By Eric Vandenbroeck
The Order of Malta dispenses about $1.5 billion a year in aid, often in areas that are war-torn or have been struck by disaster. Recently, it has been at the forefront of refugee and migrant assistance in the Middle East and Europe. Or global projects such as Malteser International, which assists especially with disaster relief and basic medical care in the third world, and the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem: the only place in the very cradle of the Christian faith where women can give birth in a quality environment. A special advantage that the Order is able to bring to its humanitarian efforts is the one implied by its sovereign character and diplomatic privileges. For example, after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the presence of the Order's ambassadors in Haiti and the Dominican Republic provided somebody of status on the spot in a position to speed through the formalities for the helpers from all over the world who came into Santo Domingo for onward passage to Port-au-Prince.
It is characteristic of the Order that its National Associations devote their efforts and funding almost exclusively to the kind of charitable activities described above. Only occasionally, as in the French Association's historical projects, do the knights pay attention to cultural concerns, and given the Order's great historical legacy, one might even consider this a defect. The artistic patrimony that the Order of Malta has inherited, mainly in Italy and Austria, is nowadays the responsibility of the Grand Magistry as such, and the funds available to preserve it are relatively small. The implication of this is that the most obvious aspects of the Order as they appear to the outside public, its sovereign and nobiliary character, are in a sense the most misleading. If it were not a military order, the Order of Malta today would be one of the best-known charitable organizations in the world; but precisely because it works under an illustrious name it is liable to be regarded as a merely ornamental body - or, indeed, among fantasizers, as a secret society devoted to the hidden manipulation of power. The history of the past two centuries shows well enough that there has never been anything mysterious about the Order of Malta, even though at one time it may have represented a small aristocratic world that was familiar to few.
Malta and the Russian Usurpation
Where the previous part described the phenomenon of self-styled Knightly orders of St John or of Malta, most of these orders claim to be continuations of various alleged offshoots of what now appears to be a non-existing Russian Orthodox priory. This also includes "The Sovereign Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem Knights of Malta" which on its website, what thus (as is detailed below) appears to be patently wrong, posts that the Russian Order existed there till 1917. How much of an invented history similar organizations, like also the OOSJ, are willing to create is furthermore exemplified by (obviously without reference) the claim of an alleged "Letter from Pope Pius welcoming Emperor Paul I." This while it is a proven historically fact that despite the dire captivity to which he was reduced, Pius VI refused to recognize Paul I a schismatic as head of a Catholic religious order. Instead he wrote to Monsignor Lorenzo Litta in Russia on 11 March 1799 that he disapproved of the election. An indiscretion brought the letter to Paul's ears, and his response was immediate. Lorenzo’s brother, the Bali Giulio Litta was dismissed as Lieutenant and the nuncio Lorenzo Litta was told to leave St Petersburg. He also dismissed the Pope’s ambassador in Russia, as Paul I was determined to defend the legitimacy of his new title and rejected the Pope’s disapproval.
The legal aspect, which is not a matter of dispute is that Paul I was inherently incapable of being the superior of a religious order of the Catholic Church, and his "election" in November 1798 was invalid in itself. The legitimate head of the Order continued to be Hompesch. In February 1803, then Giovanni Battiste Tommasi was elected Grandmaster of the Order of Malta. Thus after the death of Paul I as soon the Pope made Tommasi Grandmaster of the Order of Malta Marshal Soltykoff, on hearing the news, immediately handed over his powers and sent from St Petersburg the magistral regalia which had been created by Paul I (they are now in the Magistral Palace in Rome, forming a memento of a bizarre interlude in the Order's past).
The 'coup d'état' by Paul I thus was never recognized by the Pope, yet self-styled orders of St John or of Malta nevertheless take on the appellation "of St.John", claiming to be a continuations of Paul's Russian Orthodox priory, which, as we will see, was ended in the early 1800s. First its property was seized by Russian imperial ukase in 1810 and then in 1817 another decree proscribed the wearing of the insignia of an order which since then never existed in Russia or abroad.
