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Malta's greatest commander: Jean Parisot de Valette

The Knights Hospitaller were a band of celibate monks whose original purpose behind their foundation in the 11th century was to aid the poor, the sick and the wounded Christian soldiers and pilgrims traversing the Middle East. Pretty soon, however, these monks realised that switching surgery for sword fighting would be more helpful to the war effort (not to mention more fun!). In less than a century, the Knights had become a fully-fledged military force. Soon enough, allies and foes alike quickly understood that the Order of Saint John was a military force to be reckoned with – a mighty band of warriors who were not going to give up fighting until the Holy Land was under papal rule.

The sword fighting going on in the Middle East must have seemed a mouth-watering prospect for many young noblemen in Europe who were looking to get in on the action. One such warrior was Jean Parisot de Valette¹. Born around 1495 to the noble La Valette family in Quercy (South West France), La Valette was already at the forefront of the fighting by his twenties. Having joined the Knights Hospitaller in the Langue de Provence, La Valette was tasked with protecting the Knights’ headquarters on the Greek Island of Rhodes, which came under a massive attack by the Ottoman Turks in 1522. 700 Knights defended Rhodes alongside 7,000 soldiers – facing off against a 100,000-strong Ottoman army, led by Suleiman the Magnificent. With such insurmountable odds, the Ottomans expected the conquest of Rhodes to be a walk in the park. Their galleys barraged the Rhodian walls with cannonballs, their archers lobbed their arrows – and yet, breach after breach, the Ottomans found La Valette and his crew baying for blood. The Siege of Rhodes went on for a staggering six months until finally, La Valette and his men ran out of food and water, and they were forced to surrender the city to their enemies.

In recognition of their valiant efforts, Suleiman the Magnificent lent them his own ships to return to Europe. But after losing Rhodes, the Order had no home to go to. The Holy Roman Emperor at the time, Charles V, offered the tiny island of Malta. With no better alternatives on offer, the Knights reluctantly agreed - in return for an annual fee of one falcon sent to the Viceroy of Sicily, a solemn mass held on All Saints Day and a commitment to garrison the outpost of Tripoli on the North African coast, which was controlled by the Barbary Corsairs, allies of the Ottomans.

La Valette and his men scoured the Mediterranean, looking to hunt down Ottoman ships, pirates and merchants alike. La Valette again proved his worth, this time as a formidable seaman. Winning one naval battle after another, he quickly earned the respect of his foes. Luck ran out for the Frenchman in 1541 when he was wounded and his galley, the San Giovanni, was captured. The nobleman was turned into a lowly slave on one of the notorious Dragut Reis’s pirate ships. After twelve months, Le Valette was freed in a prisoner exchange.

Upon his return to Malta, he swore to have his revenge for the indignation he was made to suffer by his foes. He quickly went back to sea and a series of naval conquests spanning an entire decade consolidated his reputation as one of the best Christian commanders, alongside other Knights such as Romegas and Juan de Austria, and standing toe-to-toe with legendary Ottoman commanders Barbarossa and Dragut Reis himself. His achievements did not go unnoticed and he soon rose up the ranks to become Grand Master of the Order in 1557.

In the meantime, piracy in the Mediterranean was rampant - Dragut Reis infamously ransacked the island of Gozo in 1551, enslaving almost all of the island’s 6,000 inhabitants. Christian forces retaliated - amassing a huge fleet for an attack on Djerba, an Ottoman stronghold not far from modern-day Tripoli, in 1560. The attack was a catastrophic failure, with the Ottomans overwhelming the Christian fleets, resulting in the loss of between 9,000 to 18,000 lives.

Despite their defeats, however, the Knights remained a thorn in the Sultan’s side. Battles raged, with both sides striving to control trade routes in the Mediterranean. The Sultan assembled a great army - 40,000 Ottoman soldiers determined to conquer Malta and rid themselves of their Christian rivals.

News of the enemy army soon reached Jean de Valette. Facing off tens of thousands of Ottomans with a force of just 500 Knights who were based in Malta at the time, La Valette and his men were not going to be disheartened. He first recruited a militia of some 6,000 Maltese peasants, giving them basic military training and equipping them with whatever rudimentary armaments he could muster. Then, he directed the majority of the island’s resources to building fortifications, particularly in the Grand Harbour, with its deep natural harbours and low rock formations making it the obvious location for an enemy armada to attack.

“The men, women and children of the island” worked round-the-clock on the fortifications of the island, under the command of the Order. Jean de Valette instructed the island’s crops to be harvested and for the copious water spring at Marsa, and wells across the countryside, to be poisoned, thus making sure that the besieging army would not be able to live off the land for too long. Pleas were made to Christian kings and emperors to come to Malta’s aid. Don Garcia, Viceroy of Sicily, started the assembly of a massive relief army, with bands of soldiers and adventurers coming to Malta’s aid from all reaches of Europe. However, putting together such an army was going to take months. La Valette rallied his troops – a fight to the death was on the horizon and there was only going to be one winner.

On a hot Spring day on the 18th of May, 1565 – the first sightings of the Turkish armada were reported. Church bells rang and the coast was lit with warning fires. The people were garrisoned in three main forts – St Angelo, St Elmo and St Michael. The Ottoman army landed in Marsaxlokk on May 20th and, by the following day, their galleys lobbed their first cannonballs at Birgu. The fighting soon evolved into a non-stop artillery bombardment whose echoing noise could be heard all the way from Gozo.

The Ottomans tried every trick in the military book. They tunnelled beneath St Elmo’s defences, burying gunpowder and turning walls into rubble. The Knights and the Maltese responded with their own mines to blow up the besiegers' tunnels and many fights were fought underground. The Turks then drew up siege engines, including giant towers that would allow their soldiers to climb down directly onto the walls of St Elmo. The Knights removed stones at the base of the battlement walls so that they could run out cannons through the openings they had created, and blast the siege engines to smithereens.

In the meantime, the defenders in St Elmo sent multiple messages across the water to the Knights’ headquarters in Birgu, pleading to La Valette authorise them to abandon their post. However, La Valette knew that the longer they held on, the better the chances of Don Garcia’s relief fleet arriving in Malta and saving the island from the Ottoman invaders.

Realising that this was going to be their last stand, the defenders at St Elmo’s took their last sacraments in the small chapel inside the fort. The morning after, the defenders fought bravely but on the fateful morning of June 23rd, after more than a month of intense fighting, the crescent flags of the Ottomans flew above the rubble, the heads of the Knights were raised on spikes, and the crucified bodies of dead soldiers were floated across the water towards Fort St Angelo on the opposite side of the harbour.

This was mental warfare at its most gruesome and the Turks were intent on intimidating their opponents into submission. They did not anticipate La Valette’s resilience, who had sworn that Malta would not be surrendered as long as a Christian soul lived on the island. He responded with his own brutal reply. Heads of his captives were fired from his most powerful cannon direct into Muslim lines.

Despite losing St Elmo, La Valette had not only bought precious time in his wait for Don Garcia’s relief force, but his forces also had inflicted heavy losses on the Ottomans, with Dragut Reis being slain during the fight for St Elmo alongside another 6,000 of his men. A force of 12,000 Ottoman soldiers then launched a two-pronged attack on St Michael, yet a Greek deserter had already informed La Valette of the attack. He readied the battlements on both land and sea-fronts. The fort was close to falling, but he himself led the charge, fighting hand-to-hand at the frontline to push back the oncoming Ottoman onslaught.

The longer the siege dragged on in the scorching heat and disease that had been taking hold of their camps, the more demoralised the invaders became. The poisoning of the wells also inflicted its intended effect on the unsuspecting Ottoman soldiers who, besides sustaining many wounded, “had started suffering from a fever in their belly, caused by the discomforts, the lack of essentials and the almost insufferable heat of the season. Whereby many were dying all the time, fading out of life and without any solace.” The weather, too, was beginning to change and the return to Constantinople could not be risked in turbulent weather and rough seas. These unfavourable conditions were compounded by the sighting of Don Garcia’s relief army in St Paul’s Ridge on the 7th of September.

The Ottoman commanders began packing up their artillery and gave up the assault on Malta in the days that followed, with the entire Ottoman armada having left the island by September 12th. Joyous church bells rang the news of victory around the island. Conservative estimates suggest that the Ottoman armada had lost a staggering 25,000 men. Over a third of Maltese inhabitants had been slain, but close to 9,000 defenders had managed to withstand a barrage of over 130,000 cannonballs over a period of close to four months.

In the aftermath of what became known as the Great Siege of Malta, the name of Jean de Valette and that of his brave soldiers echoed in the halls of European palaces. His leadership, courage and determination to stand his ground in the face of crushing odds were met with tributes and rewards from Christian monarchs. These funds were redirected to the construction of a fortress-city on Xebb ir-Ras hill, adjacent to Fort St Elmo. He peacefully passed away in 1568 and although he did not manage to see the city completed, what is now aptly known as Valletta stands tall as a fitting tribute to this great warrior-monk who dedicated his entire life to defending his faith and his adoptive island.

¹ The actual surname of the famous grandmaster is still in dispute. Giovanni Bonello and Joe Zammit Ciantar have both written at length on the topic. In this article, the author uses ‘La Valette’ and ‘de Valette’ interchangeably.


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