Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2010.



Ann Williams[*]

The Knights of St John met their Muslim opponents, Arab and Turk, when they were in Syria, Rhodes and Malta. They fought them in the context of crusade and privateering. They met them as prisoners and in a diplomatic context. They traded with one another for the essentials of life and the luxuries of exchange. But there is little to indicate what they understood of Islam, or what they thought of the Muslims.

The Knights entered the Order with preconceptions about fighting for the faith. It was what the Order was about. Young men were received into the Order at the preferred age of eighteen. The Hospitaller rule did not make specific requirements for earlier training, but Clause 14 of the Templar rule made clear the skills demanded for entry into a military order.[1] Although the rule of the holy fathers allows the receiving of children into a religious life, we do not advise you to do this. For he who wishes to give his child eternally to the Order of Knighthood should bring him up until such a time as he is able to bear arms with vigour and rid the land of our enemies of Jesus Christ.

The years before entry were occupied in acquiring the skills of the young noble. Boys from the age of seven (Aristotle’s first stage of maturity), or sometimes earlier, were placed in other noble households to teach them independence, horsemanship, proficiency with the sword and, increasingly in the sixteenth century, practice with firearms[2]. The military orders could rely on a fairly consistent standard of expertise in their applicants. This was particularly true for the Hospitallers in the Langues of France, Italy and Spain, but even in the smaller Langue of England, young nobles and gentlemen aped the young king Henry VI who, aged nine in 1430, wore small suits of armour and brandished his own small swords, suitable [p.156] to his tender years.[3] Practical horsemanship was developed by hunting and the panoply of tournaments[4]. And this was a requirement, even though the Order of St John from its conquest of Rhodes was primarily a naval power.

This practical training was supported by the whole ideology of chivalry which persisted well into the age of discovery and the opening up of the new world.[5] As early as the twelfth century in north-west France, Georges Duby wrote of the audience of medieval chivalric literature being the ‘iuvenes’, young men with aspirations to knighthood.[6] The ideals of chivalry, the knight ‘sans peur et sans reproche’ were fostered by first the oral and then, increasingly, written epic poems and stories of valiant deeds by Christian warriors. The development of printing opened up the knowledge of medieval literature as well as Renaissance texts. William Caxton, for example, published a medieval Book of Courtesy which taught good manners to young noblemen, and a translation of Ramon Lull’s classic fourteenth-century Book of the Order of Chivalry (1483-1485). Treatises on Roman military training, such as Flavius Vegetius Renatus’s Epitome Rei Militari was translated into French and English.[7] Updated and rewritten Renaissance volumes on chivalry and books on duelling showed a wide readership in spite of the Tridentine injunctions against the latter activity.

The whole question of the literacy of the Knights is a very difficult one, and it obviously varied from langue to langue, from family to family, and from period to period. In Malta, where more written evidence is available, cases brought before the Inquisition accused members of the Order of possessing Lutheran and other ‘heretical’ books, so they were interested in challenging ideas in some instances. Although specific knightly ownership of a Quran has not been recorded to date, there is no doubt that they existed in Malta. The list of books ordered to be burned in Vittoriosa by the Inquisitor Evangelista Carbonese on 5 May 1609 mentioned four Qurans and some Muslim prayers.[8] An earlier case in 1599 had recorded a corsair importing three boxes with a large quantity of ‘Moorish books’ (unspecified ) of which he had sold only one.[9]Fra Vittorio Cassar, who was accused of necromancy and heresy in 1609, was also alleged to have learned Arabic from a slave so he could read about Islam[10].

[p.157] The majority of the Knights were, however, more interested in their preferment and social ranking in the Order. Recent re-assessment of the long-standing historical debate on ‘the crisis of the aristocracy’ in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period has stressed the influential place held by the nobility in relation to the centralising ambitions of kings and rulers.[11] The identity of the group was fortified by greater juridical bonds: the proofs of nobility required for entry into the Order of St John illustrated the effect on the Knights. The increasingly defined status of the group was supported by the common ethos of Christian chivalry, their common cultural experience and their education. Ruler and noble were also united in the common apprehension of the advance of the Turk, the Other, against whom they defined their own identity. Ottoman expansion on land in the Balkans and at sea in the Mediterranean was exacerbated from the late fifteenth century by Hapsburg-Valois rivalry and, particularly in the mid-sixteenth century, by the ambitions of the Emperor Charles V and the French king Francis I. The latter, with his trading capitulations with the Ottomans, threatened to bring the enemy, already on the doorstep, across the threshold.

The Knights, earlier in the eastern Mediterranean, were aware of the Ottomans every day of their lives in Rhodes and, in trying to find out what they thought about them, we have the inestimable work of Guillaume Caoursin, not a Knight but the university-educated Vice-Chancellor of the Order. He was recorded as a doctor of liberal arts from the University of Paris in the Chapter-General records,[12] and said by Grand Master Aubusson to be a doctor of laws in the preface to his Statutes.[13] This redaction of the Statutes was printed in 1496 and benefited, as Caoursin’s other works did, by this new medium of transmission. He had a great position of trust within the Order and was sent on an embassy to Rome in 1470 to ask for help against Mehmet II ( Negroponte had just fallen and it seemed that Rhodes might be the next target), and also to ask for permission to conclude a truce with the Bey of Tunis.[14] In 1484, he again went to Rome to present the obedience of the Order to the new Pope Innocent VIII. His gift for oratory was shown in his speech to the Pope which was very well-received.

Caoursin’s work, published in Ulm in 1496, (his account of the 1480 siege of Rhodes was printed elsewhere too), comprised the description of the siege, an account of the earthquake which hit the islands a year later, an oration on the death of Mehmet, a commentary on the Treaty of Rhodes with Bayezit, Mehmet’s successor, and an account of Jem Sultan’s reception in the island. The woodcuts showing the encounter of Knight and Turk are perhaps the only visual

[p.158] representations of encounters between the two sides in a non-hostile situation. The two pictures reproduced here (in the facing page) illustrate the reception of Ottoman ambassadors by the Grand Master and Council and Jem Sultan being entertained by Aubusson. Caoursin’s aim in compiling these works was to stress the Christian endeavour of the Order, its strength of purpose against the Turk, and to bring these matters to the attention of the Pope and the rulers of the West from whom money was always needed and who tended to criticise the commitment of the Knights. The Council records noted that ‘when the city of Rhodes was besieged by the Turks, the Order concentrated all its efforts on the combat, so there was no time to record events in the midst of such disorder and turmoil. But once the victory had been won, Guillaume Caoursin, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes, published a history which was printed and distributed throughout the world. For this reason no further record is needed here, that is ‘in the Council records’.[15] Caoursin had produced the Official Version. The account of the Siege did speak of the strength of the Ottomans, and mentioned various setbacks in the course of the battle, but these were to be seen in the light of the overall Christian victory and the success of the gallant few against the many.

The case of Jem Sultan, the younger brother of the Ottoman ruler, Bayezit II, who fled to Rhodes and was well-received by the Grand Master, opened a way for a subtler portrait of the Turk[16]. The whole affair had to be handled with care. Used as a pawn between east and west, the prince could be useful, but there was the danger of a full-scale Ottoman attack. The 1480 siege was still in the Order’s vivid memory. Jem, who had rebelled against his brother, had wandered through Asia Minor trying to attract support without success. It was a similar story in Egypt from where he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, as Caoursin said ‘to the temple of the false prophet, Muhammad’[17]. The account of Jem’s asylum in Rhodes, his voyage to the island and his stay on it, were observed in strictly diplomatic terms. Aubusson is referred to as ‘eminent prince’, and his charity in receiving Jem as a notable Christian gesture. The customary civilities and exchange of gifts were carried out and Jem was entertained as befitted his status as a prince. Only on one or two occasions does Caoursin slip in a few personal observations. Jem was corpulent[18]. He bolted his food and did not chew it enough. He washed frequently and liked swimming in the sea.[19]

Aubusson managed a skilful balance between both sides: Bayezit rewarded him with the gift of the hand of St John the Baptist, a precious relic for the Order,


Two Illustrations from Guillaume Caoursin:


The Turkish Ambassadors in Rhodes.


Aubusson and Jem Sultan at dinner.

[p.160] and the pope honoured him with a Cardinal’s hat. His longevity (he died in 1503) and his diplomatic prestige gave him a voice in the west and revived awareness of the Order even if it did not produce substantial help[20]. The loss of Rhodes in 1522 echoed in reports throughout Europe, such as those of the Venetian diarist Sanudo, but understandably did not produce a great account by the Knights themselves. Grand Master L’Isle Adam behaved with dignity and kept the Order together in its travels to the west and in its negotiations to acquire a new base. His efforts were recorded with appreciation by Bosio in his general history of the Order from its beginnings. The latter’s purpose was different, however, from an account of one notable siege or victory against the Turks. In 1530, the Order accepted the Maltese islands and Tripoli on the North African coast from Charles V. The Knights became part of his network of Mediterranean ‘presidios’, fortified bases to stake out the limits of Spanish influence in the Middle Sea. Tripoli was difficult to hold and supply, and its loss in 1551 was attended with recrimination against the last Hospitaller governor and rumour of Franco-Ottoman collusion. The account of the last days of the fortress, written by Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, L’Isle Adam’s nephew and Admiral of the Order, and his reference to an earlier defeat at Algiers in 1541, hardly mentions the enemy, but blames everyone except the Order for the defeats. This is no heroic defence but, as his dedication to Charles V shows, a desperate attempt to justify his own actions[21].

