The Great Siege of Malta, 1565: the crusaders’ last stand

The Ottoman Empire invaded Malta with aspirations of control over the Mediterranean, but the Knights Hospitaller were in the way. Writing for BBC History Revealed, Historian Julian Humphrys delves into the last epic battle of the Crusaders: the Great Siege of Malta…

The four-month Siege of Malta.

In the eyes of many in Christian Europe, Suleiman the Magnificent must have seemed unstoppable. In the 45 years since he had succeeded his father as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, he had undertaken major campaigns of expansion, capturing the Christian stronghold of Belgrade, driving the Knights Hospitaller from their base in Rhodes, defeating the Hungarians, and occupying much of North Africa and the Middle East.

Then in 1560, his success on land was joined by triumph at sea when his navy surprised a Christian fleet at Djerba, off Tunisia, and captured or destroyed half its ships. The Battle of Djerba saw the Ottomans at the peak of their naval powers in the Mediterranean. Their next target was Malta.

In a nutshell: The siege of Malta

The four-month Siege of Malta was one of the bitterest conflicts of the 16th century. In 1565, forces from Suleiman the Magnificent’s expanding Ottoman Empire launched an invasion to capture the island from the Knights Hospitaller, an order of military monks originally formed for service in the Holy Land. The Hospitallers and the local population successfully held out until a relief force arrived, halting the Ottoman advance into the Western Mediterranean.

In the eyes of many in Christian Europe, Suleiman the Magnificent must have seemed unstoppable. In the 45 years since he had succeeded his father as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, he had undertaken major campaigns of expansion, capturing the Christian stronghold of Belgrade, driving the Knights Hospitaller from their base in Rhodes, defeating the Hungarians, and occupying much of North Africa and the Middle East.

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Then in 1560, his success on land was joined by triumph at sea when his navy surprised a Christian fleet at Djerba, off Tunisia, and captured or destroyed half its ships. The Battle of Djerba saw the Ottomans at the peak of their naval powers in the Mediterranean. Their next target was Malta.

In a nutshell: The siege of Malta

The four-month Siege of Malta was one of the bitterest conflicts of the 16th century. In 1565, forces from Suleiman the Magnificent’s expanding Ottoman Empire launched an invasion to capture the island from the Knights Hospitaller, an order of military monks originally formed for service in the Holy Land. The Hospitallers and the local population successfully held out until a relief force arrived, halting the Ottoman advance into the Western Mediterranean.

Sited in the narrow sea lane between Italy and the North African coast, the largely barren island was of key strategic significance. The Ottomans knew that if they were going to turn their naval dominance into total control of the Western Mediterranean, they needed to capture Malta first. Suleiman had another reason for wanting to conquer the island too. After being forced out of Rhodes in 1522, the Hospitallers had relocated there and over the years made a thorough nuisance of themselves, using their fleet of galleys to prey on Turkish shipping in search of plunder and slaves. The final straw came in the summer of 1564 when one of their commanders captured the Sultana, an Ottoman galleon packed with valuable goods bound for Venice, and brought it to Malta in triumph.

It was a highly provocative act – not least as the Sultana’s voyage had been a business venture of the Chief Eunuch, an important player in Suleiman’s court.

On 18 May 1565, a massive Ottoman armada of around 200 ships, carrying an army estimated to be 40,000 strong, was spotted approaching Malta. Knowing that an invasion had been on the cards since the defeat at Djerba, the elderly Grand Master of the Hospitallers, Jean de La Valette, had prepared island defences as best he could, strengthening fortifications and summoning fellow knights to join the titanic struggle that was about to take place.

The Hospitallers had four strongholds on Malta. The ancient capital of Mdina was far inland – the small cavalry force there would go on to play a role out of all proportion to its size. To the east on Mount Sciberras was the newly constructed Fort St Elmo, which overlooked a sheltered anchorage and the entrance to the island’s Grand Harbour. Then there were two peninsulas, Birgu and Senglea, jutting out into the harbour itself, each with ramparts on their landward side and a fort at the end.

Once the Ottomans had established themselves on Malta, they had to decide what to attack first. But while the defenders had just one commander, La Valette, the Ottoman leadership was less straightforward. Admiral Piyale, the mastermind of the Djerba victory, commanded the armada, but the soldiers were led by Mustafa Pasha, Suleiman’s Grand Vizier. Both were advised by the 80-yearold Dragut, the most famous pirate of his age and a highly skilled commander

Mustafa wanted to capture Mdina and move onto the coastal forts, but Piyale thought it best to use heavy bombardment from land and sea to take the forts first. Eventually, Piyale’s view prevailed and the Ottomans massed their forces and a huge number of guns against St Elmo.

The knights of Saint John

Founded in the 11th century, the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John was one of the most important religious and military orders of the crusading period. Its warrior monks played a vital role in the defence of the Christian kingdom established in the Holy Land following the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. When Acre, the last major Christian stronghold in the Holy Land, fell to the Muslims in 1291, the Hospitallers took refuge on Cyprus.

Twenty years later they seized the island of Rhodes and made it their headquarters. They used Rhodes as a centre of operations against the Ottomans until 1522, when they were forced off the island by Suleiman the Magnificent. The Hospitallers were homeless until 1530, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave them Malta as their new base.

