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March 2010

 

An Introduction to the Nobility in Malta

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British Titles of Nobility

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A COMPARISION BETWEEN THE EVOLUTION OF THE TITLE OF “BARON” IN ENGLAND AND MALTA, AND THEIR RESPECTIVE ENTITLEMENTS

 

The nobilities of England and Malta, like the nobles of other countries, were privileged orders.

Although the relationship between these two countries is better known as stemming from the latter being a colony of the former in the 19th and 20th centuries, both nobilities claim a social structure first established by the Normans.

In their corporate capacity, the peers of England formed one of the estates of the realm – that immediately between the crown and the people – that immediately between the crown and the people. No similar estate existed in Malta unless one accepts the argument that in exercising the medieval right (established 2 centuries after the Norman conquest of Malta) to address the throne directly, it was only the members (mostly untitled) of the Consiglio Popolare were the nobility of Malta. That Consiglio was already abolished by the time many of Grand Master Rohan’s new creations were made.

In effect, both the peers of England and the titolati of Malta wielded no personal power and enjoyed no sovereign seignory. Neither English lord nor Maltese titolato could transgress the law of the land with impunity.

 

Barons by Tenure

In England, the first order of nobility, introduced after the Norman Conquest, was that of Barons by Tenure  (or “lords of the soil”), a dignity attached to the possession of certain lands, held according to the feudal system, directly under the crown, and conditionally, upon the performance of some honorary services to the king; such as attending him in the field and the cabinet, and furnishing a stipulated quota of knights, or men-at-arms which quota was regulated by the territorial possessions of the baron; those possessions being divided into allotments, for each of which he was to provide a knight, armed “cap-a-pie”, whenever the sovereign commanded his presence in the field; hence according to the number of warriors the feudal lord provided, he was said to possess so many knight’s fees. There is a recorded instance of agrant in Malta, namely the 1372 grant of Buqana by King Frederick of Sicily to Guglielmo Murina and his descendants “sub servitio imius equi alforati curiae nostrae perinde praesando” but this bears no similarity, and is inferior, to the English baronies by tenure (but that fief later evolved into a barony by tenure).

During the reign in England of King John, so large a body of soil barons were found to have alienated their grants, and so many to have become impoverished in consequence, that it was found necessary to enact a law, declaring only those personages who retained their original tenures unspoiled as qualified to retain the title of Baron and degrading the less prudent to the rank of tenants in chief, or knights.  It was subsequently discovered, however, that the title of Baron could not thus easily be taken away, and it was arranged, that the opulent lords should be styled Barones Majores and the poor ones Barones Minores; and from that period, until the reign of Henry the Third, when the privilege was entirely withdrawn from territorial lords, it appears that only the Barones Majores had the right to have assisted in the legislative councils of England.

In Malta, we find instances were individual members of the Consiglio Popolare were styled “Barons”. In “La Descrizione di Malta del Commendatore Gio Francesco Abela”, written in 1647, it appears that in 1512 Giacomo Arginaldo Inguanez was sent by the government of Malta in the capacity of “ambasciatore” (as such agents were then styled) to the court of the Viceroy of Sicily for the object of obtaining certain franchises, on which occasion he was designated as Barone di Bucana.

By 1669, Baronies by tenure had long ceased to exist in England and in that year in the case of the Fitzwater peerage (when Benjamin Mildmay was restored to that barony, in opposition to Robert Cheeke, the lord of the soil, whence the dignity was said to have sprung), the House of Lords declared “that baronies by tenure, having been discontinued for many ages, were not then in being, and so not fit to be be revived, or to admit any pretence of right of succession”. Later in 1805, the same House resolved, in the case of the Barony de Ros (claimed by the Duke of Rutland, as feudal lord, from the possession of Belvoir Castle, said to have been the fountain of that dignity) “that his grace was not entitled to the barony” and it was subsequently confirmed to one of the coheirs Lady Henry Fitzgerald. However, one English Earldom did survive the desuetude, namely that of Arundel, which the ducal family of Norfolk enjoyed by the feudal tenure of Arundel Castle. But authorities on the subject (e.g. John Burke in 1832) regard this exception as establishing the rule, stating that that honour endured solely by special act of parliament, passed in the third year of King Charles the First.

