Birgu and the Great Siege of 1565

The Maltese islands always had a very important role in the Mediterranean Sea and in the history of this important sea.  The Knights that were the elite of the aristocracy in European countries had set foot on our islands in 1530.  They spent about eight years wondering in the Mediterranean since their departure from the island of Rhodes when they were forced out to leave the island in 1522 by the Ottoman Empire.  The Knights were always against the Muslims and this Empire and so were the Turks.  People still believe and think that Malta was attacked by the Turkish Empire because the Knights belonged to a religious institution, this is not so, it is true that the Christians were against Muslims and vice versa but one of the main reasons for the Great Siege of 1565 was because the Turkish Empire wanted to conquer Malta to set foot here and get rid of the Knights first, and Malta was going to be the first step, if they did conquer the Maltese islands the next step was going to be Sicily, Italy and then central Europe.  Turkey was the biggest force in the Mediterranean Sea, and nobody could destroy the Turkish fleet in those days not even Russia, and the East of this sea belonged to the Turkish Empire while the West belonged to the Christian States like Venice, Sicily, Naples, Genoa and Amalfi.

The Grandmaster responsible during the four months of the Great Siege was La Vallette who was regarded as the hero of this Great Siege.  He was born in 1495 and when he was only 20 he joined the Order of St John.  He took part in the Siege of Rhodes in 1522 when he lost his galley named San Giovanni and was captured as a galley slave rowing but released after a few months.  In 1557 he was elected Grandmaster, and in such a position he distinguished himself during the time of blood, sweat and tears in the Great Siege.  He founded our new capital city Valletta in 1566 and died at the age of 73 in 1568.

The Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent expelled the Christians and the Knight Crusaders from Jerusalem, then from Rhodes but failed to do the same in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565.  His third attempt to take possession of our islands had failed.  In 1564 Malta new because of rumours that had reached our shores, that the Turkish Empire planned to start a deadly attack on the islands of Malta.  Without delay military training started and was also imposed on our forefathers.  Malta had a defence force of only about 9000, this included about 600 Knights and about twice as much local militia.  The Turkish fleet that started to besiege our island had some 200 galleys and about 40,000 men amongst these there were the famous warriors known as Janissaries, these were the elite soldiers that belonged to the Sultan’s armies.

The first Turkish troops landed at Marsaxlokk on 18th May 1565, and the dawn of that day, Friday was like any other day of Maltese Spring in Malta.  It was sunny, warm, but nonetheless with a pleasant breeze and there was a haze on the sea that kept the visibility to a minimum.  As the sun became warmer and warmer the haze lifted thus revealing the mighty Turkish armada spread out on the horizon slowly moving towards the coasts of our beloved islands.  All the sentries at Fort St Elmo and Fort St Angelo gave the deadly alarm which was the awaited signal.  These signals were then repeated at Mdina and the Citadel in Gozo, thus bringing all the Order’s forces and all the Maltese and Gozitans on the alert.  The invaders put ashore all their necessary items for the attacks such as tents, war weapons, food and drinks, horses etc.  Mustafa` the great army leader met resistance at Birgu when he attacked Post of Castille which was in fact the strongest Post in Birgu at the time, contrary to what he was told by two Knights sent by La Vallette with a small garisson of Maltese soldiers to meet the Turkish army on the way to Birgu from Marsaxlokk.  The two Knights were the Portuguese Bartolomeo Faraone and the French Adrien de la Riviere but the truth was that Post of Castille was the strongest.  They were both beheaded when the Turks found out that they gave them daft information, they were in fact the first two victims of the siege. There was lot of disorganized movement with such panic, and this was caused by the population who left it till the end to move into Mdina for safety.  Others moved into Birgu and the citadel in Gozo for the same thing, safety.


It was fortunate that the enemy did not land on the first day and the Grandmaster had taken good advantage of this delay by the Turkish invaders and he sent a cavalry detachment to follow the Turkish troops and report any possible landings and made sure to start poisoning the water wells at Marsa.  He also sent a message to the Viceroy of Sicily informing him that the attacks on Malta had started and asked for help, although his first pleadings were in vain.  The following day on the 19th the Turks landed at Marsaxlokk to proceed to the village of Zejtun and start robbing what crops and livestock they could find available.  They were met by a cavalry detachment with the two very brave Knights, both were immediately captured by the Turks and interrogated by Mustafa` Pasha` himself who wanted to know which was the weakest point in the local defence to attack Birgu.


