Malta’s own Magna Carta is on display in the National Library in Valletta (Bibliotheca) but attracts hardly any visitors.
Many schoolchildren learnt all about England’s Magna Carta, given by King John to the nobles, but few know that even Malta has its Magna Carta, or the circumstances in which it was given.
It is on display in the National Library, together with other historical documents, as part of an exhibition in connection with the Second Colloquium on Maltese-Spanish history, organised by the Spanish Embassy, the National Library, the Malta Historical Society and the University of Malta.
Last Friday, at the National Library, former Speaker Michael Frendo gave a lecture on the Maltese Magna Carta and the circumstances of its creation.
Its actual title is Magna Carta Libertatis and it was given to Malta by King Alfonso V of Aragon on 20 June 1428, thus making it roughly 200 years younger than the English one.
In 1421, the King of Aragon gave Malta as a fiefdom to Don Antonio de Cardona, his Viceroy in Sicily, for 30,000 Aragonese gold florins but de Cardona soon sub-let it to Don Gonsalvo de Monroy. The fiefdom always came with a right to redemption and the king needed money to continue his fight against the Angevins.
Monroy and his deputy, Platamone, treated the Maltese badly and first Gozo and then Malta rose in rebellion, begining in 1425 in Gozo and spreading to Malta by the next year. Monroy’s wife was blockaded at Castrum Maris and the Viceroy’s representative, who came to see how to end the rebellion, was publicly insulted.
The representatives of the two populations sent messages to the king detailing Monroy’s abuses. They insisted that Malta and Gozo should form part of the royal demanio, but the king wanted the 30,000 gold florins to redeem the fiefdom to be repaid in four months.
The Maltese had no such funds, so fresh negotiations were held. The king agreed to prolong the negotiations but asked for hostages, and the head of the Maltese delegation, Antonio Desguanez, ended up sending his own children to the king as hostages. The Maltese strived to make up the sum, but failed.
Nevertheless, on 20 June 1428, King Alfonso gave Malta its Magna Carta Libertatis, extending the royal charter in favour of the rights of the Maltese. Malta was to become part of the royal demanio and, in return for this show of loyalty by the Maltese to the Aragonese crown, they were even given the right to rebel if ever they were to lose their status and freedom.
Malta was thus to be on the same level as Palermo, Messina and Catania.
Since the Maltese had not managed to come up with the price asked for by the king, Monroy was still Malta’s lord, but he died soon after and then the king died as well.
Malta’s hard-acquired freedom gave it just 100 years of peace because Alfonso’s successor, Charles V, disregarding the Magna Carta, gave Malta in fiefdom to the Order of St John in 1530, despite protests by the representatives of the Maltese.
The next speaker last Friday was Professor Peter Vassallo who spoke about the Spanish poet and politician Angel de Saavedra, Duque de Rivas, who imposed on himself self-exile to Malta for five years from 1825 to 1830.
De Saavedra supported a coup attempt that failed and became a marked man, fleeing to Gibraltar, then Britain and then to the Vatican where he was counselled to put himself under the protection of the British by coming to Malta.
He escaped to Livorno where he boarded a sailing vessel with a Maltese crew bound for Malta. En route, the ship encountered a bad storm but after four terrible days arrived in Grand Harbour.
De Saavedra wrote a beautiful poem about the lighthouse that used to stand at Fort St Elmo, praising it as the beacon of freedom. In fact, some years ago, when relatives of the poet visited Malta, the first thing they wanted to see was this lighthouse – not knowing that it had been struck by a storm and subsequently demolished during the war.
In Malta, a penniless de Saavedra, was befriended by Hookham Frere, the young artist Giuseppe Hyzler and by others he later mentioned in an epic poem. He left Malta for France, where he wrote the play that was later to become the opera La Forza del Destino.