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Episode 098: Malta and Lepanto


BBC In Our Time on Malta

BBC In Our Time on Lepanto:

Poem by James VI/I

History of the Turks by Knolles



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 98, and it’s on the Siege of Malta and Battle of Lepanto. Basically, we’re looking at the struggle that was going on in the Mediterranean between the Europeans and the Ottoman Turks, and even though England was far removed from this battle physically, it was involved both from a perspective of trade – this was when England was pursuing more direct trading relations with the East, and the Ottomans could perhaps be part of that – and religion – would a Protestant Elizabeth I work with a Catholic Philip to combat the Turks, or did the English see the Turks as the enemy of my enemy, and therefore my friend?


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Now, let’s talk about the Mediterranean. When we left off, the Knights of St. John had left their island stronghold of Rhodes in a negotiated surrender, and Suleyman took over. That left the Knights without a home base, and their leader traveled around Europe asking monarchs for other land they could have. They even traveled to England, where Henry VIII gave them some guns as a token gesture. Eventually, Charles V gave them the island of Malta, in the Mediterranean, and they set about making it their new base from which they could engage in piracy against the Ottoman Turks, harassing them, and trying to stop them from raiding and taking Christian slaves along the coasts of Italy and Spain, as well as the islands like Mallorca and Ibiza.


So let’s start with Malta. The knights had originally held on to hopes of getting Rhodes back. Malta was small and desolate, and they wanted to get their original home back. But they began the work of turning it into a naval base, and by the 1550’s they were constructing forts to defend the island against an imminent Ottoman attack. The leaders of the Knights sent out orders for their members to come to Malta to defend the fort, and they also petitioned Christian leaders to send men. If Malta fell, it would be easy for the Turks to then move on to Sicily, Naples, and Rome.


An armada arrived in Malta in May of 1565. About 40,000 Ottoman Turks were part of the invasion force. There were about 6100 knights and soldiers in Malta. It must have been breathtaking. The Knights’ historian recorded that the ships covered half the sky, sailing in a crescent formation. The Christians and Turks stared at each other – one group now a prison behind the walls of the forts, the other planning to scale the walls and kill those inside.


There were several forts on Malta where men were stationed, and the Turks spent most of their energy attacking one, St Elmo, which was literally falling apart, though still the Christians held it. The siege took several weeks, and devastated the soldiers on both sides. The fighting was fierce, and desperate, and gory, on both sides. Once St. Elmo fell, the Turks renewed their attack on the other forts on the island, Bergu and Senglia.


Elizabeth I wrote at this time that “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.” There were three Englishmen who came to Malta’s defence. The first was St. Oliver Starkey who was one of the last English Knights Hospitaller, and also the Grand Master’s secretary. Two others arrived during the siege itself – disaffected Catholics John Smith and Edward Stanley. When Thanksgiving services were held throughout Christendom for the eventual victory at Malta, these men were referred to as simply Christians in England, but there can be little doubt that a Protestant would not have risked their lives defending a Catholic order.


So the Knights did finally win at Malta after a Spanish rescue force – called the Grande Socoroso (the great relief) landed and the Turks left in September after four months of siege that saw 130,000 cannonballs fired at the forts, and causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Turks. The official Ottoman archive put it at 10,000 men dead, while the Christian ones estimated 30,000 Turks dead. So let’s call it half, and say 20,000. ⅓ of the Knights had died, along with many civilians who lived on Malta.


There is one touching story of common humanity when, in the heat of August, the trenches of the Ottomans were right outside the walls of the battered forts, so close that the Christians and Turks could touch each other. You may have heard of the Christmas Day Truce in WWI when the Germans and English played a football match in between their trenches. There was a similar event at Malta when the two sides started sharing information, commiserating with each other, and trading fruit and bread. This lasted for a few days before it was ended by the leadership.


Six years after Malta, the largest naval battle since ancient times would take place with one final stand to defend Europe from the Turks. The Catholic Mediterranean countries wanted to ensure that the Turks could not keep disrupting their trade routes, and the Turks conversely wanted to increase their territory. This was at the same time that they were pressing westwards against the Holy Roman Empire’s lands in present day Austria, and the fall of Belgrade decades earlier had paved the way for the Turks to invade via land.


The leaders of the Catholic countries, under the direction of Pope Pius V (the same Pope who would excommunicate Elizabeth), wanted to form a Holy League, and play off of Crusader spirit to repel the Turks. A fleet was hastily put together under the command of Don John of Austria, Philip II’s half brother. He sailed in search of the Ottoman fleet, and found it in harbor in Lepanto, in Western Greece in the Ionian Sea. The Holy League’s main players were Spain and the Kingdom of Venice, but there was support and participation from all the Mediterranean countries, as well as Croatia and the Germans who sent 7,000 men each.


The idea of the Holy League itself was very important. This is in the period where we do not have any solidified Christendom. Not only was Christendom divided down Protestant and Catholic lines, but also various forms of Lutheranism are dividing Christians. But even though Elizabeth had actually been sending ambassadors to the Sultan to pursue trade, she still ordered prayers to be said, ordering, when the Ottomans were invading Hungary prayers for “spirituall ayde”, lest “the Infidels, who have already a great part of that most goodly and strong kyngdome in theyr possession, shoulde prevayle wholly agaynst the same (whiche God forbyd), and all the rest of Christendom should lye as it were naked and open to the incursions and invasions of the sayde savage and most cruell enemyes the Turkes”.


Lepanto was the largest naval battle fought in Europe since the antiquity, with over 400 ships involved between both sides. The striking thing was the amount of hand to hand combat between the two parties, with the ships acting merely as floating land for the infantry to fight. The Holy League won, and it marked the end of Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean.


The Christians had twice as many guns, 1815 guns to 750. The galley ships were rowed by slaves, largely, and the leader of the Turks, Ali Pasha, told his Christian slaves that if he won, he would grant them their freedom, and if not, God would give it to them. Don John told his own galley slaves that there is no Paradise for cowards.


The battle itself, on October 7 1571, was so bloody that the sea turned red. I have links to the website about all of the books and programs you can watch and read to hear the specifics of the battle itself, but the Ottomans lost, they lost the majority of their fleet, and their great galley ships.


Isolated fighting continued until the evening even when it was clear that the Ottomans had lost. The elite Turkish soldiers, called janissaries, kept fighting to the death. Supposedly at someo point the Janissaries ran out of weapons and started throwing oranges and lemons at their Christian adversaries, leading to awkward scenes of laughter among the general misery of battle.  At the end of the battle, the Christians had taken 117 galleys and 20 galliots, and sunk or destroyed some 50 other ships. Around ten thousand Turks were taken prisoner, and many thousands of Christian slaves were rescued. The Christian side suffered around 7,500 deaths, the Turkish side about 30,000


News reached Elizabeth in early November, and she ordered bonfires lit throughout London, and the Bishop of London circulated prayers of praise and Thanksgiving to be said in parish churches as well as St. Pauls.


Much of what we know about Lepanto, from the English perspective, is from Richard Knolles, an English writer, who wrote The Generall Historie of the Turkes in 1603, the same year that James I came to the throne. This was also the same year that Shakespeare’s Othello came out, featuring a Moorish Prince in Cyprus, so interest in the Turks was growing, and was part of popular culture, reflecting the interest that James himself had in this topic.


James VI of Scotland (later I of England) wrote in 1585 of Lepanto:

To wit, a cruell martiall warre,        

 A bloodie battell bolde,

Long doubtsome fight, with slaughter huge,

 And wounded manifold:

Which fought was in Lepantoe’s gulfe,

 Betwixt the baptized race        

And circumcised turband Turkes,

 Rencountring in that place.


Desist, O tempter! Gabriel, come,        

 O thou archangel true,

Whome I haue oft in message sent

 To realmes and townes anew.

Go quicklie hence to Venice towne,

 And put into their mindes       

To take reuenge of wrongs the Turks

 Haue done in sundrie kinds.


So I’m going to leave it there for this week – The book recommendation is Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley. And you can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast. Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll be back in the next two weeks to do the final bit on Elizabeth and the Ottomans and talk about her relationship with the Sultan and the trading relationship that was developing between England and the ottoman Turks. Remember to register for the Tudor Summit too, at TudorSummit.com.