How the Knights of St John saved western civilisaton
How the Knights of St John saved western civilisation
The island of Malta has a rich history. Here, writer & historian Nicholas Fogg tells the tale of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, and how they saved western civilization
In the middle of the Nile near the Aswan Dam, lies a small island known as ‘the eye of the world’. It is an appropriate name, because of the wave after wave of civilisations that have passed over it, each leaving its mark.
Such an epithet would be even more meaningful if applied to the islands of Malta, whose history ranges from the earliest free-standing prehistoric buildings in the world to heroic action in World War Two.
History is ingrained in the very landscape and even in the local parlance. The core vocabulary of the Maltese language derives from the Arabic occupation of the islands in the 9th century. The Maltese word for God, in this intensely Catholic nation, is ‘Alla’. As geography may lead one to expect, a lot of words from the Sicilian dialects of Italian have found their way into the language. Obviously, the 200-year British occupation has had its effect and there is even a sprinkling of French words: the inheritance of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem.
That English feeling
I recall that, quite a few years ago, when Malta was still a British colony, the then Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff, attempted to have the islands incorporated into the United Kingdom. This never worked out, which seems a shame. Malta has a genuinely British feel about it. There are the familiar red phone boxes and red pillar boxes bearing the Royal Coat-of-Arms.
All the road signs and virtually all the advertising hoardings are in English. Most of all, it is one of the two official languages and everyone speaks it. Indeed, for those from warmer climes who wish to learn English, and who don’t fancy chilly and damp old Albion, Malta could well be the place. There are no less than 40 language schools on the island. Their promotional material plays on the fact that Malta has an English-speaking environment beyond the classroom.
It may be one of the less fortunate aspects of the British legacy that Malta cannot boast a great cuisine. Agriculture is a tough business on the rocky terrain and most food is imported. But the portions are enormous! The average starter for one provides more than enough fodder for four people – and as for the main courses! I did wonder whether these gargantuan meals were a reflection of the days during the war, when the islands faced starvation.
Starvation & blockade
With the entry of Italy into WWII following the fall of France, Malta was entirely surrounded by hostile territory. The nearest British bases at Gibraltar and Alexandria were hundreds of miles away and any convoy bringing much-needed relief to the embattled population faced incessant attacks by air and from submarines.
For the Axis powers, Malta represented a strategic pimple, possession or elimination of which was vital to ensure the success of the campaign in North Africa. The islands faced saturation bombing. Sicily was just a ten minute flight away. The only aircraft available for the islands’ defence were three Gladiator biplanes, soon famously nicknamed “Faith, Hope and Charity”.
They fought an heroic battle for three weeks until the arrival of squadrons of Hurricane fighters boosted the defences. Dive bombers pounded the island. In April, 1942 alone, 6,700 tonnes of bombs fell on the area around Valletta’s Grand Harbour: the most on one place in history. The blockade posed a double threat. The dire shortage of food threatened starvation, and unless fuel could be obtained, there would be no means to defend the islands. To relieve them, the British launched Operation Pedestal, a huge convoy of 15 merchantmen and an oil tanker, the Ohio, protected by three aircraft carriers and other warships.
The SS Ohio was launched on the Delaware River in 1940, the biggest and fastest tanker ever built at the time. In 1942, she delivered a cargo to Glasgow and was immediately requisitioned by the British Government. Apparently, this was quite legal, although the Texas Oil Company must have been furious.
The convoy faced incessant bombardment from the time it left Gibraltar. It was largely scattered and many of the ships were torpedoed or bombed. The entire population of Malta was praying the rosary for deliverance. It appeared that their prayers had been answered when RAF spitfires took off for the west.
Were they providing cover for the remaining ships? Yes they were. One by one, the five merchantmen that had escaped destruction limped into the Grand Harbour. Starvation had been averted, but not yet the entire crisis. Without the tanker, the island would run out of fuel. Next day, the Ohio was seen on the horizon. Barely still floating, she had broken down and was just drifting. Tugs were dispatched to tow her in. Malta was saved.
In commemoration of the heroism of its people, King George VI presented them
In commemoration of the heroism of its people, King George VI presented them with Britain’s highest civilian award for bravery
with Britain's highest civilian award for bravery - the George Cross. It still flies proudly in the corner of the national flag.
The fuselage of the biplane, Faith, can be seen in the National War Museum in Valletta. The displays, housed in an 18th century barracks and the tunnels beneath it, which provided air-raid shelters in the war, bring vividly to life the suffering and heroism of the population during the war.
The Knights of St John
This was the second time that Malta had saved civilisation as the west knows it. At a time when aspects of Islam appear threatening, it is apposite to recall the time in the 16th century when a group of knights stood as a bastion of Christendom. The Knights of St John were a military order whose original task was to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. After the triumph of Islamic forces there, the Knights established themselves on Rhodes in 1309. In 1522, the Turks invaded the island in overwhelming numbers. After a fierce six-month siege, the Grand Master of the Order, Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam, agreed an honourable evacuation with the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman. For four years, he was to approach the crowned heads of Europe for a safe haven for his little chivalric army.
In 1530, the Emperor Charles I, as King of Sicily, gave Malta to the Knights in exchange for an annual tribute of a single falcon (hence "The Maltese Falcon"). They were to send this tribute each All Soul’s Day to the King’s representative, the Viceroy of Sicily. The gift was not entirely disinterested. Growing Turkish maritime power in the central Mediterranean was threatening the Empire’s supply lines. The knights would constitute a useful outpost for the defence of Christendom. This is what they became and, in so doing, they aroused the ire of the Ottoman Sultan.
Nor was the Grand Master impressed by the acquisition of this gift horse. The islands were barren, waterless and lacked fortifications, but he had little choice but to accept the offer. In 1530, the Knights decided to make the village of Birgu (now Vittoriosa), their capital, rather than the inland city of Mdina, because being situated on a promontory the south side of the Grand Harbour, it better suited their maritime purposes. In the expectation of further conflict with the Turks, the first task of the Knights was to strengthen the fortifications. The Castle of St Angelo, an ancient and half-ruined defence-work situated at the head of the peninsula, was strengthened into a fortress. The original dry ditch between the fort and the town was deepened to form a seawater moat capable of accommodating galleys.
Work began to build a bastion to defend the fortress on the landward side. It was completed by 1536 and named after the new Grand Master, Juan de Homedes y Coscon. Behind the bastion, a large cavalier was built. This was an artillery platform whose height enabled defenders to fire over the outer works. It also provided sentinels with a view over the harbour entrance. It was designed by the noted Italian military architect, Antonio Ferramolino and completed by 1547. The De Guirial battery was constructed at the tip of the fort at sea level to protect the entrance to Dockyard Creek. These works transformed the fort into a gunpowder fortification. It became the seat of the Grand Master and the administrative centre of the Order.
The Order was divided into eight groups or langues, based on language and place of origin. Each was housed in its own house or auberge. Provence and Auvergne shared a building. Of the original
seven, just three remain.
The Turks attack
In 1551, the long-expected Turkish attack occurred. A fleet under the command of Dragut Reis, carrying 10,000 soldiers, landed at Marsamxett and marched on Fort St Angelo. Realising that it was too well defended to fall easily, they marched instead on the ancient capital of Mdina, looting the villages on the way. The inhabitants sought refuge in the city and helped the knights defend it.
Faced with the prospect of a lengthy siege, the Turks turned their attention to a softer target – the neighbouring island of Gozo. As was their recourse under such circumstances, the citizens sought refuge in their mighty fortress, the Citadella. It had been fortified since the Bronze Age. It is located in the heart of Gozo’s capital, Rabat (now also known as Victoria, after the Queen Empress). As the name implies, it was a mini-walled city. When the island was threatened by invaders, in particular the corsairs who roamed the seas around the coast, the entire population would seek refuge there.
After a siege lasting just a few days the Citadella capitulated. About 300 people escaped by climbing down its walls and hiding from the Ottomans. The other 6,000 people, including the Governor, Gelatian de Sessa, and the Knights, were taken captive and were sold into slavery. The Ottomans only spared a monk and forty elderly Gozitans, who would be useless as slaves.
It would clearly be only a matter of time before the Ottomans returned, so it was imperative that the Knights further strengthen their defences. The Aragonese had built a watchtower on St Elmo’s Point at the entrance to the Marsamxett Harbour in 1488. In 1531, the Order had strengthened it, but it had proved inadequate during the Ottoman incursion. In 1552 the tower was demolished and work commenced on building a fort. The development of the cannon had rendered the traditional circular walls of a castle vulnerable to concerted bombardment. To combat this, the star fort was developed with bastions that covered each other. Since the form had been first devised in Italy, it made a great deal of sense that Fort St Elmo was designed by four Italian architects. It possessed a cavalier, a covertway and a tenaille.
A second star fort was built on the small peninsula in the Grand Harbour that was known as the Isola di San Michele. The fort was designed by the Italian military
engineer, Pedro Pardo d’Andrera. Its first stone was laid on May 8th, 1552 by the Grand Master, Juan de Homedes y Coscon. It was built on similar lines to Fort St Elmo in the characteristic star-shape.
During the following decade, work on the construction of the new walled-town that the fort was intended to defend took place. It was named Senglea after the Grand Master, Claude de la Sengle, in 1563, who gave it city status. Further battlements were added to connect the fort with the new city. Further extensions were made to the defences when a ravelin was hastily constructed at Fort St Elmo in 1564.
Things in the Mediterranean were not looking good for the Knights and their allies of the Hapsburg Empire. Half of a large Christian fleet was destroyed by the Ottomans under their Admiral Piyale Pasha in 1560. In March, 1565, the same Admiral, sailed with the largest invasion force yet known from Constantinople. It consisted of 193 ships and an estimated army of 48,000 men. In response to the The Grand Master, Jean de Valette, ordered a scorched-earth policy, destroying all the harvest on the island and poisoning all the wells. The defending force numbered around 6,000 men, of whom some 500 were knights.
...and return again
The Turkish force arrived off the island on May 18th and landed eventually at Marsaxlokk, six miles from Fort St Angelo. Their first objective was the key post of Fort St Elmo, where de Valette had concentrated half his artillery. The Turks, however, could concentrate their fire from the upper ground and, after an heroic resistance, the fort fell on June 23rd. All the remaining defenders were put to the sword, except for nine soldiers, who escaped by swimming across the harbour. The siege had cost the Turks some 6,000 men, including half their Janissaries, their elite force. On July 15th, an attempt to take Fort St Michael failed.
The ‘Great Siege’ ended on September 7th when a relieving force of 6,000 men arrived from Sicily, forcing the Ottoman withdrawal. The Turkish threat only receded with the decisive victory of the combined fleets of the Hapsburg Empire, Venice and the Knights of St John over those of the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto six years later,
Following the Great Siege, the Knights decided that a stronghold was needed to protect them against further invasion and so they built Valletta, with its massive ramparts. It is the first city to have been built on a grid pattern. It is named after
Jean de la Valette, the Grand Master of the Order at the time of the Great Siege. One can do no better than follow Sir Walter Scott’s description of this lovely place: ‘That splendid town quite like a dream.’
Knight’s auberges & symbols
The Maltese architect, Girolamo Cassar was commissioned to rebuild the auberges of the Knights in Valletta. The Reformation ensured that the langue d’Angleterre had ceased to be, so now there were only six. Of these originals, the German one was demolished in 1839 to make way for the Anglican Cathedral and auberges of France and Auvergne were completely destroyed by enemy bombing in World War II. The English langue was restored in the late 17th century, in combination with Bavaria.
The surviving auberges all house Government offices or public buildings. The Auberge de Castille was rebuilt in baroque style in 1744 and is the grandest of them all, as is appropriate for the Prime Minister’s Office. The Auberge d’Aragon houses the Ministry of Home Affairs: d’Italie, the Malta Tourism Authority: de Provence, the National Museums of Archaeology and de Baviere, the Government Property Department.
The Knights’ symbol was the Maltese Cross, whose eight sides symbolise the eight virtues that the Order strove to uphold. It may be seen in profusion in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, built by the Knights in 1573. Its fantastical Baroque interior belies its external austerity. The Oratory is dominated by Caravaggio’s huge altarpiece of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. (As a tennis player, the artist makes John McEnroe seem mildmannered).
After murdering his opponent in an argument about a game, he fled to Malta, where he was commissioned by the Knights to create various works. He signed his name in his great work in the Oratory in the blood pouring from the neck of the saint.
A view of Victoria, Gozo
Auberge de Castille, now the office of the Prime Minister in Valletta