Title of Baron of Culeja
(a.k.a “Qlejjgha” and “Qlejja”)
The title Barone della Culeja is a title of Nobility in Malta. It was granted in 1737 by a Grandmaster of the Order of Saint John during its rule over the Maltese Islands. The remainder of this title contains a power to nominate a successor. “Culeja” is spelt in various forms including “Culeya”, “Qlejjgha” and “Qlejja”. 19th century documents suggest this title had been attributed to the wrong family. This assertion is academic because titles of nobility are no longer recognized in the Republic of Malta by Act 29 of 1975 dated 17 October 1975.
ORIGIN AND NATURE OF TITLE
The title of Barone della Culeja was conferred by patent dated the 2nd June 1737, by Grand Master Fr. Raimondo Despuig, upon the nobleman Ignazio Bonnici Vassallo, with succession to one of his issue, male or female, and with power to each of the holders of the title to name as his successor one of the descendents of the grantee. The terms of the patent of creation are reported to be identical with those contained in the charter of the Barone Galea Feriol (di San Marciano). Tenure of the title was subject to the grantee and his successors being formally installed and paying homage, in this case the payment of a gun on the 19th March being the day dedicated to Saint Joseph the Patriarch. Ignazio Bonnici honoured these obligations on the same day as the title was created. The grant also commemorates the Bonnici family’s origins from the Republic of Florence as well as the grant of arms by Grand Master Valletta to their ancestor Giacomo Bonnici for his valour shown during the Great Siege of 1565.
No land was attached to the title of Barone della Culeja. The title was merely honorific and did not give rise to any right whatsoever over the land called Culeja which remained within the demesne of the Grand Master (Mensa Magistrale).
Record of this creation is found in Volume 627 of the Archives of the Order:-
Bonnici Barone della Culeja Nobe Ignazio Bonnici Vassallo ottenne dal G. Mro Despuig il Titolo della Barone della Culeya con tutte le Condizioni espressi nella Bolla di Galea Ferriol coll’ obbligo di presentare un Fucile li 19. Marzo giorno dedicato a S. Giuseppe Patriarca. In questa Bolla si fa un onorevolissimo elogio della famiglia Bonnici, trasferita dalla Citta’ da Firenza allora Repubbica e specialme del Memorabile antenato Giacomo Bonnici il quale le cui gesta nell’ Assedio di Malta dell’ anno 1565 sono accennate dal Bosio, ed Abela, e per le quali dal G. Mro Valletta ottenne per stemma Una Spada, fo 188. Prese l’investitura, e presto’ il giuramo lo stesso giorno 2. Giugno 1737, fo 188 p.2.
The terms of Galea Ferriol are recorded on the same page as follows:
Galea Ferriol Barone di S. Marciano in Malta Nobe D. Diego Antonio Galea Ferriol ottenne dal G. Mro Manoel il Titolo di Barone del Feudo di S. Marciano annesso gia alla Mensa magle, per se e suoi figli maschj, e femmine, da nominarsi da lui esso Galea, e suo successori ed in caso difetto di nomina e Chiamato il primogto in mancanza de maschi la primogenita. Eslclusi gli Ordinati in Sacris col obbligo di presentare alli G. Mri due fucili nel giorno festivo di S. Antonio di Padova e di prendere l’investitura e prestare il giuramento di fedelta’ e cio per li servizji prestati da lui e suoi maggiori, e per la Nobilta’ della Famiglia Galea Ferriol. 14. Giugno 1726, fo 135. Prese l’investitura, e presto’ il giuramen li 17. agosto 1726 p. 2
Ignazio Bonnici was succeeded by his primogenital son Gio Battista in 1741.
There appears to be no record of who succeeded Gio Battista. However record is found of Francesco Bonnici being succeeded in this title by his own primogenital son Ignazio in 1792. It is not known at this stage whether Francesco was a primogenital descendant or whether regular succession was disturbed by a nomination. As shown above, for any succession to be valid this depended on obtaining formal investiture. Had no nomination been made the title would have been succeeded automatically by the primogenital descendant.
