|A portrait of Grand Master Jean de la Valette by Antoine Favray.|
When the Turks attacked Malta with an armada of nearly 200 ships and 40,000 soldiers in May of 1565, about 1,000 knights of St. John (later the Knights of Malta) from all over Christendom had already assembled to repel them. These men arrived at Malta with the full knowledge that many of them would never leave the island alive.
The following is taken from the excellent historical novel, Angels in Iron, and describes the happenings on May 18, 1565 when the Turkish fleet appeared off Malta:
Suleiman’s armada was spotted shortly after dawn. The galleys materialized on the hazy horizon fifteen miles east of Malta. A Knight in St. Elmo roused the garrison to action, crying: “There they are!” Within moments men crowded the east walls and squinted toward the ships.
Di Corso stared at the gigantic fleet, eyes wide. Heavenly Father! It’s a wonder the sea can hold them!
Captain De Guaras and Governor Broglia scrambled up the steps and gazed toward the armada, their faces grim.
“God help us,” Broglia sighed, then told De Guaras: “Fire a shot to warn Birgu.”
“A volley!” De Guaras cried to the batteries on the cavalier. “Three shots!”
Cannon roared and iron whistled over water. White foam pillared skyward as shot plowed the lazy sea. Birgu’s guns echoed the alarm.
Another volley thundered toward the distant Turks.
“Hold!” De Guaras shouted.
He and Broglia went back down the steps and disappeared into the governor’s chamber, flanked by three Knights Commanders.
“How far off?” Di Corso asked a scarred Spanish gunner.
“A few hours, sir.”
“Time enough for the chapel, then.”
“Master, they’re here!” he cried.Thus begins the story of the epic battle, one of the most harrowing and bloody sieges in all of recorded history. To read the tale in the epic prose of Nicholas C. Prata, go ye and purchase a copy of Angels in Iron here or here.
La Valette signed a document, blotted it. “Oliver?”
La Valette rolled and sealed the scroll, pressed the wax with his signet ring and offered the letter. “Take this.”
Starkey accepted the parchment.
“This is my quint,” La Valette said, referring to the twenty percent of his belongings a Knight could bequeath outside the Order.
“I see, my lord,” Starkey said, studying the sealed will.
“Keep it safe.”
La Valette rose from the chair and placed a white-plumed helmet on his head, saying, “Let us go to St. Angelo.”
As they left the room they heard warning shots from inland Mdina, and Gozo to the north, where the respective garrisons had guessed Mustapha’s arrival.
“They certainly didn’t catch us napping,” La Valette said.
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In the dockyard between Birgu and Senglea, Mathurin d’Aux Lescout-Romegas, General of the Galleys and the greatest Christian seaman of the age, readied four small ships. Romegas had no intention of engaging the huge Turkish force; rather, he would reconnoiter Suleiman’s navy.
La Valette saluted Romegas and proceeded toward St. Angelo.
Drums, trumpets and shouts rose from Birgu and St. Angelo as men sprang hastily to arms. La Valette strode confidently into the chaotic fort. A group of knights surrounded him.
“The time is at hand,” he told them. “Let us acquit ourselves as knights of Christ.”