Meanwhile in Malta, we find recorded a similar exception, again in regard to the fief of Buqana (by then held together that of Diar el Bniet) when a year after the then reigning Grand Master Vilhena passed a law in 1725 distinguishing between a titolato and a nobile the then fief-holder asked the sovereign for clarification whose personal secretary obliged by saying “that by having last year published the pragmatical constitution, by means of which and by rule of good government, and in order to put a stop to the abuse introduced for some time past of rendering equal and common, at the caprice of Notaries, the giving of the honorary titles of Ilustrissimo and of Nobile in public contracts or deeds, he had simply the idea of reducing things to order, and his having excepted from the said Constitution the family of your Lordship, who is in the enjoyment of a feudal barony with the duty of Military service, as your ancestors really held military service under the most serene Kings of Sicily and of the most Eminent predecessors of his Eminence, in the same way as you still at the present time continue to do with so much glory, excepted also the Baroness your consort and all other descendants of your most Illustrious self, bearing in mind likewise the distinction which the family of Inguanez has always enjoyed from the time of King Alfonso of glorious memory, who in his passage through Malta when he was returning fro Barbary, was pleased to make manifest the distinction to which your family was entitled, by accepting the hospitality of your house, as also for having been declared to be the rank of Knight, Councillors and royal Agozzini, with many more privileges, and as a reward for having many times reduced these islands to the obedience of the King, when they had by sedition thrown off their allegiance, and for the reason that your ancestors have repeatedly administered the government of these same islands, with mero and mixto impero and power of death, and power to pardon the crime of  rebellion, and for having subsequently held various other offices including embassies for the safety and custody of the Kingdom of Sicily, and the command of the Galleys of His Catholic Majesty, so that it cannot be matter of doubt to any one whosoever, that it was the intention of His Eminence to preserve to your family, that distinction which he well knows belongs to the same.”

 

Barons by Writ

By then the English system had evolved into the new order of Barons by Writ or persons elevated to the rank of nobility, by being summoned to attend the king in council, or parliament; these writs were known as “brevia clausa” because they were closed with yellow wax and impressed with the great seal of England. It appears that this system came about following the resolution of a quarrel between the King and Simon de Montfort and thereafter no nobleman could sit in parliament without a writ of summons.

The first known of these summonses dates to the 24th December of the 49th year of Henry III, but it seems that no similar writ was issued again until the 22nd year of Edward I, when around 60 persons were summoned to attend the king “wheresoever he might be, to advise on the affairs of the kingdom”.

According to English law, Baronies by writ were heritable by heirs male and female, but in the event of the demise of the baron without the former, and with more than one heiress, the barony then devolving conjointly upon the heiresses, it fell into abeyance amongst them, and so continued until all but one of the daughters, or the sole heir of one of the daughters, survives. The mode of terminating an abeyance in favour of a commoner was by summoning the individual by the title of the barony which has been in abeyance.

There was no similar system known in Malta.  In any event, the English system of baronies by writ was to be superceded (by baronies by letters patent) except in the case of eldest sons of Dukes, Marquesses and Earls, in their respective fathers’ baronies, but as a rule, such summons were not considered as having the effect of creating heritable peerages.

 

Barons by letters patent

The first known instance of a letters patent occurred in the reign of Richard II, when John Beauchamp, of Holt, was elevated to the peerage as Baron Beauchamp of Kidderminster, by letters patent, dated the 10th October 1387. It was first thought necessary to invest the newly created baron by enrobing him in open parliament, but later patents expressly dispensed the ceremony James I discontinued those ceremonies. The first known letters patent in Malta of a title proper of nobility was that of the title of Barone di Gomerino which in 1710 was granted by Grand Master Perellos jointly to a husband and wife Paolo and Beatrice Testaferrata. The letters patent required an investiture and this couple were formally dubbed with their title in January of the following year. The grant required investiture of their future successors and we find that their son Ercole Martino was duly invested by Grand Master Despuig on the 1st May 1737 but that also investiture makes reference to a private deed implying that Despuig changed the order of succession. (It is noted that, strangely, publications on Maltese nobility do not make any reference whatsoever to the 1737 succession.)

In England, when a title is in abeyance, the crown can make a special interference and terminate the abeyance in favour of any of the co-heirs but it cannot alienate the barony from the representatives of the first baron. Some Maltese letters patent allow the possessor of a title to “nominate” a successor, but this could only be availed of within the specific terms of the letters patent, therefore requiring the formal investiture of the nominated successor. With the exception of the 1784 case of the succession by Grand Master Rohan of the 1728 title of Barone della Tabria in favour of Giuseppe Testaferrata Viani, there appears to be no known instance where that Grand Master consulted a specially constituted body of advisors.

