|Grand Master's Palace, Rhodes. Photo by Norbert Nagle, Wikimedia Commons.|
A relic of crusader times, the Knights had been fighting a rear-guard action against the armies of Islam for over 200 years, retreating first from the Holy Land to Cyprus, then from Cyprus to Rhodes. When the 28 year-old Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent arrived on Rhodes with over 100,000 men, he was met by a force of less than 8,000 knights and allied soldiers intent on holding the island. These gallant few held the fortifications of Rhodes for six months. Hopelessly outnumbered, the grand master of the order, Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, finally sought terms of capitulation with the invading Ottomans. The surviving knights and defenders were permitted to leave Rhodes with full military honors on December 20, 1522. The Knights of St. John then settled on the island of Malta, where Suleiman would again find them forty years later when seeking a base for his invasion of Italy.
Here is a description of that gloomy day in 1522 taken from the magnificent historical novel, Angels in Iron by Nicholas Prata. This scene comprises Chapter 1, and is a prelude to Prata’s masterful narrative of the Great Siege of Malta of 1565:
Rhodes, island home to the Knights of St. John of the Hospital, had endured an exhausting, relentless Turkish siege for six months. Sultan Suleiman’s vast forces had virtually destroyed the island in an attempt to dislodge the tenacious Knights from their residence of two hundred years. Buildings and walls lay in ruin. Gaping furrows stretched across the earth, testaments to exploded mines and collapsed tunnels. Turkish labor gangs dug in behind earthworks as weary Knights marked their movements from tall battlements.You can order a copy of Angels in Iron by clicking here.
For the moment, however, all was quiet. No cannon, Christian or Turk, challenged from land or sea. The Order’s Grand Master, Phillipe Villiers de l’Isle Adam, had accepted Suleiman’s invitation to parley, and rumor had it he would accept terms for an honorable withdrawal from Rhodes.
The Hospitaller standard, eight pointed white cross on a red field, drooped above the tower of St. Nicholas…
The winter-chilled battlements of lovely Rhodes, “the garden of the Mediterranean,” smoked behind the grim, armored figure of a towering Provencal knight. Jean Parisot de La Valette waited among his brethren for evacuation onto a galley. De l’Isle Adam had ensured the Order’s survival at the cost of its beloved island. The young sultan, impressed by the Knight’s stout defense and anxious to see them off Rhodes, had offered unusually gracious terms. The Knights would leave with all their arms, belongings and ships. All civilians who wished to leave with them might do so as well.
The Grand Master’s acquiescence, however wise, was unpopular with La Valette and his monastic brothers. But where La Valette, not yet twenty-eight, bore the defeat with mature silence, his comrades voiced their grief. Scion of a family whose sons had graced the crusading army of St. Louis the Pious, he viewed the defeat as an affront to God and a blow to personal honor.
Though the heroic defense of Rhodes would later be immortalized in Europe, and Hospitaller wounds salved with quotes such as “Nothing in the world was ever lost so well as Rhodes,” the Order’s future looked indeed bleak. In an age of dawning nationalism, a sovereign, multi-national religious order with papal allegiance was an unwelcome anachronism. Few European kings viewed the Order’s continued presence as necessary or beneficial.
A powder cask exploded in the Turkish lines and suspicious Knights turned toward the noise. Many feared Suleiman had broken truce after tricking them from their strong positions. A clamor arose over the pier as men reached for their weapons.
La Valette remained motionless. He feared neither treachery nor death after ceding territory to the enemies of Christ. True, the Grand Master had accepted Suleiman’s terms at the behest of the battered Rhodian population, but such considerations did not allay La Valette’s grief.
La Valette dropped a gauntlet and rubbed red eyes which stared from his sternly handsome, soot-encrusted face. He thought:
I find no fault with the Grand Master, but I would have defended this place though all Islam attacked. He leaned upon his sword. To the very last man.
La Valette’s mind wandered. Where would the order relocate? He was overcome by a sudden wave of homesickness, as though already a thousand miles away. This defeat is a bitter pill! He thought of his young sister back in France.
Will my kin see the Turkish crescent raised above our lands? he wondered with shame.
La Valette slid the open-faced salade off his curly head. “God, how we’ve failed,” he sighed.
“Brother Jean?” a Knight said.
La Valette looked at the man, an Italian whom the siege had made closer than family.
The Italian motioned up a gangplank. “It’s our turn.”
It was then the Order struck the colors above the Tower of St. Nicholas. Gazing across the Mandraccio’s calm waters, La Valette watched the Hospitaller cross descend the flagpole and disappear behind Nicholas’ walls.
La Valette felt as though he had been stabbed and silently prayed he might go blind before ever again witnessing such a sight.
For a good summary of the siege of Rhodes, see this multi-part article from The Gates of Vienna blog.