Fort St. Elmo
by Charlotte M. Yonge
The white cross of the Order of St. John waved on the towers of Rhodes for two hundred and fifty-five years. In 1552, after a desperate resistance, the Turks, under their great Sultan, Solyman the Magnificent, succeeded in driving the Knights Hospitaliers from their beautiful home, and they were again cast upon the world.
They were resolved, however, to continue their old work of protecting the Mediterranean travelers, and thankfully accepted, as a gift from the Emperor Charles V., the little islet of Malta as their new station. It was a great contrast to their former home, being little more than a mere rock rising steeply out of the sea, white, glaring and with very shallow earth, unfit to bear corn, though it produced plenty of oranges, figs, and melons–with little water, and no wood,–the buildings wretched, and for the most part uninhabited, and the few people a miserable mongrel set, part Arab, part Greek, part Sicilian, and constantly kept down by the descents of the Moorish pirates, who used to land in the unprotected bays, and carry off all the wretched beings they could catch, to sell for slaves. It was a miserable exchange from fertile Rhodes, which was nearly five times larger than this barren rock; but the Knights only wanted a hospital, a fortress, and a harbour; and this last they found in the deeply indented northern shore, while they made the first two. Only a few years had passed before the dreary Citta Notabile had become in truth a notable city, full of fine castle-like houses, infirmaries, and noble churches, and fenced in with mighty wall and battlements– country houses were perched upon the rocks–the harbors were fortified, and filled with vessels of war–and deep vaults were hollowed out in the rock, in which corn was stored sufficient to supply the inhabitants for many months.
Everywhere that there was need was seen the red flag with the eight- pointed cross. If there was an earthquake on the shores of Italy or Sicily, there were the ships of St. John, bringing succor to the crushed and ruined townspeople. In every battle with Turk or Moor, the Knights were among the foremost; and, as ever before, their galleys were the aid of the peaceful merchant, and the terror of the corsair. Indeed, they were nearer Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, the great nests of these Moorish pirates, and were better able to threaten them, and thwart their cruel descents, than when so much farther eastward; and the Mahometan power found them quite as obnoxious in Malta as in Rhodes.
Solyman the Magnificent resolved, in his old age, to sweep these obstinate Christians from the seas, and, only twelve years after the siege of Rhodes, prepared an enormous armament, which he united with those of the Barbary pirates, and placed under the command of Mustafa and Piali, his two bravest pashas, and Dragut, a terrible Algerine corsair, who had already made an attempt upon the island, but had been repulsed by the good English knight, Sir Nicholas Upton. Without the advice of this pirate the Sultan desired that nothing should be undertaken.
The Grand Master who had to meet this tremendous danger was Jean Parisot de la Valette, a brave and resolute man, as noted for his piety and tenderness to the sick in the infirmaries as for his unflinching courage. When he learnt the intentions of the Sultan, he began by collecting a Chapter of his Order, and, after laying his tidings before them, said: ‘A formidable army and a cloud of barbarians are about to burst on this isle. Brethren, they are the enemies of Jesus Christ. The question is the defense of the Faith, and whether the Gospel shall yield to the Koran. God demands from us the life that we have already devoted to Him by our profession. Happy they who in so good a cause shall first consummate their sacrifice. But, that we may be worthy, my brethren, let us hasten to the altar, there to renew our vows; and may to each one of us be imparted, by the very Blood of the Saviour of mankind, and by faithful participation in His Sacraments, that generous contempt of death that can alone render us invincible.’
With these words, he led the way to the church, and there was not an individual knight who did not on that day confess and receive the Holy Communion; after which they were as new men–all disputes, all trivialities and follies were laid aside–and the whole community awaited the siege like persons under a solemn dedication.
The chief harbour of Malta is a deep bay, turned towards the north, and divided into two lesser bays by a large tongue of rock, on the point of which stood a strong castle, called Fort St. Elmo. The gulf to the westward has a little island in it, and both gulf and islet are called Marza Muscat. The gulf to the east, called the Grand Port, was again divided by three fingers of rock projecting from the mainland, at right angles to the tongue that bore Fort St. Elmo. Each finger was armed with a strong talon–the Castle of La Sangle to the east, the Castle of St. Angelo in the middle, and Fort Ricasoli to the west. Between St. Angelo and La Sangle was the harbour where all the ships of war were shut up at night by an immense chain; and behind was il Borgo, the chief fortification in the island. Citta Notabile and Gozo were inland, and their fate would depend upon that of the defenses of the harbor. To defend all this, the Grand Master could only number 700 knights and 8,500 soldiers. He sent to summon home all those of the Order who were dispersed in the different commanderies in France, Spain, and Germany, and entreated aid from the Spanish king, Philip II., who wished to be considered as the prime champion of Roman Catholic Christendom, and who alone had the power of assisting him. The Duke of Alva, viceroy for Philip in Sicily, made answer that he would endeavor to relieve the Order, if they could hold out Fort St. Elmo till the fleet could be got together; but that if this castle were once lost, it would be impossible to bring them aid, and they must be left to their fate.
