The Valette family had been an important one in France for many generations, various members having accompanied the Kings of France in the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Crusades. Jean Parisot's grandfather, Bernard de Valette, was a Knight and King's Orderly, and his father Guillot was a Chevalier de France. Jean Parisot was a distant cousin (through their mutual ancestor Almaric de Valette) of Jean Louis de Nogaret de La Valette, first Duke of Epernon.
Little is known about Valette's early life, although he was present during the Great Siege of Rhodes in 1523, and accompanied Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, after the Order's expulsion from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
Universally referred to as "La Valette," he was never actually called that during his lifetime. He was simply Jean de Valette, nicknamed Parisot. (The mistake arose some decades after his death when people began to confuse him with the city named in his honor, "La Citta Valletta.") Although his birth year is usually given as 1494, both chroniclers of the Great Siege of Malta, Francisco Balbi di Correggio and Hipolito Sans, say he was 67 at the time, thereby implying that he was born in 1498. In his history of the Order of St. John, the 18th-century historian Abbe Vertot (whose history is largely based on - but often confuses - the earlier one of Giacomo Bosio) indicates that Valette was indeed the same age as both Suleiman I and Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha (the commander of the Ottoman land forces), which would mean that he was actually 70 years old at the time of the siege.
In 1538, while on Malta, Valette was sentenced to four months in a guva (a hole in the ground) on Gozo for nearly beating a layman to death, and he was subsequently exiled to Tripoli for two years to serve as military governor. Upon his return he was punished again for bringing a nigro slave not liable for servitude. In 1541 he was captured and made a galley slave for a year by Barbary pirates under the command of Turgut Reis. In 1554 Valette was elected Captain General of the Order's galleys. This was a great honour to the Langue of Provence, as throughout most of the Order's history, the position of Grand Admiral was usually held by a Knight Grand Cross of the Italian Langue. In that capacity he won a name that stood conspicuous in that age of great sea captains, and was held in the same regard as the Chevalier Mathurin Romegas - one of the greatest Christian maritime commanders of the age. In fact both sides had extremely talented sailors. If Valette, Romegas and Juan de Austria could be considered the best commanders that the Christian forces could bring to the sea, the forces of Islam were able to call on the equally outstanding maritime and leadership skills of admirals such as Barbarossa and Dragut. In 1557, upon the death of Grand Master Claude de la Sengle, the Knights, mindful of the attack that was sure to come, elected Valette to be Grand Master.
He fought and successfully repulsed the Turks at the Great Siege of Malta (1565), in which the vastly outnumbered Christians held out for over 3 months against an Ottoman force containing no less than 30,000 soldiers, including the notorious Janissaries, as well as the Sultan's prized fleet of some 193 ships. The desperate battle, which saw the reduction of Fort St. Elmo, was one of immense brutality, and is regarded as one the most famous and desperate sieges of all time. As a result of the Order's victory he gained much prestige in Europe, but he declined the offer of a cardinal's hat in order to maintain independence from the papacy. This has been portrayed to his sense of modesty and his humility as a warrior monk. However, it has often been overlooked that as a Grand Master of the Order, he automatically had the same precedence as the most junior Cardinal within the Church and enjoyed a Cardinal's distinction without being involved in the internal politics of the Holy See. Even from its beginnings, the Grand Master of the Order owed allegiance only to the Pope, and to this day is recognised as the head of an Order which has diplomatic recognition with the United Nations and 100 other countries.
During the siege Valette proved to be a severe, cold and resourceful commander. Passionately religious, devoted body and soul to his Order and faith, Jean de la Valette was prepared to suffer all to the death rather than yield a foot to the hated infidel.
After the great siege, he commissioned the construction of the new city of Valletta in 1566, laying the first stone with his own hands. This took place on the slopes of Mount Sciberras, where the flower of the Turkish army had died whilst trying to storm Fort St. Elmo, a fort which the Turks thought would fall within three or four days, but which, due to the bravery of the defenders, held out for 30 days.
The city named after its founder - Humilissima Civitas Vallettae - became known as the most aristocratic and exclusive fortress in Europe - a city most often referred to as "Superbissima" - the "Most Proud". Valletta remains the Maltese capital to this day.
Jean Parisot de la Valette died peacefully in 1568 before the completion of the city. His tomb (in the form of a sarcophagus) can be found in the Crypt of the St John's Co-Cathedral, situated within the walls of Valletta. The inscription on his tomb, which was composed by his Latin Secretary, Sir Oliver Starkey, the last Knight of the English Langue at the time of the Great Siege, states in Latin: