The Courage of St. Elmo
Then Pasha redirected the main part of his force to capturing the small star fort, St. Elmo, which overlooked the Grand Harbor. This diversion gave La Valette time to make improvements in his other fortifications, but it was apparent that St. Elmo could not hold out long. The indiscriminate gunfire of the Turks’ earlier sieges at Rhodes had now been replaced by mathematical precision and accuracy. Pasha turned his main artillery on the fort with unrelenting intensity day and night. Soon the little fort began to crumble.
One night while in his counsel chamber in Fort St. Angelo, La Valette was disturbed by an unwelcomed delegation. A number of knights had slipped out of St. Elmo and made their way to La Valette to tell him that St. Elmo could no longer hold out. La Valette, a hero at Rhodes, derided the young knights as unworthy of their fathers. He told the delegation that they need not go back to St. Elmo, but that he would hand-pick a delegation to relieve them. Under this scorn the delegation from St. Elmo begged to be allowed to return to their post, which La Valette finally permitted. As soon as they had departed, the Grand Master told the council that he knew the little fort was doomed, but they had to buy more time if the rest were to have any chance to survive.
The Turks had now concentrated so much artillery on St. Elmo that the smoke and fire rising from the fort made it appear like a volcano rising out of the rock. It seemed impossible that anyone could live in it, but the young knights held their ground. Then the famed Dragut arrived with a fresh squadron of ships and hand picked fighting men. This greatly raised the morale of the entire Turkish force. Dragut unofficially assumed personal command of the forces. He immediately sent more batteries to pour their deadly fire into the little fort, which he continued for three straight weeks. Finally he released the Janissaries to make their assault. Although confident of a quick victory, they were repulsed with great losses. The commanders on both sides watched with equal disbelief.
The enraged Dragut then responded with a bombardment so heavy that the entire island shook as if by an earthquake. The next day he sent a second massive assault against the little fort with the Iayalars preceding the Janissaries. St. Elmo actually disappeared under the cloud of dust, smoke and fire. Hours later when the smoke cleared, the knights on St. Angelo and St. Michael again stood and marveled as they saw the cross of St. John still flying above the crumbled ruins. La Valette was so moved he dispatched some of his best fighters to reinforce the little fort, but the Moslems forces encircling it could not be penetrated and they had to turn back. The brave garrison of St. Elmo was now abandoned to its own fate.
The following day Dragut intensified the bombardment of St. Elmo. There was now fewer than 100 knights left in the fort and nearly all were wounded. When the bombardment stopped, the Imams were heard calling the faithful to either conquer or die for Islam. Wave after wave of the best fighters in the Sultan’s army threw themselves at the demolished walls of the fort. The remaining knights took their stand in the breach; those who were to weak to stand asked to be carried into the fray so that they could confront the “infidels” one last time. The little fortress that no one believed could hold out more than a day or two had held out for over a month, buying the rest of the Order precious time to strengthen its other defenses. Little St. Elmo also deprived the Sultan of thousands of his best fighting men, many of his leaders, including the master gunner, The Aga of the Janissaries, and most importantly, Dragut himself, felled by a cannon shot.
As the Moslem standard was finally raised over the ruins of St. Elmo, Pasha realized that his whole strategy had been wrong. The price paid for St. Elmo had been too dear. As he looked up at the larger St. Angelo, whose guns were already pouring a deadly fire into his advancing troops, he cried out, “Allah! If so small a son has cost so dear, what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?” The price would be greater than he could afford.
No Quarter will be Given
Pasha then had the bodies of the knights who had died so bravely at St. Elmo, decapitated, bound to crosses and floated out into the harbor in front of St. Angelo. This was a brazen insult to the religion [faith] of the defenders. La Valette also understood that there would be no quarter given– this was a fight to the death. In retaliation La Valette had a number of the Turkish prisoners executed and their bodies hung on the walls. Both sides now knew that there could be no turning back– the knights would survive on Malta or they would perish to a man.
The bombardments increased as the Order’s fortresses were now caught in a deadly crossfire. Intermittently, Pasha would release his massive ground assaults at different points of the defenses, seeking just a single breach. Each one was met with a massacre. At one point Pasha maneuvered his forces until they encircled Valette’s own headquarters. He then released a bombardment upon it so great that the inhabitants of the islands of Syracuse and Catania, 70 and 100 miles away, heard the roar of the guns. Before the guns had even stopped Pasha sent a colossal assault swarming over the walls. The Turks finally made a breach and poured into it. A mighty struggle raged for six hours until the knights closed the gap and retook the walls. Mortified, Pasha tore his beard, and called off the attack. Again, the endurance and tenacity of the knights had been greatly underestimated.
Pasha intensified his bombardment and continued it day and night for seven more days. Then he released another human wave assault. By now the Order was reduced in numbers and the breach was made quickly. The knights resisted bravely but they were too outnumbered to stand against so great a tide of raging humanity. Just when the citadel itself was within reach of the Turks, and it appeared once again that the end of the knights had finally come, the Moslem trumpets rang out calling for a full scale retreat!!
