The Catholic Southern Front

Chapter 9/23 – The Knights of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John the Baptist in Malta

Jean Parisot de la Valette was born in 1494, joined the Convent at age twenty and was twenty-eight when together with the rest of the Order, was ousted from Rhodes. Since the day of his ordination to his death, Jean never visited his family’s estates in Toulouse, France. While still in his twenties, he had been captured and enslaved for a period of one to two years in a Turkish corsair vessel. Enslavement as an oarsman meant that one was perpetually tied naked to a bench. He would sleep, row, eat and carry out other biological matters on a woolen-lined bench. A truly harrowing experience however, Jean the French born Gascon, had a greater fate reserved for him. Released, and much later in 1557, was elected Grandmaster of the Order of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John the Baptist. At age seventy one, Jean Parisot de la Valette organized the defenses of a garrison, and was chosen by God to fight and survive the Ottoman onslaught which was unleashed against a the small Island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. Voltaire described the Great Siege of Malta of 1565 as one of the most well known sieges in man’s entire history. The Siege of Malta witnessed the apparition of the Blessed Virgin exiting a church succoring the Catholics and fighting back the Ottoman Turks. Following the arrival of Christian forces from Spanish Sicily, a final victory occurred on the Feast of ‘Our Lady’s Nativity,’ falling on September 8 and later dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Victory.’

The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II was succeeded by his son Bajazet, who in turn was succeeded by Selim the Grim. The latter annexed Egypt, enlarged the Ottoman Empire and at the time of his death, was planning mischief upon Rhodes and subdue once and for all what he referred to as the: “Christian nest of vipers.” The Sultan died and was succeeded by his son, ‘Suleiman the Lawgiver’ or ‘Suleiman the Magnificent,’ as he would later be remembered. Like Mehmet his predecessor, Suleiman was adept in the arts of war, an exceptional statesman, a poet and a man of culture. He was considered to be the Grande Porte, Allah’s deputy on Earth, Lord of Lords of this World, Possessor of Men’s Necks, King of Believers and Unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and West and another few hundred titles. In 1521, Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam was ordained Grandmaster and employing the most able military engineers of his time fortified Rhodes as best as he could. A mysterious event recorded by the Order’s historians and evidently an ill omen, occurred to L’Isle Adam whilst travelling from France to Rhodes. Whilst sailing through the Maltese Channel, Philippe’s galley or carrack, was struck by lightening. In the incident a number of his company were killed and his sword was reduced to ashes. This was later interpreted as a portent of the future events, occurring in the Mediterranean Sea (1522-1571).

On arriving in Rhodes, the Grandmaster received a letter from Constantinople or rather Istanbul, as the city came to be called following the 1453 annexation of Christianity. The letter was ‘A Letter of Victory,’ within which the Sultan boasted of his successes and victories during war, particularly emphasizing the capture of Belgrade. With this letter the Sultan introduced his intention of occupying Rhodes and would use military force, if the Order opposed him. Hostilities between the Empire and the Order thus rekindled, the armies of the Sultan, once again, grouped at Marmarice. The Ottoman force consisted of a fleet and an army, totaling 200,000 men. The siege on the Island of Rhodes began with incredible ferocity. Cannons could now fire projectiles, nine feet in circumference. Most of the brunt was born by the reconstructed Tower of Saint Nicholas. On both sides casualties were numerous. The siege lasted four months, commencing in August it came to an end in December. The defenders were exhausted and the Sultan offered the Order what he called: “Honorable terms of surrendering the city.” The Knights accepted and whilst the Sultan paid tribute to their bravery and their astonishing resistance, the Order honorably departed from Rhodes. The Spanish Emperor Charles V’s opinion on the matter was that, nothing in the world was so well lost as Rhodes and that it was astounding how such a handful of men could have held out so long against an army the size the Sultan brought against them. On December 26, L’Isle Adam formerly submitted to the Ottoman offer and on the January 1, 1523, on the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, the Order left its home, which it held for the past two hundred years. The Grand Master’s galley, “…with a single banner lowered half mast, on which was painted the picture of the glorious Virgin Mary in tears, holding her dead Son in her arms, and the inscription “Afflictis tu spes unica rebus: that is: In all which afflicts us thou art our only hope,” set sail for Candia, Crete. The Sultan himself expressed the fact that he was unusually ‘sad’ at seeing depart the old man, the Grand Master. The banished Knights set sail carrying the records of their history. They also removed numerous relics of the saints including amongst other relics; the hand of Saint Anne, the relics of the True Cross, the Holy Thorn, the body of Saint Euphemia, the Right Hand of Saint John the Baptist, the Icon of Our Lady of Phileremos, the Icon of Our Lady of Eleimonitria and the Icon of Our Lady of Damascus and the key of the gates to the City of Rhodes. The Icon of Damascus depicting the Madonna and Child was earlier miraculously saved from the City of Damascus in Syria. Damascus was savagely destroyed and the inhabitants butchered by the Mongol invasions of Tamerlane during the years 1336-1405. The Icon miraculously appeared in Rhodes, disappeared and reappeared within the Greek Chapel dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Eleimonitria.’ On leaving Rhodes the Knights placed the Icon of ‘Our Lady of Damascus’ upon the Great War Carrack called ‘Santa Maria.’