Volume 627 records the following:-
Bonnici Nobe Gio Battista come figlio primogenito del fu’ Barone Ignazio Bonnici, prese l’investitura della Baronia della Culeya e presto’ il giuramento di fedelta’ gli 12. Giugno 1741, fo 176. p.2.
Bonnici Seguita la morte del Barone Francesco Bonnici ultimo Possessore della Baronia del Feudo Culeya, il Gran Mro, diede l’investitura dell’ enuciato titolo di Barone dopo fatto il solito giuramento, al Nobe Ignazio Bonnici, come figlio Pmogenito legittimo, e naturale del do fu Nobe Francesco Bonnici. 19.Xbre. 1792 f.
DETERMINATION OF PRIMOGENITAL DESCENT
Grand Master Rohan is credited with codifying various laws in Malta. Amongst these, we find in the Code enacted in 1783 that the determining criteria of primogeniture in Malta operate in the following order:- Line (the first line excluding all the others), Degree (the closer degree of relationship excluding the remoter) Sex (the male sex being preferred to the female), and Age (the elder being preferred to the younger).
The last person invested being Ignazio Bonnici (invested in 1793), the primogenital descent is reckoned from him.
Ignazio had three children , Vincenza (daughter), Gio Francesco (son) and Eugenia (another daughter). According to the rules of primogeniture Gio Francesco, being male, would have succeeded the title even though he was born after Vincenza. However this was not to be as he died in infancy. Of the two daughters Vincenza was the elder and was therefore in a more preferable position to Eugenia.
THE ROYAL COMMISSION APPOINTED TO ENQUIRE INTO THE CLAIMS OF THE MALTESE NOBILITY
After the Capitulation of the Order of Saint John the new French Rulers formally abolished all titles of nobility. A total of 3 general orders were made to this effect. The French in turn lost Malta in 1800 when the Commander in Chief Vaubois surrendered to His Britannic Majesty.
In time the use of nobiliary titles was resumed regardless of the requirement to seek formal investiture.
On the 30 May 1814 (Treaty of Paris) it was stipulated that theisland of Malta and its dependencies belong in full right and sovereignty to his Britannic majesty.It appears that the unregulated and improper use of titles of nobility was tolerated by the local authorities who were themselves found to be at fault for encouraging such improper use.
From 1815 onwards, a number of Lords Lieutenant were appointed by various Governors from amongst members of the Maltese Nobility but this was discontinued when the office was abolished in 1839. None of the appointees were from the Bonnici family.
A group known as the Assembly of the Maltese Nobility is known to have functioned after this time but it did not enjoy any official role. This results from Sir Henry Storks’ reply to the welcoming speech of the Maltese Nobility delivered on the 24 December 1866 on his installment as Governor and Commander in Chief of Malta: “Although the Maltese Nobility takes no share in the Government of these Islands, I recognize with satisfaction the interest they display in the general prosperity of their fellow citizens. The Nobility of Malta may rest assured that no effort will be wanting on my part to promote the welfare and prosperity of the Maltese People ” (Storks was actually appointed Governor in 1864 but soon sent to Jamaica instead where he stayed until 16 July 1866. He resigned the Governorship of Malta on 15 May 1867).
The welcoming speech of 1866 was made by the following persons: Sir G.M. Baron De Piro, Baron Fco Gauci Bonici, Baron P.P. Galea, Baron C Azopardi, Count L. Sant Fournier, Baron A. Sceberras Damico and Marquis G.P. Testaferrata Olivier.
In 1876, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies commissioned a report on those titles alleged to have been conferred to Maltese families before the annexation of Malta to the British Dominions in 1800. The Commissioners’ Report and Supplemental Report were published in 1878 together with relative correspondence.
To facilitate the preparation of the report, an “ad hoc” Committee of Nobles was requested to provide a list of claimants. In that list, a lady is indicated as holding the title of “Barone della Culeja”, namely Vincenza Bonnici wife of the Barone Pietro Paolo Galea. Vincenza is the same person indicated above.
In their Report, the Commissioners described Vincenza Galea as having inherited the title from her father, Barone Ignazio Bonnici, junior, who left no male issue. The Commissioners explained in terms of the 1737 grant, females are also qualified to enjoy the title. No one having called in question her claim, and she having fully proved by documents, her descent from the person first ennobled, she was included in the Royal Commissioners’ list, and designated as “Vincenza Galea, Baronessa della Culeja”
This is at variance with what was published in 1870 by the Marchese Giorgio Crispo Barbaro in his “Maltese Nobility and the Maltese Gentry holding Foreign Titles” where the holder of the same title granted in 1737 is stated to be a member of a completely different family, namely Francesco Gauci Bonnici (or Gauci Bonici).
As seen above, both Francesco and the husband of Vincenza Gauci were amongst the delegates of the Maltese Nobility welcoming Governor Storks in 1866.
REPORTED SUCCESSION IN FAVOUR OF VINCENZO AND FRANCESCO GAUCI BONNICI
In the corresponding genealogical table contained in Crispo Barbaro’s book, Vincenzo Gauci is shown as having in May 1809, succeeded his uncle Ignazio Bonnici, grandson of the original grantee. The table shows Ignazio had two daughters of his own namely Vincenza and Eugenia. Giorgio Crispo Barbaro does not give reasons for this departure from primogenital succession but is implying Ignazio Bonici made use of the power to nominate in favour of his sister’s eldest son to the title.
As seen above, such testamentary nominations would have been without effect if it were not followed by a formal investiture.
Crispo Barbaro also reports that in 1814 Vincenzo Gauci was in turn succeeded by his younger brother Francesco Gauci Bonnici.
There is nothing in the act of creation or subsequent investitures to suggest any modification in the terms of succession. In this way, the “successions” reported by Crispo Barbaro may be ignored as they have no basis.
Later publications approved by another nobiliary body called “The Committee of Privileges of the Maltese Nobility” do not make reference to the claimed succession of either Vincenzo or Francesco Gauci Bonnici. It is understood their names must have been removed from the list of successors of the title of Barone della Culeja because their tenure was at odds with the terms of the grant of 1737 and subsequent investitures. By implication, the successions of Vincenzo and Francesco are suspect.
REPORTED SUCCESSIONS TO THE TITLE OF BARONE DELLA CULEJA FOLLOWING DEATH OF VINCENZA GALEA.
Vincenza died childless. Her sister Eugenia had already predeceased her in 1886. However the latter had children of her own from her marriage to Daniele Testaferrata DeNoto: these were Carmela (born 1841), Emanuele (born 1843), and Ignazio (born 1848).
Applying the rules of primogeniture it was Emanuele not Carmela who was to succeed Vincenza. In this way the title would have moved out of the family of Bonnici. As seen above the grant allows a female to hold this title. It follows there is nothing to prevent a descendant in the female line from succeeding this title.
This conclusion may be countered by the observation that during the Grand Masters’ tenure, succession through a female line required formal intervention. This observation is backed by two precedents. The title of Barone di Benuarrat , like that of Barone di Culeja was also noted as having been granted in terms identical with those contained in the charter of the Barone Galea Feriol (di San Marciano). However when the first grantee died leaving only a daughter, the succession was only validated by an investiture.
Gatto Vassallo Barone di Benuarrat Il Nobe Saverio Gatto Vassallo ottenne dal G. Mro Depujg il Titolo della Baronia di Benuarrat con tutte le solite condiz come sopra per il Nobe Galea Feriol coll’ obbligo di presentare nel giorno di S. Raimondo nonnato un Fucile al G. Mro pro tempore. 18.Agosto 1737, fo 191 Prese l’investitura, e presto’ il giuramo lo stesso giorno, fo 191 p.2.
