The Knights of St John
' This life can be fruitful and victory is glorious,
yet a holy death for righteousness is worth more '
St Bernard of Clairvaux
In 1453 the inevitable happened and the knights worst fear came true when Constantinople fell to the Turks led by Mehmed the Conqueror. Building works on Rhodes defences had been seriously stepped up since the fall of Cyprus and after Constantinople fell, successive Grand Masters put considerable effort into further fortification of the town and the harbour. The numbers of knights on the Island increased considerable from this time onwards and were to more than double in the next fifty years.
Grand Master Jacques de Milly launched attacks against the Turkish mainland while Mehmed was indisposed subjugating the remnants of Romania. Then as the knights awaited the major attack from the Turks, they concentrated their efforts on gaining time by sending forth several delegations to Adrianople to discuss a peace treaty with Mehmed. He demanded the knights pay him 2000 ducats a year and in retaliation for their refusal, he next demanded they pay him tribute for the Island. This was totally unacceptable to the knights and negotiations were to soon break down, time was running out for the knights.
In retaliation in 1456, Mehmed sent a Turkish naval fleet to attack the Dodecanese Islands of Kos and Symi and the following year he raided the eastern coast of Rhodes itself. In 1465, Grand Master Zacosta was responsible for dividing the cities fortifications in battle stations, assigning each of the 'tongues' certain parts of the walls and town which became their responsibility to defend. Soon after, the inhabitants of the smaller islands were transferred back to the mainland to augment their defences, and the rural population were assigned the castles they should go to in the event of a major attack.
Engagements between the Knights and Turks outside Rhodes - Caoursin 1480
The knights were now getting desperate and new moves were made again to try and negotiate a peace settlement. Once more the Turks demanded tribute and again the knights dismissed it as totally unacceptable. They were now in dire straits, the rural areas on Rhodes and the other islands were yielding less and less and the raids were destroying much of their resources and income, an invasion was expected at any time.
The dreaded moment came on 23rd May 1480 when a huge fleet of 170 ships was spotted off the Northwest coast of the Island a short distance from the city. 100,000 Turkish soldiers disembarked onto the island and they immediately surrounded the walls and put the city under siege. The Turks first task was to capture the two towers that guarded the entrance to the harbour and their artillery kept up an unbroken bombardment. The Grand Master himself, Pierre d'Aubusson, came to the rescue and after a fierce fight repelled the invaders. A similar assault was tried on the seaward sector of the city which was manned by a weaker contingent of Italians. The walls were soon showing signs of being penetrated and again the Grand Master d'Aubusson took control and dug another ditch the other side of the wall along with a new internal fortification. When the Turks finally assaulted the wall they were again beaten back by the knights, it was turning into a very bloody contest.
Twice more the Turks attacked this weakened position and on 27th July managed to gain a foothold within the town. A massive struggle ensued with knights running from all corners of the town to aid the Italian sector. The Grand Master d'Aubusson was wounded in five places, yet still directed the battle and fought with a lance in the hand to hand combat. After three hours of fighting the knights gained the upper hand and started to push back the Turks who began a hasty withdrawal. The knights followed, hacking down anything that moved, rampaging through the Turkish camp and capturing the holy standard of Islam. On that day between three and four thousand Turks were slain, the remainder limping back to their ships, they headed for the harbour of Phicos where they came from.
During the siege, the city had to endure the destructive effects of over 3,500 balls during the bombardment by the Turks. A lot of the time, as was seen with the their initial attack on the twin towers of the harbour, bombardments were not always as successful as had been hoped. Chronicles sometimes marvel at the total ineffectiveness of such batteries, although others, as in the case of the Italian bastion at Rhodes, tell of buildings being demolished, quarters burnt and large breeches being made in the walls.
We are fortunate in that we know almost all the details of the siege due to the writings and chronicle of Vice Chancellor Fra' Guillaume Caoursin. He wrote the Grand Master's dispatches to the Pope and later incorporated them into his book Obsidionis Rhodie Urbis Descripto, which was first published four months after the end of the siege and became a best-seller. The pictures of Mass below and the engagement with the Turks above were taken from this book.
