Ottoman Siege of Malta, 1565

A.) Prehistory

The Order of the Knights Hospitaller (or of St. John) in 1522 were expelled from Rhodes and in 1530 were given, by Emperor Charles V., the island of Malta, from where they could continue to harass the Muslim world. In a naval attack on Djerba in 1560, the Knights Hospitaller had lost 20 out of 28 vessels; in 1563, the Knights' fleet executed unsuccessful raids on Algerian coastal cities. Malta, on the other hand, was the object of Muslim raids, as in the case of the raid on Gozo in 1551. The Knights Hospitaller were a militant order, i.e. their members, just as priests, vowed celibacy and obedience to the order's Grand Master. They were recruited from Europe's nobility.
In the 1560es, as a consequence of the Reformation, the order (as other church organizations) had difficulty to find both recruits and financial support from their organizations in Europe. For many noblemen all over Europe opted for protestantism; and the Reformation had caused civil wars which distracted from the Maltese Knights' conflict with the Muslim world.

B.) The Siege

In May 1565, an Ottoman expedition between 26,000 and 39,000 men strong landed on Malta. Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette (GM 1557-1568) had a force of 592 knights, to which several thousand arms bearing men drawn from the Maltese population have to be added. The Ottomans quickly defeated the Maltese militia, became master of the countryside and laid siege to the fortress, which was stubbornly defended by the Knights Hospitaller. After four months of siege, the knights, in a desparate fight over St. Elmo and her natural harbour, inflicted heavy casualties (according to reports, 7,000 fatalities) on the Ottoman forces; following the landing of 6,000 - 8,000 soldiers from Sicily, the Knights again defeated the Ottoman force, which embarked and left.

C.) The Legacy

Malta was to remain under the rule of the Knights Hospitaller until 1798.
Romantically inclined historians have turned the siege, which does contain elements of heroism, to a turning-point in history. However, the size of the Ottoman force - less than 40,000 (when Rhodes was taken, the Sultan dispatched 100,000) indicates that the object may have been a punishment expedition against what, from Muslim perspective, were pirates, with the object to take out the pirate's nest; a grand plan to conquer the 'soft underbelly of Europe' from Malta seems a gross exaggeration. From a Turkish perspective, the Siege of Malta was a success, insofar it had caused the christians to spend great effort in the defense of Malta; when Ottoman forces attacked the Aegaean Islands - Chios (Genoese), Naxos etc. (Venetian), little effort was made to defend them (1566).
The Great Siege of Malta 1565 may very well be regarded the last historic episode in which a force mainly consisting of knights won a decisive victory.
In 1574, King Philip II. informed newly elected Pope Gregory XIII., the maintenance of the fleet and the defence of Malta cost him 2 million ducats annually (Dandelet p.19).

Article Malta, from Catholic Encyclopedia, from EB 1911
Biography of Jean Parisot de la Vallette, from SMOM
8th September in Malta, from Search Malta
The Navy of the Order, from Knights of Malta
The Great Siege of Malta, 1565, from Simonides
REFERENCE Thomas J. Dandelet, Politics and the state system after the Habsburg-Valois Wars, pp.11-30 in : John A. Marino (ed.), Early Modern Italy (Short Oxford History of Italy), Oxford : UP 2002

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 7th 2003, last revised on November 17th 2004

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