The memory of the Consiglio Popolare of Malta.
The Consiglio Popolare was in effect a Maltese constitutional body in medieval times. The name translates as the ‘Popular Council’ but was later referred to as the National Assembly of Malta. The Consiglio was abolished by Grand Master Rohan. It is not to be confused with the short-lived ‘National Congress’ which was set up by Maltese insurgents during the French government of Malta (1798-1800).
It is not known when the Consiglio was first instituted and although it was certainly in existence since the 13th century, this body is mentioned when King Alphonsus of Aragon mortgaged the Maltese islands to Antonio Cardona in 1420. Some publications claim that the Consiglio was created soon after, if not before, the expulsion of the Saracens in 1090 but there appears to be no documentary evidence to support this.
Much reference is made to the Consiglio Popolare in many early 19th century Maltese representations to Great Britain ostensibly to prove that the Maltese previously enjoyed certain rights which were represented through the Consiglio which was composed of various office holders held by the leading and principal citizens of the time, a term used interchangeably with “nobility”. A number of the early members of the Consiglio are described as “Magnificus”, “Nobile” or even “Barone” even though there is no documentary evidence of a grant of title.
Originally the Consiglio’s authority extended to matters of considerable importance and public interest including the prerogative to accept, or reject, any decrees or proclamations which were made by the Government of Sicily in connection with the Maltese Islands. Other known functions of the Consiglio were to ask for redress of grievances and local legislation, and to send envoys (referred to as Ambassadors) empowered to address the throne directly.
A significant right that appears to have been claimed in the 19th century representations to the British was that to rebel against the King. This right does not appear to have ever been used. The context for this privilege was that in 1396, Martin, King of Arragon, and Mary, granted Malta in fief (with the title of marquis), to Guglielmo Raimondo di Moncada, count of Augusta for 30,000 florins but the local’s negative reaction was significant. The locals repaid the money to Moncada and the king, by a sworn diploma, dated the 17th November, 1397 declared Malta and Gozo inalienable, in perpetuity, from the crown of Spain, and bound himself and his successors, not to alienate these islands in any manner whatever and permitting the locals, in case of contrary conduct of the crown, to resist ' manu forti, proquo’ in nullum crimen, delictum vel nobedintiam incurrere reputentur, et aliquatenus enseatur, &c’
It is surmised that the right described in the 1397 document should have been invoked through the Consiglio but it is not clear if this right could ever have been acted upon successfully. Between 1397 and 1530, there were at least two occasions when the Maltese Islands were again granted in fief, once to Antonio Cardona (1420) and a second time (1425) to Consalvo di Monroy. It is claimed that on both occasions the Maltese immediately redeemed their islands by paying the money, but the inference is that although the 1397 declaration was breached the locals never acted on the right to rebel.
In the 16th century, the Maltese Islands were granted in fief, together with Tripoli in Libya, to the Order of Saint John. Under the Knights’ rule which lasted till 1798 (Tripoli was lost soon after the grant), the Consiglio Popolare lost most of its importance since many of its functions were steadily curtailed or abolished outright.
Although there is documentary evidence showing that news of the grant in favour of the Order was not well received by the locals, it appears that their concerns were abated by assurances that their rights and form of government will be retained. The locals regarded the Grand Master not as a sovereign but rather the first magistrate, controllable by the Consiglio Popolare , which had a right to send ambassadors, and appeal to the Spanish Crown (later that of Sicily) against him. In form, every Grand Master before being admitted to take possession of the government of the islands, was to take an oath to maintain inviolate all the Maltese privileges, and in particular their Consiglio.
In principle the locals were correct but it is apparent that although the Order was originally a mere feudatory of the suzerain of Sicily, in the process of time its government of the Islands increasingly enjoyed the principal attributes of a independent State. By the 18th century, the Grand Masters were acting as a ‘fons honorum’ creating new titles of nobility (1710) as well as curtailing the old practice of attributing the title of “Noble” to anyone who held local office (1725).
Some 19th century representations claimed that many members of the Consiglio had been illegally nominated by the grandmasters. In any event, three significant events arose during the reigns of Grand Masters Ximenes and Rohan, first an uprising in 1774 of the locals (“The Priests’ revolt”) which challenged the Grand Master’s authority but was successfully suppressed; second the enactment of the Code de Rohan in 1782 which introduced the unpopular law which allowed the Grand Master to act as supreme judge (a law which was later revoked by the French government but reintroduced by the British Civil Commissioners). Of these three events, the third namely the formal abolition of the Consiglio Popolare was perhaps the most serious. Desmond Gregory says that it was already suppresed by 1777 whilst another source quotes 1775. Coincidentally, Ximenes ony created one title of nobility whilst Rohan is credited with having created the greatest number of new titles.
The Code de Rohan did not differ much from an earlier code of 1721 insofar as ordinary laws, with the exception of vesting all public powers in the Grand Master. The acrimony caused by this enactment together with the effective removal of the right of recourse to the Sicilian suzerain, is evidenced in the later 19th century representations. One could speculate that this antagonism motivated the locals to welcome the French government in June 1798 which they did by two instruments, one signed on behalf of the Maltese people on the 10th June, the other signed by the Order and other representatives of the Maltese on the 12th.
By September 1798, an insurgency had been raised against the French. There are conflicting versions of the local nobility’s role against the French. On the one hand it is reported that when the people rose against the French, three of the elected four leaders were members of the native nobility, and others who maintain that the nobility was so Francophile that during the same insurrection the French commanding officer had as his personal bodyguard the sons of the leading nobility.
On the 26 January 1799, the leaders of the insurgents wrote a letter to Nelson asking him to persuade the King of Naples to supply grain on credit against the ‘hypothecation of their estates’. An Act was drawn up for this purpose, and signed by all the property-owners of Malta. The context for this was that the King of Naples was also King of Sicily and therefore in terms of the grant to the Order the Maltese Islands should by right revert to him. At that time a British Captain, Alexander John Ball was in regular contact with the leaders Vincenzo Borg (Braret), Caruana, Savona and Vital – none of these were titled. Ball who was moored off Malta on the ship “The Alexander” had received letters patent as representative of the King of Naples but by at least the 9 February 1799 he had already entreated these leaders with the possibility of persuading the Sicilian King to give up his right for ever.
Meanwhile, a ‘Congress in the Countryside’ was called. Under Ball’s presidency, a Committee, consisting of 22 deputies (none of them being nobles) were formed to govern the island. However, during the following March various nobles were appointed. This assembly known as the “National Congress” is sometimes referred to as the “National Assembly” hence the confusion with the Consiglio.
The Congress differed from the Consiglio fundamentally namely that it was self-appointed and mooted the appointment of a new Sovereign and even Independence. An attestation by the Maltese people dated 25 February 1806 declares that the locals “re-established the Consiglio Popolare under the name of a Congress, which kept up order and tranquility among the people but Captain Ball, who, during the siege, had been appointed by the King of Naples Governor of Malta (but was in fact only president of the Consiglio..”) abolished this assembly by his own authority. According to another contemporary writer (Dillon) it was Ball himself who induced the Maltese to accept British protection and suspend the form of government they had established for themselves.
The French eventually surrendered the islands on the 5th of September 1800, but did so solely to the British military commander, Sir Thomas Pigot. Both Ball and the Maltese representatives were excluded. The claim made by some that that capitulation was signed on behalf of His Britannic Majesty ‘and his allies’, is not supported by the text.
Fears of a solely military government by Britain were allayed in May 1801 when Charles Cameron, described in the Instructions he received from the British Crown, as ‘civil commissioner’, was appointed. He was succeeded by Ball (1802-1809) and by General Hildebrand Oakes (1810-1813).
The rule of the early Civil Commissioners proved unpopular and the Maltese people expressed their regret at heeding Ball’s advice. Dillon reports that it was Ball who also renewed amongst them the code introduced in 1782 by Rohan, who “destroyed the liberties of the island, and suppressed the Consiglio Popolare, as dear to that people as a House of Commons to ourselves.” By now, the Maltese were calling for a special form of independence and the reestablishment of the old Consiglio Popolare. The following document dated 1810 signed by those described as comprising nearly the whole of the principal Nobility may be indicative of the Maltese people’s expectations.
Conspicuously absent from the list of “principal nobles” are the Inguanez family (male line extinct in 1760), and most of those families who were first titled after 1782 with the exception of Theuma Castelletti, Alessi and Apap.
