A brutal battle, at which nothing less than the future of Christendom was at stake, raged this week in June some four-and-a-half centuries ago. Indeed, the sacrificial lamb, Fort Saint Elmo, fell on June 23.
But because it did, the Island of Malta held out.
At great cost was purchased the time for the princes of the Catholic West to set aside their jealousies and build the fleets sufficient to confront the troublesome Turk, bound and determined to make Saint Peter’s Basilica a mosque, just as he had done to the Hagia Sophia a century before.
Christendom delivered the coup de grace at Lepanto in 1571 under the 24-year-old Don John of Austria, but the sea battle that saved the West would never have been fought, much less won, had it not been for the heroic leadership of a much older man six years before.
The 71-year-old warrior who—alone and against impossible odds—led his soldier monks in the defense of Malta in 1565 was Jean Parisot de la Valette.
If ever a man took Luke 9:61-62 to heart it was this descendant of the crusading counts of Toulouse. At 20 he joined the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem. He never returned home.
Born in 1494, he matured into the fullness of a type forged four centuries prior in the crucible of the Crusades, something that was then altogether new: the monk of war, a cleric whose vocation it was to lead a life of prayer and work centered on the Divine Office and the Rule of Saint Benedict, in a cloister apart from the world, but also to train for war and to shed the blood of the enemies of Jesus Christ on the battlefield.
By the late 16th Century, of the three Military Orders, only the Knights of Saint John survived, but in the heart of Grand Master Jean de la Valette burned the same fervor and singularity of purpose that fired the hearts of the soldier monks who had manned the ramparts of Acre and had fallen on the the fields at Hattin.
His fellow warrior the Abbé de Brantôme described La Valette as “tall, calm, unemotional, and handsome.” Another admirer said he was “capable of converting a Protestant or governing a kingdom.” A master of languages, he spoke French, Latin, Italian, Greek, Arabic, and Turkish. He had more than paid his dues. Already a seasoned veteran at 47, he sustained a severe wound in action against the Barbary Corsairs, the outcome of which battle sentenced La Valette to a year pulling a Turkish galley oar.
More glorious, though doubtless no less demanding, were the abundant posts he had held throughout the Order, including Governor of Tripoli and General of the Fleet, the first Frenchman to hold a post traditionally given to Italians. Under La Valette, the Galleys of the Knights of Saint John sailed forth from Malta’s magnificent natural harbor and practiced, if you will, a kind of Christian piracy, boarding and seizing Turkish merchantmen carrying goods from France or Venice to be hawked in the markets of Constantinople. For this reason, the matrons of the Sultan’s harem hated the Knights of Malta, for these ladies accumulated great wealth speculating in glass and other Venetian luxuries.
Soleiman the Magnificent, however, was a strategic thinker. He knew that Malta’s harbor, unequalled in the Mediterranean, would afford him a forward base from which to continue his raids on the coast of Italy. With the greater control of the sea that Malta would afford him, he could at last bring Venice to heel. An invasion of Sicily would not be out of the question, nor would aid to the Moriscos in Spain.
The Sultan’s greatest dream, however, the dream of all Turks, was the conquest of the “Red Apple.”
Malta was a stepping stone to Rome.
Soleiman had crossed swords with the Knights of Saint John early in his reign. La Valette had been there. In 1522, a Turkish force, of, in the end, some 200,000, besieged the Knights’ stronghold on the Island of Rhodes. For six months, 700 Knights and 6000 local auxiliaries, held out against the Turks. The holy Knights exacted casualties from Soleiman equaling half his force, but when their supplies and ammunition were exhausted, and their own force inadequate to man the walls, Soleiman agreed to allow the garrison to surrender on terms. Rhodes was evacuated and the Knights, after a sojourn in Siracusa, set up a new fortress on the Island of Malta.
The Christian West had known for years that Malta was the object of Turkish desire, but when the Knights’ extensive Mediterranean intelligence network noted an aggressive galley-building effort in Constantinople in the fall and winter of 1564, La Valette accelerated the construction of his defenses and called all the Knights of the Order home to stand and fight.
On May 18, 1565 the Ottoman fleet was spotted offshore. That night, the Grand Master led his warriors into their chapel where they confessed and then assisted at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
“A formidable army composed of audacious barbarians is descending on this island,” he told them. “These persons, my brothers, are the enemies of Jesus Christ. Today it is a question of the defense of our Faith. Are the Gospels to be superseded by the Koran? God on this occasion demands of us our lives, already vowed to His service. Happy will be those who first consummate this sacrifice.”
To be sure, La Valette knew how many of his Knights would fall. The plan he had devised was to hold Fort St. Elmo as long as he could until a relief force from Spanish Sicily could be mustered.
Fort St. Elmo, poorly designed, and poorly constructed, indeed, not even completed, commanded the northeasternmost point of the mountain peninsula that bisected the island’s four-mile, deepwater harbor. As long as the fort stood, the Turks could not take the harbor, and if they could not take the harbor by autumn, the Ottoman fleet would be wrecked in the gales of October.
From his headquarters across on the south side of the harbor at Fort St. Angelo, La Valette saw to the defenses of the rest of the island, and to the carefully measured defense of St. Elmo.
Slowly buying time with human lives, the lives of his fellow Knights, La Valette kept St. Elmo manned by shuttles across the harbor, sparing no more than were absolutely needed. The Brethren manning St. Elmo rained liquid fire, rocks, boiling oil, fire hoops, and musket ball down on the attacking Turks. Writing daily to Spain’s Viceroy in Sicily, La Valette underscored what both sides knew: the island’s necessity to Christendom. But Spain dragged her feet, and La Valette continued to send willing men to the walls of Saint Elmo. Over eight thousand Turks were slaughtered in the siege, and many of La Valette’s 700 knights and their men-at-arms did consummate the sacrifice to which he had called them in May, but when the fortress at last fell after 31 days on 23 June, the Knights of Saint John had so depleted the Turkish ranks, that a Turkish conquest of Malta was now in doubt. Indeed, Mustafa, the Turkish commander, cried aloud, “Allah! We have paid so dearly for the son! What shall we pay for the father?”
Enraged by the price they paid for Saint Elmo, the Turks cut out the hearts of the fort’s dead defenders, nailed their corpses to crucifixes and sent them floating across the harbor toward La Valette. His response is not easy to approve, but easy enough to understand. Decapitating Turkish prisoners taken in fighting on the opposite side of the harbor, he fired their heads from his cannons back at the Turks now occupying St. Elmo.
The conduct of the battle for the island did not improve from there, but La Valette, concealing his increasing certainty that relief was unlikely never allowed his men to waiver. The day following the fall of St. Elmo was the Feast of Jean Baptiste. La Valette addressed his men: “What could be more fitting for a member of the Order of Saint John than to lay down his life in defense of the Faith? The defenders of Saint Elmo have earned a martyr’s crown and will reap a martyr’s reward!”
The Turks, now infested with disease from bad water, offered terms.
La Valette refused.
For the next two months the Turks threw themselves at the island’s remaining strongholds, Fort Saint Angelo and Fort Saint Michael. Throughout the fighting, La Valette was ever to the fore of the defenses, inspiring courage in his men and fear in the Turks, who quickly spread the belief that they had seen demons at sides defending him.
Angels must have stood by his side, for Europe did not. While the kings of Christendom stood idly by expecting the island fortress to fall, La Valette and his Knights held their island against an Ottoman army of nearly 60,000, including 6500 of the Sultan’s elite Janissaries. Three quarters of the Turkish army were killed over the four-month siege, and, on September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, as the Ottoman survivors turned and straggled back to Constantinople, the heart of Christian Europe began to beat again for the defense of the Faith.
The man who had given the heart of Europe some much-needed resuscitation was Jean Parisot de la Valette.
For a recorded lecture by Christopher Check on the Battle of Lepanto please visit Catholic Answers