Carole Pietrzak

The history of Birgu - Part 2

In the second blog in the series of blogs about the history of Birgu Ms Pietrzac talks about Birgu in the Middle Ages.

Castrum Maris the Castle-by-the-sea or Castle of St Angelo- which stood as a security symbol- was the main reason for the existence and survival of Birgu. This settlement on the seashore was unique. In the Middle Ages, inhabitants used to build their homes at least a mile or so away from the sea to have some sort of warning of the arrival of a hostile landing force of Muslims or Christian corsairs.

Borgo, in the Latin or Sicilian documents of the later Middle Ages, ( similar to the Germanic burg), referred to the settlement, not to the Castle.

It is not until 1223 that the first mention of the Castle is encountered. It possessed three mills, four donkeys and two mules in its bakery, two horse stallions and two donkey stallions. There was a garrison of 150 servientes in the three castles of Birgu, Mdina and Gozo.

Birgu Castle is particularly well-documented for the Anjevin period. An impending attack of the Genoese was then feared and King Charles named castellan Bertrandus De Real as vicarius, capinateus and rector of the islands from August 1270 to June 1274. The latter was asked to perform important tasks for the Anjevin authorities, such as repairs of the Castle. There was an outer castle in front of the Church of St Angelo and an outer castle bailey or courtyard. The main weapons of defence consisted of large catapults, one of which was in the inner castle and another in the courtyard. De Real also provided weapons. The change of government from that of the Angevins to that of the Aragonese after the Sicilian Vespers uprising (30/03/1282) was a long-drawn-out affair in the Maltese islands. On 23 January 1283 the knight Dyonisio de Barba, who had been appointed procurator and magister of the islands of Malta and Gozo by the Anjevin king Charles became justiciar for the same islands on behalf of the Aragones king Peter. He ordered all his subjects to respect  Ugo de Cambrillis and his crew who were making a round trip  to Malta from Sicily. It is abundantly clear that from about January onwards Malta had switched its allegiance from the Anjevins to the Aragonese and Malta clearly became a fief in the kingdom of Sicily. During the night of 8 July 1283 the Aragonese fleet composed of twenty galleys commanded by admiral Roger Loria caught the Anjevin fleet unprepared, apparently in galley creek. Apparently, the battle had started at daybreak and ended at sundown and practically the whole Anjevin fleet was captured or sunk. Loria received homage from the whole island’s inhabitants and oath of fealty or faithfulness on behalf of the king. For most of the next eighty-five years the Castle-by-the sea remains largely unrecorded. The castle passed through a critical moment in 1372 during the conquest of Malta and Gozo by King Frederick and his Genoese allies on their ten galleys. It took him and his servicemen two months to bring the islands and their castles under the king’s control. Several governors were appointed stewards of the islands until 1427 when the islanders rose and were able to take control of both islands, which were restored to the royal domain with the right of armed resistance by their inhabitants to any future attempt to grant them out as a fief or on pawn  (used by others for their own purposes). Two families – the de Nava and de Guevara almost completely monopolized the castellany of the Castle-by-the-sea until the arrival of the Order of St John in 1530.

The next big crisis occurred during the 1480s when the Ottomans made their first assault on Malta. On 3 December 1484 warnings were sent to all parts of the Sicilian kingdom of the impending Turkish assault and the same was done on 26 January 1485. Nothing much seems to have happened in 1486, but in 1487 the castle wall facing Birgu was provided with a scalp or sloping face on the outside to resist cannon fire. At last, in 14 long-awaited assault of the Ottomans took place. It was a razzia by twelve Ottoman vessels. The Turks found  little resistance in Birgu and captured eighty people. This experience caused  a major re-thinking of the island’s defence and it was suggested that the point of St Elmo should be fortified and that Birgu should have town walls. In fact, the fortification of Birgu was not to be undertaken before the first years of the Order’s rule in Malta, and St Elmo Point was not to have its castle before 1551 after an Ottoman raid occurred in which the Turkish fleet sailed into Marsamxett Harbour unopposed. Birgu was the normal home port of Malta’s merchant fleet and frequently of its corsair vessels as well.

The parish of Birgu, founded by Bishop Gualtieri in 1090, was the oldest in Malta after that of the cathedral. The chapel of St Mary at the castle was just as old having been founded by Count Roger the Norman in 1090. The chronological priority should go to the castle chapel as there were no local Christians at all in Birgu in 1127. It has not been easy to find information on the actual houses of Birgu. Numerous transactions are present in a notarial register between the period September 1518 to 1521. A number of deeds of partnerships involving men from Birgu participating or financing trading operations years before the arrival of the Order have been recorded in notarial registers.

Down to 1492, Birgu had had its own small and self-contained Jewish community with its own synagogue but there is no precise indication of its size.

The Jew of Malta (originally spelled The Ievv of Malta)  Christopher Marlowe’s play, probably written in 1589 or 1590 is the works of reference published three hundred years after the Edict of Expulsion in England (1290) . The plot is an original story of religious conflict, intrigue, and revenge, set against a backdrop of the struggle for supremacy between Spain and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean that takes place on the island of Malta.

In 1523,  there was an outbreak of plague in the castle and Birgu, much exposed by their continual contact with vessels from abroad. The town authorities forced newcomers from Sicily to undergo quarantine.

The arrival in 1530 of the Order of St John in the island of Malta gave a new set of functions to the Castle-by-the-sea and its suburb. The Order upgraded Birgu to the status of the new town of Malta, establishing there the residences and auberges of the knights, and soon establishing there a new Università to rival that of Mdina. The Hospitalier History will be dealt with in a future article.

Count Roger I of Sicily was a Norman nobleman who became the first Count of Sicily from 1071 to 1101. In 1090 he had conquered Sicily and in 1091 he conquered Malta and liberated it from the Muslims.  The conquest of Sicily proved decisive in the steady decline of Muslim power in the western Mediterranean from this time.

In next’s week’s third article on the history of Birgu, we look at some grim episodes where the whole island was ravaged by the plague.

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