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Episode
143

The Great Siege of Malta

Mar 23, 2021
History
-
24
minutes
Malta
European history
Turkey
Christianity
The Middle Ages
War

In 1565 an army of 40,000 Ottoman soldiers attacked the tiny island of Malta.

On the island, a force of just 700 Knights and 8,000 Maltese soldiers stood against the invading army.

Here is the fantastic story of what actually happened.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Great Siege of Malta.

[00:00:30] It’s often portrayed as the story of East vs West, of Islam vs. Christianity, and of Goliath vs. David.

[00:00:40] There are elements of all that in the story of the Siege of Malta, but it is also the story of two ageing military leaders, of the role of morale in battle, and of the importance of keeping hydrated on a small mediterranean island.

[00:01:00] And it’s also just a fantastic story.

[00:01:03] We have got a lot to get through in today’s episode - So, let’s jump right into it.

[00:01:10] The islands of Malta sit just under 100 kilometres south of Sicily. 

[00:01:17] There are, technically speaking, several islands, the main ones being Malta and Gozo, but I’ll refer to it all here as Malta, for sake of ease.

[00:01:30] If you’ve been there, you will know that it is very small, just 316 kilometres squared, about half the size of Madrid.

[00:01:40] It was to be on this small island that one of the most amazing battles in Mediterranean history took place in the summer of the year 1565, a battle that is now referred to as The Great Siege of Malta.

[00:01:57] Malta, given that it was such a small island but in such a strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean, and because it didn’t really have any sizable military at all, had been occupied by various different rulers and forces over the course of its history, from the Phoenecians to the Byzantines, then the Arabs and the Normans.

[00:02:23] In 1530, the islands of Malta were given to a religious order called The Knights of St John.

[00:02:31] This religious order, which contained Knights from all over Europe, traced its roots back to the 1060s, in Amalfi, in Italy. 

[00:02:42] In 1099, the Knights of the order had set up a hospital in Jerusalem, to care for wounded Crusaders, which gave them another name you might have heard them referred to as - the Knights Hospitaller.

[00:02:57] After being kicked out of Jerusalem in the 1290s, they then settled on the island of Rhodes, where they stayed for just over 200 years before being kicked out again and arriving in Malta in 1530.

[00:03:14] The Knights were allowed to have the entire island for the rent of one Maltese falcon per year, one bird, which was payable to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

[00:03:28] Meanwhile, further to the east, lay the Ottoman empire, one of the world’s most powerful empires, and importantly, an Islamic one, which was at that time the sworn enemy of Christianity.

[00:03:44] The Ottoman Empire originated in modern day Turkey, but its tentacles stretched across huge swathes of central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

[00:03:59] It was led, at the time, by a man called Suleiman The Magnificent, who was the most powerful of the Ottoman emperors, and commanded an empire that oversaw 25 million people.

[00:04:14] Although he is known in the West as Suleiman The Magnificent, in Turkey he is known as Suleiman The Lawgiver, and is known mainly for his ability as a skilled governor and leader of an empire, rather than as a ferocious warrior.

[00:04:32] From his throne in Istanbul, Suleiman ruled over his vast empire. 

[00:04:38] The small island of Malta was one and a half thousand kilometres away. 

[00:04:43] Neither its native inhabitants nor the Knights living there posed much of a direct threat to King Suleiman, yet in 1565 a fleet of 40,000 Ottomans soldiers set off on a mission to capture the island and destroy the Knights living there. 

[00:05:04] Why?

[00:05:06] Interestingly enough, historians are a little divided about the actual reasons Suleiman decided to set sail for Malta.

[00:05:16] The Knights of St John were a little bit annoying. 

[00:05:20] They would capture Ottoman trade ships on the route between Venice and the east, and in the summer of 1564, a year before the siege, they captured a particularly valuable Ottoman ship which was on the way to Venice.

[00:05:38] So, there is one theory that the Knights of St John were a bit annoying, a thorn in the side of the powerful emperor.

[00:05:47] The other theory goes that Suleiman was interested in Malta’s value as a strategic outpost, a valuable point on the map, and he could use this as a base for further attacks into Sicily, up through Calabria, and as a route into Europe.

[00:06:07] From a strategic point of view, Malta is in an excellent location. 

[00:06:13] It has a very deep natural harbour, so it’s a good place to leave large ships. And from there you can relatively easily defend the Eastern Mediterranean, from ships wanting to travel from west to east.

[00:06:30] What Suleiman’s true intentions were perhaps we will never know, but he was a shrewd leader, and the decision to attack Malta would not have been one he would have taken without careful consideration, and adequate planning.

[00:06:46] And so it was, on March 22nd 1565 one of the largest Turkish naval forces ever put together set sail from Constantinople, west, with Malta as their final destination.

[00:07:02] Accounts differ about exactly how large the invading forces were, but most estimates are around 40,000 men, and somewhere between 130 and 300 ships.

[00:07:19] The largest of these ships could have held 700 men. They did have sails, which obviously came in useful when the wind was blowing in the right direction.

[00:07:30] But they also had vast quantities of slaves who would pull huge oars

[00:07:38] The Ottomans were great takers of slaves, and one of the unfortunate destinies if you were taken prisoner by the Ottoman army was to become a galley slave, someone tasked with rowing these huge ships across the seas.

[00:07:55] A man who knew this all too well was Jean De la Valette, the ageing Grand Master of The Knights of Malta. 

[00:08:04] He had actually been taken prisoner himself by Barbary pirates, allies of the Ottomans, and been kept as a galley slave for a year, before being freed in a prisoner exchange.

[00:08:19] No doubt this was an experience that was hard to forget, and Jean De la Valette knew that if he or any of his men were to be taken prisoner by the Ottomans, this would be a fate that would await them, if they were lucky.

[00:08:35] It’s worth pausing briefly to explain a little bit about the geography of the island of Malta, and explaining where things were at the time of the Great Siege.

[00:08:47] The capital was a town called Mdina, to the west, at the highest point of the island. 

[00:08:54] The majority of the west coast of Malta is characterised by high and dangerous cliffs - not a place for ships to land safely.

[00:09:05] To the east of the island, which is only about 15km wide, is a deep natural harbour, with a peninsula, a sort of finger that sticks out into the sea. 

[00:09:18] The Knights had built several forts in this area to protect the harbour from invaders. 

[00:09:24] They were pretty well-built forts, but they also have the natural advantage that the land shoots up almost vertically meaning not only were the defending soldiers higher up and it was easier to fire cannons and weapons down onto invading forces, but it was also very difficult for an enemy ship to land safely and for soldiers to get up to the fort.

[00:09:54] On the other hand, to the south of the island there are nice, shallow bays, perfect for ships to land and for forces to come ashore.

[00:10:05] This was, of course, where the Ottoman forces disembarked, where they came off their ships and set their feet onto Maltese soil on May 19th 1565.

[00:10:17] Their arrival did not take the Knights by surprise, they knew they were coming. 

[00:10:23] Jean De la Valette had prepared the forts on the island, and outside the forts, in the settlements that the Ottomans were likely to pass through, Jean De la Valette had ordered for the wells to be poisoned, so that there was no drinking water, and for any food to be destroyed. 

[00:10:43] The defending forces were seriously outnumbered - there were reportedly around 700 Knights and around 8000 Maltese soldiers facing the 40,000 strong Ottoman army. 

[00:10:59] Even before the Ottoman forces reached land, there was disagreement about exactly which part of Malta they should attack first. 

[00:11:08] This disagreement was between the two main commanders, Mustafa Pasha, who was in charge of the land forces, and a man called Piyale Pasha, who was in charge of the navy.

[00:11:21] The naval commander, Piyale Pasha won the argument, and the Ottoman forces marched north to attack a fort on the peninsula to the east of the island, called Fort St Elmo.

[00:11:35] It was believed that they could take this fort easily, just in a couple of days.

[00:11:41] In addition to the commander of the land forces and the commander of the navy, the Ottoman forces were joined by another supreme commander, an 80 year old man called Dragut, who was a fearless Ottoman military champion and was once called "the greatest pirate warrior of all time".

[00:12:02] To make matters even more confusing, both the commander of the navy and the commander of the army were told by Suleiman the Magnificent that they should ultimately answer to Dragut, so the ageing pirate Dragut was in charge of everything.

[00:12:18] The fort proved to be not nearly as easy to capture as the Ottomans had thought, and it was only on the 27th of June, over a month after the attack first started, that they managed to take the fort.

[00:12:35] A few Maltese soldiers managed to escape, swimming across the bay to the other side, but almost all the other men, both Knights of St John and Maltese soldiers were slaughtered, around 1,500 in total, leaving only a handful as prisoners.

[00:12:54] But while this was a strategic loss for the Knights, the attack on the fort had cost the Ottoman forces dearly, with an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Ottoman soldiers dead.

[00:13:09] And the loss of one particular Ottoman was even more tragic.

[00:13:14] Dragut, the supreme commander, the greatest pirate warrior of all time was killed in the attack.

[00:13:21] He had been arguing with his soldiers about how to direct a cannon. The cannon fired, its ball knocked off part of a wall and killed Dragut outright, he had been killed accidentally by his own men.

[00:13:38] This was a great shock to the Ottoman forces, and just as it damaged their morale, it was a great morale boost to the Knights and the Maltese.

[00:13:49] The Knights were a religious order, and they saw this as a sign from God that he was on their side, and he was supporting them in their fight against the Muslim invaders. 

[00:14:03] But even though the Ottomans had lost their supreme commander, as well as up to 8,000 of their men, they still greatly outnumbered the defenders of the island, who by this time had retreated to another fort on the other side of the harbour, as well as to the poorly defended capital city, Mdina, 15 km to the west.

[00:14:27] To try to terrify the Knights into a surrender, to try to make them give up, Mustafa Pasha, the commander of the land forces, ordered for all of the Knights who were taken prisoner at Fort St Elmo to be executed, for their heads to be chopped off

[00:14:46] Their bodies were put onto fake crucifixes, fake crosses, and pushed out to sea, across the harbour to the fort that the remaining Knights and Maltese forces were defending.

[00:15:00] As a revenge for this, Jean De la Valette ordered for all of the Ottoman prisoners they were holding to be executed, and for their heads to be used as cannonballs and fired back across the bay at the Ottomans. 

[00:15:16] The entire Great Siege was, in many ways, a battle of morale, with both sides trying to scare the other, and damage the morale of their troops. 

[00:15:29] The Knights were offered the opportunity to surrender, but Jean De la Valette rejected it, presumably knowing that a surrender would mean becoming a galley slave if you were very lucky, and probably something very unpleasant if you weren’t.

[00:15:46] What’s more, summer was approaching, and if you have been to Malta in the summer you will know it gets very hot, and there isn’t a huge amount of water.

[00:15:58] For the Knights, they had ample supplies, they had enough food and water, and they could almost just wait it out

[00:16:07] But the Ottomans didn’t.

[00:16:09] They needed to make progress, and fast. 

[00:16:13] After several failed attempts to take the fort on the southern harbour, Fort St Angelo, they launched a huge attack in mid-August, which almost broke through the Knights’ defences and took the fort, which was being guarded by the 70-year-old Jean De la Valette personally.

[00:16:31] The Ottomans were nervously looking over their shoulders by this point, as they knew that a large force of reinforcements was on its way to help the nights but they didn't know exactly when it would arrive. 

[00:16:46] A smaller force had arrived, called Il Piccolo Soccorso, at the start of July. This consisted of some soldiers from Sicily, and although it was a help to the defending forces, it wasn’t enough to completely see off the Ottomans.

[00:17:05] Throughout the rest of Europe, leaders were awaiting news from the Siege, fearing that Malta would fall and be taken over by the Ottomans, who would be dangerously close to Christian Europe.

[00:17:18] Indeed, even back in England, Queen Elizabeth The First wrote “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom”.

[00:17:34] The Knights knew this, and they appealed to European monarchs for reinforcements, for more soldiers to help them defeat the Ottoman invaders.

[00:17:45] They didn’t just sit still though, they used some cunning tactics to confuse the Ottomans, and trick them into thinking that reinforcements were on their way. 

[00:17:57] One example of how they did this was by allowing an Ottoman prisoner to overhear the news of huge forces arriving, then allowing him to return to his camp, where of course he told his commanders what he had heard.

[00:18:14] The one thing was, there was no big army arriving, or at least not at that point.

[00:18:20] It had already got to September, the Ottoman forces were exhausted and they needed to set sail East before Autumn arrived to avoid difficult sailing conditions.

[00:18:33] Also the Knights and the Maltese forces were exhausted, and although they had managed so far to resist, they were still waiting for the reinforcement Europe had promised. 

[00:18:46] Then, on September 7th reinforcements did finally arrive from Sicily, the so-called ‘Grande Soccorso’ ‘The Great Relief’. 

[00:18:55] This was an army of 7,000 men, a mixture of Spanish and Italian soldiers, sent to support the Knights. They were trained soldiers, they were ready to fight, and perhaps most importantly they were fresh.

[00:19:11] The demoralised Ottoman troops, weary after 4 months of solid fighting, were no match for them, and the very next day they retreated, clambering into the remaining ships and sailing away on the 13th of September.

[00:19:30] Although this was hailed very much as a victory for the Knights, a triumph of West vs. East, of Christianity vs. Islam, and of David vs. Goliath, it came very close to being a very different result. 

[00:19:47] If the Ottomans had managed to take control of Malta, they would have had a stronghold in the Mediterranean, been able to defend the eastern part of the sea, and that part of the world may have looked very different to what it does now.

[00:20:05] But they didn’t, and the Maltese have never forgotten it - The Great Siege of Malta is a source of huge pride for local Maltese, and it is still to this day quoted as a way of saying “we Maltese can do anything - we beat off the Turks in 1565 - we may be small but don’t underestimate us”.

[00:20:28] That tiny peninsula, the finger sticking out into the sea where the first ferocious battle was fought is now the capital of Malta, called Valletta, after Jean De la Valette, the grandmaster believed by many to have saved Malta from the Ottomans. 

[00:20:46] The 8th of September, the day that the Ottoman forces turned around and retreated, is a national holiday, Victory Day. 

[00:20:55] It actually recalls the end of three historical sieges made on the Maltese archipelago: the Great Siege of Malta we are talking about; the Siege of Valletta by the French Blockade ending in 1800 and the Siege of Malta during the Second World War by the Axis forces ending in 1943....but these are two great stories for another episode.

[00:21:19] Everywhere you go in Malta you can buy little souvenir Knights of St John, reminding you of the events of 1565, and still today in Turkey the Great Siege is taught in military strategy schools as an example of military mistakes not to make again. 

[00:21:39] Soon after the Knights' victory, the news of the Siege quickly travelled all over Europe, really rejuvenating the order of the Knights of St John. Donations flooded in, with people keen to support these men who were viewed as great defenders of Christianity.

[00:21:58] This money went towards great palaces, forts and churches, and went towards building the new capital city, Valletta.

[00:22:07] Even almost 200 years after The Great Siege, Voltaire, the great French Enlightenment thinker, wrote “Nothing is more known than The Siege of Malta”. 

[00:22:19] And while you might not have known what Voltaire was talking about 20 minutes ago, at least now you know a little bit more about this fascinating story.

[00:22:30] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Great Siege of Malta.

[00:22:36] If you have been paying attention in some of the other episodes, you may remember that I have actually been living in this little island of Malta for the past 4 years, and so The Great Siege is a subject I’m quite familiar with. 

[00:22:50] It is an amazing story, and knowing about it really helps you understand the Maltese psyche, and helps you better understand the country.

[00:23:00] So, I hope you enjoyed it.

[00:23:02] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. Did you know about the Great Siege of Malta? 

[00:23:09] And especially for the Turkish members out there, what do you think of this event? How common is knowledge of it in Turkish history?

[00:23:18] I would love to know.

[00:23:19] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:23:29] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:23:34] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Great Siege of Malta.

[00:00:30] It’s often portrayed as the story of East vs West, of Islam vs. Christianity, and of Goliath vs. David.

[00:00:40] There are elements of all that in the story of the Siege of Malta, but it is also the story of two ageing military leaders, of the role of morale in battle, and of the importance of keeping hydrated on a small mediterranean island.

[00:01:00] And it’s also just a fantastic story.

[00:01:03] We have got a lot to get through in today’s episode - So, let’s jump right into it.

[00:01:10] The islands of Malta sit just under 100 kilometres south of Sicily. 

[00:01:17] There are, technically speaking, several islands, the main ones being Malta and Gozo, but I’ll refer to it all here as Malta, for sake of ease.

[00:01:30] If you’ve been there, you will know that it is very small, just 316 kilometres squared, about half the size of Madrid.

[00:01:40] It was to be on this small island that one of the most amazing battles in Mediterranean history took place in the summer of the year 1565, a battle that is now referred to as The Great Siege of Malta.

[00:01:57] Malta, given that it was such a small island but in such a strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean, and because it didn’t really have any sizable military at all, had been occupied by various different rulers and forces over the course of its history, from the Phoenecians to the Byzantines, then the Arabs and the Normans.

[00:02:23] In 1530, the islands of Malta were given to a religious order called The Knights of St John.

[00:02:31] This religious order, which contained Knights from all over Europe, traced its roots back to the 1060s, in Amalfi, in Italy. 

[00:02:42] In 1099, the Knights of the order had set up a hospital in Jerusalem, to care for wounded Crusaders, which gave them another name you might have heard them referred to as - the Knights Hospitaller.

[00:02:57] After being kicked out of Jerusalem in the 1290s, they then settled on the island of Rhodes, where they stayed for just over 200 years before being kicked out again and arriving in Malta in 1530.

