The Grand Master of the Knights of Malta in 1565 was Jean Parisot de la Valette. Born in 1494 of a noble family in Quercy, he had been a Knight of St. John all his life, and forty-three years before had distinguished himself at the siege of Rhodes. He had never left his post at the "Convent" except to go on his "caravans,"[1] as the cruises in the galleys were named. As a commander of the galleys of the "Religion," as the Order called itself, he had won a name that stood conspicuous in that age of great sea captains; and in 1557, on the death of the Grand Master de la Sangle, the Knights, mindful of the attack that was sure to come, elected La Valette to the vacant office. No better man could be found even in the ranks of the Order. Passionately religious, devoted body and soul to his Order and faith, Jean de la Valette was prepared to suffer all to the death rather than yield a foot to the hated infidel. Unsparing of himself, he demanded utter sacrifice from his subordinates, and his cold, unflinching severity would brook no hesitation.

Both sides spent the winter and spring of 1565 in preparations for the great attack. The Grand Master sent a message to all the Powers of Europe; but Philip II., who sent him some troops, and the Pope, who sent him 10,000 crowns, alone responded to his appeal. The message sent to the various commanderies[2] throughout Europe brought the Knights in haste to the defence of their beloved Convent. The Maltese Militia was organised and drilled and proved of great value in the siege, and even 500 galley slaves were released on promise of faithful service. Altogether La Valette seems to have had at his disposal about 9,000 men (though the authorities differ slightly as to the exact figures). Of these over 600 were Knights with their attendants, about 1,200 were hired troops, about 1,000 were volunteers, chiefly from Italy, and the remainder Maltese Militia and galley slaves.

The Turkish fleet at the beginning consisted of 180 vessels, of which 130 were galleys; and the troops on board consisted of about 30,000 men, of whom 6,000 belonged to the select troops of the Janissaries. Twice during the siege the Ottomans received reinforcements: first, Dragut himself with 13 galleys and 1,600 men, and later, Hassan, Viceroy of Algiers and son of Khair-ed-Din Barbarossa, with 2,500 Corsairs. Altogether the Ottoman forces at the maximum, inclusive of sailors, must have exceeded 40,000 men. A small reinforcement of 700 men, of whom 42 were Knights, contrived to steal through the Turkish lines on June 29; but that was all the help the garrison received before September.

The Turkish army was under the command of Mustapha Pasha, and the fleet under that of Piali. Both had received orders not to take any steps without the advice of Dragut. It would have been far better for the Turkish cause had the Corsair been in supreme command, for his skill as an artilleryman was famous. But there had always been trouble in the Ottoman fleet when a Corsair was in command. The proud Turkish generals were unwilling to be under the orders of men who were of doubtful antecedents, and whom they despised in their hearts as low-born robbers. Even Barbarossa, acknowledged by all to be the greatest seaman in the Turkish Empire, could not enforce strict obedience in the campaign of Prevesa in 1538. The Grand Vizier Ibrahim had seen the folly of putting generals in command of fleets, and had therefore secured the promotion of Barbarossa: but Ibrahim was now dead, and Solyman, bereft of his wise counsel, made a compromise.

On May 18 the Turkish fleet was sighted off the island, and almost immediately the army disembarked, partly at Marsa Scirocco, and partly at St. Thomas's Bay. The first misfortune was the non-appearance of Dragut at the rendezvous, and in his absence Mustapha and Piali decided to attack St. Elmo and to leave to Dragut the responsibility of sanctioning the operations or breaking them off. Batteries were erected on Mount Sceberras, in which ten 80-pounders were brought into action, besides a huge basilisk throwing balls of 160 pounds, and two 60-pounder coulevrines. The Turks at the height of their power put great faith in novel and massive artillery, which, though clumsy, and at times more dangerous to their own gunners than the enemy, was terribly effective at the short distance it was placed from St. Elmo. The walls of the fortress soon began to crumble under the continuous bombardment, and the garrison, which had been increased to 120 Knights and two companies of Spanish infantry, soon felt the position untenable without reinforcements. As an attack had not yet been delivered La Valette was incensed at the appeal for help and offered to go himself to hold the fort; his council dissuaded him from doing so, and he permitted 50 Knights and 200 Spanish troops to cross to St. Elmo. It was of the utmost importance that St. Elmo should be held to the last minute. Not only did it delay the attack on the main forts, but Don Garcia de Toledo, the Viceroy of Sicily, had made it a condition in his arrangements with the Grand Master, before the siege, that St. Elmo must be held if the reinforcements from Sicily were to be sent.

