The Battle of Malta, 1283: Prelude to a Disaster
By Lawrence Mott
The Circle of War in the Middle Ages: Essays on Medieval Military and Naval History, edited by Donald J. Kagay and L.J. Andrew Villalon (Boydell & Brewer, 1999)
Introduction: On 8 June 1283, a naval battle took place in the Grand Harbor of Malta which would have profound repercussions on the ability of the Angevins to wage war for the rest of the conflict known as the War of the Sicilian Vespers. Not only would the battle bring to prominence for the first time Admiral Roger de Lauria,who would go on to become one of the great admirals of the period, but it would also lay the groundwork for the failure of the French crusade against Aragon two-years later.
The battle of Malta is one of the rare cases in the war where an Aragonese fleet met a fleet composed entirely of Provençal ships and crews. The only other instance occurred at the battle of Las Rosas, but, as will be shown, the quality and type of French units deployed at that battle were to a large extent dictated by the results of the earlier battle at Malta. For the above reasons, thebattle of Malta offers an opportunity to evaluate both the ships and tactics of two homogeneous fleets without the ambiguities that attend the interpretation of abattle in which one of the fleets, composed of units from various city-states, is plagued by the problems of unity of command, differing tactics within the fleet, and less than enthusiastic participation on the part of one or more of the units. Moreover, the results of the battle of Malta suggest that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the ships and tactics used by the fleets in the western Mediterranean were virtually identical, the Catalans and Aragonese employed subtle, but effective, differences in ship design and tactics to become the pre-eminent naval power in the western basin. This paper will analyze the differences in the tactics and ships utilized by both sides in the battle of Malta, and outline the effects the Angevin defeat there would have on the failed crusade of Philip III.
The battle of Malta was not the first naval engagement between the Aragonese fleet and the forces of Charles of Anjou, but the result of an engagementwhich had occurred nine months before. Following the Sicilian revolt against Angevin rule in April 1282, Pedro III of Aragon (1276-1285) laid claim to Sicily based on his wife’s connection to the Hohenstaufen family. He invaded Sicily in June and by late September of 1282, Charles had been forced to abandon the siege of Messina and cross the straits to Reggio on the coast of Calabria. The actual size of the fleet Charles took with him to Reggio is hard to determine based on the chronicles. Neocastro and Desclot are in virtual agreement, with the former putting the number of vessels at fifty-two galleys, while the latter simply states there were a total of seventy vessels, including auxiliaries. Muntaner gives an apparently inflated figure of a total of 120 galleys plusassorted transports. Based on the chronicles, it appears that the Angevin fleetwas composed of twenty-two to twenty-four galleys with an accompanying flotilla of thirty to forty tarides, armed lenys, and barges.
In response to Charles’s retreat to Reggio, Pedro III had a fleet assembled in Messina in order to intercept the Angevin fleet as it attempted to pass north through the straits. Nominal command of the fleet at this time hadbeen given to the natural son of King Pedro, Jaime Perez, but for this operation Pedro de Queralt and Ramon de Cortada were placed in command. Muntaner states that the king wished his son to remain in order to oversee the fleet at Messina, but the appointment of Queralt and Cortada may have signaled a growing lack of faith in the leadership abilities of Perez. In any case the two vice-admirals were placed in command of sixteen galleys.