At some point on a visit to Malta, you’re bound to spot a coastal defence tower dating from the time of the Knights of St John. Summer visitors reclining on Ghajn Tuffieha or Golden Bay beaches will see one rising on the rocky peninsula between the bays. Another easy-to-spot tower acts as a cafe on the Sliema to St Julian’s seafront.
Until recently, I’d never visited one. But my son’s fascination for these ‘mini-castles’ as he put it meant we ended up twice at the Wignacourt Tower in St Paul’s Bay within as many weeks. Amazingly, given the tower’s small, squat shape, we spent a good hour or more over the detailed displays of maps, texts and models and enjoyed a very thorough guided talk.
Malta’s national trust, Din l’Art-Helwa, runs Wignacourt Tower and last month, February 2010, it celebrated the 400th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the tower. It also marked the 34th anniversary of the restoration on the tower by Din l-Art Helwa.
Victor Rizzo, the treasurer of the organisation, talks here about Wignacourt, Malta’s oldest surviving coastal tower.
The first coastal tower constructed by the Knights was built overlooking Mgarr harbour in Gozo in 1605 and named Garzes Tower after Grand Master Fra Martin Garzes who left personal funds in his will for the building of this tower.
In order to increase the coastal defences of the Maltese Islands, Grand Master Wignacourt, offered to build more towers at his own expense. The first tower was constructed in St Paul’s Bay and the Grand Master personally attended for the blessing of the foundation stone on 10 February, 1610. The tower was rightly named after the Grand Master. Its design is attributed to the Maltese architect Vittorio Cassar.
As Garzes Tower was demolished by the British in the 19th century, it leaves Wignacourt Tower as the oldest surviving coastal defence post on the Maltese Islands.
Layout & Living Quarters
The original entrance to Wignacourt Tower was through a stone staircase which led to the upper floor; from here, occupants would have to use a rope or ladder to descend to the floor below (today’s entrance at road level). Though the staircase was eventually removed to make way for the road, the original arched entrance and door still remain. The present main entrance on the ground floor is, unfortunately, not the original.
The soldier in charge of the defence of the tower lived on the upper floor. He had his bed, a place for a fire with a ventilation shaft, a toilet, and a well for fresh water. Timber holes in the walls suggest the existence of a secondary wooden floor, supported on beams, intended to provide sleeping quarters. The lower floor was accessible through a trap door and used for storage. A spiral staircase is now in place for visitors.
The Tower in Action
The garrison of Wignacourt Tower, which was commanded by a master bombardier, kept watch for signs of approaching enemy ships. In 1614, only four years after construction, a strong attack by a Turkish fleet was launched. It seems that at the sight of the tower, the fleet entered through Mellieha which was not defended until the building of the Red Fort in 1649.
In 1715, a coastal battery was added to the tower to increase its fire power. The armaments throughout most of the 18th century consisted of two 6-pounder iron cannon, similar to the one deployed on the roof, and three 18-pounder iron cannon placed on the battery at the foot of the tower on its seaward side.
In the 19th century, the tower was used as a police station and as a telegraph post. In 1970, the Lands Department leased the tower to Din l-Art Helwa after a call in the Government Gazette. The restoration was inaugurated on 10 February 1976.
The Tower as a Museum today
The tower now houses a small museum. In 1998, an exhibition of models of fortifications around Malta, set up by Dr. Stephen Spiteri (now Superintendent of Fortifications) was opened. The upper floor houses reproductions of items to show how the occupants of the tower used to live and the armaments they used. In the roof turrets some old photos of the tower are exhibited together with other pictures related to Grand Master Wignacourt and his times. On the roof, is a restored cannon.
The tower is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday from 9.30 till noon for a small fee of €2. For further information, see the Din l’Art-Helwa website.