The Grand Master divided the various posts to the knights according to their countries. The Spaniards under the Commander De Guerras, Bailiff of Negropont, had the Castle of St. Elmo; the French had Port de la Sangle; the Germans, and the few English knights whom the Reformation had left, were charged with the defense of the Port of the Borgo, which served as headquarters, and the Commander Copier, with a body of troops, was to remain outside the town and watch and harass the enemy.
On the 18th of May, 1565, the Turkish fleet came in sight. It consisted of 159 ships, rowed by Christian slaves between the decks, and carrying 30,000 Janissaries and Spahis, the terrible warriors to whom the Turks owed most of their victories, and after them came, spreading for miles over the blue waters, a multitude of ships of burthen bringing the horses of the Spahis, and such heavy battering cannon as rendered the dangers of a siege infinitely greater than in former days. These Janissaries were a strange, distorted resemblance of the knights themselves, for they were bound in a strict brotherhood of arms, and were not married, so as to care for nothing but each other, the Sultan, and the honor of their troop. They were not dull, apathetic Turks, but chiefly natives of Circassia and Georgia, the land where the human race is most beautiful and nobly formed. They were stolen from their homes, or, too often, sold by their parents when too young to remember their Christian baptism, and were bred up as Mahometans, with no home but their corps, no kindred but their fellow soldiers. Their title, given by the Sultan who first enrolled them, meant New Soldiers, their ensign was a camp kettle, as that of their Pashas was one, two, or three horses’ tails, in honor of the old Kurdish chief, the founder of the Turkish empire; but there was no homeliness in their appointments, their weapons–scimitars, pistols, and carabines–were crusted with gold and jewels; their head-dress, though made in imitation of a sleeve, was gorgeous, and their garments were of the richest wool and silk, dyed with the deep, exquisite colours of the East. Terrible warriors were they, and almost equally dreaded were the Spahis, light horsemen from Albania and the other Greek and Bulgarian provinces who had entered the Turkish service, and were great plunderers, swift and cruel, glittering, both man and horse, with the jewels they had gained in their forays.
These were chiefly troops for the land attack, and they were set on shore at Port St. Thomas, where the commanders, Mustafa and Piali, held a council, to decide where they should first attack. Piali wished to wait for Dragut, who was daily expected, but Mustafa was afraid of losing time, and of being caught by the Spanish fleet, and insisted on at once laying siege to Fort St. Elmo, which was, he thought, so small that it could not hold out more than five or six days.
Indeed, it could not hold above 300 men, but these were some of the bravest of the knights, and as it was only attacked on the land side, they were able to put off boats at night and communicate with the Grand Master and their brethren in the Borgo. The Turks set up their batteries, and fired their enormous cannon shot upon the fortifications. One of their terrible pieces of ordnance carried stone balls of 160 lb., and no wonder that stone and mortar gave way before it, and that a breach was opened in a few days’ time. That night, when, as usual, boatloads of wounded men were transported across to the Borgo, the Bailiff of Negropont sent the knight La Cerda to the Grand Master to give an account of the state of things and ask for help. La Cerda spoke strongly, and, before a great number of knights, declared that there was no chance of so weak a place holding out for more than a week.
‘What has been lost,’ said the Grand Master, ‘since you cry out for help?’
‘Sir,’ replied La Cerda, ‘the castle may be regarded as a patient in extremity and devoid of strength, who can only be sustained by continual remedies and constant succor.’
‘I will be doctor myself,’ replied the Grand Master, ‘and will bring others with me who, if they cannot cure you of fear, will at least be brave enough to prevent the infidels from seizing the fort.’
