The Last Crusaders II

Extrait de l’article “le grand siège de Malte” (février 2011): Galère de l’Ordre de Malte (1560), typique des années contemporaines de Lépante. Le rostre ne servait guère que de “passerelle” en cas d’abordage… Elle possédait des avirons maniés par cinq hommes, “a scaloccio” les galères amirales jusqu’à huit. Les galères Maltaises avaient entre 26 à 30 bancs (donc jusqu’à 60 avirons), 260-300 rameurs et presque autant de troupes, servants de couleuvrines et balistes qui complétaient les 6 pièces lourdes (de 6 à 48 livres) de front. L’essentiel des arquebusiers prenaient d’ailleurs place sur le gaillard d’avant. (Source : Maquette du musée de la Valette)

Une galère amirale Ottomane ou “Bâtarde du Sultan” (1560) : Ce type de navire à deux voire à trois mâts pouvait atteindre 65 mètres de long pour dix de large avec près de 7 hommes par banc et 36 avirons, un espace vide servant de cuisine (le “fougon”) soit un total de 491 rameurs, 300 fantassins et un trentaine de matelots et d’officiers. La majorité des galères Ottomanes était plus raisonnables, typiquement 42-43 mètres pour 25 avirons par bord maniées par des vogues de 5 rameurs. (Source : Miniature de Kadirga). Il y avait également de légères galères de course, la Kalyata de 34 mètres, et la Firkate à faible tirant d’eau, (51 rameurs) capable de remonter les fleuves.

The Turks followed up their triumph on the Bosphorus by conquests in all directions: in 1456 the Latin rulers of Athens had to stand aside; most of the Morea and Serbia fell to the Turks in 1459-60; Trebizond, the Greek-ruled former fragment of the old Byzantine empire on the Black Sea, and the islands of Lesbos and Euboea, followed a year or so later. Almost immediately after Constantinople fell, Pope Nicholas V issued a crusade encyclical which was received with enthusiasm at the court of Philip ‘the Good’, Duke of Burgundy. His contribution to the defence of the Christian East was to stage a great banquet for his Knights of the Golden Fleece at which a live pheasant bedecked in jewellery was brought to the table. Among the evening’s various chivalric side-shows, including the representation of an elephant carrying the Holy Church’s appeal for aid, the Knights took their crusading vows. On the whole, this period after 1453 has been portrayed by historians as one of despair at the frayed end of the crusading story. Pope Pius II’s crusade in 1464 is often quoted as the very last one but, far from presaging an era of despair and disillusionment, the fall of Constantinople had precisely the opposite effect. As in the case of other crusading disasters – Edessa, the Horns of Hattin and Acre – the final collapse of Byzantium put some steel back into crusading rhetoric, and a period of intense activity followed that lasted throughout the rest of the century.

This revised view of fifteenth-century crusading has come from a massive amount of previously unread documents stored among medieval documents in the Vatican and Venetian archives. Professor Kenneth Setton, of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University, has been largely responsible for drawing attention to the documents, which show that the recovery of Constantinople became an ideal similar to the liberation of Jerusalem in the earlier crusading period.

There is still a great deal more to be culled from documents, but already many new crusades that were previously only hinted at, or totally unsuspected, have emerged to fill out a remarkable picture of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century crusading. They highlight, for example, the activities of naval leagues, when several of the Christian maritime states, in conjunction with the papacy, pooled their naval resources. One, which the newly-elected Pope Sixtus IV put together in 1471, numbered eighty-seven galleys and fifteen transports drawn from Venice, Naples and the Holy See. The ships assembled off Rhodes in the summer of 1472 and set off to attack the Turkish towns of Smyrna and Antalya. Smyrna was burned to the ground and pieces of the chain that the papal fleet smashed through as it entered the harbour of Antalya were brought back in triumph to St Peter’s in Rome, where they still hang above one of the doors to the archives of the church. But Ottoman expansion continued. The papacy responded to every advance with a flurry of crusade propaganda, but most crusades failed to go into action due to the complex and violent nature of internal European politics.

In Spain, however, crusading enthusiasm had reached fever pitch. The Spaniards completed their reconquest in 1492 when Granada surrendered to King Ferdinand and his queen, Isabella, and, almost immediately, a new Spanish campaign was launched towards North Africa. Having established Christian beachheads all the way along the Mediterranean coast as far east as Tripoli, there was even talk about the reconquest of the Holy Land, via the North African overland route to Egypt. The new documentary evidence from Italian archives shows that the Spanish reconquest was not just an isolated burst of crusading activity, but only one theatre of holy war in the context of a much broader crusading movement that was still a potent force.

In 1500 the Pope issued another crusade encyclical; substantial amounts in tax were collected and, in 1502, thirteen galleys were sent by the Pope to strengthen the Venetian fleet. The archives reveal that subsequent Popes were just as enthusiastic, that King Henry VII of England, King Manuel of Portugal and King James of Scotland were equally keen to see new crusades launched against the Turks, and in 1514 the crusade they sought was being prepared. But each time the Pope was thwarted, as rivalry among the European powers erupted into war or, at the least, a period of non-cooperation. After Ottoman victories in Syria and Egypt the Pope declared a five-year truce for the whole of Europe, and in London a treaty was signed between England and France; indeed, the famous meeting near Calais between Henry VIII and Francis I of France in June 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, was a demonstration of a new alliance of European powers for the crusade to the East. However, the death of the Ottoman sultan, Selim I, reduced the level of anxiety, and preparations for the much-heralded crusade faded away.