Under torture the honest and brave victim Knights both cried out that the Post of Castille was the weakest.  In fact the truth was that Post of Castille was the most powerful, the strongest.   Then Mustafa` returned to his base to kill both Knights and turned to attack Mdina and further turned his attention on Fort St Elmo at the tip where the capital Valletta now stands on the hill of Sceberras, and planned the attack by sea and from Marsa where many tents and camps were built.  All these attacks were meant before trying to besiege Birgu, something which the Turks never succeeded to do because every time they tried to besiege Birgu they were first decimated by the capable Knights and Maltese soldiers and their heavy artillery and then they met by the hordes of Knights and soldiers who left their respective Posts on the fortification front to face them on common ground.


About four days later they started the attacks on Fort St Elmo.  Both Mustafa` and Piali planned to disembark from Marsaxlokk and from the Grand Harbour, their plan was unsuccessful because a chain was fixed between Kalkara Creek and Fort St Elmo.  This fort was completely captured and defeated but Fort St Angelo kept on resisting till the end and took the brunt of the Grand Harbour and was never captured or defeated.  Another iron chain was fixed across the entrance of the Grande Marina to stop and hinder galleys gaining access into the Marina (the wharf) and a palisade was driven in the sea bed near Fort St Michael in nearby Senglea to prevent the enemy from further attacks.


The Grandmaster kept all the time asking for help and appealed strongly to the Viceroy of Sicily.  At last the Knights and Maltese received the first relief from Sicily, this was called Piccolo Soccorso and consisted of more than 700 soldiers and after their landing they proceeded to the capital city Mdina.  Then they went to Birgu and assisted the local force there.


On the 18th of August the Turkish army started another attack on Birgu, Piali led his attackers by explosives with the useless hope to penetrate the strongholds of fortified Birgu, but after a considerable damage to the mighty Post of Castille by means of the heavy storming, they never succeeded to penetrate beyond the Post of Castille.  They succeeded in entering after they created a breach by means of explosives through a bastion overlooking the village of Kalkara, still known today as the Bastion of Il Prescia (breach) close to the Post of Castille, sometimes this Italian word prescia is written with Maltese orthography as prexxa.  The Knights and the Maltese fought a battle that is never forgotten in our history, blood was shed all over the place, and the encouraged Knights and Maltese forced back the Turks to return to their camps.


On 7th September the second relief arrived from Sicily, this re-enforcement is known as the Gran Soccorso that was mightier than the first relief.  They landed in Mellieha Bay this time.  The promised number from the Viceroy of Sicily was much more than the number sent but the 10,000 soldiers were of great help for the local defenders and with this re-enforcement the leaders of the Turkish armies feared that their galleys and soldiers were going to be blockaded in the Grand Harbour.  Probably they were wise enough to know what was the main intention of the defenders.   On the following day the 8th of September the Turkish invaders preferred to surrender and leave the island, they knew that they were on the hasty part of the retreat by the Gran Soccorso that caused the end of the Siege imposed on the Knights and Maltese that was inevitable.  They destroyed their camps in Marsa and had to re-embark on their galleys to return back to their homeland, Turkey.


The Order entrusted a clever French Knight Mathurin who was well known as Romagas who had distinguished himself well in this great siege.  He entered the badly defeated Fort St Elmo and hoisted the Banner of the Order of St John, a white cross on a red background that signified peace by its white cross and blood stained battle-fields by the red background.  I prefer now to explain this last attack in full detail.


Grandmaster La Vallette the Knights and the Maltese knew that a final hit was imminent for Birgu, the Order and its people.  Without showing any of the troops the Turks burrowed and laid ammunition (a mine) underneath the very strong bastion known today as the Bastion of Il Prescia (the breach) of Post of Castille.  Mustapha`s idea was nothing but to allow La Vallette to send his re-enforcements he had to Senglea thus reducing his forces at Birgu, then he would set off the fatal mine to open an entrance (a breach) to his men to capture the city.  Eventually things did not work as he planned because La Vallette refrained from sending any more men to Senglea, and this was very obvious because his concentration was more on Birgu than on Senglea.  On seeing that La Vallette had not fallen for his trap, Mustapha` ordered his men to blow up the mine.  They did blow their mine and the explosion broke down a large part of the Bastion of Castille Post and Mustapha` came into Birgu to gain his foothold in the city for the first time.


This created no more scope for La Vallette to continue the battle and the clock tower in the city’s main square was of no use anymore as a command post.  The bells of St Lawrence church began to toll the dreaded signal that the deadly enemy had penetrated at last the strong fortifications for the first time and the Grandmaster on his 70th year took a spike and called on his brave men to follow him on foot.  Within a very short time the crowd came behind him and the situation was swelled by children and young women of Birgu who rather than keeping waiting for death by the deadly Muslems they all followed the hero leader and his clever Knights and the Maltese soldiers to meet and fight the enemy till the end.


