Siege of Malta Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The failure of the Turks to seize the island of Malta from the Knights Hospitaller, Christian warriors, crippled the Ottoman naval advance across the Mediterranean.

Summary of Event

Like members of the other military orders created in the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the First Crusade (1095-1099), the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitaller Hospitallers , were soldier-monks, fighters under monastic vows. Though organized to provide charitable services to Christian pilgrims, they soon joined other orders as the backbone of the Crusader kingdom’s military resources, guarding its fortresses in the Holy Land. Malta, Siege of (1565) Süleyman the Magnificent La Valette, Jean Parisot de Mustafa Paşa Piali Paşa Dragut Rais Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) La Valette, Jean Parisot de Mustafa Paşa Piali Paşa Dragut Rais Barbarossa Uluch ՙAlī

With the final destruction of that kingdom in 1291, the orders sought new roles and rationales. Better focused than the Templars, who were disbanded by 1312, the Hospitallers seized the Byzantine island of Rhodes in 1310 for their fortress-base and continued with their mandate as protectors against Islamic powers in the eastern Mediterranean.

Within a century, their enemy had become the new Ottoman Ottoman Empire;halted western expansion Turkish sultanate, which completed its conquest of old Byzantine lands with the taking of Constantinople in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II. In 1480, the year before his death, Mehmed attempted to capture Rhodes but failed. Forty years later, the new sultan, Süleyman the Magnificent, considered it a priority to remove the Hospitallers because he saw them as a threat to his sea-lanes. After a long and bitter siege in 1522, the order was forced to capitulate, though its survivors were allowed an honorable departure.

In 1530, the Hospitallers reluctantly accepted from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the archipelago of Malta, together with the north African fortress of Tripoli, because they had been looking for a new base. Fortifying the main island of Malta itself, the Hospitallers supported the policies of Charles V in opposing the Turkish conquest of north Africa, thereby assuming a central role in this latest phase of Christian-Muslim struggle.

The election of Jean Parisot de La Valette as the new grand master in 1557 revitalized Hospitaller efficiency and energy. Determined in his last years of his reign to complete what he had left unfinished in 1522, the aging sultan prepared a massive expedition against the Christians.

The episode’s protagonists themselves symbolized the Christian-Muslim struggle over the Mediterranean. Born in about the same year, the grand master and the sultan were both seventy years old: Süleyman, plagued by gout, was made more determined by his ailments; La Valette, in remarkably robust health for his age, was a superlative leader. A Provençal by birth, La Valette had joined the order when he was twenty and was a survivor of the 1522 siege of Rhodes Rhodes, Siege of (1522) . Captured by Turkish corsairs at age forty-seven in 1541, he served a year’s term as a galley slave before release in a prisoner exchange. He rose rapidly through all the important Hospitaller commands, demonstrating both military and administrative talent.

Süleyman assigned three talented but individualistic commanders against La Valette, and their differences undermined the project from the start. Mustafa Paşa was as old as both the sultan and the grand master, perhaps older. Born of a family claiming descent from the Prophet’s standard-bearer, Mustafa was an experienced general whose fanatic hatred of Christians made him a brutal foe. He had incurred disgrace during the siege of Rhodes in 1522, but he had reestablished himself in subsequent military service to the sultan; now he had his chance for belated vindication against the Hospitallers.

Mustafa’s cocommander was Piali Paşa, the sultan’s chief admiral. Born of Christian parents, raised a Muslim, and known as a distinguished naval warrior, he had served Süleyman in the conquest of the north African coast, culminating in the seizure of Djerba in 1558. Married to the sultan’s granddaughter, he was about forty-five at this time.

The third Turkish commander was to be the corsair admiral Dragut Rais, trained by the brilliant Ottoman military leader Khayr al-Dīn (d. 1546), better known as Barbarossa. Four years in captivity and as a galley slave (from 1540 to 1544) hardened Dragut’s hatred of Christians. After Barbarossa’s death in 1546, Dragut had succeeded him in ravaging Christian coasts and humiliating the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560). Peerless in strategic skill and in knowledge of Mediterranean geography, Dragut knew Malta particularly well, having raided it no less than seven times between 1540 and 1565. On one occasion, in 1551, after ravaging the neighboring island of Gozo and enslaving most of its population, Dragut crossed over to Tripoli, forcing its surrender and disgracing its governor: La Valette. Joined by Piali Paşa in 1560, Dragut had foiled La Valette’s efforts to recover Tripoli and also had seized the island of Djerba. By now Dragut and La Valette were quintessential adversaries.

