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  • James Houser

Unknown Soldiers Episode 6: The Last Crusade - Commentary and Sources

Our episode today is all about the Great Siege of Malta, 1565, one of the most famous events of its time…though it has long since been forgotten to many people. This is an epic story, guys, full of lunatic acts of bravery and heroism from both sides. It’s a wonderful display of what happens when you send two religiously motivated institutions that are both REALLY good at violence against each other in a close setting over multiple months. The result was one of the most extreme combat experiences of the early modern period.

A painting of the Knights at the Siege of Malta

A fresco of the Great Siege on the walls of the castle in Malta

"Lifting of the Siege of Malta" by Charles-Philippe Larivière

Maybe I beat that dead horse too many times during this episode, but I really wanted to drive home what a crazy mess this siege was. It’s one of those weird crossing points between medieval and modern, where gunpowder is kind of a thing but hasn’t reached its full incarnation yet, where dudes in armor and swords that could have strolled out of a tournament go head-to-head with snipers and artillery and engineering and flamethrowers. The 1500s and 1600s in Europe were one of its most brutal periods of warfare before the World Wars, climaxing in the Thirty Years’ War, which for much of European history was a byword for insane horror.

My promised map, #1. This is a map of Malta and Gozo. See the "dragon's mouth" I describe on Malta's northeast side.

My promised map, #2. This is a close-up of that dragon's mouth. See the upper and lower sides of the mouth? St. Elmo is on his tongue, and Birgu/Senglea are on the two teeth.

Yet another period map of the battle. There are a LOT of great images for this one.

One thing I definitely focused on a lot in this episode was the Ottoman Empire. I’ll be frank: I’m kind of an unapologetic fanboy for the Ottomans. Everything about them is really cool, including the amazing disaster they became in later years. Don’t forget to check out my short round about the Janissaries, which is FULL of craziness on the Ottoman front as well.

Janissaries at Malta, 1565

So some things I left out of this episode. Once again, I wrote about 8000 words of context and had to cut it to about…4000. This is one of my few episodes where context bled over into my second section, which I don’t usually try to do, because I’m kind of addicted to context, but it happened, deal with it. There was just a lot to explain. I did cut a great deal about the broader Mediterranean War, which featured other naval battles and sieges and this and that, but it wasn’t gonna fit, so out it went. See, this is why I want to do series!

Now this is just getting unrealistic, guys.

I also had to cut a lot of the crazy little individual events of the siege, including some of the major leaders on the Christian side. I didn’t want to just treat La Vallette like he was the only person, so I had a whole section about Mathurin Romegas, one of the Knights’ greatest and most dangerous commanders…but I always have to cut “characters” when I don’t have room for them. Sorry, Mathurin Romegas. I probably won’t get another chance to talk about how you survived an overturned ship with your pet monkey before La Vallette saved you in 1555. So…yeah. Romegas had a pet monkey, he led the Knights’ galleys for years in the Mediterranean, and played an enormous part in the Siege. So you see what I sacrificed to keep the episode below 90 minutes!

Jean Parisot de La Valette, Grandmaster of the Knights of St. John

Ottoman principals, left to right: Mustafa Pasha, Suleiman the Magnificent, Piyale Pasha

"The Death of Dragut" by Maltese artist Giuseppe Cali, 1867.

I would love, love, love to talk about the Ottomans some more in the future. My fanboying for the Ottomans spilled over into a short round this Friday, and I hope you enjoy that! Otherwise, I’ll see you next week!


Allen, Bruce Ware. The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John. Hanover, NH: ForeEdge, 2017.

Attard, Joseph. The Knights of Malta. Malta: BDL Publishing, 1992.

Bradford, Ernle. The Great Siege: Malta 1565. New York: Penguin, 1970.

Crowley, Roger. Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World. New York: Random House, 2008.

Finkel, Caroline. Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Murphey, Rhoads. Ottoman Warfare: 1500-1700. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Pickles, Tim. Malta 1565: Last Battle of the Crusades. Oxford: Osprey, 1998.

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