Notes on the “Sovereign Military Order of Malta”


1. Introduction, 

2. Brief History of old Order 

3. Some bases of the SMOM 

4. “False Orders” of St. John

5. Other Perceptions of SMOM

6. Biographical note on B.F.M. Ruspoli

7. Adrian Fortescue - an Overglorifed Myth




This section is dedicated to shedding light on the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, better known as the “Sovereign Military Order of Malta” (SMOM), whose headquarters is located in Italy, Rome, at Via Condotti 68.  


The SMOM is sometimes described as one of the oldest surviving orders of chivalry, even older than the Order of the Garter. 


In its sui generis nature it maintains formal diplomatic relations with about 100 States, including the Republic of Malta, and other International Organizations and even has an observer status at the United Nations, but the question is not whether SMOM is an Order but whether the SMOM is a mimic order of the original.  






The Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, later known as the Knights of Rhodes and later as the Knights of Malta, were founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century. 


The origin of the Order can be traced to a group of merchants from Amalfi, south of the city of Naples, who secured permission from the Muslim Caliph in about 1048 to build a hospital at Jerusalem for the sick and inform among the many pilgrims coming to visit the Holy Sepulchre. 


Gerard (Blessed Gerard) is regarded as the original founder of the Order (but the 60-year interval to 1113 suggests at least one predecessor). The members were organized in a residence distinguished by the name of the hospital of St John the Baptist where they received the infirm, and wretched, and afforded them every possible assistance. Gerard was the Rector of these ‘Hospitallers’ who wore a distinct, black habit adorned with a white cross of eight points.


The Hospital was supervised by Benedictine monks from the Santa Maria Latina Church in Jerusalem. 


When Godfrey de Boullion captured Jerusalem in the first Crusade (1099) the Hospitallers were given their independence. 


It was only in 1113 that Pope Paschal II formerly recognized the order. Five years later the Rector Gerard was succeeded by Raymond du Puy, a French nobleman. It was probably Du Puy who separated the Order into three classes: the Knights of Justice, who were required to be of noble birth and who fulfilled the nursing and warrior duties of the Order; the Chaplains, who were responsible for religious aspects of the Order; and the Serving Brothers, who performed the various menial tasks in the Order. 


Du Puy was not satisfied with merely receiving the poor and sick into the hospital of St. John; he was also desirous of affording them future protection, and escorting those who, having recovered their health in the infirmary, wished to return into their own country. The hospitallers therefore solicited leave to become a military order, without, however, relinquishing either their first offices or their original title. Their petition being granted, the patriarch of Jerusalem armed them himself; and they took an oath before him to defend the Holy Sepulchre “to the last drop of their blood”, and to combat the infidels wherever they should meet them. With this new military aspect, the members became the “Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem”, under the Augustinian rule, with du Puy as “Master”. 


The Knights took the three vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, before the patriarch of Jerusalem, under whose immediate authority they remained for some time. Afterwards they became, together with the knights Templars, the principal support of that sovereign. They possessed several places in the Holy Land, independent of the throne of Jerusalem, and they always regarded themselves as auxiliaries, not subjects, of the kings of that country. 


The hospitaller and military functions being thus united, it was necessary to form a new administration. In consequence of this Du Puy collected all the regulations originally made by Gerard, and then assembled his “Master’s Assistants”, and formed them into an assembly, to which he gave the name of chapter or council. 


In time, the Order had grown so large that it was divided into eight ‘langues’, or languages, with chapters in different countries of Europe. The French formed the first three, viz. those of ProvenceAuvergne, and France. The four others were the languages of ItaliaArragonAngleterreAllemagne and Castile. (The last was a later addition). The property of the Order being situated in different countries, it was necessary to fix upon some method for having it properly managed, and paid in with punctuality. It was therefore divided into priories, bailliwicks, and commanderies. A receiver's office was appointed in every priory, into which were paid the relative revenues. There were likewise offices of the same nature in several towns in Europe. The priories sent their receipts to these towns, and the persons appointed to manage the business were termed ‘receivers’. 


For a time the Knights succeeded in defending Jerusalem against the ‘Infidels”, but in 1187 they were driven out of the city by the Sultan (Saladin) of Egypt and Syria, and took up their residence in Acre, which they held for one hundred years. However, this city too was lost and the Knights were forced to retire to the island of Cyprus. 


In 1310, under Master Villaret, they attacked and captured the island of Rhodes, and settled there. The Turks laid siege three times to the island but the Knights did not capitulate until 1522, when they were attacked by Suleiman the Magnificent. They were forced to surrender under honourable conditions, after a heroic defence under the Magistracy of Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam.


In 1530 Emperor Charles V of Spain and King of Sicily, conferred in fief the sovereignity of the islands of Malta, including the castle of Tripoli. The latter Castle was soon lost.  


In 1565 the Knights under Grand Master La Valette, successfully repelled the Turks after one of the most famous sieges in History. The new city of Valletta founded in 1566 was named after that Grand Master.


For over two centuries, the Knights (by this time known as Knights of Malta) continued to patrol the Mediterranean as a bulwark against pirates and any nation hostile to Christianity, within the terms of the 1530 grant. Between 1530 and 1798 the Order’s headquarters remained in Malta but its real wealth was spread over the many properties in mainland Europe where they continued to build additional hospitals, and to perform their duties of ministering to the sick.


The king of Sicily from whom the Order held Malta had made a particular condition in the 1530 grant, viz. that the Order should prevent any attack being made on the Sicilian monarchy, which implied that it should never take part in any war against it, nor favour any of its enemies. 