Though aware of Süleyman’s intentions, La Valette had been counting on another month’s grace when Mustafa and Piali unexpectedly appeared off the coasts of Malta on the night of May 18, 1565. He had about seven hundred knights only and about eighty-five hundred mercenaries and levies from the local population (who generally supported the knights). The huge Turkish force from Constantinople, in striking contrast, had about thirty thousand men and nearly two hundred ships. Landing unopposed, the two Turkish commanders intended a quick seizure of the fortresses around Grand Harbour and the order’s headquarters on the island’s east side. However, the knights bravely fought off initial attacks. Mustafa and Piali impetuously decided to concentrate on the fortress of St. Elmo, which commanded the entrance to the Grand Harbour, and mounted a massive artillery attack. They had anxiously anticipated Christian relief, and had attacked without waiting for Dragut’s advice.

Dragut arrived at the end of May with additional forces from Tripoli. He was too late to reverse the strategic mistakes of Mustafa and Piali, so he set about perfecting the siege of the crucial fortress. Desperate for the promised reinforcements, La Valette knew that holding St. Elmo was an essential stalling operation. After superhuman resistance for more than one month, the defenders fought virtually to the last man when the final Turkish assault was launched on June 23. The victory cost the Turks more than six thousand men—including Dragut, who was fatally wounded by a stray shot. Uluch ՙAlī, a renegade Muslim corsair, hardly compensated for the loss of Dragut.

A small Spanish relief force of more than six hundred men arrived by June 29 and, thanks to Turkish negligence, reached the beleaguered knights one week later. Meanwhile, continuing with their mistaken strategy, the Turks attacked the two settled peninsulas within the Grand Harbour—Senglea and Birgu—each with important fortresses at their tips. The war of attrition now became prolonged siege operations, pressed by the Turks and resisted by the Christians with equal bitterness. Another Turkish commander, this time Hassem Barbarossa, son of the great Barbarossa, son-in-law of Dragut, and governor of Algiers, arrived to join the first Turkish assault on one fortress on July 15. That assault failed, and the fighting dragged on.

On August 7, a renewed assault nearly succeeded but was beaten back by La Valette’s dogged leadership and the devastation of the Turkish camp by knights from the inland fortress of Mdina. Two weeks later, a Turkish siege tower directed against the walls was destroyed. To be sure, the desperate defenders were reduced to barely six hundred fighting men, but on September 7 and 8, the viceroy of Sicily arrived with a relief force that eventually totaled sixteen thousand. The Turks panicked and began a disordered retreat; Mustafa’s efforts to reverse this failed, and on September 11, the shattered Turkish forces departed for Constantinople.

Mustafa and Piali evaded the sultan’s rage: The former faded into obscurity, while the latter commanded again in the annexation of Chios (1566) and the conquest of Cyprus (1570), and Uluch ՙAlī fought heroically again at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) Lepanto, Battle of (1571) . Meanwhile, vowing to lead another attack on Malta, Süleyman died campaigning in Hungary in 1566. Heaped with honors, La Valette survived two years more, during which he began building Malta’s new capital behind the St. Elmo fortress, naming it Valetta, after himself. The Knights Hospitaller continued to rule Malta until expelled by Napoléon I (1769-1821) in 1798 and transferred to Rome (they are still there, and the order continues with its charitable activities). Under British rule, Malta heroically resisted another blistering attack, this time from the German bombing in World War II; it became an independent republic in 1974.

Significance

If the Turks’ failure to seize Malta did not immediately end their dominant presence in the central Mediterranean, it did signal its waning (furthered by the verdict of Lepanto), and it guaranteed the future of Spanish power in the region. It also thrilled Christian Europe with the example of epic heroism set by the defenders of Malta, in what has been seen as a climactic episode in the broader history of the Crusades.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradford, Ernle. The Great Siege. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. A lively “popular” account, if sometimes a little insecure on details.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradford, Ernle. The Shield and the Sword: The Knights of St. John, Jerusalem, Rhodes, and Malta. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973. A broader account of the Hospitallers’ entire history and a vivid treatment for the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Stefan. Malta, Mediterranean Bridge. Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 2002. Good overview of the island’s history and its culture and society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicholson, Helen. The Knights Hospitaller. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001. Concise scholarly overview, with an excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pickles, Tim. Malta, 1565: Last Battle of the Crusades. Wellingborough: Osprey, 1998. Part of the Campaign series. A detailed account of the battle, richly illustrated and with a “war-gaming” epilogue.
  • 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 as warrior-monks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sire, H. J. A. The Knights of Malta. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994. Another comprehensive history, though heavily weighted toward the later centuries.

1520-1566: Reign of Süleyman

June 28, 1522-Dec. 27, 1522: Siege and Fall of Rhodes

1536: Turkish Capitulations Begin

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

1552: Struggle for the Strait of Hormuz

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

Oct. 7, 1571: Battle of Lepanto

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