Celebration of Mass in the church of St John during the 1481 earthquake - Caoursin 1480
The following year in 1481 the Island of Rhodes suffered a massive earthquake which destroyed all the walls and fortifications which the Turks hadn't the previous year. The Island was in big trouble, the rural villages that had survived were also turned to rubble with crops and livestock in very short supply. Time for once was on their side, as the death of Mehmed had left the Turks split between his two sons Djem and Bayazid. Djem lost the struggle for power and fled to Rhodes where he was greeted by d'Aubusson and signed a peace agreement which was to keep his brother Bayazid at bay. The Grand Master d'Aubusson was honoured by the Pope for his victory and was awarded the rank of cardinal and legate of Asia but died soon after in 1503. Djem had also died in mysterious circumstances which meant his brother Bayazid was no longer tied and he started making plans for a large scale attack on Rhodes like his father.
While the city and fortifications were slowly rebuilt, the knights had a couple of successes which are worthy of mention. In 1507 they captured the largest ship afloat and pride of the Egyptian fleet the "Morgarbina" as it was taking a cargo of passengers and supplies from Crete. She was then converted to a warship by the knights and renamed the 'Santa Maria'. In 1510 the sailor knights also attacked Alexandretta, capturing ten large and four small galleys, transferring them back to Rhodes.
In 1512 Bayezid was forced to abdicate by his son, Selim the Grim, who later had him poisoned. Selim was a ruthless but excellent soldier and he carried on with the conquests where his grandfather Mehmet had left off. Rhodes was once again getting worried, and they had every reason. Initially Selim was preoccupied with his wars in Hungary, Egypt and Persia to worry too much about Rhodes, but in 1517 he captured Cairo and once again the Island was surrounded. That same year Selim was preparing a massive armada to attack the Island but suddenly died, leaving his Kingdon to Suleiman the Magnificent, probably the most formidable and greatest of all the Turkish emperors. Suleiman had inherited a battle-hardened army and like Selim had his eyes firmly fixed on the thorn in his side, the martial monks of Rhodes.
In 1521 the monks election of a new Grand Master was contested between the leaders of three 'tongues', England, Castile and Auvergne. Prior Phillipe Villiers de l'Isle Adam of Auvergne was chosen and in his anger, Fra' Andrea d'Amaral of Castile shouted that "This would be the last Grand Master of Rhodes". Little did they all realise his outburst was to prove correct.
Soon after, a letter arrived from Suleiman congratulating the new Grand Master on his appointment, de Villiers I'Isle was furious and replied with a very sarcastic letter which basically challenged him to attack, as his spies had already informed that an invasion by Suleiman was imminent. Calls for help across Europe were ignored , but the knights did managed to secure the services of some Venetian arbalestiers they recruited from Crete. The fortifications of the town were further increased and the total strength of the knights was now about 500 with around 1000 men-at-arms, not much bigger than d'Aubusson's army for the 1480 siege.
The Courtyard of the Hospital
On the 26th 1522, two days after the feast of St John, a massive Turkish armada of 103 galleys and another 300 other vessels was sighted off the coast. We have a lot of information available on the final siege of Rhodes and contemporaries tell us that the Sultans forces were commanded by Suleiman's brother-in-law, Mustafa Pasha, and numbered 120,000 men with a further 60,000 Balkan peasants who were used for labour.
The Turks tactics were somewhat different to the siege of 1480, they too also blockaded the harbour, but their artillery barrages were mounted against the landward fortifications and great walls. On 28th July, Suleiman himself arrived with more fresh troops and the artillery could now keep up their barrage throughout the day and night. All through the month of August the Turks concentrated their attacks against the positions of England, Spain and Provence, with constant barrages followed by wave after wave of infantry.
On the 4th September, two huge gunpowder mines exploded under the bastion of England, bringing down twelve yards of wall which filled the moat, it seemed to the Turks the perfect breach. They immediately assaulted the ramparts and soon held the gap, but the English brothers under Fra' Nicholas Hussey held an inner barricade and they were soon joined by the Grand Master Villiers de l'Isle. The English regrouped and then charged the Turks position, driving them back and capturing the Turkish standards. Twice more Mustafa repeated his assault on the badly damaged bastion of England and twice more the English brothers drove them back, helped by some German brothers who had rushed through the town to aid them. The Turks lost over two thousand men during these assaults and Pasha himself had to be dragged away by his own men after all around were fleeing.
Street of the Knights, the most important in Rhodes
Mustafa Pasha decided to risk everything on a final assault and on 24th September, watched by Suleiman from a hillock, the four bastions of Spain, England, Provence and Italy felt the full force of the Turkish artillery and were pounded mercilessly. Wave after wave of Turkish infantry followed, racing for the walls and fierce hand to hand fighting followed. Attacks were quickly followed by counter-attacks and the bastion of Spain changed hands twice, the sea beside the position of the Italians was said to have turned red with blood. The Grand Master somehow managed to find 200 fresh troops and the Turks were eventually called back by Suleiman after loosing 3,000 men. The knights had lost about 200 men with 150 wounded.
