25 January 2022

Another unusual grave on
the bastions of Valletta and
some Irish family connections

The grave of Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer on the walls of Valletta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing yesterday (24 January 2022) about the Hastings Gardens in Valletta and the tomb of the Irish politician and former Governor of Malta, Lord Hastings from Moira, Co Down.

But close to the Hastings Gardens last week I also came across the unusual grave of Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer (1791-1830), a naval officer with many Irish family links, and I learned too about another Irish politician and diplomat in Malta, the 3rd Earl of Bessborough.

Spencer was born on 24 October 1791, the third son of George Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer. His brothers included John Spencer, 3rd Earl Spencer, Frederick Spencer, 4th Earl Spencer, and the zealous Catholic convert George Spencer.

Spencer’s aunt, Lady Georgiana Spencer (1757-1806), married William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, who lived at Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. This explains Spencer’s middle name, and made him a distant kinsman of Lord Frederick Cavendish (1836-1882), the Chief Secretary of Ireland, who was murdered in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1882.

Spencer’s sister, Lady Georgiana Charlotte Spencer (1794-1823), married Lord George Quin (formerly Taylour), from Kells, Co Meath, son of Thomas Taylour, 1st Marquess of Headfort, MP for Kells (1776-1790) Longford (1794-1795), Meath (1794-1795) and had issue. Spencer’s brothers included George Spencer (1799-1864), was known as Father Ignatius, a Passionist preacher throughout Ireland and Britain.

Robert Cavendish Spencer joined the Royal Navy in 1804 and went to command HMS Pelorus, HMS Kite, HMS Espoir, HMS Carron, HMS Cydnus and HMS Ganymede in the Mediterranean, where he negotiated with the Bey of Tunis.

Later, Spencer commanded HMS Owen Glendower, and HMS Naiad in the Mediterranean, where he took part in the operations against Algiers in 1824. He was then employed on the coast of Greece, during the Greek War of Independence.

He was the private secretary to King William IV, when the future king was the Duke of Clarence, in 1827-1828. He was knighted in 1828 after he was appointed to command HMS Madagascar, again serving in the Mediterranean.

However, Spencer died off Alexandria on 4 November 1830. He had just been called back to London as surveyor-general of the ordnance. Spencer was a cousin of Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (1783-1837), the Governor of Malta (1826-1836), which may explain why he was buried in Valletta and why the Spencer Monument in the shape of an obelisk was erected to his memory in Blata l-Bajda, near Valletta.

The Madagascar had just returned from Alexandria when Spencer died on board his ship while in quarantine in Malta on 4 November 1830. He was aged 39. His body was kept in quarantine at the Lazaretto on Manoel Island in Marsamxett Harbour at Valletta for the full 40 days required. His body was then taken to Valletta and he was buried at Saint Michael’s Bastion on 12 December 1830. The burial service was conducted by the Madagascar’s chaplain, the Revd David Morton.

The part of the bastion where he was later renamed Spencer’s Bastion. The inscription on Spencer’s reads: ‘Here lies the body of Captain the Honourable Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer KCH, aged 39 years, who departed this life on board and In command of His Majesty’s Ship Madagascar at Alexandria on the 4th Day Of November 1830.’

The Spencer Monument was designed by the Maltese architect Giorgio Pullicino in 1831 and was originally located at Corradino Hill. It was moved to its present position in 1893. It was struck by lightning in 1975 and suffered considerable damage, however it was later restored.

Spencer’s Irish cousin, the Governor of Malta at the time, Sir Frederick Ponsonby, was the second of three sons of Frederick Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon, later 3rd Earl of Bessborough. His sister was the ‘notorious’ Lady Caroline Lamb, who married the Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne.

Ponsonby, who fought at the Battle of Waterloo, became inspecting field officer in the Ionian Islands on 20 January 1824, and on 27 May 1825 he was promoted major-general, commanding British troops in the Ionian Islands. The next year, he was appointed Governor of Malta on 22 December 1826 and he remained in Malta for 8½ years.

Ponsonby remained in Malta for 8½ years. He left the governorship in May 1835, but remained the de jure Governor until 30 September 1836. He died suddenly on 11 January 1837. Ponsonby’s Column was erected in his honour in Valletta in 1838, but was destroyed by lightning in 1864.

Sir Robert Spencer’s body was kept in quarantine at the Lazaretto on Manoel Island before he was buried at Saint Michael’s Bastion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on image for full-screen view)

With the Saints through Christmas (31):
25 January 2022, Saint Paul, Saint Paul’s Bay

Saint Paul’s Church, Saint Paul’s Bay, Malta … 25 January is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Malta last week, and in Valletta it seems as though every street – or every second street – inside the walls of the capital of Malta, is named after a saint.

Later this morning, I am taking part in a meeting of the Standing Committee of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland. But, before a busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I have been continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during the Season of Christmas, which continues until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February);

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

This week, I am continuing to reflect on saints and their association with prominent churches or notable street names in Malta, which I visited last week. This morning (25 January 2022) is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and I am looking Saint Paul at Saint Paul’s Bay, on the north coast of Malta, which I visited last week.

The town of Saint Paul’s Bay (San Pawl il-Ba─žar) is about 16 km north-west of Valletta. This is the largest town in the Northern Region and the seat of the Northern Regional Committee, along with being the most populous town in Malta.

The name of the town refers to the shipwreck of Saint Paul as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles on Saint Paul’s Islands near St Paul's Bay, on his voyage from Caesarea to Rome. Saint Paul’s stay is said to have laid the foundations of Christianity on the island.

Saint Luke recounts in Acts 27 to 28 how Saint Paul’s ship was lost at sea for two weeks during winter storms. Eventually, the ship ran aground on the island of Malta and was dashed to pieces by the surf, but all of the occupants survived and made it to shore.

Saint Paul’s Island, an uninhabited, rocky islet at the entrance to Saint Paul’s Bay, is thought to be the site where the ship wrecked. Acts 27: 41 states the ship ran aground on a piece of land ‘with sea on both sides.’

Saint Paul’s Shipwreck Church stands on the water’s edge in the town of Saint Paul’s Bay. The church is also known as St. Paul’s Bonfire Church and commemorates the traditional site where the shipwreck survivors, including Saint Paul, swam ashore and a bonfire was built for them.

The church was first built in the 14th century, but was rebuilt after a bomb destroyed the original building during World War II. The parish is run by the Franciscan Conventuals.

Saint Paul’s Church above the Menqa or boat shelter at the harbour in Saint Paul’s Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Acts 9: 1-22 (NRSVA):

1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5 He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ 7 The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 11 The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ 13 But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 15 But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

Matthew 19: 27-30 (NRSVA):

27 Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ 28 Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

The colonnades in Saint Paul’s Church in Saint Paul’s Bay, Malta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (25 January 2022) invites us to pray:

We pray for those outside of the Church, that they may feel God’s love. May we also pray for those responsible for evangelism in the Church, ensuring it is done in a sensitive yet effective manner.

Yesterday: Saint Wistin

Tomorrow: Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral (Anglican), Valletta

Saint Paul’s Islands in Saint Paul’s Bay … said to be the site of Saint Paul’s shipwreck (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org