Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Knights of St John

Certain military actions ring through time, even amongst those disinterested in history or the military. Names like Cannae, Thermopylae and Stalingrad still have a very high level of recognition.

When I was reading about Byzantium and its latter era two such actions were a surprise and delight to read about.

The island of Rhodes has been the scene of many important moments in history. The Colossus was born there, Demetrius got his nickname (Poliorcetes “The Besieger”) having failed to take it and for a time it was the home of the Knights of St John.

In the 15th and 16th century the Ottoman Turks were expanding, and regularly inflicting defeats upon Christian Europe. The fall of Byzantium was a tragedy for the world, but it is the two sieges of Rhodes, in 1480 and 1522, with which this post is concerned.

In 1480 Ottoman power was waxing, and the island of Rhodes came under attack. The defending forces numbered around 3,500, with 70,000 men on the Ottoman side (however, far fewer than this actually assaulted the city itself). On 27 July, a vanguard of 2,500 made it into the city, and hours of relentless fighting ensued. The Grand Master, Pierre d'Aubusson, fought with his lance, despite being wounded multiple times. Weakened by the prolonged battle, the Turks began to withdraw, and an assault by the Knights of St John turned retreat into rout. Against the odds, the Knights had won, and Rhodes remained free of the Ottomans for almost half a century.

However, the story was different in 1522. The Knights were led by Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, with Suleiman the Magnificent the supreme leader of the Ottoman Turks. De L’Isle-Adam called for reinforcements from Europe but, perhaps reminiscent of the lack of support for Byzantium seven decades earlier, little was forthcoming. The Turks had 100,000 men, the defenders of the island less than a tenth those numbers.

Suleiman, if memory serves, loved his cannons, and they pounded the walls of Rhodes until part of the walls collapsed, filling in the moat and providing a handy bridge for the Ottomans. The Turks took control of the breach thrice, only to be repulsed each time by a vigorous counter-attack led by the Grand Master. The 24th of September saw a day of prolonged and intense fighting, but ultimately the Turks were again seen off by the Knights.

The end of November saw another massive assault on the city, but it was, yet again, repulsed by the resilient Knights. The Turks had suffered umpteen tactical defeats and failed to crack the Rhodesian nut, but the Knights of St John had been bottled up and besieged for months.

Suleiman offered the defenders generous terms of surrender, with peace, freedom and food on offer. The Grand Master was persuaded by the people to negotiate, and a second truce was implemented following a brief interruption of renewed conflict.

The Knights were granted 12 days to leave the island, taking weapons and valuables with them. No churches were converted to mosques and the remaining islanders (who all had a three year period to leave) got five years free of Ottoman taxation.

Rhodes was taken, and the Knights of St John sailed to Crete. They had lost Rhodes but they had put up stiff resistance to two sieges, seeing off hugely superior forces in 1480 and resisting an even bigger army for months in 1522.

It’s always interesting to read of smaller forces triumphing over larger ones. Such actions highlight the importance of morale, intelligence and boldness, whether the ancient victories of Cannae and Arbela, or the siege of 1480, or Wellington thrashing the Indians at Assaye.



  1. ... and after Rhodes, the Knights moved to Malta where, in 1565, they were attacked again. Over a bitter four months (which the native Maltese, with understandable pride in their history and with reference to the events of 1940-42, are wont to call the first Great Siege) they inflicted such a major defeat on the Turks that they never tried again. What was at stake in this clash can perhaps be measured by the decision of that great protestant champion Elizabeth of England to order the victory of these most Catholic knights to be celebrated with a thanksgiving service to be read in every church in England every day for three weeks.

    I've been to Malta and the fortifications built in the aftermath of that attack are still there, and are an astonishing sight to those who appreaciated these things and well worth a visit.

    "Malta of gold, Malta of silver, Malta of precious metal,
    We shall never take you!
    No, not even if you were as soft as a gourd,
    Not even if you were only protected by an onion skin!"
    And from her ramparts a voice replied:
    "I am she who has decimated the galleys of the Turk
    And all the warriors of Constantinople and Galata!"
    -- Anonymous, Sixteenth Century

  2. My parents went to Malta a few years ago, and loved it.

    I think I remember reading in Hague's excellent Pitt biography that the Knights of St John still held Malta when Napoleon was about, so late 18th, early 19th century. Like Sicily, Malta must be a fascinating place to visit.