The French Revolution and Napoleon
When the French Revolution broke out in July 1789, it was immediately apparent that the Order of Malta would be one of its victims. In August the National Assembly abolished the tithes and feudal rights that formed a major part of the Order's income. In June 1791 Louis XVI attempted (with the aid of a large loan made to him by the Order's Receiver in Paris) to escape from France. When this resulted in his capture at Varennes and return to Paris in the hands of a revolutionary mob, it was the end of effective monarchism in France; and the sixty-six-year-old Grand Master Rohan, on hearing the news, suffered a stroke that left him an invalid for the rest of his life. In October 1792 the government of France, by now declared a republic, confiscated the Order's entire property in the country. As the revolutionary armies swept over Europe, the same confiscation was imposed in the Austrian Netherlands, in Germany west of the Rhine, and in northern and central Italy.
By late 1796 these seizures had deprived Malta of something like half the income it drew from its European properties, and the knights in the lands affected were left penniless. But suddenly a savior appeared in an unexpected quarter: on the death of Catherine the Great, the Russian throne was inherited by Paul I, a ruler whose strange enthusiasms included a passionate admiration for the Order of Malta. He summoned to his side the dashing Giulio Litta, who had so distinguished himself in the Russian Navy six years before and began to show lavish tokens of his favor. The recently founded Grand Priory of Poland had passed under Russian sovereignty with the Second Partition of Poland, and Paul proceeded to pay off its large arrears at a stroke and to increase its responsions to 53,000 florins, thus making it a sizable contributor to the Order's desperately reduced revenues.
The losses inflicted by the French, besides striking a worse material blow at the Order than it had suffered even at the Reformation, limited the candidates for the succession to the Grand Magistry, which was obviously imminent. It would have been difficult to elect a head from the parts of Europe where the Order's institutional existence had been destroyed. Moreover, it was essential that the new ruler should bring some political protection against the ever-widening conquests of revolutionary France. The Order could hardly elect a Grand Master from Spain, whose king had gone into alliance with the nation that had murdered the head of his family. The choices of patron were in fact narrowed down to Naples and the German Empire, and the protection of Naples was more to be feared than welcomed. That is why by 1797 it was considered certain that Rohan would be succeeded by a German Grand Master.
This implied a very limited choice indeed. Owing partly to the small size of the Langue, no German had ever been elected Grand Master of the Order. From 1791, when Rohan suffered his stroke, an observer in Malta would have seen a choice of just two German Grand Crosses resident on the island:
Franz von Schönau, who was the Pilier of the Langue, and Ferdinand von Hompesch, the imperial ambassador. Then, seven months before Rohan's death, Schönau left for his own country and Hompesch succeeded him as Pilier, becoming the only candidate available. This was a fatal predicament. Hompesch was simply a minor diplomat, weak in character, and a man whose career had shown a consistent subservience to his sovereign in detriment to the interests of the Order. When Rohan died in July 1797, the Order thus found its choice restricted to the worst superior it could possibly have elected.
The conquests of the French revolutionaries made their annexationist aims very obvious. Just before the election of Hompesch, France had conquered the Republic of Venice and its possessions of the Ionian Islands, thus placing itself within striking distance of Malta. Yet in the eleven months of his reign, Hompesch devoted himself to cultivating his popularity at home without making any attempt to prepare his island against attack. Schönau, who was representative of the Order at the Congress of Rastadt in 1798, warned him unequivocally that the French intended to seize Malta and urged him to take precautions, but the Grand Master preferred to pay no heed. This inactivity, coming after the six years of enfeebled government during Rohan's illness, was fatal to the morale of the island. General Bonaparte had been commissioned by the Directory to lead an expedition to Egypt and to seize Malta on the way so as to give France a naval base in the central Mediterranean. Nelson was cruising off Toulon to stop any such departure, but Bonaparte gave him the slip, and on 6 June 1798 he appeared off Malta with a fleet of between 500 and 600 vessels carrying an army of 29,000 men. When he demanded the right to enter the Grand Harbour to take on water, the Order's Council decided to apply the long-standing rule, designed to protect Malta's neutrality, that only four ships should be admitted at a time. Bonaparte rejected the condition and began his attack on 10 June.