At this point - June 2 - Dragut arrived with his galleys and expressed nothing but disapproval for the Turkish operations. He pointed out that the besiegers should have isolated the fortifications from the rest of the island before proceeding to attack St. Elmo; but, as the siege had started, he insisted on continuing it as vigorously as possible. He erected a powerful battery on the summit of Mount Sceberras, which swept both Fort St. Angelo and Fort St. Elmo, and erected another on the headland opposite St. Elmo on the other side of the Marsa Muscetto, which was henceforth known as Point Dragut.

As soon as this was done the bombardment restarted with relentless fury. The Knights made a sortie to destroy some of the Turkish guns, but were driven back, and the Turks then captured and held a covered way leading up to a ravelin; a few days later, taking advantage of the negligence of the garrison, they surprised the ravelin itself, and, but for the efforts of a Spanish officer, would have captured the fort. After desperate fighting the Knights were still holding the fort, but had been unable to recapture the ravelin. The next day another attack was made by Mustapha, but without avail; the ravelin remained in Turkish hands, but it had cost them 2,000 men.

It was a great gain, however; two guns were mounted on it, and all the Turkish artillery, including that of the galleys, began to play on the hapless fort. It was no question of a breach; the walls were gradually destroyed till there was nothing left of the enceinte but a mass of ruins. Every part of the fort was directly exposed to the fire of the two guns on the ravelin, and this exposure made the strain on the Knights intolerable.

The garrison sent a Knight, renowned for his bravery, to report these conditions to the Grand Master and to ask for permission to withdraw. La Valette, feeling it imperative that the fort should hold out to the last minute, sent him back with orders that it was to be defended to the end. The garrison, amazed by his reply, sent a prayer for relief, failing which they would sally forth, sword in hand, to meet their death in open fight rather than be buried like dogs beneath the ruins. The Grand Master received the request with the stern comment that, not only were their lives at the disposal of the Order, but the time and manner of their death; but to make sure that their complaints were justified he would send three Knights to investigate the condition of the fort. One of the three (probably in collusion with La Valette) maintained the fort could be held, and offered himself to hold it with volunteers, who were immediately forthcoming in large numbers; but when the message arrived at St. Elmo announcing that the garrison was to be relieved, there was consternation among the defenders, who, now realising the ignominy of their prayer, sent out yet another request to St. Angelo, this time to be allowed to hold St. Elmo to the death. After some delay the Grand Master granted the permission.

This was June 14; on the 16th the Ottomans delivered a grand assault. The fort was attacked on three sides, from Mount Sceberras and on each flank. The guns of St. Angelo rendered great service all day by raking the attacking forces in enfilade, and especially by breaking up the flank attack from the side of the Grand Harbour. All day long the battle went on with unabating fury; time after time the Janissaries burst over the ruined walls, and each time they were repulsed. Attacked on all sides, the few defenders fought with dauntless heroism, and when the night fell the Maltese Cross still waved over the fort.

Reinforcements were dispatched as soon as night set in, and the volunteers far exceeded all requirements.

Now at last the Turkish commanders perceived that, to capture St. Elmo, it must be isolated from St. Angelo. In the course of the next few days a battery was constructed on the promontory at the entrance of the Grand Harbour where Fort Ricasoli stood in later times, and another was mounted on the side of Mount Sceberras to sweep the landing place beneath the fort. Both batteries cost many Turkish lives, but their construction and the extension of the investing trenches to the Grand Harbour meant the complete isolation of St. Elmo. The Turks sustained their greatest loss when Dragut, while superintending the works, received a wound from which a week later he died.