Outraged by the shame, Sulieman paraded his entire army to witness his brother-in-law Pasha shot to death by arrows, but he spared him only after one of the elders pleaded for his mercy. Suleiman himself by now had had enough and was about to pack up and raise the siege when an Albanian deserter was brought to his tent. He claimed that the knights had lost so many men that they could not face another assault and the city was almost his. Sulieman appointed a new commander, Ahmed Pasha, an elderly engineer, and it soon became clear to the knights what their new tactic would be - blow them out of their stronghold.
The Turks resumed their barrage on the walls, which were by now badly damaged in many places with nobody left to repair them. The Grand Master recalled all his troops from the other Islands but the situation was getting helpless and matters were to get even worse. Some Turkish slaves managed to escape and started to burn the town, but were soon rounded up and executed. At the end of September, a servant of the Prior of Castile and Grand Chancellor d'Amarel, was caught shooting messages into the Turkish camp and after torture implicated his master. Andrea d'Amaral was solemnly degraded from his vows in front of the whole order and beheaded for treason.
New Knights Hospital
At the end of November the Turks made a further assault on the positions of Spain and Italy, they were again beaten back with the further loss of three thousand men. Matters were now getting desperate for the knights, but the Turks also had their problems with their exhausted army, now much depleted through the fighting and disease which was spreading through their camps. Their next move was to appeal to the townsfolk, bypassing the leaders, offering them peace, their lives and food if they surrendered the city, but threatened to put them to the sword and under slavery if they were made to enter by force. At first the Grand Master and knights would hear none of it, but under pressure from the local people gave in and agreed to accept negotiations.
A three day truce was declared for 11th-13th December, but after the locals demanded further assurance of their safety and welfare from Suleiman, he got angry and ordered his forces to begin the bombardment again of the town. On 17th December the bastion of Spain fell and it was only a matter of time before the whole city capitulated. The ramparts and walls had been virtually destroyed and to continue seemed like suicide. On 20th December the Grand Master asked for a fresh truce.
A deputation of Latins and Greeks met again with Suleiman and on 22nd December they declared their acceptance of the terms he proposed. The knights were to be given twelve days to leave the Island and could take their weapons and any valuables or religious icons they desired. Any Islander who also wished to leave with them could do so right away, or at any time within a three year period. He also promised that no church would be desecrated or turned into a mosque and that he would also grant the Island tax exemptions for five years. Extremely generous terms considering the losses he had endured in gaining his victory.
After Suleiman had entertained the Grand Master Villiers de I'Isle, he refused a guard to accompany him on his tour of the fallen city. He was shown the rubble and barricades which had been the knights only defences and was later to remark that he was sorry that he was to make 'that fine old man', de Villiers I'Isle, leave his home.
On the evening of 1st January 1523 a single trumpet blast sounded. To the Turks amazement, the remaining brethren all marched out of the town in parade order. They had their banners flying and were wearing full battle armour with the drums beating a regular tattoo. The 50 ships, which had been made available to them, were boarded and they sailed off with heavy heads and uncertainty for the Island of Crete. After 213 years the knights' stay on the Island of Rhodes had finally come to an end and the last Crusading State had fallen.
© The Knights of St John leave Rhodes - By kind permission of Vangelis Pavlidis
The Knights eventually ended up making their new home the Island of Malta, with several thousand Rhodian Christians following them. For the next four centuries, Rhodes remained a Turkish possession, and one would have expected Ottoman rule to have left an indelible imprint on the Island. The Turks built - and destroyed - little, occasionally a church was converted into a Mosque but nothing of note stands out as a legacy to their time on the Island. The Grand Master's Palace was used as a cattle barn and the once noble inns were turned in barracks - time just rolled by on the island.
In 1821, mainland Greece revolted against the Turks and eventually won independence, although the Rhodians suffered brutally as the Turks quashed the revolt on the island. In 1912, the Ottoman Empire was disintergrating and the Italians took control of Rhodes and the rest of the Dodecanese Islands, which were to be held in trust until their eventual union with Greece. Unlike the Turks the Italians immediately set to work excavating some of the Islands more classical sites as well as reconstructing roads, homes and public buildings in Rhodes Town.
