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3.4 Malta

The knights Hospitallers took possession of Malta with the only condition that they should give each year a falcon to Charles V and his successors as Kings of Sicily as sign of fealty. The contrast with Rhodes was very important. Where Rhodes was a very rich land with a big city, Malta had only 12,000 inhabitants and the land was poor. With Gozo and Comino it covered only 120 square miles. They received corn from Sicily free of duty as a grant from Charles V. The capital city was Notabile in the centre of Malta but the Hospital chose to implant themselves in the big harbour in the East near Birgu. L’Isle Adam immediately fortified it and improved the fort of St Angelo. However he was still hoping to go back to Rhodes. In this sense he captured Modon in 1531 but the Turks took it back soon after due to lack of co-ordination between the Hospitallers. The hopes to go back to Rhodes were put off. The establishment of the Convent in Malta created contrasts between the knights. L’Isle Adam died in 1534. Spain had offered Malta in 1523 as a defence against the Turks. In fact their presence there was more useful later on against North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, Marocco, … In particular the Barbary corsairs who took Algiers were a great problem to the shipping trade of Spain and Italy. Their leader Barbarossa joined the Turks who appointed him High Admiral of their navy and he took Tunis in 1534. This was the main success of the Turks in this time. This created such a thread to Spain that Charles V organised a crusade against the Turks. Most Mediterranean countries took part with the exception of France. The Hospitallers under the new Grand Master Pietro del Monte took part in it. The crusade fleet was before Tunis in 1535 but the victory came from within the city. The St John’s knight Paolo Simeoni kept as a slave roused the other prisoners and Barbarossa fled. Charles V restored the King of Tunis and left a garrison for protection. France made an offensive treaty with the Turks in 1536 that allowed these last ones to attack the Christian shipping and struck deep in Christian lands. As a result the French influence in the Order decreased and the Spanish took over. The year following the re-conquest of Tunis can be said to initiate the Spanish period of the Order’s history. Its symbol was the Grand Master Aragonese Juan de Homedes who was elected in 1536 and reigned for 17 years. He first made certain that Malta was a secure base: Birgu was difficult to defend but he maintained it as the main base of the Order in Malta for many reasons including financial ones. And there was always the hope to go back to Rhodes. Castel Sant’ Angelo was rebuilt as a powerful fortress surrounded by a sea moat. The defence was extended to the peninsula at the West called L’Isola (known now as Senglea from the name of the successor of Homedes, Sengle). A chain could close also the entrance of the harbour. He also started the construction of the fort of St Elmo in Sciberras. The knights continued to help the Spanish against the Moslems. In 1541 400 knights joined Charles V in his battle to take over Algiers but the operation did not succeed because the Spanish delayed the attack to late in the year. Seventy-five knights died in protecting the retreat. Barbarossa landed in Nice to help France to take over the last land of the Duke of Savoy and he was allowed to spend the winter in Toulon. In the general Chapter of 1548, the anti-Spanish majority voted to move the Convent to Tripoli. This was a French move to reduce the dependency of the Order from Spain. The Grand Master refused to transfer 50 knights each year and created a garrison composed only of French knights. In 1550 the combined forces of Spain and the Order captured Dragut’s base (the successor of Barbarossa) of Mehedia and trapped the corsair in Gerba. But France interfered again and Spain had to retire with the knights of Malta. Dragut escaped from Gerba and was nominated Head of the whole Ottoman fleet. As a revenge Dragut attacked Malta in 1551 but the defences of the island were too strong for him. However he took Gozo and the inhabitants became slaves. He also attacked Tripoli and besieged it. The French ambassador to Turkey had to negotiate the surrender of the town at the request of the Grand Master Homedes. The knights came back to Malta and the troop went in captivity in Turkey. It was a shameful defeat and the head of the Order in Tripoli Le Vallier tried to said that the fault was Homedes for not sending more money and better troops. Le Vallier should have been court marshal but the French opposed this and he remained in prison without any heavier sentence. The Hospitallers wanted revenge and Strozzi took Zoara, West of Tripoli but the Turks took it back soon after. These calamities clouded the last years of Homedes’s reign. In 1553 the Turks and the French took Corsica together. Homedes died in September of that year. After a brief reign of Claude de la Sengle, the Order elected Jean de la Valette Parisot as its Grand Master in 1557. He was able to restore soon the morale of the Order after the previous disasters. He unfortunately continued the French approach to politics and released Le Vallier and was thinking of taking back Tripoli. The Spanish and the Hospitallers landed in Gerba in 1560 but the Turks finally defeated the invaders. Spanish sea power had suffered a big blow and it took time to recover: Meanwhile the Turks had the absolute control of the Mediterranean sea. During this period the Turks could have taken Malta but they did not seize this opportunity for unknown reasons. (j)