The fact was, as he well knew, that the little fort could not hold out long, and he grieved over the fate of his knights; but time was everything, and the fate of the whole isle depended upon the white cross being still on that point of land when the tardy Sicilian fleet should set sail. He was one who would ask no one to run into perils that he would not share, and he was bent on throwing himself into St. Elmo, and being rather buried under the ruins than to leave the Mussulmans free a moment sooner than could be helped to attack the Borgo and Castle of St. Angelo. But the whole Chapter of Knights entreated him to abstain, and so many volunteered for this desperate service, that the only difficulty was to choose among them. Indeed, La Cerda had done the garrison injustice; no one’s heart was failing but his own; and the next day there was a respite, for a cannon shot from St. Angelo falling into the enemy’s camp, shattered a stone, a splinter of which struck down the Piali Pasha. He was thought dead, and the camp and fleet were in confusion, which enabled the Grand Master to send off his nephew, the Chevalier de la Valette Cornusson, to Messina to entreat the Viceroy of Sicily to hasten to their relief; to give him a chart of the entrance of the harbour, and a list of signals, and to desire in especial that two ships belonging to the Order, and filled with the knights who had hurried from distant lands too late for the beginning of the siege, might come to him at once. To this the Viceroy returned a promise that at latest the fleet should sail on the 15th of June, adding an exhortation to him at all sacrifices to maintain St. Elmo. This reply the Grand Master transmitted to the garrison, and it nerved them to fight even with more patience and self-sacrifice. A desperate sally was led by the Chevalier de Medran, who fought his way into the trenches where the Turkish cannon were planted, and at first drove all before him; but the Janissaries rallied and forced back the Christians out of the trenches. Unfortunately there was a high wind, which drove the smoke of the artillery down on the counter-scarp (the slope of masonry facing the rampart), and while it was thus hidden from the Christians, the Turks succeeded in effecting a lodgment there, fortifying themselves with trees and sacks of earth and wool. When the smoke cleared off, the knights were dismayed to see the horse-tail ensigns of the Janissaries so near them, and cannon already prepared to batter the ravelin, or outwork protecting the gateway.
La Cerda proposed to blow this fortification up, and abandon it, but no other knight would hear of deserting an inch of wall while it could yet be held.
But again the sea was specked with white sails from the south-east. Six galleys came from Egypt, bearing 900 troops–Mameluke horsemen, troops recruited much like the Janissaries and quite as formidable. These ships were commanded by Ulucciali, an Italian, who had denied his faith and become a Mahometan, and was thus regarded with especial horror by the chivalry of Malta. And the swarm thickened for a few days more; like white-winged and beautiful but venomous insects hovering round their prey, the graceful Moorish galleys and galliots came up from the south, bearing 600 dark-visaged, white-turbaned, lithe-limbed Moors from Tripoli, under Dragut himself. The thunders of all the guns roaring forth their salute of honor told the garrison that the most formidable enemy of all had arrived. And now their little white rock was closed in on every side, with nothing but its own firmness to be its aid.
Dragut did not approve of having begun with attacking Fort St. Elmo; he thought that the inland towns should have been first taken, and Mustafa offered to discontinue the attack, but this the Corsair said could not now be done with honor, and under him the attack went on more furiously than ever. He planted a battery of four guns on the point guarding the entrance of Marza Muscat, the other gulf, and the spot has ever since been called Dragut’s Point. Strange to say, the soldiers in the ravelin fell asleep, and thus enabled the enemy to scramble up by climbing on one another’s shoulders and enter the place. As soon as the alarm was given, the Bailiff of Negropont, with a number of knights, rushed into the ravelin, and fought with the utmost desperation, but all in vain; they never succeeded in dislodging the Turks, and had almost been followed by them into the Fort itself. Only the utmost courage turned back the enemy at last, and, it was believed, with a loss of 3,000. The Order had twenty knights and a hundred soldiers killed, with many more wounded. One knight named Abel de Bridiers, who was shot through the body, refused to be assisted by his brethren, saying, ‘Reckon me no more among the living. You will be doing better by defending our brothers.’ He dragged himself away, and was found dead before the altar in the Castle chapel. The other wounded were brought back to the Borgo in boats at night, and La Cerda availed himself of a slight scratch to come with them and remain, though the Bailiff of Negropont, a very old man, and with a really severe wound, returned as soon as it had been dressed, together with the reinforcements sent to supply the place of those who had been slain. The Grand Master, on finding how small had been La Cerda’s hurt, put him in prison for several days; but he was afterwards released, and met his death bravely on the ramparts of the Borgo.
The 15th of June was passed. Nothing would make the Sicilian Viceroy move, nor even let the warships of the Order sail with their own knights, and the little fort that had been supposed unable to hold out a week, had for full a month resisted every attack of the enemy.
