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A glance in any souvenir shop or history book will tell you that knights have played a major role in the history of Malta. The knight connection is all down to a group of fighting men known as the Knights of Malta. They saw off an invasion from the Islamic Ottoman Empire in 1565 and secured the island’s future as a Christian nation.
Given the requirement to fight against this particularly determined bunch of Muslims, they needed to be well-equipped and heavily armed. Back then they kept all their fighting clobber in an armoury at the Grandmaster’s Palace. And if you visit today you’ll find plenty it is still there, on display for visitors in a museum known formally as the Palace Armoury.
Those notorious Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, to use their full title, reluctantly landed on Malta in around 1530 and were given control of the island by the Pope. The Ottomans had forced them to flee from their previous residence on the Greek island of Rhodes.
Once installed on Malta they set about building fortifications around the port area know as the Three Cities. They set up Malta as a stronghold to fight to maintain Catholicism and prevent an Islamic takeover of this nation and of others subsequently. The knights fully expected the Ottomans to work their way across the Mediterranean and come calling on their new home … and they were right!
The date was 1565 and the bloody battle that decided things once and for all became known as the Great Siege. An armada of around 40,000 Turks had to be repelled and they were defeated but at the cost of a third of the knights and a third of the island’s population. The Pope and other grateful Catholic nations sent huge financial gifts of thanks to Malta. They used it to create a new and magnificent fortified city called Valletta along side the Grand Harbour and named it after the Grandmaster who had led them through the siege, Jean Parisot de la Valette.
What helped the knights to succeed was their well-stocked, professionally-run, state-of-the-art armoury. This was transferred to the new Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta when it had been completed in 1604. Today this building is known as the Presidential Palace and the armoury is still there, albeit in a different room!
When the knights were fully operational, the armoury had sufficient weapons to equip around 25,000 men. A considerable percentage was lost however during the French occupation at the end of the 18th century when the light-fingered Napoleonic troops removed them.
Once the British had taken charge in 1900, what was left in the armoury was catalogued and arranged by Sir Francis Laking, the King's Armourer. He listed some 5,721 pieces and these were all placed in a large hall at the rear of the Palace. That remained their home until 1975 when the hall was taken over by the Maltese Parliament.
The Armoury moved again to its current venue on the ground floor and what is on display here is a collection of authentic pieces from the time of those famous Knights of Malta - the period before and after the Great Siege.
Highlights include ornate suits of armour, plus weapons such as pikes, halberds, forks and partisans, bows and arrows, powder flasks, swords and firearms. Also on display are several iron and stone cannonballs, which are thought to be relics of the Great Siege.
You’ll find the Palace Armoury in Merchants Street and it is open every day between 9am and 5pm. Standard admission is €10 with reduced rates of €7 for students and OAPs, €5 for children aged six to 11-years-old and free for under 6s.
Address: Grandmaster's Palace, Merchants Street, Valletta
Phone: +356 2124 9349
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