Carole Pietrzak

The history of Birgu - Part 4

In this fourth part of the series on the history of Birgu, Ms. Pietrzac talks about one of the most important events in the history of Birgu – the arrival of the Knights of St.John.

At the beginning of 1523, the Order of St John had been evicted from Rhodes. Four months later De l’Isle Adam arrived in Sicily and on April 30th offered Emperor Charles V the sum of 100,000 ducats in cash for the seaport of Brindisi or the island of Malta.  Strategically,  given its location in the Mediterranean and the presence of fortifications,  Malta was a good alternative for Rhodes, conveniently distant from the Catholic mainland to safeguard the Order’s autonomy and neutrality. Malta’s spacious harbours were also seen as an advantage as they could accommodate the Hospitaller fleet, and on the other hand, the Grand Master was also aware of the island’s military and political liabilities and the island’s dependence on Sicily for food and raw materials.

Accompanied by the Knights Grand Cross and members of his Venerable  Council, Grand Master de l’Isle Adam entered the Maltese harbour on 26 October 1530 and made straight for San Lorenzo-by-the-Sea, the parish church of Birgu. The Knights brought from Rhodes a considerable treasure of relics and reliquaries which were treated with the greatest veneration, particularly on special liturgical feasts celebrated in their Conventual Church which in fact was the original medieval Church of St Lawrence built by Aragonese mariners in 1283 then converted by the Knights themselves. Their most precious relic was undoubtedly the miraculous image of the Madonna of Philermos, a much venerated Byzantine icon that took its name from the sanctuary of the citadel on Mount Philermos in Rhodes, where its presence was already recorded in the early fourteenth century.

Birgu was the maritime centre of medieval Malta. Its function was to meet the modest needs of seaborne traffic calling at the island. Fort Saint Angelo played the role of a fortress to resist any possible aggression so the Knights elected residence there but this soon turned out to be too small to accommodate the Order. They therefore also took up residence in the auberges available around. The priority of the Knights was to surround the  «  new city » [1] by a defensive wall, flanked by small bastions. De l’Isle Adam decided to settle in Mdina, the old capital city when the work was carried out but in his absence the slave workers had planned to take complete control of the Castle fully equipped with arms, artillery and food supplies, seek the help of the Barbary corsairs stationed at Djerba and await the arrival of the Ottoman armada from Constantinople. The attempt nearly succeeded: the first boat of freed slaves was already sailing out when a Knight Hospitaller gave the alarm. It was an eye-opener.

Birgu experienced major changes under the Knights: to give two examples St Anne’s Church in Fort St Angelo and the Holy Infirmary was demolished for the construction of the new hospital.

A collacchio, an exclusive area reserved solely for the Hospitallers,  was set up surrounded by a wall about five metres high which could seclude them and their major public buildings ( like the conventional church, the hospital, the auberges and bakeries…) from the rest of the population as used to be done in Rhodes. These boundaries were officially defined and identified by stone markers in 1562. The few comfortable houses in Birgu were taken over by the Order and other dwelling places were later discovered in a state of utter poverty.

Birgu was becoming overcrowded and housing became an acute social issue.  The presence of the Hospitallers had drawn an increasingly hostile attention to the new strategic significance of the island. By the 1550s, the problem was aggravated by the certain knowledge that Birgu and Mdina were the only two centres which offered some sense of security.

During  their  first thirty-five years at Birgu, the Hospitallers’ naval intrigues in the Levant and their wild practical operations on Muslim trade and territory, especially on the sensitive Alexandrai-Constantinople crossing, not only consisted a blatant defiance of the «  solemn oath »[2] which de l’Isle Adam had sworn before leaving Rhodes that his Order would never again fight Suleyman.

A punitive expedition to the new Hospitaller stronghold was, sooner or later, unavoidable.

After nearly two years of preparation in Constantinople and North Africa, the full-scale campaign against Malta came in 1565 with hardly any surprise, either to sixteenth-century political observers or to later historians.  The « Siege of Malta » was both punitive and political.

[1] In this period Birgu was called the ‘new city’ as compared to the ‘old city’ which was Mdina, then the Capital City of Malta.

[2] This was one of the conditions of the truce which was called when the Knights surrendered Rhodes to the Ottomans after months of heavy fighting.

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