Desmond Gregory writes that the petition never reached the desk of the Secretary of State but describes the Civil Commissioner Oakes as having been so outraged that Ball’s name was savaged, he demanded to see the memorial’s original copy to satisfy himself as to who, precisely, the signatories were. Having done so, he brought strong pressure on all those expecting future favours to withdraw their names. Of the 98 original signatories, 10 were persuaded to withdraw their names. For having signed, Oakes punished Paolo Parisio who was put on the the supernumerary list and resigned his commission in disgust; the old and blind Marquis Pandolfo Testaferrata, nominally in charge of the police, was placed on half-pay and the young and flattered Marquis Nicolo Testaferrata lost his captaincy in the militia.
Of the names of the principal nobles signing the above petition, their titled memory was to be erased much later in 1878 by a British appointed Commission to enquire into the claims of the Maltese Nobility, most notably Mario Testaferrata Castelletti, Pandolfo Testaferrata, Nicolo Testaferrata de Noto, Martino Preziosi and G.B. Cassar Desain.
Although contemporary documents attribute to Ball the title of “Governor of Malta” during 1799-1800, it has been debated whether he was acting by Neapolitan or British authority. A decision of the Privy Council in 1938 in Sammut v Strickland made it a settled proposition of U.K. law that the sovereignty of Malta had passed to the British Crown by right of conquest at least by October 1813. This was the date of the first appointment of a British official with the title of ‘Governor’ (Sir Thomas Maitland) and his publication, in Malta, of a Proclamation in the name and on behalf of George III to the effect that the King had determined ‘henceforth to recognise the people of Malta and Gozo as subjects of the British Crown and as entitled to its fullest protection’. British sovereignty was confirmed unambiguously in international law by the Treaty of Paris of 1814 and the subsequent Congress of Vienna of 1815.
However, the decision of the Privy Council did not resolve the vexed question of the source of British authority between 1800 and 1813, which continues to be a subject of speculation. Modern commentators accept that there is no confident consensus on the issue of both the moment and the cause of British legal authority.
On the other hand the memorials in Malta maintain that the Britain took Malta not by conquest, but by request of the Maltese. Ball was still issuing orders in March 1799 as “Commander in Chief” but a mere three weeks after the French surrender to Pigot who immediately assumed military government, Ball was issuing gubernatorial attestations in favour of Vincenzo Borg.
In any case, by article 7 of the Treaty of Paris (May 30, 1814), the Island of Malta and its Dependencies unambiguously came to belong in full right and Sovereignty to His Britannic Majesty, hence the inscription at Valletta “Magnae et Invictae Brittanie, Melitensium Amor et Europae vox, has insulas confirmant. AD MDCCCXIV”.
In effect, the administration of the Islands was the sole prerogative of the British Civil Commissioners and now the Governors. Sir Thomas Maitland, described as a man of strong will and uncouth manners, stifled all opposition and abolished many of the traditional offices which originally held by the nobility. The National Assembly, wrongly described as the Consiglio Popolare, was formally suppressed in 1818. However in the same year he linked the Maltese nobles to the new Government in two ways: by appointing some Lords Lieutenant (abolished in 1839), and granting other members entry into the newly formed Order of Saint Michael and Saint George of which he was its first Grand Master (but the first nobleman to be so admitted was only in 1833, that is almost 10 years after Maitland’s death).
During the Governorship of Sir Frederick Ponsonby, Malta was granted a Constitution in 1835 providing for a Council of Government of seven members of whom three were to be nominated Maltese representatives. The three unofficial members of the nominated Council, (the anglophile Baron de Piro representing the landed proprietors of the Island; Agostino Portelli representing the Maltese merchants; and Nicholas Aspinall chosen to represent the British born merchants in Malta) were to hold office only “during pleasure.”
By August 1835, Giorgio Mitrovich, was representing the Maltese liberals to represent their cause personally at the Colonial Office. He penned a number of pamphlets which proved successful, particularly the two published in London in July and November 1835, “The Claims of the Maltese founded on the principles of justice,” and “Indirizzo ai Maltesi”. In these pamphlets, Mitrovich developed in some detail the historical basis for the regranting of a Consiglio Popolare to Malta. According to his argument, a Consiglio Popolare had been established in 1090 by Count Roger of Normandy and had been composed of representatives of the clergy, the nobility and the people; and Mitrovich claimed for it the sovereign right of legislation. Mitrovich further maintained that Ball’s Countryside Congresso of 1798 was a revival of the Consiglio Popolare. He went on to argue that like its predecessor the Countryside Congresso possessed legislative power, and that in suppressing the Congresso Britain had broken all her solemn pledges to the Maltese. Mitrovich’s argument, although clearly ahistorical, gathered popularity and in 1849 through the initiative of Governor Sir Richard O'Ferrall, another Constitution was granted to the Maltese Islands. This Constitution made provision for a Council of Government consisting of 10 nominated members and eight elected members.
Titles of Nobility were abolished in 1798 by Napoleon. However, as seen in the 1810 list this did not stop the nobles from using their titles. By the late 19th century the descendants of the old noblemen had formed an ‘Assembly of Maltese Nobles’ which albeit without any powers whatsoever, claimed the right of addressing the Throne, harking memories of the Consiglio Popolare. The Assembly was in principle composed of titolati and cadetti within the meaning of the 1739 and 1795 rules of the Grand Masters Despuig and Rohan which were the laws as last enacted by the Grand Masters.
After the British-appointed Commission to enquire into the claims of the Maltese Nobility published its report in 1878 a special Committee was created in 1883 by the Colonial office “with functions analogous to those of the Committee of Privileges in the House of Lords (of the United Kingdom)”. The stated purpose of that committee was first to take into reconsider those claims which were disallowed by the Commissioners Naudi and Pullicino and second to report from time to time to the Secretary of State for the Colonies on any matter affecting the Maltese Nobility or their rights, claims or privileges, or to bring such matter to the foot of throne by petition to Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen.
During the period 1878-1883 one finds evidence of at least one title created by Grand Masters that fell into extinction being revived by the Committee, with sanction of the Colonial office, as well as at least three titles being ante-dated by presumption. There is more evidence to suggest that in determining the succession of titles, instead of applying the laws as last enacted by the Grand Masters, British Malta adopted a practice of rule-shopping between the latter and the laws existing prior to the government of the Order. In time the titolati recognized by Britain bore little resemblance to the titolati at the end of the Knights’ domination.
An issue of representation arose between the Assembly and the Committee in 1886 when the Marchese di San Giorgio attempted to change the rules of precedence between the Maltese Nobility. The issue was resolved by Lord Granville when he communicated his decision that in view of the considerable opposition by the old Baroni and cadetti and the small support which the proposal received, he was not prepared to reconsider the decision of Grand Master Rohan. Following this decision, it appears that the Assembly of Maltese Nobles lost its political significance and the Committee of Privileges took up all representation to the British Throne of the Maltese Titolati. The cadetti were unrepresented. Later published developments show that the Committee established another assembly called the “Assembly of the Maltese Nobility” but this was composed only of titolati and heirs-apparent and therefore bears no resemblance to the “Assembly of Maltese Nobles” or the “Consiglio Popolare”.
In another incident also in 1886 the Committee of Privileges was successful to obtain for each of the British-acknowledged titolati the right to the style “The Most Noble”on the basis that all title holders were entitled to it without discrimination . It is not clear if this premise is but another inaccurate of the medieval practice of attributing a title of “Noble” to each member of the Consiglio or a blatant misrepresentation of the effect of the 1725 legislation which allowed the limited use of the titles of “Most Illustrious” and “Nobleto some families only, not necessarily titled-families.
- Anon., The Appeals of the Nobility and Peoples of Malta, London 1811 (printed by Henry Reynell)
- William Cobbett, Political Register
- Desmond Gregory Malta, Britain, and the European powers, 1793-1815 ISBN 978-0838635902
- Galea, Malta's Timeline, Malta.
- Giorgio Mitrovich “The Claims of the Maltese founded on the principles of justice”
- Giorgio Mitrovich “Indirizzo ai Maltesi”.
- Montalto, John, The Nobles of Malta, 1530-1800 Midsea Books, Valletta, Malta : 1979 ASIN: B0000EE028
- The Battle for Representation between the “Assembly of the Maltese Nobility” and the “Committee of Privileges of the Maltese Nobility (link)
- The quiet usurpation of the titles “Illustrissimo” and “Nobile”, later “The Most Noble”
- The importance of independent legal and factual bases for titles of Nobility in Malta.