Siege and Fall of Rhodes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Süleyman the Magnificent’s army seized the island of Rhodes in a land-and-sea battle that was part of the Turkish wars of expansion into Europe. Christian knights surrendered and the Ottomans gained control of the eastern Mediterranean.

Summary of Event

The crusading Order of Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (Hospitallers Hospitallers ) was one of the elite fighting forces of the Middle Ages. Founded in 1110 as a military monastic order of the Catholic Church to guard pilgrims visiting Jerusalem’s holy sites, the Hospitallers were generally more disciplined, better trained, and more fanatical in combat than most of their opponents. Their rules of engagement mandated standing their ground in the face of superior opposition. At the Fall of Acre to the Mamlūks in 1291, the remnant Crusader colony relocated to Cyprus, an island that had been controlled by Crusaders since its conquest by Richard I during the Third Crusade (1189-1192). Rhodes, Siege of (1522) Süleyman the Magnificent Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Philippe Tadino da Martinengo, Gabriele Aubusson, Pierre d’ Aubusson, Pierre d’ Cem Bayezid II Selim I Süleyman the Magnificent Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Philippe Tadino da Martinengo, Gabriele Amaral, Andrea d’ La Valette, Jean Parisot de Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)

The ruins of the barracks of the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, also called Knights Hospitallers, on the island of Rhodes, in a sketch made three hundred years after the siege.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Detail of a plan of the island of Rhodes, before the siege in 1522.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The order relocated there, also, but from 1306 to 1310, the order helped capture the island of Rhodes along with Genoese forces, who had commercial colonies and interests throughout the Aegean Sea. The largest and one of the most fertile of the Dodecanese group of islands, Rhodes is 540 square miles. In the early fourteenth century, the island contained about ten thousand Byzantine Greeks, and it had a good number of Crusader colonists soon after 1309. The order relocated its headquarters to a defensible spot positioned on the high point within the city of Rhodes, overlooking Mandraki Harbor, where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood in antiquity.

When the Templars (a fellow crusading order) was disbanded in Europe in 1312, the Hospitallers were one of the primary recipients of Templar assets. Much of the assets paid for the defense of the island. The order’s citadel was a formidable square building measuring 240 feet by 225 feet, constructed upon an old seventh century Byzantine fort. Hospitaller engineers erected several substantial towers and expanded the city’s protective walls. Subterranean chambers were used for storage and for protection from bombardment in the event of a siege. Many of the citadel’s defensive engineering marvels were constructed during the tenure of Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson, who transformed the island into one of the most well-fortified locations anywhere. Engineering;Hospitallers

Several expansionist Islamic states had emerged in the eastern Mediterranean, including the Mamlūks in Egypt (who destroyed Outremer in 1291) and the Ottomans Ottoman Empire;western expansion in Asia Minor (who captured Constantinople in 1453), both of which were implacably hostile to the order. After the defeat of Crusader forces at Hattin in 1187, Egyptian and Syrian sultan Saladin executed captive Hospitallers rather than ransom them. The Mamlūks Mamlūk Dynasty[Mamluk Dynasty] attempted to capture the island twice—in 1440 and 1444—and were beaten back by the knights each time. D’Aubusson presided over the defense against Turkish forces in 1480. In 1482, Ottoman prince Cem fled to Rhodes for protection from his older brother, Sultan Bayezid II. The order handed him over to the Papacy, which hoped to use him to threaten the stability of Bayezid’s regime. He died in captivity in 1495.

The knights used their fleet of seven war galleys to hinder Muslim shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. For a time, they held the island of Cos and the city of Smyrna on Asia Minor. The Turks did not view them as a strategic threat necessarily—there were about five hundred knights total—but the existence of a Crusader state in the middle of the ever-expanding dar al-Islam (house of Islam) was considered an outrage. Sultan Selim I had planned an invasion of Rhodes in 1520, but his death precluded an immediate attack. Nevertheless, the knights anticipated an imminent attack from Selim’s son, Süleyman the Magnificent, and prepared accordingly.

Grand Master Philippe Villiers de l’Isle-Adam began taking measures similar to those of d’Aubusson some years earlier. Villiers had commanded a portion of the Hospitaller forces in a successful naval battle at Laiazzo in 1510, and was elected grand master in 1521. He began collecting supplies and bolstering the island’s fortifications to deter a new Ottoman assault. He had about five hundred brother knights and fifteen hundred mercenaries at his disposal, and a talented mercenary engineering officer named Gabriele Tadino da Martinengo. Most importantly, his forces had the precise measurements of distances from the citadel to any spot within cannon shot of their artillery.

The expected Ottoman invasion force appeared on June 25, 1522, as 700 ships carrying 20,000 Turkish troops arrived off shore. During the course of the campaign, the Turks brought in more than 140,000 reinforcements. The knights and Christian mercenaries in the citadel were vastly outnumbered, but their ranks included many artillerymen and harquebusiers, who used a weapon called a harquebus, which was fired by lowering a slow-burning match into a gunpowder-filled pan. The defenders did not challenge the Turkish landings, but instead tried to prevent Bosnian and Walachian sappers, who would attempt to undermine or bore through walls, from getting close enough to begin a Turkish bombardment. The siege started on July 28. Defending Hospitaller counterfire, however, was much more effective, given the accurate measurements the order had taken of all surrounding terrain.