The fall of Malta
Two often-repeated mistakes about the fall of Malta should be corrected. The first is that the knights were unable to resist the French because their vocation forbade war against Christian nations. In fact, that plea was only advanced by the French knight Bosredon-Ransijat, who was openly a partisan of the republican regime, and he was promptly clapped in prison for it. Apart from the consideration that the Republic's anti-religious frenzy put it in a different category even from the Protestant countries, whom the Order had always respected, the duty of neutrality towards Christians had never been thought to exclude the right of self-defense.
The second mistake is that the defense of Malta was undermined by the secret leaning of the French knights to their own country. Again, this explanation is given color only by the defection of Bosredon. In the previous months an agent of the Republic, Etienne Poussielgue, had been busy in Malta, and he arrived at a very exact estimate of the number of French knights who had any sympathy with the Revolution: fifteen, of whom only three had what he called the energy to work actively for France. His estimate was confirmed when Bonaparte, after conquering Malta, ordered all the knights out of the island, including his compatriots, exempting only three on the grounds of their assistance to the French cause. The remainder of the 200 French knights who had taken refuge in Malta were identified by Poussielgue as irreconcilable royalists, and as the most resolute element in the defense. His judgment, which is obvious enough, is confirmed by the details of the siege when nearly all the chief commands were held by French knights, the only exception being the future Grand Master Tommasi. The accusation against the French has obscured the real complicity of the Spanish in the defeat of Malta. Their country was in alliance with France, and the Spanish knights were ordered by their ambassador to remain in their Auberges and take no part in the fighting. Nevertheless, as there were only twenty-five Spanish knights in Malta, this abstention had little influence on the outcome.
The loss of Malta was one of the most ignominious military surrenders in history, and one of the most unnecessary. It required no heroic feat of arms in 1798 to defend Malta against the French; the most cautious and defensive strategy would have done it. Against such an overwhelming enemy, it was hopeless to resist a general landing; yet Valletta itself was impregnable. The French would have been faced with a siege of many months, and such a course was not open to them. Nelson alerted to Bonaparte's escape from Toulon, was in hot pursuit and arrived off Syracuse on 22 June, only twelve days after the attack on Malta began. The general, in fact, had orders to abandon Malta if its resistance threatened the Egyptian expedition. But a strategy of sitting tight behind the walls of Valletta required a minimum of military sense and steady nerves, and Hompesch possessed neither and the fall of Malta became history.
Hompesch, seeking the protection of his Emperor, landed on 25 July at Trieste, where he set up the Order's Convent with the seventeen professed brethren who remained faithful to him. But among the knights as a whole, the news of his incredible betrayal was greeted with fury. One should bear in mind that the statutes of the Order decreed the automatic loss of the habit for any knight who surrendered a stronghold to the enemy.
The Russian coup d'état
On 26 August (Russian calendar) 6 September (Westen calendar) the members of the Grand Priory of Russia published a manifesto declaring that they regarded Hompesch as deposed, and invoking the protection of the Czar Paul I proclaimed that he took the Order under his "supreme direction", and the Grand Priory of Germany adhered to these decisions; Hompesch's own compatriots wanted to lose no time in disavowing him.
These moves were the product of the eccentric zeal of Czar Paul, exploited by the Order's envoy. Giulio Litta, after his naval service in the Russo-Swedish War, had returned to Russia in 1794 and acquired a favorite's status with the new ruler. The transformation of the Priory of Poland into the richly endowed Russian Priory had been his doing. When in recognition Hompesch declared the Czar Protector of the Order in August 1797, Litta was appointed ambassador extraordinary to invest him with the title. It was obvious policy to make the most of this welcome accession to the Order's support, and the character of the new Grand Master showed how much the Order needed a strong prop in Europe, but Litta was using personal ambition to take his favor in a dangerous direction. In November 1797 he made a speech declaring that the Order of Malta wished the Czar to put himself at its head. In the months before the fall of Malta, he was assiduously pressing Hompesch to send the Emperor the most precious relics and to invest the largest possible number of Russian noblemen with the cross of the Order. He encouraged Paul in his plan to supplement the enlarged Russian Priory with a new one designed to receive the Orthodox nobility of the empire, a body difficult to include in a religious order of the Catholic Church. The nominal re-admission a generation earlier of the Grand Bailiwick of Brandenburg provided a precedent for this oddity. Hompesch gave his approval for the foundation on the very eve of Bonaparte's appearance off Malta, although the French attack prevented the bull from being despatched to Russia.
