Notes on succession of Maltese titles of Nobility since 1798.




The Maltese nobility vaunts two particular claims, one that there are only 32 titles within the Maltese nobility and that last title, ever to have been created, was in 1796.

We have pretty much disproved both claims in the other parts of this series.

In this section, we consider some forms that have been adopted in Malta to “resuscitate” and modify titles of nobility. It appears that no one has ever had the audacity to query how on earth can all of the claimed-32 titles actually continue to be succeeded more than 2 centuries later?! 

What is of particular interest to us is that it is natural that all families grow and die: Some families become extinct altogether but might be survived in some collateral line, whilst others might become extinct only in the male line; Some families might not become extinct but would like to tidy up dynastic successions; Others just fall out between themselves. In all of these situations, or any one, a title of nobility might be thrown into the equation.

To illustrate this, let’s move out of our box and consider what happened in Italy after the 1946 Referendum. The former King Umberto, by then in exile, reasserted his claim to his “Royal prerogative” (meaning a Fons Honorum)sometime before 1950 because we find that in that year he started convalidating certain titles. 

According to an Italian website ( ), the former king’s use of his royal prerogative averaged 15 times a year, totaling 460 acts, give or take a couple of errors or omissions. Of these royal acts, around 250 were made in favour of persons who already enjoyed nobility and consisted of extensions to the original remainders so as to allow transmission of certain titles which otherwise would have become extinct, as well as formal assent for deviations from primogenital succession. For example we find that on the 27 April 1977, Umberto gave his assent to the Messinese nobleman Conte Don Vittorio Marullo di Condojanni to succeed his maternal family in the title of Barone di Casalnuovo whilst on the 25 January 1958 we find that the same Umberto gave his formal assent to the Nobile Paolo Carrelli Palombi so that his younger son Arturo succeeds him in the title of Marchese di Rajano

The point is that had it not been for a timely intervention, in a short span of 30 years some titles in Republican Italy would have become extinct. The value of Umberto’s prerogative is open to discussion but the bottom line is once the fons honorum is no more, then the titles start to die off one at a time. 

Back to Malta - So, given that the French abolished titles in 1798 and the British made a deliberate decision not to interfere with any Maltese title, how does Malta manage to keep a 100% survival rate?

The answer is found in a steady moving of the goalposts tailored to suit the requirements of the day. 

We are here entering hot waters, and if anyone takes offence we apologize profusely. But one cannot deny that it does not make sense to have female incumbent for male-only titles such as Conte di Beberrua and Marchese di San Vincenzo Ferreri when this is not assented to by the competent Fons Honorum. Nor does it make sense to claim “nominations” and “renunciations” when these are not assented to by the competent Fons Honorum. 

There is no proof that the British Colonial Authorities did anything to change the rules of succession of any title of nobility. Rather, the 19th century reports prove the contrary, namely that the Colonial authorities had no intention whatsoever to revive or perpetuated any title which becomes extinct, or was otherwise without legal support. 

The position adopted by the British administration was that no public officer, not even a Secretary of State, had the power of conferring titles of honour, for which the personal sanction of Her Majesty is each case is necessary; and even assuming such acts to have been done by British officials with full knowledge that the titles were non-existent, their want of power would prevent these acts of supposed recognition from having the slightest effect.

We have seen how the relative reigning foreign fons honora made changes to the remainders of certain foreign titles, e.g. Castel Cicciano (1695), Mont’ Alto (1724). These foreign titles remained subjected to the legislative development their respective countries: thus the Italian titles were affected by the uniform nobiliary laws of Italy (1926 and 1943) whilst the King of Spain remained perfectly free to decide who should succeed the title of Marquis De Piro (1870). 

Likewise we find historic record that from time to time the Grand Masters of the Order that ruled Malta (1530-1798) did in fact assent to some modifications to the original remainders of titles created by them, e.g. the 1778 title of Marchese di San Giorgio (amended in 1779 and 1792)the 1777 title of Barone di Buleben (amended in 1778)the 1710 title of Barone di Gomerino (amended in 1737)the 1728 title of Barone della Tabria (succession amended in 1784), but there is nothing to show that any similar modifications were made to Maltese titles since 1798. One could counter this with the assertion that the titles of Conte di Beberrua (created ad personam 1783), Marchese Cassar Desain and Marchese Testaferrata Olivier were in fact altered in 1883 by grace and favour of the then British Monarch, but the value of such an assertion can only be construed in the limited context of those three titles only. 

It should be emphasized that the British policy was to identify those titles which were already existing during the time of the government of Malta by the Order of Saint John (1530-1798). Quite apart from the three exceptions mentioned before, to assert that the British legitimated a succession would contradict the basic rule which was set by the British themselves. For example in his 1981 and 1986 publications Gauci reports that a lady by the name of Maria Teresa Deguara succeeded in the last years of British administration to the title of Conte di Beberrua originally created in 1783 even though she was clearly not within the remainder of that title, or even the terms of the 1883 “extension”. 

A lay person might take this to mean that the British authorized her use of this title allowing for further succession to females. On the other hand, this “succession” was clearly in breach of the 1783 patent and unless a formal modification was made by the sovereign, that lady could at best only claim a waiver “ad personam”. Taking an analogous case detailed in Gauci’s 1992 publication, that author describes (pages 121-127) how a Papal title created in 1891 and long extinct by 1989 found itself to be the basis of a formal style by the Holy See in favour of the grantee’s younger grandson. Gauci correctly observes that as the 1989 document makes no mention of any remainder, it must be considered as an ad personam extension of the original title of “Marquis Bugeja”. What Gauci is here saying is that unless the Pope makes another direct intervention, no one can claim the 1891 title. This case is very relevant to analogous situations and the published case of succession of the title of Conte di Beberrua appears to be the most obvious. Thus, unless one can prove that the British made a deliberate, conscientious decision to change the terms of the 1783 patent, as already changed in 1883, the lady who is indicated as the present incumbent may only enjoy the title “ad personam”.

Malta has on record a number of titles which are “disposable by nomination”. We have seen how in fact any nomination is of no effect unless it is sanctioned by the sovereign. This applies to nominations made “inter vivos” as well as those “causa mortis”. For example in his 1981, 1986 and 1992 books, Gauci details how the 1716 title of barone di Budacco was the subject of a nomination. However he does not describe whether such a nomination (made in the 19th century and well after the end of the Order’s government) was ever formally assented to by the Sovereign. In the absence of such proof, one must hold the nominee in breach of the original grant and only trace succession along the primogenital line. It could well be that the nominee was at some point in time acknowledged as the Barone di Budacco, but as the records of the government of Malta by the Order of Saint John prove that the sovereign’s formal, deliberate assent had to be obtained on pain of inefficacy, then any such acknowledgment made post-1798 must be considered as a mere ad personam extension of the original title, meaning that it does not guarantee succession to the nominee’s descendants.

It appears that Umberto had the good sense to use his “sovereign prerogative” only for already existing Italian titles and/or to create titles emanating from himself. It does not appear that the former king ever attempted to interfere with a title of nobility which emanated from a different fons honorum. This is good international law and we have seen how even in Malta, the 1742 Spanish title of Marquis De Piro was always held to be regulated by the Kingdom of Spain and not by the local sovereign. This is consistent with the position that a local sovereign cannot change a title granted by a foreign sovereign (although there is nothing to prevent the local sovereign from creating a new title by the same name).

In conclusion, if anyone is “holding”, or has in the past “held” a title of nobility and such “tenure” is not in compliance with the terms of the grant, then unless the terms are validly and formally modified by the fons honorum, any such person is to be held in breach of the grant. If such person has nonetheless been styled by that title to which he is not entitled because of lack of formal assent, one could at best only go as far as saying that such style is “ad personam” only, but no more.