The unmaking and remaking of the Marchese Cassar Desain



In 1876, H.R.H. the Prince of Wales visited the islands of Malta. Many preparations must have been made, and many fish, large and small, must have anticipated or least hoped for, some form of contact with the heir apparent to the Empire that never set.


One such fish was Lorenzo Antonio Cassar Desain (__) , a wealthy landowner graced with the good fortune of a title of Marchese. The title was a misnomer as he never claimed that the Cassar Desain family was ever ennobled. His claim was derived from his ancestor Mario Testaferrata who was bestowed one title ofMarchese di San Vincenzo Ferreri in 1716 (Naples) and another of Marchese Testaferrata in 1717 (Sicily)Over and above these titles, the Testaferrata patricians were regarded as arguably the first family of the Maltese Islands, who prided themselves in the fact that it was one of their own, another Mario, who signed the act of capitulation which ended the Order of St. John’s government. In effect, the surname was title itself. 


But Lorenzo Antonio, born a most Illustrious and Noble Testaferrata, found himself burdened with the nuisance of succeeding his great uncle’s large and very considerable estate with the added inconvenience of having to change his surname. The man appears wistful about his forgone identity as results from the book he published aptly called “Genealogia della famiglia Testaferrata” and his correspondences with the great genealogists of the time, where he spared no effort to explain his descent albeit through a junior line: He was the second born son of the first line of the third son of Mario’s youngest grandson by his second marriage to Elisabetta Castelletti; Mario was previously married to Anna Denoto. 


Notwithstanding such a relatively inferior descent Lorenzo Antonio put forward two separate arguments in favour of the titles he claimed as his own. First he claimed that all of Mario’s descendants from the first marriage had been disinherited, thereby doing away with the awkwardly more senior lines of TestaferrataDenoto, and secondly that the 1717 title was granted to all of Mario’s descendants without reservation. Finally, Lorenzo Antonio’s last card appears to be a notary’s deed made on the 10 September 1772, between members of Mario Testaferrata’s family intended to compromise all matters between them allowing the multiple use of the titles of Marchese di San Vincenzo FerreriMarchese Testaferrata and Hereditary Knight of the Holy Roman Empire. 


None of these titles were Maltese titles. In fact in 1870, the Marchese Barbaro had already pigeon-holed various titles of nobility in their contextual origins.(__) Moreover, the Marchese Barbaro attributed the title of San Vincenzo Ferreri to none other than Daniele Testaferrata Denoto who was the primogenital descendant of Mario’s first marriage. 


But as a lineal male to male descendant of the old Testaferrata, Lorenzo Antonio enjoyed the prerogatives and precedence accorded by Grand Masters Despuigand Rohan. At one point in time he must have taken his rightful place amongst the Assembly of Maltese Nobles and in 1876 we find Lorenzo Antonio occupying the place of Hon. Secretary to that august group . The Nobility of Malta regarded itself as a very ancient class, composed of some of the best Neapolitan and Sicilian families.  Although it had no legislative powers it claimed certain rights and privileges of which its members were jealous, and this of addressing the Throne separately they considered as one of their rights


The secretarial Marchese expected, as of right, that HRH The Prince of Wales would receive a separate Address from the Maltese Nobility. This was not to be because the Governor of the Islands would not have any of this nonsense. 


The nobility retaliated by boycotting the reception of His Royal Highness. A notice was carried in a local newspaper signed by the outraged Marchese CassarDesain. Some broke ranks and dined at the Palace to meet His Royal Highness, whilst others were present at an evening reception, and were presented by the Governor to the Prince. But the Marchese and his principled friends stood steadfast.


The Marchese writing in his secretarial capacity, and clearly irked by the fact that he and his friends had to go with the rest of the inhabitants of the island, complained to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies about the Governor’s indiscretion and parliamentary questions about the matter were put to the House of Lords by Lord Sidmouth and Sir George Bowyer. It is most probable that it was the same Marchese who penned the 1876 “Short Sketch of the Maltese Nobility” 


In the House of Lords, the principal bone of contention was identified as being whether the Maltese Nobility should walk in public procession before or after the Representatives of the Chamber of Commerce. It was decided that the Nobility should walk before the Merchants.  


