Wignacourt towers

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Wignacourt Towers
Various locations in Malta and Gozo
Alof de Wignancourt official portrait.jpg
Alof de Wignacourt, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, ordered the construction of the seven towers
Type Coastal fortification
Site information
Condition 4 survive
2 destroyed
Site history
Built 1610-1620
Built by Order of Saint John
In use 1610-present
Materials Limestone
Battles/wars Raid of Żejtun (1614)
Capture of Malta (1798)
Siege of Malta (1798–1800)

The Wignacourt towers (Maltese: Torrijiet ta' Wignacourt) are a series of fortifications on the island of Malta built by the Knights of Malta between 1610 and 1620. A total of six towers of this type were constructed, and four remain.

These towers were built under the auspices of Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt. Wignacourt funded the construction of 5 of the towers from his personal funds. The total cost of these five towers was 55,519 scudi, which amounted to one eighth of the Grandmaster's total benefactions to the Order. The only tower which was not financed by the Grandmaster was Marsalforn Tower on the island of Gozo, which was financed directly by the Order. This tower no longer survives as it collapsed in 1716.[1]

Unlike the later Lascaris and De Redin towers, the Wignacourt towers were more than simply watchtowers. Instead they formed significant strongpoints intended to protect vulnerable sections of the coast from attack. Coastal batteries were later added to three of the towers and they were also sometimes regarded as forts.

The design of the Wignacourt towers inspired the design of one of the Lascaris, St. Agatha's Tower, which was built in 1649. This is sometimes also considered as a Wignacourt tower, but it is actually a Lascaris tower in the Wignacourt style.

The towers[edit]

Wignacourt Tower (Saint Paul's Bay Tower)[edit]

Wignacourt Tower

Wignacourt Tower or Saint Paul's Bay Tower was the first of the towers to be constructed, overlooking St Paul's Bay. The first stone was laid on 10 February 1610, and the ceremony of the blessing of the foundation stone was personally attended by Grandmaster Wignacourt. The design of the tower is attributed to the Maltese architect Vittorio Cassar and it cost around 7748 scudi to build. Wignacourt Tower was the first watchtower to be built on the island of Malta. After Garzes Tower (on Gozo) was demolished in 1848, Wignacourt Tower became the oldest watchtower in all of the Maltese islands.

Wignacourt Tower first saw action in July 1614, when an Ottoman fleet tried to land but they went elsewhere when they saw the new tower. The tower's line of sight had Għajn Ħadid Tower (now partially ruined) to the west and Qawra Tower to the east. A coastal battery was added in 1715 to increase the its fire power. After Malta fell under British rule, the tower began to be used as a police station. In 1891, a postal agency was opened within the police station. It remained open until 1921, and during this period a postmark reading "St. Paul's Bay" was used at the office.[2] The police station closed in 1931, and from 1937 to 1963 the tower was occupied by the Post and Telephone Department.[3]

The tower's original entrance was on the first floor, and it was approached by a drawbridge from a flight of stone steps. The steps were removed in the 1950s when the road in front of the tower was widened. An entrance was added on the ground floor.[4]

In 1967 the government issued a call for tenders for the lease of the tower, and it was leased to Din l-Art Ħelwa in 1970. It was restored between 1973 and 1976. Since 1998, the tower has been a museum. The exhibit contains models of various fortifications found in the Maltese islands, reproductions of items used by the tower's occupants in the 17th and 18th centuries, old photos and a restored cannon.[5]

In 2010, the 400th anniversary of the tower was celebrated by the St. Paul's Bay Local Council, the Festa Committee and Din l-Art Ħelwa by a series of events including re-enactments, tours, discussions and traditional Maltese folklore.[6]

Saint Lucian Tower[edit]

Saint Lucian Tower

Saint Lucian Tower was built above the shore of Marsaxlokk Bay on the headland between Marsaxlokk and Birżebbuġa. According to local legends, a woman is said to have had a dream in which St. John advised her to tell the Grandmaster to fortify the area around Marsaxlokk since an Ottoman attack was imminent. The woman told the parish priest, who told the bishop who in turn told Wignacourt. However the Grandmaster didn't give any importance to this, but that summer an attack really happened. Therefore Wignacourt ordered the construction of St Lucian Tower, which was eventually built between 1610 and 1611. The cost of construction was 11,745 scudi. The tower was named after a church in France in which Wignacourt had been baptized.

The fort was originally armed with 6 cannons, as well as ammunition and other armaments. The tower had a small chapel within its walls, and it had a painting depicting the Martyrdom of St Lucian. The painting was relocated to the parish church of Tarxien in 1799. After the De Redin towers were constructed, St Lucian had Delimara Tower and Bengħisa Tower in its line of sight, but both of these have since been demolished. A semi-circular battery was added to the tower in 1715-1716, and both the actual tower and the battery were later enclosed within an entrenchment-like enclosure that included an excavated ditch between 1792 and 1795. This was designed by the engineer Antoine Etienne de Tousard and the complex was renamed Fort Rohan after the reigning Grandmaster, Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc. Fort Rohan was one of the few forts that actually tried to defend Malta during the French invasion in 1798. After the Order left, the name "Fort Rohan" fell into disuse and the tower began to be referred to as "St Lucian Tower" once again.[7]

During the French blockade, St Lucian was chosen by the British as an evacuation point in case they had to make a quick retreat due to the arrival of a French relief force. A large entrenchment was built around the fort, and a redoubt was built close by as well. None of these have survived.[8] When Malta fell under British rule permanently, they substantially extended the fort and the original tower now forms the core of a Victorian era fortress. Between 1874 and 1878, the battery, enclosure and the flight of steps leading to the tower were dismantled, and a new coastal fort was built instead of them called Fort Saint Lucian. The fort has caponiers, a sunken gate, and a curved entrance ramp. On the seaward side the tower has been extended to form a low battery, with three large casemates facing out across Marsaxlokk Bay towards Fort Delimara. The fort was equipped with 10-inch 18-ton RML guns. St Lucian formed part of a ring of Victorian fortresses that protected Marsaxlokk Bay which also included Fort Delimara, Fort Tas-Silg and Fort Benghisa.[9]

The fort was decommissioned in 1885, but was used as a munitions depot in World War II, and eventually it was abandoned for some time until the 1970s. It was then restored and it is now the base of the Malta Aquaculture Research Centre. It is generally in good repair, though the ditch is somewhat overgrown. The casemates are empty, the guns long gone.[10]

The tower is featured in the fiction book Il-Misteru ta' San Luċjan (The Mystery of Saint Lucian) by Charles Casha published in 1997.

Saint Thomas Tower[edit]

Saint Thomas Tower

Saint Thomas Tower was built above the shore on the seaward face of the headland of Il-Hamriga in Marsaskala. It is a substantial fortification intended to prevent the landing of troops in the sheltered anchorages of Marsascala Creek and St Thomas Bay. The tower was built in 1614 and was named after a chapel dedicated to St Thomas which stood close to where the tower now lies. Its architect is not known and it cost 13,450 scudi to build making it the second most expensive Wignacourt tower.

The tower has very thick walls and has four pentagonal turrets projecting outwards on each corner. The tower's entrance was through a vaulted doorway with a wooden drawbridge. The drawbridge is still partially intact and it is the only original one to have survived in Malta.

After the De Redin towers were built, St Thomas had Żonqor and Xrobb l-Għaġin Towers in its line of sight, but these are now either in ruins or completely demolished. In 1716, St Thomas Tower was reinforced by the addition of a battery on the seaward face. Construction of the battery cost a total of 382 scudi, 8 tarì, 11 grani and 1 piccolo, which was less than the cost of construction of other batteries around the coast. The tower continued to be used by the British until well into the 19th century, but unlike St Lucian Tower the battery around the fort was not dismantled and rebuilt and only minor alterations to the tower itself were made.[11]

The tower and battery have undergone recent restoration work. The village of Marsaskala has expanded to surround the tower with modern buildings, and the tower now forms the centerpiece of a plaza around its shoreward face. The tower was used as a restaurant and pizzeria. In 2008 the tower was cleaned and the ditch was cleared of vegetation so it is now in very good condition. It was to be converted into a museum about piracy in the Mediterranean.[12]

The tower is featured in the fiction book Il-Misteru tat-Torri San Tumas (The Mystery of Saint Thomas Tower) by Charles Zarb published in 2004.

Marsalforn Tower[edit]

Marsalforn Tower or Ix-Xagħra Tower was built in 1616. The tower's design was attributed to the military engineer Giovanni Rinaldini. This tower was not financed by Wignacourt himself like the other towers, but by the Order itself, and the cost of building it is not known. To the west the tower commanded Marsalforn Bay and to the east it commanded Ramla Bay, thus guarding the northern approach to Gozo. Unlike the other towers, this did not have any turrets. It was built on the edge of a cliff and it collapsed in 1716.

In 1720, Fra Ramon Perellos y Roccaful, the 64th Grandmaster of the Order had a second Marsalforn Tower, also known as the Perellos Tower, built in the centre of the tal-Qortin plateau. The architect was the military engineer Charles François de Mondion, who gave it the form of a redoubt, mounting several cannon. This tower also had a chapel inside.[13] The second tower was demolished in 1915, but reportedly one can still see some of its foundations.

Saint Mary's Tower[edit]

Saint Mary's Tower

Saint Mary's Tower or Santa Maria Tower, was built in 1618 to defend the island of Comino since ships travelling between Malta and Gozo were often attacked by Barbary corsairs based on the cliffs and creeks of Comino. It also served as a communications link between the island of Gozo and mainland Malta in case of an attack on Gozo.

Funds for its construction were raised primarily by means of the sale of Comino brushwood, and the total cost was 17,628 scudi, which made it the most expensive of all the towers. However, the high costs were probably due to the difficulties for transportation and construction on a barren island. Batteries on the coast of Comino had a garrison of 130 men and housed eight 32-pounder and ten 24-pounder cannons, which dominated the North and South Comino Channels.

The tower is a large, square building with four corner turrets, and is located about 80 metres above sea level. The tower itself is about 12 metres tall, with walls that are approximately 6 metres thick, and is raised on a platform and plinth that are approximately 8 metres high. Overall, the tower is higher than any of the other Wignacourt towers. During times of crisis its garrison numbered up to 60 soldiers. By 1791, its armament included two 12-pound iron cannon, one 10-pound bronze cannon, one 4-pound bronze cannon, and two 3-pound bronze cannon.

In the 17th century, Comino served as a place of imprisonment or exile for errant knights. Knights who were convicted of minor crimes were occasionally sentenced to the lonely and dangerous task of manning St. Mary's Tower. During the French Blockade (1798–1800), St. Mary's Tower served as a prison by the Maltese and their British allies for suspected spies or French sympathizers. In the 1799 insurrection against the French, the insurgents transferred the tower's cannons to Malta to bombard the French positions inside Valletta.

In 1829 the British Military abandoned the tower. For several decades it was deemed to be property of the local civil authorities, and may have been used as an isolation hospital, or even as a wintering pen for farm animals. The tower again saw active service during both World War I and World War II. Since 1982, the tower has been the property of the Armed Forces of Malta. It now serves as a lookout and staging post to guard against contraband and the illegal hunting of migratory birds at sea, making it one of the oldest forts still in use.[14]

St. Mary's Tower underwent extensive restoration between 2002 and 2004 and is also open to the public on a number of days in the week. The 2002 film, The Count of Monte Cristo starring Jim Caviezel, used St Mary's Tower to represent the prison Château d'If.

Santa Maria delle Grazie Tower[edit]

Santa Maria delle Grazie Tower (heraldic representation on the flag of Xgħajra)

Santa Maria delle Grazie Tower or Blata Bajda Tower was built in 1620 above the shore to the east of Grand Harbour, close to the present day town of Xgħajra. The cost of building it totaled to 4948 scudi which was less than the cost of the other Wignacourt towers, and therefore it was probably smaller than the others. It was the last of the Wignacourt towers to be built.[15]

The tower was demolished to clear the field of fire of the nearby Della Grazie Battery, construction of which began in 1888, by the British. Nothing of the original tower remains. A street in Xgħajra is named after the tower - Triq it-Torri ta' Alof de Wignacourt (Alof de Wignacourt Tower Street). A heraldic representation of the tower is now featured on the flag and coat of arms of Xgħajra.


  1. ^ Spiteri, Stephen C. "Wignacourt’s Bastioned Towers". Military Architecture. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Proud, Edward B. (1999). The Postal History of Malta. Heathfield: Proud-Bailey Co. Ltd. p. 284. ISBN 1872465315. 
  3. ^ Farrugia Randon, Stanley. "Wignacourt Walks". Din l-Art Ħelwa. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  4. ^ "Wignacourt Tower, St Paul’s Bay". Din l-Art Ħelwa. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  5. ^ Elizabeth, Ayling. "First line of defence: Wignacourt Tower". Malta Inside Out. Retrieved 7 March 2014. 
  6. ^ "400th Anniversary Wignacourt tower St. Paul's Bay". LC.gov.mt. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  7. ^ "St Lucian Fort". Mare Nostrum. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  8. ^ Spiteri, Stephen C. "French Blockade Batteries". vassallohistory.wordpress.com. Retrieved 24 December 2014. 
  9. ^ "St Lucian Tower". National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  10. ^ "Torri ta' San Lucjan (Fort St Lucian)". Malta Bulb. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  11. ^ Spiteri, Stephen C. "St. Thomas Tower and Battery". Military Architecture. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  12. ^ "Marsascala tower for pirates of the Mediterranean". Times of Malta. 25 August 2008. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  13. ^ "Xaghra". Malta-Canada.com. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  14. ^ Spiteri, Stephen C. "Sta. Maria Tower on Comino". Military Architecture. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  15. ^ "Santa Maria delle Grazie Tower". Malta Military. Retrieved 31 August 2014.