The Sieges of Rhodes: Print and Propaganda

Museum of the Order of St John Barbara Packard, Collections Volunteer

The Order of St John faced two sieges of their island stronghold of Rhodes, in 1480 and again in 1522. A significant amount of literature was generated following these battles with the Ottoman Empire. How did the knights choose to portray themselves and their vocation in light of these crises? The Order made good use of the new technology of the printing press in an attempt to control its image. They aimed to elicit aid, influence popes and kings, and inspire others to support their cause. Aware of the fragility of their position on Rhodes, they were not just writing for posterity, but as a matter of survival.


Nearly 400 years earlier, in 1096, the armies of the First Crusade had set out to capture Jerusalem. Four arduous years later the city was theirs. This became the first of many expeditions to the Holy Land. The idea of crusading grew significantly following the First Crusade. Crusading was soon extended into other theatres of war, including Iberia, and pagan areas of the Baltic region. It began to be defined more broadly as a defence of the faith against the enemies of Christ be they Muslims, pagans, heretics, or political opponents of the papacy.

The military orders, which emerged from the success of the First Crusade, initially aimed to protect and care for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. As the idea of crusading developed, the role of the orders evolved. They began to play a major role in the defence of the Holy Land and the extension of the borders of Christianity in both East and West.

The military orders were a new and rather radical innovation in the twelfth century. While the idea of holy war already had a long history, this type of justified violence had only recently become more acceptable. This was in part thanks to the outcome of the First Crusade and the portrayal of deceased participants as martyrs.

The Order of St John traces its origins to the founding of the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem in the mid eleventh century. Founded to care for poor and sick pilgrims, the Order appears to have become involved in some military activities by the mid 1130s. It may have been seen as a natural extension of their duty to care for pilgrims. But the exact timing and reasons for their militarisation are unclear.

The knights of St John of Jerusalem were not technically crusaders. While they had kept the name ‘Hospitallers’, when the Order also become militarised it was expected that the knights should wage constant war against ‘infidels’. With limited resources and support, this ideal was impractical and impossible to sustain.

The Order developed a relatively poor reputation in Europe, where the situation in the East was not well understood. The knights did not write their own history. Up until the 1400s they did not generally publicise their own achievements or report their battles to a wider audience. This contributed to the somewhat negative view of the Order in the West.

The armies of the First Crusade had included a broad cross section of society, from Duke to peasant. By the 1400s, however, crusading was increasingly undertaken by paid, professional armies, in which the military orders often played an important role. The nature of warfare in general had changed much since 1096, becoming more professional and more expensive. This was now the age of gunpowder and canon.

A New Land

The states established in the wake of the First Crusade did not last long. The last Christian footholds in the Holy Land were lost in 1291. For the military orders this meant that they now needed to justify their existence. As defenders of the faith they could not appear to be idle. The Order of St John began by looking for a new a base from which to operate. After a period on Cyprus, they took Rhodes in 1309. Rhodes was in a good strategic position as a base for military action against the coast of Turkey and control of the Aegean Sea. This allowed the knights to present themselves as militarily active and establish themselves as defenders of the faith at the edge of Christendom. However, they did not use their base on Rhodes to actively crusade against Muslim powers. The Order did not have an overriding, long term plan. They followed the lead of popes or kings rather than take the initiative themselves. The forces on Rhodes were small and could not initiate and carry out large campaigns alone. The Order chose to enhance its fortifications and maintain a small fleet, a policy better suited to protecting trade than conquest. They policed a ban on trade with the Turks, collected information on Turkish ships and gathered intelligence. The crusade became a defensive war against the Ottoman Turks rather than an effort to reclaim the Holy Land.

Printing Forgiveness  

In 1096 Pope Urban II had granted those joining the First Crusade an indulgence, that is forgiveness of sins, for undertaking the difficult journey. The medieval period was a deeply religious age; people were worried about the effects of sin and the afterlife. The crusade offered a new form of salvation.

However, by the 1400s, the relationship of most people with the crusade had become financial rather than military. The Church increasingly granted indulgences in return for donations rather than for actual participation in a crusade. The sale of indulgences helped the papacy to raise revenue for expeditions and to provide funds for professional armies and the military orders.

There was, nevertheless, enthusiasm across Christian Europe for news of the fight against Islam. Works of crusading history, along with indulgences, were among the earliest items to be produced by the new printing presses.

Pardon and Profit

In 1480 the knights Hospitaller were quick to take advantage of the new technology of printing. Facing a major siege of their island head-quarters on Rhodes, by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Mehmed II, Pope Sixtus issued an indulgence on behalf of the Order for the defence of Rhodes. His letter declaring the indulgence was widely distributed.

