I’m sitting on a rooftop terrace in Valletta, the town founded by and named after Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights of St John some 500 years ago. The terrace overlooks the Grand Harbour, and the solid walls of Fort St Angelo across the water are lit up tonight. Beyond it, sprinkled with lights, the towns of Vittoriosa and Invitta, originally called Birgu and Senglea, but renamed “Victorious” and “Unconquered” by the Knights after the Turks failed to take them in 1565. I can see the marina in Dockyard Creek whose entrance the Knights closed with a huge chain during the siege. Somewhere to my left, out of sight on the tip of the peninsula that is Valletta, beyond the rooftops, stands Fort St Elmo, whose defenders sacrificed themselves so gallantly in defence of Malta.
I’m on holiday in Valletta, and I’ve just read The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford, starting it on the plane to Malta and finishing it on this terrace, opposite Fort St Angelo.
The Vain Ambition of Suleyman the Magnificent
The Ottoman Turk empire was an empire based on and sustained by conquest. At the time of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent it already extended from the plains of Hungary to the African coast but Suleyman wanted more: to take Vienna and the lands beyond, to take Sicily and the Western Mediterranean.
Suleyman did not live to know it but the Ottoman empire ultimately failed in both of these goals: for a hundred and fifty years the Turkish armies remained bogged down in Hungary without ever managing to conquer and pacify the country; and the power of the Turkish fleet was soon to be broken for good in the battle of Lepanto.
But in 1565 all that still lay in the future.
Suleyman had his eyes on Malta where the Knights of St John, expelled from Rhodes in 1522, at that moment based themselves. Malta was in the way of Suleyman’s ambitions, Malta was a menace; Malta had to be taken:
“This cursed rock is like a barrier interposed between us and your possessions.”
“So long as Malta remains in the hands of the Knights, so long will every relief from Constantinople to Tripoli run the danger of being taken or destroyed…
(Advisors to Suleyman)
On 18 May 1565, the Turkish fleet was first seen by the guards on the walls of Fort St Elmo and Fort St Angelo. A fleet of some two hundred ships and an army of at least thirty thousand men were about to land on Malta and take the island from the Knights.
“Those sons of dogs [the Knights of St John] whom I have already conquered and who were spared only by my clemency at Rhodes forty-three years ago – I say now that, for their continual raids and insults, they shall be finally crushed and destroyed!”
(Suleyman the Magnificent)
The Heroes of Fort St Elmo
And the first blow fell on Fort St Elmo.
Fort St Elmo guards the entrance to the two harbours on either side of the peninsula where now Valletta is. The hastily constructed fort was a weak link in Malta’s defences and the Turks expected to capture it easily. Instead, the fort held out for a month, buying precious time for the rest of the defenders of Malta as they were awaiting the relief forces of the viceroy of Sicily, García de Toledo.
“…every new reinforcement sent into the fort is lost. It is cruelty, therefore, to send any more men to die here.” (Captain de Miranda’s message from Fort St Elmo to de La Valette, 20 June)
As it became obvious that the completely ruined fort was finally on the point of being taken, rather than evacuating it, de la Valette asked its defenders to stay there and die in order to gain a day or two more. They did, dying to the last man.
“We swore… that our lives would be sacrificed for the Faith whenever, and wherever, the call might come. Our brethren in St Elmo must now accept that sacrifice.” (de La Valette)
Fort St Elmo finally fell on 23 June. Mustapha Pasha, the leader of the Turkish army stood on the smoking ruins and looked across the bay at the solid walls of Fort St Angelo:
“If so small a son has cost us so dear,” he exclaimed, “what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?”
Apart from the Spanish captain, de Miranda, who arrived as the viceroy’s messenger on 4 June and so gallantly volunteered to fight in Fort St Elmo, and a small force of some 700 men who reached Malta only after the fall of the fort, the relief force of García de Toledo from Sicily didn’t arrive until September. Given this delay, the self-sacrifice of the defenders of St Elmo probably made all the difference in saving Malta from a Turkish conquest.
The Great Siege of Malta
Ultimately, the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 lasted four months and ended with defeat of the Ottoman Turks. Bradford tells the story in nearly 250 pages and when you get as far as the fall of Fort St Elmo, you’re not yet half-way through the book.
I remember putting it aside at that point, wanting a moment to reflect on the heroism of the fort’s defenders and wondering how the rest of the book could progress from there. The Turks had besieged Fort St Elmo for a month before it fell, and Bradford described the ebb and flow of the fight very well. But it was obvious that much more of the same stuff was yet to come; and after all, how many ways are there to describe an assault on a fort?… I needn’t have worried. Bradford managed it without problems, describing the entire siege without becoming boring or repetitive, and without giving the impression that he was desperately scrambling for new phrases and ideas. The book read easily to the very end.
At the time, the victory of the Knights was huge news all over Europe and a first-hand account of it was published in Spain within a couple of years: the diary of the Italian born Spaniard, Francisco Balbi de Correggio, one of the defenders of Fort St Michael. The title of his published diary, The True Story of All that Has Happened in this Year of MDLXV in the Island of Malta must be one of the longer book titles even by the standards of the age… but it is the most detailed contemporary account of the siege.
The Knights expected the Turks to come back to Malta for a second attempt and as soon as the siege was over, they engaged in repairing, then in building more defences. To this day, as you move around in Valletta, you can see the huge walls and ramparts the Knights built on every side. And all over Malta, the Knights left their mark: to reach Vittoriosa from Valletta you pass through fortification after fortification – unless you take the ferry across the Grand Harbour of course. Watchtowers line the coast, and the old capital, Mdina too boasts thick walls. From Mdina, the cavalry of the Knights sallied forth to harrass the besieging Turks, and at the end of the siege, the weakly defended Mdina frightened off the Turkish army by a desperate bluff: dressing up peasants, women and children as soldiers and parading them on the walls as a show of force. The Turkish army, by then demoralised and merely in search of an easy target, was deceived successfully and retired without attacking the town.
The Heroes of Szigetvár
Although saying that he would lead his army in person to take Malta, in 1566 Suleyman the Magnificent instead led his army against Hungary (again). And he died there, under the walls of Szigetvár, a small fort in the south of the country, supposedly of apoplexy, furious at the resistance of the fort. His death was kept secret, and his body was propped up in front of his tent as if he was still watching his troops least they should become disheartened. No relief force was ever sent to Szigetvár, and the fort fell soon after Suleyman’s death. The fort’s captain, count Miklós Zrínyi and his remaining men charged to their death from the burning ruins on the last day, leaving behind a booby trapped powder magazine whose ensuing explosion killed thousands of the victorious Turkish army.
But that is another story from another book: The Peril of Sziget, an epic poem by the younger Miklós Zrínyi, great-grandson of the hero of Szigetvár, himself a renowned general still fighting the Turks invading Hungary a hundred years later.