Leaving Rhodes, together with L’Isle Adam, was a young Provincial named Jean Parisot de la Valette. From 1523 to 1530 the Military Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem and of Rhodes, resided in Rome and were searching for a new home. Their chance came when in Bologna, Italy; Pope Clement VII crowned Charles V of Spain as Emperor. The Emperor inherited the Maltese Archipelago within which the Knights were interested. Charles and his advisers seemed likely interested in the possibility of placing the Knights in Malta. Malta offered a good defense against the Ottoman and the North African corsairs. This move provided further protection to the Emperor’s dominions in Sicily and therefore also the Papal States. Charles V gave his consent, asking in return for a yearly nominal rent of one falcon, thus the famous ‘Maltese Falcon.’ In actual fact the Maltese Falcon is a species of Peregrine Falcon. In 1530, the Knights arrived in Malta and were initially disappointed for the barren state of the Island. One point in favor was the natural harbors it provided, which could comfortably fit the largest fleet. One of the ‘tongues’ of land or peninsulas, was in the following years transformed into the city of the Knights with fortifications, forts, a church dedicated to Saint Lawrence and a town called ‘the Birgu.’ The largest peninsula of land, was called Mount Sciberras and it was from here that the Turks would conduct most of their bombardment upon the Birgu in 1565. To protect the safety of mercantile shipping, the Knights attacked Mahdia, a port between Tunis and Tripoli in the Gulf of Gabes. It was a cove of corsairs and was taken successfully by the Knights. Dragut or Torghoud Rais, the most dangerous Barbary corsair to have ever sailed the Mediterranean Sea, an early prototype of Bin Laden who was also financed or rather conducted business with fallen-away Christian and Jewish merchants, swore to avenge himself of the fall of Mahdia. In July 1551, he sailed to Malta bent on laying waste the whole Island. To his surprise the corsair discovered that the two towns set up by the Knights were too well protected for a siege, so he moved North to lay siege to the old fortified town of Mdina. Here the miraculous intercession of Saint Agatha saved the town folk. Dragut abandoned the invasion of Malta and laid waste Gozo, Malta’s sister Island and mythical home of Calypso, taking into slavery its entire population of 5,000 inhabitants.

The Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, was in his declining years and was pierced with grief for having left the Knights set sail free from Rhodes in 1521/22. The lamentations and exhortations of his courtiers and the Imam, to free the captured Islamists from the slavery they endured in Malta and insulted by the capture of his favorite concubine by the Knights while she was crossing the Mediterranean on one of his ships, instigated his plans to devastate the Islands. In 1564, his war machine was being assembled. With Malta under Ottoman rule, the Sultan could well use it as a base for an audacious European attack through Italy, maybe with some luck also getting rid of the hateful religion of Catholicism altogether, by devastating Rome. But for now he had to capture Malta and rout those whom he called: “Son’s of dogs,” the Knights of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John. Through the Sicilian Viceroy Don Garcia, Philip II warned La Valette of the imminent attack, however, Don Garcia was not quick at aiding Malta, for he was to defend Sicily in case Malta fell to the Ottoman mace.

