"Nothing is more well known than the siege of Malta" - Voltaire
In the year 1565 an enormous Ottoman fleet departed Constantinople heading for the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta.
With around 40,000 troops onboard, the army was tasked with the eradication of a handful of Christian knights, 'The Knights Hospitaller'.
With only around 500 knights to defend the island, it seemed the siege would be over quickly.
Leading the Knights was the grizzled Grandmaster 'La Valette', who was determined to make the Ottomans bleed for every inch of land.
What followed was one of the most dramatic and knife-edge sieges in history; with neither side willing to back down.
In the back of a dimly lit office of his family home in Northern Italy; Francisco Balbi wrote feverishly by candle-light.
Several empty plates, and piles of melted candle wax crowded his desk, but he didnt notice.
Infact, once he had begun writing, it was impossible to stop.The words seemed to just flow out.
Francisco was a rifleman; his job had taken him all over Europe. He had fought in some incredible battles - and seen things his friends could barely dream of.
But one experience towered above the others.
It was a tale that every friend, merchant or townsperson had asked him to retell.
Even his children had pestered him to tell the story.
“Was it true?” they asked him
“Did one old man and a few of his knights really stop an army of 40,00?”
Truth be told, Francisco had trouble believing it himself,
and he was there -
On that tiny island in the middle of the mediteraenan sea, only two years ago - he had seen it all.
The pain, the suffering, the hunger, the lost friends,
and the glory.
As he looked down at his blistered fingers, he realised his hands were shaking. It was still dark outside, at least a few hours until dawn.
Lighting another candle, he cracked his knuckles and started writing again. This was to be a story that no one should ever forget.
You’re listening to Anthology of Heroes - and it is my pleasure to bring to you, ‘The tale of La Valette - The Thorn In The Heel Of Allah’
– music –
The Great Siege of Malta, as its known today. Is, in my opinion one of the, if the greatest siege of all time.
It has everything you’d want in a great story. A tiny island, manned by an archaic religious order, surrounded by enemies on all sides.
In the red corner - La Vallete, fighting with his back against the wall - and nothing left to lose.
In the blue corner Sultan Suleyman The Magnificent, a renown commander and conqueror - who; for the sake of pride, had to flush away the last remnant of Christianity from his vast domain.
This is my 20th episode, and i’m hoping you’re enjoying the ride as much as I am.
Lets get started.
– break –
The age of crusades started in 1095. From his capital in Constantinople (Modern Istanbul) The Byzantine Emperor sent out a call to help from the Pope in Rome.
The Pope used the call for aid to sure up his legitimacy across the Christian world, but even he was surprised by the response.
By promising to absolve the sins of every man that answered his call,volunteers sprang up from all over Europe.
Men from all walks of life answered his holy call, from kings to peasants and everything in between.
With so many people flocking to the Levantine coast (thats, countries today like Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Western Turkey etc), there was a huge need for essential services. Starting with finances, and medical care.
The Knights Templar started a financial service, essentially the first pawn shop or line of credit in world history.
A crusader could pawn off his horse, jewelry, castle, whatever - at one of their offices in Europe , and be given a certificate which he could exchange at the Templar office in The Holy Land, for the agreed upon cash value.
The Knights Hospitaller, on the other hand - setup field hospitals for those injured in wars against the Muslims (and yes - that's where the origins of the name ‘hospital’ and the iconic red we associate medicine with).
Over the years, there was a need for a few armed soldiers to guard these services. And this eventually began to expand, and expand again.
Eventually, the Templars and The Hospitallers became the prime fighting force in the holy land. Especially well known for their shock cavalry.
These ventures of became known ascrusades.
And once they began to wind down about 120 or so years later, many of the european powers like France or Germany set up shop permanently, establishing independent states -
miniature kingdoms, carved out of the levantine coast.
The Templars and The Knights Hospitaller existed as an organisation within these kingdoms, but also had headquarters all through France, England, Spain, all over Europe even as far as modern day Estonia.
The groups also grew very rich, and due to the line of their work, they turned into expert siege engineers and castle builders
And when I say expert, I mean it. They built these things too last.
If you don’t believe me, you can see how many there are still standing today in very good condition.
But, by the end of the 13th century, crusading fever had started to die down. The lustre of ‘retaking Christ’s city in the name of the lord’ had diminished
as those who returned from earlier crusades, shone light on what really happened:
Battles in the burning desert heat, bouts of disentry spreading through the camp, and fearsome muslim warriors had people second guessing if God’s eternal blessing was really worth all that trouble
In 1291, Acre - the last mainland crusader state (in modern day northern israel) fell to the Egyptian Mamluks.
And with it, Europe’s brief adventure in the holy land came to an end...
But not everyone was ready to call it..
The Templars and the Knights Hospitaller existed solely to wage war in the holy land. They had dedicated their lives to it, as had their fathers before them.
If they weren’t doing that, what was the point of them?
The Knights needed to reinvent themselves if they were going to survive, and for that - they needed a homebase.
Already slipping from their moral highgrounds, the knights attack and take the island of Rhodes.
Rhodes was part of the Byzantine empire - a christian empire.
Though they practised a different kind of christianity, it was still a shifty move for an order that was founded on protecting christians.
From their base in Rhodes, the Knights worked to sheppard Christian ships travelling through the mediterranean sea
And they did this well - though it was a different kind of warfare, they soon got the hang of it. They became excellent mariners and a serious nuisance to Ottoman and Mamluk trading efforts.
But meanwhile, the protestant reformation began to create waves through Europe, and the Catholic church found its influence over European monarchs severely reduced.
People began to question why the Pope was the only one who could communicate directly with God. What was stopping them?
The Hospitillar were an arm of the Catholic church, and if you were no longer supporting the Pope, you weren’t going to go out of your way to fund his army.
And so,The charity for the group began to dry up.
The Knights found themselves in a strange position. Stranded on a rock, with an impressive navy, enemies on all sides and running low on funds.
So, the Knights of Hospitillar - the old guardians of the holy land - became….. Pirates
They predominantly targetted muslim ships; but as time went - many became less fussy and attacked Christian ships too!
The order had come full circle - from protecting christians on land to attacking christians, at sea!
After this, The Order's zeal for crusading began to break down somewhat as the men gave into temptations,many became decadent and lazy, growing rich privateering for other nations and acting more as mercenaries than soldiers of God.
While the Christian nations of Europe could easily enough turn a blind eye to the occasional attacks. It was not so for The Ottomans or the Mamluks.
Look across your street, imagine if whoever lived in that house held you up for a few dollars every time you left the house
Now imagine, if that person was half the size of you.
The Ottomans and The Mamluks were humongous empires. The Ottomans especially were at the peak of military technology.
Why Ottomans/muslims didnt defeat them:
So, why didn't they just defeat them then?
Well it wasn't that easy.
This wasn't Captain Blackbeard and a couple scallywags from Bristol,this was a religious orders withcenturiesof military tradition to draw on.
And while the years may have dulled their morality - it definitely had not dulled their military prowess.
In 1444, the Mamluks attacked Rhodes and the Knights sent them packing.
In 1480, the Ottomans took their shot and the Knights pushed them back into the sea
Finally, in 1522. A colossal Ottoman army of around 60,000 men and 150 ships forced the knights from Malta. The Ottoman Sultan - was generous with his terms - and most of the knights were allowed to leave freely.
The remnants were dumped in Sicily, and wandered around for awhile (im imagining a group of iron clad soldiers with a sign saying ‘will crusade for food’), but who knows!
Anyway, in 1530 the Holy Roman Emperor (thats like, the ruler of most of germany and austria and italy) granted the homeless knights, some land - another island in the mediterranean.
But it was not a fertile and lush island like Rhodes. Instead, they granted them the tiny rocky outcrop south of Italian Sicily.
They were given Malta.
The island of Malta sits smack in the middle of the of the Mediterranean sea - south of Sicilian Italy and North of libyan Tripoli
The island is 316km (or 193) miles squared, making it the tenth smallest country in the world today.
Two islands make up the country, the main island, Malta, and a smaller island - Gozo
Then, as is now - the people of Malta are a mix of Arab and Italian,as is their languageMaltese.
