The strange story book/The Siege of Rhodes

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illustrator: H. J. Ford


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 then' 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 Ægean 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

The strange story book color plate facing page 221.jpg

Discovering the Traitor.

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 now 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 on 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.