Pope Sixtus' letter of indulgence for the defence of Rhodes, printed in Speyer on 1480
Pope Sixtus, Letter of Indulgence, Speyer, 1480 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

Pope Sixtus IV’s 1480 offer of indulgence for the defence of Rhodes was among the first campaigns to generate printed documents. Printers were commissioned to produce batches of indulgence forms, leaving blank spaces for the recipient’s names to be filled in at the time and place of sale. For the Church, printing saved a lot of time and effort copying thousands of identical letters, which helped to maximise profits. Indulgences were also profitable for the earliest printers, and the indulgence forms they produced did not go unused.

Indulgence forms for the defence of Rhodes printed in Augsberg in 1480
Indulgence forms for the defence of Rhodes, Augsberg, 1480 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

Past Ideal

A fresh surge of interest in crusading was created partly through the new medium of print. Printing brought crusading texts, as well as awareness of more recent battles, to a larger portion of the populace than before. Among the early printed texts was the work of William of Tyre. William, Archbishop of Tyre (1170 – 85) and Chancellor of Jerusalem (1170 – 74), was a historian and author of an influential history of the Latin east. His work included an account of the First Crusade and the origins of the Order of St John. Writing between 1170 and 1184, his text was widely circulated in Europe, and was extended and translated by later writers. The popularity of William’s history continued into the age of print. Through the production of such texts, printers emphasised the continuity of contemporary holy warfare with the crusading past. These texts promulgated crusading ideology by holding up the example of the past as an ideal to be emulated.

close up of William of Tyre's Historia Ierosolimitana, printed in Basle in 1549
William of Tyre, Historia Ierosolimitana, Basle, 1549 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

Under Siege

The long reign of Sultan Mehmed II (1451-81) was one of almost relentless expansion for the Ottoman Empire. A series of successful conquests had placed the Ottoman Sultanate in a strong position, and able to pose a significant threat to central and eastern Europe. This was not an Islamic power operating hundreds of miles to the East, but on the very edge of Christian Europe. In their position as defenders of Christianity, the knights of St John had been expecting an attack on Rhodes since the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) to Mehmed II in 1453.  Commanded by Mesih Pasha, the Ottoman forces that arrived at Rhodes in May 1480 had perhaps 10,000 – 15,000 men, as well as heavy artillery. The Hospitallers of Rhodes had about 300 knights. Even with mercenaries and the town militia, Rhodes would have had no more than 3500 defenders in all. The siege lasted three months (May – August 1480). It was the inspirational leadership of Hospitaller Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson, and the work carried out on Rhodes’ fortifications by d’Aubusson and his predecessors, that allowed the Order to hold off the Ottoman attack. The Turkish forces were also overstretched in 1480, campaigning on a number of fronts. Mehmed may have been planning a second siege, commanded by himself, when he died in 1481.

Printing Prestige

The successful defence of Rhodes allowed the knights of St John to portray themselves as the bulwark of Christendom. The Order was able to exploit the new technology of the printing press to increase its prestige. Guillaume Caoursin, vice-chancellor of the Order, produced an eyewitness account that was printed within months of the end of the siege. The text aimed to win Christendom’s support for the Hospitallers in the fight against the Turks. It was part of a body of diplomatic materials that d’Aubusson and Caoursin created and circulated throughout Europe to raise funds to defend Rhodes. They were expecting another siege and this was part of their continuing efforts to safeguard the island.

Caoursin’s work became a best seller, with many editions and translations into several languages. Multiple editions and translations may have been a deliberate policy to reach a wide audience, and generate propaganda on behalf of the Order.

Visions of Divine Favour

In his account of the siege of Rhodes, Caoursin ascribed the ultimate victory to God. He reported that, in the final battle, a vision of a splendid golden cross and a virgin all in white carrying a shield and spear had terrified the enemy and prevented their advance. ‘How else’ he wrote, ‘could so small an army overcome such a powerful enemy … unless divine providence protected it?’ He depicted his subject as a contest between good and evil, demonstrating that the knights had God’s favour.

Guillaume Caoursin's Descriptio obsidione Rhodiae printed in Ulm in 1496
Guillaume Caoursin, Descriptio obsidione Rhodiae, Ulm, 1496 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

Using the Pen to Pay for the Sword

As Grand Master of the Order, Pierre d’Aubusson used all the tools at his disposal to defend Rhodes. The written word was a significant weapon in his arsenal. After the siege, d’Aubusson sent ambassadors to Pope Sixtus IV to request help for subsequent campaigns. He also corresponded with the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III. D’Aubusson’s letters to the pope and emperor were soon published. This correspondence aimed to increase the profile of the Order and demonstrate that crusading could be successful and therefore deserved to be properly funded.

Pierre d’Aubusson's letter to Emperor Frederick III, printed in Strasbourg in 1480
Pierre d’Aubusson, Letter to Frederick III, Strasbourg, 1480 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

Law and Order

The constant threats to Rhodes required the careful maintenance and renewal of authority. Guillaume Caoursin’s revision of the statutes, or legislation, of the Order intended to strengthen discipline and improve funding and economy within the Order. Caoursin also included a brief history of the origins of the Order in the revised statutes, which highlighted the establishment of the hospital in Jerusalem. This was a reminder that the Order also had a charitable function. The knights did not see themselves purely as warriors; Rhodes was a land of refuge for all and their hospitable activities were still important.

Guillaume Caoursin's Stabilimenta Rhodiorum militum printed in Ulm in 1480
Guillaume Caoursin, Stabilimenta Rhodiorum militum, Ulm, 1480 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

Between War and Peace

The death of Sultan Mehmed II in 1481 led to civil war in the Ottoman Empire. The knights of St John were safe for the moment, but aware of their vulnerable position on Rhodes. The period 1481-1521 was nevertheless one of relative peace and good relations between the Order and the Ottomans. The crusade ideal proved impractical; entrenched political divisions in Europe meant it was impossible to unite western powers under the banner of a crusade, and the Order did not have the resources to fight alone. However, the Order did maintain some level of activity against the Ottomans in the form of the corso, the piracy that it licensed. This was carefully controlled to protect trade within the Order’s own territory and inflict damage on key Turkish concerns, such as the provisioning of Constantinople. The corso also served to show the West the knight’s commitment to the fight against Islam; a small scale relentless war against the enemies of the faith. However, the practice also made the expulsion of the Order from Rhodes a natural goal of the Ottoman Sultanate. The relative peace ended when Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66) ascended to the Ottoman throne in 1520. He needed victories to consolidate his authority. Having captured Belgrade in 1521, Suleiman turned his attention towards Rhodes, hoping to succeed where his great-grandfather had failed.

The Balance of Power

The Order’s survival on Rhodes traditionally owed much to the rivalry between the Ottoman Turks and the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt. The Order had often been able to play one side off against the other. By 1516 – 17, however, the Ottomans were increasingly successful against the Mamluks, ultimately destroying their rivals. This caused Grand Master Fabrizio del Carretto to become greatly concerned for the safety of Rhodes. He wrote to the pope and to the king of France expressing doubt that he could successfully defend Rhodes against a Turkish attack. A long-awaited expedition of Christian powers against Turks would be necessary to save Rhodes. Ottoman victories in the Middle East had altered the balance of power in favour of the Turks, leaving the knights dependent on their walls and artillery. These alone would not be sufficient to save them.

A Plea for a Crusade

In his letter to the French king, Francis I (1515-47), in 1517, Grand Master Fabrizio del Carretto tried in vain to convince the monarch that the time was right to launch a new crusade. In spite of the Grand Master’s assertion that the king would gain eternal merit before God and immortal praise in the world, his plea for aid on behalf of Rhodes likewise proved fruitless. King Francis was more concerned about his rivalry with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Italian wars than he was about the Ottoman Turks.

Fabrizio del Carretto's letter to the king of France in 1517
Fabrizio del Carretto, letter to Francis I, King of France, 1517 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

Fighting Alone

The second Ottoman siege of Rhodes began in July 1522. Once again the Order was heavily outnumbered. The Grand Master, Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam, was better placed to withstand the assault than d’Aubusson had been in 1480, but he could expect no help from Europe. It soon became clear that the Ottoman forces intended to stay the winter if necessary. With no aid arriving, morale in Rhodes began to flag. Rumours of treachery were rife in the town. The Grand Chancellor of Order, Andrea d’Amaral, was the most prominent of those accused of sending information to the enemy. He was tried and hanged. He had refused to confess even under torture and it is possible he was used as a scapegoat.

At the end of October Sultan Suleiman I offered peace terms but the Grand Master refused. However, the people of the town pleaded with him to reconsider. Without hope of relief and with dwindling resources, the Grand Master finally made the decision to save the lives of his brothers and people rather than continue what appeared to be a hopeless defence. On 18th December he surrendered the town to the Sultan. The Order left Rhodes in the first days of the new year, 1523.

