Representation of foreign troops defending the islands during the siege of 1565

A common misconception is that the siege of Malta of 1565 was a one-on-one battle between an army of Hospitaller Knights against an all-Turkish invasion force. The opposing forces, in reality, were composed of troops hailing from a number of locations. In this write-up we will look at some foreign forces assisting the Order of St John in the defence of Malta.

According to contemporary sources such as the diary of Francisco Balbi di Correggio, who served as a harquebusier during the siege, and from later historiography such as the work of Giacomo Bosio, the total defending force comprised of approximately the following:

  • 541 Hospitaller Knights and men-at-arms;
  • 400 Spanish soldiers;
  • 800 Italian soldiers;
  • 500 galley soldiers (Spanish Empire);
  • 200 Greek and Sicilian soldiers;
  • 100 soldiers of the garrison of Fort St. Elmo;
  • 100 servants of knights
  • 500 galley slaves;
  • 3,000 troops drawn from the Maltese population;
  • Total: 6,000 – 9,000 defenders

From these numbers one can appreciate that as with earlier battles in history, knights weren’t the sole combatants, but also had contingents of troops of varying provenances, martial prowess, professionalism and level of organisation, who not only had a logistical role, but one of support in combat as well.

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The majority of troops who found themselves defending the island came from the Kingdom of Spain and its other territories.

Two notable foreign units present in Malta during this siege were the Tercios of Sardinia and Sicily. The name of Tercio – meaning ‘a third’ in Spanish – derives from the original design of these units to be split into equal thirds of sections of pikemen, swordsmen and musketeers. These units were raised from inhabitants of particular areas; The Tercio of Sardinia was made up mostly of Sardinians, and so on. The Tercios of the Kingdom of Spain mostly exhibited great loyalty and professionalism and were mostly paid regular troops unlike other armies at the time. These two qualities evolved the Tercios into a well-trained and disciplined force, famous for their ‘pike and shot’ formation.

The reason for Spanish involvement in the siege was three-fold:

  • Malta was a concession of the King of Spain (Charles V in 1530) to the Order, and thus was a protectorate of Spain.
  • Being territorially the closest Christian power to the Ottomans, Spain ultimately preferred conducting a pre-emptive strike against the Turks in Malta, rather than have the Ottomans occupy Malta and from there be able to threaten Sicily and Italy, where Spain had considerable interests.
  • Malta sat in the middle of a crossroads between the Muslim East and the Catholic West, making a Catholic Malta imperative in continuing conflicts against the Ottoman Empire and its allies and dominions. In addition to this, Philip II of Spain lusted after the title of Protector of Christendom, and Pope Pius IV nagged the kingdom to participate actively in the defence of Malta.

Despite these elements, and despite a number of pleas sent to the Viceroy of Sicily from Grand Master De Valette on several instances before and during the siege, there was hesitation to expend resources on Malta and initially, Spain preferred to retain a force sufficient enough for the defence of its own territories. However, there were two occasions when the Tercios were deployed in considerable force to Malta.

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Tercio square, supported by musketeers and heavy cavalry, deployed during the initial phase of the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, detail from a painting by Pieter Snayers (1592-1667) (Source: Pinterest)

Among other roles during the siege, these mostly Spanish and Italian soldiers were protagonists of two major events:

  • The Piccolo Soccorso, led by Don Melchior de Robles, consisted of some 700 men of the Tercio de Sicilia. entered Birgu under the cover of darkness to bolster the defences of the city. This relief force landed North, then by a stroke of luck ran past the Ottoman encampment undetected, before being transported across the creek from Kalkara to Birgu, entering the city through a sally port. By morning, de Robles’ flag was hoisted alongside the other banners, signalling the enemy that a relief force had successfully entered the beleaguered stronghold during the night.
  • The Gran Soccorso – the larger relief force – some 10,000 men strong – was made up mostly of Spanish troops, led by the Italian condottiere Ascanio della Corgna, and landed in Malta somewhere near Mellieħa. This beach landing gave the already demoralised Ottomans the impression that a considerably larger force was on its way. A battle in the vicinity of Naxxar took place, which saw the fresh troops push back the remainder of the Ottoman forces to their fleet.
La_venuta_del_Gran_soccorso._07.09.1565
The arrival of the Gran Soccorso by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, one of a series of frescoes at the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta (Source: Public Domain/Wikipedia)

It is interesting to note that Pope Pius IV had a part to play in the arrival of the Gran Soccorso. The force was originally to be deployed to bolster the defence of Sicily, however the Pope reminded the Spanish that he had paid for the fleet himself and this fact influenced the final decision to send the relief force to Malta.

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The involvement of foreign troops such as the Tercios alongside the Order of St. John was crucial in the continued defence of the islands; the Gran Soccorso more specifically was quite possibly the final blow to an already physically-battered and morally-defeated Ottoman force.

Sources:

Dell’istoria della sacra Religione, dell’illustrissima milizia di Santo Giovanni Gierosolimitano”, Giacomo Bosio, 1621

“The Great Siege”, Ernle Bradford, 1964

“The Siege of Malta”, Francisco Balbi di Correggio, translated by Ernle Bradford, 200

 

 

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Written by Nathaniel Calleja.

For more information about Nathaniel and other members click here.

 

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