The day to day defence of Malta was more than enough to occupy the Knights in the forties and fifties, and the Ottoman threat culminated in the siege of 1565, the Great Siege. The success of the Knights at this time, the heroic figure of Grand Master de Valette, the brave stand at Fort St Elmo, and the image of a handful of men holding out against a large army caught the imagination of Europe. Prayers for the victory even entered the liturgy of Protestant England. The final success produced visual and literary records of events.

The use of painting and tapestry as propaganda and displays of princely power and authority was widespread at this time. The encroachment of the Ottomans in the western Mediterranean made the subject of Christian victory over the Turk a particularly resonant one. Charles V, whose crusading ambitions were mixed with anti-French rivalry and fear of a Franco-Ottoman alliance, missed no opportunity in commemorating his strength. On the eve of his expedition to Tunis in 1535, important strategically for its closeness to imperial Sicily, he hired two artists from The Netherlands, Pieter Coekke van Aelst and Jan Cornelisz

[p.161] Vermeyen, to accompany his army and make drawings of the campaign which would be turned into tapestries to celebrate his hope of victory[22].

Fortunately for him, the expedition was successful and Tunis was taken by Admiral Andrea Doria and his fleet of supposedly 400 ships and 30,000 soldiers. The drawings were turned by Vermeyen into cartoons for twelve tapestries to be executed by the Flemish weaver Willem de Pannemaker. He was paid 15,000 Flemish pounds, with an advance of 6,637 pounds for silk thread, including gold and silver in abundance.[23] The twelve enormous works took eight years to finish (1546-54) and were destined for the royal palace at Toledo. The advantage of tapestries was that they were easy to roll up and carry, and on the way to Spain, they were shown at Winchester at the marriage of Charles’s son Philip to Mary Tudor[24].

Similarly, the Knights wanted to celebrate the successes of 1565. Matteo Perez d’Aleccio (c.1547-after 1600) was commissioned by Grand Master La Cassiere to paint frescos in the Grand Council Chamber of the magisterial palace. These, too, were a series of twelve episodes illustrating the dramatic course of the Great Siege, ending in the Gran Soccorso on 7 September 1565. The pictures show little of the invention of the Tunis works and are traditional in their depiction of battle scenes. However, such was the interest in the Siege that copies of the scenes appeared throughout Europe. Most notably there were the modellos, not strictly speaking sketches, but smaller versions in oils, of the larger Malta paintings. They were acquired for the English Royal Collection in, or just before, the reign of Charles I (1600-1649)[25]. They are now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and at present (2010) in course of restoration.

A series of copies of d’Aleccio’s scenes has recently been restored in the Chateau de la Cassagne in Gascony, de Valette’s part of France. They were commissioned by Fra Jean Bertrand de Lappe, a Knight of Malta who served in the island in the first half of the seventeenth century[26]. Another copy has been found recently in Castiglione del Lago in Umbria. This was probably inspired by the written account of the Siege by the Italian Knight Fra Vicenzo Anastigi who was in Mdina during the Siege. His description of events has recently been identified by Judge Giovanni Bonello in a chronicle of the city of Perugia[27]. There were many written accounts of the Siege. The best-known is that of Francisco

[p.162] Balbi di Correggio published in Spain in 1567. It was dedicated to Don John of Austria, and spoke of ‘the deeds of our fight against the fierce Scythians whom we harried with fire and steel. You will read here of the arrival of the fleets and the landing of the barbarians, who although they showed skill and courage, were defeated by the Christians’[28]. It is interesting that he used the term ‘Scythians’ for the Turks, a traditional Classical reference to a bogeyman enemy of the ancient Greeks. The valour of the enemy had to be stressed to make the Christian victory even more heroic.

Between 1565 and 1570, more than seventy narratives of the Great Siege were published in German, Latin, French and Italian. One of them in particular, A History of Malta and the Success of the War between the Most Religious Knights and the Turkish Sultan Soliman in 1565, was by a Knight Pietro Gentile de Vendome. Like many others who wrote, his dedication to Cardinal Hippolito d’Este showed his purpose in writing was to gain patronage from the great and the good. His approach was interesting, however, in regarding the Siege as an example of God’s love for men, and as a proof that He would never desert his faithful followers, as exemplified by de Valette and the Knights. This view transcended Catholic and Protestant divisions. Helen Vella Bonavita has argued that the Great Siege was acceptable to Protestant writers because de Valette could be regarded as a universal Christian hero in the chivalric image of the epic Christian stories written, read, or told throughout Europe. De Valette and the Knights became common cultural icons[29].

