The Palace Armoury is one of the world’s more prominent arms collections, easily placed among the most valuable historic monuments of European culture. Made more important by its historic associations, the Armoury is certainly one of the most visible and tangible symbols of the past glories of the Sovereign Hospitaller, Military Order of Malta. Moreover, the Armoury is also a rare example of a significant national arms collection still located in its original building. The magnificent Grand Master’s Palace was among the first buildings of importance erected soon after the Order established itself in the new city of Valletta in 1571. The Palace served as the Order’s administrative centre and military headquarters for over 200 years, and was the official residence of all successive Grand Masters until the Knights left Malta in 1798.
The two ground-floor halls presently housing the Armoury collection were originally the Palace stables. In 1604, Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1601-22) transferred the Order’s main arsenal into the Palace. The new Armoury was duly housed in the large, magnificent hall at the rear of the building, above the stables. Immediately on entering the Palace the Armoury took on an added importance. Running the entire length of the building, it was one of the largest armoury halls in existence. The ‘Sala d’Armi del Palazzo’ was the pride of the Order, gradually taking on more of a spectacular ‘show-piece’ role. The Grand Master and the Knights took every opportunity to show off their imposing armoury to important foreign visitors. Apart from being lavishly adorned with numerous impressive arms trophies, essentially as the Order’s main arsenal, it held enough arms to equip thousands of soldiers. However during the later part of the Order’s rule, the once famous armoury fell into neglect.
In 1798 Napoleon seized Malta, and during the troubled two-year French occupation and the early years of British rule, quantities of armour were shipped away. The British Government intended to remove the collection for safe keeping to London; however this was never fully undertaken. In 1850 the Armoury was emptied to make room for thousands of newly-arrived modern British weapons. Five years later these new arms were removed by Governor William Reid (1851-58) as part of a grand rehabilitation plan. In 1857, fortunately, a final attempt to remove the more important pieces to England failed.
Under the direction of Governor Sir Gaspard Le Marchant (1858-64), armour was recovered from where it long lay abandoned and was duly cleaned and rearranged in the Armoury hall and Palace corridors. In 1860, regaining some of its former glory, the Armoury was officially opened as Malta’s first public museum. At the turn of the century, in 1902, Governor Lord Glenfel (1899-1903) engaged Guy Francis Laking, the renowned arms authority and Keeper to the King’s Armoury, to properly classify, catalogue and rearrange the collection. Laking reorganized the display, emphasizing the finer pieces and duly presented his intriguing catalogue. Very little occurred prior to the Second World War with Laking’s arrangement remaining unaltered. During the War years the collection was stored elsewhere for safety and after the War the Museums Department officially took over responsibility.
In 1969, the Armoury was once more given attention when UNESCO appointed experts to survey the collection, and a more complete inventory was duly compiled. Regrettably, in 1975, the unfortunate decision was taken to transfer the entire collection to its present ground-floor location, to make way for Malta’s new House of Representatives. Following this major move, for a considerable period no serious improvements were effected. Recently, however the collection has been given deserved importance and a lot has been done with a good measure of success.
Although now only a fraction of its original splendour, the Palace Armoury still ranks among the world’s greatest arms collections and comprises a large variety of armour and weapons dating from the 15th century when the Knights still occupied Rhodes, and covering some three hundred years of armour and weapon development until the Order left Malta. The various periods are well represented including various fine specimens of rare, early 16th century armour. The weapons section boasts an abundant and fascinating variety of edged weapons and firearms. Moreover, the Armoury constitutes a rare example of a working arsenal, made all the more interesting since it includes along with the massed arms of the common soldiers, the enriched personal armours and prestigious weapons of the nobility.
Source: Heritage Malta