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I've just finished reading Sword and Scimitar by Simon Scarrow and wanted to know more about the non-fictional characters in the Siege of Malta. Jean Parisot de La Valette was the Grand Master and he survived all hardships of the siege. He died in 1568, but I'm not sure how.

The Wikipedia article Jean Parisot de Valette says he had a stroke while praying in a chapel and then died a few days later on August 21. I was also reading the Great Siege of Malta article and it says something different – he died in a hunting accident. I also saw another article on de Valette at http://josfamilyhistory.com which just says he died peacefully (in his sleep?).

How did he die?

  • 2
    Interestingly, this book suggests that he died of 'coup-de-soleil', or 'sun stroke', but unfortunately also doesn't cite its source. – sempaiscuba May 18 at 13:34
  • Three excellent answers an hour after I posted the question. Thank you. – Stew May 19 at 8:32
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It seems that all those sources may preserve elements of how Jean Parisot de La Valette died.


In his 1864 history, The Knights of Malta, Whitworth Porter described La Valette's death as follows:

La Valette was struck down by a sunstroke whilst engaged in a hunting expedition. A violent fever followed, and after an illness of a month, he died on the 21st August, 1568. His body was, in the first instance, placed in the chapel attached to the castle of St. Angelo; but four days later, his successor having meantime been elected, a grand funeral cortege was formed for its transport to a small chapel which he had built and endowed in the new city, dedicated to Our Lady of Victory...

It is easy to see how 'sunstroke' might have become simply 'stroke' when the Wikipedia article was written, but other sources, for example A historic review of the Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and Malta, use the phrase 'coup-de-soleil', which might be more closely translated as 'sunburn' or 'sunstroke', rather than simply 'a stroke'.


There is a 17th century French translation of Giacomo Bosio's 1603 history of the order on archive.org. This is the earliest account of la Valette's death that I've been able to locate, and it appears to confirm the sunstroke story.

The relevant section appears on pages 605-606:

Le Grand-Maistre pour passerses ennuis s'estant recreé un iour au bosquet, alla voler la perdrix à la cale sainct Paul, où il sentit dé si grandes chaleurs, qu'il n'y eut chappeau ny umbclle qui peusl: empescher que le rayon du soleil ne penetrast & ne luy destrempast le cerueau: & le jour suiuaant 20 de Juillet 1568. sortant pour aller à sa chappelle, sut surpris d'une infirmité qui le fit tomber inopinément en terre. Apres relevé & porté en son lict, sut espris & detenu par l'espace de cinq jours d'une grosse fievre tierce, qui depuis se modera en simple tierce, ce qui donna quelque esperance de sa guarison. Toutessfois ayant eu aduis par une fregate mandée exprez par le Vice-roy, qu'il eust à se donner garde de l'armée Turquesque, ainsi qu'il estoit couché au lict , se sentant deschoir il manda les Seigneurs du Conseil, leur remit la charge des affaires, & les exhorta d'y veiller & de s'assembler souvent: & avoit encore le courage d'aller faire sa demeure à la Cité Valette.

Ceux du Conseil esleurent Anthoînette Pelecte Bailly de Venouse pour y commander en son lieu, ordonnerent cessation de toutes causes civiles, firent loger l'artillerie par toutes les postes, & coucher aux galeres tous les Chevaliers qui estoient de caravanne; firent autres diligences qui ne se trouverent necessaires, parce qu'il y eut nouvelle asseurée que Selim mandoit ses galeres en Egypte contre la rebellion des Arabes, & des Egyptiens ennemis ivrez des Turcs, qui avoient tué le Bascha, & sous la faveur des garnisons Portugaises logez par les rivieres de la mer rouge avoient sous levé & mis en tumulte & combustion toute la Province. Le Grand-Maistre voyant que sa maladie alloit au long, demanda permission de tester au Conseil, qui luy permit de disposer de quatre mil escus & de cinquante esclaves. Il nomma pour son Lieutenant le grand Commandeur de Glandeves. Ce qui sut approuvé & publié au Conseil à huys ouvert. Apres le Grand-Maistre manda dire au Conseil, qu'il pardonnoit à tous ceux qui l'avoient offensé, & qui avoient estlé condamnez & privez de l'habit, auquelil pouvoit pardonner. Ce qui fut par ordonnance du Conseil enregistré aux registres de la Chancelerie. Apres il se confessa & communia, & se sit tenir longuement à genoux devant le sainct Sacrement, l'adorant & priant la larme en l'œil. Et deslors n'eut point d'esperance ny de soucy de santé, & n'eut autre pensement ny autre discours que de fon ame. Toutes sortes de gens & tout le peuple faïsoient des prieres ardentes & processîons publiques pour sa fanté. Il dota de partie des quatre mil escus la chappelle de saincte Marie de la victoire, où il voulut estre enterré du reste il recompensa ses seruiteurs, & laissa sa despouïlle entière à la Religion, il exhorta les Seigneurs du Conseil à toute concorde & amitié, leur pardonna & les embrassa tous, donna son aduis fur l'election de son successeur en faueur d'Anthoine de Toledo Prieur de Castille. Il exhorta particulièrement ses nepueux & ses intimes à une devotion, patience, & humilité religieuse. Il loua & remercia Dieu des grâces qu'il luy avoit faict, & de tant d'honneur qu'il avoit acquis & reçeu durant tout le cours de sa vie. Il demanda longuement à Dieu misericorde & pardon de ses sautes, tenant & embraissnt les larmes aux yeux une piece de la vraye Croix. Et en ceste posture il rendit l'esprit à Dieu, en le priant de luy enuoyer un de ses Anges pour luy assister en ce départ, qui sut le 21 d'Aoust 1568, à trois heures de soleil, le mesme iout qu'il avoit esté esleu Grand-Maiftre.

