The Great Siege, Malta 1565

One of my historical interests is the Crusades, but I haven’t done a lot of reading about them lately, and I’ve only posted about an account of Richard III’s Third Crusade. This history, of course, is not about the Crusades, but it does center on one of the peculiar institutions that sprang from them: the warrior-monk of Christendom.

Review: The Great Siege, Malta 1565, Ernle Bradford, 1961.

In the summer of 1565 on the parched ground of Malta, the future of Western Civilization was decided. Would the Moslems continue their expansion into the Mediterranean, preying on European ships and taking Christian slaves as far away as England? Or could they be held back?

It was an epic struggle, an astounding tale of resolve and leadership, of disunity in command and disunity among allies.

Soleyman the First was on the move. Even his European foes grudgingly said he earned the title “The Magnificent”. He had conquered large parts of the Middle East. His movement into Europe was only stopped at the gates of Vienna in 1529. But, at age 70, he was not resting on his laurels. Malta was a strategic thorn in the side of the Ottoman Empire, a base Christians could use to attack his supply and communication lines.

It would not be the first time Soleyman had tangled with the Knights of St. John, the Hospitallers, who used Malta as their base. In 1493, he had driven them off Rhodes. But they had turned Malta with its fine harbors into a base for raiding Moslem shipping.

Soleyman ordered two men to lead the assault on Malta. Mustapha Pasha would command the army. Piali would command the naval part of the expedition.

The man they faced was the Grand Master of the Hospitallers, Jean Parisot de la Valette. A single-minded man of noble birth, he had given himself entirely to the Hospitallers whom he joined at the age of 20. He had survived a year as a galley slave in the Ottoman fleet. He would command the defense personally, fighting constantly under the hot sun in full armor at age 61.

It was Valette who knew a siege was coming and fortified the island, who firmed the resolve of his men in the siege. With Valette, this is not only a compelling historical account but a study in leadership. Before the siege, the locals had little reason to love the Knights. But, during the siege, none of them became a turncoat. Nor did any of the local Jewish population who had no call to love the Christians.

It was Valette’s resolve as a single commander that carried the day in the face of almost equal Moslem resolve and far superior numbers but a resolve weakened by their lack of a unified command.

Bradford’s story, one of the first accounts of the siege in English (King Henry VIII had disbanded the English chapter of the Hospitallers and contemporary accounts are in French, Italian, and Spanish), is compelling history: thirst and disease, Hospitaller forts falling one by one, calling on the Viceroy of Sicily to help, men swimming channels in the teeth of enemy fire, and desperate sallies.

Bradford concisely gives us the historical background to the main event, the organization and logistics of the opposing forces, maps of Malta and its fortifications, thumbnail biographies, and quotes from contemporary accounts. A glossary of terms is provided. There is no index, but that’s not a problem in a kindle edition.

But Bradford also brings something else besides his skillful narration: a deep knowledge of Malta’s terrain and people. He was stationed there as a member of the Royal Navy in the second siege of Malta in World War Two. He sailed around the islands extensively. And, most importantly, he gives us local history and legend and folklore and poems about the siege. These were left out of contemporary histories, and the Maltese language had no alphabet until the 19th century.

It’s a highly recommended book even for those not interested in military history or the Crusades and the peculiar Christian warriors they gave birth to. The Siege of Malta was their finest hour.

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