The 1565 Great Siege Cycle Frescos

Grandmaster's Palace, Malta

Matteo Perez d'Aleccio (1575 - 1581)

Between May and September of 1565, the Ottoman Empire conducted an attack on different sites inside the Grand Harbour with the sole purpose of invading the Island.

The Knights hospitallers together with local men, women and children rose up for the occasion and withstood the siege.

This event became one of the most celebrated events in the sixteenth century and was known as The Great Siege of Malta.

Perez d’Aleccio was invited to depict the great Siege cycle in twelve episodes by Grand Master Fra Jean de Cassiere (1572 – 1581), himself one of the key fighting members of the Order during the Siege

May

The Ottomans were sighted on the 18th with subsequent landings at Marsaxlokk and the establishment of the camp at Marsa.

Fort St Elmo was earmarked as their first target so as to anchor the fleet at Marsamxett Harbour.

The 600 Knights and soldiers at St Elmo were ordered by de Valette to fight to the last man since their resistance determined the outcome of the Siege.

Mustapha estimated that three days were required to bombard St Elmo into submission, yet the garrison endured 35 days of constant bombardment

June

Dragut’s arrival on 2 June with 1,500 boosted the morale of the Ottomans.

Further batteries were erected to his instruction and St. Elmo’s bombardment doubled in intensity.

Word reached de Valette that the relief from Sicily had been delayed.

Daily Ottoman bombardments and attacks varying in tactics were the order of the day but cannon fire, harquebus shot, burning hoops, blocks of stone and cauldrons of boiling pitch distressed the attackers.

Mustapha offered the Christians to retire unmolested, but the Order refused.

On 15 June, the Ottoman galleys were included in the bombardments and hundreds of guns opened fire on St Elmo. The Fort’s garrison was reinforced by 30 Knights and 300 soldiers.

On 18 June, Dragut was mortally wounded and the besiegers’ morale was seriously weakened. Fort St Elmo only fell under Ottoman hands on 23 June.

With the exception of seven who were taken slaves, Mustapha ordered the execution of all the survivors. Their heads were to be staked while the corpses were to be nailed to crosses and floated across the harbour.

In retaliation, de Valette ordered the decapitation of the Turkish prisoners, their heads fired by cannon from Fort St Angelo.

After the fall of Fort St Elmo, the Ottomans prepared to attack Fort St Michael and Birgu with bombardments commencing on the Isla windmills.

The Order’s cavalry from Mdina harassed the Ottomans on several occasions.

The besiegers moved their camp to Bormla, and constructed artillery platforms at Kordin and Margarita Heights.

July

The defenders’ morale was lifted on 2 July when four galleys evaded the Ottoman blockade and landed a small relief force of 42 Knights and 700 militiamen.

“The posts of Castile and Germany came under fire from thirteen guns on Salvador.

Fortunately the fire was mainly directed against the houses and did little damage, thanks to the foresight of the Grand Master.

While this bombardment was going on the enemy attempted to capture the ditch of St Michael at the point were four great casks filled with earth standing on our side of the ditch, and there were many casualties in the fighting which took place.

When our men wanted to sally out, they used a small opening in the wall at the Post of Marshal Robles and Don Carlo Rufo. Marshal Robles had taken command at this point after his arrival, although Don Carlo also stayed there until he was killed.”
from the diary of Francesco Balbi di Correggio

On 15 July, Mustapha commenced the first major assault by land and sea on Isla.

While the Christian defenders were busy defending the southern flank, 10 large boats with a total 0f 1,000 Janissaries stormed the opposite side,

but were soon annihilated by a concealed battery at the base of Fort St. Angelo

Mustapha changed tactic and ordered a week long incessant day and night bombardment to undermine the morale of the defenders.

The bombardment of Birgu and Isla continued relentlessly, and was at times heard from Sicily, 100 kilometres away.

Another major assault was attempted on Birgu and Isla simultaneously on the 7th of August.

Fort St Michael was almost lost but the cavalry at Mdina devastated the besiegers’ camp at Marsa.

Mustapha thought a large Christian relief force had arrived and ordered a general retreat.

The Ottomans were, meanwhile, mining the walls and attempting to breach the defence lines with the aid of Siege machines.

De Valette stood on the forefront alongside the defenders at the Post of Castile. Although wounded he kept fighting on.

The besiegers suffered another blow when a large ammunition and food supply from North Africa was captured by the Christians.

Hopelessness swept the Ottoman camp, with water and food in short supply and thousands of Turks falling ill.

Running short of gunpowder, Mustapha suspended bombardments and resolved to capture Mdina.

Its shrewd Governor dressed the civilians as soldiers and stationed them on the ramparts. All cannon were equally grouped on the side of the intended attack.

Mustapha, frustrated to see the ramparts full of artillery and men, turned back soon after.

September

The besiegers were now disheartened and disordered.

The re-embarkation of their supplies and artillery commenced on 5 September, an indication that the long awaited relief force was sighted by the Turks.

On that day, twenty eight galleys with a 10,000 relief force sailed from Sicily. It reached Malta two days later and landed unmolested.

Learning that the relief force was smaller than judged, Mustapha ordered his man back ashore to fight them in hand-to-hand combat.

The relief force ultimately decimated 3,000 of Mustapha’s troops, driving the remainder to sea at St. Paul’s Bay with further losses.

Ultimately, the Ottomans fled Malta on the 11th after sustaining the loss of some 30,000 men.
Church bells rang out jubilantly.

Grand Master de Valette led the victors in praise giving to God singing the Te Deum.

The defending walls were shattered and their survivors seriously wounded, but the Order and the people of Malta stood on the threshold of more than two centuries of relative peace and prosperity.

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