Rough translation:

The Grand-Master, when bored, went to the grove to hunt partridge from the stock of St Paul. He felt hot but had no hat or umbrella to prevent the sun's rays from penetrating and destroying his brain. On the following day, 20 July 1568, while heading to chapel, he was overcome by an infirmity which caused him to fall unexpectedly to the ground. After being lifted and carried to his bed, he suffered a high fever for five days. The fever began to moderate giving some hope of a cure. However, even as he lay in his bed, he received a command from the Viceroy to defend against the Turkish army. In despair, he summoned the Lords of the Council, and handed command to them, exhorting them to deal with it. Even so, he had the courage to go and live in the City of Valette.

The Council raised Anthoinette Pelecte Bailly de Venouse in his place, and ordered the suspension of all civil matters. Artillery was mounted at all posts, and all the knights from the caravans slept by the galleys; but it turned out these were not necessary, because they received news that Selim had sent his galleys to Egypt against the rebellion of the Arabs and Egyptian enemies of the Turks, who had killed the Bascha. With the aid of the Portuguese garrisons based by the Red Sea they had raised the whole province in revolt.

The Grand-Master, seeing that his illness was not improving approached the Council, which allowed him to dispose of four thousand escus and fifty slaves. He named the great commander of Glandeves as his lieutenant. This was approved & published by the Council. After that, the Grand Master sent word to the Council, that he had pardoned all those who had offended him, and who had been condemned and deprived of the habit, to which he could forgive. This was recorded in the Chancellery registers by order of the Council. After taking confession and communion, he knelt before the Blessed Sacrament for a long time, worshipping and praying with tears in his eyes. As there was then no hope and no chance of health, he had no other thought or discourse than his soul. All the people prayed ardently and made public processions for his health. He endowed the chapel of Saint Marie de la Victoire, where he wished to be buried, with some of the four thousand escus, he paid his servants, and left his entire estate to the order.

He exhorted the Lords of the Council to all concord and friendship, forgave them, and recommended as his successor Anthoine de Toledo, Prior of Castile. In particular, he exhorted his nephews and his friends to devotion, patience, and religious humility. He thanked and praised God for the graces he had done him, and for all the honour that he had acquired and received during the whole course of his life. He begged God for mercy and to pardon his faults, while holding up a piece of the true Cross. In this position he returned his spirit to God, begging him send an angel to help him, on the 21st of August 1568, at three o'clock in the afternoon. The same time as he had been elected grand-master.


EDIT (19 May 2019)

From the comments below, @DenisNardin managed to find a copy of the original Italian version of Giacomo Bosio's Istoria Della Sacra Religione Et Illustrissima Militia Di San Giovanni Gierosolimitano, Volume 3 on Google Books.

To quote Denis,

The French translation seems a bit free but substantially faithful.

  • For what it is worth, the original Italian version is available on Google books. The French translation seems a bit free but substantially faithful – Denis Nardin May 19 at 7:17
  • @DenisNardin Good find. I missed that one (one of the pitfalls of working from a mobile phone with a small screen!) – sempaiscuba May 19 at 10:55
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Jean Parisot de La Valette developed a severe fever the day after he had been out hunting in extremely hot weather and never fully recovered. Valette, who was 73 at the time of his death, was also under considerable stress due to the responsibilities of being the Grand Master (he had been the subject of much recent criticism) and he had suffered a personal tragedy.


Bruce Ware Allen, in The Great Siege of Malta, citing an article in the Malta Medical Journal summarises:

On July 31, 1568, Valette’s (illegitimate) daughter was murdered by her jealous husband. It was a blow from which he never quite recovered. Some days later, while attempting to distract himself by hunting partridge with his falcons, he suffered a stroke....He died on August 21, the anniversary of his election as grand master,…

Roger Crowley, in Empires of the Sea gives a similar account, but mentions heat:

In July 1568, in the heat of a Maltese summer day, Jean de La Valette suffered a severe stroke as he was riding home from a day’s hawking in the woods.

Crawley does not mention sources but Allen's account is based at least in part on the article Grand Masters in the Cinquecento: their Persona & Death by Giovanni Bonello, except that Bonello does not actually say it was a stroke, nor that what ailed him materialised while he was out hunting.

Bonello, who consulted "the manuscript records of the Order of Malta" in the Archives of Malta as well as Giacomo Bosio's Istoria (Vol. III, Rome, 1602) goes into considerable detail (too lengthy to paste here). In short, a combination of criticism of his actions since the Great Siege of Malta, the murder of his (presumed) illegitimate daughter, and the after-effects of an extremely hot day while out hunting, proved to be more than his advancing years could support.

Bonello relates that Valette, to distract himself from the murder,

went to St Paul’s Bay, hunting for partridges with falcons. “The sun shone so ardente e piccante, that neither hats nor umbrellas could prevent it going through his brain and addling his mind. Next morning, wanting to hear mass in the palace chapel, he was suddenly attacked by a fiero e terribil accidente, that hurled him to the floor.

The implication here is sunstroke / heat stroke. Although his condition improved by August 5th,

on August 16 he was assailed by “a continuous and slow fever, which, working malignantly on the inside, was hardly perceptible on the outside”.

Valette realised he was dying, made another confession and his last will. He died on the morning of August 21st.

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    Calling that a “stroke” is a mistranslation. The English word “stroke” is a synonym of cerebrovascular accident. – Davislor May 18 at 20:10
  • 1
    @Davislor Noted and amended, thanks. – Lars Bosteen May 19 at 0:43
  • @Davislor The English word "stroke" is now a much better, or more narrowly, defined term than it used to be. That's precisely part of the (perceived) confusion that prompted the OPQ. – LangLangC May 19 at 16:15
  • @LangLangC Yes, but the cited secondary sources are from this century. – Davislor May 19 at 18:30
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The perceived discrepancies in question are not necessarily all too contradictory. Most accounts repeated elsewhere of this are very short and just leave out specifics. Further, earlier understandings of the medical reason side were probably hampered by basing a diagnosis on outdated medical knowledge.

If he went hunting and got a sun stroke, he didn't have to die immediately on the hunting grounds. We now know it can take quite long for the effects to result in death:

It was long believed that heat strokes lead only rarely to permanent deficits and that convalescence is almost complete. However, following the 1995 Chicago heat wave, researchers from the University of Chicago Medical Center studied all 58 patients with heat stroke severe enough to require intensive care at 12 area hospitals between July 12 and 20, 1995, ranging in age from 25 to 95 years. Nearly half of these patients died within a year – 21 percent before and 28 percent after release from the hospital.
WP: Heat stroke

One widely cited author writes on de Valette

In July 1568, three years after the siege, La Valette suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. His last few years had not been particularly happy. Apart from the pleasure of seeing his new city rising in white limestone blocks under the brilliant southern sun, his time had been taken up with resolving innumerable disputes among the young Knights who, when not absent on their caravans, found time heavy on their hands in the soft and indolent atmosphere of Malta.
Ernle Bradford: "The Shield and the Sword. The Knights of Malta", 1972.

While the German Wikipedia simply asserts:

Jean Parisot de la Valette […] died on 21 August 1568 during the prayer in the Fort St. Angelo in Birgu. Today it is believed that he died of heat stroke after a day of hunting.

But the source for that information is neither given directly, nor found in the references cited on that page.

The one source German Wikipedia gives just notes

J.P.V. died on 21 August 1568, a good three years after the siege, from the consequences of a stroke. Tade Matthias Spranger: "Jean de la Valette". In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Vol 17, Bautz: Herzberg 2000, Sp. 1448–1452.

A recent and very detailed account gives a convincingly complete picture:

What dealt him the last cruel blow was the murder, on July 31, 1568, of a young woman, very likely his illegitimate daughter. He had held Isabella Guasconi in baptism “because of a personal obligation” – (the statutes forbade knights acknowledging illegitimate offspring, and they circumvented this ban by standing as godfathers). This bellissima giovinetta married a Florentine, Stefano Bonacorsi. Claiming she was cheating on him, he murdered her, absconding immediately with all her jewellery and precious objects.

De Valette lost his mind in grief. He convened the Council in a matter with which the Council had nothing to do – neither the criminal nor the victim were members of the Order. This episode perturbed him profoundly “sentí un cordoglio grandissimo”. He never recovered. Within a couple of days he was seriously ill and three weeks later he died.

After Isabella’s murder, de Valette needed desperately some distraction to push back his overwhelming sadness. He went to St Paul’s Bay, hunting for partridges with falcons. “The sun shone so ardente e piccante, that neither hats nor umbrellas could prevent it going through his brain and addling his mind. Next morning, wanting to hear mass in the palace chapel, he was suddenly attacked by a fiero e terribil accidente, that hurled him to the floor. Having been straightened and carried to a bed, the faint receded, but a double terzana, took over and for four or five days so increased in fury, that the doctors started fearing for his life. Then the fever changed to a simple terzana and mitigated its rigour, so that it gave hope of a substantial recovery and health”.

In this condition, news reached him that the Turkish fleet had attacked Calabria and headed for Malta. The Grand Master summoned the elders to his bed chamber. He explained his state of health, delegated all his powers to the Council, and asked to be taken to the new city (Valletta) to be close to where things were happening.

On August 5, he seemed to be recovering sufficiently and asked permission to dispose of some slaves. Five days later he appointed Claude de Glandaves as his lieutenant and plenipotentiary, realizing that his illness would not be short. He granted a general amnesty to all knights who had been convicted and deprived of the habit.

Though hopes for his recovery increased, on August 16 he was assailed by “a continuous and slow fever, which, working malignantly on the inside, was hardly perceptible on the outside”. He now understood that his malady was mortal and sent for his confessor, although he had just confessed when he has struck. He got up from bed and knelt on a prie-dieu, “covered with velvet cushions” Bosio hastens to add. He received the Eucharist, then returned to bed “full of spiritual comfort and restored with corporal food”, giving himself up to his doctors, as he entertained no further hopes for recovery.

He then made his last will, leaving the ‘disposable portion’ to his new church of Our Lady of Victory in Valletta, which he had ordered to be built, and to his family and persons he loved, the rest, to the Order. He called the Councillors, embraced them all and asked forgiveness for any failing. He appealed to his nephew Cornisson “to accept God’s will and not to be saddened by his death”.

A multitude of sinister omens gave warning of his imminent death. A mysterious and deafening noise was heard in the sky “horrid … like a great concert of arquebus guns”. A large school of dolphins ran aground in Marsaxlokk. Then all his pets died together: his red parrot of which he was extremely fond, so red it looked like a ruby; his griffin, a personal gift from the King of France, and his lioness, so tame she often slept in his bedroom. The griffin and the lion stood as his heraldic symbols on his coat of arms. With all these portentous signs, the end was inevitable.

De Valette asked for extreme unction, and for a crucifix which contained a fragment of the vera crux. He kissed it repeatedly, all the time imploring the mercy of God, in between sospiri e sussulti. Without ever losing consciousness, he turned his eyes to heaven and said “Elas, mon Dieu, envuoye moy un de tes bons Anges, qui m’assiste en ceste extremite”.

Uttering Giesu Maria he died on August 21, three hours after sunrise, exactly on the anniversary of his election as Grand Master.

After the ritual cutting open and embalming, the body was dressed in the long robe and the manto di punta, and laid in the main hall of the St Angelo palace, on a funeral couch draped in black velvet with gold braid, close to the solid gold sword and dagger sent to him by Philip of Spain after the siege, now in the Louvre. Many torches lit the cataletto. “An infinite multitude of people came to pay their last respects, as he was by those loved like a true father”. Most moved of all appeared some old Rhodian and Maltese women to whom he had daily given alms. They tore out their hair and beat their breasts, raising a lamento compassionevole.

Giovanni Bonello: "Grand Masters in the Cinquecento: their Persona & Death", Historical Perspective, Malta Medical Journal Volume 15 Issue 02 November 2003 49. (PDF)

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