A list of those who claimed the privilege in question had been furnished to the British authority but the question remained as to who formed the Nobility.  


A genial mind proposed a formal enquiry to identify those Maltese who claimed a title of nobility, not any title but one which was granted, registered or otherwise recognised by the Grand Masters. By 1877 a Commission of two judges was making much headway into the matter. Towards the end of that year the Report was ready but as it did not appear to deal with all the points requiring decision, the British Authorities requested the Commissioners to furnish a supplementary Report. In 1878, the Reports were ready and published. 


To the Marchese’s great aghast all his claims to nobiliary titles were left either undecided or refused outright. 


The Marchese was beset with a number of problems. In the first place although the Commissioners came to no formal decision regarding the various claims to the 1716 title of Marchese di San Vincenzo Ferreri, they strongly hinted in favour of Daniele Testaferrata’s son Emmanuele, as primogenital descendant of Mario’s first marriage with a caveat saying that if the disinheritance proves valid then the title belonged to Giuseppe Testaferrata Viani, the primogenital descendant of Mario’s second marriage. Second, the 1717 title was regarded by the Commissioners as one which never received Magistral registration or recognition. Third, the Commissioners had, in their Supplemental Report, already decided that the multiple remainder of the title of Conte Preziosi be deemed descendible to the firstborn son only, according to the order of succession prescribed by the ius feudale francorum and not according to the ius feudale longobardum. Fourth, the British Secretary of State did away with any hope of asserting any claim to the title of Hereditary Knight of the Holy Roman Empire. Fifth no importance whatsoever was given to the deed made on the 10 September 1772.


The Marchese must have been very upset indeed. Parodied by the likes of Loftie  as the gentleman who, as honorary secretary of the Committee of Maltese nobles by whose action the whole question has been opened, signed himself “Marquis”, Lorenzo Antonio Cassar Desain remained remarkably undaunted. 


Sure, he could not possibly ask the Royal Commissioners to reconsider their reasoned conclusions, but that did not mean that he could not pull a couple of strings. His best bet was Sir George Bowyer, who after all, was honorary president of the Assembly of the Maltese Nobility and perhaps more to the point, his tenant at his house at Tarxien, Malta. 


More representations were made to the House of Lords. The appointment of the enquiring judges Naudi and Pullicino and even their character and talent were formally questioned. Lord Carnavon defended himself saying that the Commission was not appointed by himself as the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, but by the Governor of Malta adding that he had no hesitation, however, in saying that he believed the Commission was a fit and proper tribunal to inquire into the case and that they were men of high character and great experience, and it would have been difficult to have found men better qualified for the task. 


Finally Bowyer stumbled upon a window of opportunity and by a Despatch dated 16 August 1882, issued by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, through Bowyer’s intervention, a Special Committee “with functions analogous to those of the Committee of Privileges in the House of Lords (of the United Kingdom)” was established. 


The Committee was composed of the Conte Ciantar Paleologo, the Marchese Apap Bologna di Gnien is-Sultan, the Marchese de Piro, the Marchese Delicata di Ghajn Qajjet and the  Monsignor Count Manduca. Its stated purpose was to take into consideration the cases of those Titolati who were not included by the Commissioners, in the list of Titolati prepared by them for the local government. In addition the Committee was allowed 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.

The Committee proceeded to uphold the respective claims of Calcedonio Azopardi to the title of Barone di Buleben (erstwhile erroneously declared extinct by the Commissioners), that of Nicolo’ Gatto to the title of Conte di Beberrua (declared extinct, but perpetuated anew by grace and favour of the Queen) and those of Giovanni Paolo Testaferrata Olivier and our friend Lorenzo Cassar Desain to the titles of Marchese.

The Committee’s recommendation to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies relative to Cassar Desain and Testaferata Olivier reads as follows: These two noblemen are contemporary descendants through males in two masculine sublines of Don Mario Testaferrata, in whose favour two diplomas of nobility with the title of ‘Marchese’, are still duly preserved; the one granted by King Philip of Spain  in 1716, conferred the title of ‘Marchese di San VincenzoFerreri’ on him, his heirs and the successors of his body lawfully begotten; the other granted by King Victor Amadeus, Duke of Savoy, in 1717, conferred on the said Mario and all his descendants, ‘successivamente’, the title and rank of ‘Marchese’.The above-named two noblemen have laid before this Committee several official copies of authentic documents preserved in the Government Archives, wherein repeated direct recognitions are found of the title of ‘Marchese’ on the part of the Grand Masters as possessed simultaneously by their respective immediate male ancestors. Precedents fully justify Gio. Paolo Testaferrata Olivier and Lorenzo Cassar Desain in restricting the allegations on which they found their hopes and expectations to the above-mentioned direct recognitions that go so far back as 1745 in the case of Gio. Paolo Testaferrata Olivier and 1749 in that of Lorenzo Casar Desain’ this alone, independently of any diploma, places these two noblemen in a most favourable position with regard to the Despatch of your Lordship’s predecessor dated 16th August 1882. Under these circumstances we feel bound ‘vi et potestate’ of the reiterated direct recognitions, custom, possession, and prescription upheld also during the British rule by several public official acts in their own favour, as well as in that of their immediate male ancestors, to record our earnest recommendation that Her Majesty the Queen may vouchsafe to bestow Her consideration, grace, and favour on the petitioners Gio. Paolo Testaferrata Olivier and Lorenzo Cassar Desain, that their names and those of their respective eldest sons be successively entered into the official list of Titolati, with the honorary title of “Marchese” as already enjoyed by their respective lineal ancestors. Their places in the official list of Titolati should be repectively allowed according to the above-mentioned recognitions, viz. in the case of Gio. Paolo Testaferrata Olivier from 1745, in that of Lorenzo Cassar Desain from 1749.”

This recommendation was accepted by the Secretary of State for the Colonies without prejudice to any decision of a competent court of law”.


But this was not the end of the matter. Emmanuele Testaferrata Bonnici was up in arms against this and resorted to a court action against both Testaferrata Oliver and Cassar Desain. At first sight, it would appear that Emmanuele won the exclusive right. But this was not the case because the judgment was only given after both Testaferrata Olivier and Cassar Desain formally declared that they were only holding a title accorded by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, espressamente di essere stato a loro da Sua Maesta` la Regina accordato il titolo che portano, e non aggiungendo alcuna pretensione su quello concedutoda Vittorio Amadeo, in sostanza ammettendo la domanda dell’ attore di essere egli solo, almeno per quanto concerne loro stessinel diritto di portare iltitolo di Marchese conferito con quel Diploma.”


To complicate matters further, the Court of Appeal thought it fit to observe that the 1772 deed was valid thereby allowing all of Mario Testaferrata’sdescendants the use of the 1716 and 1717 titles. 

“Che, dall’ altro canto, pero’ e’ giusto rimarcare che nella transazione seguita per atti del Notaro Vittorio Giammalva del 10 settembre 1773 (recte 1772)tra i figli di Don Mario Testaferrata, il primo concessionario del titolo, di cui e’ questione, dopo di avere menzionato solo due titoli di Nobilta’  quello cioe di San Vincenzo Ferreri, e l’ altro di Testaferrata (alledendo a quello conceduto da Vittorio Amadeo) era stato convenuto che tutti i figli con loro discendentidovessero essere in liberta’  di portare l’ una e l’ altra concessione.”


It was a chagrined victory for Testaferrata Bonnici much to the delight of Cassar Desain. Lorenzo Antonio was fully vindicated. There was no turning back. We find him embroiled in yet another controversy regarding the Maltese Nobility as secretary to the new Committee of Nobles between 1884 and 1886 (__) . Whatever may be said, Cassar Desain’s saga came to a definite end when in 1888, in London, his wife was permitted the privilege of kissing the Queen herself – a far cry from the Governor’s refusal to let him make an address to a mere prince!


But the story gets better, writing in 1992, Charles A Gauci (__) states that on the 28 May 1901 the Italian Consulta Araldica gave a judgment no. 2408 against Testaferrata Bonnici stating that the Italian Crown disassociated itself from the purported Neapolitan origins of the 1716 title of Marchese di San Vincenzo Ferreri since at the date of creation “il napolitano non era piu’ nel dominio del Re di Spagna”. By then, Lorenzo Antonio was already long dead but it wouldn’t be surprising if one could hear a stiffled laugh from his grave.


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