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Episode 096: The Siege of Rhodes

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Book Links (Amazon affiliate links – if you order through this link I get a small percentage of the sale, and you pay the same price. Win/win!)

Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of HenryVIII Volume 3:
Cambridge University Press

The Papacy and the Levant 1204-1571 from the American Philosophical Society

Roles of the Sea in Medieval England from Boydell Press

Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley


Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is Episode 96, and it’s the first in a two part series on the European reaction to the threat of the Ottoman Turks, specifically the Siege of Rhodes, and how England reacted to it.

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Recently while doing some reading I came across a letter by Sir Nicholas Roberts that described meeting the Ottoman Emperor Suliman the Magnificent as the Siege of Rhodes was ending. Sir Nicholas Roberts was one of the Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, stationed in the Mediterranean. These Knights were a holdout from the Crusader period, having formed in the 11th century, a last bastion of Christian power on a rocky island in the sea. They had been a crusading order, and kept up their presence by harrasing the Ottoman ships. They were essentially pirates who preyed on the Turkish boats, and they had spent the past couple of centuries hanging on to a glorious past, and keeping hope alive in Rome and Christendom for a crusading future.

I became fascinated by the English knights who were stationed at Rhodes, living far from home and court, in the sea, pirating, and crusading against the invading Ottoman Turk, and I began reading more about it. The Sixteenth Century was a period where it seemed as if the rise of the Muslim faith with the Ottoman Empire was unstoppable. Whereas at the end of the 15th century the reconquest of Spain had given new hope to Christendom, by the middle of the 16th century things were very different.

The Barbary Pirates were harassing Spanish forts, and taking prisoners from the coast – tens of thousands from Barcelona to Valencia in just the span of a few years. Shipping routes through the sea were under constant threat. It seemed that the great victories in Spain from the previous century were forgotten. In Europe, the Reformation meant that instead of one unified Christendom, Protestants suddenly had to be persuaded to fight with the Pope. There was a diagonal line stretching from Austria to Gibraltar that was under constant threat, and for a while it seemed as if Europe was unable to do anything about it. It all culminated in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the largest naval battle ever waged, bringing together a Holy League including England – though not without some consideration on Elizabeth’s part – and beating back the Ottoman threat.

I wanted to look at the Ottoman Empire during this time, specifically how England dealt with the threat. They were removed enough to not have a direct threat to their territory, but at the same time, they did send knights and warriors to support the activities against the Turks, and in the 1520’s Henry VIII was still the golden child of the Pope, so he was very active in trying to support the Christians in the Mediterranean. It’s also important to remember that, as Ian Colliard says, “Direct Ottoman influence on England was limited, yet the Ottomans characterized European affairs. The Ottoman invasions of Eastern Europe, control over the Mediterranean Sea, and the Franco-Ottoman alliance shifted priorities in Europe, from keeping England Catholic to the more dangerous threat. The consequences of Ottoman aspirations in Europe in part helped Henry VIII secure the English Reformation.”

This episode I’m going to talk about the Siege of Rhodes in 1522, and then next time I’ll move on to the years leading up to Lepanto fifty years later.

I’ll tell you how the Siege of Rhodes ended up front so you aren’t in suspense the entire time. Then I’ll tell you how it happened, and what led to it. The Ottoman turks won, and the Christians had to leave the island, though when they negotiated their surrender they were allowed to keep their lives. The siege, and the attempts of the knights to stave off the Turks, played a huge part in the European psyche for decades, and in the 1650’s, 130 years later, the beginnings of English Opera were born in a production called The Siege of Rhodes. It was the first time a woman was on stage, and the famous Henry Purcell’s father played a role too. So the point is, Rhodes stayed in the English psyche for decades.

Rhodes is a small Greek Island which was the headquarters of the Knights of St. John, and had been since the Crusades. The knights were divided into different nationality groups which included Provence, France, Germany, Italy, England, Aragon, and Castille. They built about 30 castles on the island, and had walls that were 4km long with a moat. During any attack, each nationality took over a section of the wall to defend. The English had a large presence within the Order. In the 1140’s the Order set up a headquarters in Clerkenwell.