During the war between France (which provided the greatest revenues) and Spain (the suzerain of Sicily), Louis XIV protested because the sovereign Order had fired on his navy, to fulfill the 1530 grant. Similar doubts on the Order’s sovereignty over Malta come to mind when one considers that in order that the 1530 grant be respected, the bishop of Malta was admitted (as the agent of the Sicilian monarch) as a non-voting member to the council of the Order.


Unlike their occupation of Rhodes, where the Knights had driven out all the erstwhile rulers (called ‘pirates’) from the island, the occupation of Malta was marked by the fact that it was granted in fief and subject to the rights already bestowed by the Sicilian Crown in favour of the native Maltese. 


The Grand Master’s ability to rule his fief of Malta was hampered by the local Bishops, the Inquisitor and the King of Sicily. The bishops of the diocese of Malta continually endeavoured to establish ecclesiastical authority over the authority of the knights. This induced the Order to solicit the pope to send a minister from the court of Rome to restrain the bishops. In time, the Pope sent an inquisitor, but this had a boomerang effect because the new appointee was soon accused of extending his own authority much beyond that which the Order wished to restrain. Inquisitor Delci had the audacity to insist that the grand-master should stop his carriage whenever they met in the street, whilst a number of local, noble families were in receipt of patents from the inquisitor, entitling them to invoke immunity from the jurisdiction of the grand-master. In another instance, Grand Master Vallete tried to empossess himself of a fief but this decision was appealed to the Viceroy of Sicily who reminded the Grand Master that he was a subject of the laws of Sicily.  


Grand Master Zondadari is known to be the first Grand Master to have refused to swear allegiance to the rights of the Maltese natives in accordance with the terms of the 1530 grant. This was the beginning of a greater sovereignty claimed by the Grand Masters over the Maltese natives, but it made no difference to the Sovereignty of the very Order itself and its independence from the Pope. By this time the name of the Order had undergone some permeations such as “Holy Order” or “Religion” and “of the Sepulchre of Christ” to reflect the incorporation in 1489 of the Order of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre (distinct from the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre).


The knights had frequent recourse to the Pope when they wished to oppose the pretensions of the grand-master, and they even sometimes appealed to Rome from the sentences pronounced by the councils. Equally, the grand-masters could have recourse to the pope, as the first ecclesiastical superior of the Order. These disputes brought about the inevitable question who had the right of either suspending the superior from his functions, or of actually deposing him. 


There are at least four published incidents (Villaret, La Cassiere, Verdale and Redin) where the Pope attempted to impose his own rule over the Order, but these were all resisted by the Knights. This is because the Popes could not have had such a right, without destroying the very essence of the Order. The most clear cut example of Independence from the Roman pontiff occurred during the Magistracy of Fernández de Heredia who preferred the Anti-Pope Clement VII: in this case the Roman Pope Urban VI appointed in April 1383, Richard Caracciolo as Anti-master. Caracciolo had the support of the English langue but his nomination was never acknowledged by the Order and Geredia continued in office until his death in 1396 when he was succeeded by Philibert of Naillac. (The SMOM has Heredia as “32nd” reigning 1376 – 1396 and Caracciolo as “33rd” reigning 1383 – 1395; The Cartulary of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in England, loyal to Pope Urban, ignores Robert de Juillac (de Juilly) and Juan Fernandez de Heredia; Caracciolo, on the other hand, is discounted in Archontologiae Cosmicae.) For more information on Anti-Popery in the Mediterranean.


In a later incident the Pope’s inquisitor attempted to annul the appointment of Grand Master de Redin, but was to no avail because the Pope had no authority to do so.


The Pope had a strict right to exclude any particular knight from the grand-mastership, only if he gave any plausible reasons in advance for so doing: such as bad conduct, occasioning a public scandal and so on and so forth but this disapprobation must have been made known before the election took place, for it would be afterwards of no effect. 


The Pope was regarded as an authority only insofar as he could intercede and mediate on the Order’s internal issues but he was not regarded as the ultimate authority of the Order. Had they pretended to act otherwise, their authority would have probably been most violently disputed by the Order and the other States.


Internationally and internally, the sovereignty of the Order was universally acknowledged by princes of all religions, and it enjoyed all the prerogatives annexed to that dignity in every different court. As early as the council of Trent when the bishops claimed precedence over the ambassador of the Order, their pretensions were disallowed in deference to its independence.


Within the society of the Maltese natives, the penultimate Grand Master Rohan and his predecessors particularly Pinto and Ximenes made a number of unprecedented changes to local laws, and asserted themselves as fully sovereign.  The social fabric was also affected: new elements of Maltese society who enjoyed a closer relationship, in some cases (the “Rohanite titles”) very intimate, to the Order were elevated to noble status and the Knights were increasingly regarded as having usurped rights of the Maltese natives. 


Whilst domestic rule had become more effective, internal and international perception of the Order had changed in inverted proportion. By this time the Grand Masters were being styled “Prince”. (The first time a Grand Master became entitled to this designation was in 1607, when Wignacourt (53rd/54th Master) was given the title of Reichsfuerst (Prince of the Holy Roman Empire), a title which carried with it the rank of Serene Highness –According to the traditions of the SMOM, the incumbent head is the 79th to have succeeded as “Prince and Grand Master” following a chronology starting from 1113). In 1630, the Pope granted the Grand-Master the rank of Eminence, similar to that of the cardinals. In 1741, the Grand-Master combined the two into Most Eminent Highness, a style which is used by the head of SMOM.


With the wane of the crusading spirit in Europe, the importance of the Knights also declined. Discipline had become lax and the Knights’ strength weakened by internal dissension and quarrels with the Pope and the various secular powers of Europe. A reorganization was attempted in 1782 when the defunct English Langue was converted into the Anglo-Bavarian Langue with the formation of the Grand Priory of Ebensburg in Bavaria, created from the revenues of the suppressed Jesuit Order in Bavaria. This was followed in 1785 by the Polish Priory being transferred to the new Langue. 


These changes, appear to have prompted the Russian Tsar to take a greater interest in the Order, culminating in 1797 when the Polish Priory was converted into the Catholic Russian Grand Priory. The Tsar also sought an Orthodox branch of what was a Catholic Order and there is record of a Treaty being drawn up and dated 1st June 1798 "for the Nobility of the Greek Religion". A Report of the Order concluded that the Treaty was entirely in keeping with the Order's Constitution, neutrality and Independence and reads as follows: 


"The Plan will clearly reveal to this Sacred Council, that our Constitution remains completely unaltered, even more so its Fundamental Maxims, and its perfect neutrality towards all Christian Sovereigns and States, our ancient system and Regime remains unchanged, and it can actually be truthfully said that this new foundation is in substance an aggregation of Crosses of Devotion, of which there are examples for the whole period that these have been awarded to Persons of Cults other than Ours, and in fact the Venerable Ambassador having communicated his Plan to Monsignor Archbishop of Thebes, His Holiness' Ambassador to His Imperial Majesty, who confirmed on receipt that it was compatible with our principles." (Report to the Sacred Council, Order of St John of Jerusalem in Malta, concerning the Treaty to establish Orthodox Commanderies. Source: National Library, Malta. Arch 2196. Pages 77-85, third paragraph.) 


Meanwhile the French Revolution had severely damaged the Order’s finances in Europe. The Directory confiscated all its property in France and similar orders were later made throughout the areas controlled by the new French regime. Formal hostilities between the Order and France had already been registered in 1794 and by April of 1798 an army was raised by Napoleon for the invasion of Malta. 


The Invasion occurred in June. After hearing representations from the Maltese natives, an Armistice was offered and within hours a final act of surrender was signed dated 12 June 1798.


The terms of the Capitulation did not bring about the dissolution of the Order. In fact France was to ensure that the non-French Knights of each nation be allowed to exercise their right over the “property of the Order of Malta, situated in their dominions”. 


The Grand Master Hompesch moved to Trieste and was later to die in Montpellier in 1805. The knights who were already in Russia were joined by some refugees from Malta. Clearly upset that the Russian-Order treaties had been endangered the Russian Priory deposed Hompesch on the 26th August. Between October and November, the Tsar was acclaimed Grand Master an appointment he accepted afterwards. However, this appointment was protested by Hompesch who maintained that he was still Grand Master. In March of 1799 Pope Pius VI (held prisoner by Napoleon) informed the Tsar of his disapproval declaring the appointment of the Tsar being ‘null and void’. Nonetheless the Tsar continued acting as Grand Master and continued making changes to the Order’s structure. The Tsar finally received acceptance from Hompesch when he “abdicated” on the 26th July in favour of the Tsar, thereby bringing the schism within the Order to an end. 


The Tsar was assassinated in March 1801. Meanwhile the imprisoned Pope died on 29 August 1799.


According to SMOM’s traditions, the Tsar’s appointment was illegal and he is only considered to have been a ‘de facto’ Grand Master, and this ‘de facto tenure” from 1799 not 1798, and maintain that Hompesch remained Grand Master ‘de jure’ until 1802. 


Meanwhile however, other knights settled in Sicily where they eventually supplicated the newly-installed Pope Pius VII to select for them a Grand-Master instead of Hompesch who “resigned”.

As seen above, the submission to the Pope and acquiescence to his decision on the validity of an election, can only be regarded as a complete break from the Order’s principle of independence. 


A second break was the method of choice of Grand Master, because Pope Pius VII admitted his flagrant breach of the rules and Statutes. The Pope did this on two occasions.   


The first time was when he appointed the Principe Ruspoli as “Grand Master” of the Order of St. John. The letters-appointment are dated Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore, 16 September 1801, second year of the pontificate. (Ruspoli was the second son of the 2nd Prince of Cerveteri – See bopgraphical detail below).  The document was issued to “Dilecto filio, Bartolomeo Ruspoli, Hospitalis sancti Joannis Hieroselymitani Magno Magistro”.

The Pope ordered that neither the appointee nor the general chapter may question the validity of the appointment. The Pope explained that the state and condition of the Order was such that it was absolutely impossible and very difficult to adhere to the forms and laws prescribed by the Statutes. The Pope included his foresight that if in the future, “effects that might arise from things that were done this way” then he, and only he, as the supreme commander of the whole order, will clarify doubts, or interpretations, and he will “close all openings to new problems”. 


Ruspoli declined the appointment. Most sources agree that this was because of age and infirmity. However the same sources fail to mention that he was 54 at the time and that he died in Siena in 1836. The real reasons for his refusal were probably two-fold, because the Order was being placed under the immediate dependence of the Pope (a decisive break with the past sovereignty and independence) and because the appointment itself declared its own invalidity. According to SMOM’s traditions, Ruspoli is not regarded as ever being a Grand Master.


The second time was when the Pope, on the recommendation of the King of Naples and of the Emperor Alexander, chose for “Grand-Master” the Count Giovanni Tommasi. The appointment is dated 9th February 1802, third year of the pontificate.  According to SMOM’s traditions, Tommasi was a validly-appointed Grand Master.


Tommasi’s appointment by the Pope coincided with the announcement of the Treaty of Amiens dated March 25, 1802.   By Article 10 of that Treaty, Malta was to be returned to the Knights who were “invited to return to Malta and form a general chapter, and proceed to the election of a grand master, chosen from among the natives of those nations which are to preserve their Langues, unless that election has been already made since the exchange of the preliminaries (dated first of October 1801)”. 


Specifically, it was agreed “It is understood that an election made subsequent to that epoch, shall alone be considered valid, to the exclusion of any other that have taken place at any period prior to that epoch.”


Therefore in terms of that Treaty neither Ruspoli nor Tommasi was validly appointed; the first because the “appointment” was made prior to the exchange of preliminaries; the second because it could not be said that the “appointment” was made by the “natives of the nations which are to preserve their Langues”. 


The tenor of the Treaty of Amiens (which was never put into effect) does not contemplate appointments by the Pope. Clearly by 25 March Britain, Spain, France and Batavia would have been aware of the “Ruspoli affair” and possibly the “Tommasi appointment” and if they wanted to validate the Pope’s arrogated power they would have made provision in the text. 


The treaty also contemplated the abolition of all English and French langues together with the establishment of a new langue, namely one for the native Maltese without any requirement of proofs of nobility. The Tsar used this clause to opt out of guaranteeing the Treaty: He argued that the condition that the Maltese langue, or influence which the people of Malta were to have in the government, should be abolished because such a stipulation leading to the establishment of a plebeian langue was totally inconsistent with the spirit of the institution of the order, suggesting instead actual nobility be the indispensable condition of admission into the Maltese langue. As, however, the number of persons who would be capable of admission into the order, in consequence of such a regulation, would be very limited, the Tsar suggested further stipulations be made in favour of the inhabitants of Malta.  However, this was refused. 


Tommasi convoked a “Conclave” of the Order in the Priory-Church of Messina, on the 27th of June, 1802, where he formally announced his appointment as Grand-Master and requested the members present to show unity in order to guarantee its continued existence and its historic statutes. It is not known if any members of the newly-established “Maltese langue” was present, or even if any French or British knights participated in this “Conclave”. 


A “Minister plenipotentiary”, the Commander de Busy was dispatched to Malta to demand the British evacuate the island in line with the Treaty. However, the British counterpart, Alexander Ball, refused suggesting the Grand Master should provisionally base himself on Sicily, which was after all just a day’s voyage away. 

Tommasi then obtained permission from the King of Naples to establish a Chef Lieu in Catania in Sicily. In this way the chagrined Tommasi had a ‘reign’ between 1802 and 1805, in barren grandeur, and in clear breach of the terms of the same Treaty of Amiens that Busy had tried to invoke. Tommasi was buried in the cathedral of Catania. In his home-town of Cortona one can still find a marble memorial dedicated to him: As there was no room available in the family chapel it was placed on the left wall at the back of the church.


On Count Tommasi's death (1805), no new “Grand-Master” was elected; "the number of Knights," says Bresson, "residing at Catania, not being sufficient ("pas assez considerable") and the war which then raged in Europe preventing an assembly of the Langues. A mere Locum Tenens was substituted, and a succession of “Lieutenant Grand Masters” who worked with members of the "Grand and Sacred Council of the Order" (for so they styled themselves), died mortified by the utter ruin of the Order, precipitated by the final cession of Malta to England consequent on the Treaty of Paris in 1814, as well as by the resolute determination of the British Government to hold the original Order as extinct. 


Throughout this time the archives of the original Order remained housed in the British-controlled island of Malta, and now as property of the Republic of Malta.



The SMOM is a great and authentic Roman Catholic Order. It is financed through members' fees and donations, as well as charitable contributions from well-wishers; these sums are mostly collected and spent by the national associations. 


The old Order, properly speaking, ceased to exist in 1801 with the assassination of Tsar Paul I, last Grand Master appointed independently of Papal interference. 


The old Order was independent of Papal authority, whilst the SMOM’s claim depends on the authority of the Pope. 


The old Order was founded prior to 1113 whilst the SMOM was only established during the 19th century; the context of this assertion is that it was a principle of the old Order that the preponderance of one Christian state over another, would immediately annihilate the order’s rationale since in that case the favoured power would be able to dispose at pleasure of the forces of the Order. (See: “Ancient and Modern Malta:, Louis de Boisgelin, Phillip, London, 1805). This principle does not hold under the SMOM. 


From this point of view SMOM is not and cannot be a continuation of the old Order of St. John which ruled Malta between 1530 and 1798.


However, in 1879 Pope Leo XIII appointed Giovanni Battista Ceschi to the “restored” office of “Grand Master”. This happened in an age when there was no longer a need for such a militant and independent organization. The British bombardment of Algiers in 1816 and the French occupation of that town in 1830 had already put an end to the Barbary Corsairs. The justification for this appointment was motivated, not by some yearning for pomp, but by the old Order’s original Hospitaller function.  


The SMOM’s claim of continuity of the old Order is based on an earlier appointment by Pope Pius VII in 1802 of Count Tommasi as “Grand Master” who thereafter established a residence in Catania. In 1816 the King of Two Sicilies granted a number of Commanderies to individual knights. The "Grand and Sacred Council of the Order” retained residence in Catania until 1827, when the old Order having been formally suppressed in the preceding year by the Sicilian monarch, the "Grand and Sacred Council of the Order” was permitted by Pope Leo XII to remove their residence to Ferrara, a city in the Ecclesiastical States. In 1831, under their “Lieutenant-Master” Antoine de Busca, they were invited by Pope Gregory XVI to reside at Rome, where they were appointed to the charge of the two Pontifical Military Hospitals. In 1839 the "Grand and Sacred Council of the Order” received from Ferdinand I of Austria, a portion of the former estates of the Italian langue of the old Order situated in Lombardo-Venetia. This munificent example was soon afterwards followed by his Sicilian Majesty's permission that the order should re-exist in his dominions, and be allowed to send one of its ministers to his Court. In 1840, the Duchess of Parma and Plaisance recognized and admitted the order into her duchies, and erected two Commanderies in its favour. Further endowments followed in 1841, when the Duke of Modena added other Commanderies, while the Duke of Lucca also acknowleged the order in his States, and permitted his subjects to wear the cross. In time the "Grand and Sacred Council of the Order” came to occupy an old palace donated by the Pope, and which had formerly belonged to one of the ambassadors of the Order. 


Meanwhile in France, separate developments had been occurring. The French knights always maintained that the old Order owed its foundation entirely to their ancestors. In 1814, the French Knights, taking heart at defeat of Napoleon, assembled at Paris in a “General Chapter”, under the presidency of the Prince Camille de Rohan for the election of a permanent “Capitular Commission”. Although this was done without the consent of the Sicilian “Lieutenant Grand Master”, the Capitular was “regularized” by yet another Papal Bull of the 10 August 1814. The government being declared concentrated in this Commission, it was empowered to regulate all political, civil, and financial affairs connected with the Order. The first step taken by the Capitular Commission, or Ordinary Council of the French Langues, was to refer the claims of the Order to the Congress of Vienna (1815), for a territory in lieu of Malta, but this failed. The failure may be attributed to the contempt shown by the European victors towards the old Order which had surrendered to Napoleon in 1798 without putting up a decent fight. In 1823, during the Greek War of Independence, the same “Capitular Commission” – backed by the Bourbons of France and Spain - concluded a Treaty with the Greek insurgents for the cession of Sapienza and Cabressa, two islets on the western coast of the Morea, as a preliminary step to the reconquest of Rhodes. To facilitate this, an attempt was made in England, to raise a loan of £640,000.  The entire project failed and the treaty was without effect. However, this provoked interest in England to revive the “Venerable Tongue” in that country and a protestant Order called “The Grand Priory in the British Realm of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem” was founded in 1830.  


All these developments were met with disapprobation by the Italian “Lieutenant” Antonio Busca who “peremptorily ordered” the immediate dissolution of the French Commission. However that body aided by Louis XVIII resisted any suggestion to surrender the wide powers granted by the Pope and regarded themselves – not the Italians – as the only body of Knights who could seriously claim to be representative of the old Order. The French knights’ aspirations for an official residence were however thwarted completely when Charles X (Capet) abdicated in 1830 in favour of the ‘citizen –king’ Louis Philippe (Orleans).


By the 1860s the "Grand and Sacred Council of the Order” boasted four Grand Priories “of Rome, Venice, Naples, and Bohemia” and was annually inserting in the "Almanach de Gotha " their recognized pretensions, as a sovereign and independent body de jure, to send ambassadors or envoys to various Courts. At this time, the term langue was discontinued and replaced by “National Associations”, the first to be established being that of Germany in 1859, Britain in 1875 and Italy in 1877. The National Association of the United States of America in 1927 is the 10th to have been established. 


In 1972, the SMOM established the sub-priory of the Blessed Adrian Fortescue, with Robert Chrichton-Stuart as its Regent. Subsequent Regents included Andrew Bertie (the Order's Grand Master from 1988 to 2008), Viscount Furness, the Earl of Gainsborough, and the present Grand Master, Matthew Festing. In 1993, the Grand Priory of England was restored after being “in abeyance” for nearly 450 years except for titular Grand Priors. The present Grand Prior of England is Frà Fredrik Crichton-Stuart, who in 2008 succeeded Frà Matthew Festing, presently Prince Grand Master of the Order. Frà Fredrik is described as the fifty-sixth in succession to Frà Walter, who was made Prior in 1144. The Grand Priory's ecclesiastical seat is the Church of St. John of Jerusalem in St. John's Wood, London.





The SMOM protects its good name and periodically advises everyone to beware ‘false orders’. 


Some present-day Protestant orders bear a distant relationship to the old Order of St. John. During the Protestant and Luteran reformations of parts of Europe a number of schismatic groups peacefully left the old Order and evolved separately. In effect the schisms claimed under the protestant Bailiwick of Brandenburg and which had gained autonomy from the Catholic original. These together with the British Venerable Order formed an ‘Alliance of Orders of Saint John’ in 1961 as a federation of four Protestant Orders of St John. The “Alliance” was later extended to include the Catholic SMOM.


Therefore all five member-orders of the ‘Alliance’ claim some form of historical relationship to the original Order of St. John.  


The firm policy, which was restated in 1967, of the ‘Alliance’ is that “Only the member Orders of the Alliance of Orders of St John, and the Sovereign Order of Malta (whose headquarters are in Rome) are recognised by the Alliance as historically legitimate Orders of St John” and “No other Orders, associations or organisations shall in future be recognised as Orders of St John without consultation of and a unanimous resolution by all members of the Alliance of Orders of St John”. 


In 1974, on the initiative of SMOM, a "False Orders Committee" was established. In the context of the wider scene of many orders of Chivalry, the FOC is charged with preventing the “misuse of the names, emblems and official documents” of its Member Orders, and to forestall unlawful acts arising from the imitation of those names and emblems. 


In addition to, but separate from, the FOC, the SMOM and the member-Orders of the “Alliance” have constituted a “Joint Commission on Emblem Protection” which seeks to prevent “unauthorized” use of the white eight-pointed cross. 






The islands of Malta are an independent republic and have nothing to do with SMOM. 








Although SMOM is recognized as a kind of ‘special State’ by some countries, this view is not universal. 














However, even the U.S.A. has acknowledged the tremendous utility of SMOM and has on some occasions sought the good offices of SMOM in unusual circumstances like the flight of Ferdinand Marcos. 








Ruspoli’s name in full was Bartolomeo Francesco Maria Marescotti-Ruspoli, born 1754. He was the second son of the 2nd Prince of Cerveteri. 


Till this day, the surname Ruspoli evokes memories of castles, palaces, wealth and power - the cusp of the Black nobility. Indeed, there are few, if any, families in modern times that can compare to this surname. A species of the Touraco bird endemic to southern Ethiopia was officially named in 1892 as “Prince Ruspoli's Turaco” (Tauraco ruspolii ) and a stunning 133-carat sapphire which can be viewed in the Paris Museum of Natural History is known as the “Ruspoli Sapphire”. 


However, its real surname is not Ruspoli but Marescotti.


The family is descended from a paladin Scot surnamed Douglas identified as Marius Scotto, a loyal warrior of Charlemagne. It became the established family holding the title of Conte di Vignanello in the Bologna area of Italy, and intermarried with the Farnese family. 


The Ruspoli surname was not added in direct consequence of the marriage to the last representative, Vittoria, of that Fiorentine Banker family but because her brother Bartolomeo Ruspoli, who had acquired the fief of Cerveteri and the Roman Ara Coeli Palace, had bequeathed his estate to his sister’s heirs. 


Legal issues on succession ensued. Inevitably, the bigger the inheritance the more people want to have their finger in the pie. Eventually the first-born Francesco Maria Marescotti-Ruspoli emerged the victor and was styled Marchese di Cerveteri


According to Streeter’s “Precious Stones and Gems” (1892), one of the fine sapphires in the collection of the Musée au Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, weighed an amazing 133.06 carats. Today the Stone can be viewed in the Paris Museum of Natural History. It is indeed nearly "without flaw," containing only one small feather and crystal inclusion, and is possibly of Burmese or Sri Lankan origin. In the museum it is known as the Ruspoli Sapphire because – the claim goes – during the 17th century, a Roman prince named Ruspoli sold this sapphire to a salesman, who in turn, sold it to King Louis XIV sometime before 1691 and thereafter became the third most prominent gem in the French Crown Jewels.


However, it seems that either the date or title of the seller is wrong, because the Ruspolis had still not become princes by the end of the 17th century. 


How they were elevated is a story in itself. Francesco Maria’s uncle the Cardinal Galeazzo Marescotti, was irked that other wealthy families like the Aldobrandini, Boncompagni and Borghese had obtained princely titles from the Pope-king. It seems that these enjoyed the unfair advantage of having provided Popes; neither the Marescotti nor the Ruspoli had provided one. 


Titles, and princely ones at that, do not come cheap and this might explain the reason why the enormous sapphire is thought to have been sold by a member of the Ruspoli family. 


Francesco Maria was egged on by his undaunted uncle to get this title at all costs (see: “I Ruspoli”, Galeazzo Ruspoli, Gremese Editore, 2001 ). We know that in 1707, Francesco Maria donated an armed ship to the Pope-King at a special ceremony to the music purposely composed by no one less than Handel himsef, who was a protégée of the rich Ruspoli. However, all this did not impress the Supreme Pontiff and the title was not granted. 


Fortune changed after Francesco Maria, raised and financed his own regiment which successfully pushed the Austrians back to the north of the River Po. When news of this result arrived, the Cardinal’s wishes resurfaced and on February 3, 1709, the grateful Clement XI elevated the fief of Cerveteri to a Principato allowing Francesco Maria to hold the fief "non ostante la proibizione di ciò apposta nel Testamento di Bartolom. Ruspoli , essendosi inoltre espressato , che lo tratterà con quell'attenzione, che ha meritato il suo servizio , et applicazione nell'armamento , e passate congiunture" . (See: Drammaturgia romana. 2, (1701-1750) : annali dei testi drammatici e libretti per musica pubblicati a Roma e nel Lazio dal 1701 al 1750, con introduzione sui teatri romani nel settecento e commento storico-critico sull'attività teatrale e musicale romana dal 1701 al 1730, Saverio Franchi; Orietta Sartori, Rome, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1997, Series: Sussidi eruditi, 45).  


Francesco Maria’s heir married a German countess and she produced two sons, Francesco Ruspoli (3rd principe di Cerveteri) and Bartolomeo. 


Bartolomeo is barely mentioned in published Ruspoli genealogies. As second son and unmarried, genealogists have double-reason not to give him much of their time. Even SMOM feigns ignorance of his existence. How wrong they all are.



In 2013, the SMOM  will be celebrating the 900th anniversary of a Bull (license) issued by Pope Paschal II marking the foundation of an already established Hospital granting it the right to henceforth freely elect its superiors without interference from other secular or religious authorities. 

Part of the celebrations will no doubt be held in St. John’s Co-Cathedral Malta where the lofty knights, exuding confidence, charm and authority will make double effort to don their livery and capes to be seen meekly gasping the name of the Blessed Adrian Fortescue of Salden as one of the greatest martyrs their kind has ever seen and admire his portraits with the greatest reverence. 

After all, what good knight or dame, can afford to deny himself some brownie points when it is a much-published fact that this great 16th century personality is the ancestor of many recusant families, no less that of the Big Capo himself the Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ, His Most Eminent Highness Fra' Matthew Festing, 79th Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta? (See: TIMES, "New Grand Master’s Crusade to explain his Ancient Catholic Order”, 9 April 2010, Richard Owen)

In preparing themselves they should reacquaint themselves with the Order’s approved literature, maybe that little prayer about the devout knight of St John, the Blessed Sir Adrian, who had offered his life bravely to the devil’s tyrant, steadfastly refusing to reject the religion of his fathers, and who paid with his blood with the highest price defiance and bold perseverance can exact.  O God, since all things are within your power, grant through the prayers of blessed Adrian, your martyr, that we who keep his feast today may become stronger in the love of your name and hold to your holy Church even at the cost of our lives. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (See: The Missal with readings of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes, & of Malta, London 1997)

Today’s knights are not the first to show impression by Adrian. Earlier members and even a mere pope have already publicly embraced him as worthy of devotion. 

You just can’t blame them for doing so.

After all the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta has been claiming that the Order of St. John has been advocating devotion to its brother Adrian as a martyr since the 1630s, and then there’s the other matter that Pope Leo XII did beatify him on the 13 May 1895 (Lives of the English martyrs: declared blessed by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and 1895, Bede Camm).

Indeed there are many, within Christendom and without, who believe that Blessed Sir Adrian was a great Knight of the Order. What better proof of his membership than his two images in Valletta, Malta both by the celebrated Mattia Preti, one on the vault, forming part of the series of the heroes of the Order, the other in the Oratory of the Decollation, flanking Caravaggio’s masterpiece? 

But let us look at some facts. 

  1. As with the majority of Englishmen and women born before 1500, no record of Adrian’s birth exists. 1476 is generally credited as the year of his nativity, but this, more likely, occurred five years later. 
  2. The earliest known document shows him already married to his first wife Anne Stonor by whom he had two children. When she died in 1518, Adrian joined in wedlock Anne Rede who bore him another five children. The Fortescue, Stonor and Rede families belonged to the solid, high-ranking and wealthy aristocracy. 
  3. What we know of Adrian points to a devout Catholic churchgoer with an active intellectual life of his own oriented to theology and conventional morality. He showed a philanthropic disposition, supported pious works and charities financially, and placed family and church as focal poles of his life, observing scrupulously religious tenets and discipline.
  4. On August 29, 1534, four years after the Order of St John had settled in Malta, the king ordered Adrian’s detention. He was later released.
  5. Five years on, in February 1539, Adrian suffered a second arrest in the Tower of London.
  6. The king’s executioner publicly beheaded Adrian, together with Thomas Dingley, on July 9, 1539, on Tower Hill.

Historians generally assumed that the first arrest was connected with his refusal to accept the Act – and the oath – of Succession of 1534, or the Act of Supremacy. But Fortescue does not seem to have entertained any reservation about the king’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, or his subsequent remarriage to his own (Fortescue’s) cousin Anne Boleyn; he prominently attended her coronation as new queen of England. 

Modern research links convincingly Fortescue’s first arrest to the rebellion of the Earl of Kildare of July 1534. Fortescue’s daughter Frances had married the Earl, and all indications suggest that Adrian’s arrest had no connection at all with the conflicts of religion, but rather to the exacerbated politics of one of the more turbulent periods of Irish power struggles. The king locked Fortescue up in the Tower of London and then released him by October, almost certainly when it came to be ascertained he had had no part in the rebellion incited by his son-in-law.

Five years on, in February 1539, Adrian suffered a second arrest in the Tower of London. Shortly later the House of Lords passed a Bill of Attainder condemning about 50 persons for treason and other offences. The Lords at that time claimed the right to find persons guilty by Act of Parliament, rather than by due process through the criminal courts. In Fortescue’s case, the bill remains bewilderingly unsullied by facts: that Adrian had most traitorously refused his duty of allegiance to the king and had also committed “dyvers and sundry detestable and abhomynable treasons to put sedition in the king’s realm”. These conventional legal stereotypes add next to nothing to our comprehension, unless substantiated by the recital of specific facts – totally absent in Fortescue’s case. No details at all emerge as to what the treasons and seditions attributed to the knight could have been. 

It remains impossible to establish what the Lords voted him guilty of, but a closer analysis of this bill and other concurrent ones enabled the researcher Richard Rex to establish what Fortescue was not executed for. 

He was not connected with any of the other accused, nor do the records claim that he had knowledge of their illegal activities. He was not involved in the rebellious Pilgrimage of Grace – indeed he had raised troops for the king to repress the religious insurgents. He was in no way implicated in the alleged conspiracy of the Marquis of Exeter. Fortescue, though related to the Pole family, had no dealings with Cardinal Pole – but then, he was equally related to the king as well. Nor had he any links with the Irish revolts. He had no contacts with Catholic refugees, or with Thomas Dingley who had been arrested long before him. 

When did the married, and fathering, Adrian Fortescue join the Order of St. John? 

The blunt answer is that he never did! (Times of Malta, ”Henry VIII: wives, lovers and martyrs of the Order of Malta" 14 February 2010, “Sir Thomas Dingley, Knight of Malta beheaded by Henry VIII”, 22 February 2010 (Giovanni Bonello)  

There is no record whatsoever of his name in the general archives of the Order, not even the most evanescent appearance in the books of deliberations of the English tongue. More tellingly, Giacomo Bosio, who assembled together the most exhaustive chronicle of the annals of the Order in the 16th century, inserting compulsively any name that would throw lustre on the history of the knights, ignores Fortescue altogether.

