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The Siege Of Rhodes

from The Strange Story Book





When you are reading the history of the sixteenth century, you will
notice that in Europe nearly the whole of that period was occupied by
two struggles: the struggle of the Reformed religion against the
Catholic Church, and that of the Christian world with the Sultans of
Turkey.

When the century began, the Turks had been lords of Constantinople for
fifty years, and were for a while busy with establishing themselves
firmly in the capital of the Emperors of the East. Then, as in the days
of Mahomet's successors nine hundred years before, they proceeded to
look about for fresh worlds to conquer, when the Crescent should trample
underfoot the Cross. In 1521, Solyman, accompanied by a vast host,
marched northwards to Hungary, and after a two months' siege captured
the town of Belgrade. This expedition was undertaken by the Sultan in
obedience to the wishes of his father, who died before he could march
there himself; but what the young man really longed to possess was the
beautiful Island of Rhodes lying at a short distance from the coast of
Asia Minor.

His councillors shook their heads when he told them of his plan. The
city of Rhodes was the stronghold of the Brotherhood of St. John of
Jerusalem and the Knights had seen to its fortifications. It might be
taken, of course; still the loss of life was sure to be tremendous and
the Sultan possessed other islands as lovely and fertile as Rhodes. No
doubt he did; but it was Rhodes he wanted, so Solyman turned from his
old councillors and listened to the advice of his brother-in-law,
Mustafa Pasha.

The first step was to discover something about the town and its
defences: how many men could be mustered on the walls, and what means
the Knights had of providing against a long siege. For this purpose he
despatched a Jewish physician greatly trusted by his father, to the
island, with orders to pretend himself ready to become a Christian so as
to find favour with the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John, and to
lose no opportunity of making friends with the people by trying to cure
their sick. These instructions were faithfully carried out by the Jew,
who sent word to the Sultan that an important part of one of the city
walls was being rebuilt, and that if an army could be landed before the
work could be completed, the men would easily be able to enter the
breach.

Now the Jew, of course, was fulfilling the task given him, and was
risking his own neck in the accomplishment of it. But what can be said
of the treachery of one of the Knights themselves who out of jealousy
had bidden Solyman to besiege the town? This man, Sir Andrew de Merall,
was a Portuguese and so highly thought of among his fellows that he had
been named Chancellor of the Order. He expected, however, to be the next
Grand Master, and when, on the death of Fabrice of Cacetto, Sir Philip
de Villiers was chosen in his place, de Merall's rage at being passed
over was such that he could not control himself. The Knights did not pay
much heed to his words; it was natural, they thought, that he should be
disappointed, but he would soon calm down again. And so de Merall did,
to all outward appearance, and no one guessed how black were his
thoughts.

A pretext for his treason was soon found: it was easy for him to send
over a Turkish prisoner to Constantinople, on the plea of the man
raising money for his ransom, and instructing the Turk beforehand
exactly what he was to tell the Sultan as to the condition of the city.

'He will never find a better time,' said the traitor, 'seeing that the
wall is now partly down and there is mischief among some Italian
Knights. As to help from without, the Christian princes are busy warring
each upon the other, and, if this should last, the town will be his
without fail,' which thing came to pass.

The Sultan took the counsel given him, and assembled a great fleet in
all haste to bear his army through the AEgean Sea. In order to keep
everything as secret as possible, he forbade his subjects to enter
Rhodes on any pretence whatever. But the return of the Turkish spy and
his friendship with de Merall was noted by all, and the Grand Master's
own men reported that a large army was being assembled in Turkey. Yet,
in spite of these rumours, Sir Philip de Villiers did not disquiet
himself. No Turkish host had ever captured Rhodes, and when the wall was
repaired the defences would be stronger than before. And it was far more
likely that the fleet was intended for the Adriatic, and meant either to
attack Venice herself or some of her dependencies on the opposite coast.
Still, in order not to be caught unawares, the Grand Master heightened
the walls and deepened the trenches beyond them while he filled the
storehouses with food, and the magazines with powder.

His precautions were received with scorn by the larger number of his
Knights and most of the citizens. 'Why, the town was already provisioned
for a year or more,' they said, 'and no siege would last as long as
that.' But the day came when they lamented that the granaries had not
been twice the size, and the magazines three times bigger, for a month
before the surrender of the town food was hardly to be had, and
ammunition had almost failed them.

* * * * *

Though no help was to be expected from the great nations of Christendom,
and the Governor of Candia or Crete forbade his men to serve under the
Grand Master of the Knights in Rhodes, Sir Philip de Villiers contrived
by his energy to get in a large quantity of wine from the island.
Besides this, he was greatly cheered by the kindness of a private
gentleman from Venice, who not only brought over a ship laden with 700
butts of wine for their use, instead of selling his cargo at
Constantinople as he had meant to do, but stayed and fought for them
himself, and put all he had at their disposal. Night and day the Grand
Master worked; he seemed to be everywhere at once, and to think of
everything. Now he was in the powder magazine watching the officers
serving out ammunition to the soldiers; now he was on the walls testing
the strength of the repairs; now he was in the fields examining the corn
and deciding what was ripe enough to be cut and brought in. When this
was done he gathered into the city the people of the neighbouring
villages.

Hardly was this accomplished when news arrived that the Turks were near
at hand. Then the Grand Master ordered a muster of all the men capable
of bearing arms, and began with the Knights, the flower of many races;
and a splendid sight they were, in their scarlet tunics with a large
white cross on the breast. To each he appointed his place, with his
special duties, and next proceeded to the citizens and the strangers,
giving them separate colours and mottoes, and forming them into
companies. But at the most the defenders did not number more than 6,000,
and who could tell how many the Turks might be?

On June 18, 1522, the Turkish fleet was sighted, and for the next
fortnight it moved from place to place in the neighbourhood of Rhodes,
till it finally cast anchor about six miles from the town and remained
there till the end of the siege. Four hundred ships, large and small,
were said to be assembled, and for a fortnight some of the galleys went
to and from the mainland, returning with fresh supplies and more
soldiers. Meanwhile the Grand Master left his palace and took up his
abode near the part of the walls where he expected the fight to be
fiercest. He had need of vigilance; for more to be dreaded than the
enemy without were the traitors within, though as yet none suspected de
Merall of treason. But many of the women slaves serving in the houses of
the rich were Turks, who sought to help their countrymen. This was to be
done by setting fire to their masters' houses at the moment of the first
assault, in order to tempt the soldiers to leave their posts at the
defences, to put out the flames. Luckily the plot was betrayed and the
leader executed before any harm was done. The Turkish male slaves, on
the contrary, were faithful throughout, and as they numbered 1,500 were
of great importance, working hard in the trenches. The walls were
divided into different portions, called sometimes after the kingdoms and
sometimes after provinces of countries. There was the 'gate of Italy,'
the 'gate of Almaine' or Germany, the 'gate of Auvergne,' the 'gate of
Provence,' the 'Walls of England and Spain'; and it was at these two
walls that the first assault was directed. The Turks shot huge stones
from their guns, and their engines cast them upwards into the air, so
that they fell down with tremendous force into the street, but strangely
enough they did little damage to anyone. Soon there arrived in Rhodes,
from Candia, Captain Gabriel Martinengo and two other captains, all
skilled in war, while the following day the young Sultan himself joined
his fleet.

His presence inspired the army with fresh energy. The soldiers now began
to take aim with harquebuses and 'hand-guns', and to erect mounds nearer
the town as cover for their marksmen. They worked under a heavy fire
from the besieged, and though many of them were slain, the hill they
made grew steadily higher till at length it overtopped the wall of Spain
and the gate of Auvergne by ten or twelve feet. The Christians, in their
turn, rebuilt the walls with boards and trenches for cover, but not
before numbers who could ill be spared had fallen victims to the fire of
the Turks.

In spite of the hosts encamped before them, the courage of the defenders
never failed, and for a time it seemed as if their strength would never
fail either. Vainly did the besiegers build screens or 'mantelets' of
wood or stones, behind which their soldiers could shoot in safety; a
well-directed fire beat on them with such persistence that at length
they got weary of constantly repairing, and moved their mantelets away
to some other place. But though the Knights had won the day here, the
number of the Turks was beginning to tell, as it was bound to do in the
long run. It did not matter to them how many were killed, there were
always plenty more to take their places, and at the end of a month the
wall of England was cast down, and a breach was made in the wall of
Spain. Gabriel Martinengo did his utmost to make use of these disasters
and his guns fired through the breaches into the trenches, while he
stationed men with harquebuses on the roofs of the houses. To this the
enemy answered by throwing hollow stones into the town filled with that
terrible Greek fire which it was said could only be put out by burying
it under earth. Some of the wooden buildings caught, but on the whole,
not much harm was done.

So passed August, and September brought a new terror to the besieged.
The Turks were undermining the town, and countermines had to be
prepared. The mine under the wall of England, however, was so well laid
with gunpowder that when it exploded all the town felt the shock, and
part of the wall fell into the trench, whereat the Turks leaped into the
breach waving their banners and poured forth an incessant fire from
their hand-guns. For three hours the battle raged; then the victory
remained with the Grand Master, and the enemy retired, leaving a
thousand dead upon the ground.

Again and again the assault was renewed upon one or other of the walls
and gates. The fire of the besieged was so fierce that, brave as they
were, the Turks often recoiled before it and had literally to be driven
forward by their officers. Their loss was always much greater than that
of the Christians, as must invariably happen in a siege; but, on the
other hand, some of the best and most useful of the Christian Knights
were killed by the enemy.

Throughout September the mining continued, and explosions were frequent.
Sixty thousand Turks were now in the trenches all well armed, and it was
easy for them to attack the walls in various places at once. On the 24th
the famous Turkish band of Janizaries, led by their chief, fought their
way into the bulwark of Spain, and planted their standards on the top.
It seemed as if the capture of the town was inevitable, but the Grand
Master on hearing of the peril hastened from his post at the gate of
England, and put himself at the head of the combatants at the bulwark of
Spain. The struggle lasted for hours, but at length the Turks gave way,
and so many of them lay dead that you could not see the ground for the
corpses.

From his tent Solyman had watched it all, and 'was very sore
displeased, and half in despair.' He laid the whole blame of defeat on
Mustafa Pasha, his brother-in-law, because, he declared, without his
advice the siege would never have been undertaken. The Sultan even
wished in his anger to put the unfortunate man to death, but was
dissuaded from his purpose by the other pashas, on the ground that 'it
would comfort their enemies and give them courage.' So Mustafa's life
was spared, and 'that he might do something to please the Turk, as well
for his honour as for to save his person, he was marvellously diligent
to make mines at the bulwark of England.'



* * * * *

Had it not been for the traitors in the town who sent letters to the
Sultan showing that it was impossible for the defenders to hold out much
longer the siege would now have been raised. After three months of
almost hand-to-hand warfare, in spite of mines that threw down the
houses and breaches that had been made in the walls, the Turks did not
seem any nearer their end. Even the Janizaries declared they would fight
no more, and from the walls the Christians noted bodies of stragglers
making their way towards the Turkish fleet.

Then one night an Albanian captive stole out to the enemy's camp,
bearing letters from de Merall and the other betrayers of their land and
their religion, and the next morning the fire of the enemy was hotter
than ever.

Early in October three successive assaults were made on the bulwark of
England, but were beaten back at the cost of many lives, the Turkish
soldiers vowing at last that no one, not the Sultan himself, should
induce them to make another attack on a place so obstinately defended.
Indeed, a mutiny nearly broke out among the troops. Some of all this was
perceived by the Christians, and their hearts beat with joy. By command
of the Grand Master a body of men went outside the walls while the guns
above played upon the enemy, and cleared away the earth from the ditch
beyond, bringing it back into the town where they flung it down inside
the wall. And this, though they did not guess it, proved later one of
the causes of their undoing. So busy were they, that they did not
perceive that the Turks, having covered their trenches with boards,
worked hard at boring a passage which came out on the other side of the
wall under the barbican--a sort of small fortification--by which means
they were able to gain the foot of the wall.

Therefore now, on October 17, the fighting began on the inside. In vain
the Christians tried by every means to drive the Turks from the
barbican; they could never be dislodged. Then Sir Gabriel Martinengo
ordered, as a last resource, that the wall should be broken down so that
these might be reached face to face, but when this was done the
Christians were no nearer success. Three days after, the Turks fastened
strong ropes, weighted with anchors, to the walls which had already been
undermined; but the artillery, placed on the bulwark of Auvergne, cut
the ropes and sent away the besiegers.

By this time all the slaves in the Christian army and many of the
soldiers had fallen, and there was hardly anyone left to do the repairs
or to carry the wounded to the Hospital within the city. It was evident
to everyone that the end was not far off, and it was then, when things
could scarcely be worse, that the sorest blow of all was dealt to the
courage of the Grand Master. Hitherto the treachery of Sir Andrew de
Merall had been totally unsuspected by him, but one day a servant of the
Portuguese Knight was caught in the act of firing a cross-bow into the
Turkish camp, with a letter tied to the shaft. Taken before the Grand
Master the man confessed that it was not the first occasion by many
that, at the command of his master, he had in like manner sent the enemy
information of the condition of the town, warning them not to leave, as
men, powder, and provisions were rapidly failing.

But cut to the heart though he was, the Grand Master had no leisure as
yet to attend to de Merall; he ordered the servant to be locked up
securely, and went back to the walls, which he scarcely ever left. The
bulwark of England was now in the hands of the Turks, who were arranging
a fierce assault on the wall of Spain. The last great battle took place
on November 29, and for the last time the Christians were victorious.

* * * * *

A few days after this a native of Genoa--probably a prisoner--came out
of the Turkish camp to the gate of Auvergne and demanded to speak with
someone in authority. When his request was granted, he inquired why the
town, which could hold out no longer, was not surrendered, while there
was yet time to get good terms from the Sultan. Thrice he made attempts
to prevail on the Knights to listen to his proposals, but they would
not, preferring rather to die at their posts. The townspeople, however,
thought otherwise, and whispered together secretly at first, and then
openly, that they would fain save their own lives and that of their
children, seeing there was no further hope of driving away the enemy.
And these murmurings soon came to the ears of the council, who laid them
before the Grand Master.

While the assembled lords were talking over this weighty matter, some of
the citizens knocked at the door of the chamber and, being admitted,
'meekly besought the said reverend lord the Grand Master to consider the
piteous and sorrowful state the town was in', and to pray that if he
would not surrender it, at least to send away their wives and children,
or otherwise they would become slaves or be slain. 'And the conclusion
was, that if the said lord would not purvey, they would purvey for it
themselves. That is, they would see to the placing in safety of their
wives and children.'

The Grand Master heard them with a gloomy face, and dismissed them,
saying, they should know shortly what was in the minds of the council to
do. He then inquired of the Knight who had charge of the gunpowder how
much there was left, and received for answer 'not more than was needed
to withstand two assaults.' At that the Grand Master turned to Sir
Gabriel Martinengo, who was Captain of the soldiers, and asked if the
town might hold out or not, or if there were any means to save it.

'Scarcely are there folk enough to move a piece of artillery from one
place to another,' answered he, 'and it is impossible without folk to
set up the repairs which every day are broken and crushed by the great,
furious, and continual shot of the enemy.'

Very unwillingly the Grand Master was convinced that his cause was
hopeless and that, as it was the wish of the people and of many of the
lords also, a treaty must be made with the Sultan. 'He took it most
heavily and was more sorrowful than any of the others,' writes the old
chronicler, 'for the business belonged very near to him.'

So a 'sign' was set upon the tower of the abbey outside the walls, and
the two Turks who came from the camp in answer bore with them a letter
from Solyman to the Grand Master, offering, in case of surrender, to let
all the Knights and the people leave the town with their 'goods and
jewels without fear of harm or displeasure of his folks. But that if the
Grand Master would not accept the treaty none of the city should think
to escape, but they all, unto the cats, should pass by the edge of the
sword.'

The die had been cast by the council, yet even so the Grand Master could
not bear to deliver up his trust, and seems to have sought to delay
matters. Therefore he sent two of his Knights into the Turkish camp to
beg an audience of the Sultan and to ascertain without a doubt that
faith would be kept with the Christians.

The ambassadors were received courteously by two high Turkish officials,
and a truce of three days was agreed upon, during which 'the enemies
came to our repairs and spake with our folk, and drank with one
another,' as enemies should after the battle is over. When the Christian
Knights saw the Sultan, he repeated his terms, and informed them that at
the end of the truce he must have an answer. He then dismissed them,
giving each a garment of velvet and cloth of gold as a present.

* * * * *

Thus all was arranged for the yielding up of the city, when a most
unexpected thing happened. Some of the very citizens who had been most
urgent for the surrender now appeared before the Grand Master and the
council, and declared that as they had not been consulted they would
not consent to ceding the town, and they might as well die while
defending it, for they were sure to be put to death anyhow.

In fact, they behaved more like a set of pettish children than like men,
whose lives were at stake.

However much these words of the citizens may have chimed in with his
secret wishes, the Grand Master's reason told him that he had no right
to take advantage of their folly, and all he would agree to was to send
two fresh ambassadors to the Turkish camp, begging the Sultan once more
to repeat his conditions and give them renewed guarantees.

Not unnaturally Solyman declined to be played with like this, and his
only answer was to order an attack to be sounded at once. Refreshed by
the three days' truce the Turks fought harder than ever, and hour by
hour pressed nearer into the town. Then the Grand Master summoned the
citizens who had prevented the surrender, and said that as they were
willing to die he was well content to die with them, and that a
proclamation would be made throughout the town that every man should be
at his post at the gates day and night, and that, if he left, instant
death would be the penalty.

For a day or two the Rhodians were most zealous at the walls--especially
after one had been hanged for desertion--but soon their hearts failed;
they slunk away, and as it was not possible to hang everybody the
Knights were left to defend the walls themselves. At length the Grand
Master sent to inquire of the citizens why they had broken their word
and abandoned their duty, to which they made answer that 'when they had
gainsaid the surrender of the town, they had been wrongly informed of
many things. But that now the Grand Master might do whatever seemed good
to him, only they prayed him to grant them the favour of sending two
among them as ambassadors to the Great Turk.'

This time the negotiations took longer than before, and after rejecting
the excellent terms Solyman had offered them in the first instance, the
Christians were not in a position to demand anything more than their
lives. The Sultan, however, was generous, and though his soldiers
cannot be said to have kept completely to the conditions of the treaty,
they confined themselves to pillaging the town, and offered violence to
nobody.

Thus ended on Christmas Day 1522 the famous Siege of Rhodes, after it
had lasted six months.





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