The Great Siege of 1565
Although way back in 1522 Soleyman, the Turkish Sultan, had let the Order leave peacefully from Rhodes; after the Knights settled in Malta in 1530, they still continued attacking Turkish ships around the Mediterranean. Therefore, Soleyman was getting very annoyed with the losses his empire was suffering. Moreover, he was also unhappy about the fact that when one of his best generals, Dragut, attacked the Maltese Islands in 1551, he did not succeed in invading Malta and defeating the Knights of St. John based in "Birgu", in the Grand Harbour. Instead, Dragut only succeeded in taking Malta's sister small island of Gozo. So after 1551, the Knights of Malta still remained undefeated by the Turkish Empire. Therefore Soleyman started preparing a big army or Armada so that he could attack he Knights of St. John in Malta.
The Opposing Commanders
For the attack on Malta of 1565, the Turkish Sultan Soleyman sent again his general Dragut. However, this time he was to be helped by two admirals: Admiral Piali Pasha was to be in charge of the fleet, while Admiral Mustapha Pasha was to be in command of the army. On the other hand, the Order of St. John was to be led by Grandmaster Jean Parisot De La Vallette, with the backing of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.
Preparations for The Ottoman Invasion
In October 1564 rumours reached Malta from the Ottoman Empire of a planned attack on Malta. The French Grandmaster Jean Parisot De La Vallette recalled to the Convent (the headquarters of the Knights in "Birgu") all the Knights who were living abroad and appealed for help in the preparations for the coming siege.
La Vallette, who had become a Knight at eighteen years of age, was a courageous soldier. He could speak Italian, Spanish, Greek and Turkish. This was obviously too the Order's advantage. In 1541 he was taken as a slave when he was wounded during an attack against the pirate Kust Ali. Later he was released when these pirates and the Order of St. John decided to exchange prisoners. When La Vallette became the Admiral of the Order's fleet, he caught Kust Ali in 1554, and sent him to row in the galleys. La Vallette was a powerful leader in battle. When the ships under his command used to attack they always managed to win. During one attack, La Vallette caught galleys with their goods and 250 prisoners.
In 1557 La Valette was elected for Grandmaster of the Order of St. John. His experience was going to prove useful to the Order and the Maltese during the Great Siege. La Vallette was the first one to start urging for preparation for the coming Siege. His intuition was proved correct!
Military training was immediately imposed on the Maltese population. Some old people and women were encouraged to go to Sicily to be safe. Measures were taken to ensure adequate supplies of corn from Sicily. The defence force consisted of some 9,000 men, which included some 600 Knights and 8,000 local military force.
The Grandmaster tried to warn other European Kings to send weapons and soldiers to Malta so that the Knights could withstand the Turkish attack. But unfortunately not all the help arrived in time for the Great Siege.
La Vallette knew that Malta's fortifications were weak. By 1565 the Knights had built Fort St.Elmo at the tip of "Sciberras" Peninsula, and the fortifications at "Senglea", and Fort St. Michael. The fortifications of "Mdina" (the old fortified capital city of Malta) and the Citadel (the fortified city of Gozo) were also prepared for the attack by internationally recognised Maltese architects like Girolamo Cassar (a student of the famous architect Laparelli) and Andrew Cassar. The Maltese people also helped in the preparations to defend their island.
Besides strengthening the fortifications from Fort St. Angelo to the maritime town of "Senglea", a palisade (a fortification) was built near Fort St. Michael to prevent an attack from the sea.
The Pope also sent money and prepared thousands of soldiers. Some countries sent wheat and money. The order also engaged four thousand soldiers from Italy. Spain and the Viceroy of Sicily gave their help as well. On the other hand, France, Venice and England remained neutral because they wanted to carry on trading with the Turks.
The Turks too were preparing for the siege. Mustapha Pasha and Piali Pasha asked other pirates and corsairs to help in the Turkish attack on Malta. The Turkish Armada that besieged Malta in 1565 is estimated to have consisted of some 200 galleys and 40,000 men, amongst whom were the Janissaries, which where the elite army of the Sultan and his personal bodyguards.
The Ottoman Turks knew that if they succeeded to defeat the Order of St. John and invade Catholic Malta, from the latter they could continue moving upwards (through Italy) towards central and western Europe in order to attack the catholic Holy Roman Empire. Like this, Islam would win over Christianity and Turkish trade and wealth would expand.
The Great Siege of 1565
On the 18th of May 1565, the Turkish fleet approached the Maltese islands. Two hundred Turkish vessels made their way towards the southern fishing village of "Marsaxlokk". Since Strong winds prevented them from disembarking there, they had to seek refuge at "Gnejna" bay. The next morning they went back to "Marsaxlokk" where they succeeded to disembark.
The Turks made their way to the high ground at "Kordin" from where they wanted to attack Fort St. Michael. They put up their tents at "Marsa", at the southern end of the Grand Harbour. Since the Turks realised that "Birgu" was strongly defended, they decided to attack Fort St. Elmo, at the tip of "Sciberras" Peninsula (where the future capital city, Valletta was to be constructed), which is found on the other side of the Grand Harbour, opposite "Birgu" and Fort St. Angelo. Soon afterwards, Dragut arrived in Malta. He was entrusted to be in command of all the Turkish operations both on land and at sea. He continued the attacks on Fort St. Elmo. Almost all the Knights and soldiers defending the fort died. On the 23rd of June 1565, the Turks succeeded to win Fort St. Elmo after fighting for more than a month. Dragut too was killed during these attacks. The Turks could now bring their galleys from the bay of "Marsaxlokk" to the sheltered "Marsamxett" Harbour. This harbour is found on the left side of Sciberras Penninsula where Valletta was constructed, while the Grand Harbour is found on the right side of the Peninsula. Therefore Fort St. Elmo also protects this harbour since it is found at the tip of the Peninsula on the other side of the Grand Harbour.
During July, the Turks attacked both Fort St. Angelo and Fort St. Michael. At one point the Turks had managed to have their flag hoisted on Fort St. Michael. However they soon retreated because the Order's cavalry from the fortified old capital city of "Mdina" had attacked the Turkish camp at "Marsa" at the southern end of the Grand Harbour. The Turks also managed to get into "Birgu", but the Maltese and the Knights under the leadership of La Vallette drove them off.
By now, all the Maltese people were trying to help in the severe fighting: even by pouring boiling oil and throwing stones from the top of the fortifications onto the Turks below. Moreover, the Turkish troops started losing heart because of the approaching winter: After three months of fierce battling they still did not succeed to conquer Malta and they were running short of provisions and ammunitions. Moreover, Turkish reinforcements in the form of more supplies failed to arrive.
On 7th September the long awaited Catholic reinforcements known as the "Gran Soccorso" finally arrived. The newly arrived troops from Sicily landed at "Mellieha" bay to the north of Malta. Although the 10,000 men were much less then the promised numbers, they were still of great help to the besieged.
With the arrival of these reinforcements, the Turkish admiral Piali Pasha feared that his ships would be surrounded inside the Grand Harbour. So on the following day, the 8th September, the Turkish Command lifted the siege. The Turks destroyed their tents and on the 13th of September 1565 they re-embarked on their ships to return to Turkey. Great rejoicing filled the hearts of the Knights and of the Maltese as the enemy fled from Malta and the Turkish Armada left the Island without conquering it.
Soleyman did not accept defeat and he soon showed the intention to attack again. This was not to be because he died in 1566. Moreover the Turkish Empire was soon to suffer a decisive blow against a Catholic fleet at the battle Lepanto in 1571.
The Maltese had managed to capture a few Turkish banners. La Vallette himself took these and presented them at the "Birgu" Parish Church where the "Te Deum" was sung in thanksgiving. Many Maltese showed great courage during the siege. Toni Bajada has remained famous for the way he used to spy on the Turks and for swimming at length to take messages for the Grandmaster. However there were others who were entrusted with specialised important work by La Vallette. Andrew Zahra, James Pace, Anton Cascia, Francis Xerri acted as spies and informed the Grandmaster about the Turkish plans for the attacks. Girolamo Cassar and his brother Andrew, both of whom were military engineers, also helped to destroy the bridge that the Turks had built in order to attackFort St. Michael. Andrew Cassar even invented a type of weapon with which he managed to destroy one of the catapults, which the Turks had placed on "Kordin" heights to shoot canon balls at "Birgu".
All Catholic Europe recognised the heroic resistance put up by the Knights and the Maltese under the leadership of La Vallette. The new Holy Roman Emperor Philip II of Spain gave La Vallette a dagger and a gold-jilted, bejewelled sword. Napoleon Bonaparte later removed these precious treasures in 1978. The sword is now in the National Library in Paris and the dagger in the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre.
All Europe rejoiced in celebrating the victory and in Malta the church bells and those of Fort St. Angelo rang to bring the good greetings of the outcome of the Great Siege. "Senglea", named after Grandmaster Claude de la Sengle who had ordered the construction of stronger fortifications around the maritime town (which is found in one of the natural creeks of the Grand Harbour), received the title of "Citta' Invicta" (which in English means the unconquered city). "Birgu" (another maritime town which is also found in one of the natural creeks of the Grand Harbour), was renamed Citta' Vittoriosa (which in English means the victorious city). Malta celebrates the 8th September as a National Day to mark the lifting of the Great Siege, which coincides with the feast of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
La Vallette appealed for help from the European Courts in order to enable him rebuild the shattered defences of the Island. He also planned to build a city on the mainland of the "Sciberras" Peninsula. A year later, on the 28th of March 1566, La Vallette led the solemn ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone of the new city, which was to be named after him: Valletta. The site of the foundation stone is now marked by the church of the Nativity of Our Lady, which is also commonly known as the Church of Our Lady of Victory.