Abandoned by the rest of Christendom, Jean Parisot de la Valette and his Knights marched in procession to the Chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Damascus. At the altar the Grandmaster prayed and dropped as votive offerings, his hat and sword upon its stairs. He prayed to Our Lady of Damascus and implored her help and assistance in this terrible hour of need. The defenders consisted of 540 knights and men-at-arms, 1000 Spanish foot soldiers and arquebusiers and 4000 local militia. The Islamists on the other hand set sail from Constantinople with the largest fleet the world had ever seen upon the Mediterranean Sea. The whole force of the Ottoman Empire, comprised of over 200 ships, 130 galleys, 30 galleasses, 11 large merchant ships and a horde of smaller vessels comprising of most of the pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. 30,000 Janissaries formed part of a 50,000 strong army (the complete retinue numbered 200,000). Mustapha Pasha was in command of the army; he had participated in the Siege of Rhodes, and won honor during the War against Hungary. Piali Pasha the son-in-law of the Sultan, was Admiral of the fleet. The Governor of Alexandria, the Governor of Algiers and an ex-Catholic Dominican brother turned corsair, Ali Fartax the most ruthless corsair in the Aegean Sea, enjoined the Sultan’s fleet. Dragut the Barbary corsair who previously was repelled by Saint Agatha, Saint Paul and Saint George in Gozo arrived late. On Friday May 18, 1565, the populace accustomed to fishing, farming and building were in awe and understandably terrorized when they witnessed the multitude of ships appearing on the horizon and surrounding their tiny Island. The Islamists landed, however Malta presented itself differently to Rhodes. Instead of one fortified city they had to target a fort at the tip of Mount Sciberras and the fortified towns of Senglea and Birgu on two other perpendicularly jutting peninsulas. The Ottoman’s initial mistake was not to capture the old town of Mdina to the north, the town later communicated freely with Sicily and its cavalry, tirelessly attacked the Ottoman camps when such were attacking the Birgu and Fort Saint Elmo. As in previous sieges, the cannon bombardment commenced, however the target was the wrong one. The Ottomans relied on the information a captured Knight astutely supplied. In this manner the first attack was a complete failure and many fine Janissaries perished uselessly. The Knight was evidently killed. Another weakness was occurring; Mustapha Pasha and Piali Pasha were in discord, especially regarding where the Sultan’s Fleet was to berth. Plans were sacrificed just to protect the fleet and strategic time was lost. Many attacks were carried out against the Fort of Saint Elmo and before the fort was taken, thousands of Janissaries and Dragut himself, were killed on Mount Sciberras. Dragut the fearful scourge of the Mediterranean coast, was according to one source, killed by friendly fire, by his own cannons. Another version of Dragut’s end describes how a cannon ball shot from the Fort of Saint Angelo, ricocheted and decapitated him or caused him a wound which led him to his end on June 23, 1565, the same day Fort St Elmo fell. Accordingly, at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Valverde close to Catania in Sicily there exists evidence which links the indominatable pirate Dragut with Our Lady. Two Sicilians during the Great Siege had invoked the protection of Our Lady of Valverde before firing their cannons from the ramparts of St Angelo. Their iron cannon balls caused the death of Dragut and Soli Aga the Sanjak Bey or the Master of the Camp. The iron balls are preserved at the sanctuary in Sicily since 1565, while Dragut’s body is today entombed in a decorated mausoleum in Tripoli. On capturing Fort Saint Elmo, Mustapha had the hearts plucked out from the bodies of the Knights, whom he decapitated and nailed to wooden crosses and set them afloat in the sea, opposite the Fort of Saint Angelo in the Grand Harbor. Following this ruthless gesture, La Valette ordered the decapitation of all his Ottoman prisoners and cannon blasted their heads onto Mount Sciberras. As in previous sieges, the bravery and exploits of the leader caused a heroic performance by all the Order’s men-at-arms. Often in the thick of sword-to-sword combat, La Valette, whose leadership was invaluable, was urged to move to the rear so that he might not be killed. In one such situation he replied: “Is it possible for me, at the age of seventy-one, to lay down my life more gloriously than in defense of our holy religion, and in the midst of my brethren and friends?”

As the siege progressed, a third peninsula of land called Senglea, was seemingly conquered and had fallen to the enemy, when unexpectedly a trumpet sounded, calling for a retreat. The troops were ordered back by their officers and under-officers, as news arrived that their camps and wounded were being attacked by the cavalry from Mdina. However, the Grandmaster had an iron grip on the Maltese population for a small faction was indeed, planning to open the gates to the enemy. As a general rule such internal intrigues are always present during a siege. Finally, the Spanish Viceroy in Sicily Don Garcia’s ‘grand succor’ arrived and landed in Malta, bringing a force of 8,000 Spanish, Italian and Sicilian men. On learning about this matter the Pasha, believing that a much larger force had landed, ordered his army to abandon the Island, but on realizing his mistake he reordered his battle weary troops to invade the north of Malta. The new force comprised of fresh soldiers who cut through the Ottoman troops and forced them to retreat. Less than a third of the entire Ottoman army sailed back to Istanbul, the Sultan suffered his greatest defeat to date. Suleiman exclaimed: “I see now that it is only in my own hand that my sword is invincible.” The following year the Ottoman Sultan was preparing for a larger force to set sail for Malta. However, La Valette’s spies destroyed the grand arsenal of Istanbul by fire, this prevented the Sultan from undertaking another siege. The Lord of Believers and Unbelievers died of apoplexy during his invasion of Hungary, the decline of power of the Sultanate followed, accelerated by the defeat of the Islamic Armada at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

