If in 1523 Charles V already looked towards the Turkish menace in offering Malta to the knights, within a few years the need for their presence there had been redoubled in urgency. The area of mounting danger was North Africa, whose political division at that time was very different from that of later centuries. Its centre was dominated by Tunicia, a large kingdom stretching from the Gulf of Syrtis to beyond Bougie; the capital, Tunis, had been for over a century the most important African city west of Cairo, with a population of some 30,000. Algiers and Tripoli were secondary ports, both of which were brought under Spanish control early in the century. In the west, Morocco and Tlemcen had for some years been faltering under the impact of Portuguese and Spanish expansion, but this advance provoked in its turn the rise of the Barbary corsairs.
The most famous of them, Chaireddin, known as Barbarossa, seized Algiers with his brother in 1516; he lost little time in placing his lordship under the rising star of Turkey, and in 1529 he ousted the Spanish from the fortified rock which controlled the harbour. From this conquest began the history of Algiers as the chief corsair port of Barbary, a position it maintained for three centuries. The new threat to Spanish and Italian waters was clear enough, but it was soon turned into a far graver one: Barbarossa travelled to Constantinople to be appointed High Admiral of Soliman’s navy, and in 1534 he seized Tunis and annexed it to the Ottoman Empire.
His exploit was one of the most signal Turkish successes of the century; the conversion of the leading kingdom of Barbary into an Ottoman vassal, with the extension of Turkish sea-power over the entire southern Mediterranean, posed such a threat to Christendom that Charles V called together a virtual crusade to reverse the loss. With the exception of France, all the principal Mediterranean states contributed their fleets and soldiers. The Grand Master Pietro del Monte threw the Order’s resources into the venture. In July 1535 the Christian fleet appeared before Tunis with the Emperor at its head; but it was within the city itself that the issue was decided. The Knight of St John, Paolo Simeoni, who was held there as a slave, roused his fellow captives in rebellion, and Barbarossa was obliged to flee. Charles V restored the King of Tunis and left a Spanish garrison at La Goletta, which together with those at Bougie and Tripoli kept Tunis in vassalage to Spain for the next forty years.
When Charles V granted Malta and Tripoli to the Knights of St John his aim, certainly, was to make them the first line of defence of his Italian lands, and not least to support Spain’s control of the Tunisian kingdom. Yet it is wrong to say that in doing so he diverted the Order from its proper task. In attack, the imperial campaigns were the best vehicle for the knights’ war against the Infidel; as to defence, the Moslem threat fell, by geography, overwhelmingly on the Italian and Spanish shores of Charles V’s empire. By contrast France carried its rivalry with the Emperor to the length of concluding in 1536 an offensive treaty with the Turks, who were thereby enabled to strike deep at the heart of Christendom, their corsairs plundering Christian shipping and ravaging the exposed coasts. The consequence of this shameful alliance was to make the traditional predominance of the French in the Order of St John an obstacle to its proper duty, while conversely it led to a period of unprecedented Spanish influence in the Order’s affairs.
It would therefore be appropriate to speak of the years which opened with the reconquest of Tunis as the Spanish period of the Order’s history, and the more so because it was a time when the military prowess of Spain and her ideals of chivalry and religious militancy gave their tone to Catholic Europe. The symbol of this hegemony within the Order of St John was the long reign of the Aragonese Juan de Homedes, who was elected Grand Master in 1536. He came to government at precisely the time when France made its treaty with Turkey, and the seventeen years of his rule were filled with the baneful consequences of that alliance. The international conflict was moreover reflected by unprecedented rivalry within the Order he ruled. Charles V’s dominion over Castile, Aragon, Germany and much of Italy assured him the total or partial loyalty of four of the Langues of the Order, a state of affairs which threatened to overturn the advantage formerly enjoyed by the French. After Henry VIII swallowed up the priories of England and Ireland, the dwindling band of English Catholic exiles also increasingly became clients of the Emperor. The anti-Spanish party in the Langue of Italy seems to have maintained its strength, but if that element failed the danger was that the subjects of Charles V would sweep the board, winning the predominance which the French had traditionally regarded as theirs by natural right. In these circumstances we can understand the resentment of the French knights, and we can understand too their wounded pride at the consciousness that their country was betraying the cause to which they had dedicated their lives. Less sympathy is due to those chroniclers who have imposed the distortions of the French party as the prevalent history of the Order. Bosio’s sly denigration of Homedes was elaborated by later historians into a veritable black legend, representing the Spanish Grand Master as a hated tyrant, elected through an intrigue, who enriched himself and his family at the Order’s expense, whose personal jealousies