For three days twenty-six guns kept up the bombardment, and on the early morning of June 22 another grand assault was made. Three times repulsed and three times renewed, the attack failed in the end, and the handful of surviving Knights was left at nightfall in possession of their ruins. All attempts during the night to send reinforcements failed under the fire of Dragut's new batteries, and La Valette saw that his men were beyond all hope of rescue.

The sixty shattered survivors prepared for death; worn out, they betook themselves at midnight to their little chapel, where they confessed and received the Eucharist for the last time. Dawn found them waiting, even to the wounded, who had been placed in chairs sword in hand to receive the last onslaught. Incredible as it may appear, the first assault was driven back, but the attack finally broke up the defence, and, with the exception of a few Maltese who escaped by swimming, the garrison perished to a man.

June 24, St. John the Baptist's Day, was one of sorrow inside the beleaguered fortress. The Turks had soiled their victory by mutilating their dead foes and throwing them into the Grand Harbour; La Valette took reprisals, and from that time neither side thought of quarter.

Nor were the besiegers greatly elated; the tiny Fort of St. Elmo had delayed them for five weeks and had cost them 8,000 men and their best general. The Order had lost 1,300 men, of whom 130 were Knights, and the disparity of the losses shows the impatience and recklessness of the Turkish attacks.

Mustapha now transferred the main part of his army to the other side of the Grand Harbour, and, drawing a line of entrenchments along the heights on its eastern side, succeeded in investing completely the two peninsulas of Senglea and Il Borgo. Batteries were established and a constant bombardment commenced, the main target being Fort St. Michael at the end of Senglea, on which a converging fire was brought to bear. Unable to bring his fleet into the Grand Harbour under the guns of St. Angelo, Mustapha had eighty galleys dragged across the neck of Mount Sceberras and launched on the upper waters of the Grand Harbour. This was a blow to the besieged, as it meant an attack by sea as well as by land, and La Valette made all the preparations possible to meet the danger. Along the south-west side of Senglea, where the beach is low, he constructed, with the aid of his Maltese divers, a very firm and powerful stockade to prevent the enemy galleys from running ashore, and he also linked up Il Borgo and Senglea with a floating bridge.

On July 15 the Turks delivered a grand assault by sea and by land. The attack by sea, under the command of the renegade Candellissa, proved the more formidable. At the critical moment the defenders were thrown into confusion by an explosion on the ramparts, during which the Turks were able to make their way through the stockade and into the fortress, being checked with difficulty by the desperate resistance of the garrison and finally driven out by a timely reinforcement sent by La Valette. Ten boatloads of troops sent by Mustapha incautiously exposed themselves to the guns of St. Angelo and were almost all sunk, while the attack on the land side, led by Hassan, Viceroy of Algiers and son of Khaired-Din Barbarossa, proved an utter failure.

As at the siege of Rhodes, so at Malta, a distinct part of the fortifications had been allotted to each langue to defend. The langue of Castile held the north-east section of Il Borgo, which was destined to be the scene of most desperate fighting.

On August 7 a joint attack was made on the land side of Senglea and on the bastion of Castile. On that day the Turks came nearer success than ever before or after. Mustapha's desperate attacks on Senglea were at last successful: masters of the breach made by their guns, the assailants' weight of numbers began to tell, and slowly the defenders were being pushed back inside the fortress. At this moment, to everyone's amazement, Mustapha sounded the retreat. The little garrison of the Citta Notabile, which had been left alone by the Turks, had been raiding the enemy's lines as usual, and, hearing the grand assault was in progress, had made a determined attack on the Turkish entrenchments from behind, burning and slaying all they could find. The confusion arising from this started the rumour that Sicilian reinforcements had landed and were attacking the Turkish army. Mustapha, in fear of being surrounded, drew off his troops in the moment of victory.

