Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part I

Fort St. Elmo.

 

Map of Grand Harbor

Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan, had ordered that no action be taken without consulting Turgut Reis. Turgut still had not arrived. Some thought that he was not coming at all—he was old, and strange things happen at sea. There was no reason to hold up all operations on his account. Spain was a formidable power, more so now that they were not distracted by wars in the Lowlands and against France. They were quite capable of launching a relief force to trouble this siege, and intelligence suggested that, under the guidance of the new and capable viceroy, they were in the process of doing so. Best then to get on with the operation and hope that Turgut would show up sooner rather than later.

The leading commanders gathered in Mustapha’s tent to decide what to do next.

In theory there should have been little to discuss. The strategy had been laid out months earlier in Constantinople, aided by a scale model of Grand Harbor built on the report of two Muslim spies posing as fishermen. The plan was to take out Fort St. Elmo and so control the eastern-facing deep waters and the secure bay of the Grand Harbor, better protected than Marsaxlokk from the spring’s strong gregale winds that could sweep down from the northeast. In so doing, the Ottomans could maintain a supply base close to the army’s center of operations, thus simplifying the demands of logistics. All future matériel arriving from Constantinople or North Africa would not have to be hauled the eight miles overland from Marsaxlokk, a wearisome task at best, and a dangerous task so long as there were Christian marauders about—as, in fact, there were until the very end.

Mustapha had his own ideas. A veteran of wars in Hungary and Persia, Mustapha was accustomed to long marches over rough terrain—what was an eight-mile trek to him? Concede Grand Harbor to the knights, he thought, and St. Elmo becomes a Christian liability, a place they would have to defend while the bulk of Muslim soldiers were wearing down the main objectives elsewhere. His proposed order of operations was for Piali Pasha to take ten thousand men and ten guns and seize the lightly defended capital of Mdina at the center of the island. This would be both a psychological blow to the Maltese and a boost for his own men, and it would serve to protect the army’s rear from Mdina’s cavalry raiders and any possible Spanish relief forces. Once Mdina was taken, he could then attack the bulk of the enemy’s forces at Birgu and Senglea, and finally, almost as an afterthought, seize the island of Gozo. His vision went further, offshore and into Piali’s area of authority. He suggested a new disposition for the fleet, that it be divided into three parts: one to blockade Grand Harbor, one to remain in Marsaxlokk, and one to patrol the channel between Malta and Sicily.

It did not go down well. Piali Pasha reminded the council that his responsibility was to meet the needs of the sultan’s “powerful and invincible armada” and to guard the island from any Christian warships. (After his attempt to swindle Suleiman out of some ransom after Djerba, he was also on his best behavior.) Piali wanted the eastern-facing deep waters and secure bay of the Grand Harbor. To get this, they would need to take out the defensive Fort St. Elmo. The council, many of them navy men, concurred with Piali.

Compelled against his better judgment to target Fort St. Elmo, Mustapha wanted to know how long it would take to capture the place, and he sent out engineers skilled in this kind of calculation to make an estimate. They got as close as they dared, and came back with a mixture of good news and bad. The good news was that the shortcomings Don Garcia had criticized were all in place. The bad news was that the stony ground, while suitable for trenches, was useless for digging mines. As to siege artillery, that was simply a matter of getting cannon down the steep length of Mount Sciberras and into position opposite the fort. The engineers were confident that the Ottoman army, fresh from their voyage and ready for a fight, would be able to bring down the walls and take the fort in under five days. With luck, they might be able to present the first victory of the campaign to Turgut when he eventually arrived.

Mustapha gave in. His May 23 report to Suleiman notes the divided opinions and the final proposed course of action; it does not, interestingly, indicate what he thought.

Balbi describes this squabble in some detail, based on the gossip of two more renegades who had, they claimed, stood guard outside the tent. (In camps famed for their silence, shouting commanders were presumably easy to hear.) Gossip or not, an overjoyed Valette reacted swiftly. His spies in Constantinople had reported that St. Elmo was to be the first target, but he could not be sure. Initially he had entrusted its defense to the aging and unwell Fr. Broglio and a small contingent of Spanish foot. From his command center in Fort St. Angelo, he now ordered the French knight Pierre de Massuez-Vercoirin (aka Colonel Mas) and two hundred of his men, as well as sixty-five volunteers from the knights, dispatched to bolster the three hundred and thirty-five soldiers already in Fort St. Elmo. He cautioned them, however, to make self-preservation their priority, to not engage the enemy in any unnecessary skirmishes.

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Now certain that the first target was to be Fort St. Elmo, Valette had all the civilians who had taken refuge there brought over to Birgu. The boats that carried this last group out of harm’s way returned with powder, lead, rope, incendiaries, hardtack, wine, cheese, lard, oil, and vinegar for the five hundred men inside. He also ordered Colonel Mas and 150 of his men to swell the ranks.

If Valette expected caution from the men at St. Elmo, he had sadly misjudged them. Inspired by the knowledge that Ottoman siege guns were being towed down the peninsula, Colonel Mas and Captain La Cerda led a number of their men out of the fort and headed for the enemy. The ensuing fight, the last direct fighting they were to enjoy for some time, was a short and spirited affair, but the handful of men killed on both sides did not materially slow Mustapha’s progress.

It appears, however, to have prompted him to position sharpshooters within range of Fort St. Elmo. Janissaries were notorious for the efficiency of their snipers, “most excellent marksmen.” These men could lie in wait for hours at a time in the hope of blowing the head off anyone who, from curiosity, might peek over the top of the parapet, however briefly. From that time on, the Christian defenders were trapped inside the fort, with only the sound of Muslim sappers digging trenches outside the fort and enemy gun carriages moving closer and closer.

The defenders, however, were able to fire cannon from seaward facing cavalier cannon fire that was supplemented by Valette’s men across the water at Fort St. Angelo. The footsoldiers might feel superfluous in such circumstances. These were experienced warriors who knew what went into a proper fort, and Fort St. Elmo was not the best example of the military architect’s art. Personal bravery notwithstanding, the men of Fort St. Elmo could calculate odds as well as any Ottoman engineer, and they knew the power of the wall-smashing guns that in a day or so would be brought to bear.

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On May 24, Mustapha was ready. His guns were set in three ranks facing the landward side of St. Elmo. Defensive gabions, boxes filled with cotton, now created a wall through which ten guns capable of firing eight-pound balls poked out toward the fort. A second tranche that boasted two culverins, guns capable of lobbing sixty-pound shot, backed them up. Finally, on the rise overlooking the fort was one of the so-called basilisks, its vast cyclopean eye staring down on St. Elmo, a huge weapon capable of throwing a stone ball of a hundred and sixty pounds. More guns would follow, and from different emplacements, but these would do for now. Sacks of powder were shoved down the bronze gullets, with stone balls lifted in as a chaser. Engineers sighted targets and adjusted angles of fire. Each gunner prepared his slow match and blew the tip into a bright orange glow, loose sparks flying off and crackling as they expired. Mustapha himself stood behind them, waited until all was ready, and then gave the order to fire. The artillerymen lowered the linstocks to the touchholes, and in a storm of sound, fire, and smoke, the first volleys slammed into the walls of Fort St. Elmo.

The effect was devastating, so powerful that even in Birgu the houses shook. The infantry huddled inside the fort, unable even to watch the enemy. Throughout the day, Turkish artillery smashed against the walls, pulverizing and knocking off chunks of stonework and beginning to fill the ditch. Of necessity, trained soldiers became journeyman masons of the crudest sort, reduced to reinforcing the walls as the ground shook and stonework crumbled, their swords and guns and all thoughts of fighting now shelved. Men such as La Cerda could only seethe at this misuse of their talents.

The Christians of St. Elmo were not, however, fighting completely alone. Valette had ordered the guns on Fort St. Angelo to fire on the Ottoman sappers and cannon, and they did so with good effect. One of these shots dislodged a stone that struck Piali Pasha’s head and knocked him senseless. He was unconscious for about an hour, prompting rumors about his death—premature, as it happened. He had, they said afterward, his turban to thank for his life. Mustapha’s reaction to this news is unrecorded.

The entire day passed in ponderous rolling thunder of cannon fire, smoke, and dust quivering in midair. The very ground trembled in response to this pummeling. Finally, night fell, the cannon ceased, and the men at St. Elmo considered the situation. It was clear to them that the fort could not hold up under this kind of abuse, and since the defenders could not even fight back, the best option, the only option, was to abandon the fort entirely, return to Fort St. Angelo, and bolster the fighting force there.

If someone was to suggest this course of action to as stern a man as Valette, best that it be a reputable commander who was not a member of the Order of St. John. The job went to Captain La Cerda.

On the night of May 24–25, La Cerda slipped into a small boat and under a moonless sky was rowed across to Fort St. Angelo. Valette was there to greet him and in a public square asked him how matters stood at St. Elmo. The grand master presumably expected a bluff-and-hearty answer to the effect that they were holding their own and eager to fight. He got the opposite. La Cerda answered that matters were exceedingly bad.

It was a straightforward, honest, and heartfelt answer, but as the chronicler put it, one that “he should have kept secret and in chambers, so as not to frighten the populace.” He was quickly hustled into the council room before he could blurt out anything more. The grand council sat in tall back benches on either side of the room, unsteady candlelight wavered over the stones and wood, and the commanders asked him to explain himself. La Cerda didn’t hesitate. Fort St. Elmo was, he said, “a sick man in need of medicine.” Its walls could not hold, and the soldiers, his soldiers, were being condemned to die without hope of fighting back. Let the place be mined and abandoned so that Turks could enter and be blown up in the process. Let the Christians rejoin their fellows at Senglea and Birgu, and let the real fight begin.

The council might not have expected good news, but this kind of talk, this early on in the campaign, was a shock, the more so given the source. La Cerda was no raw recruit who flinched at the first sound of gunfire. He was a veteran of the 1543 siege of Tlemcen, on the Barbary coast, in which battle he had been wounded in his shoulder. His actions on Malta so far had been aggressive, even rash, but undeniably brave. Given his position and experience, his word must carry some weight, both with the council and with his own men.

How did Valette react? Accounts differ. However displeased the grand master might have been, the chroniclers Balbi and Cirni record a relatively temperate response. The encyclopedic Bosio, however, writes that Valette was scathing. He thanked La Cerda for his report. Did the men in the fort truly have no confidence in their abilities? Very well, they were free to go. Valette did not wish to have anyone in whom he could have no confidence, and clearly he could have no confidence in them. He would replace the men now in the fort with better men, braver men, men headed by Valette himself.

It may have been stage anger or the real thing, but regardless, the threat had its intended effect. The council protested that as grand master he must not leave. If more soldiers were required at St. Elmo, they could be found. Valette agreed in the end and called up Lieutenant Medrano, a subordinate to Captain Miranda (who was recovering from an illness at Messina) and ordered him to take his company of two hundred men across to Fort St. Elmo. Proving that good things come to those in whom Valette did have confidence, the grand master also promoted him to captain.

Not to be outdone by the Spanish volunteers, a French knight, Captain Gaspard de La Motte, stepped forward and offered to take a number of his own men to bolster the defenders of Fort St. Elmo. Would Valette agree?

He would. Ardent men, he said, were exactly what was needed. To top off the rebuke to La Cerda and any others at Fort St. Elmo who thought the place not worth defending, Valette also offered some sixty pressed convicts (forzati) their freedom if they would agree to act as ferrymen for the soldiers.

The sky was still dark. Captain Medrano, La Motte, and two hundred fresh troops (along with the humiliated La Cerda) embarked stealthily into the small crafts and under the last sliver of the old moon crossed the waters back to the crumbling fort. Valette wrote to Don Garcia that the fort’s complement was eight hundred men, though perhaps he was exaggerating a bit when he said “all were resolved to do their duty.”

If nothing else the incident demonstrates the degree to which auxiliaries, especially the Spanish soldiers like La Cerda, considered themselves to be the equals of the Order in terms of authority. Vertot, a seventeenth-century French historian for whom Valette could do no wrong, derides the Spaniard as someone “whom fear made eloquent.” The charge is ludicrous and ignores La Cerda’s logic, which in this instance was both simple and direct. He was on Malta to kill Muslims. In St. Elmo he was not killing Muslims. Better, therefore, to abandon a slaughter pen and take the fight to the enemy elsewhere. This was perhaps an admirable view, but impractical for Valette. The grand master’s was not a split command, much less command by consensus. Dissent was already a problem in the enemy camp, and Valette would not have it in his own.

And he did not let the matter drop. He quickly informed Don Garcia, who raised the matter with the king: “Juan de la Cerda and his lieutenant . . . have shown great baseness (vildad), and attempted to persuade the Grand Master to abandon the fort and mine it, because it was no longer possible to defend the place.” Don Garcia suggested that beheading would be suitable punishment, and the king, who took a minute interest in all details of his empire, did not object: “If what you say is true, that Juan de la Cerda and his lieutenant wanted to abandon Sant Telmo, you are to give orders that they be punished according to what is just.” Philip’s letter is dated July 7—it is a little touching that the king could imagine that he was addressing a situation static enough that his advice would be meaningful. Nothing further seems to have come of the matter, and as we shall see, La Cerda’s fate would be more complex than a simple execution.

