June 21, 2007


Tannhauser Rides Again: 1565: Muslims battle Christians in the bloody Siege of Malta: a review of The Religion by Tim Willocks (N.D. Wilson, May/June 2007, Books & Culture)

That fateful decline, according to many, began at the siege of Malta in 1565, the bloody setting for Tim Willocks' The Religion. With Islam once again on an international up-swing, with the West at war, and with imaginations primed for the medieval by The Da Vinci Code and assorted knock-offs, Willocks is almost assured of an international bestseller. On top of that, he's working with nothing short of a fantastic setting. The siege of Malta is as unbelievable as it was important. A small Mediterranean rock became a crossroads in history as the struggle between Suleiman the Magnificent and the antiquated Knights of St. John the Baptist decided the Future of Europe (or at least played a role worthy of rescue from the forgettery).

In 1565, Luther had been dead for twenty years and the Reformation had taken root. Queen Elizabeth (heresiarch) ruled England. As the Sultan mustered his forces in Constantinople, Shakespeare turned one. The Spanish Inquisition was nearly one hundred, and the Templars had long ago been wiped out in France.

Willocks has plenty to work with on every level: social, political, and religious. [...]

The Knights of St. John are fortifying Malta in preparation for the Turkish assault, and they've heard of Matthias. Knowing his experience, they resolve to recruit him despite the fact that he no longer adheres to the faith of his fathers or his one-time captors.

Two women, Countess Carla La Penautier and her attendant Amparo, have been trying to reach Malta in order to search for the son taken from the Countess at birth. The Knights, who had denied their previous requests for passage, decide to use the women to convince Tannhauser to come. And so the plot really begins. Tannhauser and his English friend Bors arrive on Malta with the two women, just ahead of the enormous Turkish fleet.

The siege of Malta began in the third week of May with the arrival of one of the largest armadas assembled in that age. It wouldn't end until the ninth of September. The Knights of St. John were commanded by Jean La Vallette, a military mind tactically well ahead of his time. More than seventy years old and white-bearded, both feared and respected, he was said to match the most rabid Muslims in fanaticism. The knights called themselves "The Religion" (one of those resonant details that get under a novelist's skin, becoming the germ of a book). They originated as hospitallers in Jerusalem and had so distinguished themselves in the First Crusade that they received their own military charter from the Church. Eventually driven out of Jerusalem, they took possession of Rhodes. There they became sea-faring knights, pirates to every Muslim, who called them "the Hounds of Hell." Provoked, Suleiman sacked Rhodes in 1522. La Vallette was present and learned much from the defeat.

The Knights struggled to find a new home. They were sovereign unto themselves, wealthy nobles accountable to no government. This made them of questionable value in the early modern world. Why would anyone endow them with land without certain allegiance in return? But eventually they acquired Malta and immediately began fortification. It wasn't long before their galleys were once again strangling Turkish trade, and La Vallette knew what they were provoking.

The size of the sultan's force varies from account to account. But in every version, it is enormous: hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of trained fighting men. The Knights held multiple fortifications with a total of nine thousand men, primarily Maltese commoners.

Willocks truly and meticulously captures the progression and feel of such a horrific siege. Before taking up The Religion, I decided to read a small—and excellent—military history (The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford), from which it's clear that Willocks has managed to seamlessly weave his plot through the timeline of actual events, vividly enfleshing what such action must have looked and felt like to a defender in this strange conflict: a war with castles, galleys, armor, long-rifle snipers, trenches, cavalry, heavy artillery, and early flame-throwers. He also effectively humanizes both sides of the conflict, sending Tannhauser out into the Turkish ranks, putting faces and fears on the attackers as well as the attacked.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 21, 2007 12:00 AM

I've always been amazed at how little has been written about the Great Siege. It's a natural as the basis for a novel. The hard part is probably deciding which dramatic events to leave out.

Trivia: La Vallette's ceremonial "Grand Master of the Knights of St. John" sword is on display at the Louvre. The Knights currently run an ambulance service in the UK.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at June 21, 2007 11:23 AM