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A Man of Yet a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

The Daze Of The Knights

Donald stopped for a few moments in the Upper Barrakka Garden and looked outwards through one of the tall, modern, limestone arches. Before him lay Malta’s Grand Harbour, its turquoise-blue water whisked into numerous white-topped peaks by the brisk March wind.

Across the harbour stood the ancient cities of Senglea and Vittoriose. Donald gazed at the fortifications at the tip of the peninsula on which Vittoriose stood - the 16th Century walls of Fort St. Angelo. He reflected that he must have studied the holiday brochure with a greater intensity than he had recalled because the view of those defences carried with it a sense of deep familiarity - almost as if he had been looking at a local landmark at home in England.

Donald zipped-up his jacket. The breeze was not cold by English standards - Maltese people who had never visited the United Kingdom had no concept of “cold by English standards” - it was, however, not quite comfortable, and so he turned around and made his way from the Garden and towards the centre of Valletta.

He had no particular plan for the day so simply enjoyed walking through the streets, taking-in the atmosphere and looking at the orange-yellow limestone buildings. Some had been constructed or reconstructed after the Second World War. Others had miraculously escaped the German and Italian bombs but nevertheless displayed the scars of battle in their stonework. At least some of these buildings would have dated from the days of the Knights.

Donald looked upwards. Wooden balconies were perched on corbels projecting from upper stories of the houses. Some of the balconies were brightly painted in reds or greens or blues. Others showed signs of neglect, having long since lost any paint that had once been applied to them. Washed clothes, in the process of drying, fluttered frantically from some, as if desperate to be carried away by the blustering wind.

Donald stopped to take his bearings and realised that he had reached the dead centre of the city. He was standing outside St. John’s Co-Cathedral. This was his first visit to Malta, his first time in Valletta and the first time he had seen the grand Cathedral of the Knights of St. John. This sight, however, once again engendered within him a strange sense of familiarity. Without thinking, he ascended the steps to the entrance of the Cathedral as if he had habitually done so on numerous occasions.

It seemed to Donald that to describe the interior of the Cathedral as spectacular would have been an understatement. Everywhere were intricate, elaborate carvings and magnificent works of art. The nave and the side chapels seemed to glow with a golden light, reflected by the ornate Baroque decoration.

Donald paused at a side chapel dedicated to one of the eight Langues - the languages or nations into which the Knights had been divided. ‘Don Miguel de Cordoba,’ he said, and stopped to wonder from where in his memory that name had been awakened.

‘You are a scholar of the Knights of St. John,’ said a voice from behind him.

Donald turned to see an old man in a black, flowing robe and the collar of a priest. ‘I know virtually nothing about the Knights,’ Donald replied to him.

‘How did you know about Don Miguel de Cordoba?’ the man enquired. ‘There are nearly four hundred knights buried here, and Don Miguel was by no means the most famous.’

‘I don’t know why I said that name,’ said Donald, feeling unsettled and perplexed. ‘...May I ask who you are?’ he continued when he had recovered his thoughts.

‘I’m Father Augustus Acosta,’ said the man. ‘I’m the Cathedral historian.’

‘I’m Donald Corren,’ said Donald. ‘I’m pleased to meet you. Who was Don Miguel de Cordoba?’

‘He was a Knight of St. John,’ Father Acosta replied. ‘He came to Malta in 1570 and lived here until he died in 1655. That period was part of a golden age for the Knights. The Great Siege of 1565 was over and had enhanced the reputation of the Knights, leading to increased support from Europe. The Knights were able to concentrate on developing the island and enjoying their lifestyle.’

‘So, what did Don Miguel do?’ asked Donald.

‘He was an administrator,’ Father Acosta replied. ‘I’ve recently been looking into how the Order managed the practicalities of everyday life, so I’ve been studying those like Don Miguel who oversaw the detail of routine affairs.’

‘I thought that Knights travelled around, bravely righting wrongs and undertaking chivalrous deeds,’ said Donald.

‘There are a lot of things that need to be done to maintain an Order such as that of the Knights, not to speak of running Malta,’ Father Acosta explained. ‘The Knights came from aristocratic families across Europe. They were educated and so they could write, discuss matters, plan and undertake book-keeping.’

‘So, what was his life like?’ asked Donald.

‘He would have attended his office from nine in the morning until five in the evening, with an hour for luncheon. He would have had weekends off. That was typical for "Knights of the Ordinary".’

‘Knights of the Ordinary?’ said Donald, in a tone of enquiry.