The defenders could only believe that finally the continent had sent them relief. What in fact happened was that a small force of the Order’s cavalry had attacked the Moslem base camp at Marsa. The little detachment had struck with such determination and had raised so much havoc that they had been mistaken for a much larger force. Fearing an attack from the rear, Pasha had been forced to call a retreat. When he finally learned how he had been deceived, right at the very moment when victory was within his grasp, his rage knew no bounds. He redoubled his efforts and released a continuous day and night bombardment under which it seemed most improbable that any living thing could survive.
The council of knights recommended that a withdrawal be made from all the outposts into the single fortress of St. Angelo. La Valette adamantly refused. They were bound by honor, not willingly surrender an acre to the infidels. Military historians agree that his tenacity in holding to this strategy probably saved the knights, as it kept the Turks from massing at a single point. La Valette received a dispatch from Don Garcia of Sicily promising to send a relief force of 16,000 men. La Valette was unimpressed. Having received such promises before, he did not put his trust in princes. He vowed to continue to contest every parcel of Christian ground before he would surrender it to the “infidels”.
The Turks had not only been pouring their deadly fire into the city over its walls, they had been spending weeks making tunnels under the walls. On August 18 a mine was exploded under the Post of Castile and a great breach was made. The Grand Master himself, now seventy years old, grabbed a light helmet and his sword and rushed out boldly to meet the attack. The knights and the townspeople, encouraged by his example, picked up any weapon that they could find and flung themselves into the breach with him. La Valette was wounded but refused to retreat. He pointed his sword at the Turkish banners and declared, “Never will I withdraw as long as those banners wave in the wind.” Miraculously, the knights again prevailed and the Turks were repulsed.
By now dissensions began to arise within the ranks of the Turkish High Command. The battle that had been projected to take no more than a few days had now lasted months, and still there was no end in sight. Pasha started calculating how he could get enough supplies from Tripoli, Greece, or Constantinople to keep up the siege through the winter.
The Siege is Lifted
Then, on September 6, Don Garcia’s fleet arrived with 8,000 reinforcements for the knights. Even though 8,000 was not a significant number compared to the still large army of the Turks, their impact on the morale of both sides was much greater than their numbers. The Turks were devastated. If the few hundred knights had cost them so dearly, and they had still only captured the tiny fort of St. Elmo, how could they possibly prevail against so many more? Pasha quickly lifted the siege, struck camp and fled the island.
The Sultan’s mighty army returned to the Golden Horn with less than one third of those who had left. Suleiman was again enraged. He only allowed his fleet to come into the harbor under the cover of darkness so that the people would not see its terrible state. He immediately planned to lead another expedition to Malta the following year, but like Mehmet before him, Suleiman would not live to fulfill this vow.
Again the whole world stood in wonder at the little Order of St. John the Baptist. Those “archaic relics of the past” had taken their stand against the greatest military threat to Christian Europe that had ever arisen and with some of the greatest examples of courage and endurance the world had ever witnessed– they had prevailed. Only about 250 knights survived on Malta, and almost every one of them was wounded, maimed or crippled for life, but Europe was now free of the Moslem threat that had so recently appeared invincible.
In England, where Henry VIII had confiscated the knights’ property, Queen Elizabeth acknowledged that if Malta had fallen to the Turks, then England itself would have almost certainly fallen to the Moslems. She ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a special form of thanksgiving to be read in every church in the land every day for three weeks. The rest of Europe also celebrated, paid their respects and acknowledged their debt to the Order that most had long before written off as having no real value.
While the Christian nations of Europe turned their armies against each other, the knights of St. John never lost their vision of who the real enemy was. Even though the Order was composed of noble sons of those Christian nations that were fighting each other, they did not allow the doctrinal or political divisions to enter their own ranks. Because of their unity, focused vision and determination never to retreat before the enemies of Christendom, they dramatically turned back what had appeared to be the inevitable course of history. It is now almost impossible to imagine what history would have been like without them.
The Present Status of the Order
After the siege of Malta, the Order rebuilt its fortifications on the island and continued to add to them for the next two hundred years. During this time the knights continued to raid Moslem shipping and fortresses throughout the region. There were both feats of glory and setbacks, but overall the Order did well in protecting the Southern flank of Christian Europe from any further serious Moslem threats.
Because the Order was composed mostly of the sons of the noble families of Europe, it was inevitable that it would be anathema to the French Revolutionaries who overthrew the monarchy at the end of the eighteenth century. During the revolution, the substantial possessions of the Order in France were confiscated, putting them in a desperate financial position. Then Czar Paul I of Russia, who loved the concepts of knighthood and chivalry and was a longtime admirer of the Order, changed the Polish Priory of the Order into a Russian one. In 1782, George III of England gave his consent to revive the Order’s Langue of England. Both of these events infused the Order with new prestige and money.
