Rhodes and the Knights
Lecture given by the Very Rev A.C. Bridge for SWAN HELLENIC CRUISES
Ladies and Gentlemen. In an age of air travel, it is easy to overlook both the significance and the enormous importance of geography in the ancient world - indeed, in all worlds prior to our own - and although I have touched on this subject before, I don’t really apologise for returning to it now: for the island of Rhodes is a marvellous example of its importance. You all know roughly what it looks like on the map and where it is. It is a largeish island just off the coast of Asiatic Turkey - seven miles off in fact - not far from the mouth of the Aegean Sea, if seas may be said to have mouths, where it meets the Mediterranean. It is 50 miles long from west to east and 21 miles wide at its widest from north to south. As I have already said, in the ancient world and in medieval times travel by sea meant hugging the coasts as closely as possible for fear of being caught out of sign of land when a storm blew up, and thus an island like Rhodes, situated where it is, could virtually dominate shipping through the Aegean and along Turkey’s southern coast.
In war time it fulfilled the same function as a giant American aircraft carrier often fulfils today, closing the sea to the enemy, while in peace time it was of huge importance to whatever power controlled the mainland seven miles to the north and also to whatever power owned Constantinople or Istanbul - and they weren’t always the same. In the days of which I am going to speak this morning, that is to say, the first quarter of the sixteenth century - Rhodes had been occupied and governed by an order of fighting monks - a Christian Order of dedicated Knights, of whom more in a moment - for over 200 years, while Ottoman Turkey was almost at the zenith of its power, with an Empire embracing the whole of the Middle East, most of North Africa, and much of eastern Europe including Hungary, Bulgaria, and Greece over which presided a new Sultan - Suleiman. Plainly, Rhodes was an intolerable nuisance to the Turks and a precious asset to the embattled Christian world.
Right, so that’s Rhodes and its military and geographical significance in the early years of the sixteenth century. To understand the Knights, you have to go back to the capture of Jerusalem from the Muslims by the men of the First Crusade. It caused enormous rejoicing throughout Christendom, even though during the long years of Muslim occupation of the city, both local Christians and Christian pilgrims had usually been treated surprisingly well. For many years, too, a small Christian hospital manned by monks had been left in peace by the Muslim authorities to minister to the sick, and during the siege by the men of the First Crusade it was run by a French monk, named Gerard. The story goes that he used to repair daily to the walls of the city, and on the pretence of hurling stones at the besiegers, who were nearly starving by this time, threw them loaves of bread. Discovered, he was dragged before the Muslim governor and accused of treachery; but when the incriminating loaves were produced, they had been miraculously turned to stone, and Gerard was acquitted. The story won him immense fame and popularity, and after the capture of the city, he had enlarged his order of monks, recruiting a new kind of member, whose duty was still first and foremost to tend the sick, but who were also charged with the defence of pilgrims from attack on their way to and from the city. These new members took monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, but over the years the emphasis upon their protective role -their para-military role - had grown until the became a corps d’elite of fighting monks under the title of
The Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St John the Baptist in Jerusalem - or simply the Hospitallers. A similar order sprang up a little later - the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon - but until the rise of such orders as the Teutonic Knights a good deal later, the Hospitallers and the Templars were unique.
They were not only unique, they could not have been more typical of their time - the Middle Ages - both at their best and their worst, than they were. On the credit side, they were capable of almost unbelievable feats of courage and endurance in the service, as they took it, of God and their fellow Christians. While on the debit side, they were totally merciless to their enemies the Moslems; no brutality was too bad for a Moslem, for just as members of the Christian church believed themselves to be members of Christ’s risen body and temples of the Holy Spirit, so Moslems were believed to be literally limbs of the devil, instruments of Satan, for whom death was the only possible and fitting fate; and of course, the Moslems thought just the same of Christians - and especially of the Hospitallers and the Templars.
Even as magnanimous a man as Saladin didn’t hesitate to slaughter them in cold blood, when he captured them in battle - thought he saved a few in order to ransom them - the most important ones, that is to say. And some could be extremely important, for as the years passed, so the Knights were drawn more and more exclusively from the ranks of the nobility. In fact they were divided into three classes. At the top there were the Knights, composed of Knights of Justice drawn from noble families, and Knights of Grace who came from less exalted stock but were admissible by grace of some outstanding merit or achievement; after the Knights came the Sergeants, who were picked fighting mean, also of course vowed to poverty, chastity, and obedience as monks; and lastly fame the fratres capellani, the Chaplains, who undertook the religious duties of the Order. Most of these latter were priests. And although all were fighting monks, all also recognized that their primary duty was to look after the sick.
Well, that’s who they were, and how they started. After the Christians were finally driven out of the Holy Land by the Moslems in 1291, the Hospitallers were reduced to just seven in number, so many having been killed in the final battles there; but they soon recruited new members, and after a short spell in Cyprus, they decided to capture the island of Rhodes, and use it as their base. In 1310 they succeeded in doing so, and having captured it, they fortified it, building a massive great castle at Lindos, which some of us will see, and turning the ancient Greek city of Rhodes which we shall all see into an immensely strong fortress and naval base from which for the next 200 years or so, they harassed the Turks, raiding their shipping, and making occasional attacks on Turkish ports and islands; in fact, becoming the sharpest and least endurable kind of Christian thorn in the side of Islam - and especially in Turkey’s side - for a couple of centuries.
After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, however, it was obvious to everyone that they would attack Rhodes one of these days. Its continuation as a sanctuary for the Knights, from which they could raid Turkish shipping and harass its sea-lanes, was obviously intolerable. And once Suleiman had pushed Turkish arms as far west as Belgrade - and he had only been on the throne for a year when he did that - everyone knew that an attack on Rhodes must be very high on his list of priorities. The Knights had recently elected a new Grand Master,, one Philip Villiers de L’Isle Adam, who was 57 years old and a member of the illustrious Villiers family. Born at Beauvais on the Isle de France he had joined the Order as a teenager, and so had had a lifetime of experience fighting the Turks. At the time of his election, according to one account, he was - and I’m quoting - “tall, lithe, graceful, alert, with a delicate, sensitive face, high cheek bones and aristocratic, aquiline nose, soft, flowing white beard and hair….a stern ruler, tactful diplomat, and sincere Christian.” End of quotes. Shortly after his election, De L’Isle Adam received a letter from Suleiman containing a thinly disguised threat; but he had no intention of being intimidated, and he replied bluntly enough to make his own determination not to be bullied perfectly obvious to Suleiman. After that, war was inevitable.
Now that is very easy to say - it trips lightly off the tongue - but it disguises a world of faith, dedication and courage which it is all too easy way for us of a later age glibly to overlook, misinterpret, and undervalue. De L’Isle Adam knew that by his reply he had made war inevitable; he was no fool; and he also knew that the odds against him in that coming war were going to be almost unthinkable great. He could muster 500 Knights and about 100 Chaplains, and they were supported by 1000 Mercenaries and maybe another 1000 Rhodian Militiamen - a total of less than 3000 men.
According to Ottoman accounts, Suleiman’s invasion fleet was made up of 700 ships manned by 40,000 sailors and carrying 20,000 irregular troops, while the Sultan himself marched overland at the head of an army of 140,000 trained men. This is almost certainly an exaggeration, but sober historians accept the fact that the Turkish fleet was at least 200-vessels strong, and the Turkish army over 100,000 strong - and De L’Isle Adam was well aware that these were the kind of odds he was defying. So were all the Knights, yet not one of them dreamt for a moment of challenging the Grand Master’s decision to stand and fight. They were, they believe d- we hay not agree with them - the spearhead of Christ’s army - the soldiers of the One Eternal Triune God - resisting the instruments of Satan, and if they had to die in that service, what better way to do it? Worse perhaps, they knew that if they had a leg blown off or an arm mangled by a cannon ball, there were no anaesthetics available, no helicopters to lift them out of the scene of battle to a base hospital with all mod cons and Television for the convalescent. It’s very difficult indeed to get into the heads of the men and women of past ages, but it’s worth trying to do so; and though we might find unattractive things in the heads of the Knights when we got inside them - fanaticism perhaps and tolerance of brutality - I believe we should also find things there which might shame us a bit.
But to continue. On the 26 June 1522, the first Turkish ships sailed past the city of Rhodes to anchor a few miles down the coast in Kalitheas Bay. It was the Feast of Corpus Domini, and a Victorian lady who wrote a history of the Knights in 1858 really let herself go in describing the occasion. I can’t resist reading you a little of it. It’s such a deeply empurpled passage that it makes heliotrope look the palest of pinks:-
“The Palace gates were thrown open, and there rode out a brilliant and a gallant train. Many Knights in armour and scarlet surcoats, the three standards floating over their heads, each borne by chosen men….De L’Isle Adam in golden armour was at their head; and as the procession came along, and the trumpets sounded with a loud triumphant flourish, such a thrill of glad and glorious enthusiasm stirred through the crowd and banished fear; and they rushed to window and terraced roof to watch the coming Turkish fleet, and almost to welcome its advance. What a magnificent spectacle! In the streets below that glorious chivalric procession, the finest steeds and the brightest armour and the gallantest hearts in Christendom!”
And so on, and so on. Unfortunately, the reality was less like a Hollywood spectacular. Even in their heyday in Crusading times, the Knights never wore ceremonial armour in war time, and on receiving news of the Turkish fleet, the last thing they would have done would have been to sally forth from the Grand Master’s Palace on horseback in the narrow and - with the city crowded to bursting point with Knights, mercenaries and refugees from the countryside with their flocks - almost certainly smelly little streets.
Instead, they would have been busy manning their various stations around the city’s defences. You’ll see them tomorrow, and they are formidable. The seaward walls were restored between the wars by the Italians who occupied the island after 1918, when the Turks had been turned out - they also restored - over-restored some would say - the Grand Master’s Palace; but the great battlements on the landward sides are still very much as they were in 1522 and well worth having a look at. I don’t think that the Greek guides take their parties there; but they are not difficult to find. If you walk far enough inland - ten minutes walk or fifteen a the most - you’ll find them, and you’ll also see some of the narrow little medieval streets which are mercifully still uncluttered by shops for the tourists. Anyway, these great battlements with scarp, huge ditch and counterscarp punctuated by fortified towers and turrets were divided into posts for the purpose of manning - the Post of Germany, the Post of Auvergne, of France, of Aragon, of England, Provence, Italy and so on, and as the Turks began disembarking their men the Knights and the mercenaries could have been putting the finishing touches to the defences, stocking the towers with cannon balls in readiness for the coming assault and for counter-battery fire, and so on; for the coming of artillery had fairly recently revolutionised warfare - especially siege warfare and the science of fortification.
In the old days, castles and towns were surrounded by curtain walls - high, vertical, stone screens behind which garrisons were more or less safe from capture, as long as defenders manned their summits to ward off attackers by firing arrows or bolts or even stones at the people below, or pouring boiling oil down on to their heads. The only way such defences could be overcome was by trundling huge mobile towers on wheels up to the walls; the towers were clad in heavy leather shields, and when they were pushed up against the wall, attackers tried to leap across from their tops on to the walls and thus gain entry to the castle or city or what-have-you from the top. The Crusaders had taken Jerusalem that way. Of course, ditches and moats made their kind of thing far more difficult, but with the coming of heavy artillery capable of firing huge stone balls at the walls from a distance, the old curtain walls became more or less useless; they could be destroyed from a distance. You’ll see this kind of wall that is to say, curtain wall - tomorrow on Rhodes, for the sea walls there are of the old kind, only slightly modified, but still effective enough, because heavy cannon could not be fired from the vessels of the day - naval warfare was still conducted in galleys - but the landward walls are far more massive, often rounded, sloping, hugely thick, and punctuated by turrets and towers from which cannon could fire through slits at the besieging army; a fact which made it very difficult for the Turks to approach close enough to site their own artillery without being massacred in the process. Incidentally, you’ll see plenty of Suleiman’s great stone cannon balls lying around in the city - massive great things they are too.
Suleiman arrived on the 28th of July, and the siege began in earnest. I mustn’t spend too long on this and bore you, but I must just sketch in events in outline - it was a remarkable performance on both sides - the difference - however was that it didn’t matter to the Turks how many men the lost, while it mattered desperately to the Knights. Suleiman began by ordering a bombardment of the town, partly at least as cover for his troops digging a maze of trenches leading up to the city walls, while others began to build a huge earthwork opposite the Tower of Aragon, though the bombardment must have been terrifying - huge stone cannon balls, smaller brass ones, and incendiary bombs rained down on bat the fortifications and the city itself - it did surprisingly little damage at first, and people almost got used to it, rather as they did in the Blitz in London during the last war - but the great earthwork worried De L’Isle Adam. He didn’t know what it was for, but the poor wretched Turks building it were getting killed by the hundreds - sometimes more than a hundred a day - and still they carried on; so he knew that it must be important. In the end, a Rhodian islander, who could speak fluent Turkish, volunteered to try and find out.
He sailed out of the harbour in a little fishing boat under cover of darkness, landed behind the Turkish lines, and started to sell his fish in a sort of improvised market to the Turkish troops, while gossiping to them about the fighting. In the end he inveigled three of them into his boat, knocked them on the head, and set sail. When one of them tried to fight back, the Rhodian beheaded him, and so terrified the other two that they were only too eager to tell him all that they knew. The great earthwork was being built as a platform for some heavy cannon to be put so high up on its summit that they would be able to fire down on the defenders behind their walls. Efforts were redoubled to kill its builders, but since Suleiman didn’t care how many died as long as the thing was built, built, of course, in the end, it was.
Once in position, some huge cannon on its summit, began to play havoc with the city’s defences, and casualties mounted. The Spanish master gunner and the Knight commanding the Post of Aragon were both killed, but so - in retaliation by counter-battery fire - were many Turks, while Suleiman’s chief of artillery, one Mehmed Pasha, lost both his legs to a cannon ball. A crisis meeting was convened by De L’Isle Adam in late August, and a decision was made.
It was a typical ploy calling for dash and skill and - needless to say - courage; and if it had failed, it would have spelt disaster; but it didn’t fail. Two hundred Knights - about half those still left alive and unwounded - burst suddenly out from the Post of Italy on horseback. The ground between them and the great Turkish guns was criss-crossed by shallow trenches filled with terrified Turkish infantrymen, who scrambled over each other in the confined space of their trenches in an attempt to escape from the Knights, who impaled them on their lances as they passed by like so many stuck pigs.
Covered by fire from the ramparts, they reached the Turkish guns, killed those of their crew who had not fled, and set fire to the wooden gun carriages before galloping back under cover of more supporting fire from the walls. Two more sorties were made , and on each occasion Christian casualties were light, while Turks were killed or captured and their guns destroyed before the Knights rode back in the city. But though these sorties delayed the inevitable Turkish victory - the odds being what they were - it had to come one day, and on September 4, while De L’Isle Adam was attending Vespers in the Church of Our Lady of Victories, a huge Turkish mine exploded, shaking the whole city and blowing a great hole in the ramparts below the Post of England, and everyone thought that the inevitable had at last come.