 

Other entitlements and precedence

Unlike English peers who were entitled by reason of their noble title to sit in the House of Lords, Maltese titles of nobility brought about no rights whatsoever. The same 1784 commission advising the Grand Master opined that the titles created by the Grand Masters were simple honorific titles.

English Barons were styled “Right Honorable”, and addressed officially by the Crown as “Right trusty and well beloved”. Maltese barons were entitled to be styled “Barone”, with the exception of those who benefited under the 1725 legislation to the additional titles of Illustrissimo e Nobile.

At English law, titles took precedence according to rank. Thus an English baron ranked after a Marquess even though the former might enjoy an older nobility. In Malta, however, legislation enacted by Grand Masters Despuig and Rohan in 1739 and 1795 orders that precedence be according to the antiquity of the creation indiscriminately between the actual title holder and the male line cadets. Thus the male descendants of the Barons Inguanez and Testaferrata families ranked before any Maltese Counts and Marquesses.

 

British Colonial Developments in Malta

After the Capitulation of the Order of Saint John the new French Rulers formally abolished all titles of nobility. A total of 3 general orders were made to this effect. The French in turn lost Malta in 1800 when the Commander in Chief Vaubois surrendered to His Britannic Majesty.

On the 30 May 1814 (Treaty of Paris) it was stipulated that the island of Malta and its dependencies belong in full right and sovereignty to his Britannic majesty.

In time, the use of nobiliary titles was resumed. However, it appears that the unregulated and improper use of titles of nobility and other honours was tolerated by the local authorities who were themselves found to be at fault for encouraging such improper use. Throughout this period, a group known as the Assembly of Maltese Nobles is known to have functioned at this time but it did not enjoy any official role.

After the British-appointed Commission to enquire into the claims of the Maltese Nobility published its report in 1878 a special Committee was created in 1883 by the Colonial office “with functions analogous to those of the Committee of Privileges in the House of Lords (of the United Kingdom)”. The stated purpose of that committee was first to take into reconsider those claims which were disallowed by the Commissioners Naudi and Pullicino and second 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.

During the period 1878-1883 one finds evidence of at least one title created by Grand Masters that fell into extinction being revived by the Committee, with sanction of the Colonial office, as well as at least three titles being ante-dated by presumption. There is more evidence to suggest that in determining the succession of titles, instead of applying the laws as last enacted by the Grand Masters, British Malta adopted a practice of rule-shopping between the latter and the laws existing prior to the government of the Order.

In time the titolati recognized by Britain bore little resemblance to the nobility at the end of the Knights’ domination of the Maltese Islands.

 

An issue of representation arose between the Assembly and the Committee in 1886 when the Marchese di San Giorgio attempted to change the rules of precedence between the Maltese Nobility. The issue was resolved by Lord Granville when he communicated his decision that in view of the considerable opposition by the old Baroni and cadetti and the small support which the proposal received, he was not “prepared to reconsider the decision of Grand Master Rohan”. Following this decision, it appears that the Assembly of Maltese Nobles lost its political significance and the Committee of Privileges took up all representation to the British Throne of the Maltese Titolati. The cadetti were unrepresented.

 

In another incident also in 1886 the Committee of Privileges was successful to obtain for each of the British-acknowledged titolati the right to the style “The Most Noble” on the basis that all title holders were entitled to it without discrimination.

The last vestiges of the nobility under the Grand Masters, were steadily done away with. In 1950, succession by entail was abolished in Malta under the Premiership of Paul Boffa by Act 12 of 1950 dated 5 May 1950. This was followed in 1969, under the Premiership of Giorgio Borg Olivier by an abolition of succession by fief by Act 30 of 1969 dated 21 November, 1969. Provision is made in the later law that nothing shall affect any title of nobility, and the laws in force concerning any such titles shall continue to have effect.

Finally, in 1975 the Maltese Government under the Premiership of Dom Mintoff brought in a Bill for the purpose of abolishing titles of nobility. On the 25 June 1975, the President of the Republic of Malta Sir Anthony Mamo, gave his assent to Act No. XXIX. Although titles of nobility were not abolished ‘for historical reasons’, a general duty was imposed to no longer recognize them.

 

References:

John Burke, “A General and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire”, 1832

Anon “The Family of Inguanez” (Malta, 1888) - reprinted in 1979 to form part of Marcel DINGLI ATTARD, “The Family of Inguanez” (Interprint Malta, 1979) ASIN: B0000EEAZL

OTHER:

 

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www.maltagenealogy.com is dedicated to celebrating and reassessing the history of the Maltese People.