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The fight for St. Elmo, projected to take five days, was now on day nine, with no end in sight. Worse, it turned out that Turgut agreed with Mustapha’s abandoned strategy completely, and said so: “‘Of what use is it to take Saint Elmo?’ he asked. ‘Even if you had ten Saint Elmos, until you take Malta [i.e., the rest of the island], you cannot be conquerors.’ Thus having spoken, he immediately wept.” They should, he thought, have gone for Mdina and Gozo, the easy targets, the mother to the child St. Elmo.

It was too late now, though the endorsement of Mustapha’s plan, added to the soldiers killed by Piali Pasha’s guns, cannot have helped relations between Mustapha and Piali. It was best to look forward. Having received a full rundown of how matters stood, the aging Turgut immediately went out to the end of the peninsula to see firsthand what steps had been taken and what things could be improved. Turgut’s first concern was for the safety of his troops. He noted that the southward part of Sciberras was clearly visible from the walls of Fort St. Angelo. Given the expectations of a quick victory, Mustapha had had no reason to spend too much time in masking their actions. By now, however, Christian gunners from across the water had been able to calibrate their fire on sappers and artillerists, making the Muslims’ work both difficult and short. This interference had to be stopped. Turgut ordered a makeshift screen to be erected between Fort St. Angelo and the Turkish part of Sciberras. Blind the gunners to specific targets and they would be wasting shot and powder on empty space.

The men now relatively safe, Turgut turned his attention to the fort itself. A devastating bombardment was in order, and from as many directions as possible. Turgut ordered new artillery emplacements on Tigné point, the north tip of the harbor mouth. This would allow the Turks to fire on St. Elmo from three sides and force the defenders within to spread out their repairs. He was particularly interested in neutralizing the raised cavalier whose cannons faced back on the Ottoman lines at Mount Sciberras. Finally, he considered the matter of the Christians’ nocturnal relief boats. These vessels, all but invisible under the nearly moonless sky, had until now been largely unmolested. The moon, however, was waxing, and with each passing day, the Christians lost another sliver of advantage. Turgut was determined to end the fort’s cycle of slow bleeding and regular infusions, and just finish the fort off once and for all. The guns—thirty of various caliber—were to begin firing that night.

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Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part II

Fort St. Elmo after the loss of the ravelin on the left.

Aleccio, Matteo Perez d’; The Siege of Malta: Siege and Bombardment of Saint Elmo, 27 May 1565; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-siege-of-malta-siege-and-bombardment-of-saint-elmo-27-may-1565-172495

The chroniclers considered it something of a miracle that the fort was still standing at all. One reason for its survival was distance. Large, wall-smashing guns work best at close range, a fact the Ottomans were happy to exploit. More than that and they lost significant power. Whether from reluctance to bring out the heavy guns against this smaller target, or as Hughes suggests, because the geography prevented their pulling anything up to point-blank range, Mustapha kept his largest cannon a full 180 yards from the fort. The discharges were inevitably both dramatic and loud, but they did less damage than they might have done had the guns been closer. Large cannon, moreover, took a long time to prepare. Smaller bored pieces, if not as destructive, could at least be fired and reloaded in fairly quick order. The knight Fra Girolamo Pepe Napolitano, with little else to do, lay back and counted the shots and “calculated that a day did not pass in which six or seven hundred cannonades were not fired against it.” Anthoine de Cressy claims that on one day, no less than fourteen hundred coups de canon struck the fort, and that by the end it would endure nineteen thousand. The numbers should not be too surprising. The chief object of the cannonade was to chip away a wall faster than the defenders could repair it. Strictly speaking, proper rebuilding was impractical if not impossible. The best that could be done was to buffer the edges with earth or cotton-filled gabions, crude barrels made of rush, that would absorb the blow of the next day’s cannonballs. It was a job best done at night when the sharpshooters were sleeping. Come the morning, the artilleryman’s first order of business was to sweep this padding away as quickly as possible and get back to chipping away at the stone structure itself. In addition, and depending on available material, the defenders could build a secondary wall inside the fort that would come as a surprise to anyone rushing through the breach.

However necessary all this preliminary work might be, in the end taking the fort would depend on sheer grit. Any given breach favors the defender insofar as it concentrates the attacking force. It took outstanding bravery to rush the small opening and become an easy target for prepared men. A single cannon of scattershot would cut a wide swath through the attackers. Where a few dozen men might charge, none might survive. The Muslims made these attacks over and over, and each time to no end other than filling the ditch with their dead and dying.

It is the mark of a good leader that his men want to go out of their way to impress him. Turgut had this quality. When the Janissaries demanded that they be allowed to take the breach, the corsair forbade it, commending their zeal but noting that the opening was still too small, and that if they gathered to make a charge, they would present Christian gunners and the fast-loading arquebusiers a single, concentrated, easy-to-hit target. He wanted better odds.

Not to be deterred, a squadron of Ottoman engineers set out in the predawn hours to see if there were any new weaknesses they might exploit. One place they explored was the north-facing ravelin, the heightened defensive spur that had so concerned Don Garcia de Toledo. Under the pale light of the first-quarter moon, these men scurried down to get a closer look. The ravelin loomed in the dark ahead of them. They approached, ready for the sudden pop of gunfire that would send them back into the shadows, but they heard nothing.

The reasons for this are obscure. Some have suggested that the designated sentry had nodded off or been killed by sniper fire, or that the complement of soldiers was unexpectedly small, only forty men, none of them Knights of St. John. Whatever the case, the Janissaries soon realized that this was a target ripe for the taking and wasted no time in getting word back down the line. They consulted (or not) Mustapha for instructions and were ordered (or not) to hurry up and take advantage of this rare opportunity.

Accounts of what followed are somewhat confused. What is nearly certain is that before dawn a number of Janissaries trotted back to the ravelin, threw up scaling ladders, then flowed over the sides of the ravelin and through its embrasures (low enough that a man standing on the shoulders of another man could easily get in), and started to butcher the Italian and Spanish soldiers inside. The luckier defenders awoke in the early half-light of dawn only to see their commanding officer lying dead and an ever-increasing number of highly agressive, brightly gowned, scimitar-wielding Janissaries looming above them. In a panic they scrambled up, abandoned their arms, and ran back onto the causeway toward the fort. Fortunately, the ravelin’s defenders were backed up by fifty men under the command of a Neapolitan knight Francesco di Guevara. Guevara’s men were stationed in a trench that blocked the passage between the ravelin and cavalier; and now alerted by the shrill cries of the Janissaries and the shouting of their comrades, they climbed over their barricade down the causeway toward the plank bridge (wood, easy to destroy in an emergency) to take up the fight. Arquebusiers fired on the Ottoman ranks, helping to slow the sudden incursion until more help could arrive.

Which it did in short order—the knight Vercoiran, along with his brother Colonel Mas, Captain Medrano, and the Spanish knight and bailo of Negroponte Juan d’Eguaras came out of the fort, across the drawbridge that spanned the ditch, and on through the causeway with the aim of repelling the Turks from the ravelin.

Despite their best efforts, it was too late to repel the Turks; word of the impromptu battle had quickly flowed back to the Ottoman camp, and fresh waves of exultant soldiers had rushed to join their comrades. As Guevara and his men hacked away on the narrow confines of the causeway and the wooden plank bridge that connected it to the ravelin, more and more Ottomans had been climbing into the ravelin itself. Soon an excess of Muslim troops was spilling over into the ditch, bringing their force up to the face of the ramparts themselves. Curione, writing in 1565, mentions ladders too short to top the ramparts, but even with that disappointment, the taking of the ditch, even at the cost of five hundred men, was worth it. Because of the fort’s wide angle and the lack of embrasures or crenellations, it was impossible for the Christians to cover all approaches in the ditch except from the tower, and even that had dead zones where the Ottomans could crouch next to the fort’s wall in near total safety. From here, they could both fire on the causeway and work on destroying the foundations of the fort itself. Along the causeway, the battle grew and the sun came up to illuminate the brawl, and for five hours men fought hand-to-hand, chiefly with blades.

The Christians had one advantage in the person of Fra Francesco Lanfreducci, who commanded two artillery pieces on the heights of the cavalier. By repeatedly sending scattershot into the mass of Ottoman troops, he was able to clear Ottoman soldiers from the traverse and even, temporarily at least, within the ravelin itself. A great multitude of flags had marked the Ottoman’s taking of the ravelin, but all were blown away in an instant by Lanfreducci’s guns. The attackers, however, were not to be deterred, and Lanfreducci could fire his guns only so often before they overheated to the point where they might themselves explode. Moreover, where the fighting was hand to hand, any shot the gunners let loose risked killing as many Christians as Muslims. As a final problem, early on Lanfreducci was short one of his key cannoneers, lost to a well-aimed arquebus shot.

The battle lines wavered over the morning hours, and from time to time, there was some hope that the ravelin itself might be recovered. The Ottomans, however, were already putting their own defense works—wooden fasces, earth-filled gabions, bales of wool—in place against any such attempt. Force of numbers eventually told, and the mass of Ottomans was able to push the defenders across the traverse and back toward the drawbridge that gave access to the fort itself. Guevara, wounded in his arm, and Louis Vercoirin, the brother of Colonel Mas, commanded the retreat, which was so closely engaged that the defenders were unable to raise the bridge. The Turks were on the verge of breaking through, those in front being pushed forward by the men in back, when the defenders on the parapets began to bombard them with a storm of rocks and burning pitch. The defenders also likely used trumps.

Trumps were an unpleasant weapon consisting of a metal tube strapped onto long wooden poles. The tubes were filled with a mixture of bitumen, tar, sulfur, and other incendiary material, the stuff the ancients called Greek fire, and all too similar to modern-day napalm. Once the material was ignited, the tubes became flamethrowers, particularly useful for defending narrow spaces, such as the entrance to Fort St. Elmo. Defenders would wave these against the men pressing the entrance. The weapons, once given a chance to warm up, spat out sticky gobs of burning naphtha, which clung to everything it touched. From the changed quality of the screaming, it took only a short time before the men at the back realized what was happening and fled backward, allowing their less fortunate comrades to run from the bridge and throw themselves into the dust or farther off into the water. Dust might have extinguished the matter, but water would not—according to contemporary sources, only vinegar or urine was proof against the stuff.

The attacks stopped entirely at about half past noon. The ravelin was now firmly in Ottoman hands, as was the greater part of the ditch. The cost to the Ottomans had been high—five hundred men killed on this day, and as many as two thousand killed since the assaults on St. Elmo had begun (a figure received from runaways). The defenders had lost about twenty knights, and sixty soldiers were killed and many more wounded.

Valette ordered boats to bring the dead and wounded back to Fort St. Angelo, and it is a testimony to Turgut’s effectiveness that not one of these vessels escaped unhit. Valette sent Coppier over to determine if the ravelin could be retaken. The answer was immediate and negative. Worse, Coppier had to inform Valette that the Turks were already hoisting goatskin sandbags onto the ravelin in order to raise its heights above the walls of St. Elmo. Balbi, in describing the action, laments the failure of Fort St. Elmo’s design, even going so far as to defend La Cerda’s objections.

Mustapha was happy to report this success back to Constantinople and put it down as a matter of careful preparation rather than luck. For Valette, the day’s failure had to be particularly bad news, and not something he would wish to report to Don Garcia, the ravelin’s chief proponent. The situation was all the more galling since the ravelin’s commander was a corporal in La Cerda’s company—the same La Cerda who had suggested the entire structure be mined, handed over to the Ottomans, and then detonated. Cirni suggests that his men, “having lost heart,” simply and dishonorably (vilmente) abandoned the ravelin as more trouble than it was worth—in effect, a strategic retreat decided on the ground without waiting for possibly inconvenient orders from on high.

If so, they paid a high price. Among the day’s wounded was a lieutenant (alferez) to La Cerda. Valette, conscientious about greeting all casualties from the fort, saw this man with the others, judged his wound insufficiently grave, and ordered him thrown into prison. The offence cannot have been too egregious, and the man’s presence must have been too valuable for him to stay in jail for long—he was released within days. But Valette had made his point about who was in charge on Malta. (Curiously, La Cerda’s own whereabouts at this time are not recorded.)

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The end was coming, but there remained the question of how it would play out. The ravelin continued to rise as the Ottoman workmen topped it with sandbags made of goatskin, and it would in due course command the parade ground. Meanwhile, Ottoman engineers were at work on a bridge to span the ditch between themselves and Fort St. Elmo. Excess galleys, superfluous as the invasion force died off, were being dismantled and reconfigured to this end. Spars were planted in the ground, supports tied in crisscross patterns to give them stability, flat planks laid horizontally on top, and dirt thrown on the whole to prevent the Christians from tossing incendiary grenades and setting the structure on fire. The passage was wide enough for eight men to advance abreast, and it looked as if it would be ready by June 5.

The night before, however, a squad of Christians stole out of the fort with buckets of pitch and began to paint the bridge’s supports. Noise, or the perhaps the smell, alerted the Ottomans still awake, and although the defenders were able to torch three of the five supports, they left the job half finished. Discovered in their task, the Christians scuttled back to the safety of the fort while Mustapha’s men did their best to put out the blaze. By daylight, the fire was out and the bridge was still standing, but sufficiently weakened so that the Ottomans did not wish to risk using it in a general assault. If the Christians had not stopped the Ottomans cold, they had at least bought themselves some more time.

