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E - 50 : Jean Parisot de Valette - the Man and the Legend

Updated: May 31, 2021

There are few people who have a capital named after them. President Washington comes to my mind as does Jean Parisot de Valette. When someone achieves such prominence, the biographic details usually disappear into the realm of myths. In the case of Jean de Valette, we hear that he joined the Knights of St John at the age of 20, had a reputation as a fearsome warrior, defended the principles of the Knights ferociously, defeated the Turks at the siege of Malta in 1565 and was so modest that he declined the Pope’s offer to become cardinal. There are big gaps in his CV though.

Jean Parisot de Valette as Grand Master of the Knights of St John

As expected, finding out is not easy. Asking not-asked questions provides clues. Was it really his sheer sense of duty that never allowed him to visit his home in France again and see his family? I know of nobody who does this. Did something happen he could never forgive?

Born into a family of land gentry who lived 85 km NE of Toulouse, Jean de Valette was one of ten children. Comparing marriage date and his birth certificate, he was one of the younger, if not the youngest child. His ancestors fought in the crusades and served the French Kings as captains and men of arms. His father Guillot 1er was the Baron of Boismenon and Cornusson, and a member of the wider French Court.

Jean de Valette's birthplace just south of the Auvergne

As usual, land and title went to the oldest brother, Guillot II. Another brother, Francois 1er de Valette-Cornusson became bishop of Vabres nearby. His sisters were married off to other noblemen. There was nothing left for little Jean Parisot. I assume his parents gave him away at a young age to the Knights of St John. Whilst the order had its headquarters in Rhodes, several Knights lived around Toulouse which was an important recruiting center for the Langue de Provence – one of the Order’s seven chapters.

In 1514, just 20 years old, we find Jean Parisot as a young Knight in Rhodes. Nobody became a knight just because of his dad though. The title had to be earned. The career of any knight started at seven as a page. The young boys lived in a knight’s households and learned how to hunt, fight, looking after horses, serving in church, learning the code of chivalry, and maintaining weapons and armor. Academic studies were not part of the CV. By the age of 15, the pages got elevated to Squire and now had the right to wear their own armor. Squires had to master seven agilities before being knighted at the age of 20: Riding, swimming, shooting, wrestling, fencing, long jumping and dancing.

As a Knight of St John, Jean Parisot must have sworn eternal allegiance to the order vowing poverty, chastity, and obedience. He was not one of the hired secular knight who served only for a limited time. He was one of the core 500 knights of the Order.

The Ottoman Siege of Rhodes in 1522 - after 6 months the Knights surrendered the town

We know that Jean Parisot was taken prisoner during the siege of Rhodes in 1522. His captor was Turgut Reis (Dragut), a corsair from the North African coast and later Commander-in-Chief of the Ottoman Fleet. Turgut Reis must have patrolled the waters around Rhodes where he maintained a naval blockade to prevent relief forces from re-supplying the Knights. In October 1522 a few Christian ships loaded with food, weapons and ammunition had broken through. Seams Jean Parisot was one of these blockade runners. When the 158 surviving Knights departed Rhodes after the honorable surrender of the town in December 1522, Jean Parisot was released by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent as well. Jean Parisot de Valette and Turgut Reis would meet again.

For the next 15 years, we know nothing. Jean Parisot settled with the Knights in 1530 in Malta, the tiny island received from Charles V, the Spanish King, for a concession of one Maltese Falcon. Upon their arrival, the Knights of St John resumed the raiding of Muslim shipping lines and fortified the Grand Harbor using the latest military technology available. The loot from the raids was big – they could afford a massive construction effort. Fort San’Angelo was converted into a Renaissance citadel, the towns of Birgu, Senglea and M’dina surrounded with modern bastions.

In 1538, we find Jean Parisot’s name in the Order’s records. He was sentenced to four months in prison having severely beaten up a lay member of the order. Seems Jean Parisot had quite a temper. We know nothing about the dispute. He was thrown into a dungeon in Gozo, the smaller of the two Maltese islands, and survived on water and bread.

The incident did not hamper his career though. Three years later, in 1541, we find him on his own galley on the barbary coast fighting a naval battle with Abdur Rahman Kust Aly, a highly skilled corsair. Jean Parisot was wounded and captured with the San Giovanni. He ended up as galley slave in the Ottoman fleet. By sheer coincidence, the man who captured him before Rhodes, Turgut Reis (Dragut), was also a galley slave at the time. Caught by Andrea Doria in 1540 off the coast of Corsica (D + 10 ), Dragut was released 4 years later for a large ransom. Jean Parisot was luckier. He was part of an earlier prisoner swap in 1542.

The episode offers us another glimpse into Jean Parisot’s life. He was the owner of two war galleys which cost 750 pounds sterling silver to operate per year. This was equivalent to the price of 10 spacious London houses fully staff. Our hero was rich. (see for comparison D - 47 where I tried to calculate the value of a galley in today's money). I guess his wealth was the result of decades of raiding. As a rule of thumb, captains could keep up to 25% of prize money. Being a Knight of St John was a lucrative business indeed.

The Town of Tripoli with Castle and Port during the time of the Knights of St John

In 1546, the Order appoints him Jean Parisot as Governor of Tripoli on the Libyan coast. Many saw this appointment as a suicide command. For Jean Parisot it was one of the challenges he liked. He was Governor for three years, convinced his boss to send him 50 additional Knights and allocate 7’000 pounds sterling to modernize the town walls. The ship transporting the silver was captured by Turgut Reis however and the plans came to nothing. Eventually, Turgut, his nemesis, captured Tripoli in 1560.

The Grand Master in Malta appreciated Jean Parisot’s skills and tenacity. In 1554, he was appointed Captain General of the Knights’ galleys. His extensive naval experience earned him this command. Given the command to a representative of the Langue de Provence instead of the Langue des Italians who usually held the post was a special honor.

We all know that Jean Parisot de Valette became the Order’s Grand Master in 1557 and that he orchestrated Malta’s defense during the Ottoman siege in 1565. The story has been told many time – I covered it in E - 150. Wikipedia has an excellent summary.

Tactical Situation of the Two Forces during the Siege in 1565

Once the siege was over, the Knights decided to fortify Mount Sciberras from where the Ottoman Artillery had so heavily bombarded Birgu and Senglia. Upon further deliberations, the plan was expanded. A new and spacious Renaissance town named La Valetta in Jean Parisot’s honor should be built instead.

La heavly fortified La Valetta built around the Grand Harbor

Jean Parisot died from a sun stroke in 1568 before the town was finished. But most likely he died of grief. His beloved daughter Isabella was slain by her jealous husband 10 days earlier. This brings us to the last aspect of Jean Parisot de Valette’s life. There is sufficient evidence that he had two daughters and a son and at least two long-term relationships with women of high rank. In this respect, he was no different from all the other church princes.

With this extra information, the fog over Jean Parisot de Valette’s life lifts. He was a self-made man who never got anything for free. He joined as a young boy the only organization that offered him a future and was fiercely loyal to the end of his days. He was a brilliant tactician, took enormous personal risk and was determined leader. He was a professional soldier who understood all aspects of Renaissance warfare – guns, fortification, war galleys, logistics. During his career he became wealthy. But he did never display it. He used it to further the cause of the Knight of St John - his real family.

The end of the Siege - Jean Parisot de Valetta is the person wearing the white cross tunica

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1 Comment

Danica H
Danica H
Jul 15, 2023


This is a very interesting story.

What is the source for the blockade running during the siege of Rhodes during 1522?

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