The island was first attacked by the turks in 1480, and the siege was unsuccessful. Over the next decades, the Knights improved their defences, doubled the size of the ditch, and thickened the walls. It should be noted that the Knights used Muslim slaves for much of this labor, and the loyalty of the slaves was something that would affect the siege in 1522. In 1521 the Knights had a new leader, called a grandmaster, Philippe L’isle-Adam. He was expecting an attack and so chained off the harbour, and wrote frantic letters to European leaders asking for help and reinforcements. Few came – though a group of Venetian warriors from Crete, and a contingent from Ireland were arrived.

The Siege itself lasted for six months, and the heaviest fighting was in the English quarter where most of the English members of the Order lost their lives. There were some major assaults on the city – the English portion of the wall fell, and there were dozens of tunnels that went underneath. Apparently the wall looked like swiss cheese with so many holes in it. And yet still the Knights managed to resist. They resisted for six months. They kept hoping for supplies and reinforcements from Europe, but none came.

Finally, the Turks, who were also dealing with disease in the camps, and demoralized troops, offered a truce. Suleiman offered peace to the citizens. They would be allowed to keep their lives and their food, whereas they would be killed or sold as slaves when the Turks captured the city. On 22 December, the representatives of the city’s Latin and Greek quarters accepted the generous terms of surrender. The knights were given twelve days to leave the island and would be allowed to take with them their weapons and any valuables or religious icons they desired. Islanders who wished to leave could do so at any time within a three-year period. No church would be desecrated or turned into a mosque. Those remaining on the island would be free of Ottoman taxation for five years.

On 1 January 1523, the remaining knights and soldiers marched out of the town, with banners flying, drums beating and in battle armour. They boarded the 50 ships which had been made available to them and sailed to Crete (a Venetian possession), accompanied by several thousand civilians.

We know a great deal about what was going on in the English quarter at Rhodes because of these letters from Sir Nicholas Roberts. Towards the end when the town was considering surrendering, he wrote, “though we saw precisely that the town was lost, we would never give over in esperance of succors. At such time as we saw that there came no succors, and considering that the most part of our men were slain, and that we had no powder, nor no manner of ammunition or victuals, but alone bread and water, we were as men desperate and determined to die upon them in the field rather than to be put upon the stakes, for we thought not that he would give us our lives, considering that there were slain so many of his men. And in the mean season, they came to parlement with us, and did ask of us whether we would make any partido, and said that the Great Turk was content that if we would give him the walls of the town, he would give us our lives and goods.”

Nicholas Roberts was one of the English representatives sent to Sulieman to negotiate the treaty, and he described meeting the Grand Sultan for the first time in a letter back to the Earl of Surrey He was the first Englishman to ever record a meeting with the Sultan. He described seeing him in an empty red pavilion seated on a chair of gold. Even in the midst of a siege, he was in a private tent in a throne of solid gold.

The thing that is interesting – as with so much in history – is that the rise of the Ottoman threat in the Mediterranean directly correlates with the timing of the Reformation. So we see a fractured Christendom trying to deal with the threat of the invading Turk. The Knights were given another island – Malta – and there would be another siege later, which I’ll talk about briefly in the next episode.

At this same time, the Turks were able to capture Belgrade, and would go on to besiege Vienna. A few years later Henry would find himself on the opposite side of papal authority when he ran into the issue of the annulment with his wife Catherine. And even though Catherine was the aunt of the Emperor, he did nothing. His territories all over Europe were under threat from the Ottomans. In 1536 France started working on a trade agreement with the Ottomans, which would have been more of a threat to England, but Henry and Francis were at peace at that point.

Henry would go on to dissolve the knights of St John and take their land when he dissolved the monasteries. They would see a revival under Mary I but that wouldn’t last under Elizabeth. Tensions with the Ottoman Empire would rise during the 16th century and wind up in the largest naval battle ever fought, with a holy league fighting the battle of Lepanto in 1571.  It would ally Protestant England with the Pope and the Spanish in battle to decide the fate of Christendom, and its roots were in the early 16th century with the knights of st John.   

So there we have it. Links for everything including the books I’m using this month are coming at Englandcast.com. Remember to check out TudorPlanner.com to see the gorgeous 2018 Tudor Planner, and consider supporting the show on patreon. And you can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast.