Fort St. Angelo

Valletta, Malta

Fort Saint Angelo is a large bastioned fort in Birgu, located at the centre of the Grand Harbour. The fort was originally a castle, and its date of construction is not known. It definitely existed by the 13th century, and in the Middle Ages it was known as the Castrum Maris. It was rebuilt by the Order of Saint John as Fort Saint Angelo in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it played an important role in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565. The fort was then used by the British as a stone frigate, and was known as HMS Egmont or later HMS St Angelo. It was last used for military purposes in 1979, and in 1998 part of it was handed back to the civil government.

Fort St. Angelo has been on Malta's tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1998, as part of the Knights' Fortifications around the Harbours of Malta.

There are claims of prehistoric or classical buildings near the site, due to some large ashlar blocks and an Egyptian pink granite column at the top part of the fort. There is also the mentioning in Roman texts of a temple dedicated to Juno/Astarte, probably in the vicinity of the fort. There is also the popular attribute to its foundation to the Arabs, c. 870 AD, but nothing is concrete although al-Himyarī mentions that the Arabs dismantled a hisn (fortress), but there is no actual reference if this 'fortress' was in Birgu.

Its probable start as a fortification is the high/late medieval period. In fact, in 1220 Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II started to appoint his own Castellani for Malta who needed a place to live and secure the interests of the crown. The remains of a tower that may date back to the 12th century can be traced among the more recent works. The first mention of Castrum Maris ('Castle by the sea') is to be found in documents from the 1240s when Paulinus of Malta was the lord of the island and later when Giliberto Abate made a census of the islands. Another reference to the castle is that from the short Angevin rule (1266–83) where documents list it again as Castrum Maris and list a garrison of 150 men together with several weapons. It seems also that by 1274, the castle already had two chapels which are still there today. From the same year exists also a detailed inventory of weapons and supplies in the castle. From 1283 the Maltese islands were under Aragonese rule (although the castle withstood for some time in Angevin rule while the rest of Malta was already in Aragonese hands) and the fortification was mainly used by Castellani (like the de Nava family) who were there to safeguard the interests of the Aragonese crown. In fact the Castellans did not have any jurisdiction outside the ditch of the fort.

Knights' period

When the Order of Saint John arrived in Malta in 1530, they chose to settle in Birgu, and Fort St Angelo became the seat of the Grand Master, which included the refurbishing of the Castellan's House and St. Anne's Chapel. The Knights made this their primary fortification and substantially reinforced and remodelled it, including the cutting of the dry ditch to make it a moat and the D'Homedes Bastion built by 1536. By 1547, a large cavalier designed by Antonio Ferramolino was built behind the D'Homedes Bastion, and De Guirial Battery was built at the tip of the fort by sea level to protect the entrance to Dockyard Creek. These works transformed the fort into a gunpowder fortification. Fort St Angelo withstood the Turks during the Great Siege of Malta, during which it succeeded in tearing apart a sea attack by the Turks on Senglea on 15 August 1565. In the aftermath of that siege, the Knights built the fortified city of Valletta on Mount Sciberras on the other side of the Grand Harbour, and the administrative centre for the knights moved there.

In 1644, Giovanni de’ Medici proposed a new fort be constructed on Orsi Point (the site where Fort Ricasoli was later built), and the name and garrison of Fort St. Angelo be transferred to the new fort. He drew up plans for the proposed fort, but they were never implemented.

It was not until the 1690s that the fort again underwent major repairs. Today's layout of the fort is attributed to these works which were designed by Carlos de Grunenbergh, who also paid for the construction of four gun batteries on the side of the fort facing the entrance to Grand Harbour. As a result, one can still see his coat of arms above the main gate of the fort. By the arrival of the French in 1798, therefore, the fort became a very powerful fortification including some 80 guns, 48 of which pointed towards the entrance of the port. During the short two-year period of French occupation, the Fort served as headquarters of the French Army.

British periodWith the coming of the British to Malta the fort retained its importance as a military installation, first in use by the Army. In fact, in 1800, two battalions of the 35th Regiment were resident in the fort. However, at the start of the 20th century, the fort was taken over by the Navy and it was listed as a ship, originally in 1912 as HMS Egmont, when it became a base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, but in 1933 renamed as HMS St Angelo. The British did not make any major modifications to the fort, although they converted No. 2 Battery into a casemated battery for three nine-inch RML guns in the 1860s, and built a cinema and a water distillation plant in the early 20th century.

During World War II, the fort again stood for siege with an armament of 3 Bofors guns. In total, the fort suffered 69 direct hits between 1940 and 1943. When the Royal Navy left Malta in 1979 the Fort was handed to the Maltese government and since then parts of the fort have fallen into a state of disrepair, mostly after a project to transform it into a hotel during the 1980s.

Recent history

More recently, the Government granted the Order of the Knights of St. John the upper part of the fort, comprising the magisterial palace and St. Anne's Chapel.

Layout

Upon the arrival of the Order in 1530, the Castrum Maris consisted of a shell keep containing various buildings, including the Castellan's house and the Chapel of St. Mary (later rededicated to St. Anne), and an outer ward. The castle also included a chapel dedicated to St. Angelo, which was later rededicated to the Nativity of Our Lady.

By the time of the Great Siege of Malta of 1565, the fort still retained most of its medieval features, but a number of modifications had been made by the Order.

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Founded: 13th century
Category: Castles and fortifications in Malta

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