The Knight Fra’ Francesco Balbi described the lifting of the siege in the following manner: “It has pleased God this year, 1565 that under the good government of the brave and devout Grandmaster Jean de la Valette, the Order should be attacked in great force by the Sultan Suleiman…. And it had equally pleased God, as most of the islanders believed, through the intervention of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that after four months of terrible hardship, that same large Turkish army was forced to abandon the island, defeated in its task. How, if not so, could then one explain the arrival of the Spanish force and the lifting of siege on September 8, the day of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady… I do not believe that music ever consoled the human senses, as did the peal of our bells on September 8, 1565, which was the Nativity of our Lady. For the Grandmaster of the Hospital ordered them all to be rung at the very time when the call to arms was usually sounded, and for three months we had heard them sounding only the call to arms. That morning they called us to Mass, and a pontifical high Mass was sung very early, thanking the Lord our God and his Blessed Mother for the mercies that they had bestowed upon us.” The Maltese firmly believed that their Madonna had helped them achieve victory. The Dominican Michele Fontana delivered a sermon in Sicily, in which he stated that when the Turks were attacking Malta, the Catholics saw the Virgin Mary exiting the Church of the Annunciation dressed as a warrior, wearing a helmet, armor and holding a drawn sword in her right hand, flying through the air like a white cloud, killing and frightening the enemy wherever she went. The Order’s historian Bosio, states that the Islamists saw Our Lady, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Lawrence followed by numerous angels, protecting the walls of Birgu and mistook these for Catholic reinforcements, becoming so frightened that they retired.

The Great Siege of Malta commenced on May 18, 1565. It ended one hundred and fourteen days later on September 8, 1565, the solemnity of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and later also dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Victory’ in Malta and ‘Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.’ 70,000 cannon balls rained down on Maltese fortifications and houses in four months of siege. Many Catholic Knights received holy martyrdom during the Great Siege, these included La Valette’s nephew Francis de La Valette Parisot, Annibale and Rosso Strozzi, Francesco Lanfreducci, Vespasianus Malaspina the cousin of Knight Ippolito Malaspina, the Papal Fleet Admiral and cousin of Lepanto hero Mark Antonio Colonna, Asdrubale de Medici, Johannes de Pamplona, and many others. On receiving the joyous news of the victory, the Pope in Rome ordered a procession of thanksgiving to be carried out from Santa Maria Maggiore to San Giovanni in Laterano and also ordered for the cannons of Saint Angelo to perform a military salute, as occurred during the occasion of his coronation. The Romans not knowing really where Malta was, jubilantly joined in the festivities. La Valette was offered a Cardinal’s hat, which he declined as he maintained that the Grandmaster of the Knights Hospitallers must engage in military action, which is unsuitable for a cardinal. He suffered a stroke whilst hunting and died shortly afterwards. Unfortunately La Valette himself would not witness the city named after him which was financed by most of the European Monarchs after learning of this Christian victory. The first stone laid for the building of Valletta was placed as a foundation stone for the Church of Our Lady of Victory. When the City of Valletta was built the Icon of Our Lady of Damascus was together with the Icon of Eleimonitria, placed in the Greek Catholic Church. Two hundred years later in 1798, the Icon was not included amongst the ‘Maltese Relics’ given by the last Grandmaster Von Hompesch to the Czar of Russia. The relic of Blessed Gerard of Tonque can be venerated at the church adjoining the convent of the cloistered nuns of Saint Ursola, Valletta, Malta. La Valette and the fallen Knights are buried at Saint John Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta the City of the Knights of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John the Baptist. Today, the miraculous Icon of Damascus can be viewed in the Greek Catholic Church in Valletta, Malta. The sword and Cardinal’s hat of La Valette can be viewed at the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Birgu, Malta, the gold sword and gem encrusted poniard at the Louvres in France, while the Icon of the Blessed Virgin of Philermos at Cetinje Museum in Montenegro.


“A King is not saved by his great army,

a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

The war horse is a vain hope for victory,

And by its great might it cannot save”

Psalm 34 16-17


1 Comment »

  1. […] For the ones of you who love to think that Our Lady delivered us from the enemy, and would like to read more regarding the miracles please go to –… . […]

    Pingback by Dangerous stuff « E.U.tilitarian Commons — August 4, 2009 @ 8:29 pm | Reply

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