On January 1, 1523, a fleet of fifty vessels put out from the harbour at Rhodes for an unknown destination in the West. On board were the shattered remnants of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, accompanied by 4,000 Rhodians, who preferred the Knights and destitution to security under the rule of the Sultan Solyman. The little fleet was in a sad and piteous condition. Many of those on board were wounded; all - Knights and Rhodians alike - were in a state of extreme poverty. For six months they had resisted the full might of the Ottoman Empire under its greatest Sultan, Solyman the Magnificent; Europe had looked on in amazed admiration, but had not ventured to move to its rescue. Now they were leaving the home their Order had possessed for 212 years, and were sailing out to beg from Christendom another station from which to attack the infidel once again.

The Knights of Rhodes - as they were called at the time - were the only real survivors of the militant Order of Chivalry. Two centuries earlier their great rivals, the Templars, had been dissolved, and a large part of their endowments handed over to the Hospitallers. The great secret of the long and enduring success of the Order of St. John was their capacity for adapting themselves to the changing needs of the times. The final expulsion of the Christians from Syria had left the Templars idle and helpless, and the loss of the outlets for their energy soon brought corruption and decay with the swift consequence of dissolution. All through the history of the great Orders we find the Kings of Europe on the lookout for a chance to seize their possessions: any excuse or pretext is used, sometimes most shamelessly. An Order of Knighthood that failed to perform the duties for which it was founded was soon overtaken by disaster.

The Hospitallers had realised, as early as 1300, that their former role of mounted Knights fighting on land was gone for ever. From their seizure of Rhodes, in 1310, they became predominantly seamen, whose flag, with its eight-pointed cross, struck terror into every infidel heart. Nothing but a combination of Christian monarchs could cope with the superiority of the Turk on land: by sea he was still vulnerable. The Knights took up their new part with all their old energy and determination: it is but typical that henceforward we never hear of the "Knights" of Malta fighting as cavalry.

After various adventures the fleet found itself united at Messina, whence it proceeded to Baiae. The election to the papacy of the Cardinal de' Medici - one of their own Order - as Clement VII., gave the Knights a powerful protector. He assigned Viterbo as a residence for the Order till a permanent home had been discovered.

Villiers de L'Isle Adam, Grand Master of the Order, was faced with many difficulties. Remembering the fate of the Templars, he was afraid that the Order would disperse, and its present helpless condition was surely tending to disintegration. At this time the war between Charles V. and Francis I. was at its height, and the quarrel between France and Spain was reflected within the ranks of the Hospitallers. As the French and Spanish Knights formed the greater part of the members, the unity of the Order was threatened by the quarrels between them that arose out of national sentiment. The Reformation was rapidly spreading, and was likely to prove dangerous to the lands of the Order in Northern Europe, and various monarchs were meditating the seizure of the Hospitallers' estates now that the Order was temporarily without a justification for its existence.

The Grand Master showed himself a skilful diplomat, as well as a brave soldier. From 1523 to 1530 the Order remained without a home, while L'Isle Adam visited the different European courts to stay the grasping hands of the various Kings. All this time negotiations were proceeding between Charles V. and the Knights for the cession of Malta. The harsh conditions which the Emperor insisted upon in his offer made the Knights reluctant to accept, while his preoccupation with the war against France made negotiations difficult. Further, the cause of the Knights had been damaged when the Pope - who had acted as their intercessor - joined the ranks of Charles's enemies, and Clement VII. was now a prisoner in the Emperor's hands. In March, 1530, an agreement was finally arrived at, which was the most favourable the Emperor would grant. One harassing burden the Knights could not escape: Charles insisted that Tripoli must go with Malta, a gift which meant a useless drain upon their weak resources, and which fell in 1551 to Dragut-Reis and the Turkish forces at the first serious attack. L'Isle Adam had insisted that he could not take the island over as a feudatory to the King of Spain, as that was contrary to the fundamental idea of the Order - its impartiality in its relations to all the Christian Powers. The only condition of service, therefore, that was made was nominal: the Grand Master henceforth was to send, on All Souls' Day, a falcon to the Viceroy of Sicily as a token of feudal sub-mission.[1]

This was a splendid bargain for the Emperor. Malta had hitherto been worthless to him, but henceforth it became one of the finest bulwarks of his dominions. To understand the supreme value of the island, we must take a glance at sea power in the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century.