Expect no mercy

La Valette had anticipated this move and increased the fort’s defences. So instead of falling in a matter of days as Piyale had predicted, St Elmo held out for a month. The bombardment destroyed the fort buildings, but its defenders – both Hospitallers and local soldiers – fought on in the rubble, hurling pots of Greek Fire (an early form of napalm) into the packed ranks of advancing Turks. As casualties mounted, however, their resolve weakened and they sent a message to La Valette begging for permission to evacuate the fort. The old man calmly replied that they must hold out until a force of more reliable men arrived. Shamed into abandoning their request, the Knights returned to their posts.

Finally, on 23 June, St Elmo fell to a massed assault. The defenders expected no mercy and received none.  eir commanders, De Guaras and De Miranda, were too badly wounded to stand so fought to the death on chairs. Other than a handful of captured Hospitallers and Maltese men who swam across the harbour, everyone in St Elmo was slaughtered. Some 1,500 defenders died, but Turkish losses were appalling – an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 killed, including old Dragut himself. Mustafa, upon hearing of the losses, looked to the powerful Fort St Angelo on the Birgu peninsula and said: “If so small a son has cost us so dear, what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?”

Their guns opened fire – not with cannonballs, but the heads of Turkish prisoners

In an attempt to crush enemy morale, Mustafa ordered the decapitated bodies of the defenders to be nailed to mock crucifixes and pushed into the harbour, where they would drift across the defensive positions. But if he hoped to terrify the locals into surrender, his plan backfired. It served to strengthen both the Hospitallers and Maltese to fight on. Later that day, their guns opened fire on Mustafa’s men – not with cannonballs, though, but with Turkish heads. La Valette had ordered all his prisoners to be brought out of the dungeons and massacred on the ramparts.

With St Elmo in Ottoman hands, Mustafa turned his attention to the Senglea peninsula, which was less heavily defended than its neighbour Birgu. His plan was to make a simultaneous assault by both land and sea on Fort St Michael. As this meant sailing past the guns of St Angelo, he ordered his ships to be dragged over land across the base of Mount Sciberras and floated to the west of Senglea, well away from enemy guns. Senglea was defended by a palisade of stakes and chains driven into the sea bed, while the entrance to the harbour on the eastern side was closed by a chain, but the spur at the end of the peninsula was only defended by a low embankment. That was Mustafa’s target.

In July, as Turkish guns pounded the defences and troops hurled themselves heroically at the battlements, Mustafa launched his boats.

Sporting a multitude of colourful flags and pennants, they were led by three boatloads of holy men reciting verses from the Koran to inspire the attackers. As they neared the shore, the chanting stopped and the holy men fell back. A hail of shot failed to stop the Ottomans pressing on. The defenders held them off – just – but then Mustafa played his trump card. He had held back ten large boats carrying 1,000 janissaries, the crack troops of the empire, and these now entered the fray.

Mustafa must have thought victory was within his grasp, but he had overlooked one key thing. Waiting less than 200 metres away on the Birgu peninsula, immediately opposite the point where them janissaries planned to land, was a concealed gun battery at shore level. Timing his moment to perfection, the battery commander opened fire. The men in the boats never stood a chance – nine of the boats were sunk in a moment and the men either shot to pieces or tipped into the water to drown. Those that struggled to the shore were shown no mercy.

The war goes on

Following the Great Siege of Malta, Turkish naval expansion was halted, but it was only a temporary setback. The next year, the ageing Suleiman launched one last land campaign, though he died at the moment of victory at Szigetvar in southern Hungary. The Ottomans,mnow under Selim II, captured Cyprus, but their fleet suffered a major defeat by a Christian coalition of, among others, Spain, Venice, Genoa and the Hospitallers at Lepanto in 1571. Even so, the Ottomans recovered. Hostilities rumbled on during the 17th century. In 1683, an Ottoman army tried to capture Vienna, only to be routed by a Polish relief force and their defeat at the hands of the Austrians at Zenta, Serbia, in 1697 finally put an end to their hopes of conquering central Europe.

A desperate fight

Their plan thwarted, the Ottomans subjected the two peninsulas to what has been described as the heaviest sustained bombardment the world had seen to date. Yet the defenders held out, all the while waiting for news of the arrival of a relief force promised by Philip II of Spain. In August, Mustafa ordered an all-out attack on both Senglea and Birgu.

Led by La Valette in person, the defenders fought back desperately. No sooner had an Ottoman regiment been driven back than another took its place. They ran short of men and ammunition, and Mustafa was on the brink of success. Then, suddenly, they retreated, having paid the price for failing to capture Mdina. A small group of Hospitallers had ridden out of the city and launched a daring raid on the unguarded Ottoman camp, burning tents and slaughtering the sick and wounded.

The Ottomans were on the brink of success, then they suddenly retreated

The attack was halted, with Mustafa believing Christian reinforcements had arrived, and the opportunity was lost. Unwilling to give up, even after several more failed assaults, he settled in for a long siege only to hear on 7 September the news he had been dreading. Reinforcements really had landed. Mustafa ordered his army to return to their ships. But when he was told that the relief force was not as strong as feared, he saw one last chance to snatch victory. He disembarked between 9,000 and 10,000 men from his galleys and marched off to confront the relief force.

It was a terrible miscalculation. Not only was the Christian army much larger than he’d been informed, its soldiers were experienced, fresh and well fed, whereas his troops were exhausted after a four-month siege. Soon, they were fleeing back to their ships, pursued by the triumphant Christians. The Great Siege of Malta was over. Perhaps Suleiman was not as unstoppable as believed.

Julian Humphrys is a historian and author specialising in battlefields. His books include Enemies at the Gates (English Heritage, 2007).

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This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed