Child's History of Spain - John Bonner

The Knights of Malta

A.D. 1565

In order to give you a connected story of Don John, I described the battle of Lepanto without referring to the siege of Malta, which took place six years before, and in which Christian and Moslem came to close quarters.

The Turks, who were a warlike nation from Asia, captured Constantinople over one hundred years before Philip the Second came to the throne, and during all of those hundred years they had striven mightily to uproot Christianity in the Mediterranean countries, and to plant the religion of Mahomet. They founded or seized a number of cities in northern Africa, and planted colonies which were subject to their sultan. They overran the European coast of the Mediterranean as far as Italy, and laid hands on many of the islands of the Levant. One of the islands which they took was Rhodes.

This island was the home of an order known as the Knights of St. John, who were monks, and likewise soldiers and sailors. They fought for the cross against the infidel, but they did not disdain to plunder the infidel when they had beaten him in fair fight. From their island home of Rhodes they put to sea in fighting ships, which gave battle to the Turkish frigates, corsairs, and merchant ships, and quite often captured them and carried off their cargoes. In this way the order had grown rich and powerful. It was thought honorable for princes and noblemen to belong to it.

When the knights were driven out of Rhodes they cast about for a new home, and the Emperor Charles offering them the island of Malta, they gladly accepted it, and prepared to continue their career as sea-rovers from that base.

Malta lies in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, about sixty miles from Sicily, and two hundred from Tripoli, in Africa. It is fifteen miles long and nine miles wide. It is really a mere rock in the sea, with no soil on it except what has been brought in bags and boxes from Sicily. It is swept by the terrible south wind from Africa, and it is only by sheltering plants against this wind and against the fierce rays of the sun that anything can be grown there. But it stands in the path of vessels sailing up the Mediterranean, and it has an excellent harbor, in which the largest ships can anchor; it has, consequently, been coveted by maritime nations, and is now much thought of by the English, who hold it. It looked barren and desolate to the Knights of St. John after the smiling plains and the flowery valleys of Rhodes. But the fine large harbor was for the knights a good place from which to launch their cruisers against the Turks and against the cities of Africa; and the knights, with all the men they could hire, bestirred themselves to build a town there, and to build strong forts at its mouth, calling them St. Elmo and Il Borgo.

Pretty soon the knights began their old work, and Maltese galleys swarmed in the Mediterranean. The Sultan of Turkey, whose name was Solyman the Second, was enraged to hear of the capture of his vessels by the craft fitted out in this little island, and to find that he had to do his work over again. He resolved to make an end of the knights, once and for all. He fitted out a fleet of a hundred and thirty galleys, with a hundred smaller vessels; armed them with the heaviest artillery known in those days, filled them with thirty thousand of his best troops, and despatched them against Malta.

The grand-master of the knights knew of his coming, and begged help from the Christian powers. Volunteers enough came to raise his force to nine thousand men, including seven hundred knights. King Philip of Spain bade him have no fear; that he would send him a fleet and an army that would demolish all the Turks in Turkey. "Was he not," he said, "the eldest son of the Church, and the champion of Christendom against the infidel?"

The grand-master of the knights was not quite satisfied, as he probably knew Philip, and what his promises were worth. But he held his peace. He was a tall, gaunt old warrior, with a silvery beard, and at this time sixty-eight years of age, His name was Parisol de la Valette; he was a French Provencal, and had been a member of the order for over forty years. His will was like iron; the knights obeyed him as children obey their father. He now bestirred himself to put his forts in a position of defence, and to prepare for the coining conflict, in which he knew that the life of the knights and the existence of the order were at stake.

Early in the dawn of May 18th, 1565, over the dancing waves of the blue Mediterranean, the great Turkish fleet was sighted from the height of St. Elmo. It was coining on with a fair wind under full sail, and with Turkish pennons floating in the air. Every Christian was at his post. Valette had sent the old and infirm to Sicily; he wanted to send away the women, too, but they would not go.

The Turkish galleys swept past the front of the island, and landed their soldiers at the southeastern corner. A swift boat was promptly despatched to the viceroy of King Philip in Sicily, praying him not to delay; he wrote back that he could not possibly come before the 15th of June.

There were now four or five Turks to every Christian on the island, and the former had artillery compared to which the Christians' pieces were pop-guns. But the grand-master, as calm and serene as ever, walked round among his men, bidding them be of good cheer. On May 26th the Turks got their guns in position, and opened fire on St. Elmo. It was in no position to stand a heavy fire; in a week its walls were shattered by the tremendous rain of iron and stone cannon-balls. By a sudden dash the Turkish soldiers captured the outworks. But they could get no farther, though the knights were unable to dislodge them.

The grand-master was as intrepid as ever, and kept up the men's courage with brave words. It was then the 3rd or 4th of June, and the Spanish troops had been promised for the 15th.

The knights, however, began to feel the strain. Neither night nor day did the rain of shot cease, and the garrison were worn out by watching and fighting. Some of them went to Grand-Master Valette for permission to surrender. The stern old warrior heard them with a frown on his brow, and a flush on his weather-beaten cheeks.

"I will not surrender," he said. "The duty of a Knight of St. John is to die for the cross, and to die in the way that his commanding officer directs. I direct the knights to hold the post at all hazards. As for you, gentlemen, you may retire to the convent, where you will be safe; I will replace you with others whom I can trust."

The knights went back to the fort abashed, and ready to die. Still the 15th of June came and went, and no sign of the Spanish fleet. On the 16th the Turks made a hot assault on the fort, their ships of war taking part by firing from their big guns; the fight lasted all day, and so many were killed that the ditch was filled with corpses. But the Christians still held out, and the flag of St. John still floated from the flag-staff. A message from Sicily said the Spaniards might be expected on the 22nd.

The 22nd came, and still no sign of the Spanish fleet. Then the Turks, having tightened the lines round the place, charged up the hill-side once more, and dashed at every opening in the walls. Once more they were beaten back. But when night came the knights saw that the struggle was over. The grand-master did not yield a hair's-breadth, but the ammunition was exhausted, the soldiers' weapons broken, their walls were in ruins, and almost every man so badly wounded that he could hardly crawl along the ramparts. They spent the night in confession and prayer; they took the sacrament, repeated aloud the vows of their order, and waited for the end.

It came on the following morning. No sign of the Spanish fleet showing from the highlands, the Turks, like a great wave of the ocean, swept into and over the fort; every living creature was put to death, save only nine soldiers who surrendered to the corsairs, and were saved to be sold as slaves. The cross of St. John was hauled down, and the Moslem crescent waved in its place.

The knights still held the fort of Il Borgo, and a smaller work at La Sangle, and the grand-master ordered that these should be defended so long as a single man was left to handle a pike. The old man worked himself at strengthening the defences, though he had been wounded in the leg. Upon these works the Turks now pointed their guns, and battered at them till their walls, like the walls of St. Elmo, were crumbling to pieces. On July 15th the Turkish general judged that they were sufficiently breached, and he flung his troops upon them. Again the little garrison drove them back, but the loss was heavy. Grand-Master Valette sent once more to the viceroy of Spain in Sicily, to say that he could not hold out much longer. The viceroy answered that he would surely come with an army by the end of August.

Il Borgo, which was the chief point of attack, was in a horrible state. The men were worn out, and many of them wounded. Many women had taken the places of their husbands; some of them lay dead in the streets by the side of the men. A soldier managed to escape to Sicily, and told the people there what was happening at Malta. It would have done the cowardly and treacherous soul of Philip good to have seen the frenzy of rage which broke out among the warm-hearted people of Sicily. It behooved his viceroy to bestir himself. If he had dallied further, the people would have seized his ships, and crossed to Malta on their own account. As it was, his fleet sailed at break of day with twelve thousand soldiers on board.

When the ships, flying the Spanish flag at the peak, were seen from the Christian forts, the garrison burst out in shouts of joy, and strong men sat down on the ground and cried.

That night the Turks silently boarded their ships, and with the first glimmer of dawn set sail homeward.

And so Malta, thanks to the skill and gallantry of old Valette, after whom the present capital of the island was named, and to the courage and fortitude of the Knights of Malta, was saved to Christendom for all time.