How the Knights of St John saved western civil­isaton

How the Knights of St John saved western civil­i­sa­tion

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.