If he guessed that the Turks were losing their will, he was correct. Although the bombardment and minor assaults continued, the invaders were stricken by an increasing desperation. Towards the end of August, the Turks attempted to take Fort St. Michael, first with the help of a "manta" (similar to a Testudo formation), a small siege engine covered with shields, then by use of a full-blown siege tower. In both cases, Maltese engineers tunneled out through the rubble and destroyed the constructions with point-blank salvoes of chain shot. At the beginning of September, the weather was turning and Mustafa ordered a march on Mdina, intending to winter there. However, his troops by then hadn't the stomach for another assault and the attack failed to occur. By 8 September, coincidentally the feast of the Birth of the Virgin, the Turks had embarked their artillery and were preparing to leave the island, having lost perhaps a third of their men to fighting and disease.

The previous day, however, Don Garcia had at last landed about 8,000 men at St. Paul's Bay on the north end of the island. The Grande Soccorso positioned themselves on the ridge of San Pawl tat-Targa, waiting for the retreating Turks. It is said that when some hot-headed knights of the relief force saw the Turkish retreat, and the burning villages in its wake, they charged without waiting for orders from Asciano del Corna. Del Corna had no choice but to order a general charge which resulted in the massacre of the retreating Turkish force. The Turks fled to their ships and from the islands on 11th of September. Malta had survived the Turkish assault, and throughout Europe people celebrated what would turn out to be the last epic battle of the Crusader period.


The number of casualties is in as much dispute as the number of invaders. Balbi gives 35,000 Turkish deaths, which seems implausible, Bosio 30,000 casualties (including sailors). Several other sources give about 25,000. [Arnold Cassola, "The 1565 Ottoman Malta Campaign Register", (Publishers Enterprise Group: Malta, 1998), p. 111.] Malta had lost a third of the knights and a third of its inhabitants. Birgu and Senglea were essentially leveled. But such was the gratitude of Europe for the knights' heroic defense that money soon began pouring into the island, allowing de Valette to construct a fortified city, Valletta, on Mt. Sciberras, which was designed to prevent the Turks from occupying the position ever again. More than that 9,000 Christians, most of them Maltese, had managed to withstand a siege for more than 4 months in the hot summer, suffering some 130,000 cannon shots. The Turks never attempted to besiege Malta again.

The Siege of Malta did little, if anything, to alter the balance of power in the Mediterranean, [ [ Maritime History and Archaelogy of Malta] page 221] but it was the first true defeat of the Ottoman Empire in a century and lifted European morale immeasurably.

La Valette decided to start the building of Malta's capital city, Valletta, named after its founding Grand Master. He died in 1568 after a hunting trip in Buskett, exactly 11 years after he was proclaimed Grand Master.

The siege in recent historical fiction

Modern authors have attempted to capture the desperation and ferocity of the siege with varying degrees of success.

* "Angels in Iron" by Nicholas Prata remains faithful to the historical narrative and tells the story from a distinctly Catholic point of view.

* The novel "" by David Ball is the story of kidnapping, slavery and revenge leading up to the siege of Malta. It takes a somewhat less sympathetic view of the Catholic Knights Hospitaller and maintains a more romantic approach.(British edition called,"The Sword and the Scimitar")

* The novel "The Religion" by Tim Willocks (2006) tells the story of the siege through the eyes of a fictional mercenary called Mattias Tannhauser, who is on Malta fighting (at times) alongside the Knights (referred to primarily as "The Religion"), while trying to locate the bastard son of a Maltese noblewoman. In this attempt his opponent is a high-ranking member of the Inquisition. The story presents a picture of both sides of the conflict without romanticising or sanitising the content for modern consumption.

* The novel "Blood Rock" by James Jackson tells the story of the siege with a focus on a fictional English mercenary called Christian Hardy. Throughout the siege, Hardy works to discover the identity of the traitor within The Religion who works to ensure a Moslem victory. The traitor works on behalf of the French king, Francis I, who believed that peace with the Ottoman Empire was in the French interest and that the marauding Knights Hospitaller, by annoying the Sultan, threatened the security of France.

* It is the main plot of "Pirates of Christ", the historical novel by Edward Lamond.

* There was a reference to the Siege of Malta in Age of Empires 3, where Morgan Black, supposedly one of the Knights Hospitaller, battles the Ottomans and later travels to the New World to fight them there among other enemies. His grandchild, great-grandchild, great-great-grandchild, and great-great-great grandchild continue the plot later on.

* "Sea of Faith" by Stephen O'Shea. Places the siege into the context of the ebb and flow of Islam and Christianity in the Mediterranean and ends with a summary of the Siege of Malta.


See also

* List of sieges
* Barbary pirates
* Spanish Empire
* Siege of Rhodes (1522)
* History of the Ottoman Navy
* List of Ottoman sieges and landings

External references

*cite book |author=Francesco Balbi di Correggio translated by H. A. Balbi | first= | last= | year=1568 | title=The Siege Of Malta 1565 | publisher=Copenhagen 1961 |
*cite book |author=Francesco Balbi di Correggio translated Ernle Bradford | first= | last= | year=1568 translated 1965 | title=The Siege Of Malta 1565 | chapter= chapter II | editor= | others= | pages= | publisher=Penguin 2003 | id=ISBN 0-14-101202-1 | url= | authorlink=
*cite book |author=Ernle Bradford | first= | last= | year=1961 | title=The Great Siege: Malta 1565 | chapter=| editor= | others= | pages= | publisher=Wordsworth 1999 | id=ISBN 1-84022-206-9 | url= | authorlink=
*Tim Pickles. "Malta 1565: Last Battle of the Crusades"; Osprey Campaign Series #50, Osprey Publishing, 1998.
*Stephen C. Spiteri. "The Great Siege: Knights vs. Turks, 1565." Malta, The Author, 2005.
*Tony Rothman, "The Great Siege of Malta," in "History Today", Jan. 2007.
*Bradford, Ernle, "The Sultan's Admiral: The Life of Barbarossa", London, 1968.
*Wolf, John B., "The Barbary Coast: Algeria under the Turks", New York, 1979; ISBN 0-393-01205-0
*E. Hamilton Currey, “Sea-Wolves of the Mediterranean’’, London, 1910
* [ "History's bloodiest siege used human heads as cannonballs" by James Jackson] - An account of the siege

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