Saturday, 26 July 2014

Fort St Angelo

 Occupying a commanding position at the centre of the Grand Harbour, Fort St Angelo stands at the tip of the Birgu promontory. It is thought that a temple built by the Phoenicians to the goddess Astarte (Juno), known throughout the Mediterranean world and identified with the evening star stood on the site of Fort St Angelo until about AD 878 when it is believed the first fortification, an Arab fort, was built on the promontory. A small fishing village or suburb grew up alongside the castle beside the harbour and became known as Il Borgo del Castello or Il Borgo. Later it became known as Birgu and after the siege of 1565 as Citta Vittoriosa.

The Arabs held Malta until 1090 when Roger the Norman, Count of Sicily landed on the island and drove them from the castle. In that year he excavated the small troglodytic church dedicated at first to the 'Mother of God' and after the siege of 1565, to the 'Nativity of Our Lady.' In 1220 the Hohenstaufen Emperor, Frederick II appointed a castellan for Malta, who will of course required suitable accommodation. The first mention of the Castrum Maris (Castle by the Sea) is found in documents from 1240. The tower at the north-west corner of the Magistral Palace may even date back to the 12th century. Another reference to the Castrum Maris is from the short period of Angevin rule (1266-1283). From 1283 the islands were under Aragonese rule, although the castle held out for the Angevins for some time after the rest of the islands had fallen. There is no record of when the castle first became known as St Angelo, but a Count de Melfi held the islands  in 1352-53 and his Christian name was Angelo so he may have given his name to the fort.

In 1425 the islands were mortgaged by King Alfonso V of Spain to the Viceroy of Sicily for 30,000 gold florins and a little later the mortgage was transferred to Don Gonsalvo de Monroy, who when he tried to exploit the Maltese caused such resentment that he had to flee the islands and for his own safety and  it decided to shut his wife up in Fort St Angelo until the King and Viceroy had arbitrated in the dispute, The result was the Maltese were enabled to buy the mortgage for themselves. The islanders were given the revenue of the islands for 10 years, in which to pay themselves back, provided that they pay for the upkeep of the garrisons of St Angelo and Notabile (Mdina). About 1430 the Governorship of the Castle was given to a member of the de Nava family and with it the title of Castellano and this appointment was to become hereditary to the family. The de Navas built a palace at  the top of the rock known then as the House of the Castellan of Malta and also the chapel for their private worship, dedicated to St Anne.

In the year 1520 at the eastern end of the Mediterranean the Knights of St John were under mounting pressure in the island of Rhodes, seat of the Order, due to the strength and proximity of the Turks. Charles V of Spain persuaded by Pope Clement VII, was anxious for the Order of St John to garrison Malta, because he could rely on their military power to guard this vital outpost of his empire against the growing threat posed by the Turks. The Viceroy of Sicily therefore arranged for the Order to take over the Governorship of St Angelo. Fra' Alphonse Pardall, a Servant-at-Arms assumed the governorship of St Angelo from Alvarez de Nava in June 1526. (A pension was awarded to de Nava in recognition of the renunciation of his hereditary rights.)

On 20th June 1530 Commander Fra' Aurelio Botigella, Knight of the Order took over command of the Maltese islands and at the same time Commander Fra' Pierre Pitoijs with a company of infantry occupied Fort St Angelo.  On 26 October 1530 the Grand Master, Fra' Phillipe de L'Isle-Adam landed on  Malta and took up residence in  Fort St Angelo. Within the walls of the fort were a whole range of buildings, for accommodating the garrison, defence, observation, kitchens, storage, and worship. On the uppermost level was the Magistral Palace formerly known as the House of the Castellan. There were also the tiny Church of Our Lady and the Chapel of St Anne. The Council of the Order  were also accommodated within the Fort, while the remainder of the Knights and refugees from Rhodes had to find accommodation in Birgu. Under the Knights of St John, Fort St Angelo and Birgu became the center of power in Malta. The peninsula's adjacent creeks, Kalkara Creek on the one side and the Galley Port (Dockyard Creek) on the other offered shelter for the Order's fleet, during even the roughest of weather.

