Great Siege of Malta

The at­tack­ing Ot­tomans un­der­es­ti­mated the stead­fast de­ter­mi­na­tion of the Knights of Saint John to pre­serve their is­land base in the Cen­tral Mediter­ranean


The Ot­tomans launched a de­ter­mined at­tack to take the im­por­tant is­land of Malta


Asquadron of seven gal­leys fly­ing the eight-pointed cross of the Or­der of Saint John swarmed a heav­ily laden Ot­toman mer­chant gal­ley in the Io­nian Sea in 1564.

Af­ter a sharp strug­gle in which the knights over­whelmed the janis­saries guard­ing its pre­cious cargo, Ad­mi­ral Mathurin Romegas net­ted plun­der worth 80,000 ducats.

The pres­ence of the janis­saries was a clue that the cargo did not be­long to any or­di­nary Ot­toman mer­chant­man, but rather to Sul­tan Suleiman I. The ves­sel was car­ry­ing goods from Venice to Istanbul. The cargo be­longed to Ku­stir-aga, chief eu­nuch of the im­pe­rial harem, who was the agent of a com­mer­cial ven­ture es­tab­lished by Mihrimah, the sul­tan’s daugh­ter, and other mem­bers of the im­pe­rial harem.

Mihrimah was fu­ri­ous at the loss of the valu­able cargo. She pleaded with her fa­ther to stop the Christian pi­rates. Suleiman al­ready had plans to in­vade Malta, where the Or­der of Saint John was based, as he wanted to use the is­land as a stag­ing point for am­phibi­ous op­er­a­tions against Italy and Spain. The in­ci­dent in the Io­nian Sea so­lid­i­fied his de­ter­mi­na­tion to launch an ex­pe­di­tion against Malta.

Christian Cor­sairs

Af­ter the fall of Acre in 1291, which marked the end of the

Latin cru­sader states in the

Holy Land, the Or­der of Knights of the Hos­pi­tal of Saint John of Jerusalem (Hospi­tallers) re­lo­cated to Cyprus. The knights be­gan to build a fleet with which to ha­rass the south­ern Turk­ish coast. They ap­pointed their first ad­mi­ral in 1301 and be­gan build­ing a small fleet of war gal­leys. Pope Cle­ment V called on the Or­der to take Rhodes from the de­clin­ing Byzantine Em­pire, which it did in 1310 af­ter a four-year strug­gle.

The Or­der then quit Cyprus, where its fu­ture was bleak. For the next two cen­turies the Or­der thrived at Rhodes, where it con­tin­ued its trans­for­ma­tion into a mi­nor naval power. Fol­low­ing the fall of Con­stantino­ple to the Ot­tomans in 1453, the Or­der of

Saint John be­came the last bas­tion of Chris­tian­ity in the eastern Mediter­ranean. Through stal­wart lead­er­ship – which would be­come a re­cur­ring theme in its many bat­tles against su­pe­rior forces – the Or­der with­stood a siege of Rhodes by the Mam­luks in 1444 and the first Ot­toman siege in 1480. How­ever, they would not with­stand the sec­ond Ot­toman siege in 1522.

That fate­ful siege oc­curred in the sec­ond year of Suleiman’s reign. Af­ter six months of fruit­less at­tacks that cost him 60,000 men, Suleiman granted the knights an hon­ourable sur­ren­der in or­der to avoid win­ter­ing in front of their walls. As part of the sul­tan’s terms, they promised never to take up arms against him again – an oath they would un­sur­pris­ingly break. Be­cause of the trou­ble their war gal­leys later caused by prey­ing on Ot­toman pil­grim trans­ports and mer­chant ships, Suleiman came to re­gret his de­ci­sion to al­low them safe pas­sage.


For eight years the Or­der was with­out a per­ma­nent base, un­til Charles V, the Holy Ro­man em­peror, gave them Malta in 1530. They took the of­fer, de­spite some qualms about the lack of fer­tile land, short­age of potable water and an ab­sence of forests needed for ship­build­ing. The up­sides of Malta were the abun­dance of stone for the con­struc­tion of forts and its su­perb har­bours. The strate­gic po­si­tion on the is­land as a bulwark for Latin Chris­ten­dom in the Cen­tral Mediter­ranean ul­ti­mately would prove far more sig­nif­i­cant than the Or­der's pre­vi­ous po­si­tion at Rhodes.

For­ti­fy­ing Malta

Fol­low­ing an un­suc­cess­ful at­tack against Malta by the Ot­toman cor­sair Dragut in 1551, the Or­der of Saint John con­structed two new forts. The star fort Saint Elmo, on the north side of the Grand Har­bour, cov­ered the ap­proaches to both the Grand Har­bour and Marsamuscetto in­let, the is­land's two best an­chor­ages. On the south side of Grand Har­bour, the towns of Birgu and Senglia were sit­u­ated on par­al­lel promon­to­ries that jut­ted into the har­bour. To pro­tect Senglia, the Or­der built Fort Saint Michael across the top of the penin­sula. A high wall and ditch sur­rounded the Birgu penin­sula, and Fort Saint An­gelo crowned its point. In the is­land's cen­tre, a small mounted gar­ri­son de­fended the walled city of Md­ina.

Suleiman picked Ad­mi­ral Piali Pasha and Gen­eral Mustafa Pasha to lead the ex­pe­di­tion to Malta. Mustafa was a vet­eran of long wars in Per­sia and Hun­gary, and had fought at Rhodes in 1522. As for Piali, he was younger, but had won dis­tinc­tion com­mand­ing the Ot­toman fleet at Djerba.

The com­man­der of the Christian forces was 71-year-old Grand Mas­ter Jean de la Valette. He had fought the Ot­tomans at Rhodes in 1522. Al­most two decades later, while serving as cap­tain of a gal­ley in 1541, the Ot­tomans cap­tured his ves­sel and made him and his crew gal­ley slaves. He was freed af­ter one year in a pris­oner ex­change. He was in­ured to hard­ship as a re­sult, and at the time of the Ot­toman in­va­sion of Malta he was still ro­bust and fit. A devout mem­ber of the Or­der, he re­garded the Ot­tomans as barbarians.

The Ot­toman ar­mada ar­rived in three di­vi­sions off Malta on 18 May 1565. La Valette’s mix of Hospi­taller knights and sergeants, Span­ish soldiers and Mal­tese mili­tia braced them­selves for an at­tack at one or more points. The Ot­tomans sailed the breadth of the is­land be­fore de­cid­ing to land at Marasirocco Har­bour on the south­ern tip of the is­land. The Ot­tomans then marched 6.5 kilo­me­tres (four miles) in­land, and on 20 May they en­camped at Marsa on the west end of Grand Har­bour.

La Valette promptly sent a mes­sage by boat to Don Gar­cia de Toledo, viceroy of

Si­cily, who was 48 kilo­me­tres (30 miles) away across the Malta Chan­nel in Si­cily, stat­ing that the siege had be­gun and ask­ing when re­in­force­ments might be ex­pected. He re­ceived a re­sponse that, if all went well, he could ex­pect re­in­force­ments as early as 22 June. At the time, Si­cily and Naples be­longed to Span­ish King Philip II. Toledo, who com­manded a squadron of Span­ish ships at Si­cily, as­sumed he would be able to get Philip’s per­mis­sion to send a re­lief force, but Philip was ini­tially re­luc­tant to send a Span­ish fleet and land force to re­lieve Malta, for fear that the far stronger Ot­toman fleet might sink his ships. Five years ear­lier a Span­ish fleet at­tack­ing the Ot­toman cor­sair base at Djerba had been de­stroyed by the sul­tan’s fleet, and the Span­ish navy had still not re­cov­ered com­pletely from the dam­ag­ing de­feat.

From the out­set the two pashas clashed over strat­egy. Mustafa favoured an an­chor­age on the north­ern end of Malta, with a steady ad­vance south by the Ot­toman army fol­lowed by a con­cen­trated at­tack on Saint An­gelo, which was the nerve cen­tre of the Or­der’s de­fences. As for Piali, he ar­gued that it was nec­es­sary to move im­me­di­ately to cap­ture Saint Elmo so that he could an­chor his fleet in Marsamuscetto


in­let, where it would re­ceive the best pro­tec­tion pos­si­ble from storms and gale force winds that might dam­age the sul­tan’s ships. From the fleet’s an­chor­age in the in­let, it could sup­port the op­er­a­tions against Fort Saint Elmo. Piali pre­vailed, and the Ot­tomans pre­pared to as­sault Saint Elmo by haul­ing guns into po­si­tion on Mount Sciber­ras on Saint Elmo’s land­ward side.

The 40,000-strong Ot­toman army was com­posed of spahis, janis­saries, Iay­alars (reli­gious fa­nat­ics) and cor­sairs. Be­cause the solid rock un­der Fort Saint Elmo pre­cluded min­ing the walls, they would have to bat­ter the walls with di­rect fire. Labour­ers hauled the heav­i­est guns – one of which was a mas­sive 160-pounder – onto the ridge, plac­ing them about 455 me­tres (500 yards) from the outer works of Fort Saint Elmo.

La Valette’s 5,700 Christian troops on Malta con­sisted of 700 knights from the Or­der of Saint John, 1,000 Span­ish in­fantry­men and 4,000 Mal­tese mili­ti­a­men. At the out­set of the at­tack on Saint Elmo, the gar­ri­son num­bered about 80 men, in­clud­ing around 15 knights. Each night La Valette sent small boats from Fort Saint An­gelo to re­in­force and re­sup­ply the gar­ri­son. The odds were evened some­what by the fact that the gar­ri­son was sup­ported by 19 can­non and a half-cul­verin.

The de­fence of the land wall pro­tect­ing the town of Birgu was ex­tremely im­por­tant as the Or­der’s con­vent and hos­pi­tal were sit­u­ated on the nar­row penin­sula. Knights from each of the eight langues – Aragon, Au­vergne, Castile, Eng­land, France, Ger­many, Italy and Provence – were as­signed a sec­tion of Birgu’s outer wall, which was stud­ded with bas­tions fac­ing in­land. Knights of the Or­der of Saint John fought with two-handed swords and wore suits of plate ar­mour that were im­per­vi­ous to an ar­que­bus round un­less it was fired at point-blank range. As for the Spa­niards, they were crack shots with their ar­que­buses.

At­tack on Fort Saint Elmo

The Ot­toman guns be­gan bom­bard­ing Saint Elmo on 25 May. The heavy can­non­balls soon took their toll on the walls, pro­duc­ing cracks and crum­bling the bat­tle­ments. It was not long be­fore sec­tions of the wall col­lapsed. While the can­nons blasted away, hun­dreds of janis­saries armed with ar­que­buses pinned down the Chris­tians on the ram­parts.

On 2 June the 80-year-old Dragut, a cel­e­brated Ot­toman ad­mi­ral and cor­sair, ar­rived from Tripoli with 24 gal­leys and 2,500 men. Suleiman had or­dered him to join the cam­paign and keep a sharp eye out for a Christian fleet com­ing to the gar­ri­son’s as­sis­tance.

His rep­u­ta­tion put him on par with Piali and Mustafa. He was pro­fi­cient at coastal raid­ing and am­phibi­ous war­fare and had played a cen­tral role in the de­struc­tion of the Span­ish fleet at Djerba.

Dragut im­me­di­ately set to work im­prov­ing the siege bat­ter­ies. He or­dered his cor­sairs to un­load guns from his gal­leys to form ad­di­tional bat­ter­ies. New bat­ter­ies were es­tab­lished at Gal­lows Point on the south shore of Grand Har­bour, as well as on the head­land known as Tigne across the in­let from Fort Saint Elmo.

This ex­posed the de­fend­ers of Saint Elmo to fire from three di­rec­tions. Ad­di­tion­ally, the guns

on Gal­lows Point were well-placed to try to de­stroy the boats fer­ry­ing men and sup­plies to Saint Elmo across the har­bour each night.

Af­ter Dragut had fin­ished his im­prove­ments to the guns ar­rayed against Saint Elmo, they re­sumed their bom­bard­ment on 3 June.

The steady bat­ter­ing turned Saint Elmo into some­thing “like a vol­cano, spout­ing fire and smoke,” ac­cord­ing to eye­wit­ness Francesco Balbi di Cor­reg­gio, a Span­ish soldier sta­tioned in Fort Saint Michael.

On the night of 6 June, Turk­ish janis­saries in the siege trenches sur­round­ing the west side of Saint Elmo no­ticed that the Christian guards were asleep. They sent word to Mustafa, who or­dered them to place lad­ders as qui­etly as pos­si­ble against the crum­bling walls in the pre-dawn dark­ness. Other janis­saries thrust the long bar­rels of their Ger­man-made ar­que­buses through the squares of the portcullis.

When Mustafa gave the sig­nal to at­tack, ar­que­bus fire crack­led and the janis­saries atop the lad­ders leapt onto the bat­tle­ments. Men on both sides be­came in­volved in a vi­cious hand-to-hand fight on top of the ram­parts. Turk­ish scim­i­tars and hand axes clanged against the knights’ and mili­tia's heavy swords and hal­berds. To pre­vent the Ot­tomans from in­fil­trat­ing the portcullis, the de­fend­ers hurled clay pots con­tain­ing Greek fire. When the pots ex­ploded, they cre­ated balls of flame that en­gulfed whole groups of at­tack­ers. The Chris­tians beat the de­fend­ers back and waited for the next on­slaught.

Mustafa or­dered a large-scale as­sault the fol­low­ing day. White-robed janis­saries streamed forth from their for­ward trenches. As they climbed their lad­ders, the de­fend­ers un­leashed their full ar­ray of fire weapons, in­clud­ing Greek fire, fire hoops and prim­i­tive flame throw­ers to re­pulse the at­tack­ers. A fire hoop con­sisted of a light wooden ring soaked in oil and flammable liq­uids, wrapped in wool and treated with pitch and gun­pow­der. The Chris­tians lit the fire hoop, and then used tongs to hurl it aflame over the wall. The hoop was large enough to en­cir­cle and burn three Ot­tomans at once. Af­ter los­ing 2,000 of his elite janis­saries, Mustafa called off the at­tack. As for the de­fend­ers, they lost ten knights and 70 soldiers.

The Ot­tomans then launched an­other night at­tack on 10 June, in which both sides hurled in­cen­di­ary de­vices at each other. The Ot­toman grenades, which the Chris­tians called 'sa­chetti', con­tained a gummy sub­stance that clung to a knight’s ar­mour while it burned. The de­fend­ers kept large vats of water next to the walls so that when a knight was struck by one of these fire grenades, he could jump in the water to ex­tin­guish the flames. The night at­tack cost Mustafa an­other 1,500 janis­saries and the de­fend­ers 60 more men.

The Christian gar­ri­son at Saint Elmo kept the Ot­tomans at bay for many days thanks to their large com­ple­ment of can­non. The guns not only mowed down troops in the for­ward trenches, but also did su­perb work in a counter-bat­tery role.


dragut’s death

To con­serve the dwin­dling num­ber of his elite janis­saries, Mustafa or­dered his corps of

Iay­alars to make an at­tack against Saint Elmo on 16 June. High on hashish, these reli­gious fa­nat­ics charged wild-eyed to­wards the fort. They wore an­i­mal skins and pro­tected their heads with golden hel­mets. They scram­bled over the rub­ble of the walls with men­ac­ing scim­i­tars to grap­ple with the Chris­tians. Can­non and ar­que­bus fire from the fort cut many down, and 1,000 fell in the fe­ro­cious at­tack.

Two days later Christian can­noneers at

Fort Saint Elmo fired on a group of se­nior Ot­toman com­man­ders who were in­spect­ing the siege trenches on the west side of the fort. A can­non­ball shattered a stone wall be­hind them, send­ing a large splin­ter of rock fly­ing through the air. The splin­ter tore open the side of Dragut’s head, and he died five days later. His ag­gres­sive lead­er­ship would be sorely missed in the weeks that fol­lowed.

That night La Valette sent 30 knights and 300 soldiers across the har­bour un­der cover of dark­ness to join the gar­ri­son at Saint

Elmo. They were the last re­in­force­ments that would ar­rive. The fol­low­ing day the Ot­tomans com­pleted a trench at the wa­ter­line along the north shore of Grand Har­bour, which en­abled them to fire on the boats at­tempt­ing to make the night run from Saint An­gelo to Saint Elmo.

On 23 June Mustafa sent the janis­saries against Fort Saint Elmo. By that time the Ot­toman trenches com­pletely en­cir­cled the fort. Janis­saries in the trenches poured heavy fire into the fort from all di­rec­tions. The Ot­tomans breached the walls and wiped out the re­main­ing 60 de­fend­ers. The siege had lasted 31 days.

From their po­si­tion on the south side of the har­bour, the re­main­ing Christian troops knew the fort had fallen when Ot­toman ban­ners were raised over the ru­ins. The at­tack cost the Ot­tomans a month of valu­able time dur­ing the cam­paign sea­son. It also cost them

8,000 men, or one-fifth of their en­tire force. In con­trast, La Valette lost 1,500 knights and soldiers in the de­fence of Saint Elmo. If the Ot­tomans wanted to con­quer Malta, they still had to take two ma­jor fortresses on the south side of the har­bour, as well as the heav­ily de­fended land­ward walls pro­tect­ing Birgu.

time crunch

The sec­ond phase of the siege con­sisted of Mustafa’s at­tack on the twin promon­to­ries that housed Birgu and Senglia, which were pro­tected by the forts Saint An­gelo and Saint Michael. The two com­man­ders came to an agree­ment: Piali would over­see the at­tack against Birgu while Mustafa would or­ches­trate the as­sault on Senglia. In or­der to bat­ter the land­ward walls pro­tect­ing the penin­su­las, labour­ers be­gan haul­ing the siege guns from Mount Sciber­ras to new po­si­tions on the south side of Grand Har­bour. One of the most im­pos­ing new gun po­si­tions was atop the heights of Cor­radino, from which the Ot­tomans could de­liver plung­ing fire against Senglia.

In late Au­gust dysen­tery, ty­phoid and malaria swept through the Ot­toman ranks, sub­stan­tially re­duc­ing the num­ber of soldiers avail­able for com­bat. Piali Pasha knew that the strong north winds would soon bring rains and churn up the seas around Malta. With­out a ship­yard to re­pair and main­tain his ships, Piali be­lieved he would be risk­ing the sul­tan’s fleet by win­ter­ing in Malta. For these rea­sons, he in­formed Mustafa that he planned to de­part no later than midseptem­ber for Istanbul with or with­out the land army on board his ships.

The Ot­tomans suc­cess­fully det­o­nated a mine un­der the land walls of Birgu on 19 Au­gust. When part of the wall crashed to the ground, the Ot­tomans fought their way into the town. La Valette, whose head­quar­ters were in the town’s square, led a group of Christian troops for­ward in a coun­ter­at­tack. The grand mas­ter was only par­tially ar­moured, and when a grenade ex­ploded near him it in­jured his leg. “I will not with­draw as long as those ban­ners wave in the wind,” he said, point­ing to Ot­toman flags that had been planted in the breach. The Ot­tomans re­sumed their at­tack at dusk. The fight­ing see-sawed back and forth through­out the long night. At dawn the Ot­tomans with­drew, hav­ing failed to cap­ture the town.

Both sides had to en­dure tor­ren­tial rains that struck the is­land in late Au­gust. The Ot­tomans hud­dled in their trenches. Piali grew in­creas­ingly con­cerned that a Span­ish fleet was draw­ing near, and he or­dered 30 gal­leys to pa­trol the is­land’s coast­line.

A Span­ish army ar­rives

King Philip II was re­luc­tant to al­low the re­lief force from Si­cily to sail to Malta for fear he would lose some or all of his gal­leys. But

Toledo fi­nally suc­ceeded in per­suad­ing the king. “Malta is the key to Si­cily, and if it is lost the de­fence of your own pos­ses­sions will have to be at such an im­mense ex­pense that I do not know how it can be borne,” he told the Span­ish monarch. Toledo re­ceived per­mis­sion from Philip II on 20 Au­gust to trans­port the 10,000-man re­lief force to Malta.

By that time, the Ot­tomans had be­gun with­draw­ing their army in stages. Mustafa had a ma­jor chal­lenge on his hands co­or­di­nat­ing a calm re­treat to the em­barka­tion points. The pace of the with­drawal quick­ened when word came that a large re­lief force had ar­rived.

Af­ter drop­ping off the 10,000 Span­ish troops at Mel­lieha Bay on 6 Septem­ber,

Toledo or­dered the Span­ish war­ships to de­part im­me­di­ately to avoid a naval en­gage­ment.

The Span­ish re­lief force marched half­way to Grand Har­bour, tak­ing up a block­ing po­si­tion at Naxxar only eight kilo­me­tres (five miles) away. Although some of La Valette’s men wanted to at­tack the Ot­tomans while they were load­ing their ships, the grand mas­ter for­bade it, as he wanted to pre­serve his man­power.

On 10 Septem­ber the Ot­toman army was ready to de­part for Istanbul, but Mustafa had sec­ond thoughts. He had re­cently re­ceived a let­ter from Suleiman, telling him he must re­turn to Istanbul with news of a vic­tory. For that rea­son, Mustafa wanted to try to crush the Span­ish re­lief army be­fore he de­parted. If that could be done, he rea­soned, he might force La Valette to sur­ren­der. He there­fore dis­em­barked 10,000 troops the fol­low­ing day.

The Spa­niards ex­celled in pitched bat­tles on open fields, and they gladly of­fered com­bat. As the Ot­tomans ap­proached Naxxar, there was a race to see which side could seize the high ground. The Span­ish won the race, and they im­me­di­ately be­gan push­ing back the Ot­tomans. Arque­bus­iers on both sides poured fire into their foe’s ranks. When the Ot­tomans wa­vered, the Span­ish pike­men crashed into their lines. A rout en­sued, with the Ot­tomans hav­ing no choice but to con­duct a fight­ing re­treat north to Saint Paul’s Bay. Once there, they crowded onto the wait­ing ships.

ot­toman mis­takes

The Ot­toman army lost 24,000 of its 40,000 men in the failed siege. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of those suc­cumbed to dis­ease and the cli­mate. Of the 5,700 Christian troops on Malta, 600 re­mained by the end of the siege.

The siege is re­mem­bered as one of the epic Christian-mus­lim clashes of the 16th cen­tury. The Ot­toman loss can be chalked up to di­vi­sive lead­er­ship, flawed strat­egy and lack of safe drink­ing water. The soldiers were blame­less, hav­ing fought hero­ically. The de­feat de­railed plans to con­trol the North African coast.

As for the Knights of Saint John, they had shown they were for­mi­da­ble on both land and sea. The Or­der’s vic­tory was due to La Valette’s in­spir­ing lead­er­ship, the high morale of the troops and the ar­rival of the Span­ish army. With­out any one of those fac­tors, Malta might have fallen.

Christian forces un­der Jean de la Valette give thanks upon the ar­rival of the Span­ish fleet

The Ital­ian-made ar­mour worn by Grand Mas­ter Jean de la Valette

The Ot­tomans cap­tured Fort St. Elmo and killed its en­tire gar­ri­son

Ad­mi­ral Gar­cia de Toledo’s Span­ish fleet dis­em­barked 10,000 troops on its ar­rival in early Septem­ber

A de­pic­tion of the de­fence of Birgu dur­ing an as­sault on the Post of Castile on 29 July

The Ot­toman camp and the bom­bard­ment of St. Elmo. Piali, Mustafa and a com­man­der of Dragut's cor­sairs can be seen in dis­cus­sion in the cen­tre

A can­non­ball fired from a Christian bat­tery at St. Elmo mor­tally wounded Ot­toman com­man­der Dragut dur­ing the height of the siege

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