By now, Broglio had lost confidence in his ability to command. Seventy years old and fat, he did not carry his age as lightly as Turgut, or Valette, or Mustapha. During his tenure at Fort St. Elmo, according to Curione, he had repeatedly told Valette that the fort was in fine shape, its men superhuman in their energy and faith. His own, however, had fallen short. He offered his resignation to the grand master, which was accepted. D’Eguaras was also in bad shape, suffering from an arrow wound to his hand. His request was to remain with his men, even if that required his taking a lesser role. Overall command of Fort St. Elmo, something of a hot potato, was ceded to Colonel Mas.

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The guns kept chipping away at the fort, the defenders kept patching it, the tally of dead and wounded on both sides increased, and the bridge lately damaged was soon almost whole again. A renegade managed to cross the lines and bring Valette welcome news from the Ottoman camp. Turgut had been ill and confined to bed for a few days. The seventy to eighty galleys that patrolled the approaches to the island were beginning to put a strain on manpower.6 Valette countered by redeploying Giovanni Vagnone and a hundred of his men from Mdina to St. Elmo, proof of his determination to hold onto the fort and keep faith with the men inside it.

By contrast, the men inside the fort were losing confidence. The dead and, worse, the scattered parts of the dead—the arms, legs, and shredded viscera—lay stinking in the hot sun, blackened and fly-covered for lack of opportunity to retrieve and bury them. Detritus from the smashed walls flowed into the ditch, lessening its usefulness as a defensive structure and setting up a pathway for the inevitable assaults. And the guns kept firing.

Miranda, Broglio, and d’Eguaras all now agreed that remaining on the peninsula was a pointless gesture, even a strategic error, a poor trade-off of brave men for an inevitable defeat. The case for holding on might have made sense earlier, but no longer. One more time Medrano crossed the night water, past gunfire that was now taking a considerable toll on Christian boats, and one more time clattered through the narrow streets to the council chambers at Fort St. Angelo. He found Valette alert—the grand master didn’t sleep a lot these days—and ready to discuss the situation. The two spoke together first in private, and Medrano was persuasive enough to get a hearing with the entire council. He gave an affecting account of the men’s gallantry and endurance.

The spirit was willing, but facts were facts. Medrano reported on the quick work of the Turkish sappers, of the ditches they were filling in, the bridge they had constructed. He described walls scarcely worthy of the name, crumbling faster than could be repaired, the heavy casualties among those making the repairs. He spoke of the wounded and exhausted men, of the frightening accuracy of the Janissary sharpshooters, of the ravelin now mounted by two cannon capable of firing into the fort, of the sudden necessity of digging trenches within the fort because there was no other place of safety. He told of the cavalier that swayed under the constant force of cannon fire, of the two remaining guns on the eastern spur (they would be knocked out and their crews killed the next day). The fort, he said, was doomed, and the men with it unless the council permitted them to return to Fort St. Angelo.

The report was all very compelling, but except in the details, it was not news; and ultimately, it was not as compelling as Valette’s need for more time. Malta was the last bastion before Sicily, the last outpost of the Order, which in his own lifetime had lost both Rhodes and Tripoli. Malta was the last chance for an international force of Christian men to show that they could come together against the expansive embrace of Islam. Just as Malta was the shield for all Europe and as such for all Christendom, Fort St. Elmo was the shield of Malta. The longer Valette could tie the Ottoman forces down on this small piece of real estate, the longer he would be able to bolster Senglea and Birgu, the longer Mdina might survive as the main supply route for information and reinforcements, and the longer Don Garcia would have to gather and launch a relief force. Valette believed that he had no choice. The job of the men at St. Elmo was to make the taking of it long, expensive, and painful to the Ottomans. He urged Medrano to go back and convince his colleagues to hold on just a little bit longer, with the cold promise that Don Garcia had promised relief soon—as indeed he had.

Valette understood what the wretches on St. Elmo were going through. As a veteran of Rhodes, who better? But however much he sympathized, he wanted these men to realize that they, and everyone else under his command, were dedicated to Malta’s preservation. The soldiers at St. Elmo might die in its blasted ruins—and in fact probably would die there. But all men must die, and few are given the chance to do so for the sake of such a greater good. Valette was firm. Fort St. Elmo must be defended to the last man.

Medrano left Fort St. Angelo in the predawn half-light and made the trip back across the bay. As he appeared on the parade ground of Fort St. Elmo, all those who could get away from their posts gathered around him, eager to hear what the council had decided. The message did not go down well. While the older officers and men accepted obedience and blood, the younger saw nothing but pigheadedness in Valette’s decision. The latter argued that the grand master was not here on the ground, facing incessant cannon fire and arquebus bullets, he had not grappled hand to hand with Janissaries and corsairs, only barely keeping the fort under a Christian flag—how could the grand master possibly appreciate what they were going through?

What they were going through was about to get a good deal worse. At daybreak, the Muslim cannons started up their usual gunpowder symphony, slowly chipping away at the walls and almost incidentally taking Christian lives. This was routine. What was not routine was the sudden crescendo of both artillery and small arms fire just as the sun hit midday, followed by the shrill ululating voices of a thousand Muslim soldiers preparing to overrun the fort en masse. The defenders could not risk a glance over the wall to see what was coming, but they could hear the enemy approach. A wave of intense loose-robed men passed over the bridge and scrambled up the unsteady slope of collapsed masonry, shouting at and cursing the men of St. Elmo; Christian arquebusiers rose just enough to lay down a heavy cross fire into the enemy’s flanks, killing those at the van and leaving a low wall of dead and dying soldiers to slow those coming behind. Christian arquebusiers worked in teams, one man at the ridge firing, a second reloading and passing up fresh guns, and so increased the rate of fire. Those Muslims who managed to stumble over their fallen comrades and loose rubble, who dodged bullets and ignored the minor scrapes or punctures, and who got to the breaches were met with a sharp, agitated hedge of steel pikes and battle-axes. One after another the Ottomans saw the expert, almost balletic, moves of grim Spanish professionals, the swift flick and twist that propelled the razor-sharp edges and hooks of those elegant weapons. An unfortunate Muslim soldier, dressed for mobility and heat rather than for personal safety, might find a hand or a foot sliced off, his face or torso flensed, maimed for life rather than launched to paradise.

And yet they pressed on. Charge followed upon charge; no Iayalar or Janissary was willing to admit defeat against such a weak defense. Each assault failed in its turn, and the slopes that led down to the ditch were painted in blood and littered with scores of dead Muslims, and a lesser number of dead Christians. Those still alive breathed in a rank mixture of burnt sulfur, sweat, blood, viscera, and human waste. The ebb and flow of repeated assaults went on for a full seven hours, a showcase of unspeakable cruelty and astonishing bravery. Balbi praises the supreme valor of the defenders, and then adds that it was equaled by that of the enemy. He singles out Juan de La Cerda, noting that the Spanish captain had received a gunshot wound, attended to it once the enemy had fallen back, and then “with great courage removed his bandage and returned to his post as soon as the alarm was sounded again.”

By the end of the day, the defenders had lost forty men; the Ottomans, five hundred.8 As exhausted soldiers on both sides prepared to settle in for the night, a Spanish renegade called out from the Turkish lines: “You have done well today, knights. But tomorrow you will have the general assault you’ve been yearning for.”

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part III

The threat of a general assault, following on the heels of the day’s fighting and the hard line taken by Valette, proved too much for the defenders. Despite the greater number of Muslim casualties, the exhausted Christians doubted they could take another fight like today’s and saw little point in trying. Not that they feared dying; or at least, so they said. Among those who most wanted to abandon the fort was the “recently accused (poco tacciato) . . . Captain Juan de la Cerda: who nevertheless resolved to die valorously and honorably while fighting for Birgu.” The Spanish soldiers already had petitioned to abandon the place. Now for the first time, they were openly joined by fifty-three of the Knights of St. John. The members of the Order came together in the fort’s small chapel and by candlelight drafted a letter for the grand master and the council:

Most Illustrious and Very Reverend Monseigneur:

When the Turks first landed on Malta, Your Highness ordered the present knights to repair to this fortress and defend it. We have done this with fullness of spirit and to the best of our abilities and with some good outcome, as we believe Your Highness is aware. In the doing we have shirked neither fatigue nor danger. Now, however, the enemy has brought us down to such a state that we can neither injure them nor defend ourselves. They now hold the counterscarp and the ditch. They have carved steps into the very ramparts. They have built a bridge by which they can come and go at will. They have tunneled beneath the walls, leaving us to expect an explosion at any moment. They have raised the ravelin so high that it overlooks the entire fort. In consequence, our sentries are killed as quickly as they take up their positions. We are reduced to such an extent that we are no longer able to use the piazza at the center of the fort. We have lost several men there, and only the chapel provides any measure of safety at all. The soldiers are dispirited, and their officer can no longer get them to man the walls. Perfectly aware that the fort is doomed, they prepare themselves to swim for safety. We likewise see ourselves as at the end of our rope, and because we can no longer execute the obligations of the Order, we are determined, absent Your Highness’s sending us boats tonight in which we can withdraw, to rush out and die like proper knights.

Do not send further reinforcements, as they must surely die as well. This is the determined resolution of us the undersigned. We also point out to Your Highness that [Turkish] galleots have been cruising past the end of the point. Accordingly, thus resolved, we kiss your hand and keep a copy of this letter.

—Dated from St. Elmo, June 8, 1565

Fra Vitellino Vitelleschi of Corneto (modern-day Tarquinia) had the thankless task of crossing to Fort St. Angelo and delivering the letter. Balbi, ever tactful, says only that Valette was “deeply troubled” by the letter, largely because of the number of knights who signed it. Well he might have been. These were not outsiders, but brothers in faith, men sworn to obedience, and their letter was tantamount to insubordination bordering on mutiny. The threat of a quick suicidal attack might have been bluff, or might not. The signatories had no leverage (other than surrender) but the threat to cut the siege of St. Elmo short, which to Valette was unthinkable. If it was true that the Spanish soldiers were no longer willing to stand their ground, then St. Elmo might well be a lost cause.

How to respond?

The grand master had Vitalleschi wait as he wrote out his answer. First he chastised the petitioners for questioning his lawful orders and declared dishonorable the very thought of an unauthorized suicide attack on the enemy. The knights, he reminded them, were bound by vows of obedience, and he, as their superior, had determined that they would best serve the Order and their God on Fort St. Elmo.

He then softened, if only a little. Proud men, after all, can be pushed only so far, and if even his own knights had reached this extreme, how much worse must it be for the others? Valette was willing to demonstrate good faith and hoped that it would buy him at least a little more time. He determined to send over three senior knights—from Spain, Don Francisco Ruys de Medina; from France, Antoine de la Roche; and from Italy, Costantino Castriota—and have them make a full and impartial evaluation of the situation. Any further decisions, whether to remain or to retreat, would follow from their reports, which he expected before sunrise. It was one more delay, which is the least Valette wanted, and by calling their judgment into question, he might cause the knights to reconsider whether things were quite as bad as they thought.

At three that morning, the boat carrying the trio of knights bumped up against the rocks below St. Elmo, and Vitalleschi led the way up the steps to the fort. What they found was a low-rimmed crater filled with a confusion of unexpected activity. The signatories had been so confident of their case that they were already shutting down their operation. Despite the disapproval of Colonel Mas (whose alleged feelings did not seem to translate into any effective action), the defenders of St. Elmo were breaking swords and arquebuses, and tipping cannon shot into the sea. All leftover gunpowder they planned on using, as La Cerda had long ago suggested, to blow up what remained of the fort, preferably while a large number of Turks were inside it.

The soldiers stopped long enough to hear Valette’s short message. They were not pleased. Filthy, tired, wounded, insulted, and clearly sensing prevarication, they said no, there was nothing to discuss. Repeated requests, from the most blunt to the most reserved, had failed to move Valette and his council, yet a blind man could see that the fort was beyond hope. Let the envoys discover what the defenders of Fort St. Elmo had endured these past weeks and see for themselves if the demands were reasonable.

The three knights were then led past the dust-covered, truculent men who defended scarcely maintainable posts. By starlight, these envoys saw the broken walls, the shattered cavalier, and peered at the lost ravelin; from over the wall they heard the sounds of Ottoman spades thudding into the hard ground, pushing the enemy ominously closer. The three knights quickly came to their conclusions. The Spaniard agreed that there was no hope and that immediate withdrawal was the best course. The Provençal gave it a few more days, but in essence agreed.

Castriota, the Italian who on an earlier trip to St. Elmo had declared the ravelin hopelessly lost, was made of sterner stuff. A middle-aged, collateral descendent of the Albanian hero Skanderbeg, he had probably seen more action than any other man present, serving and suffering wounds in the Italian wars of Charles V (Capodorso, Turin, and Naples). He had come late to the Order (1561), “hounded by the court, a stranger to my family, abandoned by my friends,” after a multifaceted career as a soldier, diplomat, and perhaps a spy. Under the pen name of Filonico Alicarnasseo, he had also made a name for himself as a noted literary scholar (his treatise De Cavaglieria, coincidentally was dedicated to Don Pedro de Toledo, father of Don Garcia de Toledo). Given his background and his possession of a “robust and ferocious mind,” it was logical that he should have been chosen as one of this small party. He was the last to speak, and it would have been better if he had kept silent.

Things were not, he said, nearly so bad as some had claimed. True, the outer defense works were lost and the main walls were in terrible shape, and the men were tired and clearly strained. But there was all around them an abundance of stone and masonry. The soldiers might build a secondary wall behind the breaches, a curtain from which they could continue the fight for a good while longer. Abandoning the fort just now would be unnecessary, even foolish, and he could not in good conscience advise the council otherwise. He went further. He said that, should Valette put him in charge, he would be able to hold out at the very least until Don Garcia himself arrived.