But - astonishingly - it hadn’t. De L’Isle Adam ran to the scene, accompanied by his standard bearer, Henry Mansell, bearing aloft a great banner of the Crucifixion, while the Turks scrambled across the rubble in dense numbers; but they were met by the English with swords and pikes, fighting like the demons from hell which their enemies believed them to be, and they were mown down by musket and arquebus fire from the French on their left and the Spaniards on their right. The Turks are braver than most people, but it was too much even for them; after hours of appalling fighting, they withdrew, leaving the no-man’s-land on which the cattle had been fought littered with the dead and wounded. Suleiman had lost over two thousand men - far more than the defenders - but light as their casualties ere in comparison - they were being slowly reduced to so small a group that resistance could not go on for ever.
I mustn’t prolong the agony. the month of September was a nightmare for the Knights. Mine after mine was blown, attack after attack was repulsed, food began to run short, and - worse - so did both cannon balls and gunpowder. On the 24th September the biggest Turkish attack yet seen was launched, and again it was resisted, the Knights fighting back like demons. A woman of the town achieved immortal fame: she was the mistress of an English Knight killed in the battle, she was so appalled at the thought of a Turkish victory that she first killed her children, then strapping on her dead lover’s sword, she threw herself on to the Janissaries with her hair streaming out behind her like one of the Greek Furies, killing several of them before they recovered sufficiently from the shock of her appearance to cut her down and send her after her dead lover. At the end of the day, once again the Turks had been fought to a standstill. As an English Knight wrote to the Earl of Surrey after the battle - and I’m quoting now - “Although, after that the walls of the town was down, they gave us battall often tymes upon even ground, that we had no manner of advantage apone them; yet thanked be God and Saint John, at every battall they returned without purpose.”
It was an astonishing victory, but it was also a Pyrrhic victory. Numbers had been reduced so low, and food was so short that, even if they had had an inexhaustible supply of ammunition for their guns they could not have held out for ever. They did so until December. De L’Isle Adam was all for fighting until every last man had been killed, but the Rhodians were not. The two Bishops on the island - Catholic and Orthodox - begged the Grand Master to treat with Suleiman to save the islanders’ lives. He was against it; but a Spanish Knight, Lopes de Pas of the langue of Aragon, argued that to stay till all were dead would make Suleiman’s triumph the greater; he would have wiped out the Order; to survive to fight another day would deny the Turks total victory.
The argument went on a long time, but in the end Lopes de Pas and the islanders won the day and when approached Suleiman proposed extraordinarily generous terms for peace, he so admired the courage of the Knights. On Christmas Eve, the Knights agreed to them; they were to be allowed to depart with their belongings and their honour intact. Suleiman would provide shipping for them, if they hadn’t enough ships of their own. Meanwhile, the lives and property of the islanders would be respected, and they were even given a promise that if they wished to leave the island in the next three years they would be free to do so. De L’Isle Adam, persuaded by Lopes de Pas albeit reluctantly, accepted the terms, and on St Stephen’s day, the day after Christmas, he and Suleiman met. The Sultan refused an escort as he rode into the city, saying that his safe-conduct was guaranteed by the word of the Grand Master of the Hospitallers and that was a better guarantee of his safety than all the world’s armies.
After the meeting, it is said that he remarked, “It is with regret that I am compelled to drive this brave old man out of his home.” He was not called Suleiman the Magnificent for nothing, and it was by his order, too, that the escutcheons of the Knights, carved in many places in the town of Rhodes, were left intact as a memorial of their bravery.
A final postscript to the story. As the Knights left Rhodes on January 1, 1523, and sailed for Crete, one of their number was a young Frenchman from Provence named Jean Parisot de la Valette, who was destined to prove the wisdom of Lopes de Pas when he suggested that it would be better to come to terms with the enemy, so that they might live to fight another day. Nearly fifty years later, when Suleiman in his old age launched an attack once again on the Knights, this time in Malta, La Valette had become their Grand Master, and Suleiman was to regret bitterly that he had ever let him slip through his fingers when he had the chance to hold him. For on Malta it was the Knights who triumphed, and Suleiman - by this time a bitter and paranoid old man - who was forced to withdraw, leaving the Knights triumphant.