In these irregularities, Giulio Litta was being seconded by his own brother, Archbishop Lorenzo Litta, who was in Russia as papal nuncio. In that capacity, Monsignor Litta represented a power that was as much in jeopardy from the Revolution as the Order of Malta. The French armies had entered Rome, and by 1798 the aged Pius VI was an exile, first at the Charterhouse of Florence and then in France, where he died. The nuncio, looking at potential saviors with not too critical an eye, gave his full support to the abuses that followed.
The finishing touch to the Czar's assumption of power was given when on 27 October (Russia) 7 November (Western), he arranged what he called his election as Grand Master. This was, in fact, an acclamation made in St Petersburg by a small number of knights (thought to have been between seventeen and twenty-six), most of whom were Russian subjects, with the inclusion of Giulio Litta and two French emigres. There is no need to labor the illegality of the act. A single Grand Priory, even with three supernumeraries from outside, had no power to elect a Grand Master, and, as all writers have pointed out, the Czar was triply disqualified from the office, as being not professed, not celibate and not a Catholic. But on 29 November / 10 December, he was enthroned as Grand Master by none other than the papal nuncio himself. Giulio Litta, renouncing his vows with indecent haste, had already been rewarded with the hand of a rich Russian princess, a niece of Potemkin, and he was appointed Lieutenant of the Order, while his brother was made Grand Almoner.
It remained to secure European recognition. Louis XVIII of France (he had assumed the title on the death of the child Louis XVII in the Temple) was an exile in Russia, and in January 1799 he authorized the French knights to recognize Paul. The Prince de Conde, head of a cadet line of the Bourbons, was commander of the French emigre army, which was now in the Russian service; he had been made Grand Prior of the Russian Catholic Priory in November 1797 and was in no position to oppose his patron. Louis' nephew, the Due d' Angouleme, who as a boy had held the Grand Priory of France, tried to evade the question when it was put to him, and replied that his forthcoming marriage excluded him from the Order, but he did not avoid enraging the Czar, who had to be appeased by the Bourbon king with the grant of the Saint-Esprit.
The Elector Charles Theodore of Bavaria, whose Priory was his own foundation, was reluctant to recognize Paul, but he died in February 1799, and Bavaria was inherited by a distant line of the family hostile to every aspect of his rule. The new Elector determined to abolish the Bavarian Priory, but a threat of Russian military invasion called him to heel. The Kings of Naples and Portugal also gave their consent. The German Emperor, as the ally of Russia, had little option but to follow suit, and put pressure on Hompesch to abdicate from the shadowy rule he maintained in Trieste. The great exception was Spain, which was still in alliance with France, but here the question was whether the Priories were to remain attached to the Order at all. After the fall of Malta, King Charles IV had wasted little time in beginning the process of assimilating the Order of Malta to those of Spain, as a national order under royal rule. On 4 September 1798, he published a decree forbidding his subjects to have dealings with the exiled Convent in Trieste, and there was no chance of his recognizing the self-appointed one in Russia. The Spanish ambassador absented himself from Czar Paul's coronation as Grand Master - and was promptly ordered out of the country.
The ruler whose view was of most legal relevance was the Pope. Despite the dire captivity to which he was reduced, Pius VI could not bring himself to recognize a schismatic as head of a Catholic religious order. He temporized, and when he finally wrote to Monsignor Litta on 11 March 1799 disapproving of the election, he authorized him to delay communicating the decision to the Czar. But an indiscretion brought the letter to Paul's ears, and his response was immediate. The Bali Litta was dismissed as Lieutenant (his place in the imperial favor had already raised against him a cabal of Russian magnates, led by Count Fedor Rostopchin) and his brother the nuncio was told to leave St Petersburg.
By this time the Czar had founded the projected Orthodox Priory of Russia, with ninety-eight commanderies and a revenue of 216,000 roubles, and with his eldest son, the Czarevich Alexander, as its Grand Prior. Paul entrusted special squadrons of the Baltic and the Black Sea fleets to the Knights of Malta. He also added ten commanderies to the Catholic Priory, which by 1799 included a hundred French emigres among its knights.