[00:03:14] The Knights were allowed to have the entire island for the rent of one Maltese falcon per year, one bird, which was payable to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

[00:03:28] Meanwhile, further to the east, lay the Ottoman empire, one of the world’s most powerful empires, and importantly, an Islamic one, which was at that time the sworn enemy of Christianity.

[00:03:44] The Ottoman Empire originated in modern day Turkey, but its tentacles stretched across huge swathes of central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

[00:03:59] It was led, at the time, by a man called Suleiman The Magnificent, who was the most powerful of the Ottoman emperors, and commanded an empire that oversaw 25 million people.

[00:04:14] Although he is known in the West as Suleiman The Magnificent, in Turkey he is known as Suleiman The Lawgiver, and is known mainly for his ability as a skilled governor and leader of an empire, rather than as a ferocious warrior.

[00:04:32] From his throne in Istanbul, Suleiman ruled over his vast empire. 

[00:04:38] The small island of Malta was one and a half thousand kilometres away. 

[00:04:43] Neither its native inhabitants nor the Knights living there posed much of a direct threat to King Suleiman, yet in 1565 a fleet of 40,000 Ottomans soldiers set off on a mission to capture the island and destroy the Knights living there. 

[00:05:04] Why?

[00:05:06] Interestingly enough, historians are a little divided about the actual reasons Suleiman decided to set sail for Malta.

[00:05:16] The Knights of St John were a little bit annoying. 

[00:05:20] They would capture Ottoman trade ships on the route between Venice and the east, and in the summer of 1564, a year before the siege, they captured a particularly valuable Ottoman ship which was on the way to Venice.

[00:05:38] So, there is one theory that the Knights of St John were a bit annoying, a thorn in the side of the powerful emperor.

[00:05:47] The other theory goes that Suleiman was interested in Malta’s value as a strategic outpost, a valuable point on the map, and he could use this as a base for further attacks into Sicily, up through Calabria, and as a route into Europe.

[00:06:07] From a strategic point of view, Malta is in an excellent location. 

[00:06:13] It has a very deep natural harbour, so it’s a good place to leave large ships. And from there you can relatively easily defend the Eastern Mediterranean, from ships wanting to travel from west to east.

[00:06:30] What Suleiman’s true intentions were perhaps we will never know, but he was a shrewd leader, and the decision to attack Malta would not have been one he would have taken without careful consideration, and adequate planning.

[00:06:46] And so it was, on March 22nd 1565 one of the largest Turkish naval forces ever put together set sail from Constantinople, west, with Malta as their final destination.

[00:07:02] Accounts differ about exactly how large the invading forces were, but most estimates are around 40,000 men, and somewhere between 130 and 300 ships.

[00:07:19] The largest of these ships could have held 700 men. They did have sails, which obviously came in useful when the wind was blowing in the right direction.

[00:07:30] But they also had vast quantities of slaves who would pull huge oars

[00:07:38] The Ottomans were great takers of slaves, and one of the unfortunate destinies if you were taken prisoner by the Ottoman army was to become a galley slave, someone tasked with rowing these huge ships across the seas.

[00:07:55] A man who knew this all too well was Jean De la Valette, the ageing Grand Master of The Knights of Malta. 

[00:08:04] He had actually been taken prisoner himself by Barbary pirates, allies of the Ottomans, and been kept as a galley slave for a year, before being freed in a prisoner exchange.

[00:08:19] No doubt this was an experience that was hard to forget, and Jean De la Valette knew that if he or any of his men were to be taken prisoner by the Ottomans, this would be a fate that would await them, if they were lucky.

[00:08:35] It’s worth pausing briefly to explain a little bit about the geography of the island of Malta, and explaining where things were at the time of the Great Siege.

[00:08:47] The capital was a town called Mdina, to the west, at the highest point of the island. 

[00:08:54] The majority of the west coast of Malta is characterised by high and dangerous cliffs - not a place for ships to land safely.

[00:09:05] To the east of the island, which is only about 15km wide, is a deep natural harbour, with a peninsula, a sort of finger that sticks out into the sea. 

[00:09:18] The Knights had built several forts in this area to protect the harbour from invaders. 

[00:09:24] They were pretty well-built forts, but they also have the natural advantage that the land shoots up almost vertically meaning not only were the defending soldiers higher up and it was easier to fire cannons and weapons down onto invading forces, but it was also very difficult for an enemy ship to land safely and for soldiers to get up to the fort.

[00:09:54] On the other hand, to the south of the island there are nice, shallow bays, perfect for ships to land and for forces to come ashore.

[00:10:05] This was, of course, where the Ottoman forces disembarked, where they came off their ships and set their feet onto Maltese soil on May 19th 1565.

[00:10:17] Their arrival did not take the Knights by surprise, they knew they were coming. 

[00:10:23] Jean De la Valette had prepared the forts on the island, and outside the forts, in the settlements that the Ottomans were likely to pass through, Jean De la Valette had ordered for the wells to be poisoned, so that there was no drinking water, and for any food to be destroyed. 

[00:10:43] The defending forces were seriously outnumbered - there were reportedly around 700 Knights and around 8000 Maltese soldiers facing the 40,000 strong Ottoman army. 

[00:10:59] Even before the Ottoman forces reached land, there was disagreement about exactly which part of Malta they should attack first. 

[00:11:08] This disagreement was between the two main commanders, Mustafa Pasha, who was in charge of the land forces, and a man called Piyale Pasha, who was in charge of the navy.

[00:11:21] The naval commander, Piyale Pasha won the argument, and the Ottoman forces marched north to attack a fort on the peninsula to the east of the island, called Fort St Elmo.

[00:11:35] It was believed that they could take this fort easily, just in a couple of days.

[00:11:41] In addition to the commander of the land forces and the commander of the navy, the Ottoman forces were joined by another supreme commander, an 80 year old man called Dragut, who was a fearless Ottoman military champion and was once called "the greatest pirate warrior of all time".

