Some Maltese members of the Order of Saint John in the context of Abbe’ de Vertot’s explanation (1728) of the qualifications required to become a Knight of that Order.
Vertot in his “The History of the Knights of Malta” published in 1728 (during Vilhena’s reign) explains that there are three classes of hospitallers, namely Knights of Justice (including the subcategory Knights of Grace which he criticizes bitterly), Chaplains (whose ministry was at the Cathedral of Saint John, and on the ships and galleys) and Serving Brothers (a category which had already dwindled in numbers). He mentions in passing the role of priests of obedience, brothers de stage, and the religious dames.
He explains that the Order was divided into 8 languages (or langues) namely Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Arragon, England, Germany and Castile, to each of which a particular dignity was attached. Thus Provence had the Great Commander, the Marshall came from Auvergne, the Great Hospitaller from France, the Admiral from Italy, the Great Conservator from Aragon, the Grand Bailiff from Germany and Great Chancellor from Castile. The General of the Horses was originally selected from amongst the English langue. Each langue was in turn divided into Priories.
Vertot does not mention the rank of Knights of Devotion, a rank described by Montalto in his “The Nobles of Malta” as having been achieved by 14 Maltese noblemen only in the last quarter of the 18th century.
The more modern concept of ‘nobility’ is that obtained by a title (a person is given the right to be called duke, count, baron and so on), however the meaning assigned by the Order to ‘nobility’ was something more tangible and real, called “gentility”. This meant establishing whether the candidate was of a “leading” or “outstanding” family on all of the required quarters. Vertot does not give much importance to titles of nobility. In fact he is appears hostile towards mere grants of titles. He even dismisses as valueless any deeds describing someone as holding a title of nobility.
Montalto cites what he implies to be the surprising case of the Maltese Antonio Abela who succeeded in becoming a knight not because of titles of nobility but because Antonio’s family was regarded as having been established in a number of ways: “that they had never practiced any trade but lived off their own income; that they kept many horses in their stables and a large number of slaves in their house; that they were a large and well-reputed family; that on arrival of the Order they had received the Grand Master himself in their house; that they had been seen at the annual tournaments in the company of Knights, by whom they were received as equals.”
Montalto (who boasts no less than 12 members of his family for having been admitted into the Order between 1444 and 1784), may be forgiven for understanding gentility to be derived only from mere title of nobility. For example in describing the case of the Maltese Aldovrandino Testaferrata Abela who was made a knight in 1631, Montalto remarks that neither paternal nor maternal line had yet been honoured with a title of nobility or tenure of a fief. However, Montalto concedes that Aldovrandino’s family was one of the leading families on the Island.
Vertot gave a general criticism of the system as follows:
As the ill practice of contracting unequal marriages with women of mean birth and condition had not yet crept into noble families, all the attestations of the gentility of the presentee(applicant) went no farther than the mentioning of his father’s and mother’s name, who were justly supposed to be descended of gentlemen by name as well as arms. A proof of this may be seen in the list that is given at the end of this discourse, when it will appear that in 1355 the date where the oldest registers of the grand priory of France begin, they never received any body but gentlemen, whose names and families were known, and even distinguished in their several provinces.
But this very gentry, which till that time had preserved itself unsullied, being reduced to narrow circumstances by expenses that are unavoidable in war, was soon forced for their support, to prostitute as it were their noble blood by contracting marriages below them; and lords and gentlemen by name as well as arms began to debase themselves in marrying rich plebeians. The fear, lest these unequal matches should bring the order into contempt by the reception of knights descended of them, engaged the whole body to make a regulation, requiring that an authentic instrument should be drawn up in writing with legal proofs to show the legitimacy and descent of the person presented; and the like proofs were to be produced with respect to his father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, great grandfather and great grandmother, for upwards of a hundred years, with a blazon of those eight quarters annexed to the instrument; and the person presented was likewise to prove that his great grandfathers had been generally reputed gentlemen of name as well as arms. This last article of the Statute is still in force at this day, or is at least kept up in the form of the instrument. But the proof of this last qualification required with respect to the great grandfathers does not seem to me very easy to be given in France by knights who have no other stem from whence they can derive their gentility but a petty secretary of the king’s, a gentleman of the town-hall, a mayor or alderman of some of those towns which entitle their magistrates to the rank of gentlemen: And I cannot possibly comprehend how a man who has no other source of his gentility If but one of those offices, which after all convey it to no lower than a grandson, can be employed in a genealogy in the proofs of a great grandfather, as if he was a gentleman by name as well as arms; how he can pass for a gentleman of ancient race who stopped by dint of money only, the plebeian blood that was creeping in his veins, and who was never seen to drawn his sword in the service of his country. Nor is it less difficult to account for, how the quality required in a great grandfather of being a gentleman by name as well as arms, can sometimes be applied to a tradesman who is ennobled by an office in the law, without giving an unnatural and forced interpretation that title: and it is very extraordinary to pretend that a magistrate’s robe ought to be put upon the same level with a warrior’s coat of arms, and to annex the privileges of true nobility to that robe.