It soon became increasingly clear that the Italians had no intention of returning the Islands to Greece and in the 1930's both the Greek language and the Orthodox church were outlawed, with the Island soon becoming a summer retreat for Italy's rulers and social elite. After Mussolini's government fell in 1943, the Island was occupied by the Germans who took over all the defences and military positions until they were finally liberated by British Forces in 1945. After being held in trust by the United nations for a short while, the Islands were finally united with Greece again in 1947.
* Special thanks to Vangelis Pavlidis from Rhodes who has given me much help and guidance in putting these pages together. Also for giving me permission to use one of his illustrations from his book. "Rhodes, 1306-1522, A Story".
* Thanks also to Mary Fisher for proof reading this for me.
The Island of Rhodes
Rhodes is really two towns today - the old and the new, although most tourists make their way for the Old Town. The Knights' Quarter can be visited in a few hours and if your stay on the island is limited, then you should head there first. Spend some time wandering the narrow streets, soak up the atmosphere and take yourself back to fascinating days of the 14th-16th centuries. But be sure to take a map though, as it is easy to get lost in the myriad of narrow streets and passageways. Always be on the lookout too, for special vantage points throughout the town that give you a spectacular view of the harbour and Aegean sea below.
Of course, if you have more time and your visit permits, the whole Island needs to be seen in all its splendour, taking you back literally thousands of years in time. Everywhere is littered with monuments and artifacts that show its ancient pedigree, from the beautiful remains of Kamiros, which was a flourishing city before the building of RhodesTown in 408 BC, to the Ancient Acropolis at Lindos, where the Knights of St John built another castle to protect their lands.
Every year the Islands still suffer an invasion, but this time the visitors are not in search of war and destruction, but the sun and the Island's golden beaches. The height of the tourist season is July and August, but I would honestly avoid this period if it is at all possible. It gets very busy during this time and fighting your way through thousands of tourists in the medieval town or on the beach is not at all fun. June is much nicer, the weather is not so hot and if you are lucky you will find the whole countryside blooming with flowers. September is also a good time to visit, the crowds are not so great and the sea is like a warm bath to bathe in, although the Greek order of the day is to take your time over dinner, enjoy and above all, relax.
Whatever time of the year you choose to go though, you can always be assured of a wonderful welcome from the Islanders whose warmth and hospitality never fails to amaze me.The other Islands of the Dodecanese chain are also well worth a visit, from the traquility of Symi to the more busy Island of Kos, a similar warm welcome can always be expected.
Off the North coast of Rhodes, an hour or so by ferry, is the Island of Chalki. A sparsly populated island, they have the water shipped in once a week in the summer months as they don't have a natural supply. I had the great pleasure of spending a couple of weeks here a few years ago and many an afternoon I would leave the family on the beach and climb up the rocky buttress to the castle built by the knights of St John. This place is very special, the views are just breath taking as you look out over the Aegean towards Rhodes and beyond. The chapel still retains some of the medieval paintings on the walls and the ramparts are almost complete in many places. It's as though the place was just forgotten about after the knights moved out and little has changed.
I have only briefly skirted over the history of the Island and the order of St John and there is much I have omitted. It was a difficult task putting this together and there is so much more I could have included. I could write pages and pages about the Island, which has, and always will, remain a very special place to me.
Information on Rhodes and the Knights of St John were obtained from;
The Knights of St John of Jerusalem - J. Riley-Smith
The Knights of Rhodes - Elias Kollias.
The Monks of War - Desmond Seward.
Rhodes, 1306-1522, A Story - Vangelis Pavlidis.
The Military Orders, 12th-14th Century - A. Forey.
History of the Crusades - Steven Runciman.
England and the Crusades - Christopher Tyerman.
The Wars of the Crusades - Terence Wise.
The Crusades - Robert Payne.
War in the Middle Ages - Phillippe Contamine.
The New Knighthood - Malcolm Barber.
Chronicle of the Crusades - Ed. Elizabeth Hallam.
Richard I - John Gillingham.
The Middle Ages, A Concise Encyclopaedia - Ed. H.R.Loyn.
The Medieval Papacy - Geoffrey Barraclough.
Henry V - Harold Hutchison.
Rhodes and the Dodecanese - Dana Facaros.
Rhodes - Berlitz Travel Guide.
This months site is dedicated to
Jean M Gabbott
A special person who loved Rhodes
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and must not be reproduced in any format without permission
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