The Mediterranean island of Malta is the only country to have been awarded a British medal for heroism. At the height of the fighting to bomb and starve the strategically important island into submission to the Axis powers in 1942, King George VI awarded it the George Cross, ‘to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history’.
This was the second siege of Malta. The first had taken place in 1565. It too was unsuccessful, and it (together with the battle of Lepanto in 1571) saw the beginning of the slow decline of Ottoman power in the Mediterranean and in eastern Europe.
The defenders of Malta against the might of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1565 were led by the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who had established themselves on the island after being expelled from their headquarters on Rhodes, after another epic siege, in 1522. The order was originally founded at the dawn of the second millennium to protect and supply medical aid to Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Expelled from Jerusalem in 1291, and retiring to Cyprus, they had seized Rhodes from its Byzantine ruler in 1309 (after a two-year siege), and had built its fortifications up to a level of apparent impregnability. However, Suleiman determined to capture the island, and sent a fleet of 400 ships, carrying 100,000 men.
The 7,000 defenders, led by the Grand Master, Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, withstood the siege for six months, but the outcome was inevitable. The surviving Knights were allowed to withdraw from the island to Sicily, and after another seven years of homelessness, they were ‘given’ Malta (and the north African port of Tripoli) by its ruler, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in exchange for a yearly tribute of a Maltese falcon (yes, film fans, it’s (partly) true!).
Thirty-five years later, history repeated itself. Suleiman, in the last year of his life, sent force of 40,000 men to besiege the 700 Knights and 8,000 men-at-arms who held Malta. After a siege of five months, in which the garrison held out against apparently overwhelming odds, and plague weakened the besiegers, the Turks withdrew. Only 15,000 Turks returned to Istanbul, and only 600 of the garrison were still fit to fight.
The Knights refortified the island, and founded a new city, Valletta, named in honour of the Grand Master of the siege, Jean Parisot de la Vallette. Over two hundred years then passed, until Napoleon, on his way to Egypt, casually overthrew the Order in the same way that he extinguished the Venetian Republic.
A history of the Knights was published by Whitworth Porter, an army officer who had fought in the Crimea, and was stationed in Malta both before and after the war. He took the opportunity to study local history, and produced his two-volume work in 1858. The first volume takes the story up to the end of the siege of Rhodes, and the second to the treaty of Paris in 1814, by the terms of which Malta was handed to Great Britain.