It took a brave or foolish man to say such things in such circumstances, and if Castriota’s summing up was an insult to the foot soldiers, it was a slap at the commanders as well. The mood turned ugly, and the men began to shout. Had this interloper not seen how small the fort actually was, how useless the materials he expected them to use? Had he experienced the terror of Ottoman guns, of Janissary arquebusiers, of a wild-eyed Iayalar assault? The more hard-hearted, or just sarcastic, suggested that Castriota should spend a full day there to get a true sense of just how things stood. “Since you claim it possible, you can stay and show us the means and together we can defend [the fort] to the death.”

Castriota claimed obedience to his warrant and said that Valette had ordered him back that same night. In response, an angry Colonel Mas ordered the gate that led to the water’s edge be closed. Ruys de Medina and Antoine de la Roche, the two dissenting knights, pointed out that it was only Castriota who proposed holding on, and the Council must surely favor the opinions of two men against the one.

The impasse was suddenly broken when the chapel bells began to ring, the signal for all men to report to their stations. Remarkably, like trained border collies, they all did so. Soldiers ran into the far dark corners of the outer walls, alert to whatever might be coming, and in an instant the parade ground was entirely cleared.

It was d’Eguaras who had sounded the alarm, not because there was an actual attack, but because he saw the distraction as the only way to break the standoff. The last thing he wanted was a knock-down, drag-out fight between his men and a trio of de facto diplomats. Having scattered the mob, he came from the chapel and urged the envoys to go down the steps to their long boat immediately and return to Valette to describe all they had seen.

One more time, the council met to hear testimony and debate the destiny of Fort St. Elmo. Valette was unmoving. The fort would be defended. He would use shame, anger, guile, ridicule, and whatever else he could to keep men there and fighting. In this instance, he was backed up by Castriota, who took the occasion to do a little grandstanding. The Italian repeated his belief that the fort could be maintained, and further requested that he and his company be allowed to return to the peninsula to fight, even if others would not.

Dawn brought new surprises. A swimmer arrived from Fort St. Elmo, carrying a cow horn sealed with wax, inside which was mail. The letter was from the rebellious knights, their demands for pulling out now replaced by demands for more men and more equipment.

The explanation for this turnabout was simple. On hearing about the knights’ petition the night before, senior members of the various langues had dispatched letters of their own to their countrymen at Fort St. Elmo, chastising the rebels for the shame they brought to the individual langue and to their fellow knights. If knights of the Order of St. John could not be counted on for obedience and bravery up to death if required, what could be expected of other men? What did this kind of disobedience say to the outsiders, the Spanish and Italian soldiers who had volunteered to join them in defense of an island and an Order not their own?

If the point needed to be underscored, the senior men also had informed the defenders of St. Elmo of Castriota’s offer to return to St. Elmo with five hundred men. They added that his was not simply an offer to fight to the end, but to do so as the overall commander of all forces within the fort, an offer that the grand master could all too easily be expected to accept. For the knights, the dishonor was too great. They would as soon stay alone and die as the brave men that they were.

But Valette, having regained the upper hand over the men on St. Elmo, was not going to let go easily. In a communiqué laced with regret, he informed the knights still at St. Elmo that he was relieving them of their post. That such once-brave men should have lost heart was unfortunate, the more so as this was in violation of their vows. If, however, any knight on St. Elmo wished to leave, Valette would not stand in his way. Indeed, he would prefer not to have anyone there on whom he could not rely, and as there were four or more eager volunteers for every soldier currently at the besieged fort, it would be no great hardship to fill the gaps. He announced that he was granting Castriota his request, and that the gentleman had already raised his banner, sounded his drum, and inducted volunteers. The bishop of Malta had promised another two thousand ducats to encourage new recruits. It seemed that Castriota’s common soldiers would do for money, the bishop’s money, what certain knights of St. John would not do for honor.

The letter was delivered by Don Melchior de Monserrat, who had been making trips back and forth between the forts for some time now, and who had some credibility with these men that Castriota did not. He and Miranda—who had received a separate letter from Valette reminding him of the confidence the grand master had in him—both exhorted the defenders to remain, and the spoken and written words, combined, had their intended effect. Word of their capitulation spread throughout Fort St. Angelo and Birgu. The men had come back into line, discipline and determination had been restored. Valette had won. More supplies and a hundred more soldiers were now readied and could come across; Castriota, clearly unwelcome at Fort St. Elmo, was reassigned, no longer expected to defend St. Elmo. The wounded Broglio needed replacing, however, and Valette asked Monserrat to take command of the fort, to which Monserrat, who had repeatedly said that the fort should not be abandoned, agreed.

To help consolidate the soldiers’ new determination to stay and fight, Monserrat took along the Capuchin monk Friar Robert of Eboli, a man with a talent for fire-breathing rhetoric. This peculiar cleric, for nearly ten years a slave in Tripoli after being kidnapped by a nephew of Turgut, had been living in Malta only a year, but seems to have become an institution. On the second day of the siege, he had taken it upon himself to embark on a forty-hours’ adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, a first on Malta, and greatly comforting to the island’s inhabitants.

He now stood before the half-dead men in the dust of the ruins and, with the power of the truly inspired, made his sermon “uplift, confirm, and renew the spirits of the said knights with spiritual consolation.” His rhetoric had moved two newly converted Jews (Valette had recently allowed Jews back on the island) to come “to die in the faith of Christ.” For his work during the siege, his presence was considered as providential. He stayed on at St. Elmo, going from man to man at each station, crucifix in hand, encouraging, comforting, as needed until the night of June 13, at which time the friar accompanied the exhausted Broglio back to Birgu. Fort St. Elmo would endure for a little while longer.

At least one modern scholar suggests that there is an element of wishful thinking in this story. He notes that the men on St. Elmo were in no position to get back to Birgu without Valette’s cooperation, and that the grand master’s dispatching fresh volunteers was simply a means of defusing the situation. Men will, of course, volunteer to join their comrades in hopeless causes if the emotional draw is sufficient.

On June 10, the sixteenth day of the siege, Mustapha had scheduled a night assault on St. Elmo. Surprise was not part of the plan—rather, he intended to stretch the enemy both physically and emotionally before the men attacked. Bombardments lasted into the third night watch, at which point Mustapha judged the Christians sufficiently exhausted. He halted the cannon and sent his men forward into the darkness with scaling ladders.

The downside of his plan was that the defenders were all wide awake and clearly prepared for the attack. Here Balbi mentions fire hoops for the first time. These were wooden rings curved to a diameter large enough to encircle three men. A length of cloth infused with pitch and other accelerants was wrapped around the wood. More cotton, more pitch, and so on until the item was about as thick as a man’s leg. When a heavy press of soldiers appeared on the far side of the wall, the hoops were set alight and tossed horizontally in a murderous game of ring toss. The Turks and their allies were in the habit of wearing loose cotton, which, in the torrid heat of a Maltese summer, was far more comfortable than the leather jerkins and steel plate armor that the Christians wore, but which burned readily. Balbi attributes the greatest number of Muslim casualties to this device.

Whatever advantage Mustapha might have had by timing his assault at night was obviated by the extensive use of fire on both sides. Indeed, the gunners in St. Angelo and the other positions were able to lay their guns by the light of the enemy’s fires. It was not just the hoops that turned night into day. The defenders lit torches, while the Janissaries hurled sachetti, friable clay pots filled with Greek fire that were intended to break on Christian armor and roast the enemy alive. In preparation for these, the defenders had filled a number of deep tubs with water.

By dawn the fight was over. More than fifteen hundred Ottomans were dead, and only sixty Christians. The only activity that morning was a massive cannonade that lasted from dawn till noon.

Turgut had been kept busy as well. Some time earlier, cavalry under Coppier had managed to disrupt his gun battery at Point Tigné. Within a day, he replaced four heavy guns on that point and manned them with enough soldiers to ward off any further attack. Valette countered with new gun emplacements at Fort St. Angelo, and he was able to take out a number of enemy batteries on Mt. Sciberras before they were removed to less vulnerable positions. He also sent over another one hundred and fifty soldiers to St. Elmo, and more ammunition, baskets, mattresses, and rope.

The situation inside the Turkish camps was becoming grim. A Janissary was captured outside the capital city. The man reported that casualties were unexpectedly high and had included Curtogli, aga of the Janissaries, killed by cannon fire while observing St. Elmo from the forward trenches. Six vessels carried Ottoman casualties to Tripoli, and it was common knowledge that the wounded were not recovering as they should. Illness, most likely dysentery, was rampant, and biscuit rations for the laborers were now down to ten ounces a day. There was more talk of friction between the pashas and the Janissaries, a notably independent sort, who could not have been pleased with the loss of their commander. For their part, the pashas could only note that in over two weeks these elite troops had failed to take a fort in a siege that was supposed to have required no more than five days.

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part IV

On June 12, Ottoman soldiers managed to grab a prisoner, who gave them the encouraging news that a cannonball had destroyed the bakers’ oven inside Fort St. Elmo, forcing the defenders to rely on Fort St. Angelo for bread. This intelligence was improved upon by a Spanish deserter, a piper, who informed Mustapha that, given the fort’s architecture, they needed to raise the ravelin just a little bit more to have total command of its interior piazza. Mustapha thanked the piper but, having been deceived before, assured him that if his report proved untrue, the man could expect the same bastinado treatment that had been meted out to La Rivière. While sappers redoubled their efforts on the ravelin, the piper had time to consider the various fates that threatened him. Should Mustapha be dissatisfied with the ravelin, the Ottoman camp might not be the best place for him; returning to St. Elmo, however, was out of the question. He slipped off again, this time to Mdina, where he presented himself as an escaped slave. Alas for him, he was recognized, and so, after some time on the rack, was the lie. Governor Mesquita turned him over to the citizens, who tied him to a horse’s tail and then stoned him to death.

Perhaps the sudden disappearance of the piper caused Mustapha to try to reason with his enemy. On June 14, a trumpet sounded, a white flag went up, and a herald trotted over from the Ottoman lines and offered parley, an offer the defenders refused. The herald withdrew. A little later, the defenders heard an Italian voice call out from the trenches, informing them that Mustapha would graciously allow the Christians to sleep that night and that anyone inside the fort was free to leave in peace. If they continued to resist, however, the Ottoman soldiers would cut them to pieces. In response, the Christians let loose a volley in the Italian’s general direction, which ended any further talk of surrender.

There followed a day and a night of sporadic raids, cannon volleys, the sound of shouts and music that sometimes preceded attacks, but often did not. Mustapha’s technique was that of a picador at a bullfight: the administration of modest irritants to keep the defenders off balance, sleep deprived, and confused. There was little the commanders at St. Elmo could do other than petition Valette for more men, more ammunition, and more supplies. He complied and loaded the night boats with the fire hoops and powder and biscuits and ammunition needed to defend the fort. That these small convoys were able to make their nightly runs was a significant failure on the part of the Ottomans, and lack of moonlight notwithstanding, we can only conjecture why they were allowed to proceed. Once arrived, these goods were shifted to points where the fighting, once it came, would be fiercest.

The real attack came on June 16. Two hours before sunrise, the defenders of St. Elmo could hear the Ottoman mullahs addressing the gathered Muslim force and the full chorus of the soldiers’ response. The pattern of call and response, measured by the slowly rising light to the east, seemed interminable, but the meaning was clear—the soldiers were cleansing themselves of sin and preparing themselves for death. Then silence, as the four thousand men carrying arquebuses padded to their stations. Having called up the dawn, the Ottomans ringed the fort at the counterscarp, west, southwest, and south, facing into the rising sun that at dawn would silhouette anyone who looked over the walls. They were also girding themselves mentally for the fight. They knew how tough the Christians were.

Defenders lined the cracked rim of the fort in a regular pattern—three soldiers, then a knight, three more soldiers, another knight, and so forth. Monserrat, Miranda, and d’Eguaras commanded three bodies of reserves, stationed in the piazza and ready for deployment wherever the enemy threat proved greatest. Support staff prepared wine-soaked bread to refresh the hungry and thirsty—and to comfort the wounded and dying. Guns, pikes, swords, grenades, and stones all lay within easy reach of the men on the front. Fra Roberto da Eboli had returned to the fort and was in his element: “If God is with us, who will be against us? . . . recall the ancient kings of Israel, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, Jefte, Delbora, Jehosaphat, Ezekiel, the brothers Maccabee whose zeal and valor you, sacred knights, must now emulate. . . . In this most sacred sign of the cross we shall prevail.” Not far away, Mustapha reminded his own men that Muslim prisoners inside the dungeons of Fort St. Angelo were counting on them: “Perhaps you have not heard the cries and entreaties of captives from that fortress, people joined to you by blood and bound by hardest chains, enduring a life sadder than death itself, immersed as they are in squalor and sorrow?”

Then the artillery barrage began. This time Piali Pasha had brought gun-mounted galleys to fire in concert with the land batteries. Cannon fired from the ravelin, from all platforms, and from ships offshore, throwing “around a thousand shots with such force that not only the Maltese, but also the neighboring Sicilians were dumbstruck with horror.” The bombardment stopped an hour later, as suddenly as it had begun, leaving the men’s ears ringing. A few of the defenders snatched glances over the rubble to see what was coming next. The farsighted could make out Mustapha, upright, determined, the green standard fringed with horse tails significant of the rank given to him by Suleiman himself. He stepped forward the better to be seen and drew his scimitar from its scabbard. The roar of eight thousand Muslims filled the air. The assault was on.