Tadino’s countermeasures stopped attempts by the Turks to undermine the order’s fixed positions through the late summer. In early September, a large Turkish assault on the Hospitallers’ English bastion came close to succeeding after a mine exploded. The Turks then began a huge three-week bombardment of the citadel as a prelude to a new assault. The assault came on September 24 and converged on a large part of the citadel—the Aragonese, English, Italian, and Provençal bastions. Turkish Janissaries managed to take the Aragonese bastion, but again were pushed back.

The bombardment, mining, and sapping continued, however, probing for weaknesses in the citadel. In October, two events harmed the defenders’ morale. First, Tadino was seriously injured, and then a spy was discovered in the Hospitaller ranks; he said he was working with Andrea d’Amaral, the order’s grand chancellor (and a bitter rival of Villiers). D’Amaral was tortured but refused to confess, so was executed.

By November, the order’s supply of gunpowder was beginning to get dangerously low. Sultan Süleyman was determined to acquire the island, and he continued to press the assault week after week, despite losses approaching fifty thousand men. Süleyman had an inexhaustible supply of expendable manpower. Some eighty-five thousand rounds of ammunition (both iron and stone shot) had been fired by the Turks. The defenders had sustained a high proportion of casualties by November, when the weather began to deteriorate, but they could expect no reinforcements. The knights were hard-pressed to repair gaps in their defenses caused by the constant bombardment.

Representatives of the island’s Greek population (which had supported the knights’ efforts to hold out) informed the order that they were going to surrender en masse to the Turks if the knights did not soon negotiate their own surrender to the sultan. Villiers wished to hold out to the last man, but most of the remaining knights argued against what they considered a suicidal final option.

Negotiations opened on December 1 and lasted until the December 15, when they broke down. Hostilities resumed on December 16, and the Turks managed for the first time to break into the city the following day. A determined counterattack by the knights drove the Turks back on December 18. Negotiations resumed two days later, and the Turks pulled back to a point one mile from the city. On Christmas Eve, the negotiated terms were presented to the knights, and on December 27, Villiers surrendered.

Süleyman was magnanimous in victory, allowing the surviving 180 knights and 1,500 retainers and mercenary survivors to leave with honor, keeping their arms. He allowed their sculpted noble escutcheons to remain intact in the citadel. Among the evacuees was the order’s future grand master, Jean Parisot de La Valette. The Hospitallers sailed away from Rhodes on January 1, 1523, to Viterbo, then Nice. Villiers went from court to court trying to secure a new base of operations for the order. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V finally granted the knights the island of Malta in 1530, on condition that they also garrison Tripoli. Villiers died in 1534, and his successors managed to beat back an equally large Turkish assault on Malta in 1565.

Significance

The Turkish victory at Rhodes solidified the Ottoman hold on the eastern Mediterranean, but the favorable terms of surrender negotiated by Grand Master Philippe Villiers de l’Isle-Adam preserved the order’s existence.

The siege was one of the earliest examples of modern warfare in a new era of gunpowder weaponry. It saw heavy artillery bombard a fixed position as the prelude to a heavy infantry assault, and it saw the techniques of sapping and mining to undermine enemy fixed positions. The knights’ heroic, six-month defense of the island remains an outstanding example of modern defensive military tactics. Military;Hospitallers

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockman, Eric. The Two Sieges of Rhodes, 1480-1522. London: J. Murray, 1969. Another accessible yet accurate study of the 1522-1523 siege, which also focuses on the unsuccessful siege of 1480.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luttrell, Anthony T. The Hospitaller State on Rhodes and Its Western Provinces, 1306-1462. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 1999. Luttrell is perhaps the greatest living scholar of the Hospitallers on Rhodes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luttrell, Anthony T. The Hospitallers in Cyprus, Rhodes, Greece, and the West (1291-1440). London: Variorum, 1978. Another examination of the Hospitallers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seward, Desmond. The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders. 2d ed. London: Penguin Books, 1995. A popular and reliable study of the Hospitallers that employs good source material on the siege of Rhodes.

1454-1481: Rise of the Ottoman Empire

Apr. 14, 1457-July 2, 1504: Reign of Stephen the Great

1478-1482: Albanian-Turkish Wars End

1481-1512: Reign of Bayezid II and Ottoman Civil Wars

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

1520-1566: Reign of Süleyman

1534-1535: Ottomans Claim Sovereignty over Mesopotamia

1536: Turkish Capitulations Begin

Oct. 20-27, 1541: Holy Roman Empire Attacks Ottomans in Algiers

Mid-16th cent.: Development of the Caracole Maneuver

1552: Struggle for the Strait of Hormuz

May 18-Sept. 8, 1565: Siege of Malta

July, 1570-Aug., 1571: Siege of Famagusta and Fall of Cyprus

Oct. 7, 1571: Battle of Lepanto

Categories: History Content