‘Knights attracted to their names epithets which characterised their standing amongst their peers,’ Father Acosta explained. ‘For example, one of Don Miguel’s contemporaries, Gilbert de Mouton, was known as Gilbert the Brave. Hugh de Chevalier was known as Hugh the Wise. Many of the island’s administrators were known by the term “the Ordinary”. For example, the person who managed the accounting for the thirteen defensive towers funded by Martin de Redin, Richard de Vere, was known as Richard the Ordinary.’

‘What epithet was afforded to Don Miguel?’ Donald enquired.

‘Initially he was known as Don Miguel the Tedious,’ answered Father Acosta. ‘Although after his wife ran off with Philip the Well Endowed, he was often referred to as Don Miguel the Sad Loser.’

‘I used to be an administrator,’ confessed Donald, ‘and my wife left me for someone called Philip, as she said I was too tedious.’ Donald paused, reflecting upon this coincidence. ‘Do you believe in reincarnation?’

‘I am a Catholic,’ replied Father Acosta. ‘I believe that God gives us each just one life. You are not the first, however, to have this experience - to become aware of a Knight and then to find parallels between your life and his. Perhaps, on a day like today, their voices, burned by the Mediterranean sun into the very fabric of the ancient structures on this island, are released onto the wind and can be detected by those for whom they have some sympathetic resonance. We call this phenomenon the Daze of the Knights.’

‘Why was Don Miguel known as “the Tedious”? asked Donald, anxious to know more about this kindred spirit.

‘I believe he enjoyed keeping meticulous records of all transactions with which he was involved. He even took his work home with him.’

‘There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a neat column of reconciled figures on a spreadsheet,’ Donald empathised.

‘He liked to spend hours at the entrance to the Great Harbour noting the names of the boats that passed into and out of the harbour,’ Father Acosta noted.

I think train spotting is most interesting hobby there ever could be.’ Donald volunteered a further similarity from his own life.

‘He used to describe the minutia of his everyday life in detail to anyone who could not escape,’ continued Father Acosta, pointing to a gravestone in the floor of the Cathedral, just a few feet in front of them. ‘That’s his tomb. Look at the illustration that’s at centre, left.’

In common with all the gravestones that comprised the larger area of the Cathedral floor, Don Miguel’s was inlaid with the richest marble and porphyry in pietre dure. The image that Father Acosta had indicated, depicted the Knight holding forth on some issue, clearly of great relevance to himself. Around him slumped his audience, yawning or asleep. One knight even held a sword to his own throat, clearly indicating that a meeting with his maker would, to him in that moment, be preferable to further attendance upon Don Miguel’s discourse.

Donald remained silent. The parallels were beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. ‘What happened to Don Miguel in his later years?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know all the details of individual knights,’ Father Acosta replied. ‘Key aspects of his life may be depicted on his gravestone.’ The Father looked at his watch. ‘It has been interesting meeting you,’ he said to Donald, stifling a yawn, ‘but I must go about my business.’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Donald. ‘Thank you for your time.’

‘Remember,’ said Father Acosta before he turned to walk away, ‘that Don Miguel’s life is not yours. You have the power to change the direction of your own life.’

Donald thought about Father Acosta’s words as he watched him walk down the nave and disappear towards the Oratory. Donald then turned and walked over to Don Miguel’s gravestone. There were many small illustrations upon it, presumably depicting elements of the knight’s life. Donald noted a garden which reminded him of his own membership of the allotment society. Then there were a number of small images showing various countries. Perhaps those might parallel his stamp collecting or even his annual, low cost, package holidays.

But what was this? At the bottom of the gravestone were depicted bags of money, then amphorae of wine, then young women in various states of undress. It seemed to Donald that Don Miguel had enjoyed a life altering change of his fortunes in his later life, but what had precipitated that? He looked at the image just to the left of the money bags and then withdrew his guidebook from his pocket. The image was of a defensive tower with a small island behind it, and a distinctive headland, beyond. A very similar view appeared in his illustrated guide. The caption read: “Wignacourt Tower, St Paul’s Bay.”


There was not a cloud in the sky, but Donald was glad to escape the continuing wind as he entered Wignacourt Tower on the following morning.

A very helpful middle-aged woman gave Donald his ticket and some explanatory literature on the origins of this imposing, limestone-block defence - now the oldest coastal defence post on Malta.

‘Does the name of the Knight, Don Miguel de Cordoba mean anything to you? Donald asked her.

Before she could reply, a sudden gust of wind scattered many of the remaining leaflets across the floor. The woman looked towards the narrow spiral staircase in one corner of the tower. ‘I think the last visitor didn’t properly close the door to the roof,’ she said.

‘I’ll make sure I close it,’ said Donald as he helped her collect the papers. ‘The wind can badly disturb things in the upper chamber too.’

‘You’ve been here before, then,’ the woman surmised.

‘No,’ said Donald.

‘How do you know that the stairs to the roof act like a chimney for the breeze?’

Donald reflected that it was a good question, but of a type that was becoming familiar and less remarkable to him. ‘Does the name of the Knight, Don Miguel de Cordoba mean anything to you? Donald reverted to the subject of his initial enquiry.

‘A moment ago I would have said no,’ she replied, furrowing her brow in thought, ‘but the name does seem a little familiar, somehow, although I can’t recall more than that at the moment.’


Donald stepped onto the roof of the tower and closed the door after him. He looked out across St. Paul’s Bay towards St. Paul’s Island. The white statue of St. Paul was clearly visible on the island, half the height that the island stood above the sea.

Donald pulled his coat about him to protect him from the wind. ‘The second letter is in the well-shaft,’ he heard himself involuntarily whisper.

It had always been one of Donald’s skills as an administrator to focus on analysing the particular matter of detail that lay before him and not to become side-tracked by excessive consideration of the broader context. He therefore did not ponder on whatever mystical link he might have with Don Miguel the Sad Loser, and he did not think about how that connection had taken him from the Upper Barrakka Garden to St. John’s Co-Cathedral and then to Wignacourt Tower. Instead he asked himself what the second letter was, and where the well could be found?

One possible answer to his second question lay in the upper chamber, below him. During the time of the Knights, water for the soldiers who had been on duty in the upper chamber had been drawn from a well below the tower. In the wall of the upper chamber was a door to a shaft within which hung a wooden bucket that could be hoisted to and from the well below.

Donald opened the roof door and began to descend the worn stone steps to the upper chamber, pausing briefly to secure the door behind him in the automatic, unthinking, habitual fashion that he might have closed his own front door.

Once in the upper chamber, Donald stood at the well opening and placed his hand inside. He touched the far wall and stretched his arm and hand downwards across two of the limestone blocks that formed the shaft, to the point where he could feel a stone protuberance. He knocked it sideways with his palm, causing a small door in the block to open. Finally he removed the sealed clay box from its hiding place.

‘I found this in the upper chamber,’ said Donald to the woman in the lower room, handing the box to her. ‘I think it might be important.’



The rest of this story is now, of course, history.

It has since been widely reported how Don Miguel de Cordoba discovered two scrolls at St. Paul’s Bay, Malta. These letters had been written by St. Paul during the three months he spent on the island following his shipwreck in 60 AD.

The letters had confirmed the exact details of his shipwreck, but had also contained quotations by Jesus that had been contrary to Church teachings. Don Miguel had become concerned that the Pope might, as a result, destroy the artefacts, and so had revealed the existence of just one.

The Church had taken the first scroll, suppressed the heretical opinions of Jesus that it had contained and sealed the document in the vaults of the Vatican. Don Miguel had been been paid a king’s ransom ostensibly for his discovery, but also for his silence. He had concealed the second letter in Wignacourt Tower, together with a note by himself explaining the above, for discovery in some more enlightened times.

Donald was credited with the discovery of Paul’s second letter and the note containing Don Miguel’s explanation. The modern Order of the Knights of St. John, known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, based in Rome, were required by ancient covenant to award him five million pounds for the find.

The rediscovered letters were, in common with their predecessor, quickly consigned to the vaults of the Vatican, so it remains unclear as to exactly which elements of the teachings of Jesus are considered to be un-Christian by the Catholic Church. Fortunately the Church has, thus far, chosen not to posthumously excommunicate either Jesus or St. Paul.

Donald considered the comments of Father Acosta that he need not live his life to the precise pattern of that of Don Miguel de Cordoba. However, the final illustrations on the Knight’s tomb - numerous wine amphorae and endless young women in various states of undress - seemed to him to constitute a satisfactory life plan. He had been, he thought, a little conservative for too much of his life. In the end, he deviated slightly from the exact images by buying wine in cases due to the modern shortage of amphorae.

Finally, since the whole story was reported in Time Magazine, the Upper Barrakka Garden is often crowded in March and April on days when the cool Mediterranean wind blows just a little too briskly for comfort. Some visitors, perhaps, hoping that a voice from long ago may speak on the breeze and transport them into the Daze of the Knights.