As for the Knights themselves, the Great Siege was fossilized into their ‘finest hour’. Nothing subsequently, not even Lepanto in 1571 (viewed much more as a Spanish triumph) could for them match the achievement of 1565. They continued to be warriors on the frontier between Europe and Islam, and they combined these activities with privateering and traditional political and diplomatic relations. Perhaps the final image should be Caravaggio’s portrait of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. He is painted as a holy warrior in armour, but it is not the armour of his period, the early seventeenth century, but that of an earlier generation, perhaps indeed de Valette’s own suit[30].

[1] J.M. Upton-Ward, The Rule of the Templars, Woodbridge 1992, 23.

[2] L. Jardine, The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: the First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun, London 2005, 77-98.

[3] N. Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, London 1984, 184.

[4] M.Keen, Chivalry, New Haven and New York 1984, 206-208.

[5] J. R. Goodman, Chivalry and Exploration (1298-1630), Woodbridge 1998, 1-24.

[6] G. Duby, ’Dans la France du Nord-Ouest au XIIe siècle: les Jeunes dans La Société Aristocratique’, Annales, Economies, Sociétés, 119, 1964, 835-846.

[7] J. A. Wisener, ‘Epitome Rei Militari de Végece et sa Fortune au Moyen Age’, Le Moyen Age, lxxxv, 1979, 37-54..

[8] C. Cassar, Witchcraft, Sorcery and the Inquisition: a Study of Cultural Values in Early Modern Malta, Malta 1996, Appendix II, 93-96.

[9] Cassar, 61-62.

[10] V. Mallia Milanes, ‘In Search of Vittorio Cassar: a Documentary Approach’, Melita Historica, ix, 1986, 247-269. Cassar, 71-73.

[11] H. Zmora, Monarchy, Aristocracy and the State in Europe (1300-1800), London and New York 2001, 37- 54.

[12] National Library of Malta, Archives of the Order in Malta (AOM) 283, Sacra Capitula Generalia, f.156r.

[13] G. Bosio, Dell’Istoria della Sacra et Illustrissima Militia di San Giovanni, 2nd ed., Rome 1630, II, 253.

[14] Bosio, II, 401.

[15] AOM 76, Liber Conciliorum, f.35r.

[16] N. Vatin, Sultan Djem, Ankara 1997, 259-346, prints Caoursin’s account in full.

[17] Vatin, 294.

[18] Ibid., 300.

[19] Ibid., 301.

[20] A recent Exhibition at the National Renaissance Museum in Paris, Francois Ier et Soliman le Magnifique (Christiane Duvauchelle), November 2009-February 2010, showed an anonymous painting of the 1480 Siege of Rhodes, painted in the early sixteenth century and now exhibited in the Town Hall in Epernay, which indicates that the event was marked in the west. It is not known who was the patron of the painting.

[21] N. Durand de Villegaignon, Traité de la Guerre de Malte, Paris 1555.

[22] A. Dominguez Ortiz et al., Resplendence of the Spanish Monarchy: Renaissnace Tapestries and Armor from the Patrimonio Nacional, New York 1922, 75-81.

[23] J. Brotton and L. Jardine, Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West, London 2000, 82.

[24] Ibid., 83.

[25] G. Naish, The Maritime Siege of Malta (1565), Exhibition Catalogue, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 1970.

[26] A. Crosthwait, ‘Paintings of the Great Siege at the Chateau de la Cassagne’, Treasures of Malta, X (i), 2003, 49-53.

[27] G. Bonello, ‘An Overlooked Eyewitness Account of the Great Siege’, in eds. T. Cortis, Freller and L. Bugeja, Melitensium Amor: Festschrift in Honour of Dun Gwann Azzopardi, Malta 2002, 133-148.

[28] F. Balbi di Corregio, The Siege of Malta (1565), Copenhagen 1961.

[29] H. Vella Bonavita, .’Key to Christendom: The 1565 Siege of Malta, its Histories and their use in Reformation Europe’, Sixteenth Century Journal, 3, 2002, 1021-1043.

[30] D. M. Stone, ‘The Apelles of Malta: Caravaggio and his Grand Master’, Lecture given in conjunction with the Exhibition, Caravaggio, The Final Years, National Gallery, London, 2005.

[*] *Dr Ann Williams read History at Oxford University, and lectured on Mediterranean History at London, Oxford, Aberdeen and Exeter Universities. She also taught for two years at the University of Malta and has kept a close contact with it. She retired as Director of the Centre for Mediterranean Studies and Senior Lecturer in History at Exeter University where she is currently an Honorary Research Fellow. Dr Williams is completing a book on Servants of the Sick: the Convent of the Order in Rhodes and Malta, 1421-1631, and has contributed a number of papers on aspects of the Order of St John and on Mediterranean History.