Next to Litta, the guiding hand in these developments was Joseph de Maisonneuve, an ambitious knight who had been active since the 1780s in the plans for the Grand Priory of Poland. Appointed the Order's Master of Ceremonies in Russia, he quickly published an outspoken account of the recent events, reflecting the bitter anger of the French knights at the way the Order's honor had been betrayed by Hompesch, and their hopes of vindication under the Czar.1
Outside Russia, a leading figure in the Order's affairs was Johann Baptist von Flachslanden.2 Originally a member of the Priory of Germany, he had played an important role in the foundation of the Bavarian Priory and the Anglo-Bavarian Langue, to which he transferred his membership, and he was rewarded with the Bailiwick of Neuburg and the office of Turcopolier. As an Alsatian, and therefore a French subject, he was elected to the Estates General (a general assembly representing the French estates of the realm) of 1789. In July 1799 he represented the usurping Grand Master in the agreement made with the Elector Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria, and in November he headed a Bavarian deputation to Russia which presented the homage of its Grand Priory. As Turcopolier in 1799, he was one of the only two legitimate Piliers of the Order who remained in office under Paul I. The other was the Bailli de Ferrette (Baron von Pfordt-Blumberg), who was also Alsatian. He had succeeded Hompesch in 1797 as Pilier of the German Langue, and was to be important in the Order's affairs as a diplomat until his death in 1831. He continued under Paull as Grand Bailiff, while all the other great offices were assigned to Russian subjects appointed by Paul. However, by 1801 both Flachslanden and Ferrette had been dropped, and the Russian governing council did not contain a single professed Knight of Malta.
But while Tsar Paul I’s appointment was to be contested by Pope Pius VII and numerous Priories of the Order, as has been seen, recognition or non-recognition of the Czar was a decision of the various rulers; most of the knights could do little but obey their sovereigns' wishes. In Italy, the Bali Trotti refused to accept Paul l and was immediately deprived of his commandery 3, but there were not many who saw their duty so clearly. If we ask why professed Knights of St John should have been prepared to accept Czar Paul as their head, we should seek the reason in the prompt remedy it offered for the loss of Malta. Within seven weeks of the island's surrender, Nelson had destroyed Bonaparte's Egyptian expedition at the Battle of the Nile. In September the Maltese rose against the French occupying forces, whom they held besieged for two years in Valletta, with rather feeble support from the British Navy, until their final capitulation in September 1800. The official British policy during this period was to give back Malta to the Czar, as Grand Master of the Order. Such an outcome offered a means - and the only means - whereby the Order could have quickly wiped out the stain of Hompesch's surrender, and it is understandable if the knights thought that accepting a schismatic as Grand Master was not too high a price to pay for it. That must have been the feeling of the many French knights who placed themselves under the rule of Paul I. In December 1798 the Czar ordered a Russian fleet through the Dardanelles, and during the next twenty months it would have been possible for this force to sail to Malta, clinch the siege and claim the island for the Czar. It is one of the oddities of Paul's policy that it never did so. The fleet's first objective, sensibly enough, was the Ionian Islands, which were recaptured from the French. By September 1799 the fleet had arrived in Sicily, and Nelson even offered to transport its sailors and marines to Malta, after its ships were pronounced unseaworthy for the journey. The Neapolitan government, however, contrived to keep it in Palermo. In January 1800 it returned to Corfu, as the Czar's policy changed towards a rapprochement with republican France, and it withdrew from the Mediterranean later in the year.
For several months after the Russian coup d'etat, the Grand Master Hompesch refused to accept his demotion. He had formally reconstituted the Convent in Trieste on 27 September 1798, and he appointed a Sacred Council, which issued instructions to the few who were willing to receive them. However, with his own sovereign supporting the usurpation, his position became untenable. At the Emperor's insistence, he signed an act of abdication on 6 July 1799; a few days later he left Trieste, abandoned by all, and took up residence in the chateau of Portschach in Carniola, a property of the Bishop of Laibach. The Convent of the The Knights of Malta Order was dissolved, not to be reconstituted till four years later in Messina. To be canonically valid, the Grand Master's abdication needed papal acceptance, but Pius VI, in captivity in France, died the following month, and the papacy remained vacant until the election of Pius VII in March 1800. Thus even the knights of the Grand Priory of Rome, with no direction of their own ruler to guide them, had no government to look to but that of Paul I.