The Iayalars, religious fanatics, came first, “dressed in the skins of wild animals and the feathers of birds of prey” and with “blue tattoos of various characters on their faces.” A good number of these alarming men managed to cross the ditch and scrabble up the loose rubble toward the breach, where they were stymied by an “infinity of caltrops,” sharp spikes welded in such a fashion that one point will always face upward and impale the foot of anyone unlucky enough to walk on it. While the Iayalars contended with this new hazard, Christian arquebusiers rose up and fired into their ranks, killing many outright, wounding others, but failing to turn the tide.

Soon enough the fighting drew closer, as guns gave way to pikes and halberds, then swords, stones, and finally knives, poniards, and fists. Fortune seemed to favor the Muslims; a westerly breeze drove smoke from incendiaries into the defenders’ eyes, and more fortunate still, as the Iayalars had filled the breach, the entire store of the Christians’ firepots somehow ignited, exploded, and covered those nearby in flaming pitch. Christians and Muslims alike screamed, ran, rolled on the ground, and threw themselves into the water barrels or the sea.

Their bravery notwithstanding, the Iayalars, exhausted, withdrew soon after this incident. Mustapha now sent in his dervishes. This new strain of religious fanatic made their way over the dead and dying bodies of their coreligionists and took up the fight in a dry fog of powder smoke and the increasingly scorching heat of Malta’s July sun. The Christians managed to push the enemy back down to the counterscarp and would have pushed farther if Monserrat had not ordered them to remain in the relative safety of the fort. Zeal was all well and good, but the numbers were against them, and Monserrat wanted his men to prepare for the third wave of attackers. It was the turn of the spahis. Another charge at the breach, another failure to take it. Mustapha now turned to the warhorses of his army, the Janissaries.

The Janissaries targeted the post of Colonel Mas. Valette, watching from Fort St. Angelo, saw the attackers bringing scaling ladders to the wall, and ordered his gunners to shoot them down. Precision was wanting. Their first volley landed too far to the right and killed a mixture of the enemy and eight Christians, “putting with this misstep the fort in greatest danger of being lost.” Frantic signaling had the artillerists correct the error. Their next shot was better. Twenty Turks died, but no Christians. The remaining Muslims were few enough for the men at St. Elmo to push back successfully with pikes and trumps.

The next wave included a crew heading specifically for the cavalier. Burning hoops repelled some, and a good number were seen rushing down to the water to extinguish the burning gelatin that clung to their flesh. For seven hours “spears, torches and stones flew from all sides,” until Mustapha and Turgut finally called it quits. The defenders, once they realized they had bought another day, jeered at the retreating Muslims and heard the cries taken up by their comrades across the water in Fort St. Angelo. Mustapha’s report to Suleiman was philosophical. He wrote that he had suspended operations “because all things are tied to their destiny and marks of victory are unavoidable.”

Regrettably for him, destiny in this case had decreed a thousand Turks and only a hundred and fifty Christians should lie dead on the edge of the fort. Two Muslim standards, one belonging to Turgut, the other to Mustapha Pasha, were now in Christian hands. The battle had exhausted both sides, and veterans of the fight believed that the Turks would have been able to take the fort if they had made just one more assault. Balbi writes, in a left-handed compliment, that convicts, oarsmen, and even the Maltese fought “as if [they] were [men] of superior reputation,” persona de mayor estima.

Among the dead was Medrano, having received a bullet through the head as he seized one of the Muslim standards. Miranda had led the final counterattack and was wounded (broken leg) but not, according to him at least, incapacitated; he ordered that a chair be brought up and positioned near the big guns. Let the enemy come again—the Spaniard would stay with his men. He could, he noted, fire an arquebus from a sitting position and even kill with a sword if his enemy had the nerve to approach. Other defenders, burned, cut, maimed, of lesser birth and therefore of whom less was expected, did not stay. These, along with Medrano’s body, were ferried back to Birgu; senior among them was the badly wounded Juan de La Cerda. The force was down to some three hundred men.

Outside the battle zone, the Ottomans were on the move. They had now struck camp at the village of Zeitun, their halfway point between Marsaxlokk and Mt. Sciberras, and burned the remains—they would soon be settled closer to the fighting and bring their ships into Grand Harbor. The endgame was under way. St. Elmo would be annihilated shortly.

Valette would no longer order any more men into Fort St. Elmo, though he would accept volunteers. Three hundred men of Birgu and thirty knights stepped forward and presented themselves for service across the water. They were targeted by Turgut’s sharpshooters on Tigné, whom Valette had Coppier chase away until the boats could make it across. On June 17, Valette reported these events to Don Garcia in terms meant to encourage him to get on with sending some aid. The entire Ottoman fleet, he said, had moved from Marsaxlokk at night so “we should not see his weakness” and from “fear of your fleet,” thus leaving Marsaxlokk free for any Spanish relief force. Bombardment of Fort St. Elmo had slackened, morale was high even though supplies were low, and Valette was certain that just a few more men, even just the two triremes of the Order now in Messina, would be enough to hold the fort indefinitely. “Our safety lies in your hands; after that, our hope remains in God.”

The siege was in its twenty-fourth day. The Ottomans kept up a desultory bombardment of six guns on the southern spur, but spent the better part of their day in recovering and burning their dead. As the smoke rose and then bent back and covered the island, Mustapha and his lieutenants considered why Fort St. Elmo had not yet fallen. Exasperated at the tenacity of the enemy and eager to get the operation over with, he was ready to listen to all sides. Theories were fielded, argued, weighed, and finally reduced to three. First, the Christian gun on the fort’s eastern flank was disrupting any mass attacks on the right side. It must be taken out. Second, the guns on Fort St. Angelo had found their range and were interfering with operations on the southern side of Sciberras peninsula. They must be neutralized. And finally, the steady flow of fresh troops from Fort St. Angelo kept the defensive manpower at an insuperable level.

This last point was key, and Turgut had already begun to address it. In addition to his cannons, Turgut had placed sharpshooters on the peninsula of Tigné. Men without pity, they fired on the small boats bringing the dead and wounded back to Birgu.

#

Turgut and the Ottoman high command began the morning with a tour of the various trouble spots with a view toward improving offensive capabilities. They also reconsidered the terrain. Turgut ordered that the counterscarp of the ditch facing St. Angelo be extended down to where the relief boats from Birgu entered Fort St. Elmo. The project had been more trouble than it was worth back when the siege was estimated at five days, but reality was forcing their hand. Sappers were already pushing the Turkish trenches forward, and sharpshooters should be able to fire not just on the skiffs that ferried men across the water, but at the subterranean entrance to Fort St. Elmo. Other sappers completed the curtain wall that hid the Turks from the guns of St. Angelo.

Turgut and Mustapha and their staffs, all dressed in the brightest robes possible, were inspecting the new arrangements. Balbi writes the Turgut was dissatisfied with a Turkish gunner who was aiming his cannon too high. He told the man to lower it. Still too high. He ordered him to it lower still more, but this final time the trajectory was too low, with disastrous consequences. The ball glanced against a trench and chipped off a stone that ricocheted back and hit Turgut in the temple. Turgut’s turban absorbed some of the shock, possibly preventing him from being killed outright, but the shock was severe. Blood flowed out of his mouth, perhaps even his ear and eye, and he lost the power of speech. Staff officers, appalled, quickly covered the still breathing Turgut and carried him back to Mustapha’s own tent at the Marsa, worried that news of his injury might spread and alarm the men. Ever the professional, Mustapha continued the inspection, and with his remaining staff oversaw the emplacement of four new guns aimed at the watery route to Fort St. Angelo.

#

News of Turgut’s injury marked the beginning of a small winning streak for the Christians. The day after the corsair was hit, Grugno, the knight in charge of the cavalier, was able to lay cannon fire into knots of the enemy and kill the aga (commanding officer) of Turkish ordnance. The Ottomans’ reaction to this—piercing howls of grief—encouraged Grugno to strike out at other brightly uniformed men. To do so, he had to expose himself more than was strictly prudent. A Muslim sharpshooter soon winged him, and he was sent back to the infirmary at Birgu, replaced by a Fortunio Escudero, a knight of Navarre who was even more troublesome than his predecessor. The Muslims eventually trained thirty-four guns on the cavalier, he had become such a nuisance.

There was some encouragement for the Ottomans as well. On the evening of that same day, across the waters they heard a massive explosion, the more surprising as they had not been firing in that direction. A cloud of dust and smoke hung over the area, and only later did they learn that it had been the powder mill at Fort St. Angelo. Two kantars—about a hundred kilos—of powder were lost along with ten workers. The Turks cheered the display “with their bestial voices,” which Valette answered with a volley of cannon fire across the waters. Fra Sir Oliver Starkey was appointed to investigate the matter (possibly Valette was handing the Englishman a vote of confidence; before the siege, he had been charged with accepting bribes). He determined that the explosion was accidental, but it was unnerving nevertheless, and that much powder was hard to lose. Valette sent word to Mdina asking them to make up the shortfall and to provide some twenty-three more kantars besides. With St. Elmo nearly ready to fall, he would need them.

Turkish guns surrounded the fort and kept firing the entire day, though almost to no purpose—at some points the bombardment had reached bedrock, and only the ditch lay between Christian and Turk, a ditch the Ottomans were doing their best to fill up with brush and rubble and whatever else came to hand. As the inevitable climax approached, the defenders of Fort St. Elmo seemed to have fallen into a calm acceptance of what was to come, which in turn encouraged daring and insouciance. The night of June 19, Pietro di Forli had himself lowered into the ditch, where he hoped to torch the bridge. He could not—the Ottomans had packed it with wet dirt (terra ben bagnata) and its defenders soon noticed him and began to shoot. Di Forli managed to return to the fort, where his companions followed up his efforts by dismantling a section of wall and firing chain shot at the bridge. This turned out to be a waste of powder, as they were unable to depress the angle of fire enough to actually hit the structure. However futile these efforts were, they at least gave proof that these men had by no means lost their spirit.

By now the space between Fort St. Elmo and Fort St. Angelo had become a watery no-man’s-land, but somehow Ramon Fortuyn, the knight sometimes credited with the invention of fire hoops, was able to cross over from Fort St. Angelo without incident to get a sense of how things stood. Miranda, more or less in charge despite himself, seemed a little surprised to see him and assured Fortuyn that it would be simple cruelty to send more men to die. Those remaining officers on St. Elmo—d’Eguaras, Monserrat—all said the same. Fortuyn would better serve the island by returning to St. Angelo and readying himself for the fight that would soon begin again at Birgu. All that remained was prayer. Accordingly, Fortuyn went back to Fort St. Angelo along with two Muslim standards captured in the last assault, standards that he ceremoniously presented to Faderigo de Toledo as a proxy for Don Garcia and King Philip.

Fortuyn’s report clearly disturbed Valette, and the grand master followed up the next night by dispatching a second emissary, the Chevalier de Boisbreton, along with an Italian brother Ambrogio Pegullo. A dangerous trip—the moon was just past full and the Turks were vigilant. Fra Ambrogio’s head was taken off by a cannonball. Boisbreton’s arrival must have stirred new, if unreasonable, hope within these men—why else had he been sent if not with good news? But nothing had really changed. The fort, they agreed, might be able to hold off one more Muslim assault, but no more. If they did hold off such an attack, and no help arrived from Sicily, it would be best to evacuate the fort at that time.

This was wishful thinking at best. Boisbreton managed to bring the news back to Valette, but only barely. Turgut’s engineers finally had extended their trenches to command the grotto from which Fort St. Elmo anchored its lifeline to Fort St. Angelo. By the same token, it would be impossible to get enough boats to ferry the men in St. Elmo safely across the water. In Turgut’s words, Fort St. Elmo, the child of Birgu, was now cut off from the mother’s milk and must soon fall and die.

June 20 also appears to be the last day that anyone in the Order had enough leisure to compose a daily situation report.

#

June 21, the feast of Corpus Christi. Soldiers, civilians, and men, women, and children lined the streets of Birgu. Inside the Church of St. Lawrence, the priest intoned the liturgy, raised the monstrance containing the host above his head, and then solemnly carried it into the daylight and through the streets—a demonstration to the faithful that God was not confined to the inside of a church but was everywhere with them. Valette and other knights, trading the red-and-white cloaks of martyrdom for the black-and-white of devotion, raised the poles to hold the canopy that shielded the container from the sun or rain. At the conclusion, Valette, “carrying his staff, served food to thirteen poor men,” as did others of the Order, replaying the message of love and charity at the core of the Order’s mission. To the sound of distant cannon fire, the procession trod the narrow stone streets among the people of Birgu, solemn, but with a care for current dangers—the route deliberately avoided those areas most at risk of Ottoman artillery.

Across the water, Ottoman forces had managed to create a breach on the scarp walls of the cavalier and hurried to exploit this bonanza. Quickly erecting a barricade against the gunfire and fire hoops of the Christians above them, they brought up four or five small culverines (capable of firing sixty-pound balls) and began to fire down into the central piazza. It took the men inside a few minutes to realize what had happened, and when they did, they fired back with small arms. When that failed to discourage the enemy, Monserrat ordered one of the few remaining cannons wheeled about. The gunners knew their business. They stuffed the barrels with scrap iron and stone, fired on the tower, and silenced the enemy position—at least, for the time being.

The end, however, was getting near. The sun went down, and as the exhausted Christians lay and waited, the cool night air carried the sounds from the Ottoman army of “the same prayers, rituals, and acts of superstition and false religion that had been heard the night before the previous assault.” There was no sleep, and so the defenders made the best use they could of the dark. Fifteen men under the Rhodian Pietro Miraglia (emulating the Italian Pietro da Forli) slipped into the ditch and attempted (unsuccessfully) to set the Ottomans’ bridge on fire before being chased back to the fort. The rest of the night was spent listening to the enemy’s prayers and chants as both sides prepared for the morning.

The attack came just after dawn and on every side. The Ottomans threw scaling ladders against the walls and were met by flying sacchetti, gunfire, trumps, and pikes. For six hours of repeated assaults, they chipped away at the defenders, never quite getting the upper hand. Several times the Ottomans planted their standards on the parapet, and each time the Christians pulled the banners down. On one occasion, the Muslims succeeded in mounting a portion of the wall, only to find that the siege cannon had left the masonry so unstable that it collapsed under their weight, throwing them down into the ditch below. From across the water, the guns on St. Angelo fired on the wooden bridge leading to the post of Colonel Mas. This was welcome help to the Christians inside the fort, who were running low on powder and soon forced to defend the breaches with steel.

Janissaries had also retaken their position near the cavalier and were again firing into the fort proper. Monserrat ordered the same gun that was so successful the day before to prevail again. For Monserrat it was a personal victory, and his last. Seconds later a bullet struck him in the chest, killing him instantly. The still-living were saved the trouble of burial when moments later cannon fire brought down a wall on his remains. After the siege was over, survivors “dug through the ruins of the fort and found his body, fully armed, his hands joined as if still in prayer to God.”

With Monserrat gone, rumors spread among the foot soldiers that d’Eguaras, Miranda, and Colonel Mas, all three of whom had not been seen since the last assault, had also been killed. This was easy to disprove. The three were all badly wounded, struck by bullets, arrows, and artificial fire, but still alive, or half-alive. They dragged themselves into view to encourage their men and to restore some sense of order. Mas and Miranda returned to their places on the line; d’Eguaras returned to his command post at the center of the piazza. Those still alive had neither the time nor the energy to bury the dead. Instead, they stacked the bodies against the walls to bolster the defenses. Even this gruesome expedience might delay the enemy and cost them a few more casualties, which was some consolation to the survivors.

Seven hours after the assault had begun, five hundred Christians lay dead, one hundred others wounded. They comprised the last of the fort, and yet, against all logic, the Turks still fell short of victory. Balbi claims that all Christian officers were now killed. The men waited in what is described as a day as hot as any fire. The next attack could come at any time, on any side, on all sides. Anyone not utterly incapable was at his post, weapon in hand. Mustapha toyed with these men, launching a series of feints, so many that no one bothered to keep a tally. Nightfall provided welcome relief from the sun at least, and time enough to tend their wounds, many of them serious.

All stocks of gunpowder were now empty, and the surviving defenders were forced to scavenge the powder horns of their dead comrades. They were able to get out one last communication to Fort St. Angelo. A single light swift boat shot out from the grotto under St. Elmo and managed to elude ten heavier Muslim craft. As backup, an unnamed Maltese swimmer followed suit, navigating a good part of his trip underwater. They reported that in St. Elmo “almost none healthy remained, and of those who were still healthy, all were exhausted, all soiled and stained by the blood, brains, marrow, and viscera of the dead colleagues and the enemy they had killed.” That the defenders would have only cold steel to fight with—Cirni refers to picks and spades—was almost an afterthought.

Men trapped in situations that must end in certain death can inspire a strange envy in outsiders. Having heard the last testimony from the fort, of its remaining defenders with their broken weapons, a large number of knights, soldiers, and citizens stepped forward to join the chosen few certain to die the next day. Romegas himself volunteered to lead them. Valette, who had masked his emotions with bluff heartiness and further talk of Don Garcia’s imminent arrival, refused to allow it. He did, however, agree that they might carry supplies to the beleaguered men, the first supplies in three days.

In the event, it didn’t matter. The moon was full and the Ottomans were on highest alert; and while a lone swift boat might, with some luck, successfully dart its way through, there was no hope of five cargo-laden boats lumbering over the water between St. Angelo and St. Elmo in safety. Piali Pasha, already humiliated by the last vessel out of St. Elmo, was in no mood to let another one back into the fort, and now led the flotilla to prevent any action in person. Romegas, outnumbered sixteen to one and target of a furious storm of cannon fire, gunfire, and arrows, chose to return back to Fort St. Angelo.

The chosen few remaining at Fort St. Elmo were now utterly alone. Without hope for victory, for rescue, or for mercy, they could only prepare themselves for a good death. “Seeing that all hope of survival was broken, being already certain, clear, and secure that they were to be taken and killed, and their fate delayed only so far as the hour of dawn; with great contrition they confessed to one another, asking forgiveness of God for their sins, and with his Divine Majesty, they devoutly reconciled themselves with no Sacraments other than a shared fraternal and devout embrace.”

Along with the soldiers, two friars, Pierre Vigneron and Alonso de Zembrana, one French, one Spanish, remained at St. Elmo. The two had tasks of their own to fulfill before sunrise. They entered the chapel, which now served as a hospital for the most grievously wounded, and delivered what last rites they could. This accomplished, the two brothers prised up a large paving stone and, putting it to one side, dug a hole in the earth below. Into this cavity they laid the gold and silver chalices and candlesticks and a reliquary containing a bone of St. John the Baptist. With the stone back in place, they proceeded to gather all remaining sacred objects—the tapestries that covered the walls, the wooden crosses and cloth vestments, the sacred books. All these they carried out of the chapel, piled up in the center of the fort, and set on fire. The Turks took this as a signal fire calling for help.

The pair made the circuit of the fort. They took confession from and conferred absolution on all those who remained alive in Fort St. Elmo in anticipation of imminent death. Then they, too, waited for the dawn.

#

June 23 was the eve of the feast of St. John the Baptist. Fort St. Elmo had held out for twenty-nine days, and the Ottomans were impatient to be done with it. Throughout the night, their thirty-six heavy guns fired from three points on land and several of Piali’s ships on the water, illuminating both the sky and the fort and proving if nothing else that they still had a vast amount of ordnance to waste. Dawn broke. The Muslim soldiers on Sciberras gazed up at the smoking ruins and saw the white-and-red crossed flag still flying, still defiant. Presently they made themselves ready for what would have to be the final assault. Across the water, the men at Fort St. Angelo, all too aware of what was coming and helpless to stop it, stood and watched the final act play out.

Inside St. Elmo scarcely sixty men remained, scattered among the breaches and placed in the remains of the cavalier, outnumbered by the dead, who lay where they had fallen. Few of those left alive had escaped injury; all were determined to hold on to the last instant. The captains were focused on a hard fight, a good death.

One more time the kettledrums pounded, brass horns shrilled, men shouted, and the order to advance was given. Mustapha reported to the sultan that his troops, “shouting ‘Allah, Allah!’ and accompanied by the souls of the martyred,” began to charge the walls. Janissaries, spahis, and their corsair allies, impatient for victory, crossed over the rubbish pit of stone, earth, and broken weaponry, climbed over the corpses, scrambled up the incline toward the breaches, and braved a single, weak volley from inside the fort.

If they expected the job to be easy, they were disappointed. The first Muslims into the breach were met with a hedge of sharp steel, pikes, swords, lances, and a hail of stones. An hour passed, and although men on both sides fell, the fort did not. Another hour passed, and the attackers fell back, re-formed, came forward again, and again were held off by the stubborn Christian line. Both sides licked their wounds and dragged their dead away. From time to time there followed small diversionary attacks of no particular consequence, each a prelude to the next general assault.

When the final assault came, the first Janissaries to cross the rise found, to their astonishment, Captain Miranda, strapped into a chair and gripping a pike. The commander was maimed and bandaged, but still possessed of the soldier’s skills of thrust and parry. Even now in a position of weakness he managed to slash and gut a handful of enemy soldiers before his fellow Christians were able to repel the attackers one more time. The Muslims, however, managed a final parting shot that killed Miranda.

Command now devolved on d’Eguaras. His leg had been shattered, and so he too was confined to a chair. Seeing how the number of his men had dwindled, he thought to improve the odds by consolidating his remaining forces. He ordered the gunners on the cavalier to fall back and join their comrades inside the fort. This move was a boon for the Muslims, who quickly moved to fill the cavalier with sharpshooters. From its heights they could look down inside the shattered fort and signal to their comrades just how diluted the Christian force truly was. All tactical advantage now lay with Mustapha. Marksmen on the ravelin and on the cavalier could fire down on the Christians from the rear while Muslim infantry could attack from the front and flanks. (Oddly, Balbi says that the Muslims confined themselves to throwing stones.)

A little past eleven that morning, the final assault began. Janissaries, corsairs, and anyone else who wanted to be in at the kill, drew their blades and overtopped the crumbling edge of the fort and poured into the main piazza. The area soon resembled a Roman amphitheater in the final stages of a gladiators’ show, a confused mass of desperate men fighting in separate brawls “in which there ran rivers of blood from the multitude of the dead and the wounded on all sides.” D’Eguaras was among the first to die. Knocked from his chair, he managed to raise his sword and limp toward four Janissaries. One of the four brought a scimitar down on his neck and severed his head, which Mustapha would later order stuck on the end of a pike.

With their comrades gone, not wishing to survive them, unable to see beyond the moment or to hope for a life in this world, the remaining Christians lashed out with a superhuman fury at any Muslim who came within reach. At the door of the chapel, Chevalier Paolo Avogadro swung a broad sword with both hands and soon created a half-circle of Muslim dead around him. It took a volley of arquebus fire to put an end to this slaughter, and the dying knight collapsed on top of the pile of men he himself had killed.

The few small fights were winding down as force of numbers made good the Ottoman effort to leave no man standing. Colonel Mas, last of the commanders and also confined to a chair, swung a two-handed sword until he was himself cut down. Fortunio Escudero, last gunner on the cavalier, headed a small group of soldiers wielding broadswords on the crest of the fort, clearly visible from across the water at Fort St. Angelo, until he and they too succumbed to greater Muslim numbers. Official reckoning was now only minutes away. Mehmed ben Mustafa, who had captured La Rivière on the first day of the invasion, had the honor of seizing the knights’ ragged banner for his general as well, after which he “entered the bastion of the infidels and chopped off some heads.” The end was marked when a wounded knight, Frederico Lanfreducci, went to his post at the marina and gave the final agreed-upon smoke signal (una fumata) that the fort was lost. Moments later he was taken prisoner, becoming one of nine Christian survivors captured in Fort St. Elmo’s last battle. A handful of Maltese, able swimmers, were able to escape.

The fight was over. It had taken four hours.

Warfare Frankish Greece 1204-1380 I

Frankish Greece, 1204–61

The Fourth Crusade (1202-04), consisting of a land army composed of French and Italian troops and a powerful Venetian naval fleet, had originally been planned as an offensive against Egypt. Through a combination of greed, political intrigue and mutual distrust, the expedition ended up attacking the Greeks instead. After the Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, those members of the expedition who chose to stay in Greece undertook the conquest of what remained of the Byzantine empire. This resulted in the creation of several new Latin states around the Aegean. The Latin empire itself encompassed Thrace and the northern fringes of Asia Minor, while Macedonia and parts of Thessaly formed the kingdom of Thessaloniki. Further south, Byzantine Attica and Boeotia were turned into the Frankish duchy of Athens, and below it the principality of Achaia covered the Peloponnese. Meanwhile the Venetians established a number of important trading colonies around the Aegean, particularly at Modon, Coron, Constantinople and Crete. They also dominated numerous islands which lay either directly within the Venetian sphere of influence or were colonised by individual Venetian citizens. These included Corfu, Cephalonia and Euboea, as well as the Cyclades, which formed the duchy of the Archipelago under the Sañudo dukes of Naxos. Eventually other islands came to be controlled by rival powers, most notably the Genoese, who held Chios and several neighbouring trading posts between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. In addition, from 1306 onwards the Hospitallers subjugated Rhodes.

Leading Greeks who had fled from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade also created three new states situated on the fringes of the Byzantine world. The capital cities of these states lay at Trebizond along the Black Sea, at Nicaea in Asia Minor and at Arta in Epiros. All three of these territories, and in particular the latter two, saw themselves as the natural heirs to the Byzantine empire and consequently often clashed both with each other and with their unwelcome new Latin neighbours. To the north of Constantinople, the Franks were also threatened by the Bulgars, who had been opponents of the Byzantine empire before 1204 and now continued to launch frequent attacks into northern Greece in conjunction with an aggressive tribe of horsemen known as the Cumans.

This highly splintered political situation inevitably led to almost constant fighting in the Aegean region and ultimately resulted in the destruction of virtually all the Latin states which had been set up after 1204. The first to disappear was the ephemeral kingdom of Thessaly, whose conquest by the despots of Epiros was effectively completed with the fall of Thessaloniki in 1224. At this time the Epirote Greeks also made some significant advances against the duchy of Athens to their south. Meanwhile, the Greeks of Nicaea made good progress in the east. By the end of the 1220s the Franks had lost their possessions in Asia Minor and the Latin empire itself had been reduced to the area immediately around Constantinople, leaving the rulers of Nicaea and Epiros to fight it out for control of northern Greece. Indeed, as the Nicaean Greeks crossed the Sea of Marmara and began to advance westwards, those of Epiros became so alarmed that they formed an alliance with their former enemies, the Franks of Achaia. In 1259 this alliance was ended by the Nicaean ruler Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-82), who inflicted a crushing defeat on William II of Achaia (1246-78) at the battle of Pelagonia in southern Macedonia. As a result of this encounter Epirote power in northern Greece was weakened, and Prince William found himself in captivity until 1262, when Michael finally released him in exchange for the Achaian fortresses of Mistra, Old Mania and Monemvasia. These powerful castles were located in the south-eastern corner of the Peloponnese and provided Michael and his successors with a perfect bridgehead from which to reconquer Achaia from the Franks. This process continued sporadically until the 1420, when the last Latin remnants of the principality were swallowed up and incorporated into the Greek province of Mistra.

Two years after the battle of Pelagonia, the Nicaean Greeks also managed to recapture Constantinople, thereby wiping out the Latin empire. This made them masters of a newly recreated Byzantine empire stretching from western Asia Minor to Thessaly, and enabled Michael VIII and his son Andronikos II (1282-1328) to apply further pressure on the despotate of Epiros, the principality of Achaia and the duchy of Athens. While Franks in the Peloponnese struggled to contain attacks from Mistra, the 1270s witnessed the temporary conquest of Euboea by Licario of Karystos, a Veronese adventurer in Michael VII’s employ. Meanwhile, the duchy of Athens came under attack from the north, and in order to halt these advances and to strengthen his position in relation to other Greek lords in Epiros and Thessaly, Duke Gautier I of Athens (1308-11) eventually decided to seek external assistance. This led to the arrival of a ferocious band of Catalan mercenaries in central Greece. These soldiers of fortune had previously been used by Andronikos II to fight the Turks in Asia Minor, but after falling out with their former employer they had gradually moved west through the Byzantine empire, pillaging and looting as they went, before they eventually found themselves in the pay of Duke Gautier. However, after some initial successes an argument broke out between the duke and the volatile Catalans over pay, and as a result they took to the field against Gautier and his Achaian allies. This decisive encounter, traditionally known as the battle of Cephissus but actually fought at Halmyros (southern Thessaly), took place in March 1311 and led to the death of the unfortunate Gautier along with virtually all of his Athenian knights. In its wake Gautier’s lands were conquered by the Catalans, who then colonised and ruled the duchy of Athens until the late fourteenth century. During this period the Catalans acknowledged the overlordship of the kings of Aragon, who held the ducal title and ruled Athens through representatives whom they regularly sent out to Greece.

The dramatic advances made by the Greeks against the Latins had an important effect on the internal history of Achaia. Originally the Frankish rulers of this crusader state had recognised the Latin emperors as their overlords, but after Michael VIII recaptured Constantinople in 1261, and gained control over Mistra, Old Mania and Monemvasia the following year, it became essential for the Villehardouin princes of Achaia to find a powerful new suzerain who could aid them against the Greeks. During the 1260s, therefore, William II of Villehardouin (1246-78) allied himself with Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX of France and ruler of Naples (1266-85). As part of this alliance it was agreed that, if William did not produce a male heir, Achaia would eventually pass under Charles’s control, which was exactly what happened following William’s death in 1278. These events turned out to be a mixed blessing for the Peoloponnese, for on the one hand Charles and his Angevin descendants did provide sporadic military support for the Peloponnese (as William had hoped), but on the other relatively few of them ever visited the region, preferring instead to send royal representatives from Italy or to grant parts of Achaia to their own followers. Perhaps the most important such figure was the wealthy Florentine lord Niccolo Acciajuoli, who acquired large parts of northern Morea, including the castellany of Athens, between the 1330s and 1350s. Toward the end of the fourteenth century Niccolo’s descendants also made significant advances against the Catalans of Athens, who were detested in France and Italy because of their close links with the Aragonese, arch-enemies of the Angevins and the Avignon papacy.

The fact that the Angevin rulers of Achaia resided in Naples rather than Greece gradually had the effect of weakening central authority in the Peloponnese, so that the region’s late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century history was reduced to a series of internal clashes between various local factions. In the north the Florentine lords of Corinth, allied with a new company of Navarrese mercenaries who had arrived in the 1380s, fought against the Catalans. In the south east the Greeks of Mistra continued to advance, whilst Achaia itself sporadically found itself disputed between rival Angevin claimants. As the Turkish threat grew, the Venetians and the Hospitallers also became more involved in the politics of Latin Greece, sometimes placing entire areas under their own protection. Indeed, from the 1390s onwards, local Christian squabbles became little more than an irrelevance as the Ottoman Turks began to overrun the entire region regardless of whether it was controlled by Greeks, Italians, Franks or Iberians. By 1460 the Byzantine empire had disappeared and most of the Greek mainland had been incorporated into the Ottoman empire. During the next two centuries all remaining Christian islands in the eastern Mediterranean also fell to the Turks.

During this period the military strength of the Latins and their opponents varied considerably. The relatively short life span of the kingdom of Thessaly and the Latin empire, for example, indicates that here western settlers found themselves under extreme pressure from the very beginning. It has been estimated that the total number of cavalry, including both knights and mounted sergeants, available to the first Latin emperor, Baldwin of Flanders (1204-5), only came to between 500 and 1000 horsemen. Contemporary accounts bear this out, for in late 1204 a mere 120 knights left Constantinople, crossed the Bosphorus and began to conquer as many lands as they could from the Greeks of Nicaea. Similarly, Baldwin’s successor Henry (1206-16) campaigned against the Bulgars with a total of 400 knights in 1206, and was accompanied by 260 knights when he advanced against the Nicaean Greeks in 1211.  Initially these figures do not seem small when compared with Greek forces, for the largest reliable total given for a contemporary Nicaean army is that of 2000 cavalry (including 800 Latin mercenaries) at the battle of Antioch on the Meander, an encounter with the Seljuk Turks which took place in 1211.  It should also be noted that the advances of 1204 and Henry’s campaign of 1211 both ended in Frankish success, suggesting that Latin and Nicaean forces were evenly balanced at this time, particularly when the Greeks were also struggling with their Seljuk neighbours to the east.

To some extent the same may have applied to the Cuman and Bulgar troops who threatened the northern border of the Latin empire and the kingdom of Thessaly. In 1208, for example, a mere 2000 Latins allegedly confronted 33,000 Bulgars in northern Greece, but the fact that this encounter ended in a Frankish victory certainly casts doubt on the latter figure and suggests that the Bulgars could not possibly have enjoyed such an overwhelming numerical superiority. Similarly, the combined armies of Nicaea and Bulgaria which reached the walls of Constantinople in 1235 must have been smaller than western sources imply, otherwise they would have annihilated the 140 Latin knights who emerged from the city and successfully drove them off under the leadership of John of Brienne. Here we are confronted with the usual problem of trying to establish accurate troop numbers from medieval chroniclers who tended to exaggerate (or simply invent) the size of hostile armies. Whilst the number of western knights mentioned by these sources appears to be realistic, they also fail to provide us with any detailed information about the quality and quantity of other troops such as sergeants, infantry and archers, even though these soldiers presumably made up the bulk of Latin armies. We can only assume that an apparently miraculous victory inflicted on tens of thousands of opponents by a few hundred western knights actually represented a more equally matched contest between a Frankish army which was really somewhat larger and a Greek, Bulgar or Cuman force which must have been considerably smaller.

Warfare Frankish Greece 1204-1380 II

Battle of Halmyros, a battle between the lightly armed but battle-hardened Almogavars of the infamous Catalan Company and the French Knights of the Duchy of Athens.  By Darren Tan

It still appears that Latin armies in northern Greece were generally outnumbered, and certainly too thinly spread out to defend both this region and the frontier with Nicaea at the same time. When in 1205 Kalojan of Bulgaria (1197-1207) invaded Frankish territories and encouraged the Greek population of Thrace to rebel, the Latin emperor Baldwin had to persuade his brother Henry to abandon ‘all that he had conquered’ in Asia Minor to cross the Bosphoros and help to defend the empire’s European borders. Even these drastic measures failed to prevent Kalojan and his Greek allies from occupying virtually all of Thrace. Consequently, even if we dismiss Villehardouin’s exaggerated claim that there were an additional 14,000 Cumans alongside all the other troops in Kalojan’s army, we must surely agree with his general conclusion that the Latin emperor ‘could not raise enough troops to defend his territories’. These events also confirm that, apart from having to cope with their external enemies, Latin settlers were heavily outnumbered by a potentially hostile native population. Indeed, during Kalojan’s invasion some Franks continued to fear for their lives even after they had found shelter inside Tchorlu, a fortified city to the west of Constantinople, ‘because they doubted the people of the town’.

It was not the overwhelming superiority of any one opponent but the number of different enemies, the unreliability of the local people and the sheer size of the territories which needed to be defended that contributed to the early demise of the Latin states in northern Greece. It is perhaps hardly surprising that the crusader states set up in south-western Greece and on the Aegean islands survived much longer. The duchy of Athens, the principality of Achaia and the Venetian colonies were all smaller in size and were protected by seas, mountains or other natural features such as the isthmus of Corinth. Moreover, the further Latin conquerors travelled from Constantinople, the more they benefited from the increasing regionalism which had been apparent within the Byzantine empire since before the Fourth Crusade. When Boniface of Montferrat, the man who established the kingdom of Thessaly, undertook his conquest of northern Greece in 1204, he received a warm welcome from some locals who regarded Constantinople as a distant and corrupt absorber of taxes, and consequently felt that it was best simply to come to terms with the Latins. Similarly, when the Franks reached the Peloponnese local Greek lords (‘archons’) were often allowed to keep their incomes provided that they recognised their new Frankish masters. By contrast, the volatile political situation in Constantinople itself before and during the Fourth Crusade, followed by the flight of many leading Greeks to Nicaea or elsewhere, left little room for a quiet transition of power in northern Greece.

The relative stability which existed in south-western Greece during the first half of the thirteenth century ensured that the rulers of Achaia were more prosperous and enjoyed greater military power than their Latin neighbours in Thessaloniki and Constantinople. The total number of knights settled in the region has been estimated at between five and six hundred, and according to one rather romanticised source Prince Geoffrey II of Villehardouin (1228-46) kept eighty knights just at his own court. These figures are confirmed by the Chronicle of Morea, if we can believe its claim that, at the battle of Tagliacozzo (1268), Geoffrey’s successor William II (1246-78) fought alongside his overlord Charles of Anjou with 400 cavalry brought from Achaia. This implies that, even though it was smaller, the military strength of Achaia was almost equal to that of the original Latin empire, and that its rulers had enough resources to intervene in conflicts beyond the Peloponnese. Indeed, in 1236 Geoffrey II of Villehardouin sent help to Constantinople whilst it was being besieged by the Bulgarians and the Greeks of Nicaea. In 1249 Geoffrey’s brother William II joined Louis IX’s crusade against Egypt with a fleet of twenty-four Achaian ships. This episode took place at roughly the same time as the Latin empress of Constantinople made a desperate plea to Louis for 300 knights to help her and her husband defend their capital, and therefore highlights the contrast in military strength between the Franks of Achaia and those of northern Greece.

The military strength of the principality of Achaia should not be overestimated, however, for it still took the Villehardouins many decades to subjugate the Peloponnese fully, and they did not capture the impregnable Greek outpost of Monemvasia, situated in the south-east corner of the principality, until 1249. Moreover, the days of sending troops to foreign conflicts came to an end after the 12605, when Monemvasia, Mistra and Old Mania were returned to the Greeks and subsequently used by them to reconquer the entire Frankish Morea. It is difficult to calculate the number of troops involved in this conflict, but the fact that it took the Greeks until the early fifteenth century to recover all of the Peloponnese suggests that local armies were fairly equally balanced. It has been estimated that even during the reign of Michael VIII (1259-82), which marked the zenith of late Byzantine power, major Greek campaign armies never contained more than 10,000 soldiers, and that most were much smaller. Bearing in mind that there never seem to have been more than five or six hundred western knights settled in Achaia, it seems unlikely that local clashes between Latin forces and the Greeks of Mistra ever involved more than a few hundred horsemen. When the Chronicle of Morea claimed that in 1262 300 Franks defeated a Byzantine force of 15,000 men, it may have given a reasonably accurate estimate for the Frankish army but must surely have exaggerated the scale of the Greek expedition. The Franks must have been less outnumbered than this, but the fact that the Greeks probably had a slight rather than an overwhelming advantage meant that the conflict dragged on for many decades. As the Franks gradually retreated toward the north and west of the principality, the land which they conceded was often devastated by regular yet indecisive fighting.

The inability of any one ruler to deal a swift death blow to his opponents also seems to have characterised the fighting further north. During the first half of the thirteenth century the Greeks of Epiros quickly recaptured Thessaloniki and wiped out many Latin conquests which had been made in Thessaly, but they were unable to overrun the duchy of Athens. Epiros eventually became a frequent ally of the Latins against the Greeks of Nicaea, who were themselves only successful in weakening rather than destroying Epiros and Athens. The exact details of this fighting are either poorly recorded or heavily exaggerated. The papal correspondence of Honorius III (1216-27) and Gregory IX (1227-41) indicates that during the 1220s the Greeks of Epiros attacked Boudonitza and Salona on the northern fringes of the duchy of Athens, and that by 1235 they had even reached Thebes. No details are given regarding the strength and nature of the opposing forces, although the concern caused by these events at the papal court is probably in itself indicative of Epirote superiority on the battlefield. By the second half of the thirteenth century, it is clear that this of the fighting are still impossible to come by. Thus in 1292 the Chronicle of Morea stated that the Epirote city of loannina was besieged by a Byzantine (formerly Nicaean) force of 30,000 infantry and 14,000 cavalry, but that this entire expedition retreated in panic when Florent of Hainault, prince of Achaia (1289-97) and ally of Epiros, approached with an army which probably only contained four or five hundred men! Once again, the Byzantine figures should clearly be disregarded, for the number of western knights living in this region suggests that most clashes between Greeks and Latins cannot have involved more than a few hundred horsemen, and perhaps only a couple of thousand men in total. Indeed, it has been suggested that during the entire late Byzantine period most Greek campaigns ‘probably involved hundreds rather than thousands of troops’.

Whilst the Nicaean Greeks eventually succeeded in conquering Achaia, we have seen that it was the Catalans who finished off the Frankish duchy of Athens. The ruthlessness with which they did so suggests that they were unusually well-trained and aggressive soldiers. According to the chronicler Muntaner the Catalan company consisted of 2500 cavalry plus 4000 Almogavers (light infantry) and 1000 other footsoldiers These figures seem high, although the total of around 2500 horsemen was also given by another source. On the other hand, Muntaner claimed that, when they defeated Duke Gautier I of Athens in March 1311, the Catalans overcame a Frankish army containing 30,000 infantry, plus 700 knights of whom all but two were killed. Even if all the lords of Athens and Achaia had turned up, these are impossibly high totals and unfortunately cast doubt on the other troop numbers given by this chronicler. The decisiveness of the Frankish defeat does at least suggest that Gautier had underestimated both the fighting skill and the size of the Catalan foe, even if the total number of combatants involved in this encounter was greatly exaggerated.

The Catalans also participated in another form of warfare which affected much of the Aegean area during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: piracy and raiding. Even before they arrived in the duchy of Athens the Catalans had a terrible reputation for such activities in Byzantine Greece, where ‘there was not a town or city that was not looted and burnt’ by them. From the mid fourteenth century onwards the Turks became an even greater threat, causing so much destruction that by the 1380s some Aegean islands had been completely abandoned by their original inhabitants. Even as early as 1358 a document recording the transfer of Corinth castle to the Florentine lord Niccolo Acciajuoli makes it clear that the Turks were having a devastating effect on the region: one of Niccolo’s primary duties was to persuade people to return to the area around Corinth, which had been overrun so many times by Greek, Catalan or Turkish raiders that superiority had largely disappeared in the face of Nicaean pressure, which forced Epiros to seek the friendship rather than the enmity of the Latins. Accurate details homelessness and starvation had forced entire communities to flee. In the thirteenth century there may not have been quite as much destruction, but piratical attacks, such as that carried out during the 1280s against Bartolomeo Ghisi, the Venetian lord of Tinos and Mikonos, nevertheless represented a common threat for the inhabitants of islands and coastal regions. There were also many clashes between Venetian and Genoese naval forces which had either been sent out by their respective cities or were operating independently in a semi-piratical manner. When the Venetians occupied Corfu and Crete in the years after the Fourth Crusade, they first had to get rid of Genoese privateers based on these islands.

The behaviour of the Catalans and the constant rivalry between Venice and Genoa also remind us that far from being united in their struggles against the Greeks or Turks, Latin settlers in the Aegean area were frequently embroiled in their own internal disputes. Warfare of this kind squandered precious resources and resulted in yet more suffering for those who already had to cope with the threat of piracy, looting and brigandage. Between 1255 and 1258, for example, Duke Guy de la Roche of Athens (1225-63), aided by his Venetian allies, fought a bitter civil war against William II of Villehardouin in a dispute over land on Euboea. William eventually won this conflict by systematically ravaging Guy’s lands until he surrendered; but, although this tactic worked, it must have caused untold suffering for the peasants and farmers who lived in the affected areas. Considering that most of these unfortunate rural inhabitants were Greek, it is hardly surprising to find that fighting also broke out occasionally between western newcomers and local natives, who sometimes had to put up with other forms of maltreatment such as unbearably high taxes. 36 Incidents of this kind must have been particularly unnerving as Latin settlers formed such a tiny section of the overall population. On Chios, for example, it has been estimated that there were 10,000 Greeks being ruled by a mere one to two thousand Genoese toward the end of the fourteenth century. Villehardouin claimed that, during the initial Frankish siege of Constantinople in 1203, the city’s inhabitants outnumbered their attackers by as much as two hundred to one, and that the crusaders were consequently reluctant to enter Constantinople even after they had seized the city walls. Such statistics help to explain why Latin conquerors in Achaia and elsewhere often tried to be as conciliatory as possible toward local Greek landholders.

One final form of combat which needs to be mentioned is that of naval warfare. Generally speaking, the Latins possessed far greater naval power than the Greeks; a factor which proved vital to the continued existence of some of the crusader states. In 1235 and 1236, when Constantinople was besieged by the combined forces of John Asen II of Bulgaria (1218-41) and John III Vatatzes of Nicaea (1222-54), the Venetians were able to break the naval blockades around the city and effectively save the Latin empire from destruction. Apart from the Italian city states, other Latin powers also had warships available to them. In 1236 many vessels from Achaia assisted in the relief of Constantinople and William II of Villehardouin later contributed a fleet of twenty-four ships to the crusade of St Louis. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the Catalans also brought their own fleet to the Aegean, using it in countless raids along the coasts of northern Greece. In 1305, for instance, after the Catalans had fallen out with their former employer Andronikos II, they sent five galleys out from their temporary headquarters at Gallipoli to attack neighbouring Byzantine targets.

The financial, administrative and political problems of the late Byzantine state often prevented the Greeks from raising adequate naval forces to deal with such aggressors. During the 1280s, for example, Andronikos II reduced the size of the Byzantine fleet in order to cut costs. However, it would be misleading to assume that the Greeks were entirely overawed at sea, for at times, and in particular during the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-82), the Byzantine authorities were able to build up naval forces by relying on mercenaries. Thus in the 1270s Michael VIII employed the Latin pirate Giovanni de lo Cavo to act as his admiral in the Aegean. Latin seamen also did not have matters entirely their own way because of the growing threat of the Turks. Even the ruthless Catalans had to be aware of this danger, for during the winter of 1303-4 they sent their fleet to a secure winter anchorage at Chios ‘because the Turks, with barques, ravage all [the Aegean] islands’.

This summary of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century warfare around the Aegean makes it clear that there were many motives for the Latins who lived there to construct or occupy castles. Although exact troop numbers are almost impossible to establish, most of the Greek or Latin armies active in the region only contained between one and five hundred horsemen. Even when additional foot soldiers accompanied them, campaigns were rarely undertaken by more than one or two thousand men. Consequently the Latins who settled in Greece after the Fourth Crusade were not as heavily outnumbered by individual opponents as some of the contemporary chroniclers would lead us to believe. There were, however, ultimately too few Latins living in northern Greece to halt the combined attacks of many different Nicaean, Epirote, Cuman and Bulgarian armies. The fall of the duchy of Athens in 1311 suggests that Frankish settlement was so fragile that a single defeat in a pitched battle could seal the fate of an entire crusader state. Eventually the Franks proved equally incapable of halting the gradual loss of Achaia after the Greek acquisition of Mistra in 1262. In addition, the Aegean was almost constantly affected by some form of localised raiding, rebellion or piracy. While this did not necessarily threaten national security in the short term, it ultimately ground down the economic and military strength of states such as Achaia. In short, this was an extremely insecure world, and in order to protect themselves against it Latins needed fortifications to make up for their lack of troops and to defend their property against the constant threat of enemy attack

 

 

 

The Second Crusade

Louis VII of France reaches the crusaders camp

We know far more about the French than the German forces in the Second Crusade, because Otto of Freising, an eyewitness, wanted “to write not a tragedy but a joyous history” and left the sad task to others (1.47), most notably, it turned out, Louis VII’s chaplain Odo of Deuil. Consequently, we have only fragmentary information about Frederick’s experiences on crusade, some of it supplied by Odo.

There were repeated clashes between the crusaders and the local population and the Greeks as the German army marched towards Constantinople. Frederick was involved in one nasty incident. Greek soldiers in August 1147 robbed and killed a sick German crusader who was recuperating in a monastery outside Adrianople. On Conrad’s orders Frederick went back to the monastery and burned it, executed the perpetrators, and sought the return of the stolen money. Only the intervention of the Greek commander Prosuch prevented a further escalation of the conflict. On 8 September a German army was destroyed during a flash flood, in which only Welf VI and his nephew were spared because they had camped together on a hillside, away from the rest of the army in the valley.

Conrad arrived outside Constantinople after 9 September 1147, but did not enter the city and for reasons of protocol the two monarchs-Conrad and Manuel I-did not meet. The German forces crossed the Bosporus at the end of the month and reached Nicaea (now Iznik). The bulk of the army under Conrad’s command left Nicaea on 15 October and set out on a diagonal course across Anatolia in the direction of Iconium (now Konya) via Dorylaeum (now Sarhüyük), located at the edge of the Anatolian plateau and in the no man’s land between the Greeks and Turks. Otto of Freising led a smaller contingent, composed largely of non-combatant pilgrims, on the much longer but supposedly safer coastal route, where they were ambushed. The king grossly underestimated how long the passage across Anatolia would take and overestimated the availability of supplies. Mounted Turkish archers, employing hit-and-run tactics, constantly harassed the army; and on 26 October, Conrad called a council of the princes. Odo of Deuil summarized their dilemma thus: “They had to advance or retreat, but hunger and the enemy and the unknown mountain labyrinth kept them from advancing; and hunger and fear of dishonor kept them from retreating. . . . Certainly they would prefer a glorious death to a base life, but if baseness stains both alternatives it is better to be saved basely by prompt action than to die basely, though without reproach.” They decided to return to Nicaea. On the way back, the rearguard was annihilated and Conrad was wounded. The king sent Frederick to Louis VII to inform him of the disaster, to invite him to a meeting, and to ask for his help.

The two monarchs met for the first time near Nicaea and decided to continue on together. At Esseron, on the coastal road between Nicaea and Smyrna (now Izmir), Conrad and Frederick allegedly rejected sometime after 11 November Odo’s entreaty, relayed by Louis, that the Staufer return Stauf and Esslingen to St. Denis. Conrad celebrated Christmas at Ephesus (now Efes), where he became ill; he was visited by the Byzantine emperor Manuel and his wife Eirene, Conrad’s adopted daughter. Louis went on alone, while Manuel and Eirene transported the sick Conrad and his entourage, including presumably Frederick, by ship to Constantinople for treatment. They remained at the imperial court until 7 March 1148, when they left on Byzantine vessels for the Holy Land. Before their departure, Manuel supplied Conrad with money to raise a new army; and they agreed to a joint attack, upon Conrad’s return, on King Roger II of Sicily. Conrad along with the chancellor, the bishop of Basel, Frederick, Henry Jasomirgott, and Welf VI, arrived in Acre the week before Easter (11 April) and visited Jerusalem after Easter. It was on this occasion that Frederick was so impressed by the charitable activities of the Hospitalers.

Siege of Damascus

The leaders of Germany, France, and the Holy Land met at Palmarea near Acre on 24 June and decided to attack Damascus. The participants included Conrad, Otto of Freising, Frederick, Henry Jasomirgott, Welf VI, Louis VII, King Baldwin III of Jerusalem, and his mother Queen Melisende. The brief siege of Damascus lasted from 24 to 28 July. Frederick, according to Gilbert of Mons, writing five decades later, “is said to have prevailed in arms before all others in front of Damascus.” On 8 September, Conrad sailed from Acre for the Byzantine Empire.

Henry Jasomirgott married Manuel’s niece Theodora on Conrad’s return to Constantinople; their union sealed the Babenberg-Byzantine anti-Hungarian alliance. Before Frederick departed for home, he and Conrad, in the so-called Treaty of Thessalonica, confirmed with an oath the agreement the king had reached with Manuel in the winter of 1148 to launch a joint attack on King Roger II of Sicily. Conrad sent Frederick “ahead to inquire into, or rather to strengthen, the condition of the empire.” Traveling via Bulgaria and Hungary, Frederick arrived in Germany in April 1149; he hanged several of his ministerials who had disturbed the peace in his absence. After spending some additional time in Greece to recuperate, Conrad sailed along the Dalmatian coast and entered imperial territory in Pola (now Pula, Croatia) at the southern tip of Istria. He reached Regensburg, where from 29 May to 1 June he held a well-attended assembly. Frederick and his uncle met for the first time after the Second Crusade in Frankfurt on 21 August.

Frederick learned from the debacle of the Second Crusade the need for careful preparation. While only five months elapsed between Conrad’s taking of the cross in Speyer (28 December 1146) and his departure from Regensburg (end of May 1147), Frederick spent nearly a year making diplomatic and logistical arrangements before leaving in 1189 on his meticulously planned expedition, namely the Third Crusade.