made him exclude his best subjects from their due opportunities, and whose avarice was responsible for the loss of Tripoli. These charges, each and severally, are the work of propaganda, as is the misguided orthodoxy which has represented Spanish influence on the Order as an alien burden on its natural destiny. Given the national alignments of the time, it is a view that does not so much distort the truth as stand it on its head. The first task that confronted Homedes was that of turning Malta into a secure base for the Order’s martial undertakings. Military experts had already pointed out that the Borgo was a difficult site to defend, being surrounded on all of Sciberras across the harbour. Their advice was to build a new city on Sciberras itself, but such an enterprise was beyond the Order’s means, and would have implied that Malta was a permanent home. Homedes therefore followed L’Isle Adam in preferring the provisional fortification of the Borgo. The Knights of St John could not see, as we can, the centuries of Ottoman power that lay ahead, and the ambition of returning to Rhodes continued to animate them. But much had to be done to guard the Borgo against even a moderately strong Turkish attack. Homedes employed one of the leading military engineers of the day, Antonio Ferramolino; under his direction Castel Sant’Angelo was turned into a powerful fortress, with a large cavalier* commanding the town and the harbour. The ditch between the castle and the town was deepened to make it a sea-filled moat, isolating the castle from the adjoining peninsula and forming a refuge into which the galleys were withdrawn during the Great Siege. Later Homedes extended the scheme of defence to include the neighbouring peninsula to the west, known as L’Isola, and he ordered in Venice the huge chain, of which each link was said to have cost a hundred ducats, that enclosed the intervening creek against an enemy attack. Like the fort of St Elmo which Homedes began building on the tip of Sciberras, the fortifications of L’Isola were only completed under his successor, Claude de la Sengle, the peninsula being thence named Senglea.
While these walls rose, the knights carried the war to the enemy, and continued to lend their aid to Spanish arms. In 1541 Charles V attempted to cap his success at Tunis by ousting Barbarossa from Algiers. Four hundred Knights of Malta – a force seldom if ever exceeded in an offensive campaign – supported the venture, but the tardy ways of Spanish administration delayed the expedition until too late in the season. An autumn storm shattered the fleet and left the army floundering in mud; the troops were forced to re-embark, with the Knights of Malta conducting a desperate defence of the rearguard in which they suffered the terrible loss of seventy-five knights. This costly sacrifice of chivalry prevented the retreat from turning into the rout and massacre of the imperial army. It would have been happy for Christendom if its woes had been only in blood gallantly shed. Two years later Europe stood aghast to see the Turkish fleet under Barbarossa sail to Nice to help the most Christian King despoil the Duke of Savoy of the remnant of his dominions that he had left him five years earlier; and when the work was done Francis I placed Toulon at the disposal of the Turks to winter in, clearing its people out of the town for the infidels, so that it spent Christmastide as a sort of second Istamboul. The Florentine Leone Strozzi, a bitter enemy of Charles V, put politics before his duty as a Knight of Malta so far as to assist in the capture of Nice and to command the fleet which escorted Barbarossa back to Patras the following spring, an outrage for which Homedes stripped him of his habit and of his Priory of Capua.
The years following 1545 were an interval of peace in Europe, but they served for the worst demonstration of national rivalry within the Order of Malta. In the Chapter General of 1548 the anti-Spanish majority voted for the Convent to abandon Malta and transfer itself to Tripoli. The motives for this decision were wholly political. In the 1520s the French had argued the difficulty of defending Tripoli as a reason for refusing Charles V’s donation; now, however, they calculated that the Order would enjoy greater independence from Spain in a remote African fortress than in an ancient dependency of the Aragonese crown. The Chapter General ordered that fifty knights should be transferred to Tripoli every year until the whole Convent had moved.
Fortunately for the Order, the Grand Master treated the plan with the contempt it deserved; he contented himself with appointing as Governor of Tripoli the Marshal Gaspar de Vallier, with a garrison officered wholly by French knights, thus at once rubbing the noses of the French in their own folly and ridding himself of the most intractable elements of the opposition in Malta.
The peace of 1545 proved to be of short duration. Barbarossa had retired after his exploit at Nice, but he found a worthy successor in Dragut, his inferior in fame but not in ferocity or in ability, who continued to terrorise the Mediterranean. In 1550 Spain and the Knights of Malta combined forces to capture Dragut’s base of Mehedia and trapped the corsair himself on the island of Gerba. At this point Henry II of France resumed war with the Emperor, in support of the defeated Protestants of Germany, and he urged Turkey to attack Charles V before the expiry of their truce. Soliman demanded that Charles should withdraw from Gerba, and the Mediterranean was once again immersed in war.
