Bonaparte’s plan to rig an election in Malta

Emmanuel de Rohan Polduc, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, de facto Sovereign of Malta, was very ill. Once dead, who would be elected to succeed him?

The question was, from the point of view of France at war with Great Britain, serious, for Malta was one of the bastions of the Mediterranean. No one understood this better than Bonaparte; at that time wearing his Italian laurels, he was, perhaps, already thinking of Egypt.

An idea came to him: why not push the candidature of Godoy, the Spanish Prince of the Peace? The latter would certainly be enchanted, not only at attaining so illustrious an honour, but at having henceforward a refuge to shelter him at need from the blows of his enemies. In this way the French government, and Bonaparte especially, would get an advantage in their dealings with the Prince.

On 26th May 1797, Napoleon wrote to the Directory:

‘The island of Malta is extraordinarily important for us. The Grand Master is dying, and his successor should, it seems, be a German. It would require five or six hundred thousand francs to get a Spaniard named. Would it not be possible to drop a hint to the Prince of the Peace that here is something that should interest him?’ 

The scheme found favour at Paris, and Perignon, the Ambassador, was charged to broach it to Godoy. The latter kept his head and laid down conditions: he must have money; he must be dispensed from the vow of chastity taken by the knights of Malta.

As to money, Charles IV took charge of that, declaring to the favourite: I will do whatever is needed to enable you to assume with honour the new dignity intended for you. As to the vow of chastity, the new French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Talleyrand, who was here in his element, undertook to negotiate a dispensation.

But these plans were thwarted. Rohan suddenly died. The Knights, who did not in the least want Godoy as Grand Master, hurried on the election and chose, as Bonaparte had predicted, a German called Hompesch.

The proposed bribes refer to two ‘problems’, one to get Godoy elected, the other to obtain him a dispensation. This implies that nothing was sacred within the Order, everything was for sale:- At least, that was how Napoleon, Talleyrand and Charles IV perceived the higher levels of the Order.

Were such transactions carried in Malta? What evidence have we got?

Montalto after giving a brief overview of the older titles of nobility which were granted for particular services, and their peculiar remainders (pp. 29-38) (e.g. in default of nomination, the Barony of Benwarrat was to be enjoyed by the eldest male descendant, he goes on to consider Rohan’s creations describing how these were not granted for any particular merit but were applied for.

“During the last quarter of the eighteenth century it was normal to petition the Grand Masters for a title. Hence nearly all these grants were solicited………….Invariably, the Grand Master (Rohan) accepted these petitions. Many of the titles were granted rather quickly, at times on the very day that the petition was presented. It is therefore, highly probably that the petition was only a formality, negotiations having taken place earlier, and usually in secret.”

The taint of corruptibility at the higher levels of the Order would leave it reasonable to claim that some of Rohan’s creations may have involved a monetary consideration.

That Rohan’s creations were made by these petitions and decided on the same day would appear to substantiate a claim that most of the Rohanite titles were but mere purchases by social aspirants. Narrowing the list, we note that the greater number of Rohan’s creations were made after the revolution in France, that is at a time when the Order’s coffers and those of individual French knights (Rohan himself was French) were seriously hampered, which could give motive for the Grand Master to receive a bribe.

The list of these ‘suspect’ grants is quite long, Rohan having been a very energetic creator of new titles, to wit:-

  1. Marchese (Muscati Xiberras) di Sciorp il-Hagin, 8 March 1776;
  2. Barone (Dorell Falzon) della Marsa (Third creation), 10 March 1776;
  3. Barone (Azzopardi) di Buleben, 23 July 1777 (later extended);
  4. Marchese (Barbaro) di San Giorgio, 6 September 1778(later extended twice);
  5. Barone Gauci, 23 December 1781;
  6. Conte (Gatt) di Beberrua, 23 October 1783;
  7. Marchese (Mompalao) della Taflia, 25 October 1783;
  8. Marchese (Mallia Tabone) del Fiddien, 15 October 1785 (later extended);
  9. Marchese (Alessi) della Taflia, 15 October 1785;
  10. Conte (Teuma Castelletti) di Ghain Toffieha, 7 January 1792;
  11. Barone (Calleja) di San Cosmo, 27 November 1792;
  12. Marchese (Apap) di Gnien Is-Sultan, 1 December 1792;
  13. Conte (Barbaro) di Santi, 14 January 1794;
  14. Conte (Marchesi) di Meimun, 8 March 1794;
  15. Barone (Carbott Testaferrata) della Grua, 30 December 1794;
  16. Conte (Fontani) della Senia, 6 June 1795, and
  17. Marchese (Delicata) di Ghain Kajet, 4 June 1796

These new creations, particularly of those of the higher rank of Conte and Marchese must have upset the established nobility (the older baroni) and the Grand Master appears to have appeased that concern in 1795 when the rule of precedence was modified to ensure that seniority was regulated by antiquity of the nobility not the rank of title.

“The Master of the Hospital at Jerusalem, of the Holy Sepulchre and of the Order of St. Anthony of Vienna – It being a principle universally acknowledged that the lustre of Nobility principally depends on its greater antiquity, nothing is more just and reasonable than that the older Nobles should have precedence over the more recent. We have therefore determined to ordain that, in regulating the precedency among the Nobles of this our dominion, whether first-born or cadets indiscriminately, regard shall be had only to the greater or lesser antiquity of the title by which their family was ennobled, whether that title had been granted by ourselves or by our predecessors, or by foreign princes, provided however, it was registered in our Chancery, and in the High Court of the Castellania. In cases, however, of grants bearing the same date, the person possessing two or more titles, shall have precedence over another who has less titles, according to the rule established by the magisterial decree of our lamented predecessor, Grand Master Despuig of the 16th September 1739, which in any part not inconsistent with our present enactment, we confirm in its entirety. Given at the Palace, 17th March 1795 (signed) Rohan.”

Concluding, if the old baroni held any doubts on the genuineness of the basis of Rohan’s new titles, it was of no concern to them.


Chastenet “Godoy – Master of Spain 1792-1808” (Translated Huntington, 1953), Batchworth Press

Montalto, John, The nobles of Malta, 1530-1800 Midsea Books, Valletta, Malta : 1979 ASIN: B0000EE028

Correspondence and Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the claims and grievances of the Maltese Nobility, May 1878, presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (C.-2033.)

Naughton, Philippe; Freeman, Simon (21 March 2006). “Criminal probe into ‘cash-for peerages’ controversy”. The Times (London).,,2-2095914,00.html. Retrieved 28 April 2010.