Then, in 1798, the French directory declared the Order of St. John to be enemies of the Republic and commanded Napoleon to seize Malta. The Order was then led by a Grand Master von Hompesch, who was considered by some to be “the Grand Master of Indecision”. On his expedition to Egypt, Napoleon assembled his entire fleet near Malta, composed of 44 frigates and ships of the line and over 300 transports. The Grand Master surrendered the island with no resistance in what is still the most controversial event in the history of the Order. The debate continues as to whether von Hompesch was just indecisive, cowardly, or whether he simply refused to take up arms against the army of another Christian nation, something the Order had never done.
For a third time the Order was without a home. The knights who refused to serve in the French army were dismissed from the island and the Order’s treasures were plundered. Some of the deposed knights, along with the Polish and Russian Priories, looked to the Czar as the “Protector of the Order” for help, and they were gladly received. These knights proclaimed von Hompesch deposed and elected the Czar as the Grand Master. Von Hompesch did later resign. The Czar was not a Catholic and immediately established a second non-Catholic Priory of Russia so that nobles of the orthodox faith could become knights. He also extended an invitation to members of Protestant churches to join them. On November 13, Pope Pius VI, in a letter to Count de Litta, expressed satisfaction at the Emperor’s assumption of this position, giving historical legitimacy to the Czar as a legal Grand Master of the Order. It is at this point that the Order truly became ecumenical.
In 1831, an English Priory was resuscitated. In 1888, it was converted by a royal Charter of Queen Victoria into a British Order of Chivalry. The Queen became its sovereign head and appointed her son as the Grand Prior. Since then the reigning monarch has been “the Sovereign Head of the Order in England” and the Grand Prior has a seat in the Royal House. Priories were also established in many of the British Commonwealth nations. The British Order is also open to Christians of all denominations who qualify.
A Catholic Order was also reestablished and a Grand Mastership was recognized by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. The Catholic Grand Master holds the rank of Cardinal in the church. Many histories have been written about this famous order of Chivalry, and some have disputed the legitimacy of some of the Orders. Numerous organizations have formed from breakaway members of the original Order which are recognized as spurious. Some Catholic historians have also tried to dispute the legality of the appointment of Czar Paul I as head of the Order before von Hompesch’s resignation. Others likewise dispute the legality of the renewed Catholic Order. If the “continuation principle” is maintained, then the Order that recognizes Czar Paul I of Russia as the 70th Grand Master, which also retains the original constitution and name, “Sovereign Order Saint John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta” would have the strongest claim. Some leaders and members of both the Protestant and the Catholic Orders recognize the other Order as legitimate branches of the original Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta. One leader described the different branches as being a reflection of the church as a whole, which is likewise now divided.
The Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta is still recognized as a sovereign state and the world’s oldest order of chivalry. It has active Priories in: Africa, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Rhodes, South and Central America, Sicily, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Unites States of America, Zimbabwe, and Lebanon. “Knights at large” are found in many other countries. A diplomatic center is maintained in Valetta, Malta. It is uniquely a Christian Order that is established on simple Christian vows to stand against the enemies of the faith, to preserve the unity of the faith and to defend “our lords the sick and our lords the poor.” The Catholic Order maintains a diplomatic center in Rome.
With little fanfare, knights are still active and doing exploits in the defense of truth, honor, the poor and the defenseless. There is a growing contingent within the Order to more fully understand the nature of ‘spiritual warfare” to continue to stand against the enemies of the Christian faith with the sword of truth.
Like the nation of Israel, the Order of St. John seems to have been uniquely preserved to play a part in the last battle. The church today, and even Western civilization, is in no less jeopardy than it was during the time of Suleiman. The conflicts within the church have weakened her to the point where she is more vulnerable than ever to the enemy without. Our enemy is not Islam or even humanism, but the one who may cloak himself in either, or even come as an angel of light. Even so, the Lord is not constrained to deliver by many or by few. The Lord still has a few good men from every nation and every denominational background who are being knit together in a bond of unity that cannot be broken, who will not be distracted by the internal politics of the church, and will not yield a single acre of ground to the enemy. Some of them may be in the Order of St. John. Some of them may be in your church. One of them may even be you.
The Knights of the Order, by Ernle Bradford (Dorset Press)
The Order of St. John, by Count Joseph Frendo Cumbo
A Condensed History of the Order of St. John, by Chev. George R. Gusman
As stated in Part I, this is a complete citation of the original essay that was written for The Morning Star Journal by Rick Joyner. You should strongly consider availing yourself of the outstanding and timely resources available via MorningStarMinistries.org
May the Lord’s Holy Spirit cause you to become of aware of the seriousness of the hour we live in. It is time for the true children of God to come into the unity of the faith that will overcome all of the heated assaults of the enemy, in Jesus’ Name… Amen and Amen
For deeper insight into how GOD the Father sees His children; to better understand the elementary principles of Christ (Hebrews 6:1-3); the ‘mysteries’ of Christ’s Kingdom; and our individual and corporate calling, commission, and empowerment- please review my first published book and the Table of Contents on the Amazon website linked here via Book Title: “Thy Kingdom Come- Here and Now!”