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The Siege of Maltamarker (also known as the Great Siege of Malta) took place in 1565 when the Ottoman Empire invaded the island, then held by the Knights Hospitaller (also known as the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes, and Chevaliers of Malta)

The Knights won the siege, one of the bloodiest and most fiercely contested in history, and one which became one of the most celebrated events in sixteenth century Europe. Voltaire said, "Nothing is more well known than the siege of Malta," and it unquestionably put an end to the European perception of Ottoman invincibility and marked a new phase in Spanish domination of the Mediterranean.The siege was the climax of an escalating contest between a Christian alliance and the Ottoman Empire for control of the Mediterraneanmarker, a contest that included Turkish corsair Turgut Reis's attack on Malta in 1551, and the Turks' utter destruction of an allied Christian fleet at the Battle of Djerba in 1560.

The Knights of Malta

At the end of 1522, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had forcibly ejected the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem from their base on Rhodesmarker after a six-month siege. Between 1523 and 1530, the Order lacked a permanent home. They became known as the Knights of Malta when, on 26 October, 1530, Philippe Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Knights, sailed into Malta's Grand Harbour with a number of his followers to lay claim to Malta and Gozomarker, which had been granted to them by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in return for one falcon sent annually to the Viceroy of Sicily and a solemn mass to be celebrated on All Saints Day. Charles also required the Knights to garrison Tripolimarker on the North African coast, which was in territory that the Barbary corsairs, allies of the Ottomans, controlled. The Knights accepted the offer reluctantly. Malta was a small, desolate island, and for some time, many of the Knights clung to the dream of recapturing Rhodes.

Nevertheless, the Order soon turned Malta into a naval base from which they continued to prey on Islamic shipping. The island's position in the center of the Mediterranean made it a strategically crucial gateway between East and West, especially as the Barbary corsairs increased their forays into the western Mediterranean throughout the 1540s and 1550s.

Epitaph of Ulrich von Rambschwang, a Knight Hospitaller who participated in the defense, as victor over the Turks (ca. 1601)

In particular, the corsair Turgut Reis was proving to be a major threat to the Christian nations of the central Mediterranean. Turgut and the Knights were continually at loggerheads. In 1551, Turgut and the Ottoman admiral Sinan decided to take Malta and invaded the island with a force of about 10,000 men. After only a few days, however, Turgut broke off the siege and moved to the neighboring island of Gozo, where he bombarded the citadel for several days. The Knights' governor on Gozo, Galatian de Sesse, having decided that resistance was futile, threw open the doors to the citadel. The corsairs sacked the town and took virtually the entire population of Gozo (approximately 5,000 people) into captivity. Turgut and Sinan then sailed south to Tripoli, where they soon seized the Knights' garrison there. They initially installed a local leader, Aga Morat, as governor, but subsequently Turgut himself took control of the area.

Expecting another Ottoman invasion within a year, then Grand Master of the Knights Juan de Homedes ordered the strengthening of Fort Saint Angelo at the tip of Birgumarker (now Vittoriosa), as well as the construction of two new forts, Fort Saint Michael on the Sengleamarker promontory and Fort Saint Elmo at the seaward end of Mount Sciberras (now Vallettamarker). The two new forts were built in the remarkably short period of six months in 1552. All three forts proved crucial during the Great Siege.

The next several years were relatively calm, although the guerre de course, or running battle, between Muslims and Christians continued unabated. In 1557 the Knights elected Jean Parisot de Valette Grand Master of the Order. He continued his raids on non-Christian shipping, and his private vessels are known to have taken some 3,000 Muslim and Jewish slaves during his tenure as Grand Master.

By 1559, however, Turgut was causing the Christian powers such distress, even raiding the coasts of Spain, that Philip II organized the largest naval expedition in fifty years to evict the corsair from Tripoli. The Knights joined the expedition, which consisted of about 54 galleys and 14,000 men. This ill-fated campaign climaxed in the Battle of Djerba in May 1560, when Ottoman admiral Piyale Pasha surprised the Christian fleet off the Tunisian island of Djerbamarker, capturing or sinking about half the Christian ships. The battle was a complete disaster for the Christians and it marked the high point of Ottoman domination of the Mediterranean.

Toward the siege

Fort St. Angelo

After Djerba there could be little doubt that the Turks would eventually attack Malta again. In August 1560, Jean de Valette sent an order to all the Order's priories that their knights prepare to return to Malta as soon as a citazione (summons) was issued. However, the Turks made a strategic error in not attacking at once, while the Spanish fleet lay in ruins, as the five-year delay allowed Spain to rebuild her forces.

Meanwhile, the Knights continued to prey on Turkish shipping. In mid-1564, Romegas, the Order's most notorious seafarer, captured several large merchantmen, including one that belonged to the Chief Eunuch of the Seraglio, and took numerous high-ranking prisoners, including the governor of Cairo, the governor of Alexandria, and the former nurse of Suleiman's daughter. Romegas' exploits gave the Turks a casus belli, and by the end of 1564, Suleiman had resolved to wipe the Knights of Malta off the face of the earth.

By early 1565, Grand Master de Valette's network of spies in Constantinoplemarker had informed him that the invasion was imminent. de Valette set about raising troops in Italy, laying in stores and finishing work on Fort Saint Angelo, Fort Saint Michael, and Fort Saint Elmo.

The armies

The Turkish armada, which set sail from Constantinople at the end of March, was by all accounts one of the largest assembled since antiquity. According to one of the earliest and most complete histories of the siege, that of the Order's official historian Giacomo Bosio, the fleet consisted of 193 vessels, which included 131 galleys, seven galliots (small galleys) and four galleasses (large galleys), the remainder being transport vessels, etc. Contemporary letters from Don Garcia, the Viceroy of Sicily, give similar numbers."

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

The Knight Hipolito Sans, in a lesser-known account, also lists about 48,000 invaders, although it is not clear how independent his work is from Balbi's. Other contemporary authors give much lower figures. In a letter written to Philip II only four days after the siege began, de Valette himself says that "the number of soldiers that will make land is between 15,000 and 16,000, including seven thousand arquebusiers or more, that is four thousand janissaries and three thousand spahis." On the other hand, in a letter to the Prior of Germany a month after the siege, de Valette writes, "This fleet consisted of two hundred and fifty ships, triremes, biremes and other vessels; the nearest estimate we could make of the enemy's force was 40,000 fighting men." That de Valette gives the enemy fleet as 250 vessels, a number much above any one else's, shows that the Grand Master himself was not above exaggeration.

Indeed, a letter written during the siege by the liaison with Sicily, Captain Vincenzo Anastagi, states the enemy force was only 22,000 and several other letters of the time give similar numbers. However, Bosio arrives at a total of about 30,000, which is consistent with Balbi's "named troops." Another early history gives essentially the same figure.

Considering the capacity of sixteenth-century galleys, whose usual contingent of soldiers was between 70 and 150 men, it seems clear that Balbi's figure is an exaggeration, whereas Anastagi, who was attempting to convince the Viceroy of Sicily to send a relief as soon as possible, conceivably "lowballed" the numbers. The true size of the Turkish force will probably never be known, but given that several historians came up with specific—but not identical—lists totalling slightly under 30,000 (exclusive of the corsairs, who may have added another 6,000 upon arrival), that is a reasonable guess.

On the side of the defenders, Balbi's numbers may be somewhat low; there were indeed apparently only about 550 Knights on the island, but Bosio gives the total number of defenders as 8,500. Most of these, though, would have been Maltese irregulars, unschooled in the use of arms.

Arrival of the Ottomans

Before the Turks arrived, de Vallette ordered the harvesting of all the crops, including unripened grain, to deprive the enemy of any local food supplies. Furthermore, the Knights poisoned all wells with bitter herbs and dead animals.

The Turkish armada arrived at dawn on Friday, 18 May, but did not at once make land. Rather, the fleet sailed up the southern coast of the island, turned around and finally anchored at Marsaxlokk (Marsa Sirocco) harbour, nearly 10 kilometers from the Great Port, as the Grand Harbour was then known.
According to most accounts, in particular Balbi's, a dispute arose between the leader of the land forces, Vizier Lala Mustafa Pasha, and the supreme naval commander, Piyale Pasha, about where to anchor the fleet. Piyale wished to shelter it at Marsamxett bay, just north of the Grand Harbour, in order to avoid the sirocco and be nearer the action, but Mustafa disagreed, because to anchor the fleet there would require first reducing Fort St. Elmo, which guarded the entrance to the harbour. Mustafa intended, according to these accounts, to attack the unprotected old capital Mdinamarker, which stood in the center of the island, then attack Forts St. Angelo and Michael by land. If so, an attack on Fort St. Elmo would have been entirely unnecessary. Nevertheless, Mustafa relented, apparently believing only a few days would be necessary to destroy St. Elmo. After the Turks were able to emplace their guns, at the end of May they commenced a bombardment.

It certainly seems true that Suleiman had seriously blundered in splitting the command three ways. He not only split command between Piyale and Mustafa, but he ordered both of them to defer to Turgut when he arrived from Tripoli. Contemporary letters from spies in Constantinople, however, suggest that the plan had always been to take Fort St. Elmo first.. In any case, for the Turks to concentrate their efforts on it proved a crucial mistake.

The siege

Capture of Fort St. Elmo

Only 100 or so knights and 500 soldiers manned Fort St. Elmo, but de Valette ordered them to fight to the last. His intent was for them to hold out for a relief promised by Don Garcia, Viceroy of Sicily. The unremitting bombardment from three dozen guns on Mt. Sciberras reduced the fort to rubble within a week, but de Valette evacuated the wounded nightly and resupplied the fort from across the harbour. Still, by 8 June, the Knights were on the verge of mutiny and sent a message to the Grand Master asking to be allowed a sortie to die sword in hand. This was the last thing that de Valette wanted. A heroic sortie would be futile, and de Valette needed to buy time; St Elmo's resistance delayed the main assault. De Valette's response was to pay the soldiers and send a commission across the harbour to investigate the state of the fort. When the commissioners returned with differing opinions, de Valette said he would send replacements and go there himself if the Knights were too afraid to die as he had ordered. Thus shamed, the garrison held on, repulsing numerous assaults. Still, Turgut eventually was able to interdict the traffic across the harbour.

Finally, on 23 June, the Turks seized what was left of Fort St. Elmo. They killed all the defenders but for nine Knights whom the Corsairs had captured, and a few others who managed to escape. Turgut, however, died without savoring the victory. According to Bosio, a lucky shot from Fort St. Angelo mortally wounded him on 17 June; according to Balbi and Sans, "friendly fire" from Turkish cannons was the cause. Balbi says Turgut died before the day was out, while others have him languishing on until the day that St. Elmo fell. Although the Turks did succeed in capturing St. Elmo, allowing Piyale to anchor his fleet in Marsamxett, the siege of Fort St. Elmo had cost the Turks over 4,000 men, including half of their Janissaries. In that sense, it was certainly a pyrrhic victory, but Mustafa had no intention of giving up.

Mustafa had the bodies of the knights decapitated and their bodies floated across the bay on mock crucifixes. In response, de Valette decapitated all his Turkish prisoners and fired their heads into the Turkish camp. This was a deliberate move, not crude vengeance. It sent the signal that the knights expected no quarter and would give none. The knights knew that if they did not hold out, they would die.


By this time, word of the siege was spreading. As soldiers and adventurers gathered in Sicily for Don Garcia's relief, panic spread as well. There can be little doubt that the stakes were high, perhaps higher than at any other time in the contest between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. Queen Elizabeth I of England is said to have remarked:

All contemporary sources indicate the Turks intended to proceed to the Tunisian fortress of La Golettamarker and wrest it from the Spaniards, and Suleiman had also spoken of invading Europe through Italy.

However, modern scholars tend to disagree with this interpretation of the siege's importance. H.J.A. Sire, a historian who has written a history of the Order, is of the opinion that the siege represented an overextension of Ottoman forces, and argues that if the island had fallen, it would have quickly been retaken by a massive Spanish counterattack.

Although Don Garcia did not at once send the promised relief (troops were still being levied), he was persuaded to release an advance force of some 600 men. After several attempts, this piccolo soccorso managed to land on Malta in early July and sneak into Birgu, raising the spirits of the besieged garrison immensely.

The Senglea Peninsula

On 15 July, Mustafa ordered a double attack against the Senglea peninsula. He had transported 100 small vessels across Mt. Sciberras to the Grand Harbour, thus avoiding the strong cannons of Fort St. Angelo intending to launch a sea attack against the promontory using about 1,000 Janissaries, while the Corsairs attacked Fort St. Michael on the landward end.
for the Maltese, a defector warned de Valette about the impending strategy and the Grand Master had time to construct a palisade along the Senglea promontory, which successfully helped to deflect the attack. Nevertheless, the assault probably would have succeeded had not the Turkish boats come into point-blank range (less than 200 yards) of a sea-level battery of five cannons that had been constructed by Commander Chevalier de Guiral at the base of Fort St. Angelo which sole purpose was to stop such an amphibious attack. Just two salvos sank all but one of the vessels, killing or drowning over 800 of the attackers. The land attack failed simultaneously when relief forces were able to cross to Ft. St. Michael across a floating bridge, with the result that Malta was saved for the day.

