Skip to comments.THE CHURCH MILITANT--REAL MILITANT--The Knights of St. John & the Siege of Malta
Posted on 03/29/2004 11:19:37 AM PST by Antoninus
THE CHURCH MILITANT...REAL MILITANT
Just as Jesus Christ is often transformed into some new-age sensitive patsy instead of the Son of God become Man, so, too, is the Churchs teaching on the just war often misrepresented by both doves and hawks, pacifists and warmongers. In this struggle, the pacifists have the upper hand because Christ, though he did speak often of Hell and its attendant pains, is the Prince of Peace whose law is love, and the Churchs teaching on what constitutes a just war is very strict and seeks peace first always. However, just as common sense tells us, against the extreme pacifists, that we have a right to self-defense, even a duty at times, so too do nations. And, whatever the justification for a particular war, armed conflict elicits both the best and the worst qualities in men. Every battlefield has been the scene of acts of heroism and self-sacrifice as well as those of cowardice and brutality. In that fact do we find the rationale for a column such as this, the title of which we hope is not misleading. The Church is made up of three societies if you will): the Church militant thats us here on earth; the Church suffering, composed of the souls in purgatory; and the Church triumphant, composed of the saints in Heaven with God and His angels. Our title, through a play on words, seeks to explain that, on these pages, the valorous deeds of Catholic men in battle will be recalled. The column seeks not to glorify war; rather, it seeks to celebrate the heroism of Catholic men long-dead and to remind us today of the sacrifices endured by our spiritual ancestors. Our first columnist is Nick Prata, who has written two thrilling novels, one of which is about our topic
THE KNIGHTS OF ST. JOHN AND THE SIEGE OF MALTA
Its often forgotten that the struggle between Islam and Chrisitanity did not start with the Crusades. When Pope Urban called for the retaking of the Holy Land at the end of the eleventh century, a weak and divided Christendom had been under attack by Muslim crusaders for over three hundred years. Europe was relatively stagnant intellectually and culturally, partly because she had been besieged by Muslims, Vikings and barbarians for centuries, when Urban decided it better to task his squabbling flock with recapturing Jerusalem than to placidly await the next jihad. From this dubious and ultimately unsuccessful counterattack came much grief, but an order fostered by the Crusades should be recalled with pride. For the faith and brotherhood of the Knights of St. John do honor to the Church, and their valiant defense at Malta stands tall among the deeds of Western Civilization.
The Knights got their start as devout laymen from Amalfi, Italy, but the fraternity soon transformed into a religious order. Prior to the First Crusade, they maintained hospitals in the Holy Land, hence the sobriquet Hospitallers. In the best Christian tradition, medical services were free to any in need, including Muslims. The Crusades forced the Knights to arms, and reinforcements brought the order a multinational face. Italy, Auvergne, Provence, France, Spain, Aragon, England and Germany were eventually represented. Each langue or language had its own leader, but supreme command rested with an elected Grand Master, who swore fealty to the papacy alone.
The Knights ensconced themselves in castles across the Holy Land and became renowned warriors. Their skill with weapons, exceptional armor and religious fervor made them adversaries to be feared. A Muslim chronicler described them as each full of zeal, and without weakness. Its fair to say that the Hospitallers were among the very finest soldiers of the day.
However, due to vast enemy numbers and long supply lines, the Knights were eventually driven from the Holy Land. Unperturbed, they redeployed to the island of Rhodes and harassed Islam by sea. Again, though, they were dislodged by repeated invasions. They gave such a splendid account of themselves during the final battle in 1523, however, that Sultan Sulieman the Magnificent promised safe passage if they would but leave Rhodes. This unusually gracious offer was grudgingly accepted by Grand Master De Lisle Adam.
An anachronism in an increasingly nationalistic Europe, the venerable order of warrior monks settled in the only place offered them Malta. The small, bare island, bleak indeed after lush Rhodes, nonetheless provided good harbors for their fleet. A days rowing from Sicily, the rock, as Malta was dubbed, would witness their finest hour.
Sulieman grew to bitterly regret having released the Knights, who preyed on his navy and merchant ships. When his hungry gaze fell upon Rome, he decided to first seize Malta as a staging point for incursions into the heart of western Europe. Since the Muslims had already conquered southeastern Europe and penetrated as far west as Vienna, toppling fractured Italy should have proven easy; from there he planned to take the entire West for Allah after building a mosque on St. Peters ashes.
Roughly five hundred Knights were on Malta when Suliemans armada of two hundred ships and forty thousand men landed in May 1565. Knights, civilians and a garrison of professional soldiers took refuge in and around the forts skirting the Grand Harbor. Grand Master Jean La Valette, a tenacious seventy-year-old, vowed no surrender. He had been at Rhodes and would not endure another such defeat. The pious former slave on a Muslim galley knew both that for and against which he fought, and he had no intention of yielding more Christian soil to Sulieman. Though his cries for assistance went unheeded by Europe, he had faith that God would not abandon the Religion. As hostilities approached, La Valette called his men to the celebration of the Mass, saying, Let us hasten, my brothers, to the sacred altar where we shall renew our vows and obtain that contempt for death, which alone can render us invincible.
Against such resolute stuff as the old warrior was made, the Muslim command, in contrast, was divided. Mustapha Pasha was an experienced, ruthless soldier who would constantly butt heads with his incompetent naval counterpart, Admiral Piali. More generals would arrive as the siege drew on, but only the eighty-year-old pirate, Dragut Rais, would provide coordination to the conglomerate force.
The day came when proud Turkish armies disembarked from galleys, crescent flags snapping overhead. Endless lines of robed Janissaries, men who had been kidnapped from Christian homes as children and now served as the elite shock troops of the Ottoman Empire, and mounted sipahi, spired helmets shining in the sun, marched boldly down the gangplanks and formed up south of Grand Harbor. Suliemans war machine was the greatest on earth, and it was unthinkable that it would meet with other than victory on pitifully outmatched Malta; in fact, spies had promised it would fall in a few days.
Armored from head to foot, the Knights paced the walls of the fortified towns of Senglea and Birgu and those of the stand-alone Fort St. Elmo in anticipation. Cannons were readied, and noncombatants ordered to the rear. The brave Maltese, frequent victims of Muslim raiders, prepared to fight. The stage was set, and the desperate battle that followed was of such intensity and spectacle as to almost defy belief. For nearly four months, the barren island would witness combat of astonishing variety. Sun-drenched Malta, which St. Paul himself had converted, would run red in rivers of blood.
Soon after landing the Turks captured two Hospitallers, Adrien De La Riviere and Bartolomeo Faraoane. When the two men refused to betray their brother Knights and the Maltese, they were tortured to death. Meanwhile, Mustaphas skirmishers approached the town of Birgu via the Corradino Heights and were surprised by a small contingent of mounted Knights. Hundreds of Turks died in the melee, and their flag was snatched before La Valette recalled his men. For obscure reasons, Mustapha then concentrated upon insignificant Fort St. Elmo, across the water from Senglea and Birgu. St. Elmo, weak and unfortunately positioned below Mount Sciberras, would endure infantry assaults and pulverizing bombardments for the next month.
St. Elmo, a star-shaped structure built at little expense, held no civilians but was the softest of the three forts. Many batteries were placed on Scibberas as the Turks dug in. The pounding started, and the Knights were hit with everything from ships guns to enormous basilisk pieces so large they could only be discharged twice a day. Elmos walls were rapidly reduced to powder. The Knights fended off repeated attacks, but it seemed impossible the fort would survive the week. Although La Valette reinforced the garrison at night, the forces defending Elmo were steadily depleted. At stones throw range, the cannonade reached seven thousand shots a day and such a pitch that it was heard in Sicily, yet Elmos fearless leaders, Governor Broglia and Captain de Guaras, refused to yield. Repeated Janissary assaults filled the forts moat with bodies. The battle stretched on for a month, making a mockery of Mustaphas timetable, and the Muslims commanders offers to parley were met with insults.
Living like animals in the ruins, starving and racked by thirst, running low on everything but indefatigable courage and steadfast faith, the Knights braced for the final attack. Receiving the Eucharist one last time (They knew what mattered!), they emptied Elmos chapel of relics before ringing the church bells to warn La Valette of impending defeat. Pialis navy joined the fight and drubbed Elmo from the sea. It proved the little forts greatest moment. A skeleton force of one hundred sick and grievously wounded men, some missing limbs and literally dying of gangrene, held off the entire Turkish host for an hour, forcing a withdrawal. Two thousand fresh Turkish dead littered the ground! The wounded officers, de Guaras and Miranda, had themselves placed in chairs before the fort to await the final charge, swords across their knees. The last offensive came and Elmo finally fell.
Mustapha entered the fallen fort-little more than rubble and corpses-and looked with dismay across Grand Harbor at massive Fort St. Angelo in Birgu. Allah! he cried. If so small a son has cost me so dear, what price is required for so great a father? He had lost ten thousand men.
