Birgu's Fortifications

At the break of dawn on the 26th day of October 1530 few galleys of the Order of St John mainly the San Giovanni, Santa Croce, San Filippo and the largest of them all the carrack Sant’Anna anchored in the Grand Harbour of Malta.  Standing high on the prow of his flagship Sant’Anna, Grand Master L’Isle Adam proudly dressed in his ceremonial robe, surveyed the whole scene around him with more apprehension than complete satisfaction.  His apprehension was the pity state of Malta’s defenses especially those around the harbours.  L’Isle Adam knew well that Malta had no other defense than a castle named St Angelo which was partly in ruins and its artillery consisted of only one cannon and a few mortars.

From Fort St Angelo and Il Borgo where the Knights set up their immediate position the Grand Master looked northwards across the harbour water at the Sceberras hill, a peninsula jutting out between the two large harbours.  The Knights chose to strengthen the existing defenses and the land-front of the Borgo was first strengthened, when a Florentine military engineer Piccino was invited to restore the walls and improve defenses of St Angelo and of Mdina.  The Knights also suggested Piccino to build a fort close to the tip of the Sceberras peninsula which was named Fort St Elmo to defend Il Borgo already inhabited by more than 2500 residents. 

In July 1551 a small Turkish fleet under the command of Sinan Pasha who was strongly led by the dreaded corsair Dragut entered the Marsamxett Harbour and landed with a force of 10,000 men.  From there Dragut mounted by Sceberras heights came face to face with the mighty guns of Fort St Angelo and Il Borgo.  There he found the opposition much stronger than he had expected, he had to face a 400 strong detachment of cavalry under the Turcopilier (Governor of Il Borgo) Sir Nicholas Upton of the English Langue who was killed close to St Lawrence church, then the Conventual church of the Order where he was even buried.  A marble tablet by the outside wall of the sacristy reads this event.  Later Dragut, after burning a number of villages re-embarked his men and sailed north to Gozo after his attempt to capture Malta, he landed in Gozo without any opposition and over powered the frail garrison.  He devastated Gozo and carried out most of the residents as slaves.


     When the Knights of St John arrived and occupied the Maltese islands and settled in Birgu in 1530, this small fishing village was only defended by neglected walls and many Maltese people were an easy prey for regular attacks by corsairs and pirates from Turkish and Barbarian States.  So the Knights had to improve the defensive walls and build bastions to defend Birgu and later the whole area of Cottonera, this covers the area of the three old cities, thus Bormla (Cospicua), Isla (Senglea) and Birgu (Vittoriosa).  Later the Knights did the same thing in the new city Valletta when it was built.  Birgu is a typical fortified old and medieval town with very narrow streets and many of these streets have steps.  According to certain sources this was because it was easier for the Knights who developed it to go up and down the very low steps wearing the heavy armour, instead of walking up the hilly streets.


Constructions in fortification works in Birgu that had spanned over a very long period of time during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries created two major operations and technical skills.  The first one started soon after the arrival of the Knights in Malta that involved modifications of the medieval castle of St Angelo, a building during the 9th century when Malta was ruled by the Arabs.  This was however changed into a fully equipped fortress for the purpose of two main roles of guarding the Grand Harbour and dominating the medieval fishing village of Birgu that suited its function as the seat and residence of the Knights of St John.  The other building operation started about the year 1540 and this involved the protection of the whole area of Birgu by means of the new walls by the use of the Italian system of defense like that used in Rhodes when the Knights occupied that island centuries before they were forced out by the Ottoman Empire in 1522.

The new land-front of Birgu incorporated two pointed bastions at the middle including two demi-bastions at the sea edge ends with a wide ditch excavated to isolate the fortifications from the rest of Cospicua.  The system incorporated the outer walls and the inner walls with the ditch in the middle.  This was done in view of a future attack by the Turks.  This original design built in 1540 by the Italian military engineer Antonio Ferramolino was modified later after the Great Siege of 1565, merely to include the two famous cavaliers.  The defense of the Birgu land-front was strengthened by the building of the Santa Margherita (1638-1735) and the famous Cottonera Lines also known as Valperga Lines (1670-1680).  But the latter defenses with eight great bastions and curtains in between which are five kilometers long remained not complete because of the fact that funds failed to fulfill the great ambitious will of the designer, another military engineer Maurizio Valperga.


The further the fortifications stretched out from Birgu and the main line of defense, the further the strong enemy had to commence the attacks in resulting in a great delay and great possible loss of resources in the process of attacks.  In fact Birgu was no exception when the so called gridiron suburb of Burmola (Cospicua) was laid out within the Santa Margherita Lines in 1718 under the expertise supervision of the French military engineer Francois de Mondion.


The Order of St John considered the protection of Birgu having as its main aim the full protection of the Grand Harbour, Fort St Angelo, the Conventual church of St Lawrence and the Auberges.  The defenses became obvious when the mouth of the Grand Harbour was sealed with the building of Fort Ricasoli and Fort St Elmo.  The factor of governing the defense of Birgu by means of bastions and ditches of the land-front boundaries of Fort St Angelo and the whole fortifications was a characteristic of all fortified areas using bastions for the main defenses, a common arrangement in medieval times.


The upgrading operations of Fort St Angelo (Castrum Maris as named by the Aragonese) had been concluded in 1688 when the Spanish military engineer Don Carlos Grunenbergh whose coat-of-arms appears above the main entrance of the fort at the wharf, designed the formation of four batteries at various levels, thus facing the Grand Harbour, the work on this project was completed in 1690.  The most famous of all these four batteries was De Guirall battery at the tip of the fort, and La Vallette battery facing the Grand Harbour.  I must point out that the Knights used to look at the sea with two eyes, the positive and the negative eye.  The positive because they used the sea for pirating and used to capture galleys from Barbarian States and Turkish fleets to obtain treasures, gold, silver, money, timber for the use as fuel, and even slaves to gain power for rowing on their galleys.  The negative eye because they expected the enemy to arrive only by sea.  Pointed out was the D’Homedes bastion built to take the brunt in case of an attack from inland.  This was built during the grandmastership of D’Homedes.


The response of the Knights to a possible dangerous situation and a serious threat invasion by the Ottoman Empire when their armies had developed an artillery, was to ask engineer Ferramolino to construct a fortified land-front consisting of a cavalier at Fort St Angelo and a curtain wall by the two cavaliers by the Birgu entrance, namely St John and St James and two demi-bastions at the ends, separated from Cospicua and the rest of the island by a dry ditch.  In the same way was Fort St Angelo separated from Birgu by a wet ditch (moat) excavated by the Knights thus providing a difficulty for such an enemy to penetrate into the fort from land.  However, this ditch is also known sometimes as the Boat chamber.  Modifications had to be urgently made in the important area of Post of Castille facing the heights of Bighi and San Salvatore.


In the complete form the land-front fortifications of Birgu in 1730 protected by the Santa Margherita and the Valperga Lines, presented a powerful defensive network when observed from the outside and one will undoubtedly encounter the characteristic of military architecture, these characteristic military defenses are as follows :-

  • Arch

A curved construction spanning an opening.

  • Bastion

Work projecting outwards from the main walls of a defense enceinte.  It is designed to enable troops to see and defend the perimeter in front of the ramparts.  A strong covering of a village, town or city.

  • Battery

A platform which is protected by a normal parapet for cannons and mortars. A coastal battery is a work fortified against direct assault and designed to engage enemy ships close to the objective.

  • Breach

A gap blown open to the defensive walls of a fortress or whatever the walls were built  for, by a mine or any artillery fire.

  • Brisure

A break (opening) in the line of a curtain wall in order to increase the area of guns in the flank or upper wall of a bastion and to allow a wider view and field of fire from the same.

