Jean Parisot de Valette: The Influential Grand Master who Shaped Malta’s History

A number of significant people left their irrevocable imprint on the colourful fabric of Malta’s illustrious history, influencing the course of this gem of the Mediterranean. None of these great figures is more illuminated than the fabled Grand Master, Jean Parisot de Valette.

Valette is revered for his unshakable leadership, strategic acumen, and undying devotion to his native nation. His legacy reverberates throughout the annals of Malta’s rich history. In this article, we set out on an intriguing trip to learn more about the extraordinary life and lasting influence of this historical character, who led Malta through a trying time and lay the groundwork for its ongoing success.

In Quercy, southwest France, Jean Parisot de Valette was born into the affluent La Valette family, a prominent one in France for many years with several relatives who took part in the Crusades. De Valette, the second son in his family, entered the Order of St. John as a knight of the Langue of Provence when he was 20 years old, and it is stated that after that day he never again visited France or his family properties.

Except for the fact that he took part in the Siege of Rhodes in 1522 and that he landed in Malta in 1530 along with the rest of the Knights, very little is known about his early years in the Order. At this point, his name starts surfacing more frequently in historical documents, albeit some of the details therein depict a slightly different portrait of the guy than what is typically given. De Valette received a huge accolade in 1554 when he was named Captain-General of the Order’s galleys, a significant position in which he continued to excel. So much so that on August 21, 1557, the Knights unanimously elected de Valette to succeed Grand Master Claude de la Sengle after the latter’s passing. 

During the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, he organised the defences of Malta, participated in the siege, and helped the island successfully fend off the Turks. The massively outnumbered Christians managed to hold out for more than three months during the siege against an Ottoman army that included at least 30,000 men, including Janissaries, and the Sultan’s fleet of about 193 ships.  After over a month of ferocious combat, the conflict witnessed the loss of Fort St. Elmo, but the Order was able to hold out in Birgu and Senglea until a rescue army came. In their first assessment of Saint Elmo’s defences based on interviews with locals and reconnaissance expeditions, Ottoman expert engineers predicted that the stronghold would be destroyed in three days.

He supervised the building of the new city of Valletta in 1566 during the lengthy siege and personally laid the foundation stone. This occurred on the slopes of Mount Sciberras, where the Turkish army’s brightest soldier had fallen while attempting to attack Fort Saint Elmo, which the Turks believed would fall within three or four days but which, because to the valour of the defenders, held out for 30 days. Humilissima Civitas Vallettae, the city that bears its founder’s name, rose to prominence as Europe’s most opulent and exclusive fortification. It is also known as “Superbissima” or the “Most Proud” city. The Maltese capital, Valletta, is still in existence today.

However, despite his popularity within the Order, it should be emphasised that the was not always so well-liked by the Maltese. He was viewed by many as being haughty and brutal to anyone who dared to disagree with him. One such incident included the Maltese physician Mattew Callus, a member of the Mdina Universita, who wrote the King of Spain about de Valette’s contentious choice to restrict the Universita’s authority and finances. Unfortunately for him, de Valette’s spies intercepted the letter before it could reach the King, which resulted in Callus’ death for treason. 

De Valette has been referred to as a man who kept his word, however it has been said that while he was on the island of Rhodes, he had a mistress named Catherine, who was known as Greque in Greek, and that they produced a son, Barthélemy de Valette. Bonello has discovered documentation that demonstrates Barthélemy was legitimated in 1568 by an order of King Charles IX of France.

The Grandmaster’s health rapidly depleted following the victory of the Ottomans. De Valette began acting erratically as a result of his growing paranoia that some of the knights were scheming to harm him. The brutal death of his daughter Isabella was what delivered him the final blow. Stefano Buonaccorsi, her Florentine husband, had grown obsessed with his wife’s alleged or actual adultery. On July 31, 1568, in a furious rage, he stabbed her to death before escaping from Malta with all of her assets.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, this most recent occurrence drove de Valette completely insane. Despite neither the offender nor the victim being members of the organisation, he called a meeting of the Order’s Council and enlisted the help of all its agents to conduct a manhunt to find Buonaccorsi. De Valette was cheated out of justice since the fugitive could not be located.

Exactly eleven years after becoming Grandmaster and less than a month after his daughter’s death, Valette had a stroke while praying in a chapel and passed away shortly after. He did so on August 21, 1568. De la Valette was never present when Valletta was finished. His sarcophagus-shaped grave may be located inside Valletta’s city walls in the Crypt of the Conventual Church of the Order, which is now St. John’s Co-Cathedral. It was then Grandmaster Pierre de Monte who took over, and he continued and finished building Valletta. 

Nonetheless, Jean de De Valette is deemed as an icon that shaped Malta’s history. Both the MV Jean de Valette, the flagship of Virtu Ferries, and a street in Naxxar bear his moniker. De Valette has also appeared on a variety of Maltese stamps, and banknotes.  A monument of the 49th and arguably most well-known Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. John was placed in Valletta’s newly inaugurated Pjazza Jean de Valette in 2012.