The small island nation of Malta is situated at a vital maritime position in the Mediterranean, between North Africa and southern Europe, and has been fought over for thousands of years.
In 1530, Malta was gifted by the King of Spain to the Order of St John, following the Knights’ brutal eviction by the Ottomans from their home in Rhodes. Malta provided the Order with a new base from which to harry the workings of the Ottoman Empire and to resist the expansion of Islam in the Mediterranean and Europe.
Over time, Malta was developed and fortified by the Order, particularly in the wake of the Great Siege of 1565. During the siege, an Ottoman force of up to 48,000 was resisted for four months by five hundred knights commanding a military force of around 6,000, supported by the heroic efforts of the local Maltese population. The Ottomans were defeated but much of Malta was in ruins.
By the time of Tom’s visit with his companion Edward Hamilton (a Knight of St John) in the early 1620s, the Order had constructed a mighty new capital in Valletta, named after Grand Master Jean Parisot de Vallette who had led the heroic defence during the Great Siege. The following photo shows a stretch of the sea wall with the city rising up on the ridge behind.
Most of the key institutions of the Order had by Tom’s visit shifted to Valletta, leaving the former capital Birgu – on the other side of the Grand Harbour – in slow decline. It is in the labyrinthine streets of Birgu that Tom and Edward hide themselves and where they first encounter Richelieu’s secret agents. The photo below shows a typical street in Birgu, which has barely changed since Tom’s time, and is thought to be around the site of the inn where he stayed with Edward.
The following paintings depict views of Valletta and the Three Cities (of which Birgu is one) and are attributed to Caloriti (pre 1695, Valletta Museum of Fine Arts). The first view is broadly from East to West. It shows Fort St Elmo in the right foreground, at the tip of Valletta. The Grand Harbour is on the left, with Birgu (Vittoriosa) extending like a finger of land with Fort St Angelo at its tip. Marsamxett Harbour is on the right. As shown in the photograph above, modern-day Valletta retains many of its original features and fortifications shown below.
This view of Valletta is from the south and shows Fort St Angelo (at the tip of Birgu) in the foreground, flying the flag of the Order. Tom and Edward’s ship moored in the creek between Birgu and Senglea (shown in the left foreground below). They crossed the Grand Harbour between Birgu and Valletta by boat, accessing Valletta by the marine gate.