Eventually, the West chose to go on the offensive in 1535 to deal with the famous pirate captain Khair ad-Din Barbarossa, who had established a damaging presence on the Rock of Algiers and, in alliance with the Turks, had also occupied Tunis. Emperor Charles V therefore decided to confront the growing Muslim maritime threat and a crusade was set in train. Pope Paul III offered the usual indulgences to crusaders and contributed a fleet of six galleys; the Hospitallers added four more and by the time the Portugese and others had joined the invasion fleet, a huge flotilla of seventy-four galleys and 330 transports of various kinds arrived off the North African coast not far from the landing place chosen by St Louis in 1270. What followed was a crusading victory the like of which had not been seen since the fall of Granada. Charles not only vanquished the Barbary fleet and captured the fortress of La Goulette, but claimed to have set free the astonishingly large number of 20,000 Christian captives. The crusaders then moved on to Tunis which they sacked on 21 July, and in a triumphant gesture sent the lock and bolts of the city’s gate back to St Peter’s in Rome.

Charles’s success in Tunis, having done much for Christian confidence, set off another bout of papal planning for more crusades centred on Constantinople. Pope Paul III wrote to King Sigismund I of Poland in that vein, and in 1537 a special commission of cardinals was charged with the responsibility to plan the campaign. Charles formed a new naval league with the Pope and Venice but, in an engagement with the Turks at the entrance to the Gulf of Arta, the Christian fleet was defeated. After the Venetians signed a peace treaty with the Turks in 1540 the naval league was disbanded, but Charles returned to the western Mediterranean the following year for an assault on Algiers. It failed, but one tantalizing strand of evidence to survive suggests that Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, encouraged Charles to continue his efforts in North Africa. Perhaps the well-oiled machinery of crusading played a greater part than is generally realized in the Iberian conquests of the New World.

Emperor Charles was active again in 1550 when he sent a fleet to besiege the North African town of Mahdia, but the next big crusade on that coast was led by King Philip II of Spain. His target was Tripoli which the Hospitallers had held on the North African mainland from 1530 until 1551. Spain, Genoa, Florence, Naples, Sicily, the papacy and the Hospitallers contributed forty-seven galleys to the fleet. There were forty-three other ships, and in all 11,000-12,000 fighting men were waiting to storm ashore on the island of Jerba at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Gabes.

They took the island and began to strengthen its defences, but within a matter of weeks typhus spread through the army and the troops began to re-board the ship, leaving a garrison behind. In the middle of the operation a Turkish armada arrived and sank twenty-seven Christian galleys. The crusaders still ashore were then besieged by the Turks and, with the water in the castle cisterns virtually exhausted, were forced to distil sea water in an attempt to keep themselves alive in the hot North African summer; after two and a half months there was no more fuel for the stills and men were dying of thirst, and at the end of 1 July 1560 the siege ended in a massacre.

Such disasters, however, did not reign in the ambitions of Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Tuscany, to emulate the Hospitallers. In 1562 he declared himself Grand Master and formed his own military order dedicated to Santo Stefano (St Stephen). Its convent and church were set up in Pisa and so much enthusiasm was generated that between 1563 and 1737 the Order of St Stephen had founded almost 700 commanderies and attracted a large number of supporters. The Knights did not have to bother about celibacy and the blue blood entry requirements were less exacting than the Hospitallers. But the Order could put as many as ten galleys to sea with well-trained crews from the Order’s own naval academy. In the Order’s records Dr Anthony Luttrell found that its version of Christian piracy did well in the Levant in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: ‘In the eight years from 1610 Santo Stefano took twenty-four Babary vessels and 1,409 slaves in the West, and it pillaged several towns and took forty-nine Turkish and Greek vessels, and 1,114 slaves in the Levant. Like the Hospital, and very briefly the Teutonic Order, Santo Stefano fought with the Venetians during their Cretan war from 1645 to 1669, but thereafter it saw increasingly little action.’

The 1560s were no different from the previous decades of the sixteenth century. There were wars and truces between the Western powers and the Ottomans, until in 1570 the Turks demanded the surrender of Cyprus, which was held by the Venetians. A Christian fleet of Sicilian and papal vessels, together with galleys of the Italian city states, sailed in an attempt to pre-empt a Turkish invasion, but on reaching Rhodes the fleet heard that Nicosia had already been taken so the rescue mission was abandoned.