The island had changed hands several times over the centuries, its prospects waxing and waning with the empire that controlled it.
And overtime, the people who lived there developed a unique dress sense, and distinct cultural identity that was neither Arabic, nor Sicilian - but something just inbetween.
While this cosmopolitan island, was very much home to the Maltese, when the knights were granted the island after 8 years of homelessness, it was with grumblings and grimaces.
Far from the lush and fertile grounds they had grown used to in Rhodes,
wood was incredibly scarce, as was water - the island having no natural springs
The tough barren ground was no good to grow corn or other grains and in their place were melons and figs.
The populace too, spoke an unfamiliar dialect of arabic, foreign to their ears, and they lived in relative poverty, due to the constant, yearly attacks from north african pirates.
It's fair to say, that if the order had other options, it would’ve been a ‘thanks but no thanks’ to settle on Malta
But they didn’t. It was this, or nothing.
While there was lots they didn't like, there were two things they did - the harbours.
The harbours on the northern part of the island were a defensible dream, two fingers of land stretching north.
With only a the narrow space between them a blind man could see, that they would make for fantastic killing grounds for coastal batteries and bastions.
Once the knights landed, they set immediately on fortifying it.
As they were prominently seafarers, the de facto capital of the island, a small city inland called ‘Mdina’ was of no interest to them.
If the inhabitants explained that this placement was strategic, a fall back when pirates came raiding - the concern would have been brushed away
Piracy would still take place - for that it was a certainty .
But the direction of it, would be reversed, instead of pirates coming to Malta, they would be comingfromit.
While the island was only a tiny spec on a map, the knight's arrival had not escaped the all seeing eye of one man.
Sultan Suileman the Magnificent, brooded over the appointment. Weighing up his options carefully.
In the last 30 years, the Ottoman Empire, already enormous - had grown tremendously in size under his rule.
A plaque written by Sulieman himself says this:
I am God's slave and sultan of this world.
By the grace of God I am head of Muhammad's community.
God's might and Muhammad's miracles are my companions.
I am Süleymân, in whose name the hutbe is read in Mecca and Medina.
In Baghdad I am the shah,
in Byzantine realms the caesar,
and in Egypt the sultan;
who sends his fleets to the seas of Europe, the Maghrib and India.
I am the sultan who took the crown and throne of Hungary and granted them to a humble slave.
The voivoda Petru raidsed his head in revolt, but my horse's hoofs ground him into the dust,
and I conquered the land of Moldovia.
And he wasn’t lying!
From Belgrade in the north, to Baghdad in the east, Tripoli in the west and Kassala in the south - cities fell like dominoes before the mighty Sultan and his forces, many of which he led in person.
It was he, who had finally dislodged the troublesome knights from Rhodes, 32 years ago!
So when his advisors may have not regarded this tiny band of men as any form of threat.
He knew better.
He had lost around 40,000 men to them last time.
In what the Sultan may refer to as a youthful folly - he had let the knights leave their battered island, carrying with them all their precious religious artefacts that had inspired them to hold out for so long.
As the sad and bedraggled procession marched out of their ruined fortress, many of the men thought of this as only a temporary setback, and that one day in the future they would have their revenge.
One of those men was a 20 year old french noblemen namedJean de la Valette, or ‘Parisot’ to his friends.
Valette had come from his family domains in Northern France to serve the Order.
He had grown up in a distinguished, noble family - and many of his ancestors had served in crusades over the centuries.
He was handsome, spoke several languages and was fanatically loyal to his order.
As he marched past the Ottoman troops toward the docks, and away from his home - it's hard to envision the emotions that raced through him - but one can imagine, revenge would’ve been somewhere toward the top.
So Valette, like all the other knights, had to get used to his new home in Malta.
But his life there, did not start with the Godliness you might expect for a ‘soldier of christ’
Despite the knight's vow of celibacy he fathered at least two bastard children, likely a few more.
He earned himself a few months in an underground dungeon for beating a man to a bloody pulp after an argument.
But eventually he pulled himself together, and was nominated to serve as governor of Tripoli in Northern Africa for a period of time,
but the true test of a knights metal lay elsewhere and he was eager to prove himself up to the task.
It was the place, where the fortune of men changed with the tides - the wild west of the 16th century:
The mediterranean sea
During his reign, Sultan Suileman introduced a kind ofstate sponsored piracyinto the the mediterranean.
Privateers were armed and supported by the Ottoman state, and were allowed a virtual free reign. Treasure, slaves whatever -it was all theirs and their only rule was that they were to leave the Ottoman vessels well alone.
For both parties it was a great deal, and some of the best and brightest in the Ottoman navy were recruited through this
But one stood above them all. A turkish corsair, known as‘Dragut’
This man's reputation on the high seas was something near a God.
These were but a few of the names he was known by.
Every inlet, sand bank, ravine or delta Dragut knew like the back of his hand.
No island, convoy or coastal battery was safe from him.
The people of Malta knew him especially well, as it was he and his men returned almost yearly to raid and plunder before the Knights arrived.
But even for the drawn sword of Islam, some days you just run out of luck.
One day as La Vallete surveyed the recently captured prisoners from a recent raid, one man made a commotion, swearing angrily - furious at his capture
Though dirty and bloody, Valette recognised him instantly - ‘Monsieur Dragut, it is the custom of war’- he sympathised, in other words ‘thats just how it is sometimes’
‘And change in fortune’- Dragut shot back.
soon enough Each man would see how right the other was.
Only a few years later - La Valette would find himself chained up, a victim of the ‘custom of war’ just like Dragut had been.
And remember his sympathetic comment from years before, Dragut secured slightly better working conditions for him.
It's perhaps thanks to him that Vallete managed to survive.
Both men were eventually released back to the other side, as a prisoner exchange but not before being subjected to the life of a galley slave.
To say the life of a galley slave was tough is the understatement of the century.
A quote from someone who worked as one, illuminates the conditions in, well shocking clarity:
Picture to yourself six men chained to a bench naked as they were born, one foot on the stretcher,
the other lifted and placed against the bench in front of him.
Supporting in their hands a vastly heavy oar and stretching their bodies backwards while their arms are extended to push the loom of the oar clear of the backs of those in front of them
A slave would be worked ten, twelve and even twenty hours at a time without rest or break.
As they worked, an officer would walk the lines and stuff a piece of wine soaked bread into the mouth of the man to keep him from fainting from exhaustion.
All while being whipped, beaten and abused.
If anyone fell over exhausted, they would be whipped continuously until they kept rowing - and if that didn’t work, they were flogged until they died, and their body thrown overboard afterward.
There is not much I can think of in this life that would test a man’s fortitude more than this.
If you survived this life, that could be anything from 6 months to a decade - then you were not just tough, you were almost superhuman.
And both Dragut and Vallette had passed the test.
Once released, Valette returned to Malta, where after the death of the old Grand Master of the Order - he was unanimously elected as the new Leader of the Knights Hospitaller.
The 62 year old man, was an obvious choice.
Though there were a few blotches on his past record, none could doubt his dedication to the order or his knowledge of the enemy.
His first order of business was a census, reports were done on availability of food, manpower, gunpowder, water - but most of all defence.
Since their arrival, 27 years ago, The Last Grand Master had done well turning the island into a formidable bastion, but he had always seen their exile to Malta as temporary and had treated the defences as such.
Valette was under no such misconceptions. He missed Rhodes too, but he was a realist; and knew that based on their current fortunes,they would probably never retake their coastal homeland.
So,he got to work on turning the island into a bristling fortress.
Valette knew there was storm brewing, by far the biggest the order would ever have to endure.
Two forts were built to protect the main harbour.
These were state of the art - built by Spanish engineers they were designed in the modern ‘star shape’ style, designed to hide weak points, and maximise sections for crossfire.
Despite the difficulty, these forts - where possible were constructed on solid rock - no countermining sappers would be able to bring these things down
These were to be known asFort St ElmoandFort St Michael.
Studying the last few raids from Dragut, ditches were dug and rampants were erected at the usual raiding spots.
Valettes plan was one of strategic withdrawal - each layer of defence needed to be held for as long as humanly possible - only in this situation, Could they have any hope of holding out until outside assistance arrived.
The cost of these upgrades was formidable,
And Malta was much less bountiful than Rhodes, everything had to be imported - even wood.
Its a testament to the new grandmasters administrative skill that he was able to finance the construction.
Doubling down on the piracy, he set his men about busily in search of plunder across the mediterranean.
And although there were some big scores, it was still not enough.
Rooting around in the archives, Vallete discovered that there were many debts from foreign powers decades or centuries old - dating back to the golden age of the order.
He immediately sent debt collectors to hassle the European powers to pay up. A few of which begrudgingly did so.
The moral decay of the men was also addressed. Years of easy living, and excess free time had his men falling into bad habits like gambling, drinking or living outside the barracks. This changed quickly.
By 1564, the writing was well and truly on the walls. Friends of the Knights in Constantinople wrote to Valette, telling him of extensive imports of raw material they were seeing move through the capital.
The reports were written in lemon juice that was invisible to the naked eye, and were only revealed under certain lighting conditions. Meaning, that reports went under the radar of Suleiman.
Judgement day was near.
Although pessimistic, Valette sent out calls for help across Europe for men, money or supplies. The Knights call rang out to all, Protestant or Catholic - to remember what the order had once done for Europe.
Philip II of Spain, The Orders rightful lord and the one who provided the islands to them, was the only one who they could have any hope of relying on.
His envoy, Don Garcia De Toledo, sailed into Malta - and encouraged the men to stand tall telling them and that he had petitioned the Philip for 25k men to bolster their numbers - and he hoped for them to be rallied soon.
Words like ‘hoped’ and ‘petitioned’ were worth little, and The Knights knew it.
Valette had all women, children and the elderly shipped off Malta. Whoever was left on the island had to be prepared to fight. Political dissidents who spoke of surrender were sent away.
For the Order to have any chance, everyone needed to be single minded in their goal: survive and endure.
The final count came in.
With 600 Knights, and 8,000 Maltese Militiamen it was on Valette to hold the line against the full might of The Ottoman Empire
‘Let us smoke out this nest of vipers’Sulieman told his men as his enormous navy sailed out of the golden horn and toward Malta.
On the 18th of May, 1565. Ottoman ships were sighted on the horizon.
The day had come.
Though expecting a large force, Valette likely did not expect one this size.
One Hundred and eighty war vessels, plus a handful merchant ships came into view and began disembarkment on the island.
The Knights could only watch in horror and awe.
The Sultan’s finest were first out.
Wading into the warm Mediterranean waters came 6000 janissaries - Christian converts from the Balkans, trained in all arts of warfare - they were the best of the best.
Next came 9,000 sipahi cavalry - once the pride of the Byzantine army, now just another regiment in the Sultans forces.
After that came 4000 yayalars - specialists bought along for their experience in explosives
Then another 4000 religious fanatics - who fought by working themselves into a frenzy similar to Viking berserkers
and the rest made up of conscripts, adventurers, militia and pirates from across the huge empire the Sultan ruled.
Around 40,000 men in total.
Coming in last was the cannons. From simple muskets to bombards longer than a car. Slowly and carefully these enormous beasts were bought onshore.
The Ottoman military tech was the most advanced in the world, and the Sultan had enjoyed victory after victory thanks to it.
After surveying the island. The sultans' spies sent word to him that the siege should not take longer than a few days.
As if reading their minds, La Valette, turned to his men and reminded them of their oaths
“It is the great battle of the Cross and the Quran which is now to be fought. A formidable army of infidels are on the point of invading our Island. We, for our part, are the chosen soldiers of the Cross, and if Heaven requires the sacrifice of our lives, there can be no better occasion than this!
Let us hasten then, my brothers, to the sacred altar. There we will renew our vows and retain by our Faith in the sacred sacraments, that contempt for death which alone can render us invincible!”
As the last of the men retreated into their fortresses all, crops, buildings and huts were burnt down. Dead animals, and poisonous herbs were dumped into every well left on the island.
It had begun.
And that's part one of Valette: The Thorn in The Heel of Allah!
The Second and Final part will be live in two weeks time. Thanks for listening.
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