The commission sent by the Grand Master in 1525 to Malta had reported that Fort St Angelo was partly in ruins, its whole artillery consisting of one small mortar, two falcons and a few iron mortars. Therefore despite the sorry state of the Order's Treasury de L'Isle-Adam embarked as a priority  the improvement of the fort's defences and he employed the Florentine engineer, Piccino, to draw up proposals for the improvements and repairs. Piccino designed a massive square cavalier with two chamfered corners on the landward end of the fort. This formed a platform from which the guns could fire onto the harbour entrance, supporting Fort St Elmo and out across the land front of Birgu. Below the cavalier a broad ditch was excavated, capable of securing the galleys and in effect turning the fort into an island.  The imperative was to improve St Angelo's defences; the fort's greatest weakness was that it was dominated by the Scibberas peninsula, on which, in 1566, the new city of Valletta was to be built. The piled up character of Fort St Angelo, like a typical medieval castle, was due to the need to try and match the height of the peninsula opposite.



The Order had barely been established on Malta when it was beset by a serious crisis. In 1531 the Order suffered a serious setback with the defeat of an expedition to Modon in Greece and at the same time  a fratricidal dispute between the Knights of the French and Italian languages. Then to make maters worse when the majority of the Convent had accompanied the Grand Master to Notabile (Mdina) on 29th June the Turkish slaves mutinied and tried to capture Fort St Angelo. The mutiny was however repressed.

Improvement of the fort's defences not with standing the Grand Master's highest priority was the restoration and rebuilding of the Chapel of St Anne. The Chapel and the Castellan's House were remodelled and restored by the Order's Ingeniere e Soprastante dell'Opere, the Portugese, Fra' Diego Perez di Malfriere While it is known that the chapel had been built by the De Nava family soon after they occupied St Angelo the size and scope of the original building are not known.The present chapel is that which was rebuilt by de L'Isle-Adam. It has a simple graceful facade with a round arched door leading into the nave and above it a single elliptical window light.  In the centre of the facade, as in many small Maltese churches is a bell-cot.


In the interior all the central arches of both the Nave and Transept rest on a single pillar of Egyptian granite. It seems likely that this pillar once formed part of the old temple of Astarte or Juno and therefore dates back to 1500 to 1000 BC.


According to the memorial plaque in the Chapel of St Anne, Grand Master de L'Isle-Adam died on August 22nd 1534. He was buried in the Crypt of the Chapel of St Anne.The south wall of the small chapel still carries the white marble commemoration stone of the burial of de L'Isle-Adam in the crypt of the chapel. A translation of the inscription reads,:-

"Brother Phillipus de Villiers L'Isle-Adam, Master of the Hospital of Malta, and wishing to restore his order, which was collapsing, and to rest after ten years of peregrination, fixed his abode in Malta where already beyond his seventieth year, he desired to be buried in this chapel dedicated to the name of Jesus. He died in the year of salvation 1534 on 22nd August".

In the scroll in the base of the tablet is inscribed in Latin:- "This tablet was placed by Fra' Anthony de Grolea., great worshipper of his glory during life, and of his memory after death".



Fra' Pietro del Monte was the next Grand Master and he died soon after on 18th November 1535 and was also buried in the crypt of St Anne.

Fra' Didier de St Jaille was the next Grand Master but he did not live long enough to take up residence in St Angelo as he died in Montpellier on his way to Malta on 26th September 1536.

Work to  improve the defences of St Angelo continued under the direction of Pellequin as Lieutenant for  Didier St Jaille. A battery was constructed overlooking Kalkara Creek, then known as the English Harbour, 3 guns facing the Borgo and 5 towards the harbour entrance. The ditch separating St Angelo and the Birgu was widened and deepened. At that time there was a narrow causeway at the Kalkara end from Birgu to the sheer wall of the Fort. The only other access to the Fort was by a movable wooden drawbridge at the Port of Galleys or Dockyard Creek end of the ditch.

