THE GREAT SIEGE OF MALTA – 1565


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The Great Siege of Malta took place in 1565, when the Ottoman Empire invaded Malta,  the climax of a bitter contest between a Christian Alliance and the Ottoman Empire for control of the Mediterranean, that included corsair Turgut Reis’s attack on Malta in 1551 and the Ottoman destruction of an allied Christian fleet at the battle of Djerba in 1560.

Malta was held at that time by the Knights Hospitalier (also known as the Sovereign Order of St John of Jersualem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes and Chevaliers of Malta).   The Knights won the siege, which was one of the bloodiest and fiercely contested in history.

Malta became home to the Order of the Knights Hospitalier of St John following their forcible expulsion from Rhodes by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522.  For seven years the Knights had not had a permanent base, but in 1530 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted the Knights the islands of Malta and Gozo in return for one falcon to be sent annually to the Viceroy of Sicily, a solemn mass to be celebrated each All Saints Day and that the Knights were to garrison Tripoli, which was in territory controlled by the Barbary Corsairs, allies of the Ottomans.  On 26 October 150 Phillipe Villiers de I’Isle-Adam, Grand Master sailed into Grand Harbour with a number of his followers and laid claim to the islands.

The Knights quickly turned Malta into a naval base from where they could continue to prey on Islamic shipping.   Malta’s central position in the Mediterranean was a crucial gateway between East and West, especially as the Barbary Corsairs were increasing their forays into the Western Mediterranean throughout the 1540s and 1550s.

The corsair Turgut Reis was a major threat to Christian nations in the central Mediterranean and in 1551 Turgut and Ottoman Admiral Sinan invaded Malta with a force of about 10,000 men.  After only a few days however, Turgut broke off the siege and he moved to Gozo where he bombarded the citadel for several days.   The Governor on Gozo, Galatian de Sesse, believing that resistance was futile then threw open the doors of the citadel whereupon the corsairs sacked the town and took virtually the entire population of Gozo, approximately 5,000 people into captivity   Turgut and Sunan then sailed to Tripoli where they seized the Knights’ garrison there and they installed a local leader, Aga Murat as Governor, but subsequently Turgut took over control of the area himself.

As another Ottoman invasion was expected within a year, Grand Master Juan de Homedes,ordered that Fort St Angelo be fortified and the construction of two new forts, Fort St Michael on the Senglea promontory and Fort St Elmo at the seaward end of Mt Sciberras (now Valletta).  These two forts were remarkably completed in a period of 6 months in 1552 and were to prove crucial during the Great Siege.

However, the next few years were relatively calm although the battle between Muslims and Christians continued and under Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette about 3,000 Muslim and Jewish slaves were taken on his private vessels.

By 1559 Turgut’s raids increased and he began raiding the coast of Spain.   In response Phillip II organised the largest naval expedition in 5 years to evict the Corsairs from Tripoli.   The Knighs joined this expedition which consisted of about 54 galleys and 14,000 men.  The mission met a disastrous fate when in May 1560 the Ottoman Admiral Piyale Pasha surprised the Christian fleet off Djerba and captured and sank about half of the Christian fleet.

After the disastrous outcome at Djerba there was no doubt that the Turks would attack Malta again but meanwhile the Knights continued to prey on Turkish shipping and in mid 1564 Romegas, the Order’s most notorious seafarer, captured several large merchant vessels, including one that belonged to the Chief Eunuch of the Seraglio, and he took a number of high ranking prisoners, including the Governors of Cairo and Alexandria and the former nurse of Suleiman’s daughter.   Suleiman resolved to revenge this by destroying the Knights of Malta and in early 1565 Grand Master de Valette received intelligence from his spies in Constantinople that invasion of Malta was imminent and he set about raising troops, laying down supplies and completing the fortifications. De Valette also ordered that all crops be harvested, including unripened grain so as to deprive the enemy of food supplies and the Knights also poisoned all the wells with bitter herbs and dead animals.

The Italian-Spanish mercenary Francisco Balbi di Correggio in his famous siege diary gave the forces as:

The Knights Hospitaller The Ottomans
500 Knights Hospitaller 6,000 Spahis (cavalry)
400 Spanish soldiers 500 Spahis from Karamania
800 Italian soldiers 6,000 Janissaries
500 soldiers from the galleys 400 adventurers from Mytheline
200 Greek and Sicilian soldiers 2,500 Spahis from Rouania
100 soldiers of the garrison of Fort St. Elmo 3,500 adventurers from Rouania
100 servants of the knights 4,000 “religious fanatics”
500 galley slaves 6,000 other volunteers
3,000 soldiers drawn from the Maltese population Various corsairs from Tripoli and Algiers
Total: 6,100 Total: 28,500 from the East, 48,000 in all

but contemporary accounts of the number of invaders vary and Balbi’s figure may be an exaggeration.

The Turkish armada arrived at dawn on Friday 18 May 1565 but it did not make land immediately but instead sailed up the southern coast of Malta, turned around and then finally anchored at Marsaxlokk (Marsa Sirocco) harbour, almost 10 kms from the Grand Harbour (or Great Port as it was then known).

Fort St Elmo


On 23June, after a continued onslaught on Fort St Elmo, the Turks successfully captured what was left of the fort, at a cost of losing at least 6,000 of their own men and a total of over 1,500 defenders of the fort were killed, the Turks sparing only 9 Knights.   Turgut was mortally wounded and according to some accounts died on this day from what Balbi records was ‘friendly fire’ for Turkish cannons.  Mustafa then had the Knights decapitated and their bodies floated across the bay on mock crucifixes.   In response to this, de Valette decapitated all his Turkish prisoners and had their heads fired into the Turkish camp by cannon.

As news of the siege spread across Europe panic ensued and Queen Elizabeth I of England is said to have commented:  ‘if the Turks should prevail against the isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom’.

 

Senglea Peninsula


On 15 July Mustafa ordered a double attack against the Senglea Peninsula, but a defector warned de Valette of the Turkish strategy, giving the Grand Master time to build a palisade along the Senglea promontory that helped in deflecting the attack, along with a battery of five cannons at Fort St Angelo which sank all but 1 of the Turkish vessels killing and drowning more than 800 of the attackers.  The Turks had by this time also circled Birgu and Senglea with some 65 siege guns and subjected the town to the most sustained bombardment in history up to that time (Balbi claims that 130,000 cannonballs were fired).

Mustafa had also ordered massive attacks on Fort St Michael and Birgu itself and the Turks breached the town walls but then unexpectedly broke off their assault and retreated believing that Christian reinforcements had arrived from Sicily, when in fact they hadn’t but Capt Vincenzo Anastagi, on his daily sortie from Mdina, had come upon an unprotected field hospital and had massacred all the sick and wounded.

Fort St Michael and Birgu

The Turks then returned and resumed bombardment of Fort St Michael and Birgu and varying accounts exist of this, including that the walls of the city were blown up and the Turks entered the town, whereupon de Valette on hearing this news went into the town, sword in hand, and remained there until the Turks retreated.  In another account by Bosso, he records that the townspeople had panicked on seeing the Turkish standard outside the wall and that the Grand Master ran into the town but found no Turks there, but a cannonade at Fort St Angelo also panicked and opened fire killing a number of townspeople with ‘friendly fire’.

Fort St Michael and Mdina


In August the town elders of Mdina proposed to abandon the town for the safety of Fort St Angelo but this plan was vetoed by De Valette.  Towards the end of August the Turks attempt to take Fort St Michael with a ‘manta’, a small siege engine covered with shields, and then with a full blow siege tower, but Maltese engineers scuppered these attempts by tunnelling through the rubble and destroying the constructions at point blank range with chain shot.

By the 8 September the Turks had lost about a third of their men to wounds and disease and they were preparing to leave Malta.   But Don Garcia had arrived the day before with 8,000 men who he positioned on the ridge at San Pawl tat-Targa and a massacre of the retreating Turks resulted.   Those that escaped fled to their ships and left the island on 11 September…the last battle of the Crusader Knights.

***

Modern military historians estimate the number of Turkish casualties at 10,000 from wounds and disease, though the number of volunteers and pirates lost would likely not have been recorded.  A third of the Knights were killed and Malta lost a third of its inhabitants.   Birgu and Senglea were completely flattened.   The remaining 9,000 inhabitants, mostly Maltese had withstood a siege of four months in the heat of summer enduring a bombardment of 130,000 cannon balls.  The Knights heroic defence of Malta and its defeat of the Turks led to the gratitude of Europe and money began to pour into the island, with which de Valette constructed the fortified city of Valletta on Mt Sciberras.   De Valette died three years later in 1568 after a hunting trip in Buskett.

Reference:        Extracts from ‘Siege of Malta (1565)’; Wikipedia

Bibliography:   Francisco Balbi di Correggio,  ‘The Siege of Malta 1565’;  Penguin, London (2003)

A big thank you to Linda Speight who always helps with research and writeups!

 

See the spanish translation.