Famagusta was taken by the Turks in early August and the Cypriot capital fell on 9 September 1570. In the same year, the papacy, Venice and Spain announced that they had formed a permanent alliance to fight the infidel, and in August 1571 the largest Christian fleet to come together in the sixteenth century assembled in the bay of Naples. Don John of Austria, Charles V’s bastard son, was commander-in-chief of an armada that was made up of 242 vessels drawn from the navies of the Hospitallers, Savoy, Genoa, Venice, the papacy and Spain. There were 30,000 men on board when they sailed to engage a Turkish armada of about the same size in the Gulf of Lepanto off western Greece. Don John of Austria’s heavy cannon gave the Christians their famous victory in which the Turks are said to have lost 30,000 men dead or captured, with 117 galleys taken as prizes of war, and eighty vessels completely destroyed. Such a resounding victory might have presaged a Christian advance towards the East! In March 1572, Pope Pius V circulated the faithful with words straight out of the anthology of crusading rhetoric: ‘We admonish, require and exhort every individual to decide to aid this most holy war either in person or with material support… We grant most full and complete pardon, remission and absolution of all their sins of which they have made oral confessions with contrite hearts, the same indulgence which the Roman pontiffs, our predecessors, were accustomed to concede to crusaders going to the Holy Land.’ Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, in assessing the new material to come out of the Italian archives, believes that the Reformation – the religious revolution inspired by Martin Luther in the early years of the sixteenth century – only slowed down the pace of crusading activity: ‘It is clear that the crusading ideal was alive in the sixteenth century. It is easy to find examples of the traditional language of holy war and grants of indulgences and crusade tenths which, for instance, were regularly given to Venice, although some elements were now solidifying into forms in which their original functions were obscured. Parts of the Spanish cruzada – privileges in return for a tax which originated in the sale of crusade indulgences – were diverted in the sixteenth century to defray the costs of the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome; the cruzada became so divorced from its original purpose that it was issued regularly until this century and its privileges were only abrogated in the diocese of Pueblo, Colorado, in 1945.’ In the late sixteenth century, however, the evidence currently available thins out and a clear picture of crusading adventures is difficult to assemble; we know that from 1645 the Turks were fighting to wrest Crete from Venetian control, and that they finally took the island in 1669. There were Christian armies on the banks of the Danube defending Vienna, and there was a resurgence of Venetian power in the Aegean, but almost nothing can be said about the crusading element in the campaigns, if indeed any crusaders took part at all. But there was one surviving centre of crusading spirit – the island state of the Order of the Knights of Malta, the Hospitallers: ‘It saddens me to be compelled to cast this brave old man out of his home’, are the words attributed to Sultan Suleiman ‘the Law Giver’ or ‘the Magnificent’, after he accepted the surrender of Rhodes from the Order’s Grand Master, Philip Villiers of L’Isle Adam. The date was December 1522; a mournful time for the Knights of the Hospital who had heroically withstood a siege that had lasted almost five months. The Knights had been luckier in 1480 during the first siege of Rhodes staged by the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmet II. That Turkish invasion force had become exhausted and, having failed repeatedly to storm the walls, packed up and left the island in ruined peace. Forty-two years later, in 1522, Suleiman ‘The Magnificent’ had no intention of letting the Knights stay on Rhodes.

With an enormous fleet of 400 ships and a large army, it was just a matter of time before such a degree of ‘overkill’ produced its inevitable result. Suleiman was, however, munificent and, in spite of months of spirited resistance from the defenders, and great losses on the Turkish side, agreed to let the survivors leave Rhodes with dignity and with their possessions.

There were not only cartloads of documents dating back to the Hospitallers’ days in Palestine, but also the Orders’ precious relics, including the jewel-encrusted, mummified hand of John the Baptist which the Hospitallers had obtained during their time on Rhodes. The Knights’ possessions trundled down to the port in a convoy of wagons and were loaded aboard the Order’s carrack and galleys. The great castle of St Peter on the mainland and the Hospitaller territories in the archipelago were forfeit under the surrender terms which left the Order, after two centuries on Rhodes, without a headquarters or even a raison d’être. Among the survivors of the siege in the small flotilla heading west through the sleet of a dark January night was a young knight from Provence called Jean Parisot de la Valette.

Cut adrift from their long association with the East, the Knights, led by their Grand Master, found temporary havens around the Mediterranean; they hankered after Rhodes and toyed with plans to reconquer their island state, but after eight years, in 1530, they accepted an offer of a new island home on Malta and Gozo from Emperor Charles V. The Grand Master and his men, however, were less than enthusiastic. Malta itself was a barren rock-strewn island 10 miles long and 9 miles wide; its only attractions were the two superb harbours on the north coast, Marsamxett and the Grand Harbour. There was the ancient walled capital of Mdina astride the only high ground at the centre of the island, and about 12,000 inhabitants scratched a living from the sparse top soil. Gozo, the other main island in the tiny group, was greener but had no harbour at all. A greater contrast with the peaks and verdant valleys of Rhodes would have been hard to find, although the beleaguered outpost of Tripoli on the North African coast, part of the emperor’s territorial package on offer, was perhaps an even more dubious proposition. But with an annual tribute of a falcon to the emperor’s Viceroy in Messina, and a promise not to use Malta as an offensive base against Sicily, the Hospitallers set out for their new home in autumn of 1530.


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