A reassessment of the Maltese Nobility classifications under the government of the Order (1530-1798).
Malta was an autonomous archipelago governed according to the laws and privileges granted by the King of Sicily.
Like any other country, this nation saw the emergence of its principal families, or as we call it, the nobility.
However in 1530, Malta was granted in fief to the Order of Saint John. In time, the Order’s domination enjoyed the attributes of a sovereign state, but undeniably the High Dominion of the islands was vested in the ultimate sovereign. This was acknowledged even when the throne of Sicily was passed from one Royal house to another.
The Maltese people retained a right to appeal to the King of Sicily, a right which some Grand Masters did not wish to acknowledge even though they only held the islands in fief.
When the Order capitulated in 1798, those rights were vested in the then king of Naples who was also king of Sicily.
Further studies into Malta’s past reveal some significant changes in its system on nobility during that period.
- The title of “Barone” was originally attributed to holders of simple fiefs. We have seen how during the 19th century, claims were made on the basis of such tenures some dating as far back as the 14th century, even though no title was ever created. A ‘happy compromise’ appears to have been reached after it resulted that previous holders of determinate fiefs were acknowledged (‘recognized’) as barons in later acts of investiture.
- Titles were first associated with a property tenure. However there is documented record that by 1553 or at least by 1710, titles were being created without any property requirement.
- The title of “Nobile” was unregulated in Malta until 1725, when legislation was introduced criminalizing its use. This law was relaxed in regard to only a determinate number of families.
- A formal distinction between a local title and one of foreign origin was first made in 1739.
This distinction was repeated in the 19th century report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the claims of the Maltese Nobility which was set the task of identifying those titles which were created locally and those which were ‘recognized’ by the Order during its government of the islands.
It appears that there is a third class which was ignored by that Commission. This accounts for the strange decision that the title of “Marchese Testaferrata” granted by the King of Sicily in 1717 was not found to have been formally ‘recognized’ by the Order.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Royal Commissioners may have been influenced by the fact that the King of Sicily was never resident in Malta, but it was a mistake for the 19th century commission to consider this title as a foreign title when at the time of creation, that title originated from the ultimate sovereign of Malta who had ordered all his subjects, including the Grand Masters, to abide by that same creation.
Unlike other titles which were derived or recognized from the Grand Master’s authority, the title of “Marchese Testaferrata” was derived from a higher authority. It follows that other ‘unrecognized’ titles such as “Barone di San Paolino”, “Conte di Casandola”, “Conte Preziosi”, and possibly the Sicilian patriciates as well as any other title derived from the Sicilian fons up to the year 1798 should be reclassified into this third, and superior, category of titles of Nobility in Malta.