[00:12:02] To make matters even more confusing, both the commander of the navy and the commander of the army were told by Suleiman the Magnificent that they should ultimately answer to Dragut, so the ageing pirate Dragut was in charge of everything.

[00:12:18] The fort proved to be not nearly as easy to capture as the Ottomans had thought, and it was only on the 27th of June, over a month after the attack first started, that they managed to take the fort.

[00:12:35] A few Maltese soldiers managed to escape, swimming across the bay to the other side, but almost all the other men, both Knights of St John and Maltese soldiers were slaughtered, around 1,500 in total, leaving only a handful as prisoners.

[00:12:54] But while this was a strategic loss for the Knights, the attack on the fort had cost the Ottoman forces dearly, with an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Ottoman soldiers dead.

[00:13:09] And the loss of one particular Ottoman was even more tragic.

[00:13:14] Dragut, the supreme commander, the greatest pirate warrior of all time was killed in the attack.

[00:13:21] He had been arguing with his soldiers about how to direct a cannon. The cannon fired, its ball knocked off part of a wall and killed Dragut outright, he had been killed accidentally by his own men.

[00:13:38] This was a great shock to the Ottoman forces, and just as it damaged their morale, it was a great morale boost to the Knights and the Maltese.

[00:13:49] The Knights were a religious order, and they saw this as a sign from God that he was on their side, and he was supporting them in their fight against the Muslim invaders. 

[00:14:03] But even though the Ottomans had lost their supreme commander, as well as up to 8,000 of their men, they still greatly outnumbered the defenders of the island, who by this time had retreated to another fort on the other side of the harbour, as well as to the poorly defended capital city, Mdina, 15 km to the west.

[00:14:27] To try to terrify the Knights into a surrender, to try to make them give up, Mustafa Pasha, the commander of the land forces, ordered for all of the Knights who were taken prisoner at Fort St Elmo to be executed, for their heads to be chopped off

[00:14:46] Their bodies were put onto fake crucifixes, fake crosses, and pushed out to sea, across the harbour to the fort that the remaining Knights and Maltese forces were defending.

[00:15:00] As a revenge for this, Jean De la Valette ordered for all of the Ottoman prisoners they were holding to be executed, and for their heads to be used as cannonballs and fired back across the bay at the Ottomans. 

[00:15:16] The entire Great Siege was, in many ways, a battle of morale, with both sides trying to scare the other, and damage the morale of their troops. 

[00:15:29] The Knights were offered the opportunity to surrender, but Jean De la Valette rejected it, presumably knowing that a surrender would mean becoming a galley slave if you were very lucky, and probably something very unpleasant if you weren’t.

[00:15:46] What’s more, summer was approaching, and if you have been to Malta in the summer you will know it gets very hot, and there isn’t a huge amount of water.

[00:15:58] For the Knights, they had ample supplies, they had enough food and water, and they could almost just wait it out

[00:16:07] But the Ottomans didn’t.

[00:16:09] They needed to make progress, and fast. 

[00:16:13] After several failed attempts to take the fort on the southern harbour, Fort St Angelo, they launched a huge attack in mid-August, which almost broke through the Knights’ defences and took the fort, which was being guarded by the 70-year-old Jean De la Valette personally.

[00:16:31] The Ottomans were nervously looking over their shoulders by this point, as they knew that a large force of reinforcements was on its way to help the nights but they didn't know exactly when it would arrive. 

[00:16:46] A smaller force had arrived, called Il Piccolo Soccorso, at the start of July. This consisted of some soldiers from Sicily, and although it was a help to the defending forces, it wasn’t enough to completely see off the Ottomans.

[00:17:05] Throughout the rest of Europe, leaders were awaiting news from the Siege, fearing that Malta would fall and be taken over by the Ottomans, who would be dangerously close to Christian Europe.

[00:17:18] Indeed, even back in England, Queen Elizabeth The First wrote “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom”.

[00:17:34] The Knights knew this, and they appealed to European monarchs for reinforcements, for more soldiers to help them defeat the Ottoman invaders.

[00:17:45] They didn’t just sit still though, they used some cunning tactics to confuse the Ottomans, and trick them into thinking that reinforcements were on their way. 

[00:17:57] One example of how they did this was by allowing an Ottoman prisoner to overhear the news of huge forces arriving, then allowing him to return to his camp, where of course he told his commanders what he had heard.

[00:18:14] The one thing was, there was no big army arriving, or at least not at that point.

[00:18:20] It had already got to September, the Ottoman forces were exhausted and they needed to set sail East before Autumn arrived to avoid difficult sailing conditions.

[00:18:33] Also the Knights and the Maltese forces were exhausted, and although they had managed so far to resist, they were still waiting for the reinforcement Europe had promised. 

[00:18:46] Then, on September 7th reinforcements did finally arrive from Sicily, the so-called ‘Grande Soccorso’ ‘The Great Relief’. 

[00:18:55] This was an army of 7,000 men, a mixture of Spanish and Italian soldiers, sent to support the Knights. They were trained soldiers, they were ready to fight, and perhaps most importantly they were fresh.

[00:19:11] The demoralised Ottoman troops, weary after 4 months of solid fighting, were no match for them, and the very next day they retreated, clambering into the remaining ships and sailing away on the 13th of September.

[00:19:30] Although this was hailed very much as a victory for the Knights, a triumph of West vs. East, of Christianity vs. Islam, and of David vs. Goliath, it came very close to being a very different result. 

[00:19:47] If the Ottomans had managed to take control of Malta, they would have had a stronghold in the Mediterranean, been able to defend the eastern part of the sea, and that part of the world may have looked very different to what it does now.

[00:20:05] But they didn’t, and the Maltese have never forgotten it - The Great Siege of Malta is a source of huge pride for local Maltese, and it is still to this day quoted as a way of saying “we Maltese can do anything - we beat off the Turks in 1565 - we may be small but don’t underestimate us”.

[00:20:28] That tiny peninsula, the finger sticking out into the sea where the first ferocious battle was fought is now the capital of Malta, called Valletta, after Jean De la Valette, the grandmaster believed by many to have saved Malta from the Ottomans. 

[00:20:46] The 8th of September, the day that the Ottoman forces turned around and retreated, is a national holiday, Victory Day. 

[00:20:55] It actually recalls the end of three historical sieges made on the Maltese archipelago: the Great Siege of Malta we are talking about; the Siege of Valletta by the French Blockade ending in 1800 and the Siege of Malta during the Second World War by the Axis forces ending in 1943....but these are two great stories for another episode.

[00:21:19] Everywhere you go in Malta you can buy little souvenir Knights of St John, reminding you of the events of 1565, and still today in Turkey the Great Siege is taught in military strategy schools as an example of military mistakes not to make again. 

[00:21:39] Soon after the Knights' victory, the news of the Siege quickly travelled all over Europe, really rejuvenating the order of the Knights of St John. Donations flooded in, with people keen to support these men who were viewed as great defenders of Christianity.

[00:21:58] This money went towards great palaces, forts and churches, and went towards building the new capital city, Valletta.

[00:22:07] Even almost 200 years after The Great Siege, Voltaire, the great French Enlightenment thinker, wrote “Nothing is more known than The Siege of Malta”. 

[00:22:19] And while you might not have known what Voltaire was talking about 20 minutes ago, at least now you know a little bit more about this fascinating story.

[00:22:30] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Great Siege of Malta.

[00:22:36] If you have been paying attention in some of the other episodes, you may remember that I have actually been living in this little island of Malta for the past 4 years, and so The Great Siege is a subject I’m quite familiar with. 

[00:22:50] It is an amazing story, and knowing about it really helps you understand the Maltese psyche, and helps you better understand the country.

[00:23:00] So, I hope you enjoyed it.

[00:23:02] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. Did you know about the Great Siege of Malta? 

[00:23:09] And especially for the Turkish members out there, what do you think of this event? How common is knowledge of it in Turkish history?

[00:23:18] I would love to know.

[00:23:19] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:23:29] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:23:34] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Great Siege of Malta.

[00:00:30] It’s often portrayed as the story of East vs West, of Islam vs. Christianity, and of Goliath vs. David.

[00:00:40] There are elements of all that in the story of the Siege of Malta, but it is also the story of two ageing military leaders, of the role of morale in battle, and of the importance of keeping hydrated on a small mediterranean island.

[00:01:00] And it’s also just a fantastic story.

[00:01:03] We have got a lot to get through in today’s episode - So, let’s jump right into it.

[00:01:10] The islands of Malta sit just under 100 kilometres south of Sicily. 

[00:01:17] There are, technically speaking, several islands, the main ones being Malta and Gozo, but I’ll refer to it all here as Malta, for sake of ease.

[00:01:30] If you’ve been there, you will know that it is very small, just 316 kilometres squared, about half the size of Madrid.

[00:01:40] It was to be on this small island that one of the most amazing battles in Mediterranean history took place in the summer of the year 1565, a battle that is now referred to as The Great Siege of Malta.

[00:01:57] Malta, given that it was such a small island but in such a strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean, and because it didn’t really have any sizable military at all, had been occupied by various different rulers and forces over the course of its history, from the Phoenecians to the Byzantines, then the Arabs and the Normans.

[00:02:23] In 1530, the islands of Malta were given to a religious order called The Knights of St John.

[00:02:31] This religious order, which contained Knights from all over Europe, traced its roots back to the 1060s, in Amalfi, in Italy. 

[00:02:42] In 1099, the Knights of the order had set up a hospital in Jerusalem, to care for wounded Crusaders, which gave them another name you might have heard them referred to as - the Knights Hospitaller.

[00:02:57] After being kicked out of Jerusalem in the 1290s, they then settled on the island of Rhodes, where they stayed for just over 200 years before being kicked out again and arriving in Malta in 1530.

[00:03:14] The Knights were allowed to have the entire island for the rent of one Maltese falcon per year, one bird, which was payable to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

[00:03:28] Meanwhile, further to the east, lay the Ottoman empire, one of the world’s most powerful empires, and importantly, an Islamic one, which was at that time the sworn enemy of Christianity.

[00:03:44] The Ottoman Empire originated in modern day Turkey, but its tentacles stretched across huge swathes of central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

[00:03:59] It was led, at the time, by a man called Suleiman The Magnificent, who was the most powerful of the Ottoman emperors, and commanded an empire that oversaw 25 million people.

[00:04:14] Although he is known in the West as Suleiman The Magnificent, in Turkey he is known as Suleiman The Lawgiver, and is known mainly for his ability as a skilled governor and leader of an empire, rather than as a ferocious warrior.

[00:04:32] From his throne in Istanbul, Suleiman ruled over his vast empire. 

[00:04:38] The small island of Malta was one and a half thousand kilometres away. 

[00:04:43] Neither its native inhabitants nor the Knights living there posed much of a direct threat to King Suleiman, yet in 1565 a fleet of 40,000 Ottomans soldiers set off on a mission to capture the island and destroy the Knights living there. 

[00:05:04] Why?

[00:05:06] Interestingly enough, historians are a little divided about the actual reasons Suleiman decided to set sail for Malta.

[00:05:16] The Knights of St John were a little bit annoying. 

[00:05:20] They would capture Ottoman trade ships on the route between Venice and the east, and in the summer of 1564, a year before the siege, they captured a particularly valuable Ottoman ship which was on the way to Venice.

[00:05:38] So, there is one theory that the Knights of St John were a bit annoying, a thorn in the side of the powerful emperor.

[00:05:47] The other theory goes that Suleiman was interested in Malta’s value as a strategic outpost, a valuable point on the map, and he could use this as a base for further attacks into Sicily, up through Calabria, and as a route into Europe.

[00:06:07] From a strategic point of view, Malta is in an excellent location. 

[00:06:13] It has a very deep natural harbour, so it’s a good place to leave large ships. And from there you can relatively easily defend the Eastern Mediterranean, from ships wanting to travel from west to east.

[00:06:30] What Suleiman’s true intentions were perhaps we will never know, but he was a shrewd leader, and the decision to attack Malta would not have been one he would have taken without careful consideration, and adequate planning.

[00:06:46] And so it was, on March 22nd 1565 one of the largest Turkish naval forces ever put together set sail from Constantinople, west, with Malta as their final destination.

[00:07:02] Accounts differ about exactly how large the invading forces were, but most estimates are around 40,000 men, and somewhere between 130 and 300 ships.

[00:07:19] The largest of these ships could have held 700 men. They did have sails, which obviously came in useful when the wind was blowing in the right direction.

[00:07:30] But they also had vast quantities of slaves who would pull huge oars

[00:07:38] The Ottomans were great takers of slaves, and one of the unfortunate destinies if you were taken prisoner by the Ottoman army was to become a galley slave, someone tasked with rowing these huge ships across the seas.

[00:07:55] A man who knew this all too well was Jean De la Valette, the ageing Grand Master of The Knights of Malta. 

[00:08:04] He had actually been taken prisoner himself by Barbary pirates, allies of the Ottomans, and been kept as a galley slave for a year, before being freed in a prisoner exchange.

[00:08:19] No doubt this was an experience that was hard to forget, and Jean De la Valette knew that if he or any of his men were to be taken prisoner by the Ottomans, this would be a fate that would await them, if they were lucky.

[00:08:35] It’s worth pausing briefly to explain a little bit about the geography of the island of Malta, and explaining where things were at the time of the Great Siege.

[00:08:47] The capital was a town called Mdina, to the west, at the highest point of the island. 

[00:08:54] The majority of the west coast of Malta is characterised by high and dangerous cliffs - not a place for ships to land safely.

[00:09:05] To the east of the island, which is only about 15km wide, is a deep natural harbour, with a peninsula, a sort of finger that sticks out into the sea. 

[00:09:18] The Knights had built several forts in this area to protect the harbour from invaders. 

[00:09:24] They were pretty well-built forts, but they also have the natural advantage that the land shoots up almost vertically meaning not only were the defending soldiers higher up and it was easier to fire cannons and weapons down onto invading forces, but it was also very difficult for an enemy ship to land safely and for soldiers to get up to the fort.

[00:09:54] On the other hand, to the south of the island there are nice, shallow bays, perfect for ships to land and for forces to come ashore.

[00:10:05] This was, of course, where the Ottoman forces disembarked, where they came off their ships and set their feet onto Maltese soil on May 19th 1565.

[00:10:17] Their arrival did not take the Knights by surprise, they knew they were coming. 

[00:10:23] Jean De la Valette had prepared the forts on the island, and outside the forts, in the settlements that the Ottomans were likely to pass through, Jean De la Valette had ordered for the wells to be poisoned, so that there was no drinking water, and for any food to be destroyed. 

[00:10:43] The defending forces were seriously outnumbered - there were reportedly around 700 Knights and around 8000 Maltese soldiers facing the 40,000 strong Ottoman army. 

[00:10:59] Even before the Ottoman forces reached land, there was disagreement about exactly which part of Malta they should attack first. 

[00:11:08] This disagreement was between the two main commanders, Mustafa Pasha, who was in charge of the land forces, and a man called Piyale Pasha, who was in charge of the navy.

[00:11:21] The naval commander, Piyale Pasha won the argument, and the Ottoman forces marched north to attack a fort on the peninsula to the east of the island, called Fort St Elmo.

[00:11:35] It was believed that they could take this fort easily, just in a couple of days.

[00:11:41] In addition to the commander of the land forces and the commander of the navy, the Ottoman forces were joined by another supreme commander, an 80 year old man called Dragut, who was a fearless Ottoman military champion and was once called "the greatest pirate warrior of all time".

[00:12:02] To make matters even more confusing, both the commander of the navy and the commander of the army were told by Suleiman the Magnificent that they should ultimately answer to Dragut, so the ageing pirate Dragut was in charge of everything.

[00:12:18] The fort proved to be not nearly as easy to capture as the Ottomans had thought, and it was only on the 27th of June, over a month after the attack first started, that they managed to take the fort.

[00:12:35] A few Maltese soldiers managed to escape, swimming across the bay to the other side, but almost all the other men, both Knights of St John and Maltese soldiers were slaughtered, around 1,500 in total, leaving only a handful as prisoners.

[00:12:54] But while this was a strategic loss for the Knights, the attack on the fort had cost the Ottoman forces dearly, with an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Ottoman soldiers dead.

[00:13:09] And the loss of one particular Ottoman was even more tragic.

[00:13:14] Dragut, the supreme commander, the greatest pirate warrior of all time was killed in the attack.

[00:13:21] He had been arguing with his soldiers about how to direct a cannon. The cannon fired, its ball knocked off part of a wall and killed Dragut outright, he had been killed accidentally by his own men.

[00:13:38] This was a great shock to the Ottoman forces, and just as it damaged their morale, it was a great morale boost to the Knights and the Maltese.

[00:13:49] The Knights were a religious order, and they saw this as a sign from God that he was on their side, and he was supporting them in their fight against the Muslim invaders. 

[00:14:03] But even though the Ottomans had lost their supreme commander, as well as up to 8,000 of their men, they still greatly outnumbered the defenders of the island, who by this time had retreated to another fort on the other side of the harbour, as well as to the poorly defended capital city, Mdina, 15 km to the west.

[00:14:27] To try to terrify the Knights into a surrender, to try to make them give up, Mustafa Pasha, the commander of the land forces, ordered for all of the Knights who were taken prisoner at Fort St Elmo to be executed, for their heads to be chopped off

[00:14:46] Their bodies were put onto fake crucifixes, fake crosses, and pushed out to sea, across the harbour to the fort that the remaining Knights and Maltese forces were defending.