Dragut, after escaping cleverly from Gerba, was invested with the command of the Ottoman navy, thus renewing the formidable combination that had earned Turkey its triumphs in the time of Barbarossa. He sought to avenge himself for his loss of Mehedia by taking Malta from its knights, and fell upon the island in July 1551. The defences were too strong for him, however, and he found an easier prey in Gozo, where he seized most of the inhabitants as slaves. Not content with this, he headed immediately for Tripoli, subjecting the fortress to a close siege with all the military power of Turkey behind him.
In this predicament the French ambassador to Turkey, Aramont, arrived in Malta on his way to Constantinople. Homedes asked him to go to Tripoli and negotiate the lifting of the siege, on the grounds that the town was defended by Soliman’s allies, the French. Aramont accordingly changed his course for Africa; but on arriving there he quickly decided that the position was hopeless and negotiated not the lifting of the siege but the surrender of the town. Le Vallier and his knights were transported comfortably to Malta in the ambassador’s galleys, while his troops were handed over into Turkish captivity.
The entire history of the Order scarcely contains a more dishonourable episode; the statutes decreed the automatic loss of habit for any knight who surrendered a post to the enemy. But Le Vallier arrived in Malta full of excuses: he blamed Homedes for not spending more money on the fortification of Tripoli; he blamed his Calabrian troops, who were of poor quality (his three years’ command had apparently not improved them) and had mutinied during the siege – a fact which in itself should have earned him a court martial; their captivity was a just punishment for their disloyalty. It was also the punishment of the Maltese and Rhodian soldiers whose discipline had remained unbroken. Homedes, confronted with what had all the appearance of a politically inspired betrayal, wanted to bring the Marshal to trial, but a tumult of French knights and the intervention of Henry II prevented it, and Le Vallier remained in prison without facing a worse sentence.
In the humiliation entailed by this heavy reverse, generosity or desperation prompted Homedes to pardon the atrocious Strozzi for his transgression at Nice, restore him to his dignities and summon him to Malta to help take revenge for the loss of Tripoli. The counter-stroke proposed by Strozzi, conceived and executed with his own characteristic arrogance, was the sending of a large expedition against Zoara, to the west of Tripoli. Strozzi made a landing here in 1552 and quickly captured Zoara, but he then allowed his troops to disperse in search of plunder, and the Turks counter-attacked, turning the expedition into a disastrous defeat in which the Order lost eighty-nine knights and sergeants at arms. These calamities clouded the last years of Homedes’s reign, and in 1553 the Turks combined with the French to invade and ravage Corsica, striking as deep into Western Europe as in the attack on Nice ten years before. That September Homedes died, after a magistry of seventeen years, which was the longest of the century and the most important and most valuable to the Order after that of Villiers de l’lsle Adam. In spite of the exceptional internal difficulties that faced him, Homedes completed or began virtually all the defensive dispositions in Malta that enabled the Order to resist the Great Siege. Above all, he saw the overriding importance of retaining Malta, and upheld it against the factious opposition of his enemies. There is every reason to describe him as the architect of the victory of 1565.
After the brief reign of Claude de la Sengle, the Order in 1557 elected as its Grand Master the Gascon Jean de la Valette Parisot, who since his reception as a knight at the age of twenty had offered a life of unwavering dedication to the Order. His staunchness of character was to be invaluable in restoring the morale of the knights after the heavy blows of the recent past and of his own early magistry. His first acts, unfortunately, suggested that his policy would continue to be dominated by the obsessions of the French party in the matter of Tripoli. He immediately released Le Vallier, whom La Sengle had kept in prison, and consoled him with the titular Bailiwick of Lango. He also began hatching a plan to recover Tripoli with the Viceroy of Sicily, the Duke of Medinaceli, who was a personal friend of his. After the reverses suffered in Africa by the Spanish in the last few years, Tripoli was by now an irrelevance to them, and the consent of Philip II was given only with reluctance. The Spanish forces, supported by the Knights of Malta, landed in Gerba early in 1560, but the cumbersome preparations had given the Turks ample warning; their fleet appeared off Gerba and heavily defeated the Viceroy’s; the troops on shore, after holding out for some weeks, had to surrender before they could be rescued.
The defeat was one of the worst blows to Spanish sea-power suffered in the sixteenth century; for four years the Mediterranean was at the mercy of the Turkish fleet and the Barbary corsairs. If the Turks had attacked Malta during that period, Spain would not have been able to mount a relief expedition, and the island might well have fallen. Although the ships of Malta had extricated themselves more successfully than the Spanish from the defeat at Gerba, La Valette was certainly as alive as anyone to the danger; he began negotiations to move the Order to Corsica, but as the island’s Genoese masters demanded too high a price, and as the years passed without a Turkish attack, his fears abated and he began planning to fortify Sciberras – a project which lack of money made for the moment equally impossible.