In 2012, a square was inaugurated in Valletta, named Pjazza Jean de Valette, featuring a statue of the 49th, and probably most well-known, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. John. It was arguably about time that there was a proper monument to commemorate one of the greatest heroes of Malta’s history, and the founder of our capital city. The 2.5m bronze statue by the local sculptor Joseph Chetchuti depicts de Valette wearing armour and carrying a sword - the warrior and hero of the Great Siege of 1565 - while in his other hand he holds the rolled-up blueprints of Valletta, the city which bears his name. Indeed, this is how most people picture Jean de Vallette today; a strong, courageous and noble figure, deeply religious, as most knights were. But while he certainly was all of that, there were other aspects about him which are less well-known.
Jean de Valette was born in the south of France in 1494 into an influential family; many of his ancestors had accompanied the Kings of France on various crusades. Being the second son in his family, de Valette joined the Order of St. John as a knight of the Langue of Provence at the age of 20, and it is said that he never returned to France or his family estates from that day on. Very little is known about his early years in the Order, except that he was present at the Siege of Rhodes in 1522, and that he arrived in Malta with the rest of the Knights in 1530. This is when his name starts to appear more in the historical records, although some of the things we find there paint a slightly different picture of the man than the one we are normally presented with.
1. Spent time in prison
It seems that Jean de Valette had a bit of a short temper, which occasionally got him in trouble. On one occasion, shortly after the Knights had come to Malta, the 44-year old Frenchman was charged with resorting to violence against a non-member of the Order; after some kind of argument with a layman, he beat him up quite badly, or so it seems from the severity of the punishment that was meted out. Initially, de Valette was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment in Gozo, spending his time in an underground 'guva', a dry well from which there was no possibility of escape, with food and water being lowered down to the prisoner.
Following his release, he was posted to serve as military governor of Tripoli, Libya, for two years. Tripoli had been granted to the Knights at the same time as Malta, but the city was extremely vulnerable to attacks by the Barbary corsairs, and being sent there was surely no reward. Despite this, de Valette was credited with restoring order to the place, displaying his power of organisation, and re-establishing discipline among the Christian troops. However, following his return to Malta, another criminal charge was levelled against him; that of having brought back with him a black person as a slave when he was not liable to servitude. Once again, de Valette was tried and condemned.
2. Was once enslaved
Despite his earlier misdeeds, de Valette soon started making a name for himself, eventually being given command of one of the Order’s galleys, the San Giovanni. In 1541, however, during a naval battle off the Barbary coast, his galley was captured, and the wounded de Valette was taken prisoner. He was to spend the next year chained to a bench, rowing on the galleys. Even here he seems to have made the most of his time, learning to speak fluent Arabic and Turkish, to add to his knowledge of French, Spanish, Italian, Latin