[00:15:00] As a revenge for this, Jean De la Valette ordered for all of the Ottoman prisoners they were holding to be executed, and for their heads to be used as cannonballs and fired back across the bay at the Ottomans. 

[00:15:16] The entire Great Siege was, in many ways, a battle of morale, with both sides trying to scare the other, and damage the morale of their troops. 

[00:15:29] The Knights were offered the opportunity to surrender, but Jean De la Valette rejected it, presumably knowing that a surrender would mean becoming a galley slave if you were very lucky, and probably something very unpleasant if you weren’t.

[00:15:46] What’s more, summer was approaching, and if you have been to Malta in the summer you will know it gets very hot, and there isn’t a huge amount of water.

[00:15:58] For the Knights, they had ample supplies, they had enough food and water, and they could almost just wait it out

[00:16:07] But the Ottomans didn’t.

[00:16:09] They needed to make progress, and fast. 

[00:16:13] After several failed attempts to take the fort on the southern harbour, Fort St Angelo, they launched a huge attack in mid-August, which almost broke through the Knights’ defences and took the fort, which was being guarded by the 70-year-old Jean De la Valette personally.

[00:16:31] The Ottomans were nervously looking over their shoulders by this point, as they knew that a large force of reinforcements was on its way to help the nights but they didn't know exactly when it would arrive. 

[00:16:46] A smaller force had arrived, called Il Piccolo Soccorso, at the start of July. This consisted of some soldiers from Sicily, and although it was a help to the defending forces, it wasn’t enough to completely see off the Ottomans.

[00:17:05] Throughout the rest of Europe, leaders were awaiting news from the Siege, fearing that Malta would fall and be taken over by the Ottomans, who would be dangerously close to Christian Europe.

[00:17:18] Indeed, even back in England, Queen Elizabeth The First wrote “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom”.

[00:17:34] The Knights knew this, and they appealed to European monarchs for reinforcements, for more soldiers to help them defeat the Ottoman invaders.

[00:17:45] They didn’t just sit still though, they used some cunning tactics to confuse the Ottomans, and trick them into thinking that reinforcements were on their way. 

[00:17:57] One example of how they did this was by allowing an Ottoman prisoner to overhear the news of huge forces arriving, then allowing him to return to his camp, where of course he told his commanders what he had heard.

[00:18:14] The one thing was, there was no big army arriving, or at least not at that point.

[00:18:20] It had already got to September, the Ottoman forces were exhausted and they needed to set sail East before Autumn arrived to avoid difficult sailing conditions.

[00:18:33] Also the Knights and the Maltese forces were exhausted, and although they had managed so far to resist, they were still waiting for the reinforcement Europe had promised. 

[00:18:46] Then, on September 7th reinforcements did finally arrive from Sicily, the so-called ‘Grande Soccorso’ ‘The Great Relief’. 

[00:18:55] This was an army of 7,000 men, a mixture of Spanish and Italian soldiers, sent to support the Knights. They were trained soldiers, they were ready to fight, and perhaps most importantly they were fresh.

[00:19:11] The demoralised Ottoman troops, weary after 4 months of solid fighting, were no match for them, and the very next day they retreated, clambering into the remaining ships and sailing away on the 13th of September.

[00:19:30] Although this was hailed very much as a victory for the Knights, a triumph of West vs. East, of Christianity vs. Islam, and of David vs. Goliath, it came very close to being a very different result. 

[00:19:47] If the Ottomans had managed to take control of Malta, they would have had a stronghold in the Mediterranean, been able to defend the eastern part of the sea, and that part of the world may have looked very different to what it does now.

[00:20:05] But they didn’t, and the Maltese have never forgotten it - The Great Siege of Malta is a source of huge pride for local Maltese, and it is still to this day quoted as a way of saying “we Maltese can do anything - we beat off the Turks in 1565 - we may be small but don’t underestimate us”.

[00:20:28] That tiny peninsula, the finger sticking out into the sea where the first ferocious battle was fought is now the capital of Malta, called Valletta, after Jean De la Valette, the grandmaster believed by many to have saved Malta from the Ottomans. 

[00:20:46] The 8th of September, the day that the Ottoman forces turned around and retreated, is a national holiday, Victory Day. 

[00:20:55] It actually recalls the end of three historical sieges made on the Maltese archipelago: the Great Siege of Malta we are talking about; the Siege of Valletta by the French Blockade ending in 1800 and the Siege of Malta during the Second World War by the Axis forces ending in 1943....but these are two great stories for another episode.

[00:21:19] Everywhere you go in Malta you can buy little souvenir Knights of St John, reminding you of the events of 1565, and still today in Turkey the Great Siege is taught in military strategy schools as an example of military mistakes not to make again. 

[00:21:39] Soon after the Knights' victory, the news of the Siege quickly travelled all over Europe, really rejuvenating the order of the Knights of St John. Donations flooded in, with people keen to support these men who were viewed as great defenders of Christianity.

[00:21:58] This money went towards great palaces, forts and churches, and went towards building the new capital city, Valletta.

[00:22:07] Even almost 200 years after The Great Siege, Voltaire, the great French Enlightenment thinker, wrote “Nothing is more known than The Siege of Malta”. 

[00:22:19] And while you might not have known what Voltaire was talking about 20 minutes ago, at least now you know a little bit more about this fascinating story.

[00:22:30] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Great Siege of Malta.

[00:22:36] If you have been paying attention in some of the other episodes, you may remember that I have actually been living in this little island of Malta for the past 4 years, and so The Great Siege is a subject I’m quite familiar with. 

[00:22:50] It is an amazing story, and knowing about it really helps you understand the Maltese psyche, and helps you better understand the country.

[00:23:00] So, I hope you enjoyed it.

[00:23:02] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. Did you know about the Great Siege of Malta? 

[00:23:09] And especially for the Turkish members out there, what do you think of this event? How common is knowledge of it in Turkish history?

[00:23:18] I would love to know.

[00:23:19] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:23:29] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:23:34] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]