15 DECEMBER 1961, Page 22

Malta Preserved

FAILING in mind and hampered by paralysis, the aged Walter Scott visited Valletta for the first time shortly before his death. The subject of a last romance, The Siege of Malta, was in his head, and while he was being shown the sights of the city founded by the siege's survivors, be turned at one point to his guide. 'It will be hard,' he said, 'if I cannot make something of this.' He died with the work uncompleted, and what he would have made of it can only be con- jectured from the spars projecting from its wreck as it lies in the turgid waters of S. Fowler Wright's completed version. But as to the splen- dour and excitement of the subject itself there can be no doubt, and it is a matter for some surprise that so much time passed before another English writer chose to take it up.

Thanks to changes in the nature of warfare the Renaissance became increasingly a period of small battles and great sieges. It was after a lengthy and ferocious attack that the Knights of St. John were ejected from Rhcides by the Turks in 1522 and were forced to seek a new head- quarters. After that came a series of other great sieges: Vienna in 1529, Malta in 1565, Antwerp in 1585, Ostend from 1601 to 1604. The siege of Malta was not the longest nor, from a tech- nological point of view, the most interesting, but there is little doubt that it was the most dramatic and it is arguable that it was the most important.

No circumstance of drama was lacking. The Knights, who had made their home in Malta from 1530, were the only body in Europe to represent a supra-national militant Christianity, and though even then some of the order would have provided congenial material for M. Peyre- fitte, the heroism and self-sacrifice they showed has no parallel even in the age of the Crusades. Their adversaries, the Turks, were, too, a people of extraordinary interest. They were not yet automatically identified with inhuman cruelty, and the image of the Turkish State as sloth punc- tuated with ferocity lay far in the future. They were both feared and respected. Political writers praised the efficient organisation of their State. Soldiers envied the discipline and loyalty of their armies. Protestants could feel sympathy for an image-hating religion. While the theory of Chris- tendom permitted no fraternising with the infidel, in practice there were copious commer- cial and diplomatic contacts, culminating in the Franco-Turkish alliance of 1535. It was the attempt to preserve contact with their bases in the Western Mediterranean by breaking the Christian hold on Malta which did more than the capture of Constantinople, the storming of Belgrade or the threat to Vienna to bring home the Turkish menace to the European rulers who were so heavily preoccupied at home.

Beside the interest of a conflict between Crescent and Cross there was additional drama in the smallness of the defendinglarrisons, some 9,000, and the weight of the attack, pressed fanatically home by some 40,000 men. And the garrisons were so vulnerable; we must think away the vast accumulation of defensive works which makes Malta the most elaborate museum of gunpowder defence3 in the world; even when the Knights had improved the sketchy defences they found in the Grand Harbour, the pen- insulas of Senglea and Vittoriosa were only guarded by promontory forts and simple enceintes from creek to creek, and on the Valletta peninsula itself there was nothing but the small fort of St. Elmo.

Mr. Bradford tells plainly and movingly how the Knights defended these fortifications, assault after assault, until help at the last hour could come. He has followed the printed sources care- fully, he has not allowed romance to infiltrate his history, and his sailor's knowledge has proved helpful in explaining a number of hitherto obscure points of a nautical kind. He does not attempt to place the siege against its full Mediter- ranean setting or to claim that this is a defini- tive account of the operation itself, for which there is material still lying unexploited not only in the archives of the Knights but in contempor- ary news-sheets and diplomatic correspondence. He is guilty of some technical inaccuracies: 'the original plan of Fort St. Elmo, dated 1552' which he reproduces is, for instance, an eighteenth- century one, and his bibliography has some entries in which place names have become con- fused with surnames, but he has sensed a noble theme and can say, as poor Scott could not, that he has indeed made something of it.