The Knights of Malta series: the early years & Dragutโ€™s obsessive attacks
A series surrounding the infamous Great Siege of 1565.

Jillian Mallia

The Order of the Knights of St John was (and still is, in some ways) a prominent part of Maltese history, with the most memorable thing associated with them being the Great Siege of 1565. But, before we get into the details with this series of ours surrounding the infamous Siege, we’re taking a look back at what lead the Knights to head to Malta.

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From Rhodes to Malta

According to Joseph Serracino’s recount in L-Assedju l-Kbir, in 1522, the Order lost their possession over the island of Rhodes, one year before the appointment of Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam as Grand Master of the Order. In 1523, the Head of the Order along with 600 Knights and about 4,000 Rhodians who didn’t want to remain under the governance of the Turks made their way to Sicily. After seven years of travelling from one Italian spot to another, the Order was given the island of Malta on behalf of the King of Sicily against a payment of a falcon per year (we’re not quite sure what it translates to in euros, but we’re thinking it was quite the expense).

Obviously, before they made Malta their permanent home, the Order sent someone over to get a lay of the land, the people, the culture, and most importantly, the fortifications. Considering the fact that they didn’t have anywhere else to build their seat and wanted to win back Rhodes ASAP, they accepted the King’s offer. And obviously, this is just the beginning of a 268-year governance.

The early years of the Knights’ rule over Malta

The Knights officially made Malta their home in 1530 and while they eventually made the islands quite the fortified land, attacks by corsairs were still frequent in the early years. It is said that between 1533 and 1599, no less than 16 attacks on the islands were conducted by Saracen corsairs, including the infamous 1551 and 1565 sieges that were the worst ones.

They initially chose to settle into Fort St Angelo and Birgu since it was right by the harbour and subsequently fortified the area further. The Knights later developed Birgu, building auberges, a hospital, the armoury and other administrative locations. Needless to say, the locality which was once a fishing village transformed into a maritime city (Citta Nuova) and commercial hub.

During Grand Master Philippe Villiers De l’Isle Adam’s rule (1530-1534), Gozo’s castle (what is now the Citadel) was strengthened to minimise the chances of raids by corsairs.

Dragut, the Knights and Malta

Around the same time, the North of Africa was under Ottoman rule whose corsairs would raid Christian shores during the summer months. Without a doubt, Dragut Rais was one of the most well-known corsairs. He’s not only known for his harsh actions but for dragging thousands of Maltese and Gozitans as prisoners to Tripoli. He was also a frequent visitor.

In 1544 he attacked Gozo twice. During the battles on 25th September, his brother was killed. Instead of giving back the body, the Gozitans dragged his brother and proceeded to burn him. We can only imagine what level of revenge Dragut was plotting and in fact, in 1545 he attacked the island another two times on 16th August and 5th September respectively. And it wasn’t the last Gozo had seen of the famous corsair, as he made another four attempts on the mainland and Malta’s sister isle before the historic 1565 Siege.

Xebb ir-Ras

During the rule of Grand Master Juan d’Omedes (1536-1553) advice was given by Italian engineer Antonio Ferramolino to build a fortified city that could defend the two ports. But because of financial reasons and the Grand Master’s wish to recapture Rhodes, nothing was actually done.

The lead up to the 1551 attack

The 1551 attack was undoubtedly one of the most horrendous ones following the infamous 1565 siege. In July that year, the Grand Master received word that a fleet was making its way to the West and it was only a matter of time until an attack in Malta was underway.

On 16th July, word reached the Grand Master that the Turks were indeed on their way, which naturally sparked fear and panic among locals who immediately took refuge within Birgu’s walls. Just two days later, the Ottomans disembarked at Marsamxett. 30 Knights and 400 Maltese were ready to fight off the invaders, but once the Turks examined Fort St Angelo and Birgu’s strategic position, they decided that their 10,000 men weren’t enough to capture it. So, they decided to attack Mdina instead. Geez, these guess didn’t give it up, did they?

During their expedition, they also raided Marsa and Qormi, setting fire to fields they saw on their way to Mdina. Joseph Serracino explains that until the evening of 18th July 1551, the centre of Malta was entirely on fire. The 1551 attack on Mdina has gone down in history as one of the islands’ most horrendous sieges following that of 1565. But that’s a whole other story on its own, which we’ll leave for another day…

21st January 2023

Jillian Mallia
Written by
Jillian Mallia
A book lover, writer and globetrotter who loves exploring new places and the local gems that the Maltese Islands have to offer. An avid foodie and arts fanatic, Jillian searches the island and beyond for the perfect settings to write about.

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