During all this time, the long siege of the French garrison in Valletta was continuing.
Many of the Maltese would have welcomed the return of Hompesch, whose popularity in the island was the only achievement of his Grand Magistry. If he had had a spark of enterprise, he might have trumped Paul I's card at any time from September 1798 by returning to Malta and putting himself at the head of the national revolt, with as many of the knights as were prepared to support him. But he proved himself as spineless in recovering his throne as he had in preserving it. He sent an emissary to Malta in June 1799, not to range himself with the resistance but to parley for retrocession with the French garrison, whose position by then was doomed. When Valletta finally fell in September 1800, the Czar claimed Malta from the British; but his flirtation with Bonaparte, who had seized power in France as First Consul, was beginning to sow seeds of suspicion in the mind of the government of London, and it made no reply. Paul responded by forming the League of Armed Neutrality and planning to recover Malta through alliance with the French.
The Czar's eccentricities were raising alarm among his closest servants. His infatuation with the Order of Malta led him to shower its cross on all who took his fancy, including his mistress, Madame Lapoukhine. When she fell from favour, the Czar used to call nightly on her successor, Madame Chevalier, attired in the Grand Master's habit which he had designed for himself. By the early months of 1801 Paul was leading a life of fearful isolation in his moated palace of Mikhailow, while his ministers plotted to assassinate him, in collusion, it was thought, with the Czarevich himself. His Prime Minister, Count Peter von der Pahlen, who had been made Grand Chancellor of the Order of Malta, was at the head of the conspirators. On 12 / 23 March 1801 the Czar was strangled by a group of his courtiers, among whom were four of his own Knights of Malta.
The young Alexander I, as he took the throne in these macabre circumstances, had no part in his father's mania for the Order of Malta, and he resolved to divest himself of its government. The distinguished soldier Marshal Soltykoff had been appointed Lieutenant by Paul on the dismissal of Litta, and he was continued in office for the moment, but the new Czar's policy was to restore the Order to its constitutional norms. In its shattered state, it would be impossible to elect a Grand Master in a statutory way; so Alexander proposed, with notable disinterest, that the Pope should appoint one from candidates nominated by the Priories of the Order that still remained. This remedy, however, was delayed by the continuing war in Europe and in particular by uncertainty over the fate of Malta, now in British hands. In March 1802 peace was restored by the Treaty of Amiens, which provided for the return of Malta to the Order of St. John. So as to avoid control by either of the main belligerents, the treaty stipulated that French and British subjects should be excluded from the Order. As a result, the Anglo-Bavarian Langue was renamed the Bavaro-Russian, although in practice the only knights of British blood in the Order were a few individuals who had joined the French Lanques. The three French Langues were, to be deemed abolished. As the Order of Malta was not a signatory to the Treaty of Amiens (which in any case never took effect), it was not bound by a clause that changed its constitution, and the exclusion of the French Langues was to be recognised as obsolete even before the Treaty of Paris in 1814, which superseded that of Amiens.
In any case, the provisions for the election of a Grand Master were sabotaged by the two rulers with the most influence in the matter. In January 1802, even before the Treaty of Amiens was Signed, the King of Spain made definitive the separation of his four Priories and declared them a national Spanish order. Thus, with the exclusion of the French, only eleven Priories were left to give their votes for a Grand Master: Venice, Rome, Capua, Barletta, Messina, Germany, Bohemia, Bavaria, the two Russias, and Portugal. Next, Bonaparte intervened in the choice: the Bailli Flachslanden, who had been nominated by Bavaria and the two Russian Priories, was vetoed outright, as an active Royalist. Having described the plans for Malta as "a romance that could not be executed", Bonaparte urged Bavaria to a second attempt at abolishing its Grand Priory, though Russian protection proved strong enough to save it for the moment. In August Bonaparte sought to limit the Pope further by excluding a Neapolitan subject and urging the choice of a Roman, a northern Italian or the innocuous Bavarian knight Tauffkirchen.
In the meantime, Hompesch had been aroused from the state of apathy into which he had fallen after his abdication. In late 1800 he moved from Austria to the Papal States, where he lived for the next four years. The death of Paul I encouraged him to revive his claims; he asserted that his abdication had been dictated to him by Austria and that it had merely been a proposal of abdication. Britain, however, was not prepared to give Malta back to the knights under Hompesch, and Bonaparte also rejected him so as not to imperil the session.
The new Pope, Pius VII, although he had been elected in Venice during the French occupation of Rome, was now back in his capital and trying to reach a modus vivendi with the post-revolutionary system of Europe. His choices with regard to the Order of Malta were limited. He could have declared that Hompesch's abdication had never been accepted and that he was therefore still Grand Master, but in the circumstances, that option was not considered. The Pope tried to recover the Order provisionally for Catholic control by naming a Lieutenant in the person of the Bali Giuseppe Caracciolo, who by Paul I's appointment was serving as the Order's ambassador to the Court of Naples; but as Soltykoff refused to hand over authority to him the nomination remained without effect. The Priory of Rome had so far abstained from electing a candidate for the Grand Magistry so as to leave the Pope's choice untrammeled. Finally, in August 1802, the Pope resolved to appoint Prince Bartolomeo Ruspoli (1754-1836), a member of a great Roman family, who for form's sake was declared the candidate of his Priory. He was chosen as being likely to secure Bonaparte's approval, which was duly given. Pius VII, therefore, offered him the Grand Magistry in a brief of 16 September, which by alluding to Hompesch's abdication constituted the first, though tacit, papal recognition of that act.
Ruspoli was a devout and cultivated but eccentric man, who indulged a taste for incessant travel, He was currently thought to be in London, whither the papal offer was sent; in fact, he proved to be making a tour of Scotland and was not to be found; in mid-November Ruspoli had still not returned to the capital. By early December he was considering the proposal without enthusiasm. His response, setting difficult conditions, may have been aimed at securing the explicit support of the Spanish Crown. He demanded that British and Sicilian troops be withdrawn from Malta before his arrival as Grand Master, that the Spanish Priories be reunited to the Order, and that Spain should pay its arrears from the four years of separation. By 28 December the British government had rejected Ruspoli's conditions with regard to Malta, and he sent a reply to the Pope with his refusal to serve.
Not until February 1803 was the vacancy in the Grand Magistry filled when the Bali Tommasi accepted the office from the Pope, and Marshal Soltykoff, on hearing the news, finally handed over his powers. He sent from St Petersburg the magistral regalia which had been created by Paul I (they are now in the Magistral Palace in Rome, forming a memento of a bizarre interlude in the Order's past).
The close of the Russian interlude prompts an estimate of its significance in the history of the Order of St John. One may begin with the legal aspect, which is not a matter of dispute. Paul I was inherently incapable of being the superior of a religious order of the Catholic Church, and his "election" in November 1798 was invalid in itself. The legitimate head of the Order continued to be Hompesch until his abdication in July 1799, and theoretically until the implicit papal acceptance of that act in September 1802. But in practice, there was no legitimate government of the Order from July 1799 until February 1803, when Tommasi took charge. There was also no legitimate Convent of the Order during that period, for the officials appointed by Paul I were non-professed and nearly all non-Catholics.
We ought, however, to consider what Paull's seizure of power meant in practical terms, and from that point of view, we may judge that he saved the Order in the hardest predicament of its history. One need only consider what would have happened if Hompesch had continued as Grand Master. The Order would probably have fallen apart, with many knights and whole Priories calling for his deposition. Certainly, there would have been little chance of the British government, or anyone else, wishing to see Malta returned to the knights under Hompesch's rule. Paull's de facto Grand Mastership restored political credit to the Order at a time of unprecedented disgrace; it is unlikely that Britain would have agreed to restore Malta to the knights in 1802 but for the fact that it had previously been envisaging returning it to Paul I; and the Czar's rule, illegitimate though it was, effectively marshalled the whole Order under one government, with the single exception of Spain, so that when Tommasi became Grand Master in 1803 he took over a united Order, and not the chaos of conflicting factions into which it would have descended if Hompesch had not been promptly disposed of.