Grand Master Fra' Juan D'Homedes ruled Malta from 1536 to 1553. He obtained the services of  Antonio Ferramolino, engineer to the King of Spain who in 1542 built and armed the Cavalier, "that they might see what passed in the port of Marsamuxetto". In this Cavalier are three are three long chambers probably used for accommodation quarters.Antonio Ferramolino also built the D'Homedes Bastion on the south west corner of the Fort. During D'Homedes reign Fort St Angelo was the setting for the trial of Commander de Valliers, Marshal of the Order held for the loss of Tripoli. D'Homedes died on 6th September 1553 and was buried in the crypt of St Anne's.

After their occupation of St Angelo the Knights  also restored and repaired the old House of the Castellan of Malta in order to turn it into a suitable Magistral Palace. Standing on the highest part of the fort, the palace was enlarged and beautified with stuccoes, frescoes and mosaics and surrounded by gardens and courtyards, including a grotto or Nymphaeum.


The Castellan's hall was turned into the high council chamber and encased with extra rooms to the east and a series of new buildings to the south and with a staircase and loggias to the west. One of the glories of this building remains the medieval window retained from the earlier building, a double window divided by a slim column with a carved capital; the capital is itself surmounted by a palm tree carved in relief.


Fra' Claude de la sengle was the next Grand Master to rule in Malta and it seems that the building on the opposite shore of Dockyard Creek must have commenced in his reign as he gave his name to the city still known as Senglea. On 23 rd October 1555 a great storm developed of such violence that it shook the Fort and carried away its flagstaff and Grand Standard of the Order. La Sengle died in August 1557 and was the last Grand Master to be buried in the Chapel of St Anne. He was succeeded by Fra' Jean Parisot de la Valette probably the greatest Grand Master to rule the Order of St John.

Grand Master Fra' Jean De La Valette (c1750) 
by Antoine Favray (1706-1792)

La Valette made good use of the relative peace at the start of his reign to strengthen the defences of Malta. In 1564 when the Order's spies at the Sublime Porte reported that an invasion was being planned  a great stone bollard was hewn from the living rock to fasten one end of the great chain stretched across the Port of Galleys to Senglea to protect the harbour.  A sea level battery of 5 guns was also constructed at this north west point to protect the boom and during the siege that followed cause to cause much damage to the Turks.

The Turkish invasion Fleet arrived off the Grand Harbour on 18th May 1565. By this time Fort St Angelo's defences consisted of St Angelo's Battery, D'Homedes Battery, La Vallette Battery, the Cavalier Battery and two batteries facing the entrance to the Grand Harbour. According to the historian of the Order Vertot the garrison of St Angelo during the siege consisted of 50 Knights and 500 soldiers and sailors. La Valette himself did most of his fighting in the Birgu using St Angelo as his headquarters and as an observation post to monitor the Turkish troop movements.


During the Siege more than 10 000 people died within four months. Those who died in the Fort were buried there because there was no access to cemeteries outside.

Fort St Elmo fell after 31 days of the assault and when the mutilated bodies of of the Knights of the Order were seen floating past St Angelo the garrison is reported to have replied by firing from their guns the heads of all their Turkish prisoners into the Turkish camps. Senglea, Birgu and Fort St Angelo held out until 8th September, 1565 when the siege was raised by the arrival of a relief force.

Crystal cross of Grand Master Fra' Jean de la Valette (1557-1568)
Crystal and gold, 16th century
Given by Pope Pius V to Valette
Engraved with , one conquers 10,000, referring to the Great Siege
(St John's Clerkenwell)

After the siege, St Angelo which had been considerably damaged was thoroughly repaired, but from then on the new city of Valletta, named in honour of the heroic Grand Master was to become the seat of the Convent and stronghold of the Order of St John. Grand Master Fra' Jean Parisot de la Valette died on 21st August 1568 at the age of 74. He lay in state in the Chapel of St Anne from the 21st August to the 25th August but was buried in the crypt of the Church of Our Lady of Victory in the new city of Valletta built by him and later moved to the crypt of the new Conventual Church of St John.

