The Grand Harbour with Valletta and the 3 Cities


When Malta was given to the Order of St John by the Emperor Charles V in 1535, it established its Headquarters in the harbour city of Birgu where, under Grandmaster La Valette, it had valiantly and successfully withstood the Great Siege launched by the Ottoman Empire in 1565.  (See Birgu)

Plans to build a stronger city on Mount Sceberras, the promontory separating the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour were already mooted but the siege proved to be the catalyst for work to commence soon after victory was secured. The success of the siege had also reverberated around the Courts of Europe who, realising that the Order was their best safeguard against Muslim encroachment, where happy to provide generous financial assistance.

The city and its fortifications were designed by the Pope's military engineer Francesco Laparelli, a student of Michelangelo and the foundation stone laid by La Valette on 28 March 1566 but he did not live to see the completion of his city. He died in 1568 in which year Laparelli decided to return to Rome, leaving the planning and construction of the palaces and buildings to his pupil, Girolamo Cassar. Cassar in effect built the city and among his outstanding masterpieces the Conventual Church (now Co-Cathedral) of St John, the Grandmasters' Palace and a number of Auberges are still in use to this day.

By 1571 sufficient progress had been made for the Order to move its Headquarters to the new city, named Valletta after its founder and this took place on 18 March.

The Order reached its zenith during its period in Malta and indeed soon became known as the Order of Malta. Its fleet became one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean and it justly earned international respect and admiration playing no small part in preventing the islamisation of Europe. Young noblemen from all over Europe flocked to join its ranks and money continued to pour into its treasury, not only from the European kingdoms and principalities but also from booty derived from the forays of its fleet against Ottoman shipping.

The impregnability of Valletta's fortifications put an end to Ottoman plans of conquest following an aborted attempt at a siege in 1615 and with the fading of the Muslim threat Malta was able to enjoy a long period of relative peace and prosperity. Diminished preoccupation with the military threat enabled the Order to return to its Hospitaller tradition. It built a huge hospital in Valletta which boasted the longest hall in the world. It also founded a medical school which became the germ for the University of Malta and was always on call when natural catastrophes struck its neighbours in Sicily and Italy.

The lesson of history however has always been that long periods of prosperity lead to over indulgence and laxity. The original strict principles and monastic austerity were gradually abandoned; Grandmaster Manoel Pinto assumed the role of a monarch and held court on a par with the princes of Europe even adopting a regal crown as a symbol of his power. Succeeding Grandmasters became more autocratic and adopted policies causing resentment among the local population. Matters got worse when Ximenes introduced unpopular economic measures culminating with an unjust tax on corn in 1775. This led to a popular insurrection known as the "Priests' Rebellion" led by Don Gaetano Mannarino, an exemplary priest but also a brave and resolute man. Although the rebellion was put down and the ring-leaders executed, thus resolving the inward threat, the outward threat did not go away.

The storming of the Bastille in 1789 sent ripples to Malta and when, by 1792 Republican France began its campaigns in Europe, the Order seriously began to look around to obtain the protection of a  congenial foreign power. This it found in an unexpected quarter.

One of "ports of call" of Peter the Great in his westernisation of Russia was Malta and, although this came to nothing, renewed contacts with his daughter, Catherine the Great impressed her sufficiently to recruit the assistance of the Order to organise her Baltic fleet and have her naval officers trained in Malta. She even sent the Czarewitch, later Emperor Paul I, to meet Grandmaster de Rohan in Valletta. This experience changed the life of the young prince, who took an almost fanatical interest in the Order and imbued himself with its ideals and ethos which remained with him until his death.

Meanwhile the shadows began to lengthen in Europe. The French Republic had taken a dim view of Rohan's attempts to assist Louis XVI regain his throne and immediately confiscated all the Order's property in France, depriving French knights of their citizenship. The simultaneous loss of the revenues from the three French Langues did nothing to improve the Order's situation and the successful Napoleonic campaigns increased the feeling of weakness and isolation. This prompted de Rohan in 1797 to seek the protection of Paul I who had by then succeeded to the Russian throne. The acceptance by Paul was soon to prove a vital factor in the survival of the Order.

The death of de Rohan the same year led to what was to be the last election in Malta when Ferdinand von Hompesch was chosen Grand Master. Ironically Hompesch turned out to be one of the most popular Grandmasters with the Maltese, having lived there from his sixteenth year and apparently he even spoke the language like a native. Unfortunately, though affable he was a weak and vain man who continued to follow the pursuits of a monarchical lifestyle and completely ignored the French threat. Because of its impregnable structure, Valletta would have held out even to Napoleon's might if there had been a Grandmaster with the gift to revive the spirit of the Order of old. But Hompesch was not made of the stuff of heroes and when matters came to a head, he was found wanting.

The appearance of Bonaparte's fleet off the Grand Harbour was enough to strike terror into the hearts of the knights and they capitulated without a shot being fired. On June 12, the successors to the Knights who had once earned the respect even of their enemies, such that that they were allowed to leave the Holy Land and Rhodes with all their possessions and full military honours, were obliged to beat an ignominious retreat under the contemptuous gaze of Napoleon, taking with them, of all the hard-earned treasures of the Order, only the hand of St John and the icon of the Blessed Virgin of Philermo.

It was a sad end to a glorious beginning.


Castagna, P.P.: L-Istorja ta' Malta bil-Gzejjer taghha, 3 volumes, 2nd edition, Stamperia ta C. Busuttil, Valletta, 1890
Foster, Michael J.: The Order of St John of Jerusalem Research Website,
Sire, H.J.A.: The Knights of Malta, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1996
Vertot, M. l'Abbé de: Histoire des Chevaliers Hospitaliers de Saint-Jean de Jérusalem, appelles depuis chevaliers de Rhodes, et ensuite chevaliers de Malte. J.B. Pélagaud et Cie., Lyon, 1853

Picture Gallery

The Grandmaster's Palace, Valletta

Conventual Church of St John          KF von Brockdorff
                                                                                 (National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta)

Auberge de Castile                         KF von Brockdorff
                                                                        (National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta)

Bibliotheca  (17th Century)                 (National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta)

Auberge de Castile (2004)            Photo: BJ McMorrow