A Heroic Struggle

Following the loss of Rhodes, the Order published several accounts of the siege. Like Caoursin in 1480, they recounted a heroic struggle against the Ottoman forces. This time, however, the battle had been lost. The defeat had the weakened Order and they now needed a new base on which to establish their headquarters. The king of France was considered a key political partner in restoring the power of the knights. But the crusade was no longer on the agenda for France. Since the fall of Rhodes, the rivalry between King Francis and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had intensified. In 1525, Francis was captured and imprisoned. This crisis encouraged cooperation between France and the Ottoman Empire, as a means of opposing Charles V.

While the Order had directly addressed and flattered Francis, hoping for support, the monarch did not respond to their requests. On the contrary, it was to be Charles V who would give the knights their new base in Malta in 1530.

Sharing the Blame

In his eyewitness account of the siege, Jacques de Bourbon denounced Christian princes for being too preoccupied with their own wars and for abandoning Rhodes to its fate. As such, he argued, they also bore responsibility for the defeat. The knights, on the other hand, were living examples of the force that should be applied against the Turkish foe. However, Bourbon’s portrayal of the Ottoman Sultan was remarkably moderate, and at times even admiring. The publication of Bourbon’s text coincided with the defeat and imprisonment of King Francis and the subsequent rapprochement with Suleiman the Magnificent. The political situation at the time may have encouraged Bourbon’s positive portrayal of the Sultan. In Bourbon’s text the real enemies were the traitors. The wars between Christians, reflected in the treason of Andrea d’Amaral, were more problematic than the Ottoman ‘enemy’.

Title page of Jacques de Bourbon's La grande et merueilleuse et trescruelle oppugnation de la noble cite de Rhodes, printed in Paris in 1525
Jacques de Bourbon, La grande et merueilleuse et trescruelle oppugnation de la noble cite de Rhodes, Paris, 1525 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

In Praise of Valour

Jacques Fontanus, a judge of the Appellate Court of Rhodes, was also an eyewitness and participant of the siege. His text aimed primarily to praise the Grand Master and the knights of the Order – their courage and tenacity. To this end he listed the names of all those taking part in the action, the role they played in the combat, the wounds they received, whether they died. He stressed the valour of the knights. Rhodes had not been taken lightly or easily.

Jaqcues Fontanus' De Bello Rhodio Libri Tres, printed in Rome in 1527
Jaqcues Fontanus, De Bello Rhodio Libri Tres, Rome, 1527 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

A Bid for Survival

Thomas Guichard was elected vice-chancellor of the Order just as the knights left Rhodes. He gave a speech before the pope on behalf of the Order, which was published in 1524. His text, like those of Bourbon and Fontanus, aimed to attract the attention of those with power and influence. Towards the end of his treatise, Guichard requested that the pope encourage Christian princes to show favour to the knights. The texts of Bourbon, Fontanus and Guichard aimed to raise the profile of the Order, and also regain a base from where the knights could, again, launch an assault against ‘infidels’. Rhodes might be lost, but not the Order, or the fight against the enemies of Christ.

Thomas Guichard's Oratio .... coram Clemente VII Pont. Max., printed in Rome in 1524
Thomas Guichard, Oratio …. coram Clemente VII Pont. Max., Rome, 1524 ©MOSJ/Barbara Packard

Print and Propaganda

Increased awareness of the importance of text and the utility of propaganda seems to have followed the introduction of printing. The Order made good use of the new technology following both the 1480 and 1522 sieges. The texts they produced aimed to promote the Order, as well as control the image of the knights that was presented to rest of Europe. The texts appear to have been well received, appearing in numerous editions and translations. There was a market for accounts of contemporary battles against the Turks, even if the majority of people no longer actually participated in crusading. The primary message that the Order wished to convey was that they still played a key role in the defence of Christian Europe, and they were still relevant as an organisation. They were Christendom’s protection against Ottoman expansion. However, while there was interest in the crusade, and even earnest negotiations at the European courts to coordinate efforts, political divisions meant there was never any real chance of an effective expedition taking place. Several of the texts produced by the Order at this time also pointed to the Order’s charitable and medical activities. Their role as ‘Hospitallers’ was still an important part of their vocation. And this was also part of the image the Order wished to portray about themselves.


woodcut illustration of Guillaume Caoursin writing his history
Guillaume Caoursin writing his history


A bibliography of the works consulted for the exhibition and blog can be downloaded here.

Latest blog posts