The Great Siege – 1565

If it had not taken place, the Great Siege would no doubt have been dreamt up for the screenplay of an epic film. Few other historic episodes rival it for sheer heroism, the bloodshed of war and military strategy. Voltaire is quoted as saying ‘rien est plus connu que la siege de Malte’ (nothing is so well known as the Siege of Malta).

The story of the Siege is interwoven with the tale of two adversaries, the ageing Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, and his contemporary, the Barbary corsair Dragut Reis who commanded the fleet of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It is also the story of thousands of lives of Maltese Islanders, men at arms to the Knights of St. John.

The years leading up to the Siege saw the Islands under constant threat from the Ottoman Turks. In 1551, the Ottomans carried out an audacious raid, which saw most of Gozo’s population captured and taken into slavery. In 1559, the Knights responded, but with a disastrous attack on the Ottoman stronghold, Djerba, on the Tunisian coast.

The Knights knew they were vulnerable in Malta despite the harbours and their two forts, St. Angelo, in what is now Vittoriosa, and newly-built St. Elmo, on the open peninsula of Mount Sciberras overlooking the harbours (later known as Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour).

Grand Master La Valette had done his best to build defences and had requested extra forces from the Emperor Charles V, the Pope and the Viceroy of Sicily.

But no help came. In May, 1565, a vast Ottoman fleet, some 40,000 men, lay siege to the Islands. The Knights were heavily outnumbered with a mere 700 or so men and around 8000 Maltese regular troops. The Islanders took refuge in the fortified towns of Mdina and Birgu (Vittoriosa) destroying crops and poisoning wells as they fled.

The Ottomans first decided to attack isolated Fort St. Elmo, on the Sceberras peninsula, because of its commanding position between the two harbours. Repeated assaults were launched over 36 days, but the small garrison of Knights held on to the fort for far longer than Suleiman’s men anticipated. After four weeks, they finally overran St. Elmo but at a heavy price: the loss of 8000 men. The Turkish commander Dragut was fatally injured during the taking of St. Elmo. Under his co-commander, Mustafa Pasha, the Ottoman troops now had St. Angelo in their sights.

It is the battle for St. Angelo which saw some of the bloodiest episodes of this Holy War. It was to the basis of legends for centuries to come. Mustafa Pasha was to launch some 10 attacks on the walls of St. Angelo and the fortified Three Cities throughout the long, hot summer of 1565. Even on 18th August, when a huge part of the defences were breached, the Ottomans failed to take the Fort. Vallette himself had even entered the battle fray and despite the uneven odds for success, he had refused to accept the Ottoman’s terms of surrender.

At one point in the battle, the Ottomans floated the headless corpses of captured Knights across Grand Harbour. The act was returned in kind: Vallette ordered all Ottoman prisoners to be executed and their heads used as ‘cannon balls’ to fire back toward their compatriots in St Elmo.

By September, the Ottomans were concerned about having to remain in Malta during the winter, and their morale began to ebb. At this point, Vallette’s long-awaited relief forces appeared at Mellieħa Bay and took control of high ground inland. Almost trapped, the Ottoman troops retreated, but not before losing thousands more men.

The Great Siege ended on 8th September, commemorated today with a public holiday, il-Vitorja. The epilogue to the Siege was twofold: the Knights of St. John in Malta had seriously diminished the power of the Ottomans. And Malta’s magnificent capital, Valletta, was founded by and named after Grand Master Jean de la Valette. Valletta was to be not only a fortress city, but the cultural home to some of the finest works of 16th – 18th century Europe. Vallette himself was buried in the city some three years later.