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Arms and Armour of the Order of St. John from the 1565 Siege

Robert Cassar M.A.; B. Cons.(Hons.); B.A.(Hons.) – Curator Palace Armoury, Valletta

This article was originally published in Besieged: Malta 1565 II, M. Camilleri (ed.) (Malta, Malta Libraries & Heritage Malta, 2015) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and publisher.

The Order of St. John had since its arrival on the islands, focussed its main resources on the defence of its territory. The Order had throughout its history been expelled from its former territories by military force on several occasions, i.e. from Jerusalem, Cyprus, Rhodes as well as others. The administration for military defence focussed mainly on the building and restructuring of the few existing fortifications on the island while procuring arms and armour that could be supplied to the land and maritime troops in defence of the islands from Ottoman forces. This defence depended mostly on the local militia that was found in the various villages around the island of Malta and in Gozo. Some, like in Birgu and Mdina and the other major villages had an armoury or military storehouse that could supply the weapons and protective wear in case of attack.

Figure 1

Till the beginning of 1565, such armouries were very limited in the kind of weapons and armour that could be given to the militia. One such example was the armoury in the city of Mdina were it is documented that it contained the following pieces; a large quantity of cloth and wool gambesons, for protection for the torso, 41 matchlock harquebus, a crossbow and nine iron morion helmets that could be issued to its’ militia fighters of Mdina and its environs[1]. Over and above, more than half of the army of the Order of St. John was made up of Maltese fighters. According to Balbi di Correggio it counted to 6000 while Bosio later on states they were actually around 8500. Most of these were armed with crossbows and harquebuses. Indeed, the Order soon gave a lot of importance to the uses of firearms even though the technology was yet primitive and unreliable. The number of armed soldiers increased substantially with the importation of firearms in particular throughout the siege. Such numbers could be compared to the common trend in Europe where between a third to half of all the troops from an army would have been armed. This can be confirmed with the description of the troops stationed on the defence of Fort St. Elmo where for each harqebusier there were two pikemen that defended him. Obviously the former needed protection from attackers to the fort during the time when a harquebusier would be loading his weapon, a feat that required some time but which also made him very vulnerable. Balbi recounts that the harquebusiers of the Order were at a higher advantage than the Ottomans due to the fact that the firearms used by the Order were lighter in weight and their barrels were much shorter in length than the longer and heavier harquebuses used by the Ottomans. These differences made a lengthier barrel more difficult to manoeuvre in confined spaces and thus required more time to load and fire their weapon than those of the Order[2]. The matchlock harquebus was a predominant weapon used during the siege [Fig. 1]. This fire arm which was not always as efficient as expected and was manned by special soldiers that mostly bore minimal armour protection. These normally wore a breastplate and a cabasset helmet. The matchlock harquebus was a heavy firearm with a very simple mechanism that fired one lead ball every time and was fired by a burning match that had to be kept alight all throughout an attack.

The knights of St. John were also armed with artillery. Only in Fort St. Elmo, there were 27 pieces of artillery that ranged from small cannons possibly wrought iron swivel guns and very large harquebuses or wall posts also known as ‘moschetti di posta’. In Fort St. Angelo on the other hand which was also equipped with artillery, is known to have had several ammunition stores that were laden with gunpowder. Some time prior to the Ottoman attack in 1565, the Duke of Florence had sent 200 barrels of gunpowder that could be used in defence for the imminent attack.

Figure 2

Figure 3

The larger part of the troops of the army of the Order was the land infantry. Apart from a pole arm and other accoutrements, each soldier was armed with a sword. Most of them were specialised through intensive training in sword fighting while others excelled in the use of the pike or other pole arms.

The main type of sword that was used during this time bore long and wide blades. This type of sword is clearly represented in an engraving showing one of the wall painted scenes of the 1565 Siege by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio at the Throne Room in the Grandmaster’s Palace. In the scene of the Battle for the Post of Castile, Spanish knights carry two examples known as the ‘bastarda’. At the Palace Armoury, two slightly smaller but similar examples survive, known as the ‘hand-and-a-half-sword’ [Fig. 2].

Figure 4

Another sword that was commonly used during the 1565 Siege was the rapier. This very early type had limited hand guard protection and had a wider blade than the rapiers that were used later on in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

An example of the siege rapier survives at the Parish Church Museum of Birgu [Fig. 3]. This is said to have been the same sword that was used in battle by Grandmaster de Valette and which was placed at the foot of the altar dedicated to the Virgin of Damascus as an ex-voto in thanksgiving for the victory of the siege.

Another weapon widely used during the 1565 siege was the crossbow. This was a very important strategic weapon when in use in great numbers particularly for the defence of the fortification walls. The Order had commissioned a large number of them, a substantial amount of which still survive till this present day at the Palace Armoury [Fig. 4]. The crossbow was regarded as important as the matchlock harquebus firearm. Its main potential of the latter was that its aim was more precise and accurate than the firearms of its time.

It was an ideal backup weapon at times when gunpowder was not performing at its best. Such occasions included days with high humidity in the air or during rainfall. The technology with gunpowder was not as yet refined and if wet, it did not ignite. Another advantage of the crossbow was the fact that it was short and light in weight and was easily loaded and fired from on top of high walls towards the enemy that tried to climb against a fort’s ramparts. The bolt that was fired had extreme penetrating power and a long range. The fact that the crossbowmen were highly acclaimed for their efficiency in defence, they were given greater privileges over and above other sections of the army such as larger rations of alcohol.

With regards to body protection, the army of the Order was made up of soldiers that wore steel armour that protected against arrow heads and edge weapons but already did very little in case of gunpowder propelled weapons. Some time prior to the beginning of the 1565 Siege, Grandmaster de Valette had issued a decree where he called for all knights of the Order to call at arms and come to the convent (i.e. Malta) to defend the territory and faith. He also obliged each one of them to bring with them their personal armour and weapons since the lack of such were clearly being felt by the Grandmaster[3]. Apart from the steel armour, each knight was to wear a tabard which was a sleeveless bib bearing the cross of religion in white against a red background. The intention for this was the fact that a sense of uniformity was encouraged among the knights while also serving as a recognising factor for one’s own fighters. The uniformity was also needed due to the fact that since the knight came from various countries from all over Europe, they brought with them armour typical of their region, at times some that was also obsolete and outdated for its time. An account by Cirni from the siege, speaks of the diversity in the types of protection worn by the knights. These included corsaletti, and corazze (metal armour), giacchi (brigandines[4]) and maniche di maglia (mail shirts[5]). The tabard uniform has been repeatedly represented in the wall painting scenes by d’Aleccio at the Palace in Valletta.

Figure 5

Figure 6

As portrayed in these wall paintings that describe the events of the Malta Siege, the knights and soldiers are shown wearing a half armour that protects the torso on the body. In a detail from the Piccolo Soccorso, two Spanish knights are wearing decorated half armour that was personally owned [Fig. 5]. Such princely armour from the great siege period, formerly owned by knights themselves still survive in fragmentary form in the armoury [Fig. 6]. Most of these armours were manufactured by prestigious armourers in Milan and Brescia, some of which carried exquisite engraved, gilt and blued decoration making it look like jewelled armour rather than fighting suits. This type of armour was typical for its period, i.e. mid-sixteenth century armour included of a helmet of Spanish style also known as the Morion and the Burgonet worn by officers [Fig. 7].

The armour was worn on a gorget around the neck above which were attached the breast and back plates with the pauldrons and other pieces that protected the shoulders and arms. The upper part of the thighs were protected by two pieces that are known as tassets and that were attached on the front to the breastplate. For the cavalry horsemen, the latter two pieces were substituted with longer parts known as cuisses and extended up to cover the knees [Fig. 8]. These were important since the horseman’s thighs were greatly exposed to the Ottoman infantry normally equipped with curved blade swords. Apart from each having a rapier sword, cavalry had a lance as its main weapon which consisted of a long pole arm with a metal tip.

Figure 7

Figure 8

Personalised armour owned by a knight would have differed from those issued by the Order to its soldiers. This personalisation was achieved by a high degree of surface decoration to the metal plate. The amount and quality of decoration depended on the individual and his financial status in society. Most of the time, such armour were engraved, etched and gilt.

At times, the beauty itself of these armours was more of a disadvantage to its bearer since its jewelled shine made the knight come out from the rest of the soldiers and would have been an easier target to aim at, apart from letting the enemy know that its bearer is an important and high ranking member of the Order.

This was the case of the nephew of Grandmaster de Valette, Henri de Valette who bore highly decorated armour which was gilt too. He was immediately noticed and killed as he stood out facing the enemy. A particular knight, Fra Vincenzo Anastagi, who played a very important role in the victory of the siege was beautifully portrayed by El Greco in a painting wearing a half armour suit very similar to the ones displayed in the Palace Armoury collection. The painting which is in the Frick collection is also an excellent document of the way armour was worn along with the clothing that went along [Fig. 9].

On the other hand, half armour normally issued to the conscripted soldier was similar to the ones owned by the knights but was however bare of any decoration except for some embossed scrolls in some particular areas. This was obviously as resistant and strong as those for the knights. From these type of issue armours, a large amount still exists within the Palace Armoury collection and such numbers give indication of the even larger amounts that originally existed in the Order’s armouries. These date to the Great Siege period and had been ordered to supply the troops of the Order of St. John. The soldiers that wore these armours were normally around their mid-teens. Such can be immediately understood by looking at the size of these metal suits which show that their bearers were very small in stature, both in height and waist. These soldiers also referred to as the foot infantry were armed with pole arms like the pike and the halberd. Some also carried a shield at times made of wood. These examples made of two layers of wood bent and carved were covered in textile and painted with the cross of religion or other heraldry [Fig. 10]. Apart from being lightweight and resistant to fired projectiles, such shields could be used as a weapon in a one to one combat. Various examples still exist in the Palace armoury collection and also feature in several scenes from the d’Aleccio wall paintings.

Figure 9

Figure 10

A major element that presided over most of the rest throughout the 1565 siege was the use of artillery from both sides. While the Ottomans made use of copper-alloy bronze guns that had been brought over to the island by means of their naval power, the knights of St. John mostly made use of wrought iron hoop and stave construction guns of an archaic form for their time. Some must have been imported on the eve of the siege but most lie in the fortresses some of which could have been brought over from Rhodes earlier on in the century. Such artillery could have been not as effective as that of their foe. Ottoman artillery consisted of various sizes with regards to the calibres of shot being fired. These varied from as large as half a metre in diameter to shot as small as a tennis ball and were made of stone. These were all brought over as ballast at sea ready cut from Anatolian hard stone. On the other hand, the Order made use of much smaller calibres and the guns were found on strategic points on the forts and bastions. Apart from the wrought iron guns, the Order also had a small number of bronze guns[6].

Most of the above information about the arms and armour used during the Great Siege of 1565 above has been based on the detailed accounts written by Balbi di Correggio or Giacomo Bosio as well as a close observation of the series of wall painting depicting the main events of the Great Siege painted by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio some time after the event. The D’Aleccio wall paintings are an immense source for both art and military historians alike. The extensive detail gives insights on the type of weapons, armour, uniforms and military tactics that were used throughout the 1565 siege. The detail varies from the representation of miniscule figures, at times monochrome to larger than life size representations of fighters presented in their full attire. When it comes to historical accuracy, the scenes are very much abiding to the facts. The fact that these were painted only a few years after the actual siege, thus basing one’s drawing on firsthand accounts by the survivors and also quoting the battle biographer, Balbi da Correggio, makes the paintings an important and reliable source for the military historian. However, the largest document of the siege is the Palace Armoury collection were most of the armour there serves as a tangible monument to one of the most important events that took place on the islands of Malta.


Notes and references

  1. 1. Stephen. C. Spiteri, Armoury of the Knights, Malta, 2003, p. 54.
  2. 2. ibid.
  3. 3. Ibid., p. 57; “. . . armati di petti forti, di corsaletti, di morrioni, d’archibusi, di picche, d’alabarde e d’altre armi”.
  4. 4. A brigandine is a form of body armour from the Middle Ages. It is a cloth garment, generally canvas or leather, lined with small oblong steel plates riveted to the fabric.
  5. 5. Stephen C. Spiteri, The Great Siege, Knights vs Turks mdlxv, Malta, 2005, p. 335.
  6. 6. One extant example is a gun carrying the coat of arms of Grand Master L’Isle Adam that is on display at St. John’s Gate Museum, Clarkenwell in London.
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