On contact with the enemy a grenade exploded and injured La Vallette in his leg but he kept going and after refusing treatment he led the Maltese and his men into battle chest to chest.  Every Knight and Maltese used weapons and children and women wielded what implements they found.  Every thing was used to be thrown at the Turks and at the end of that day the enemy withdrew and whether it was another miracle or not I do not know.  All we know that Post of Castille was very badly stormed to give it the title of the blooded Post but later after a short rest the enemy attacked again during the night by a bombardment closing in from Bighi Bay to the Grand Harbour, and this bombardment turned the night into day by the lights created.


For the residents of Birgu there were prayers added to Our Lord, Our Lady and St Lawrence and there was never a greater need for such prayers because all those left had to continue the fight.  The Maltese losses were heavy and after several battles La Vallette ordered his respective garrisons to move their cannons to vantage points from where they opened fire on the enemy’s fleet as it began to exit from our Grand Harbour.  All the Knights, soldiers and Maltese assembled themselves in Birgu for the singing of the historic Te Deum as thanksgiving in the Conventual church of St Lawrence.  On that same day, the 8th of September the Maltese were celebrating the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady to whose intercession we believed strongly that our forefathers had owed their deliverance from Muslim rule.  The last fling had cost the enemy lot of deaths and the Turkish armada was truly tired and humbled and left for Constantinople by the end of the day of 8th September 1565 and it was then that the historic Great Siege of 1565 of Malta had ended miraculously, because they were the offenders and our forefathers were the defenders.


Giacomo Bosio the historicographer recorded in detail the official religious services of thanksgiving that were held in the Conventual church of St Lawrence on Sunday 16th September 1565 by Grandmaster La Vallette and his Knights including the Maltese.  Signor Bosio did not hesitate to write that this was with deep devotion that the Knights and Maltese rendered due thanks to the Almighty God and Our Lady for the happy ending of the Great Siege.  From the other hand La Vallette did not hesitate to declare that he wanted to acknowledge the lucky and unexpected miraculous victory to the help of Our Lord and to the Blessed Virgin, and to St John the Baptist.  He ordered that special prayers of thanksgiving be said every year on 8th September in all the churches.  On the eve of the Nativity feast a Holy Mass for the repose of all those who died during the four month siege, had to be celebrated.  La Vallette ordered that the Order’s Treasury had to provide marriage dowries for six poor Maltese ladies, each had to receive 50 scudi (LM 4.15).

 History recalls that Malta and the whole of Europe rejoiced at the Maltese victory over the Ottoman Empire during the Great Siege.  Church bells tolled from Palermo to Paris and in London a six-week thanksgiving service was laid by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Our beloved tiny island was being called The Island of Heroes, on another occasion it was named The Bulwark of Faith.  Obviously Europe understood or might have, that if the Turkish Empire succeeded in putting its foothold on Malta after defeating the Order of St John the next was going to be Sicily, then the next target Italy and central Europe.  The Church planned to commemorate this occasion, by a Pontifical High Mass in thanksgiving on the 8th of September of each year.  The Knights laid down a National Regatta to be held in the Grand Harbour on the same date.  Both functions have indeed been held regularly till the present day.

In recognition of this event of their part in the Great Siege, Senglea considered now as a city and was called “Invicta” that meant unconquered while the historic city of Birgu was re-named “Vittoriosa” that meant the victorious city.  Emperor Philip II of Spain sent to La Vallette a jeweled sword and a rich dagger of enameled gold set with pearls and very precious stones.  All these, unfortunately finished in the hands of French soldiers under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte in June 1798 and are now enhancing a glass case at the Louvre Museum in Paris.  It was Pope Pius V, a great benefactor of our capital Valletta who invested La Vallette with the rank of a Cardinal, a great honoured gift that La Vallette declined since all his time was bravely taken by his duties of a Grandmaster.  However, the unique Grandmaster who was proudly invested with this rank by the Pope, was Verdalle another French Grandmaster.

 After all this, due to lack of assistance by Don Garcia who was the stupid viceroy of Sicily, he was removed from office by Emperor Philip II for having delayed his assistance to the almost defeated island, though the second larger relief from Sicily did help a lot to force out the enemy and it was not too late.  Since this victory over the Turks the Order of St John then adopted the great name of Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta, and its members were to be known as the Knights of Malta with all the greatest honours.