Most references to the British in Malta are to its role during the Second Word War. However the British Knights were important in Malta in the 16th century.
Most information about the British in Malta start with the arrival of Lord Nelson to oust the French in 1799, the role of the British Forces during the Second Word War and finally the departure from Malta in 1964. However the British had an important role within the Order of St John in the years following the arrival of the order in 1530.
Arrival of the Knights of St. John in Malta
When the Knights of St John arrived in Malta in October 1530, they established themselves in the small humble fishing village of Birgu, known today as Vittoriosa. For 41 years the streets of Birgu were occupied by the Knights and each nationality known as Langues, or Language, took over or built residences called Auberges. At first these palaces were modest when compared with the later ones in Valletta; most of them still survive in Vittoriosa including the Auberge d’Angleterre that serves today as a regional library.
Appeal to Henry VIII
In 1522 the Knights expelled from Rhodes and during the transitional period when the Knights wanted to find a permanent home as a base, Grandmaster L’Isle Adam even travelled to England asking King Henry VIII for the possibility of a base, but this request was unsuccessful.
One of the English Knights, Sir Richard Salford, a representative of the Knights who had visited Malta recommended that the island of Malta should be the permanent base of the Knights of St John. History recalls that nobody in Europe wanted this religious institution to have a base in their country after losing the island of Rhodes.
The Islands were given to the knights by a feudal agreement to the Knights in 1530 by Emperor Charles V of Aragon, to whom the Maltese islands belonged, father of Catherine of Aragon King Henry’s wife.
The role of Sir William Weston
After about eight years wandering in the Mediterranean, it was Sir William Weston who commended the vessel, the carrack Sant’Anna that carried Grandmaster L’Isle Adam and the Knights, to the island of Malta on October 26th, 1530.
Establishment of the Auberge d’ Angleterre
A historical sitting of the Knights of the English Langue took place on March 4th 1532. This sitting was held in a modest house in Birgu for the English Knights. The actual house was acquired by an English Knight, Sir Clement West in December 1534. He purchased it from a Maltese woman Catherine Abela whose husband was a slave of the Order.
Sir Nicholas Upton
Another English Knight, Sir Nicholas Upton, Sir Nicholas distinguished himself during earlier attacks by the Turks. He was the Patron of a great galley of the Order in 1537. Sir Upton was killed in the first Siege of 1551 by Dragut, the dreaded corsaire and his army when the latter attempted to conquer Malta.
Sir Oliver Starkey
Sir Oliver Starkey, another English Knight, presented himself as the right hand and secretary of Grandmaster La Vallette during the major Ottoman attacks. He assisted the Grandmaster during the Great Siege of 1565. He is buried in the crypt of St John’s in Valletta, being the only person to be buried in this crypt below the rank of Grandmaster. His tomb is close to La Vallette’s in the same crypt. Starkey’s house in Birgu can still be seen today next to the Auberge d’Angltere.
Documents of the Order
There are references to English members of the Order of St John that could be found in the former Library of the Order in Valletta including all the names of all the English Knights within the Order. The title of the Head of the English Langue was Turcopilier and he was responsible for the militia including the manning of the Post of England, overlooking on the north walls of Birgu on the Grand Harbour. The word Turcopilier meant a Turkish light cavalryman, that was actually the title of the Conventual Bailiff of the English Langue, and it took its name from “Turcopoles”, a sort of light cavalry mentioned in the history of the wars carried on by the Christians against Muslims in Palestine. Originally it meant a light-armed Turkish soldier, son of a Turk.
The Suppression of the English Langue
Sir William Weston died of a heart attack in 1540 on hearing the bad news of the suppression of the English Langue by King Henry VIII. The suppression took part because Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, to marry her beautiful Lady in waiting, Anna Boleyn, and Pope Paul III (1534-1549), would not give his consent for the divorce, as it was against the principle and status of the Catholic Church. The King acted himself, the Archbishop of Canterbury being on his side, and he suppressed completely the English Langue, as he did not want to see England being represented by the Order of St John because it was a religious institution. Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Emperor Charles V of Aragon, to whom the Maltese islands belonged, until they were given by a feudal agreement to the Knights in 1530.
Restoration of the English Langue
Later, the English Langue was going to be established during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, in 1557, being a religious person she never forgot her mother’s religion. But the Langue was suppressed again by Queen Elizabeth I. Unfortunately Queen Mary Tudor reigned after only five years on the throne of England, and those five years were not enough to re-establish the English Langue again according to her wishes.
When the Knights left Vittoriosa and went to the new city Valletta in 1571, no English Auberge was built in Valletta though in the hope that this Langue might be revived in future. There was just only one English Knight left by the year 1600 serving in Malta, and all the Commandaries in England were all confiscated during the disassociation of the Langue from the Order.