Meanwhile,[3] farther north, the Bastion of Castile had been almost captured by Piali. The rock at that part of the fortification was extremely hard, and the possibility of mines had occurred to none of the garrison. Piali, however, with great labour, had dug a mine which had been sprung that morning and had blown a huge gap in the ramparts. This unexpected attack threw the whole of Il Borgo into confusion, and, but for the Grand Master's promptitude and coolness of mind, the enemy had been masters of the fortress. Seizing a pike, La Valette rushed into the fight, and, inspired by his example, the Knights succeeded in driving the enemy out of the breach. He ordered the garrison to remain there all night, as he expected an attack under the cover of darkness, and insisted on taking the command himself. His subordinates protested against this reckless exposure of a valuable life, but his precautions were justified when a Turkish attack made in the darkness was defeated by his prompt resistance.

The bombardment continued unceasingly, and on August 18 another desperate assault was made, which, like the other, failed. Yet the position of the besieged was becoming desperate: dwindling daily in numbers, they were becoming too feeble to hold the long line of fortifications; but, when his council suggested the abandonment of Il Borgo and Senglea and withdrawal to St. Angelo, La Valette remained obdurate.

Why the Viceroy of Sicily had not brought help will always remain a mystery. Possibly the orders of his master, Philip II. of Spain, were so obscurely worded as to put on his own shoulders the burden of a decision; a responsibility which he was unwilling to discharge because the slightest defeat would mean exposing Sicily to the Turk. He had left his own son with La Valette, so he could hardly be indifferent to the fate of the fortress, and Malta in Turkish hands would soon have proved a curse to Sicily and Naples. Whatever may have been the cause of his delay, the Viceroy hesitated till the indignation of his own officers forced him to move, and then the battle had almost been won by the unaided efforts of the Knights. On August 23 came yet another grand assault, the last serious effort, as it proved, of the besiegers; it was thrown back with the greatest difficulty, even the wounded taking part in the defence. The plight of the Turkish forces, however, was now desperate. With the exception of St. Elmo, the fortifications were still intact. By working night and day the garrison had repaired the breaches, and the capture of Malta seemed more and more impossible. Those terrible summer months with the burning sirocco had laid many of the troops low with sickness in their crowded quarters; ammunition and food were beginning to run short, and the troops were becoming more and more dispirited at the failure of their numerous attacks and the unending toll of lives. The death of Dragut, on June 23, had proved an incalculable loss, and the jealousy between Mustapha and Piali prevented their co-operation. The whole course of the siege had been marked by a feverish haste and a fear of interruption, which showed itself in ill-drawn plans. Dragut himself, early in the siege, had pointed out the necessity of more foresight, but his warnings went unheeded. The Turkish commanders took few precautions, and, though they had a huge fleet, they never used it with any effect except on one solitary occasion. They neglected their communications with the African coast and made no attempt to watch and intercept Sicilian reinforcements.

On September 1 Mustapha made his last effort, but all his threats and cajoleries had but little effect on his dispirited troops, who refused any longer to believe in the possibility of capturing those terrible fortresses. The feebleness of the attack was a great encouragement to the besieged, who now began to see hopes of deliverance. Mustapha's perplexity and indecision were cut short by the news of the arrival of Sicilian reinforcements in Melleha Bay. Hastily evacuating his trenches, he embarked his army; but, on learning that the new troops numbered but some 8,000, was overcome by shame and put ashore to fight the reinforcements. It was all in vain, however, for his troops would not stand the fierce charge of the new-comers, and, helped by the determination of his rearguard, safely re-embarked and sailed away on September 3.

At the moment of departure the Order had left 600 men capable of bearing arms, but the losses of the Ottomans had been yet more fearful. The most reliable estimate puts the number of the Turkish army at its height at some 40,000 men, of which but 15,000 returned to Constantinople. It was a most inglorious ending to the reign of Solyman the Magnificent.

[Footnote 1: A reminiscence of the Syrian days of the Order.]

[Footnote 2: The name given to the different estates of the Hospitallers scattered throughout Europe: they were so called because they were each in charge of a "commander," sometimes also named a "preceptor," from his duty of receiving and training novices.]

[Footnote 3: Most historians make this event part of the attack of August 18. But Prescott (Philip II., vol. ii., p. 428) points out that Balbi, who is undoubtedly the best authority for the siege as he was one of the garrison, places it on August 7.]