The Maltese title of Senia.


Footnote: The much publicized circumstances surrounding the patent of “Conte della Senia” granted by Grand Master Rohan on the 6th June 1795, to the infant Vincenzo Fontani indicate a very familiar link between the Grand Master and the grantee. This consideration may shed some light on the particular remainder of this grant. 

In the general part of the report, the Royal Commissioners identified this title together with Bahria and delle Catene as being the only exceptions to the general practice of the Grand Masters to grant merely honorary titles which had no relevance on property tenure. (See:- “Correspondence and Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the claims and grievances of the Maltese Nobility”, May 1878, presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (C.-2033.) (See Report Paras. 82).

Unlike Catena (where the grant refers to an indivisible entail) and Bahria (where the grant rendered the property fief), it does not appear from the terms of the relative grant that the tenure of the property of Senia was constrained by indivisibility

Published sources show the title of “Conte della Senia” as being inheritable successively in the primogenial line. This is manifestly unfounded because the title does not have a primogenial remainder but a wide remainder to all descendents. This was in fact observed by the Royal Commissioners in their report. However the Commissioners at that time did not see any immediate need to examine the implications of the remainder. (See:- “Correspondence and Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the claims and grievances of the Maltese Nobility”, May 1878, presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (C.-2033.) (See Report Paras. 78-79).

The actual report reads as follows:

A patent was granted by Grand Master Rohan on the 6th June 1795, to Vincenzo Fontani, who was thereby ennobled with the title of Conte of the lands denominated “della Senia” and situated in the Marsa District. The title is to descend to the issue male and female of the grantee, without any limitation. The following is an extract from the patent of creation: - Nobili Puero Vincentio Fontani Crespi, te tuosque descendentes comitem et comites territorii seu possessionis dictae ta Senia posita in hac nostra insula,in loco della Marsa, tuosque utriusque sexus filios et descendentes, comitem et comites praefati territorii sive possessionis «ta Senia » dicimus et nominamus

The claimant Luigi Fontani is, the first-born and only surviving son of the said Conte Vincenzo Fontani, original grantee, and the title unquestionably belongs to him.

There seems therefore to be no reason for inquiring, at present, who will have the right to bear the title after the present holders death, whether his first-born son alone or simultaneously, his daughters also. The claimant will be styled in our list as Vincenzo (N.B. Should read: ‘Luigi’)  Fontani, Conte della Senia.

Given however, the Commissioners own statement in the general part of the Report that this title is not a nominal title but a landed one, one must conclude that in view of the divisible  nature of a freehold property (neither entailed nor enfeoffed) then the title is to be extended by all of the grantee’s descendants who participate in the property known as “Senia”. “Although it appears that those titles (granted by the Grand Masters) have derived their different denominations from several feudal lands existing in these islands, this annexation, however, is in most cases purely nominal, for those lands were never in reality conveyed to the grantees, but they remained as they are still Government Property, with the exception only of some estates which prior to the grant were held in allodium by the grantees, and which were subsequently erected into noble feuds. Such are the lands ‘della Bahria’, held by the Conte Stagno Navarra (#35), the feud ‘della Catene’ entailed and erected into a primogeniture in favour of Conte PerdicomatiBologna (#37), and the  land ‘della Senia’, which was held by the Conte Fontani in his own right (#78). It is further to be observed that although some of these nominal titles were granted generally to the issue of the person first ennobled, and without any limitation as to sex, they have never been possessed but by the first-born in the family, according to the rules prescribed for the succession to the feuds iure francorum granted by the Kings of Sicily of the House of Aragon.” It appears that this reconciles with the wide remainder of the grant in favour of Fontani.

It is to be remarked that the wide remainder was in 1887 considered by a Committee of Nobles upon the joint request of Luigi Fontani’s son and daughters who applied that they be recognised as legitimate holders of the title of “Counts della Senia”. The Committee (composed of Conte Ciantar, Marchese Apap, Marchese Depiro, Marchese Delicata, Marchese Testaferrata Olivier) decided on the 27.1.1887 that: “Considering from the terms of the said concession it results that the said title should be held by the first born, and transmitted to the first born in lineal descent from the male line of the first holder, and in default of this from the female line of the said holder in the order of primogeniture; From the documents produced it is proved that the said petitioner, the noble Vincenzo Fontani is the only male offspring of the lately deceased Count Luigi, and therefore he has the exclusive right to the said title of “Conte dellaSenia”. The Committee further declares and decides that the other petitioners, the noble Elena and Geltrude Fontani, cannot be allowed to enjoy the said title before the line of the actual Count Vincenzo is extinct. (See:- ‘Copies or Extracts of Further Correspondence with Reference to the Maltese Nobility’, August 1888, presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (C.-5490.) (See Sitting of the 27 January 1887 pages A3-A4).

This decision was transmitted to Governor Simmons who in turn forwarded the decision to Secretary of State for the Colonies Henry Thurstan Holland who responded as follows: The second matter which you submit to me is that of the succession to the title of Conte della Senia. The Committee has arrived at a decision on the subject, which in my opinion, may be accepted without prejudice to any decision of a competent court of law. The Committee should be so informed, and a notice, pursuant to this decision, should appear in the ‘Gazette’. (See:- ‘Copies or Extracts of Further Correspondence with Reference to the Maltese Nobility’, August 1888, presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (C.-5490.) (See Letter of Sir. H.T. Holland to Sir J.M. Simmons pages B3-B4).

Whatever the motivations of that Committee of 1887, it is clear that the 1795 grant in favour of Fontani does not stipulate any remainder by rule of Primogeniture. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the decision was ever contested, However it is worth remarking that such decision is wrong, because::

1.        when one considers the fact that the Senia grant of 6th June 1795 is worded in terms which are different to those relative to other grants and extensions made by the same Grand Master both before and after the grant. For example the title of Ghain Kajet (4.06.1796) reads tuisque descendentibus primogenitis legitimis et naturalibus tribuimus concedimus, et donamus, the title of Gnien-is-sultan (1.12.1792) reads Tibi MagnigicoPhilippo Apap, tuisque descendentibus masculis legitimis et naturalibus ipsisque deficientibus, foemina majorinatu, tribuimus, concedimus et donamus, ac te Marchionis hujusmodi titulo decoramus, and the extension to Fiddien (17.06.1793) reads ‘Fiat pro primogenitis maribus tantum.’

2.        Moreover, whilst the Commissioners remarked in regard to title of a foreign origin that they ‘cannot, in fact, suppose that the Grand Masters were disposed to recognize, without any investigation, and as a matter independent of their own sovereign assent and approbation, as Titolati in their dominion, any persons indiscriminately who should have obtained a title of nobility from ay foreign Sovereign’, Correspondence and Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the claims and grievances of the Maltese Nobility’, May 1878, presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (C.-2033.) (See Report Para. 102), it is reasonable to assert that the Grand Master knew full well that different remainders bring along different implications. 

3.        Moreover, it is manifest that the 1795 grant, does not include any references to remainder by primogenialdescent. 

4.        The Royal Commissioners themselves highlighted the wide remainder.

5.        Finally, due consideration should be given to the great probability that the Grand Master had sufficient reasons to intend transmitting the title to all of the infant grantee’s issue without limitation.

In view of the absence of any clause limiting the remainder of the Senia title to the primogenial descendant, the grant relative to the title of Conte della Senia must be construed as favouring all descendants of Vincenzo Fontani. This wide remainder must however be tempered by the Royal Commissioners view that the enjoyment of the title is subject to a holding in the property of the same name.

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