|When the Knights of St John arrived in Malta in October 1530, they established themselves without delay in the small humble fishing village of Il Borgo (Birgu), also known today as Vittoriosa, after the success achieved during the Great Siege of 1565 when Grandmaster La Vallette acclaimed it as the victorious city. For 41 years the streets of Il Borgo were occupied by the Knights and each nationality known as Language, “Langue” for short, took over or built residences (palaces) termed 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. It is the best one kept out of all the surviving ones in Vittoriosa.
English Knights of noble birth vied to become members of the Order of St John that was a monastic institution; they figured prominently in the early history of the Knights. One of the English Knights, Sir Richard Salford, was a representative of the Knights who had visited Malta and recommended that the island of Malta should be the permanent base of the Knights of St John after their greatest loss of the island of Rhodes in 1522. During this 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. History recalls that nobody in Europe wanted this religious institution to have a base in their country after losing the island of Rhodes.
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. 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), Alessandro Farnese, did not give his consent for the divorce, as it was against the principle and status of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Wolsley, a great friend of both the Pope and Henry, could not accept the proposition made by Henry to ask the Pope for the consent. The King acted himself, the Parliament was on his side, the Archbishop of Canterbury was 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.
History recalls that Sir Weston was buried like other English Knights in the first Conventual church of St Lawrence, but his tomb is not marked. Another English Knight, Sir Nicholas Upton, was also buried in St Lawrence church, but again his tomb is not marked. Sir Upton distinguished himself during earlier attacks by the Turks. He was the Patron of a great galley of the Order in 1537 whilst Sir William Tyrrel brought urgent food supplies from Marseilles. 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, and he conquered the sister island of Gozo in- stead.
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 this major attack known as the Great Siege of 1565 which we regard as the imprint of Maltese history. He is buried in the crypt of St John in Valletta that was the second Conventual church of the Knights after that of St Lawrence. He is the only person to be buried in this crypt below the rank of Grandmaster. In this crypt there are buried the earlier Grandmasters. Here his tomb is close to La Vallette’s in the same crypt. His house in Birgu could still be seen today next to the Auberge of England. His house in Valletta which he built when the Order moved there from Vittoriosa in 1571, is today is occupied by the Russian institute of culture in Merchants’ Street.
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. These are also available in the Auberge in Vittoriosa and can be shown on request. In the library at Valletta one could also see the historic decree of 1532 requiring aspirants for knighthood in the English Langue to present their proof of nobility before joining in Malta as Knights of Justice. 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 that was close to that of Germany, both 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.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. Later, the English Langue was going to be established during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor in 1557. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and she was a religious lady because she never forgot her mother’s religion. But the Langue was suppressed again by Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anna Boleyn. Elizabeth I was later excommunicated by Pope Pius V (1566-1572), Michele Ghialieri. 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 it was hoped that this Langue might be revived in future. So the unique English Auberge is found only in Vittoriosa and this is why we gave it here great importance more than the other Auberges that belonged to the other Langues within the Order.
A historical sitting of the Knights of the English Langue took place on March 4th 1532. This sitting mentioned a modest house in Birgu for the English Knights. The Knights were present at the meeting. This 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 (not a prisoner) of the Order. Sir Clement West donated the house in Majjistrall Street (North West Street) to the English Langue in May 1535. When the Langue was deprived of its properties in 1540, a few years later in 1546 the Grandmaster directed that an annual provision should be made to maintain the Auberge. The small house was converted into the present large palace or auberge, a 16th century building with Melitan moulding windows at the façade (see Melitan Moulding in Birgu in this publication). Visitors are always welcomed by the librarian in charge of this library, which is housed in the Auberge.