Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Knights of St. John—I

The Corsairs had many bitter and resolute foes, but the most terrible enemies of all were the Knights of St. John. This was an Order of Christian chivalry whose object was the defence of Christendom against the Moslem power, who lived only to uphold the Cross against the Crescent. Among the Knights were to be found famous warriors from every nation in Europe, each grouped with his fellow-countrymen in a kind of regiment, known as a Tongue, because all of a Tongue used the same speech, the English Tongue, the Spanish Tongue, the Italian Tongue, and so on. Every Knight was bound to dedicate his whole life to the Order; he was, as it were, a kind of warrior monk, who must at any moment be ready to spring to his post when the battle-cry of the Order was raised, "Our Lady and St. John!"

The brethren of the Order were soldiers, and seamen too. They marched by land to fight with Turk or Moor, they scoured the sea in their galleys to battle with the Corsairs. Seven galleys had the Knights of St. John, and never more than seven. But vessels more splendid were not to be seen in any navy of that day. Each galley was a galley-royal fitted out and equipped in a style of great magnificence, manned by picked rowers and mariners, with bands of Knights in rich armour, and men-at-arms in burnished mail, gathered on her poop and on her prow. At the poop of each vessel the commander of the galley sat in a great chair with an embroidered canopy above his head. And higher still floated a broad banner bearing a great white cross, the emblem of "the Religion," as the Order was often called. The same emblem was repeated everywhere, on the breasts of the Knights, on smaller flags, on many parts of the vessel.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


A galley of St. John made a brilliant picture in the bright southern sunshine as she floated over the blue sea of the Mediterranean. For she herself was a vivid patch of scarlet on the gleaming water. She was painted a brilliant red, and the Knights wore scarlet doublets over their glittering armour, so that from afar off a galley of the Religion might be known as far as the eye could reach. There was one, and only one, that was not red. This was the Capitana, the great flagship, the admiral's galley, and she was black, black as night, and dreaded even beyond the others as larger and more powerful.

The galleys of the White Cross Knights were the terror of the Corsairs. No pirate galley could tackle one of them single-handed; it was often a hopeless struggle when two or three attacked a red galley. For here were no helpless mariners, who would rather fly than fight, but famous warriors who had spent their whole life in arms, who were sworn to destroy the enemies of the Faith, who hailed a combat with the Moslem foe, even at the most desperate odds, with the keenest joy, and were furnished with every weapon of war. Even Dragut himself had been known to avoid a meeting with the galleys of St. John.

The Knights were Christian Corsairs. They swept the seas in search of pirate galleys, it is true, but a Moslem trading vessel met with short shrift at their hands. Just as the rovers picked up the merchant ships of Christendom, so they picked up the merchant ships of Turkey, of Egypt, of Syria. They lived by plunder, and they carried to their stronghold at Malta the wealth and the prisoners seized upon Moslem vessels.

The Knights formed the eastern outpost and bulwark of Christendom. Their first station had been at the island of Rhodes, where they possessed a strong fortress, and preyed upon the commerce of Turkey and defied the Sultan. Here the Turks attacked them in 1522. The Knights made a splendid defence, but their foes proved too strong for them, and they were driven out of Rhodes. In 1530 they settled at Malta by permission of Charles V. of Spain, and again they raised a great fortress and built every kind of defence to resist attack, for they knew that the day would come when a fresh assault would be made upon them by the Moslem foe.

Meanwhile their swords were at the service of all who wished to assail Turk or Moor or Arab. They joined in every expedition against the Barbary coast. A body of them marched with Charles on his unlucky attempt upon Algiers. Many lost credit on that unfortunate occasion for the Christian arms, but not the Knights of St. John.

When the Algerines made their sally and drove the troops of Charles before them, it was the Knights of Malta who stayed the rout, and with their cool courage and splendid discipline repelled the fiery charge of the Moorish cavalry. When the enemy were driven back into the town, it was a Knight of St. John who pursued the foe to the very gate, and, as it was closed, struck his dagger into it in defiance of the defenders. In every skirmish, every combat, the scarlet doublets shone in the forefront, and were the last to retire in every retreat. In Algiers their desperate valour was never forgotten, and to this day the spot where they made their great stand is known as "The Grave of the Knights."

There was great joy among the Barbary rovers, in 1565, when they heard that these terrible enemies were to be once more assailed by the full might of the Turkish power. The Sultan who had driven the Knights out of Rhodes, the mighty Suliman, still lived, and had sworn now to drive them out of Malta, and crush them for ever. Suliman gathered a huge fleet of one hundred and eighty great vessels, and placed a splendid army of thirty thousand veteran troops on board, and sent it to Malta: Dragut sailed to join it with a score or more of Corsair galleys.

On their side the Knights had been doing their utmost to prepare for the terrible assault about to be launched. They sent to their friends for reinforcements, and laboured without ceasing at their defences. Yet when the immense Turkish fleet appeared over the horizon on the 18th of May 1565, their hearts must have sunk within them. The Turks were at the height of their power and their fame, and against thirty thousand of their best troops, the Knights could only muster seven hundred swords of the Religion, and eight thousand troops, most of the latter Maltese, who were of little use in the open field.

Siege of Malta


But if there was no hope of victory there was no thought of surrender. Every man was willing to give his life for the Order and for the honour of Our Lady and St. John. When the day of trial was near at hand the Grand Master of the Order called his Knights together to a solemn service. The Grand Master was Jean de la Valette, now in his seventieth year, but as full of fire and courage as when he first entered the Order fifty years before. He knew the Turk as scarce any other man could know that dreaded foe. He had fought at Rhodes forty-three years before. He had been taken captive, had been a slave and had pulled an oar on Barbarossa's galleys. He knew Dragut well, and had seen him chained to the oar bench on Doria's galley. He spoke to Dragut. He said, "Senor Dragut, 'tis the fortune of war." Dragut, always cheerful, looked up with a merry smile, and remembered that Valette had once been in the same plight. "'Tis a change of luck," said the Corsair. Now Dragut was coming against him, and they were to fight their last battle.

Jean de la Valette then called the Order together. He bade each Knight remember his vow of dedication to the service of the Religion. He called upon them to prepare to lay down their lives for the Faith. He adjured every warrior first to make his peace with God, then with his brethren if he should have any private enmity in his heart. He spoke to them as men already dead to the world, men who were about to be offered as a willing sacrifice on behalf of the safety of Christendom. And his words were received as they were spoken. Kneeling before the altar, the White Cross Knights again dedicated themselves to the service of the Faith, and vowed to stand or fall in defence of the honour of their patron saints, Our Lady and St. John.