At last Dragut, though severely wounded while reconnoitring, set up a battery on the hill of Calcara, so as to command the strait, and hinder the succors from being sent across to the fort. The wounded were laid down in the chapel and the vaults, and well it was for them that each knight of the Order could be a surgeon and a nurse. One good swimmer crossed under cover of darkness with their last messages, and La Valette prepared five armed boats for their relief; but the enemy had fifteen already in the bay, and communication was entirely cut off. It was the night before the 23rd of June when these brave men knew their time was come. All night they prayed, and prepared themselves to die by giving one another the last rites of the Church, and at daylight each repaired to his post, those who could not walk being carried in chairs, and sat ghastly figures, sword in hand, on the brink of the breach, ready for their last fight.
By the middle of the day every Christian knight in St. Elmo had died upon his post, and the little heap of ruins was in the hands of the enemy. Dragut was dying of his wound, but just lived to hear that the place was won, when it had cost the Sultan 8,000 men! Well might Mustafa say, ‘If the son has cost us so much, what will the father do?’
It would be too long to tell the glorious story of the three months’ further siege of the Borgo. The patience and resolution of the knights was unshaken, though daily there were tremendous battles, and week after week passed by without the tardy relief from Spain. It is believed that Philip II. thought that the Turks would exhaust themselves against the Order, and forbade his Viceroy to hazard his fleet; but at last he was shamed into permitting the armament to be fitted out. Two hundred knights of St. John were waiting at Messina, in despair at being unable to reach their brethren in their deadly strait, and constantly haunting the Viceroy’s palace, till he grew impatient, and declared they did not treat him respectfully enough, nor call him ‘Excellency’.
‘Senor,’ said one of them, ‘if you will only bring us in time to save the Order, I will call you anything you please, excellency, highness, or majesty itself.’
At last, on the 1st of September, the fleet really set sail, but it hovered cautiously about on the farther side of the island, and only landed 6,000 men and then returned to Sicily. However, the tidings of its approach had spread such a panic among the Turkish soldiers, who were worn out and exhausted by their exertions, that they hastily raised the siege, abandoned their heavy artillery, and, removing their garrison from Fort St. Elmo, re-embarked in haste and confusion. No sooner, however, was the Pasha in his ship than he became ashamed of his precipitation, more especially when he learnt that the relief that had put 16,000 men to flight consisted only of 6,000, and he resolved to land and give battle; but his troops were angry and unwilling, and were actually driven out of their ships by blows.
In the meantime, the Grand Master had again placed a garrison in St. Elmo, which the Turks had repaired and restored, and once more the cross of St. John waved on the end of its tongue of land, to greet the Spanish allies. A battle was fought with the newly arrived troops, in which the Turks were defeated; they again took to their ships, and the Viceroy of Sicily, from Syracuse, beheld their fleet in full sail for the East.
Meantime, the gates of the Borgo were thrown open to receive the brethren and friends who had been so long held back from coming to the relief of the home of the Order. Four months’ siege, by the heaviest artillery in Europe, had shattered the walls and destroyed the streets, till, to the eyes of the newcomers, the town looked like a place taken by assault, and sacked by the enemy; and of the whole garrison, knights, soldiers, and sailors altogether, only six hundred were left able to bear arms, and they for the most part covered with wounds. The Grand Master and his surviving knights could hardly be recognized, so pale and altered were they by wounds and excessive fatigue; their hair, beards, dress, and armor showing that for four full months they had hardly undressed, or lain down unarmed. The newcomers could not restrain their tears, but all together proceeded to the church to return thanks for the conclusion of their perils and afflictions. Rejoicings extended all over Europe, above all in Italy, Spain, and southern France, where the Order of St. John was the sole protection against the descents of the Barbary corsairs. The Pope sent La Valette a cardinal’s hat, but he would not accept it, as unsuited to his office; Philip II. presented him with a jeweled sword and dagger. Some thousand unadorned swords a few months sooner would have been a better testimony to his constancy, and that of the brave men whose lives Spain had wasted by her cruel delays.
The Borgo was thenceforth called Citta Vittoriosa; but La Valette decided on building the chief town of the isle on the Peninsula of Fort St. Elmo, and in this work he spent his latter days, till he was killed by a sunstroke, while superintending the new works of the city which is deservedly known by his name, as Valetta.
The Order of St. John lost much of its character, and was finally swept from Malta in the general confusion of the Revolutionary wars. The British crosses now float in the harbour of Malta; but the steep white rocks must ever bear the memory of the self-devoted endurance of the beleaguered knights, and, foremost of all, of those who perished in St. Elmo, in order that the signal banner might to the very last summon the tardy Viceroy to their aid.
Charlotte Mary Yonge