The myth of the motte and bailey castle in Scotland
An assessment of medieval earthwork fortifications in Scotland and their relationship to traditional Anglo-Norman motte and bailey castles, and earlier Scottish sites....
Inside Marsamxett harbour lies a small leaf-shaped island once known as the Isoletto. Its strategic value emerged with the construction of Valletta on Mount Sciberras, when the threat it posed to the western flanks of the new city began to feature prominently in the engineers’ reports.
The earliest scheme to fortify this little island appears to have been proposed in 1569, in a report ‘Discorso sopra le fortificatione’ signed ‘Cavagliere di Malta’, written by an anonymous foreign member of the Order who realized that the enemy would attack Valletta from Marsamxett Harbour and bombard St Michael’s bastion from the Isoletto. To deny the enemy this possibility, the ‘Cavagliere di Malta’ proposed the construction of a ‘piatta forma’ with ‘due teste dipendente, affine che nella batteria che vi si facesse sempre vi restasse piazza di buona forma.’ This small fort, consisting of a cavalier surrounded by a detached low battery, was to be surrounded by a glacis but this work was never taken in hand even though the threat posed by the ‘Isoletto assai eminente’ was again demonstrated by Scipione Campi in 1577 and by Giovanni Battista in 1582.
In 1643 the land on the Isoletto, which then belonged to cathedral chapter of Mdina, was acquired by the Order in exchange for an area of land known as Tal-Fiddien, in the vicinity of Rabat, in order to enable the knights to build the Lazzareto, a quarantine hospital. It was only in the late seventeenth century, however, that the Order seriously began contemplating the fortification of the Isoletto.
In 1760 Maurizio Valperga produced a scheme for the defence of the harbour in which he included a design for a fort to defend the Isoletto. Francesco Collignon’s plan of the harbour, dated 1688, probably shows Valperga’s fort. This depicts an irregular hexagonal work with four bastions and one demi-bastion facing
Valperga’s proposed fort was criticized both by Count Vernada and Blondel in 1671, as being too small. This prompted Grunenberg in 1682, to design a larger fort with a ‘falsabraga, assi a los dos flances,
The next recommendations came in 1715 when the French engneer Tigné designed a small square fort with four corner bastions and a ravelin on its land front with which the knights could deny an enemy ‘la facilité des’establir, d’on ne parroit por in commander la Cité Vallette et attaquer la Religion dans son centre.’ He estimated that this would cost 25,000 scudi. Philippe Maigret, on the other hand, proposed a small casemated redoubt with covertway and polverista, to be situated in the middle of the Isoletto and connected by a long caponier to a large battery covering the narrow strip of water separating the island from the mainland for the cost of 2,600 scudi. Contemporary plans reveal that both these proposals were incorporated in another elaborate scheme, whereby troops inside the battery could retreat safely in stages through the long caponier to the separate outerworks, i.e. to the redoubt, through the lunette, and up to the place-of-arms, and into the fort. The large casemated redoubt, roughly in the centre of the island was a perfect square in design and was to be surrounded by a dry ditch and a covertway with two places-of-arms. The centre of the redoubt was to be occupied by a conical polverista similar to the one later built inside
The fort designed by Brigadier rene Jacob de Tigné was a star-shaped work with four corner bastions, a large ravelin, and tenaille in the ditch. One version of his design shows an asymmetrical fort contorted to one side. Both engineers, however, classified this project as being non-urgent and were ready to postpone the building of the fort until the Order’s financial position rendered itself more favourable. The opportunity presented itself during the reign of Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. The decision to fortify the Isoletto was finally taken in 1723, and this was only made possible by the grand master’s generosity. Charles François de Mondion, the Order’s resident engineer, was commissioned to design the new work, but in effect Mondion only modified and elaborated Tigné’s original design (‘le Forte Manoel execute par MM. le Chev. Mondion d’apres les projets de M. le Chev. de Tigné’).
The first stone was laid with due ceremony by the grand master on 14 September 1723, in the presence of ‘molte Gran Croce e da una grande comitiva di Cavaglieri, affinchè ben fosse in sua presenza collocata la prima pietra in detta fabbrica, come seguito dopo aver l’Emin. Sua lasciato a futura memoria diverse monite.’ Vilhena offered to pay for the fort and established a fund of 6,000 scudi to provide for its garrison and maintenance ‘con intenzione altresi di stabilire una rendita annoale e sicura che basta a mantenere un competente presidio.’ Work on the fort progressed rapidly and, by 1732, the ditch had already been excavated. The date on the main gate reads 1726.
The design of
Inside the fort, the space was occupied by a large piazza, or parade ground. This was flanked on three of its sides by barrack blocks and a chapel dedicated to St Anthony of
The main entrance to the fort was through a baroque gateway in the centre of the east curtain between the bastions of St Anthony and St Helen. Internally, the gateway was flanked by two guardrooms, each fitted with two musketry loopholes facing the approaches to the gate. In front of the gate, was a small drop-ditch defended by a wooden palisade. The fort was flanked on three of its sides by a deep rock-hewn ditch. On top of the counterscarp ran a wide covertway fitted with traverses, places-of-arms, and cuttings that enabled the defenders to sally forth onto the glacis. Three sally-ports and caponiers connected the fort to its outerworks.
The glacis was elaborately countermined. The ravelin in the ditch contained a large vaulted chamber which was intended to serve as an assembly point for a company of about 100 troops. In 1757 it was decided to build a coastal battery at Qala Lembi on the promontory opposite
Perfect in design as it might have been, the security of the fort was jeopardized by its proximity to two large buildings already existent when the fort was built. The first was a large abandoned magazine situated roughly in the centre of the Isoletto, and the second, the one which posed the greatest danger, was the Lazzareto, a quarantine hospital. The latter was difficult to remove and replace, and it is easy to understand the Order’s reluctance to demolish this building, despite the engineers’ many persistent recommendations, ‘demolizione progettata come indispensabile sià dal tempo che si fabrica il Forte Manoel al quale il magazino sudetto darebbe comodo al nemico di avvicinarsi.’
The maintenance of
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