An English historian, Richard Rex, confirms this. Never do the copious English chronicles he unearthed hint to Fortescue being a knight of St John. In fact, the historian reaches two rather disturbing conclusions with which it would be difficult to disagree: firstly, that Fortescue had certainly never joined the Order of St John; secondly, that although Adrian was undoubtedly a pious Catholic, no evidence subsists that his execution in any way related to religious beliefs. The chances are equally weighty that Henry VIII wanted him out of the way for purely political motives. 

A great saint to whom so much devotion is given by his fellow knights of St. John was never a member in the first place.

“Sir Adrian was beheaded on Tower Hill on 9 July, along with the Ven. Thomas Dingley. There was no cult among the English recusants, but he was venerated as a martyr by the Knights of Malta, and this was the basis of his beatification in 1895. Tradition has strongly maintained from the seventeenth century onward that he was a Knight of Malta, though as a married man he could only have been a “knight of devotion” and not a full member. Recent research, however, has failed to find any evidence of his membership, and “knights of devotion” were not allowed in for in the Order’s sixteenth-century statutes. There was a form of confraternity or “associate” membership, but again, there is no evidence that Sir Adrian enjoyed this. “It therefore becomes very hard to believe that Sir Adrian had, in his lifetime, any affililation with the Order of Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem” (Rex). (“Butler’s Lives of Saints” , Burns and Oates, 2000, page 65)

What gave rise to this legend? - A misprint! 

The legend of the knight of Malta Adrian Fortescue and his (misplaced) cult among the knights, arose rather late, almost a hundred years after his death, from a careless misreading of a known document. The same historian has traced convincingly the origins of the misunderstanding which has derailed the course of truth for over four centuries. 

A fundamental work in Latin on the English Reformation by Nicholas Sanders (De origine ac progressus schismatis anglicani) in its 1586 Rome and 1588 Inglostadt editions, mentions the execution of “Adrian Fortescue, eques auratus, (a knight allowed the special privilege of gilding his armour) and Thomas Dingley, knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem”. Its French translation of 1587-88, more ambiguously refers to, “Adrian Fortescue, Chevalier de l’Ordre et Thomas Dingley, Chevalier de l’Ordre de S. Jehan de Hierusalem”. 

But then, a poorly printed edition of John Stow’s chronicle which appeared in 1618 changed this to “Sir Adrian Fortescue and Thomas Dingley, knights of St Johns”. 

Slipshod proof-reading, a superfluous “S” in the wrong place, proved all that was needed to launch the now indelible myth of Fortescue as a knight of Malta. Alfredo Mifsud, hard as he tried, could only find a first mention of Adrian in the records of the Order two years after Stow’s printing error. 

What are the portraits at St. John’s?


What Fortescue looked like still remains unknown.  There are three known portraits of him, none of them contemporary, all in Malta: two are in the former Conventual Church of St. John’s in Valletta; and the third, a copy of an earlier Madrid portrait of him in the robes of a full knight of Malta, is in the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat. (“Butler’s Lives of Saints” , Burns and Oates, 2000)

Of the two Preti paintings said to be likenesses of Fortescue, the one in the Oratory of St John’s has certainly no connection at all with the English nobleman. Only in the British period did anglophile historians first claim that the holy martyr painted by Preti represented Fortescue; before that, this likeness was attributed to Fra Gherardo Mecatti, an old Florentine recluse who acquired his reputation of sanctity nursing the sick in the Order’s hospitals. However, the uncomfortable truth is that the picture represents neither Fortescue nor Mecatti. The knight in that painting looms over a Turkish turban thrown on the floor and, through a large window can be seen a fierce siege battle between Turks and knights. Preti obviously wanted to emphasise that his knight received his martyrdom heroically fighting the Turks. That excludes Fortescue who never saw a Turkish warrior in his life. 

As to Fortescue’s second ‘portrait’ on the vault of St John’s, it seems this personage was claimed to represent the English nobleman for the first time in 1859, a date too late and too ‘English-friendly’ to be reliable.  The image of a very young man, supposed to represent the 70 year old English knight, is wearing the red vest with the white Latin cross, usually part of the battle uniform of the knights. Fortescue never took part in any armed conflict of the knights of Malta and this excludes conclusively that Preti could have had him in mind he painted the unidentified warrior-hero.

Those who have written about the English langue, starting from the Maltese historian Mgr Alfredo Mifsud, spared no efforts in depicting Henry VIII’s times as those of Hospitaller heroes and martyrs.  Modern research hardly bears this out – exactly the opposite emerges. 

“Historians of the Order of St John have traditionally exaggerated the heroism of the English Hospitallers’ resistance to Henry VIII. Concentrating on those of their number, real or supposed, who died for the Catholic faith and on those English knights who remained in Malta after 1540, they have generally created the impression that a majority of the English brethren of the Order were martyred, remained in Malta or fled to the continent rather than submit to the Henrician supremacy and the dissolution of their ‘religion’. Mifsud’s treatment of the subject usefully embodies the mass of supposition and wishful thinking that had built up over the years”.  (“The Knights Hospitaller of the English Langue 1460-1565, Gregory O’ Malley, Oxford University Press, 2005, Chapter Nine)

But still, the rhetorical fable continues to spin and we must content ourselves with the glitter and refrain from asking questions. 

Let us drink a toast to John Stow, maker of a jolly good story. 

Link: Unauthorised use of Sovereign Order's name: