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Knights of St John

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Knights of St John
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Author(s): Augusta Theodosia Drane
Date Published: 2009/05
Page Count: 280
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-655-7
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-656-4

The Knights of the white cross

The Order of Knights Hospitallers—or Knights of St John—originated in the times of the Crusades in 1119, though the foundation of a hospital for pilgrims in Jerusalem can be dated to 600 AD. It rose to be one of the most powerful Christian groups in the Holy Land. Its actions against Muslim forces were legendary but eventually Islam drove Christianity out and the order retreated to Cyprus. In 1309 Rhodes was subdued and became the order's new home. Battles with Barbary Corsairs and the Ottoman Turks followed culminating in the great siege and defeat at Rhodes by Suleiman in 1522. Malta then became the headquarters and it too withstood a gruelling assault in 1565. Further action included a decisive sea victory against the Corsairs at Lepanto and this history concludes with the siege of Vienna as the Knights came to the end of their real influence and military power.

Foiled in his first attempts, the pasha now resolved on a night-attack, which was to be conducted with such secrecy and despatch, and with such ingenious contrivances to boot, as should secure both a surprise and a successful issue. A bridge was constructed to reach from the mainland which the infidels had occupied to the mole of St. Nicholas; and in the night an anchor was let fall close under the foot of the tower, and the floating point made fast to it by a strong cable; It happened, however, that a Christian sailor, one Rogers, an Englishman by birth, lying concealed near the spot, had observed the whole transaction;, and no sooner had the Turks withdrawn, than, plunging intrepidly into the sea, he cut the cable, and drew up the coil upon the strand. Thus was the design, entirely frustrated; for the bridge being cast loose from its fastenings, was speedily broken to pieces by the waves.<br>
But the pasha had caused a second to be constructed, which, being carried across in the stillness of the night, was made fast to the mole two hours before daybreak on the morning of the 9th of June; and while all was yet dark, the Turks began their noiseless passage over it; at the same time, a flotilla of light boats was sent to co-operate on the seaward side. So quietly was the manoeuvre effected, and such a perfect silence reigned throughout the Christian defences, that the Turkish commander flattered himself that his design was undetected. But D’Aubusson was ready for him; and while the Turks were preparing to make good their landing on the mole, behind the guns upon the wall stood his resolute cannoneers with matches burning; a steady line of muskets waited but the word to discharge their murderous hail in the faces of the foe; and from every more distant quarter whence the stormers could be reached, the guns on the ramparts had been brought to bear upon the point assailed. Suddenly, from the depth of the darkness there issued a very storm of fire, which earned death and dismay into the midst of the advancing columns. At the same moment the Rhodian fire-ships bore down upon the Turkish galleys; horrible was the confusion;—the roaring of the flames; the incessant cannonading; the fire-balls blazing and flaming; the yells of the combatants; the shrieks and groans of the maimed and the dying. On the mole, on the beaches, on the waters, the battle raged with most terrific fury.<br>
In spite of the tremendous fire poured on them from all sides, the infidels plant their ladders at the foot, and, brandishing their scimitars, scale the bastions. The assault is all along the front; the grand master stands at the breach, and around him his gallant knights, making a rampart with their bodies. The ladders are thrown down, only to be raised again by the determined foe; massive stones and boiling oil and streams of flaming fire are launched upon them,—still they press on; and those who are below in the boats and triremes discharge volley after volley of musketry and showers of arrows from their cross-bows at the knights, or endeavour with grappling-irons, which they throw upon the ramparts, to drag them down and stab them as they fall. The advantage, however, was with the Christians; and dawn disclosed to the Turkish commander the desperate condition of his troops,—the sea and the strand strewn with corpses, and the attacking columns everywhere giving way before the steady valour of the Christians. It revealed too, to the defenders, the floating bridge thronged with Turkish succours hurrying to the assault, and enabled them to point their guns immediately upon it, and shatter it to pieces.<br>
From near midnight to ten in the morning the attack and the defence endured with unabated fury; but at length the triumph of the knights was secured; every man who had mounted the mole was killed. In vain with menaces and wild entreaties the leaders urged their troops to sustain the contest; the rout was general and complete; the victorious knights precipitated their flying enemies from the mole, and pursued them even into the waters of the harbour. Conspicuous among the Christian combatants was Anthony Fradin, a Franciscan friar, as bold in fight as he was eloquent of speech, who, plunging shoulder-deep into the sea, with his own right hand struck off many a turbaned head. In this night-assault fell 2500 infidels, and among them their renowned commander, Ibrahim Bey, the sultan’s son-in-law. The loss on the Rhodian side was also great; and twelve of the brave knights of St. John were among the slain.<br>
But this repulse served only to rouse the fury of the vizier to a greater height. Since St. Nicholas had proved impregnable in its ruin, he directed his next attack against the city itself. It was so torn and shaken by the previous cannonade, that, to use the words of D’Aubusson, “it retained not the least resemblance to what it was.” The principal attack, however, was made on a portion of the walls which had remained as yet uninjured, in the Jewish quarter of the town, “Eight tremendous cannon, of the largest size ever seen, ceased not night and day from scourging those groaning flanks;” never for a moment was the hideous roaring of this artillery silenced; but whilst the walls gradually crumbled to pieces, the besieged, under the direction of the grand master, busily employed themselves in erecting new ramparts behind them, “planting stakes of thick green timber, and covering them, with earth and branches of stout tough underwood and thorns,”—a work which it seemed incredible should have been accomplished in so short a time. But everyone worked with equal ardour night and day.