A 16th-century historical event is re-enacted several times per month at Malta’s stunning Fort St Elmo. Known as the In Guardia parades, the colourful spectacle sees roughly 50 actors dressed in period military costumes demonstrating the might of the former Knights of St John through drills, fencing and cannon fire— a not-to-miss outing when in Valletta, and a real blast!
History of Fort St Elmo
If you’re visiting Malta, or even searching for pictures of it on the Internet, there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon Fort St Elmo, the imposing star-shaped bastion in Valletta that stands on the seaward shore of the Sciberras Peninsula, between Grand Harbour from Marsamxett Harbour.
Here, I must intervene and boast of my family ties to the important location. My surname is Fenech from my paternal side and has been certified to be derived from Fenici, Italian for Phoenicians who occupied Malta BC. My paternal grandmother was from Valletta and before marriage was surnamed Tonina SCIBERRAS, thus I come from true Valletta stock, as the capital city was built on the Sciberras Peninsula.
Malta has a long and turbulent defensive history throughout the centuries and up to World Wars I and II, but its heydays were during the time of the Knights, followed by the intervention of Napoleon and the French, and then Lord Nelson and the British.
In 1417, a local militia had already established a sea lookout post on the Sciberras Peninsula and this was added to by the Aragonese who constructed a watch tower and named it Erasmus of Formia, better known as Saint Elmo. The Knights of St John of Jerusalem fully valued the location of this post and its strategic defensive position and demolished the old post, replacing it with a strong star-shaped fort replete with internal fortifications.
Fort St Elmo is a masterpiece of architectural and defensive design, a fact that came to the forefront during the extensive Ottoman Siege of 1565. Although nearly destroyed during that attack, the fort was renovated and re-fortified and still stands today as a reminder of Maltese resilliance. The fort was also important during World War II when the would-be invading Italian navy attempted to enter the two harbours but were consistently repelled.
Luckily, the Valletta bastion now welcomes visitors instead of invaders. Fort St Elmo is also home to the National War Museum, where one can see the George Cross, awarded to the Maltese people on 15 April 1942 by King George VI in recognition of their continuing and heroic struggle against repeated and continuous attacks during World War II.
Great Siege of 1565
The Ottoman armada arrived off Malta in May 1565 and was anchored close to Fort St Elmo, where around 150 Cavalier Knights and 600 soldiers waited inside. During the Siege of 1565 by the Ottomans, a cannon misfired and the falling debris killed one of the Ottoman commanders, Admiral Dragut. However, the stout fort withstood the attack for for 28 days before finally being reduced to rubble in June. All the Knights were killed but nine Maltese defenders survived and swam off across the harbour to safety.
Because of the implications of the five-month siege, which finally ended on 8 September 1565, the Grandmaster of the time, Jean Parisot de Valette, decided a new city was needed on the Sciberras Peninsula to bolster the fort. Construction began in 1566 and the Pope sent Francesco Laparelli to design the fortifications of the new city. Sadly, de Valette died before its completion in 1568 but the grand city was named Valletta and became Malta’s capital.
In Guardia Parades
Colour and military regalia go hand-in-hand with Malta’s cultural heritage and can be traced back to the Knights of St John. The noble order arrived in Malta in 1530, and during this time, frequently held an event that involved a regular inspection of the fort and garrison by the Grand Bailiff who was in charge of military affairs.
Malta’s victory over the Ottomans led the Grand Bailiff of the Order in the late 16th Century to commission regular colourful parades within the fort, which were designated “In Guardia”. The reenactments are held monthly and honour the might of the Knights and portray the inspection of the fort and its garrison by the Grand Bailiff.
The 40-minute parades are held on Sundays, weather permitting, and begin at 11.00 a.m. For the rest of 2023, the schedule is as follows:
12, 26 November
10, 17 December
Good To Know: There is a small entrance fee (€7) for the parades
WOW! Factor: The colour and spectacle of the event
Author Bio: Albert Fenech