In 1564 the Spanish under Don Garcia de Toledo with the Hospitallers took back the island of Velez de la Gomera off the Moroccan coast. Don Garcia de Toledo was then nominated Viceroy of Sicily and this was a good thing for the Hospitallers who were exposed in the first line of fire in front of North Africa. Toledo visited Valletta in 1565 and both knew that a huge Turkish force had already left Constantinople and that Malta was the most probable destination. Spain promised to help but not immediately. Toledo sent 1000 troops from Sicily to help Malta. The Turks landed in Malta on 19 May 1565 with 40,000 men. In Valletta there were 540 knights and Sergeants at arms, 400 Spanish troops and perhaps 4,000 Maltese ready to fight. The barrenness of the island and the length of the Turkish lines of communication were advantages not negligible for the Hospitallers. It meant among other things that the Turks could not keep on fighting during the winter. On the other hand Birgu was not offering the same defences as Rhodes did and the probabilities to resist the siege of a well-equipped army were small. Garcia de Toledo asked the king of Spain, Philip II, for 25,000 men to help Malta but assembling such an army took time. The Turks attacked first Fort St Elmo but it resisted until June 24 at the cost of most of the knights stationed there to be killed. Unfortunately the reinforcement had not yet arrived. However the force from Sicily under Melchor de Robles finally succeeded on the fourth try to land on Malta. This force, called “Piccolo soccorso” consisted of the remaining 600 men promised by Toledo and they succeed to reach the city. The five week resistance of St Elmo was the crucial factor in the final victory. The Order lost 1500 men and the Turks about 6,000 including Dragut himself. The siege of Birgu and Senglea lasted two more months starting July 15. By early September the defenders had lost 5,000 men including 219 knights and the situation of the survivors was not good at all. But winter was coming and the Turks had only a few weeks to win. But reinforcement called “Gran Soccorso” came. Garcia de Toledo brought half his army by night and entered Millieha Bay on 7 September with 8,000 men. Eight thousand more arrived soon after. This brought panic to the Turks who lifted the siege on 8 September. Malta was saved. This victory halted the advance of the Turkish power in the Western world. It also increased to a very high level the reputation of the Hospitallers. (j)

The importance of the defence offered by the Knights of Malta was finally recognised and appreciated. France, Spain, Portugal and the Papacy sent the money required to built their new capital on Sciberras. However some of the Hospitallers suggested to take the Convent back on the continent as the return to Rhodes was impossible. The final decision to built the new capital in Malta was taken by La Valette on 28 march 1566. Sciberras had all the requisites that Birgu did not have from a defence point of view. The city was built taking into consideration all the latest technical knowledge available at that time to defend it against an invasion but the artistic aspect was not neglected. La Valette died in 1568 before the city that bore his name was completed. The Grand Master and the Convent were transferred from Birgu to Valletta on 18 march 1571. The Turks took Cyprus in 1572 and Tunis in 1574 and this must be considered as a consolidation of the Moslems frontiers rather that as new conquest or a thread to the Christian. Following the victory of the Hospitallers in defending Malta and to some extent also after the Christian victory at Lepanto, the atmosphere in the Convent somehow degraded and the Grand Masters had to appeal to the Pope time and time again to assert their authority. The link between the Order and Spain loosened as the dangers to Spain decreased with these victories. As a consequence the prestige and the influence of the French knights came back. The Grand Masters did not do anything to improve the situation. They lived a such opulence as to make the Christian Kings and even the Pope jealous. In Valletta the seven Langues built their own Auberges and adjoining national church and they are still to this day a characteristic of the city. They were much larger that in Rhodes. But having been built at the same time by the same architect, they look a little all the same. The Hospitallers took over a country that had a very long Christian history. In 59-60 AD St Paul had to spend the winter on the island as a result of a shipwreck and he taught them the Christian religion. The knights brought wealth to Malta and to its people with the exception of the old nobility that lost its power and prestige and did not mix with the new rulers. The Roman Catholic Church was, and is still all powerful in Malta. Even in the last years of the 16th century the bishops were nominated by the kings of Sicily and were independent of the Order to which they created many problems. In 1614 there was a new invasion of Malta by the Turks but it was easily defeated by the knights under the Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt with, again, the useful help of Spain. Antoine de Paul, Grand Master, called the last Chapter General for 145 years in 1631. At that time there were 1755 knights compared with 1715 in 1635. Paul started the fortifications of Floriana designed by the engineer Pietro Floriani. An elegant suburb of Valletta was the result of his work. Between 1657 an 1697 five of the seven Grand Masters elected were Spanish. Rafael and Nicolas Cotoner, helped by Matia Preti from Catania, embellished St John’s Cathedral that up to now is valued for its artistic beauty. Nicolas Cotoner was Grand Master when Candia fell to the Turks renewing the Moslem’s thread to Malta. He ordered to increase the fortifications and to enclose the three cities in the South side of the grand harbour inside them. The danger receded in 1683 but appeared again in the 18th century (1707, 1714 and 1722). Due to the quasi total elimination of piratery, Valletta became a very rich commercial port for dealing with Africa as well as Asia. (j)

The Grand Master ruled as an absolute prince in Malta. However, among the Knights, his authority was limited by the ancient statutes. The venerable Council composed of high officers of the Order (the bishop of Malta, the Prior of St John and the heads of the seven Auberges) was advising him. There was also the “Consiglio Compito” and the “Sagro Consiglio”. In the 18th century a Congregation of State was created to run the political affairs. A Chapter General had to meet every five years according to the statutes. It did not always meet as foreseen and, for instance, after the meeting of 1631 it was not recalled for 145 years! Since 1297 the Grand Master was elected by a college of 14 knights from the seven Langues. However until 1374 it was not said that each Langue had to be represented by two members. For some time Germany had not vote, then it had one and finally when there were a reasonable number of German Knights, Germany had two votes as the other Langues. Of course when Spain was divided in two Langues the college rose to 16. When the order came to Malta the election rules were amended to reduce external influence, especially from the Pope, and possibility of bribery. Since 1206 the Order had been divided in three classes: Knights, Chaplains and Sergeant-at-Arms. In the 13th century to qualify as a Knight one has to be born in a knightly family. From 1350 the requirement was extended to nobility on both the father and the mother’ side. From 1428 the nobility “de nom et d’armes” was introduced. That meant four nobility generations in the male line. In the 16th century the rule was of “four quarters of nobility” that means that the candidate’ four grand parents must have been nobles. Neither money or rank could prevail against the genetic rule. The national organisations applied very often more stringent rules that the official one. Normally a candidate with all the requisites entered the Order as a “Novice” at the age of sixteen to twenty. Twelve year old pages of the Grand Master could also be accepted up to a number of 16 from 1612. Admission of even younger children “in minority” by dispensation increased and the General Chapter of 1631 limited their number to one hundred but doubled the enrolment fee of the Knights of Minority and the Pages. This proved to be very popular and it was accepted permanently. After a twelve-month noviciate the knights took simple vows and could take their solemn vows at twenty-one. After five year’ residence in the Convent they could receive a Commandery. Seniority to receive such a Commandery took second place to merit. As a result most knights spent a long time in Valletta in the management of the Order before they received a Commandery. They could also stay on in Valletta and compete for higher office. In this case they left the Auberge and bought their own house. In the Auberges the knights had a set of rooms and servants. Military austerity was the rule. Splendour was reserved for the public rooms such as the dining hall. The Chaplains and the Sergeant-at-Arms had to come from respectable family. A small number of second choice Commanderies were reserved for them. Women’ s main convents required full proof of nobility but others were content with simple nobility or required their nuns to be of good social position. There were also lay sisters who wore the half cross like the Sergeant-at-Arms. There were also three classes of personnel that required no vow at all. (j)

Since 1581 the Grand Masters of Malta had precedence over the Cardinals and wore a ducal coronet on their arms. In 1607 Wignacourt received the title of Prince of the Holy Roman empire. The Grand Master Pinto wanted to take the island of Corsica but the French prevented it and took it for themselves. Pinto started also to confer title to the Maltese. He refused to call for a Chapter general as he was afraid that it would limit its power and despite the lack of money that only such an Assembly could increase through taxes. Pinto remodelled the Grand Master’ s Palace and the Auberge de Castille, founded the University of Malta and increased trade through Malta. Charles VI of Naples imposed an eleven-month embargo on Maltese trade in 1754 as he wanted to establish his full control on Malta. France and Sardinia used their influence to stop it and Pinto kept his full power. Pinto’s politics improved Malta’s image in the second half of the 18th century. On the other hand he delayed necessary reforms and this caused great damage to the Order. His successor, Ximenez did not do much to improve the situation. But after came the French Emmanuel Rohan de Polduc who was of a different cut. He succeeded to solve the financial problems of the Order in a very short period of time. At the Chapter general of 1776, some knights aimed to strip the Grand Master of most of his absolute power. The aim was to change the Order from a religious institution to a military and nobility body free of Papal interferences. They also tried to keep the Chaplains and the Sergeant-at-Arms out of the Chapter General. All these changes were rejected and the religious aspect of the Order was confirmed as well as the duty to care for the sick. The finances of the Order were improved by a tax increase. In 1775 the Order of Malta completed the absorption of the ancient Hospitaller order of St Anthony of Vienna that had many properties in France. In 1776 a Grand Priory of Poland was created with the financial help of the Prince of Ostrog. In 1780 it was the turn of the creation of the Grand Priory of Ebersberg or Bavaria from the properties of the dissolved Jesuit order. Rohan’s reign was very good and efficient. For instance in 1782 he introduced new judicial rules called “code Rohan” as well as the “Diritto Municipale” that was used to govern the city. To conclude with Rohan it must be said that, although he was the head of a religious Order and a religious state, he was also a free mason. The 18th century was a strange period. (j)

At the beginning of the French revolution, when the Estates General were assembled in France in 1789, Rohan did his best to dissociate the Order from the classes whose privileges were attacked. It was then that the name became “Sovereign Order of Malta”. This separation was impossible. In August 1789 the national Assembly abolished all titles and feudal rights. The Order lost a great part of its revenues. Moreover the Order was seen as part of the Royalist party. Many knights chose to emigrate. The “Chargé d’ Affaire” of the Order in France, Chevalier d’Estourmel, was arrested in Varennes trying to escape. Rohan in hearing the news suffered a stroke and remained paralysed on his right side for the six years he was still alive. An invalid was then in charge of the Order in these difficult years. In August 1792 the king Louis XVI was imprisoned in the Temple that was part of the Order’s property. In October the whole of the Order properties in France was confiscated (112 million livres). Sixty per cent of the European revenues of the Order were lost and the French Langues was without money. In Malta, the Order had to sell some of their silver and treasures. Rohan sold his jewels and lived on a scudo a day but this did not help much. Louis XVI was beheaded in January 1793. Rohan refused to recognise the Republic. When the Royalist took back Toulon in August 1793, Rohan offered the Order’s help but the English refused. Rohan was left to close the harbour of Valletta to the French’ ships as his only contribution when Naples entered the war against France. As the European war against France stopped Malta’s politic became incoherent and after some attempt to fight against France in 1796 Rohan recognised the existence of the French Republic by exchanging Ambassadors. The Order lost also some German and Italian revenues but, finally, in 1796 the new Tsar of Russia, Paul I, supported the Order and gave it some money through the Polish Priory. In 1796 Spain supported France obliging the British to leave Corsica. Rohan died in July 1797. The disgrace of the French Langues made it impossible to elect a French successor to Rohan. The successor had to come from a country not involved in the war and the only possibility seemed to be a German. The only acceptable German candidate was Ferdinand von Hompesch but unfortunately he was a weak man and completely incompetent for the job at hand at this particular time. His reign only lasted eleven months during which he distributed privileges to compensate for the missing money. He looked for political support in Russia and this did not please the French but above all he neglected to reinforce the defences of the island. In fact Napoleon wanted to take Malta since May 1797 as this would give him commands of the whole Mediterranean sea. In April 1798 the Directory had agreed on a secret decree that obliged Napoleon to take Malta on his road to Egypt. Von Hompesch was informed but took no action. On 6 June 1798 some French ships appeared in front of Malta and only then some actions were taken to defend the island. The British’s help was requested but it was too late. Few of the French knights were in sympathy with the invaders but the incompetence of the Grand Master in military matters was the last straw. Spain was allied with France and asked his nationals not to fight against the invaders. The Order had 300 knights and about 7000 soldiers of different sorts, the fortifications had been improved in 1793 and there were 1400 cannons in Malta. The French came on 500 to 600 vessels with an army of 29000 men. The French landed at Gozo, St Paul and St Julian’s Bay. The Order tried to defend the whole island instead of retreating to the fortifications in Floriana and Cotonera. The Maltese could not understand that the French knights were on their side and fighting the French invaders. They rebelled in many places and escaped. Von Hompesch had already decided to ask for an armistice in order to reach a compromise rather that surrenders the island. A cease fire was reached and the Maltese and Hospitaller negotiators accepted to sign a complete surrender as requested by Napoleon. Von Hompesch refused to sign but agreed to receive the invaders. Napoleon landed in Malta on the 12 June 1798. Napoleon took all the Hospitallers’ treasures with him to Egypt, cancelled the old administration and remodelled Malta as a democracy as the French saw it at the time. Napoleon left the 19 June and on August 1, Nelson sank his fleet at Aboukir Bay. The treasure of the Hospitallers went under the sea where it is still now. Some 50 French knights went to Egypt with Napoleon but 150 refused. Some of them went to Russia. The Russian Priory on 26 August declared von Hompesch deposed and asked the protection of the Tsar. The Priory of Germany seconded this action. (j)

The Russian Priory elected Paul I as Grand Master of the Order of the Hospitallers on 7 November 1798. He gave a lot of money to the Order but nevertheless his election went against all the rules: he was not a professed knight and his religion and marriage made it impossible for him to become one. The Tsar enforced recognition of his title on Spain, Bavaria and even on the Pope. France, Naples, Portugal and Germany finally recognised him as the Grand Master of the Hospitallers. Only Spain refused to change opinion. Von Hompesch abdicated in 1799. The Tsar considered himself as the sovereign of Malta. The Maltese in the meantime revolted against the French seven weeks after they took over the island. They could not accept the taxes and the sacrileges of the new conquerors. They did not succeed, of course, to change the situation and they suffered privations for two years but they obliged France to keep a French garrison in besieged Valletta. It would have been easy for Russia to take over the island but they did not do it. In 1800 Paul I collaborated with France where Napoleon was now First Consul. Nelson’s fleet took possession of Malta in September 1800 and the Tsar was unable to do anything about it. Paul’ son, Alexander I, renounced to the Grand Mastership and to Malta. He was hoping for free elections as foreseen in the Treaty of Amiens of 1802 that also said that Malta should be returned to the knights but on the condition that French and English knights be excluded of the Order. The Pope was supposed to name the next Grand Master from a list of candidates elected by each priory. The king of Spain refused and subjected the four Spanish priories to his rule. Napoleon did not help much either and it took until February 1803 to elect the next Grand Master, Giovanni Tommasi. The new Grand Master sent an envoy to Malta to ask for the cession of the island as foreseen by the Treaty of Amiens. However the political situation had changed and he was unable to obtain satisfaction. Napoleon was thinking of taking back Malta as well as Tunis and Egypt. Formally it is Britain that broke the Treaty by refusing to hand over Malta. In 1803 the war started again between Britain and France and the Order was kept out of Malta. Tommasi reconstituted the Convent in Messina and organised a Chapter General that confirmed his appointment. As the French were threatening to take Messina he moved to Catania. After his death in 1805, Giuseppe Caracciolo dei Marchesi di Sant’ Eramo was elected Grand Master, subject to confirmation by the Pope. Caracciolo was a Neapolitan and as such supposed to be linked to England. For this reason Pius VII refused to confirm him to keep his good relations with France. Only the Tsar recognised Caracciolo. France invaded Italy in 1806 and it was out of the question for the knights to go back to Malta. Peace negotiations took place between France and Britain in August 1806 and it was decided that Britain would keep Malta as a permanent possession. The Napoleonic wars completed the destruction of the Order in Europe. By 1814 the order of St John was regarded as a thing of the past. (j)