The Grand Masters of The Knights of Malta - Who Were They?

(This information was gathered from a historical article , sorry I didn’t take the details down, but it is on the internet.)

During its 270 years of stay in Malta 28, different Grand Masters ruled the Order and of these we can only refer to the ones who have left their mark on the history of the island.

Pietro del Monte (1568-72), who succeeded La Valette, was as keen on the building of the city as his predecessor. Work went on feverishly and within five years the two-mile fortifications round Valletta were completed. In 1571 the Grand Master transferred the Convent to the new city and when he died he was laid to rest in the Victory church by the side of La Valette and now lies in St John’s Co-Cathedral.

Jean de La Cassiere (1572-82), the next Grand Master, was proud and arrogant and very much disliked by the Knights. He was responsible for the introduction of the Inquisition in Malta, but he was also a great benefactor of the Order. He built the Sacra Infermeria and the Conventual Church of St John, both still the pride of Valletta today. In addition it was in his days that the stately auberges began to grace the new city, the first of these, the Auberges de Provence, d’Italie and Aragon being built during his rule.

Grand Master Hugues de VERDALA (1582-95) was pious but worldly and he was shrewd enough to realize that it was hard for the young Knights of his days to adhere strictly to the standards of rigid monastic life. He himself found it somewhat difficult to do so. He built the princely Verdala Palace and surrounded it with a beautiful garden known as il-Buskett. He repaired and rebuilt many of Valletta’s bastions and constructed two massive new ones to protect the city from the landside.

Grand Master de Wignacourt (1601-22) was respected and loved by the people. He was a man of princely tastes and his suit of armour is one of the most expensive in existence. During his rule, the Bibliotheca (National Library) was firmly established, but his name will always be connected with the aqueduct he built to bring water to Valletta whose population had increased considerably by this time. He died of apoplexy while he was out shooting.

Grand Master Antoine de Paule (1623-36) was a bon vivant and, in spite of his age, he lived like a prince and built a palace for himself about four miles out of the city. He named it after his patron saint and planted beautiful gardens and orange groves round it. This is San Anton Palace at Attard which is today the official residence of the ’ President of the Republic’.

Grand Master Jean Paul Lascaris (1636-57) was a man of firm and strong character. During his period, Spain and France were at war and this created intense hatred between the Knights of the warring nations. His resourcefulness and diplomacy helped to solve the Order’s interminable difficulties. He also completed the Floriana fortifications which his predecessor began building after the design of the famous Italian engineer Paolo Floriani.

Grand Master Martino de Redin (1657-60) who succeeded Lascaris, died after a reign of only three years, but during his office the island benefited greatly. He formed a regular Maltese corps of 4,000 musketeers, built a number of forts, and garrisoned them with Maltese gunners paid by him. Because of his personal connections with Sicily, as its former viceroy, he managed to obtain food for Malta from that country and improve the conditions of the islanders who were in a miserable state at the time.

For the next twenty years the Cottoner brothers dominated the Scene.

Grand Master Raphael Cottoner (1660-63) was a prudent and a religious man. He commissioned the celebrated Mattia Preti to paint the vault of St. John’s but he was not destined to see the magnificent pictures of this genius who in 13 years turned the conventual church into a gem of art.

Grand Master Nicholas Cottoner (1663-80) was quite a different character. He was stubborn, impetuous and quick-tempered. He took great interest not only in St John’s but also improved the Sacra Infermeria and built vast fortifications which still bear his name. During the reign of the Cottoner brothers, Valletta became a lively city, a centre of continuous feasting, and its Carnival outlived those of Rome and Venice. They were both great builders and their escutcheon is over the facades of most palaces, churches and fortifications in Valletta and other parts of the island. However, St John remains their greatest contribution which they both loved and beautified. Theirs was a period of prosperity in the islands but their mania for building and extravagant tastes was a drain on the Treasury.

Grand Master Ralmondo Perellos (1697-1720) was a great lover of art and a good administrator. He will be mostly remembered for his gift of a magnificent set of Gobelin tapestries representing African jungle scenes which were designed and woven for Louis XIV under the direction of the famous court painter Le Brun. The beauty of these tapestries is only eclipsed by the gorgeous Flemish tapestries in the Conventual Church of St John.

Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena (1722-36) was a wealthy and lovable but firm Portuguese aristocrat of royal descent. The inscription on his magnificent mausoleum in St. John’s affirms this with the words “he was not elected but born a prince”. He was a benevolent and popular ruler. To meet the demand for housing and accommodation in Valletta he laid the plans for the building of a suburb in the neighbourhood, Floriana, where his statue still stands today at a prominent place outside the Maglio Gardens. He built Fort Manoel in Marsamxett Creek, and also the Manoel Theatre which is believed to be the second oldest theatre in Europe and is still in use today.

Grand Master Manoel Pinto (1741-73) another Portuguese. He was not very popular and during his reign, he made many enemies. He created new titles of nobility which was greatly resented by the old nobles of the island and imposed unjust taxes on the people. He offended the clergy by the expulsion of the Jesuits from Malta and, incurred the hatred of the older Knights who had long waited for him to die and succeed him. However, he loved the city of Valletta. The Auberge de Castille, the stateliest and one of the most important buildings in the town, started during the rule of de la Cassiere in 1574, was finished under his Magistracy and his bust and arms adorn its facade. He enriched the Conventual Church and built a number of stores at the Marina which still bear his name. When Pinto died his body was laid in one of the most beautiful monuments of St John’s which has a striking portrait in mosaic.

Grand Master Francesco Ximenes (1773-75) was a Spaniard and his reign was brief, remembered mostly for what has become known as the uprising of tile priests, an abortive rebellion led by a simple-minded priest Dun Gaetano Mannarino. The rebellion was crushed and most of its leaders, excluding Mannarino, were executed and their heads impaled on spikes.

Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan (1775-97) was a different type of man. He was a French aristocrat and did his best to revive the principles and the tenets of the Order. But it was too late. The decline of the Order had already began and could not be stopped. The Knights were a new generation and had long circumvented their monastic vows and the vows of poverty. The Ottoman Empire was on the wane and the original motivation of the Order had become superfluous. Incidents between the Knights and the Maltese people were frequent during de Rohan’s troubled days. The ships of the Order were a magnificent spectacle, gorgeous and majestic, but no longer suited for the time. This was a period of decay and to replenish his depleted treasury he had to resort to selling these vessels to the Kings of Naples and Spain. After the French Revolution the Order was despoiled of its property in France, though de Rohan had rightly refused to join the French against England who was mistress of the sea. Throughout his rule the Grand Master did his best to save the Order from total destruction and to further the well-being of the Maltese people. No wonder, therefore, that when he died desolation spread throughout the island.

To make matters worse, his successor Grand Master Ferdinand de Hompeseh (1797-98), a German, was weak and irresolute. He was not the right person to face the oncoming storm. In 1797 all Europe, with the exception of England, was at Napoleon’s feet. However, the Emperor’s eyes were set on the East and Egypt was to be his base of operations. For this he needed naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. The capture of Malta was essential to Napoleon and once again the island became a coveted fortress. The Maltese were prepared to resist the French but both munitions and provision were denied to them by order of the Grand Master. On June 11, 1798 Hompesch capitulated. A few days later, the Grand Master and what was left of the once proud and powerful order, left their impregnable fortress of Malta and sailed away.

Suzanne German – 4th November – 2007

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