Gatto. Seguita la morte del Nobile Barone Saverio Gatto, il Gran Maestro per difetto di figli Maschi del dto Gatto, concesse il Titolo della Baronia di Benuarrat alla Magca Paola Moglie del Magco Emanuele Moscati e figlia dello stesso Gatto, per Essa, il riferito Moscati come Marito, e Procuratore ha preso l’investitura, e fece il solito Guramento. Il dto Titolo di Barone di Benuarrat fu’ sotto il di’ 18. Agosto 1737 dalla fel. Rim. Dell’ Emo Despuig conceduto, pro se, et suis, all’ infinito, allo prenominato Saverio Gatto, di buona mem: 20 Febraro 1781, ab. Incne f.
Another title, also described as identical to that of Galea Feriol was that of Barone della Tabria. This case was more elaborate as it required a direct Magistral intervention to permit the nomination in favour of a person descended in the female line.
Viani Bare della Tabaria Il Nobe Isidoro Viani ottenne dal G. Mro Manoel il Titolo della Baronia del Feudo della Tabaria con tutte le condizioni apposte in quella di Galea Ferriol, coll’ obbligo pero’ di presentare un solo fucile nel Giorno di S. Tomaso Apostolo. 21 Xbre 1728, fo 140. Prese l’invest li 21 do ivi.
Viani Viani Nobe Gio Batta come figlio primogenito del Nobe Isidoro gia’ morto, prese l’investitura dello Titolo di Baronia della Tabria, e presto’ il giuramento li 18. Genn. 1739, ab In fo 215.
Baronia del Feudo della Tabria La dta Baronia fu’ concessa per la prima volta dall’ Emo Manoel di Fel. Mem: ad Nobile Isidoro Viani pro se, et suis in infinitu, senza alcuna eccezzione, e dopo la morte del nomto Isidoro, come di dritto, l’ha conseguita l’istessa Baronia il Nobile Gio: Battista Viani figlio primogenito dello stesso Isidoro, e seguita la morte di dto Gio: Batta, non avend lasciato figli Maschi la dta Baronia passo’ in Persona del Nobile Giuseppe Testaferrata Viani, come Nipote ex sorore della Nobile Francesca Viani, primogenita del dto Gio: Batta, ed avendo il dto Nobile Testaferrata presa l’investitura fece il solito giuramento. 22. Ottobre 1784, f. 323 p.2
Benefit of the doubt allowing succession through the female line in favour of the primogenital descendant is given in such cases because the 1878 Commission allowed Angiolino Attard to succeed the title of Barone di Benuarratbecause he “descends from the first titled person, although through a female line, as appears from documents produced by him; and he is the first-born descendant in the primogenial line of the grantee”.
Emanuele Testaferrata Denoto died in 1903 and had four children Asteria (Ester, Esther) (born 1876), Agata (born 1878), Antonio (born 1879) and Daniele Maria (born 1880).
Applying the rules of succession it was Antonio not Asteria who would have been the primogenital descendant. However as Antonio died in infancy the next preferred person was the boy Daniele Maria.
Daniele in turn had four children of his own: Alfio (born 1911), Helen (born 1915), Lino Camillo (born 1917) and Florence (born 1919).
In this case succession Alfio was the primogenital descendant from Ignazio Bonnici last to have been formally invested (in 1792) in the title created in 1737.
Following Alfio’s death in 1988, the next person to have succeeded would have been Lino Camillo. Lino Camillo is noted in some publications as having succeeded the 1737 title of “Barone della Culeja” by a testamentary nomination. However as seen in the case of Gauci Bonnici, such a nomination being not followed by an investiture and payment of homage, can be of no effect in terms of the grant of 1737. For this reason, the name of Lino Camillo is now removed from the list of successors of the title of Barone della Culeja created in 1737. At the time of Alfio’s death, Lino Camillo had three surviving children: Agnes (born 1948), Caren (born 1952) and Annamaria (born 1961). Applying the rules of succession it was Agnes who would have been the primogenital descendant in succession to Alfio.
The successions described in Crispo Barbaro’s Compendium contrast with the findings of the Royal Commission.
The succession of 1809 could be taken to imply that once the title of “Barone della Culeja” has entered the Gauci Bonnici line, then it us to remain there until that line is extinguished. By applying this argument, the title should be held by the descendants of Francesco Gauci Bonnici unless this is displaced by another nomination. However this may be countered by the view this state of affairs would eventually have corrected itself by applying the terms of the creation because it reads the title would have automatically reverted to the primogenital descendant of the grantee. (“ed in caso difetto di nomina e Chiamato il primogto in mancanza de maschi la primogenita”).
In any case, the Royal Commission made a general observation that private transactions cannot have the effect of explaining, construing or extending a title of nobility, and that the power can only proceed from the Crown. Moreover, in his summation of the Commissioners’ Report, the British Secretary of State only considered two modalities of succession, and nomination was not one of these. This view is shared by Ruvigny who maintained that whereas land could come into possession of illegitimate children or be willed away, on the other hand the right to title of Nobility could only descend by primogeniture. (On the other hand, Ruvigny conceded that some exceptional Maltese titles were regulated by private entails which in turn could be nominated outside regular primogeniture. However there appears to be no evidence supporting the contention that the Grand Masters ever allowed subjecting the 1737 title of Barone della Culeja to a private entail.)
It follows that the general principle prevails as expressed by the Secretary of State who wrote that no public officer, not even a Secretary of State, had the power of conferring titles of honour, for which the personal sanction of the sovereign in 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. As seen above, the implied nomination in favour of Vincenzo Gauci was ignored altogether as this had no effect.
In terms of the general 1739 legislation (Despuig), it follows that all of Ignazio Bonnici’s male-to-male descendants (“Il discendente per linea mascolina”) were made automatically entitled to a right of precedence. It follows that those who descend through a female line would not have been so entitled. A further qualification reads that lineal agnates would continue to qualify in perpetuity only if they and their intermediate ancestors lived off their own income.
By virtue of the later general legislation of 1795 (Rohan) the Barone della Culeja and his agnate descendants would rank according to antiquity of creation not the degree. Therefore, it follows that the Barone della Culeja ranks before the Conte della Bahria (created in 1743), Marchese di Scriop el Hagin(1776)and the Marchese di Ghajn Kajet (1796) even though all the latter titles purport a higher rank. The same position holds in regard to the respective male-to-male descendants. According to the 1878 Report, this title was considered before the title of Barone di Benuarrat created by Grand Master Despuig to Saverio Gatto on the 18 August 1737, and after the title of Barone della Tabria created by Grand Master Vilhena to Isidoro Viani on the 11 December 1728.
The limited use of the title “The Most Illustrious and Noble” was first regulated in Malta in 1725 and was extended by the Grand Masters to only some families, not necessarily titled-families. However, this title was considered unacceptable to the British authorities who opined it could only be borne by Princes of the blood Royal. A compromise was reached allowing the introduction of the style “The Most Noble” on the premise that all title holders were entitled to the title. Thus, as from the year 1886, the holder of the title of Barone della Culeja became entitled to be styled “The Most Noble”.
The British Colonial administration also allowed presumed successors of titles of nobility, the diminutive style of the respective titles, in this case Baroncino di Culeja. But the Colonial administration did not allow any legal right to the use of these styles.
Other descendants of the various holders of this title are by custom entitled to be styled dei Baroni di Culeja. Again, the Colonial administration did not allow any legal right to the use of this style.
Since 1975, a general duty is imposed in the Republic of Malta not to recognize any title of nobility. (Act 29 of 1975 dated 17 October 1975).
- Grant of title of Barone della Culeja granted by Grand Master Despuig, to Ignazio Bonnici on the 2 June 1737. (Recorded in the Archives of the Order, National Library, Malta Ref. AOM 541, ff. 188r-188v)
- Investitures in favour of Ignazio Bonnici, Gio Battista Bonnici, Francesco Bonnici and Ignazio Bonnici (son of Francesco)
REFERENCES (THIS SITE):-
History of the Bonnici family: