The Great Siege of Malta
By Tony Rothman
History Today, Vol. 57:1 (2007)
Introduction: At dawn on May 18th, 1565, one of the largest armadas ever assembled appeared off the Mediterranean island of Malta. Its 200 ships had been sent by Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the vast Ottoman empire to destroy the Knights of Malta who had long been a thorn in his side. Aboard were crammed some 40,000 fighting men, including 6,000 of Suleiman’s elite infantry, the Janissaries, not to mention another 9,000 cavalry and seventy huge siege cannon, one or two of which were capable of hurling 600lb stones a mile and a half. Opposing this force were just 600 knights, a few thousand mercenaries and a few thousand Maltese irregulars – in all between 6,000 and 9,000 men. Once Malta fell, which Suleiman’s commanders thought should take a week, the Turks would evict the Spanish from Tunis and then invade Sicily and Italy.
Rarely in military history have the odds been so unequal and the stakes so high. Yet in dealing the first true defeat to the Ottomans in over a century, the Knights of Malta became the heroes of the age and the siege one of the most celebrated events of the sixteenth century. Nearly 200 years later Voltaire could write, ‘Nothing is more well known than the siege of Malta’.
Yet, three centuries on and the events of 1565 have receded from the minds of even most military historians. No longer do you find it on lists of the ‘seventy most decisive battles in history’. Nevertheless, the siege captures the imagination of anyone who stumbles across it.