St. Elmo had rattled Mustapha, and poisoned wells had infected his army with dysentery, but Sulieman wanted Malta. So the Turks drew on their military ingenuity. Mustapha threw an impressive network of trenches around Senglea and Birgu, but direct assaults were met with furious resistance. Then followed sapping operations and underground battles with pickaxe and explosives, but the Knights held fast. Turkish ships were dragged overland into Grand Harbor, but still the Knights persevered. Turks molested Sengleas floating barricade only to meet death at the hands of valiant Maltese volunteers who swam out to meet them. Mustapha, however, knowing the Sultan would have his pleasure, would not quit.
The Turks then constructed a marvelous siege tower and rolled it toward Birgu, only to have it leveled by cannonballs designed to cut ships masts. There it was that the Grand Masters nephew, Henri La Valette, lost his life in a suicidal attempt to repulse the Janissaries. Finally, the Turks broke into shattered Birgu, only to find that the Grand Master had but lured them into what amounted to a shooting gallery; aValette had erected a raised redoubt that allowed his men to fire upon the enemy without exposing themselves.
Mustapha grew desperate. His engineers devised an infernal machine, a bomb twenty feet long and six feet high, which they rolled into Senglea, only to have the Knights muscle it back over the wall just in time to explode among the Turks! Bodies were thrown all the way into the harbor. Looking back through the carnage, the deeds of individual Knights bear witness to the valor of the Catholic men on that barren rock: a waterborne raid by Algerians was almost single-handedly halted by the Spanish Knight Zanoguerra, while a hidden battery under the command of Knight De Guiral killed a thousand Janissary reinforcements. Frantic for victory and short of provisions, Mustapha marched inland on the Maltese capital, Mdina, but was fooled into thinking the town much stronger than it actually was and, so, withdrew. Desperate Turks began to whisper that it was not Allahs will that they conquer Malta.
By the second week of September, the siege was over. Demoralized and utterly spent, the Turks allowed themselves to be chased off by a numerically inferior Christian relief force led by the Spaniard, Don Garcia de la Toledo. A final battle ensued after Mustapha realized how small the relief contingent was, but, spurred on by the furious Knights, the recently-arrived Christians routed the Muslims. Sulieman, the greatest monarch of the era, would neither have his revenge upon the Hospitallers, nor would he construct his dreamed-of mosque over the remains of the first Pope.
The defeat of the Knights of St. John at Malta would have been a disaster for Europe and would have changed the course of history. Too late did the continent realize its peril, and only after hostilities had ended did she send help to the island of heroes. However, the achievement of the Knights was recognized as vast sums of money poured into Malta, and the noblest families begged entrance for their sons into the order. Philip II of Spain sent La Valette a bejeweled sword, and the Pope offered the Grand Master a Cardinals hat. But nowhere was the Knights stand against seemingly overwhelming odds so perfectly realized than by Queen Elizabeth of distant, Protestant England. Declaring a six-week thanksgiving, she noted that a Turkish victory would have made uncertain what peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.
Proofing this too-short essay, I see that so many important details had to be omitted; theres no word of Landfreduccis defense at Elmos gate, nothing of Commander St. Aubin, nor mention of the great chain. The fact remains, however, that our ancestors were free to worship as Catholics because the Knights fought and died for their beliefs. And what became of the Hospitallers? Now hailed as the Knights of Malta, they have returned to their roots as caregivers, and their generosity is witnessed wherever the eight-pointed Maltese cross reaches out to those in need.
Nick Prata is a banker and writer in Delaware. Interested readers may want to learn more about the siege of Malta by reading his historical novel Angels in Iron. He has also written the philosophy-driven heroic fantasy novel Dream of Fire.
Absolutely. The Muslim barbarians refuse to be assimilated into the European countries they invade. Instead they riot, explode, and demand to be represented. They intend to dominate and until the infiltrated societies realize that they will keep chipping away.
Ah, yes, the English Crown. Ever the pinnacle of hypocrisy! From this quote you would never know that the English were engaged in active piracy against Spain, in addition to aiding the Dutch rebels. Our dear "separated brethren" were, in effect, allies of the infidels throughout this period. Any triumph of Catholic arms occurred in spite of Protestant efforts.
It puts things in perspective when one learns that many of the captains of Spain's Armada in 1588 were veterans of the Battle of Lepanto.
Real Christians were at Malta.