However, notwithstanding this difficulty, which after all arises only from an unwillingness to alter any thing in the old style of the statutes, we must needs own that they are very exact and strict with respect to the proofs which they require of gentility, for the eight quarters of the presentee.
Vertot explains that the “gentility” required for admission to the Order must be proved and that the proofs required are subject to a number of tests for eligibility, namely Testimonial, Literal, Local and Secret Enquiry. These proofs, he continues, must be substantial and consistent with one another, and a report is thereafter made to the Chapter of the Priory. A second commission, consisting of two commissioners, was appointed afterwards, its task being to examine whether the rules prescribed by the statutes have been followed to the letter and only then would the applicant assured a warrant to receive the habit. He explains that all these tests arose as a result of the “ill practice of contracting unequal marriages with women of mean birth and condition”.
Not all noblemen whether European or Maltese, could join the Order willy-nilly because one had to prove a descent of gentility from all eight great-grandparents, at least for seven of the langues, whilst the more exclusive German langue insisted on a staggering proof of all sixteen great-great-grandparents. Most of the Maltese Conventual Chaplains served in the langues (Montalto wrongly calls them priories) of Castile, Aragon or Italy. There was however one case of a Maltese Pier Giacomo Testaferrata who was the only Maltese Chaplain to have been accepted in the German langue. Naturally the intermediate ancestors had to be ‘noble’ too, that is to say they should not fall into criminality, marry the wrong kind, take up the wrong religion and things like that. Of course, exceptions were made. For example a number of royal bastards were admitted. Vertot chastises this practice by saying that “Time, which is too frequently the author of abuses and irregularities” has introduced a practice of admitting (non-gentle born) persons into the rank of knights of justice, who are not qualified like them, but are called knights of grace.” He observes that these upstarts “being descended of fathers of noble extraction but of mothers of ignoble or plebeian birth, have endeavoured to throw a veil over this notorious defect by a papal dispensation.” Likewise a special membership could be given by the Grand Master (in Council) to certain outstanding persons but who could claim no noble descent whatsoever. For example Caravaggio. But on the whole, the members of the Order were non-Maltese European scions who could prove and actually proved their pedigrees through a system involving production of documents by the prospective member and independent verification by the receiving commission. The verification board’s decision was not final because the rejected candidate had a right of appeal to a higher authority in Rome, as happened in the case of the Maltese Antonio Abela.
The first proof is testimonial because it arises from the testimony of four persons of noble extraction who ought to be gentlemen of name as well as arms. The commissioners, who are generally speaking, old commanders, make the applicants take a solemn oath to speak the truth, and likewise interrogate them separately. Vertot explains that if there be anything that can make this kind of proof suspected it is, that in France, the person presented, or his relations generally provide these witnesses. Montalto cites the example of Baldassare Cagliares (later to become Bishop of Malta) whose four witnesses did not hesitate to affirm that he was “charitable, kind, prudent and virtuous” but only one described him as being of a principal and known family whilst another described him as being of a good family.
The second proof is literal because it is taken from writings, deeds, contracts, acknowledgments of tenures, and surveys which the applicant produces: Upon which it may be proper to observe (says Vertot) that though marriage writings and wills are necessary to a full proof of the descent and statutableness of the person presented, yet these kind of writings are not sufficient to prove his gentility, by reason of the opportunity notaries have of furnishing the parties contracting with any titles and qualities which they please to bestow on themselves, without ever examining whether they are really due to them or not. Vertot goes on to say that in defect of these writings, which amount to no more than a bare declaration, without any legal proof, they have recourse to the partition of lands of a noble tenure, to deeds of guardianship, to grants of the wardship of lands held in capite, to acts of fealty and homage, to acknowledgements of vassalage and surveys, to commissions, warrants, and grants of posts and dignities that either imply gentility, or entitle a man to it, to summons attending the king in the field, and lastly, to monuments, epitaphs, coats of arms, glass windows, and ancient escutcheons in churches.
The third proof is called local, because the commissioners are obliged to go to the very place of the persons nativity, and when they are desirous of being exact, they ought to go likewise into the country from whence this family came originally, and to the very place whence these his ancestors came who he pretends were gentlemen by name as well as arms, or if this place is very remote and lies in another priory, to send to the prior of that district to make the enquiries and take the examinations necessary in this case.
The fourth kind of proof is derived from secret enquiry which the commissioners make unknown to the person presented: they do not insist that the witnesses should do gentlemen like the four first in this choice regard is only had to their probity.
Montalto reports that although the Order actually conferred most of the local titles on the Maltese nobility, very few Maltese noblemen were accepted as Knights of Saint John. He explains that at the time of the Government of the Maltese Islands by the Order, the Maltese archipelago including other present day European islands like Corsica and Sardinia, were regarded as outside the geographical boundaries of the eight langues. In effect, this meant that Malta was not regarded as “European” but as an outpost. More importantly, this meant that the Maltese nobles, however great and outstanding a pedigree they may have had, were technically not eligible for admission into the Order.
Montalto illustrates this ‘problem’ by explaining that before 1530, year when Malta was enfeoffed to the Order, a Maltese nobleman might have been eligible as a subject of the Kingdom of Sicily, and therefore within the Italian langue; However, after that date the Maltese were no longer Sicilian subjects and logically the Maltese noble was not qualified. He goes on to demonstrate how the Maltese enrolled were those whose families actually resided in Sicily, citing that in the 16th century there were only three such knights: Francesco Nava who joined in 1549, Giuseppe Guevara (1554), later Prior of Lombardy and Antonio Mazzara (1545). Elsewhere he also cites the case of Giovanni and Pietro Paolo Barbaro who both entered the French langue after being naturalized by Royal Diploma of Louis XV. But being Maltese-born had its disadvantages: one of the more successful Maltese natives was firm who as Conventual Chaplain rose to the rank of Vice-Chancellor. Montalto reports that although Abela had been accepted in the langue of Castile and Portugal, he could not be regarded as born within that langue. When Grand Master de Paule died his services were required but as the regulations provided that only those born within their respective langues had the right to vote, a Papal dispensation had to be issued in order to allow Abela participate in the election for de Paule’s successor.
After the Capitulation of the Order (1798) and during the Maltese insurrection (1799) some Maltese led by Count Salvatore Manduca wrote to the exiled Grand Master Hompesch to return on condition that a Maltese langue be created. Montalto reports that separate letters, again at the instigation of Manduca, to the King of the Two Sicilies petitioning him to restore the Order to Malta, again motivated by the possibility of the creation of a Maltese langue through which they might enhance their status and prestige. Moreover, other petitions were made to Paul I, Czar of Russia, as he had been recognized as the legitimate Grand Master of the Order by a number of Priories in Europe. Again they asked for the creation of a Maltese Langue.
After the French defeat (1800), an attempt was made under the Treaty of Amiens to restore the islands to the Order of Saint John. One of the terms of the Treaty was that a Maltese langue be created immediately without the necessity of proofs of nobility. Montalto reports that there was little doubt that Marquis Mario Testaferrata was to be the Grand Prior (which is surprising because he was the same man who had persuaded Hompesch to surrender to the French in 1798), but it appears that the number of candidates for the cross was disappointing. Elswhere Montalto reports that the British had been frustrating every move for the restoration of the Order.
However the restoration of the Order was deeply opposed by many if not all significant opinion in Malta. A contemporary letter by William Eton, also cited by Montalto reports that “What, some years ago, would have been glorification to the vanity of the Maltese is now held in contempt”.
The Treaty of Amiens was never fulfilled and with that ended any hopes that the later orders of Saint John may have had for dominance of the Maltese Islands.
There is much disagreement about who ‘succeeded’ the Order that once ruled Malta. However, it is an incontrovertible fact applicable to all of the present day ‘orders’, be they based or originating in Rome, Paris, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, Belgrade, Stockholm, Bucharest, Berlin, London or even Malta itself, that not one of them can lay claim to the Maltese Islands.