The Turks by now had ringed Birgu and Senglea with some 65 siege guns and subjected the town to what was probably the most sustained bombardment in history up to that time. (Balbi claims that 130,000 cannonballs were fired during the course of the siege.) Having largely destroyed one of the town's crucial bastions, Mustafa ordered another massive double assault on 7 August, this time against Fort St. Michael and Birgu itself. On this occasion, the Turks breached the town walls and it seemed that the siege was over, but unexpectedly the invaders retreated. As it happened, the cavalry commander Captain Vincenzo Anastagi, on his daily sortie from Mdina, had attacked the unprotected Turkish field hospital, massacring the sick and wounded. The Turks, thinking the Christian relief had arrived from Sicily, broke off their assault.

St. Michael and Birgu

After the attack of 7 August, the Turks resumed their bombardment of St. Michael and Birgu, mounting at least one other major assault against the town on 19-21 August. What actually happened during those days of intense fighting is not entirely clear.

The battlements at Birgu
Bradford (in the climax of the siege) has a Turkish mine opening the town walls and the Grand Master saving the day by running into the breach. Balbi, in his diary entry for 20 August, says only that de Valette was told the Turks were within the walls; the Grand Master ran to "the threatened post where his presence worked wonders. Sword in hand, he remained at the most dangerous place until the Turks retired." Neither does Bosio mention a successful detonation of a mine. Rather, a panic ensues when the townspeople spy the Turkish standards outside the walls, the Grand Master runs thither, but finds no Turks. In the meantime, a cannoneer atop Ft. St. Angelo, stricken by the same panic, kills a number of townsfolk by "friendly fire".

Fort St. Michael and Mdina

The situation was sufficiently dire that, at some point in August, the Council of Elders decided to abandon the town and retreat to Fort St. Angelo. De Valette, however, vetoed this proposal. If he guessed that the Turks were losing their will, he was correct. Although the bombardment and minor assaults continued, the invaders were stricken by an increasing desperation. Towards the end of August, the Turks attempted to take Fort St. Michael, first with the help of a manta (similar to a Testudo formation), a small siege engine covered with shields, then by use of a full-blown siege tower. In both cases, Maltese engineers tunneled out through the rubble and destroyed the constructions with point-blank salvoes of chain shot.
The city of Mdina
At the beginning of September, the weather was turning and Mustafa ordered a march on Mdina, intending to winter there. However, his troops by then did not have the stomach for another assault and the attack failed to occur. By 8 September, the Turks had embarked their artillery and were preparing to leave the island, having lost perhaps a third of their men to fighting and disease.

The previous day, however, Don Garcia had at last landed about 8,000 men at St. Paul's Bay on the north end of the island. The Grande Soccorso positioned themselves on the ridge of San Pawl tat-Targa, waiting for the retreating Turks. It is said that when some hot-headed knights of the relief force saw the Turkish retreat, and the burning villages in its wake, they charged without waiting for orders from Asciano del Corna. Del Corna had no choice but to order a general charge which resulted in the massacre of the retreating Turkish force. The Turks fled to their ships and from the islands on 11 September. Malta had survived the Turkish assault, and throughout Europe people celebrated what would turn out to be the last epic battle involving Crusader Knights.
The Siege of Malta - Flight of the Ottomans , by Matteo Perez d' Aleccio.


The number of casualties is in as much dispute as the number of invaders. Balbi gives 35,000 Turkish deaths, which seems implausible, Bosio 30,000 casualties (including sailors). Several other sources give about 25,000. The knights lost a third of their number, and Malta lost a third of its inhabitants. Birgu and Senglea were essentially leveled. Still, 9,000 Christians, most of them Maltese, had managed to withstand a siege of more than four months in the hot summer, despite enduring a bombardment of some 130,000 cannon balls.

Such was the gratitude of Europe for the knights' heroic defense that money soon began pouring into the island, allowing de Valette to construct a fortified city, Vallettamarker, on Mt. Sciberras. His intent was to deny the position to any future enemies. De Valette himself died in 1568 after a hunting trip in Buskett.

The Turks never attempted to besiege Malta again. Although the Siege did little, if anything, to alter the balance of power in the Mediterranean, it was the first true defeat of the Ottoman Empire in a century and considerably lifted European morale.

The siege in recent historical fiction

Modern authors have attempted to capture the desperation and ferocity of the siege with varying degrees of success.

  • The novel Ironfire: An Epic Novel of Love and War by David Ball is the story of kidnapping, slavery and revenge leading up to the siege of Malta. It takes a somewhat less sympathetic view of the Catholic Knights Hospitaller and maintains a more romantic approach.(British edition called,"The Sword and the Scimitar")

  • The novel The Religion by Tim Willocks (2006) tells the story of the siege through the eyes of a fictional mercenary called Mattias Tannhauser, who is on Malta fighting (at times) alongside the Knights (referred to primarily as The Religion), while trying to locate the bastard son of a Maltese noblewoman. In this attempt his opponent is a high-ranking member of the Inquisition. The story presents a picture of both sides of the conflict without romanticising or sanitising the content for modern consumption.

  • The novel Blood Rock by James Jackson tells the story of the siege with a focus on a fictional English mercenary called Christian Hardy. Throughout the siege, Hardy works to discover the identity of the traitor within The Religion who works to ensure a Moslem victory. The traitor works on behalf of the French king, Francis I, who believed that peace with the Ottoman Empire was in the French interest and that the marauding Knights Hospitaller, by annoying the Sultan, threatened the security of France.

  • There is a reference to the Siege of Malta in Age of Empires 3, where Morgan Black, supposedly one of the Knights Hospitaller, battles the Ottomans and later travels to the New World to fight them there among other enemies. His grandchild, great-grandchild, great-great-grandchild, and great-great-great grandchild continue the plot later on.

  • The siege is referenced briefly in Halo 2 at the beginning of the game as one of the orbital MAC (Magnetic Accelleration Cannon) platforms referred to simply as "Malta", but is destroyed by a bomb planted on the inside by Covenant forces.

See also


  1. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, vol. II ( University of California Press: Berkeley, 1995).
  2. Abbe de Vertot, The History of the Knights of Malta vol. II, 1728 (facsimili reprint Mideas Books, Malta, 1989).
  3. Godfrey Wettinger, Slavery in the Islands of Malta and Gozo, (Publishers Enterprise Group: Malta, 2002), p. 34
  4. Carmel Testa, Romegas (Midsea Book: Malta, 2002), p. 61.
  5. Braudel, op cit.
  6. Giacomo Bosio, Histoire des Chevaliers de l’ordre de S. Iean de Hierusalem, edited by J. Baudoin (Paris, 1643).
  7. Coleccion de Documentos Ineditos Para La Historia de Espana, vol. 29 (Madrid, 1856).
  8. Arnold Cassola, The 1565 Great Siege of Malta and Hipolito Sans's La Maltea (Publishers Enterprise Group: Malta, 1999).
  9. Coleccion, op. cit., p. 367
  10. Celio Secondo Curione, A New History of the War in Malta, translated from the Latin by Emanuele F. Mizzi (Tipografia Leonina: Rome, 1928).
  11. Giovanni Bonello, Histories of Malta, Volume III, Versions and Perversions (Patrimonju Publishing Ltd: Malta, 2002)
  12. Coleccion, op. cit.
  13. Giacomo Bosio, op. cit.
  14. Richard Knolles, The Generall Historie of the Turke (London, 1603).
  15. Coleccion, op. cit., pp. 6-7
  16. H.J.A. Sire, The Knights of Malta (Yale University Press, 1996).
  17. Francisco Balbi, The Siege of Malta 1565, translated by H.A. Balbi (Copenhagen, 1961).
  18. Bosio, op. cit., p. 552.
  19. Arnold Cassola, The 1565 Ottoman Malta Campaign Register, (Publishers Enterprise Group: Malta, 1998), p. 111.
  20. Maritime History and Archaelogy of Malta page 221

External references

  • Tim Pickles. Malta 1565: Last Battle of the Crusades; Osprey Campaign Series #50, Osprey Publishing, 1998.
  • Stephen C. Spiteri. The Great Siege: Knights vs. Turks, 1565. Malta, The Author, 2005.
  • Tony Rothman, "The Great Siege of Malta," in History Today, Jan. 2007.
  • Bradford, Ernle, The Sultan's Admiral: The Life of Barbarossa, London, 1968.
  • Wolf, John B., The Barbary Coast: Algeria under the Turks, New York, 1979; ISBN 0-393-01205-0
  • Crowley, Roger. "Empires of the sea : the final battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580". London: Faber, 2008. ISBN 9780571232307
  • E. Hamilton Currey, “Sea-Wolves of the Mediterranean’’, London, 1910
  • "History's bloodiest siege used human heads as cannonballs" by James Jackson - An account of the siege

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