The beginning of the century had seen the growth of the Corsairs' strength to a most alarming extent. While all the European Powers were fighting among themselves, these Barbary Corsairs (as they were later called) had become the terror of the Western Mediterranean. Spain, by its unrelenting persecution of the Moriscoes, following on centuries of bitter conflict between Christian and Mussulman, had earned the undying hatred of the dwellers on the North African coast, many of whom were the children of the expelled Moors. These Moors had wasted their energy in desultory warfare up to the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the genius of the two brothers, Uruj and Khair-ed-Din Barbarossa, had organised them into the pirate State of Algiers, which was to be a thorn in the side of Christendom for over three centuries. The Corsairs were not content with merely attacking ships at sea: they made raids on the Spanish, Italian, and Sicilian sea-boards, burning and looting for many miles inland. The inhabitants of these parts were driven off as captives to fill the bagnios of Algiers, Tunis, Bizerta, and other North African towns. These prisoners were used as galley slaves, and the life of a galley slave was generally so short that there was no difficulty of disposing of all the captives that could be seized. Cupidity, allied with fanaticism, gave this state of war a cruelty beyond conception: both sides displayed such undaunted courage and such fierce personal hatred as to make men wonder, even in that hard and bitter century. Those low-lying galleys, which were independent of the wind, were ideal pirates' craft in the gentle Mediterranean summer, and many a slumbering Spanish or Italian village would be startled into terror by their sudden approach. The audacity of their methods is illustrated by the raid on Fundi in 1534, when Barbarossa swooped down on that town simply to seize Giulia Gonzaga - reputed the loveliest woman in Italy - for the Sultan's harem: the fair Duchess of Trajetto hardly escaped in her nightdress.

The Eastern Mediterranean, after the capture of Rhodes, was almost entirely a Turkish preserve. Though Venice at this period still kept her hold on Cyprus and Crete, the former of which was not yielded by the Republic till 1573 and the latter till 1669, yet the Treaty of Constantinople in 1479 had definitely reduced the position of Venice in the Levant from an independent Power to a tolerated ally. The growth of the Ottoman sea power had been alarming enough, but it became a distinct menace to the Christian Powers of the Mediterranean when the Corsair chiefs of the North African coast became Turkish vassals. All the African coast from Morocco to Suez, the coast of Asia Minor, and the European coast from the Bosphorus to Albania (with the exception of a few islands), were in Turkish hands. From 1475, with the conquest of the Crimea, the Black Sea had become a Turkish lake, and under Solyman the Magnificent the Turks had become masters of Aden and the Red Sea, with a strong influence along the Arabian and Persian coasts.

Malta, then as always, was of supreme strategic importance for the domination of the Mediterranean. It lay right in the centre of the narrow channel connecting the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, and, in the hands of such a small but splendidly efficient band of sailors as the Knights Hospitallers, was sure to become a source of vexation to the mighty Turkish Empire. Though not so convenient as Rhodes for attacking Turkish merchant shipping, yet it had one advantage, in that it lay close to Christian shores and could easily be succoured in the hour of need. A small, highly defensible island, strengthened by all the resources of engineering, it could, and did, become one of the most invulnerable fortresses in the world, and of the utmost importance for the control of the Mediterranean.

Charles V., therefore, made a splendid bargain when he handed over the neglected island to the Order of St. John, even had the gift been unconditional. The Knights rendered him valuable service by sharing in the several expeditions the Spaniards undertook to the African coast. Barbarossa, by the capture of Tunis from the old Hafside dynasty in 1534, threatened the important channel between Sicily and Africa, which it was essential for Charles V. to keep open. In the next year, therefore, the Emperor attacked the town and conquered it without much difficulty. The victory was unfortunately stained by the inhuman excesses of the Imperial troops, and Charles's hold on Tunis was very short-lived. In 1541 came the miserable fiasco of the Spanish expedition to Algiers. Here, also, the Knights behaved with their usual bravery; but Charles's disregard of the advice of his Admiral, Andrea Doria, resulted in the failure of the whole expedition. In these and other expeditions the Knights took part: some - like the attack in 1550 on Mehedia[2] - were successful, others - like the siege of the Isle of Jerbah in 1559 - ended in disaster.

Such was the importance of Malta when the Knights took over the island in 1530. The first need was to put it into a state of defence. On the northeast of the island was the promontory of Mount Sceberras, flanked by the two fine harbours, the Marsa Muscetto and what was later known as the Grand Harbour.[3] The eastern side of the Grand Harbour was broken by three prominent peninsulas, later occupied by Fort Ricasoli, Fort St. Angelo, and Fort St. Michael. The only fortification in 1530 was the Fort of St. Angelo, with a few guns and very weak walls. The intention of the Knights, even from the beginning, was to make the main peninsula, Mount Sceberras, the seat of their "Convent"; but as that would mean the leveling of the whole promontory, a task of enormous expense and difficulty, and as immediate defence was necessary, they decided to occupy the Peninsula of St. Angelo for the present. Wedged between St. Angelo and the mainland there was a small town, "Il Borgo": this, for the present, the Knights made their headquarters, drawing a line of entrenchments across the neck of the promontory to guard it from the neighboring heights.

When it became certain that Malta was to be its permanent home - for L'Isle Adam had at first cherished hopes of recapturing Rhodes - the Order proceeded to take further measures for its security. Both St. Angelo and Il Borgo were strengthened with ramparts and artillery, and the fortifications of the Citta Notabile, the main town in the centre of the island, were improved. In 1552 a commission of three Knights with Leo Strozzi, the Prior of Capua, at its head - one of the most daring Corsairs of the day - made a report of the fortifications of the island. They recommended strengthening Il Borgo and St. Angelo, and pointed out that the whole promontory was commanded by St. Julian, the southernmost of the three projections into the Grand Harbour. Further, as it was necessary to command the entrances both of Marsa Muscetto and of the Grand Harbour, the tip, at least, of Mount Sceberras should be occupied, as the finances of the Order would not allow of anything further being done. These recommendations were carried out, and Fort St. Michael was built on St. Julian and Fort St. Elmo on the end of Mount Sceberras. A few years later the Grand Master de la Sangle supplied the obvious deficiencies of St. Julian by enclosing it on the west and the south by a bastioned rampart.

Now the commitments of the Order in Tripoli proved a constant drain on its resources. Time after time Charles V. was appealed to for help in holding Tripoli, which was very difficult to fortify because of the sandy nature of the soil, and difficult to succour because of its distance from Malta. But Charles V. was at once reluctant to let go his grip of any parts of the African coast, and too much absorbed by his own troubles to be able to render much help, however much he might have desired to do so. It was obvious that the first determined attack of the Turks would mean the fall of Tripoli. In 1551, after putting in an appearance off Malta, Dragut, the successor of Barbarossa, sailed to Tripoli and easily captured the place owing to the disaffection of the mercenary troops in the garrison.

During this period, 1523-1565, the Order lost for ever one of the eight national divisions or "langues." Henry VIII., soon after the fall of Rhodes, had shown himself unfriendly to the interests of the Order, but had been appeased by a visit of L'Isle Adam in February, 1528.[4] But Henry's proceedings against the Pope and the monasteries inevitably involved the Order of St. John, which had large possessions both in England and in Ireland. The Grand Priory of England was situated at Clerkenwell, and the Grand Prior held the position in the House of Lords of the connecting link between the Lords Spiritual and the Barons, coming after the former in rank and before the latter. There is extant a letter written by Henry VIII. in 1538 to the Grand Master, Juan d'Omedes, wherein conditions are laid down for the maintenance of the Order in England. The two main stipulations were, that any Englishman admitted into the Order must take an oath of allegiance to the King, and that no member in England must in any way recognise the jurisdiction or authority of the Pope. Henry was well aware that the Knights could never consent to terms such as these, which were the negation of the fundamental principle of international neutrality of their Order. Henry's offers were refused, and the English langue, which had a brilliant record in the Order, perished. Many of the Knights fled to Malta; others were executed for refusing obedience to the Act of Supremacy. A general confiscation of their property took place, and in April, 1540, an Act of Parliament was passed vesting all the property of the Order in the Crown, and setting aside from the revenues of such properties certain pensions to be paid to the Lord Prior and other members. The Grand Prior, Sir William Weston, died soon after, before he could enjoy his pension of L1,000 a year.

With the accession of Mary, in 1553, negotiations were at once opened with the Knights for the restoration of the English langue, and during her reign the old Order was restored once again, though the lands were not returned. But Elizabeth, in the first year of her reign, suppressed the Knights for good and all.

In North Africa, Philip II., on his accession, had taken over the troubles of his father, and after the Corsairs had failed in their attack on the Spanish ports of Oran and Mazarquivir, he carried the war once more into the enemy's territory. Finding themselves isolated, they appealed to their overlord, the aged Sultan Solyman, to help them against Spain.

The most important seaman on the Turkish side was Dragut - Pasha of Tripoli since 1551 - who had been the greatest of Barbarossa's lieutenants. In 1540 Dragut had been surprised and captured by Giannetin Doria, the nephew of the great Admiral, and had served four years chained to the bench of a Genoese galley. One of the last acts of Khair-ed-Din Barbarossa had been to ransom his follower in the port of Genoa, in 1544, for 3,000 crowns, an arrangement of which the Genoese afterwards sorely repented. Dragut had the ear of the Sultan when the appeal for help came from Africa, and his suggestion was to attempt the capture of Malta. It had become more and more certain that the Turks would not leave the island unassailed. Not only did the Knights lend splendid help to the various Christian Powers, but they were in themselves a formidable foe. Their fleet was always small, six or seven galleys, but they became the dread of every Turkish vessel in the Mediterranean. Annually these red galleys, headed by their black capitana, swooped down on the Turkish shipping of the Levant and brought back many rich prizes. Malta grew steadily in wealth, and the island became full of Turkish slaves. The generals of the Maltese galleys, Strozzi, La Valette, Charles of Lorraine, and De Romegas, were far more terrible even than the great Corsairs, because of their determination to extirpate the infidel. The state of war between the Order and the Mussulman was recognised by all as something unique; neither side dreamt of a peace or a truce, and only once in the history of the Order does there seem to have been the suggestion of an agreement. The fanaticism which actuated the Knights in their determination to destroy the infidel made them formidable enemies, despite their fewness in number. Solyman the Magnificent must have often repented of his clemency in letting the Knights leave Rhodes alive, and in 1564 he decided it would be a fitting end to his reign if he could destroy the worst pest of the Mediterranean by capturing Malta and annihilating the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

[Footnote 1: Vide Appendix I.]

[Footnote 2: The chroniclers, such as Vertot, often call this town, which was the ancient Adrumetum, "Africa," and it is therefore necessary to watch their use of that word carefully.]

[Footnote 3: See map on p. 19.]

[Footnote 4: This visit caused a great sensation in Europe, as De L'Isle Adam crossed the Alps in the depth of winter, and this haste to pay his respects touched the King of England.]