The new Grand Master Fra' Pietro del Monte concentrated all the Order's resources into building the new city of Valletta and its defences. The Convent of the Order was moved to Valletta on 8th March 1571 and it is probable that the Grand Master moved also, because he certainly ordered his Knights to do so. From this time on it is unlikely that any Grand Master ever lived  in Fort St Angelo.The Magistral Palace was probably used as the residence of the Governor of the Fort but there is no direct evidence until 1714 when the Coats-of-Arms of Governors until 1792 were painted in the hall of the Palace.However in 1581 when Grand Master de la Cassiere was deposed he was imprisoned in Fort St Angelo until  reinstated by the Pope.

The Chancery of the Order refers to a tower used as a prison for the Knights. One Claudio Gyran was sentenced to three months in the tower on 10th November 1530 for twitching the beard of a destitute Maltese. Fort St Angelo became the principal state prison of the Order of St John.

The oldest prison discovered in the Fort is the oubliete hewn out of the living rock just inside the main gate. There are many messages in Latin and carvings cut into the walls, also dates, the earliest being 1548. It seems probable from some of the messages carved that as a general rule those who were incarcerated here did not return to their previous life.


In 1681 Don Carlos de Grunenberg, engineer to the King of Spain inspected the Fort and found it in a poor state of repair. With the consent of Grand Master Fra' Gregorio Caraffa he began alterations and improvements in 1687. Besides the repairs, he added a battery facing the entrance to the Grand Harbour at sea level and he also prepared the top battery. The North West corner of the Fort still bears the name Grunenbergh Battery. With the continued encouragement of Grand Master Fra' Adrien de Wignacourt and the use of his own money the work was completed in 1690. An inscription in Latin above the Main Gate bears testimony to this.

"Under the happy auspices of Grand Master Adrien Wignacourt and by the previous consent of Grand Master Caraffa, Fort St Angelo, once a renowned temple of Juno but now a strong bulwark of Christendom, was restored by Charles Grunenberg, Knight of Devotion and Commander in the Army of the Catholic king; he contributed his talents and his money to restore to a better condition this fort, decayed by age, in the year of Salvation 1690, the first of the Magistery."


Overlooking the Fort's high entrance gate is the massive bulk of the cavalier tower, topped by St Angelo Bell, a bronze bell between two pillars dating from 1716, one of the sentry bells which was sounded by the Knights on occasions of rejoicing or as a warning of approaching danger. Inside the main gate is a barrel- vaulted guard room.


From the main gate a steeply ascending ramp leads to the first tier of batteries and continues to the Upper Fort, where there is a large parade ground, at the end of which stands the cavalier, a lofty and massive building, its summit forming a gun emplacement, its interior used as accommodation for soldiers. On this level are the remains of the tiny Church of the Nativity built by Roger of Normandy in 1090 and the oldest Christian church on the island. Another short ramp leads from the parade ground to the next battery level, and thence by a short flight of steps through a tunnel in the ramparts to the summit, where the Magistral Palace stands close to the Chapel of St Anne.

The last major work on the Fort carried out by the Order of St John was the restoration of the D'Homedes Bastion in 1769. In 1789 Fort St Angelo, along with the rest of the island's fortresses fell to Napoleon then at the height of his powers. However the French did not hold Malta for long and they surrendered to the British in 1800. The Royal Navy soon began transforming the built environment of Vittoriosa and the two creeks on either side. In 1912 Fort St Angelo was commissioned as the 'base ship' for the Mediterranean fleet. During the Second World War St Angelo became a potent symbol of Malta's heroic defiance. HMS St Angelo nearly 1000 years old with the White Ensign and Admiral' flag flying from high from the top of the ramparts symbolized the Maltese peoples resistance. After a 180 year military presence in Malta the British withdrew from St Angelo and from Malta on 31 March 1979.

An historic treaty between the Maltese government and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) reached in 1998, allowed the Knights of St John to reoccupy the upper level of the Fort including the Magistral Palace and the Chapel of St Anne. The agreement has a duration of 99 years.