  • Buttress

A mass of masonry built against a wall simply to give additional strength to counteract the lateral thrust of a roof, an arch or a vault.

  • Castle

A stronghold, a fortified post in harbours or by the coastline.

  • Castrum

A Latin term used to refer to an actual Roman military camp, also used to refer to an early medieval castle.

  • Cavalier

A raised platform built on a bastion or a curtain wall designed to commend the surrounding grounds and also to defend Gates or entrances, always incorporated with many guns.

  • Couvre Porte

A French name to refer to a construction designed simply to cover immediate approaches to the main Gate or fortress.

  • Curtain wall

This is also known as Cortina, it is the main wall of a defensive work usually the length of a rampart between two bastions or cavaliers.

  • Demi-Bastion

A half built bastion with only one face and one or two flanks.

  • Ditch

This is also know as fossa, a dry trench outside a fortified construction usually rock-hewn, to obstruct direct assault on the main walls, it was used to separate important localities and areas.

  • Drawbridge

A bridge spanning a moat or a dry ditch, hinged and provided with a raising and lowering mechanism so as to hinder or enable the required passage into a castle or a fortress.

  • Embrasure

An opening cut in a parapet through which a cannon be fired without the exposing the concerned crew, normally it is wider at the front than at the rear.

  • Enceinte

A French name that means the fortified perimeter of a defensive structure and the area enclosed by it.  It is a French word used universally.

  • Entrenchment

An inner second line of defense, sometimes accompanied by a trench.  In coastal entrenchments, they are built usually along the shoreline to impede an enemy disembarkation.

  • Escutcheon

This is a large shield usually made of stone or marble, fixed to a fortress wall or above a gateway or a bastion on which are depicted the coat-of-arms (emblems) including other heraldic insignias.  They were all rubbed off by the French in 1798 on the Birgu fortifications.

  • Flank

The section of a fortified structure designed to defend an adjoining work and also to provide enfilading fires.

  • Front of fortification

This is the distance between the salient points of two adjacent bastions.

  • Fort

A fortified military establishment.

  • Fortress

A fortified city or town or any other major defensive work.

  • Gate

This is also known as Porta reale, the principal entrance into a fortress, protected by a drawbridge and a ditch internally containing one or more guardrooms which may be fitted with loopholes to cover approaches to the doorway.  Also means an entrance into a village, town or city.

  • Glacis

A sloping ground in front of a fortress spanning from the top of the parapet of the covert-way down until it reaches the open country.

  • Gorge

This is the interior side or neck of a bastion, outer-work or other defensive work not protected by a parapet.

  • Hornwork

This is also known as opera a corna, an outer work consisting of a front of two demi-bastions joined by a short curtain wall.

  • Line of defense

This means the line of fire from the flank of a bastion along the face of the adjacing bastion.

  • Magazine

A storage place for gunpowder and other munitions.

  • Moat

This is a wide and deep trench or ditch surrounding the walls of a fortress or a castle  always filled with water  (a wet ditch).

  • Parapet

Also known as parapetto, it is a break-work on top of a rampart intended to provide shelter for troops behind it.

  • Piazza

This is a large open space or a courtyard inside a fortress, a sort of parade ground.

  • Piazza Bassa

A low platform in the flank of a bastion, a casemated battery in the same flank of the bastion.

  • Polverista

A specially built magazine or magazines used for the storage of all type of gunpowder.  Also known as a Gunpowder Magazine.

  • Rampart

A very thick wall of earth or masonry forming a main defense of a fortress usually it is reinforced from the rear with terraplein.

  • Ravelin

A triangular shaped outer-work placed in front of a curtain or a cavalier to defend it.

  • Sally Porte

Also known as porta falsa, a false door or entrance, a concealed gate or an underground passage leading from inside a fortress into the ditch, or from inside a bastion into an outside area.

  • Salient of bastion

This is the projecting front angle of a bastion.

  • Tenaille

Known also as tenaglia (tongs).  A small structure placed inside the ditch between two adjoining bastions and designed to protect the curtain wall detached, but sometimes linked to the flanks or shoulders of adjoining bastions.  It looks like a pair of tongs from a bird’s eye position.

  • Terraplein

This is the packing of earth forming the body of a rampart, the sloping ground behind a parapet formed from packed earth 

  • Traversa

A defensive barrier consisting of a parapet or a simple wall placed at right angles to the mainline of defense, and in order to protect the defender from flanking fire commonly found on covert-ways, but also on the main ramparts themselves.

  • Wall –Tower

A tower built as part of a rampart of a castle usually projecting outwards from the main curtain wall.

  • Watch-Tower

A tower lightly fortified and used as a lookout post.

  • Wing

This is a long and narrow rampart protecting the exposed sides of a horned or crowned structure.

Let us now analyze roughly the Valperga Lines, these consist of eight bastions with curtains adjoining each bastion.  They were named as follows:-  St Paul in Cospicua, St John, St Nicholas, St Clement, Notre Dame,  St James, St Louis and San Salvatore.  All these embrace the whole Cottonera from the inland.

Every Langue within the Order of St John had its own Post of defense guarded by sentinels, soldiers and Knights.

  • Post of Aragon near Gate of Aragon or Advanced Gate.  The latter was defended and guarded by this Post.
  • Post of France near Couvre Porte above the Advanced Gate.
  • Post of Provence close to St John cavalier in Main Gate street.
  • Post of Auvergne guarding the Gate of Auvergne, known by the locals as the Little Gate, situated near St James cavalier.
  • Post of Genoa looked after by the Italian Knights, close to Post of Auvergne.
  • Post of Germany, facing the Grand Harbour in Old Prison street.
  • Post of England, very close to that of Germany, and also facing the Grand Harbour.
  • Post of Castille, the most important Post, also known as the blooded Post because of a fierce battle only one day after the landing and storming of the Turkish invaders, it was the first attack of the Great Siege.


When the Turkish fleet landed in Marsaxlokk on the 18th of May 1565, the following day they started marching towards Birgu to start their wanted mission by Suleiman the Ottoman Sultan.  Grandmaster La Vallette sent a small army controlled by two Italian Knights to meet them.  The Turks met with the Maltese soldiers and the Knights and wanted to know which was the weakest Post so that they start the attacks on it.  The knights replied that the Post of Castille was the weakest, but the truth was that it was the most powerful, the strongest.  The Turks attacked but did not succeed to penetrate into Birgu and blood was shed all over the place.  When the enemy knew that they were given daft information they executed the two Italian Knights, they were the first victims of the Great Siege.

The French curtain was an important defensive wall bound between the two cavaliers at the land-front, that of St John and St James.  This curtain overlooks the long dry ditch, the whole area in Torri ta’ San Gwann street is still known by the residents of Birgu as Sur tal-Kurdara, the rope makers bastion.  This area provided space enough for the rope-makers and caulkers working on the necessary ropes for the galleys of the fleet of the Order.  This trade of rope-making and caulkers was very important within the Order, providing all the necessary ropes for their fleet under the patronage of their patron saint, St Catherine of Alexandria.


This area was selected because the arsenal space at the wharf close to St Lawrence church was not large enough to hold all the tradesmen.  The space where the arsenals stood was also close to the church where the ex British Bakery built in 1840 stood, this building is serving as the Maritime Museum today.


The bastion of Il Prescia, (the Breach) is a large bastion facing Kalkara, a nearby village which was also attacked by the Turks in the last days of the Siege, when they caused a large breach by using explosives simply to penetrate inside Birgu because it was found impossible to do this from other defenses.  This bastion is close to the ex drawbridge leading to the Gate of Auvergne.


Birgu was separated from the inner part by the long ditch, from the north part by bastions beginning from the same ditch and finishing by Fort St Angelo while facing the Break Water at the entrance of the port.  At its extreme tip it was fortified by Castle Fort St Angelo.  On the southern part by the water and wharf that was known as the Grande Marina which the fleet of the Order was regularly using.

The Three Old Cities

The three cities were all founded before Valletta and some sources alleged that they were named Three cities by Napoleon in 1798, although others insist that they were called Three cities by the Knights of St John.  They consist of Vittoriosa, the oldest of them all and the richest in history.  Senglea named after Grand Master La Sengle, the second to it, and Cospicua, the largest of them all.  After the Great Siege of 1565 the threat of further invasions by the Ottoman Empire remained all the time worrying the Order of St John and the fortifications were strengthened.  Francesco Firenzuola wanted to review the whole situation in 1638 and he suggested that the hill of Santa Margherita in Cospicua, if taken by the enemy, would commend and facilitate entrance to the Grand Harbour, thus blockading the cities.


The Margherita Lines comprise six bastions and these were designed by Firenzuola, an Italian, a Dominican friar and engineer, and started the work immediately and was completed in 1735, hundred years including everything which involved a fortification.  When the Turkish Empire captured Candia (Crete) in 1669 after almost a 25 year war, still known as the Great War of Candia against the Christian States, another invasion seemed imminent enough for more preparations by the Order of St John as the sole defenders of our island.  Grand Master Nicola Cotoner asked the engineer Maurizio Valperga to design a further set of fortifications, which was a scheme to enclose and fortify Cottonera (the three cities).  These also served for accommodation because within this circumference about 40,000 people and their animals were sheltered.

Vittoriosa was formerly known as Il Borgo which meant a suberb behind a castle, it became Birgu from the Greek word Pirgos and Birgu is one of the earliest Latin words used on the island.  It is built on a narrow fortified promontory jutting out into the Grand Harbour between Dockyard Creek and Kalkara Creek.  Fort St Angelo was formerly known as Castrum Maris at the tip dominating the harbour.  It was the main city of this harbour before the arrival of the Knights and during Spanish and Sicilian rule and was the Governor’s seat sharing the part for the south with Mdina, the ecclesiastical division of Malta into two districts and two parishes.


When the Order of St John came to Malta in 1530, Birgu became their seat, their main centre and Head Quarters.  Each Langue within the Order was given an Auberge, they bought houses and modified and converted them, but they even built palaces.  The Order left Vittoriosa to the new city, Valletta in 1571.


The word Vittoriosa from Victorious city was acclaimed by Grand Master La Vallette for the great part of its people taken during the Great Siege of 1565 withstanding all the Turkish onslaught until the proper victory came on 8th September with the arrival of reinforcement from Sicily after many promises from the Viceroy of Sicily.  Vittoriosa, more than Cospicua, Senglea and Valletta was badly attacked and bombarded by enemy action during World War II and many buildings from the time of the Order of St John and medieval building if given attention, repaired and re-built still remain for many visitors to see, but modern building was built in the stead.

Military engineers

The following military engineers were responsible for the defensive structures of Birgu.

  • Antonio Ferramolino (1535-1541) from Bergamo Italy, built the cavalier in Fort St Angelo.
  • Pietro Prato (1552) an Italian built Fort St Elmo to defend Birgu.
  • Padre Francesco Firenzuola (1638) from Firenzuola Italy, built the Santa Margherita Lines.
  • Antonio Maurizio Valperga (1670) from Turin Italy, built the Cottonera Lines and Fort Ricasoli.
  • Carlos Grunenbergh 1681 (1687-1690) from Flanders, built the Carafa bastion and designed parts in Fort St Angelo.
  • Charles Francois de Mondion (1715-1733) a Frenchman who worked on Santa Margherita Lines and Birgu land-front.
  • Francois Rene` de Tigne (1762-1788) a Frenchman who worked on Fort Ricasoli.