The Choice of Malta


Grand Master Philippe Villiers de l’lsle Adam adoring the Child Jesus, from the Chapel of the Holy Name in the Temple Church in Paris (1529). The monument was destroyed in the French Revolution but this statue was saved and restored in the 19th century.

It fell to L’Isle Adam now to travel about the courts of Europe seeking help to establish the Order in a new home and to undertake the reconquest of Rhodes, which remained his dearest goal. The choices open to him were in reality very simple: Venice had the best-sited possessions in the Greek islands, but the Republic’s unchanging aim was to preserve its peaceful trade with Turkey, and there was no chance of its offering the knights a territory to resume a war which it had always heartily detested. But while the Turks had been creating their immense power in the East, another empire had been advancing with slower steps at the other end of the Mediterranean. The union of Castile and Aragon and the conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada were followed by the seizure of a string of strategic points on the north African coast, including, in 1510, even distant Tripoli. The recovery of Naples from the French in 1504 confirmed Spain’s position as the leading power in the central Mediterranean. When the fall of Rhodes freed Turkish naval power to advance to the west, the two empires were face to face. Clear as this situation was, it was to be dramatically accentuated when in 1526 Soliman the Magnificent won the Battle of Mohacs and made himself master of nearly all Hungary. The young Charles V became, through the same event, King of Hungary and Bohemia, and in 1529 he had to defend Vienna itself from Soliman’s attack. His empire was thus not merely the bulwark against Turkish advance on every front; it was also the only Christian state capable of matching in strength the huge Ottoman monarchy.

The consequence of these facts was to make Charles V the natural patron of an Order devoted to the same secular struggle. More, there was, geographically, only one territory that the Knights of St John could seriously contemplate as their new base: Malta, an ancient dependency of the Aragonese crown of Sicily. Charles V offered this fief immediately in 1523, together with the Spanish stronghold of Tripoli, and a deputation of knights reported on the island’s ‘fine large harbours, big enough to accommodate any size of fleet’, as well as its unrivalled strategic position, equally suited to blocking a Turkish advance into the western Mediterranean and to serving as a base for a counter-attack towards Rhodes. Unfortunately one fact stood in the way of acceptance: the French knights were not prepared to lend the Order as a cheap defence of the Spanish dominions. The war between Spain and France which had prevented any help being sent to Rhodes was still continuing, and the French were determined to accept no suzerain but their own king, however strategically inappropriate. Early in 1525 Francis I was captured at the Battle of Pavia, and he remained a prisoner in Madrid for over a year. It is said that this prevented him from carrying out his intention of establishing the knights in the islands of Hyeres; if so, we may be glad of an accident that averted the Order’s rapid and sure decline into ornamental uselessness.

The national jealousy of the French, which was to hamper the Order’s action for half a century, kept the knights inactive at Viterbo and Nice for seven years, while recruitment languished3 and the Turkish threat grew unchecked. L’Isle Adam had further worries to distract him: the rulers of England, Portugal and Savoy took advantage of the Order’s misfortune to lay hands on its revenues and threaten complete expropriation. In these difficult years the Grand Master showed that he united the gifts of a diplomat to those of a soldier, and he succeeded in appeasing these predators. He could do nothing about Germany, where the Reformation was making its first ravages; many commanderies were raided by revolutionary Anabaptists or subjected to crippling taxes by princes and cities, though it was not until after the move to Malta that they felt the full impact of the Reformation.

In 1527 a majority of the Chapter General assembled in Viterbo voted to accept Malta, but while the European war continued the opposition of the French Langues could not be overcome. In the same year war and plague in Italy obliged the Convent to leave Viterbo, but its destination was Nice, in the dominions of the Duke of Savoy. The Paix des Dames at last opened the way to an agreement, and in July 1529 the Convent began its journey towards Sicily; the knights had already undertaken the defence of Tripoli the previous year. Yet so bitterly did the French fight against the inevitable that the act enfeoffing the Order with Malta and Tripoli could not be signed until March 1530. A final storm arose when it was discovered that the grant did not include the right to coin money, and Charles V had to concede that privilege quickly to prevent the arrangement from foundering when it had seemed already agreed. These rearguard actions explain why, although the knights actually arrived in Malta in June 1530, their official entry was not celebrated until November.

The Knights of St John took possession of their new fief, subject to the duty of offering a falcon every year in token of fealty to Charles V and his successors as kings of Sicily. As they surveyed their acquisition the contrast with Rhodes, where a famous city, a large and fertile territory had awaited their advent, was forbiddingly apparent. Malta and its annexed islands of Gozo and Comino formed a domain of 120 square miles, with a sparse population of 12,000 which was nevertheless too large for the barren terrain; for that reason Charles V’s donation guaranteed the tratte, an arrangement to supply Malta with corn from Sicily free of duty. The capital was the walled town of Notabile in the centre of Malta, but the knights chose as the necessary base of their operations the ample harbour in the east, where the small fishing town of Birgu (in Italian, II Borgo) jutted out into the water on a hump-backed promontory. L’lsle Adam quickly fortified this and improved the fort of Sant’Angelo at its tip, but the works were strictly provisional, for his ruling purpose remained the reconquest of Rhodes. As a preparation, in 1531 he sent an expedition to Modon, where the Order had once owned the large estates which formed its Bailiwick of the Morea. His intention was to capture this town as a stepping-stone to the East, but the attempt was dogged by misfortune; a contrary wind caused a signal to be missed and prevented a co-ordinated attack, and though Modon was captured it was immediately retaken by a large Turkish force of whose proximity the knights had been ignorant.

This serious defeat destroyed the hopes of an early return to Rhodes, and L’lsle Adam’s efforts to establish conventual life in the Order’s new home were clouded by altercations among the knights, which are said to have hastened his end. As he lay dying in Malta in 1534 he may have felt that his leadership had been a record of failure; and yet his companions could have said to him in the words of Sir Ector to Launcelot, ‘Thou wert never matched of earthly knight’s hand, and thou wert the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights.’ His greatness was clouded by adversity, for though Charles V might pronounce, ‘Nothing in the world was so well lost as Rhodes’, the loss of prestige entailed by such a defeat was a heavy burden to carry. L’Isle Adam nevertheless raised it, overcoming both an international situation of exceptional difficulty and the resistance of his own countrymen to the strategic duty of the Order. The nine centuries of the Order’s history do not show an abler or a nobler leader.


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