For more than 200 years, the knights had lived on Rhodes, and now they had no home. They were offered a small, relatively inhospitable island in the middle of the Mediterranean, named Malta. They accepted it, and immediately started turning the sleepy little sheep fields into a fortress that the future of Europe would soon depend on.
As soon as the knights arrived on Malta, they began building fortifications and ships from which they could again raid Muslim shipping. It was at this time that the famous Muslim pirate, Barbarossa, had been appointee High Admiral of the Turkish fleet. He built the Ottoman navy into a force, and great sea battles began to rage from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Most of these battles were indecisive, but they kept the world on the edge of its seat. A significant Ottoman naval victory would almost certainly be the beginning of the end for Christian Europe. Again it was the tenacious seafaring Knights of St John who stood in the path of such a Turkish victory. Again, the knights were making themselves odious to the Turkish high command.
With Rhodes in his possession, the Sultan now seemed free to sweep across Europe with little opposition. It must have seemed most improbable to anyone that the battered knights would again bar his path. However the little Order of St John would not only rise to challenge them, they were yet to strike the blow that would actually begin the unravelling of the entire Ottoman Empire.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
In 1546 Barbarossa died, and Dragut assumed command of the increasingly powerful Turkish navy. In 1550 the knights defeated his fleet at Mahdia. For revenge, Dragut attacked Malta. The island was still relatively unfortified, but the few defenders put up such a stiff resistance that Dragut had to abandon the attack. However, both sides knew that the Turks would come back to Malta.
In 1557 Grand Master L'lsle Adam died, and Jean Parisot de la Valette became the new Grand Master of the Order of St John. Educated and aristocratic, La Valette had once been captured by the Turks and made a galley slave for four years. He was 63 years old when he became Grand Master, and he would prove to be a great leader like L'lsle Adam and d'Abusson before him.
Although Dragut's first raid on Malta was beaten back, it was a sure sign that the knights had again made themselves abhorrent to the Sultan. He was not happy about having to deal with the knights again, but they were creating such havoc with his lines of supply that they could not be ignored.
On May 18, 1565, the Turkish fleet was sighted by the watchman in Fort St. Elmo on the edge of Malta.
THE BATTLE FOR MALTA
The Ottoman fleet approaching Malta was a mighty one indeed. It appeared as if an entire forest of spars was moving across the sea. With them came seemingly endless multitudes of the Sultan's finest Janissaries, regulars, and more than 4,000 layalars - religious fanatics who sought death over life. This Turkish force came to attack 540 knights, 1,000 foot soldiers, and a little more than 3,000 Maltese militiamen.
Almost immediately, the Order's cavalry began attacking and harassing the Turkish foraging parties. This became a major distraction for the Turks, whose previous experiences with the knights were now causing them to overreact to almost every situation.
ST. ELMO'S FIRE
Pasha directed the main part of his force toward capturing St. Elmo, the small fort which overlooked the Grand Harbour. This played into the hands of the knights as it gave La Valette time to make improvements in his other fortifications.
Soon much smoke and fire was rising from St. Elmo that it looked like a volcano spewing out of the rock. It seemed impossible that anyone in it could still be alive, but the young knights in the little fort were holding their ground, repulsing every attack to the astonishment of both sides, and the outright dismay of the Turks.
Then the famed Dragut arrived with a fresh squadron of ships and even more reinforcements, many of them handpicked fighting men. If Pasha was courageous and brilliant, Dragut was even more so. His presence raised the morale of the entire Turkish force, which was badly needed at the time. Dragut assumed personal command of the forces. He directed even more batteries to pour their deadly fire into St. Elmo, which the tiny fort was now receiving from three sides. He continued this barrage without stopping for three entire weeks.
ST. ELMO'S VICTORY
The little fortress that no one believed could hold out for more than a day or two had held out for over a month. This had bought the rest of the Order the precious time that was needed. Little St. Elmo had also deprived the Sultan of thousands of his best fighting men, including many of his leaders, among which was the master gunner, the Aga of the Janissaries, and most importantly of all, Dragut himself who was felled by a cannon shot.
The price paid for St. Elmo had been too great. As he looked up at the larger St. Angelo, whose guns were already pouring a deadly fire into his advancing troops, he cried out, "Allah! If so small a son has cost so dear, what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?"
Pasha then had the bodies of the knights who had died so bravely at St. Elmo decapitated, bound to crosses and floated out into the harbour in front of St. Angelo. This was a brazen insult to the religion of the defenders. La Valette also understood that this meant that there would be no quarter given - this was a fight to the death. In retaliation, La Valette had a number of the Turkish prisoners executed and their bodies hung on the walls. Their heads placed in canons and blasted over to the Turks now at St Elmo.
A SURPRISING RETREAT
Pasha then even escalated his bombardment to the point where it seemed that the barrels of his cannon would melt, and kept it up for seven more days. The knights fought bravely, but they were simply far too outnumbered to stand against so great a tide of raging humanity. Just when the citadel itself was within reach of the Turks, and it appeared that the end of the knights had finally come, the Ottoman trumpets rang out a call for a full-scale retreat!
The defenders could only believe that the continent had finally sent them relief, but this was not the case. What had actually happened was that a small force of the Order's cavalry had attacked the Ottoman base camp at Marsa. The little detachment had struck with such fierce determination and raised so much havoc that they were mistaken for a much larger force. Fearing an attack from the rear, Pasha had been forced to call a retreat of his assault troops.
La Valette received a dispatch from Don Garcia of Sicily, promising to send a relief force of 16,000 men. La Valette was unimpressed. Having received many such promises before, he did not put his trust in the prince. He simply vowed again to fight until victory or death came.
FIRE FROM BELOW
On August 18 a mine exploded under the Post of Castile and a great breach was made. The Grand Master himself, now seventy years old, grabbed a helmet and sword and rushed out to meet the assault. The knights and the townspeople, encouraged by his example, picked up any weapon they could find and flung themselves into the breach with him. La Valette was wounded, but refused to retreat. He pointed his sword at the Turkish banners and declared, "Never will I withdraw as long as those banners wave in the wind." Somehow the knights again prevailed, and the Turks once again bitterly retreated.
On September 8 1565, the feast of the Birth of Our Lady, Don Garcia's fleet arrived with 8,000 reinforcements. Even though 8,000 was not a significant number compared to the still-huge army of the Turks, their impact on the morale of both sides was much greater than the strength of their numbers. If a few hundred knights had cost them so dearly, and they had still only captured the little fort of St. Elmo, how could they possibly prevail against so many more? The great army of the mighty Ottoman Empire struck camp and sailed away. This was to be their high water mark, and the tide of this great empire would now begin to recede like every empire before it. The little Order of St. John had stood against the seemingly innumerable hordes of Islam, and they had turned them back.
In one of the greatest examples of courage and endurance the world has ever witnessed, the Knights of St. John prevailed.
Only 250 knights survived at Malta, and almost every one of them was wounded, maimed or crippled. Europe, however, was now free of the Muslim threat that had appeared so invincible.
In England, Queen Elizabeth I acknowledged that if Malta had fallen to the Turks, England itself would probably have fallen to the Muslims. She ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a special form of thanksgiving to be read in every church in the land each day for three weeks. The rest of Europe also celebrated, paying their respects and acknowledging their debt to the Order that had long before been written off as having no real value.
THE BUILDING OF A NEW CITY
Scarcely had the last of the Turkish and Algerian sails sunk below the horizon before La Valette decided to build a city on Mount-Sceberras, the strategic point of the Island. He announced his intention to the Sovereigns of Europe and Pope Pius IV and the Kings of France, Spain and Portugal contributed money, foodstuffs and materials. Funds were collected under the Authority of a Bill from Pope Pius IV who had also sent his engineer Francesco Laparelli da Cortona to help the Grand Master in his project. He drew up a plan and discussed it with the local engineers Gerolamo Cassar and Baldassare Lancl d'Urbino.
The plan, when finally approved, was sent to Philip II, the Order's suzerain. By a decree of the 22nd March 1566, the Venerable Council of the Order formally approved of the building of the new city which was to bear the name of "The Most Humble City of Valletta" Humilissima Civitas Vallettae.
Six days later, the first stone was laid with great pomp and ceremony. La Valette survived until August 1568. He saw, with just pride and well deserved pleasure, the laying of the first stone of the memorial city and the erection of some of its fortification.
While the Christian nations of Europe had turned their armies against each other, the Knights of St. John never lost sight of who their real enemy was. Even though the Order was composed of the noble sons of those Christian nations that were fighting each other, they never allowed doctrinal or political divisions to enter their own ranks.
Because of their unity, focused vision, and determination never to retreat before the enemies of the cross, they changed forever what had appeared to be the inevitable course of history. For their extraordinary exploits, the standard of the Knights of St. John, now called "the Maltese Cross," was for a time saluted by every nation in the world.