Papers of Interest
The Siege of Rhodes, 1522.
This little talk is a supplement to part of the Address just given - an added interest item. A little extra history concerning a significant event in the Order's annals.
Firstly, as we all know, our Masonic Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, Palestine, Rhodes and Malta has no historic link with the knights of old, there is no linear descent. Our ties are purely symbolic. Nevertheless, I am sure that those who formulated our Order's ritual - and, indeed, we ourselves, are suitably impressed and inspired by the virtues, good works, valour and the Christian Faith of those Knights of the olden days.
In the historic military order which had existed for a very long time - and our Masonic ritual gives a potted summary of events - there are bound to have been some epic chapters, milestones of their history, events of a heroic nature.
Now if we look at the two standards in the East of the Chapter House - that on the left the Standard of St. John, and that on the right of Malta - we see they both have the initials FERT. Now, whoever designed these standards considered these letters representative of something significant. They are, in effect, a permanent memorial to that "something". As you will recall from the ritual, we accept them "as standing for 'Fortitudine Ejus Rhodium Tenuit' meaning 'with courage he held Rhodes', and refer to the valour of the last Grand Master, de L'Isle Adam who held Rhodes for many years until basely betrayed by one of his own Knights". Yes, to the valour of de L'Isle Adam, and, by implication, to the men under his command - and this was at the great siege of Rhodes of 1522 when the island was "besieged by the Turks under the Emperor Soleyman the First" - Suliman the Magnificent, the Great Turk, the Scourge of Heaven!
Now lets go back a bit - the island of Rhodes is about 11 miles from the Turkish shore . In early times it was connected with the Byzantine Empire - by the fourteenth century, however, that empire was in a steady state of decay - and in 1310 (the island) "became the property of the forces of the Order". The Byzantine Empire collapsed in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Empire was in the ascendant, a rising super power. And it wanted to secure dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean, the only obstacle was Christendom's outpost in Rhodes - the Knights of St. John.
For many years Rhodes was under increasing threat of Turkish invasion. A major attempt to capture the island was made in 1480, but failed. It was only a matter of time before the Turks would come again. A formidable system of defences was constructed. The port city was protected by two and, in some places three, rings of stone walls and several large bastions. (As we learn from the ritual "the remains of the fortifications erected in Rhodes by the Knights still bear testimony to their architectural talent and their engineering ability".
Things came to a head in 1522, when the Ottoman Emperor Suliman attacked with such force as he hoped would secure the island once and for all for his empire.
In command on Rhodes was de L'Isle Adam - Philippe Villiers de L'Isle Adam: the 44th Grand Master of the Order, b. 1464. He had been elected to that Office only the previous year - it is relevant to mention there were three candidates at that election: de L'Isle Adam, Grand Prior of France - Andrea d'Amaral, Grand Prior of Castile and Grand Chancellor, and the Grand Prior of England. For various reasons d'Amaral, who was said to be an arrogant man, bore a grudge against De L'Isle Adam, and seriously thought that he should have been the new Grand Master instead. This was not to bode well for the future.
De L'Isle Adam had under his command very approximately 7,000 fighting men (statistics in those days were not very precise), of whom about 600 were members of the Order.
Suliman had amassed a fleet of 400 ships and a huge army of around 100,000 men (some say 200,000!), and these began to cross over from the mainland towards the end of June, 1522.
He did not have an easy task before him. It would take a long time to breach those thick walls; it would be a campaign of attrition. Rhodes harbour was blockaded, an intensive artillery bombardment began, and regular raids were made against the various defences. In an attempt to undermine the fortifications tunnelling and mining operations were commenced. These began to have their effect. Breaches were made, and several massive attacks were made; the Turks, however, who, in spite of overwhelming numbers, were driven back for the time being. Often, where the fighting was thickest, de L'Isle Adam was to be found under the Banner of the Cross leading the defenders from the front. He was a very brave man, and leader of men.
As the months passed morale began to fall on both sides. Suliman, having lost many thousands on the battlefield and from disease, was beginning to wonder if he could ever take the city and island. And the number of Christian defenders was continually dwindling to be almost insufficient effectively to defend the walls for much longer. And there was no prospect of reinforcements. Pleas for help from Europe had fallen on deaf ears. And other problems were to trouble the defenders.
There were spies in both camps. There was certainly more than one in Rhodes city. A man called Blaise Diaz, a servant of Andrea d'Amaral, the man who had a grudge against the Grand Master, was seen on several occasions at unsocial hours going to the ramparts, and firing arrows with messages towards the Turks. Diaz was arrested, and interrogated under duress - on the rack. He soon confessed that it was his master who ordered him to send the messages. D'Amaral was then arrested, and was also interrogated under duress - severely, but confessed nothing (there is no doubting his courage). It seems surprising that a Knight who had served the Order for more than 40 years - since the days of the defence of Rhodes in 1480 - should now betray it to the Turks. But the evidence seemed stacked against him, and both he and Diaz were executed. Even now there is some question his guilt. Inevitably, that such a senior Knight could be executed for treason did not help the Order's morale.
Suliman persevered with the siege, and it was only a matter of time before the city should fall.
Many of the Knights were willing to fight to the end like their valiant forebears in the Holy Land, but another factor to consider was the civilian population. Suliman had said if he took the place by storm he would put the entire population to the sword, or sell it into slavery. For the Knights it would have been a glorious defeat, and also most certainly the end of the Order.
De L'Isle Adam was able negotiate a conditional surrender with Suliman whereby the rights of the civilian population should be respected, and the surviving Knights (and any civilians who wished to do so) could leave, and, indeed, the surviving garrison "was permitted to depart with all the honours of war".
Rhodes - the Order's home for over 200 years - was lost. The siege had ended in defeat. But the defence had been long and heroic, a tiny force had held at bay a huge well provided army for six months. The courage of the defenders under the inspiring leadership and valour of de L'Isle Adam deserve to have a permanent memorial on the two standards in the East of the Chapter House.
(As a comment, our ritual tells us de L'Isle Adam was the last Grand Master "who held Rhodes for many years …". He was elected Grand Master in 1521; and departed the island on 1st January, 1523. Thus he was there in that office for less than two years.)
And in postscript, we know that after the evacuation the Knights "found refuge in the island of Candia (Crete) and elsewhere" - with de L'Isle Adam still as their leader. In fact, they had a somewhat nomadic existence for several years. Their future was uncertain. The Order needed to rebuild and recruit, and find a new home, not an easy task. Even in the 16th century, the idea of crusading warrior monks dreaming of the Holy Places, or even just a return to Rhodes, was becoming archaic. Certainly some of the western Christian states were establishing profitable trading ties with the Ottoman Empire, and they were not going to put them at risk.
However, the Order held together under the determined leadership of de L'Isle Adam, and as we read in the ritual "in 1530, the Emperor Charles V (of the Holy Roman Empire) ceded the Island of Malta to the Order". De L'Isle Adam died in 1534.
The Island of Rhodes remained part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912 when it was captured by the Italians during the Italo-Turkish War.
So when you see the letters FERT on the two Standards, I hope they will now have a greater significance for you.