Nevertheless, after Paul I the position of the Order in Russia is worth noting.
Its status as Paul I had left it was undone by Alexander I in 1810 when he confiscated the general possessions of the Catholic and Orthodox Priories, but the Order continued after a fashion. It received a further blow from the death in 1816 of Marshal Soltykoff, who had been the only member of the Russian nobility who retained a real interest in it. In 1817 Alexander decreed that the family commanderies should become extinct on the deaths of their current holders, and forbade the wearing of the Order's cross without imperial permission. Thus the Priory indeed may be said to have become extinct at this time, or at least at the death of its surviving commanders.
Yet the Bali Litta continued to call himself President of the Catholic Priory and remained a well-known figure at the Russian Court until his death in 1839. In 1820 he reported to the Bali Miari that commanders' revenues were still being paid by the State, the Order's churches were maintained, and the government held a capital of more than 2 million roubles, which legally belonged to the Order. Even more interesting are the documents which he sent to Miari in 1818 relating to the unrealized plans to restore the former Grand Priory of Poland, a dossier which reveals the Czar's active interest in preserving the Knights of St John in his dominions.4 These letters show that Russia was one of the countries where the Order would have had a good chance of restoration if its leaders had been able to raise it from impotence and obscurity.
As for the various self-styled Orders that claim a continuation of the creation by Paul I, fact is that a Public Policy Statement from the Council of Ministers, affirmed by the Emperor and dated January 20, 1817, clearly states that the Order of Malta “does not exist in Russia” [PSZ, № 26626]." Something organizations like the OOSJ, or the "Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knight's Hospitaller" in Vancouver, want to ignore and apparently purposely misconstrue history.
As we have seen, starting with Paul I own son and heir to the throne, no support has come for the spurious claims these self-invented Orders from the imperial family of Russia, which always since then recognized the Sovereign Order and no other. From the time of Alexander I, all the Czars except Alexander III held the Grand Cross of Honor and Devotion of the Sovereign Order. More recently this was also exemplified by Prince Nicholas Chalvovich Tchkotoua (Bailiff Grand Cross of Honour and Devotion of the Order of Malta). His successor as head of the imperial house Grand Duchess Maria Wladmirovna, issued on 30 April 2014 a full statement repudiating the supposed Russian descendants and likewise asserting that her house recognizes only the Sovereign Military Orders.
15 Nov. 2017: The following came as part of a discussion with a former student when he asked me about the Bobrinskoy Orthodox Order of Saint John (OOSJ) and the alleged "The Sovereign Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem Knights of Malta" thus opening up what for me is a new research topic. Self-styled Knights Of Today.
27 Nov. 2017: In the following historical investigation it has become clear that the original SMOM Order indeed continued unabated and that the Order's continuing sovereign status was not forfeited through the loss of Malta. The appointment of a new Grand Master.
2 Dec. 2017: Contested as some of the following developments initially where they also contain some intrigue. The foundations of the National Associations of the Order in England and Germany.
7 Dec. 2017: Following an earlier remark about Festing at the end of the discussion here, there is in fact a historical precedent in the form of an even more severe dispute that more significantly gave rise to a vacancy in the Grand Mastership from 1951 to 1962 (which Roger Peyrefitte's famous novel wrongfully attributed to a grain deal). Vatican's opposition to the Order of Malta.
The above events are covered by Pierre don, Vol. 1 (1956) and Vol. 2 (1963); by Roderick Cavallero, The Last of the Crusaders (Malta, 1960); O. de Sherbowitz-Wetzor and C. Toumanoff, The Order of Malta and the Russian Empire (Rome, 1969) and H. J. A. Sire The Knights of Malta (1996).
1. Joseph de Maisonneuve, Annales Historiques de l'Ordre Souverain de Saint Jean de Jerusalem (1799).
2. On Flachslanden see Thomas Freller, The Anglo-Bavarian Langue of the Order of Malta (Malta, 2001). The author corrects Flachslanden's date of death, which was previously given generally as 1822.
3. Archives of the Order of Malta in the Magistral Palace in Rome, GM 108, Trotti to Busca, 19 December 1829.
4. Archives of the Order of Malta, GM 92, Litta to Miari, 31 January 1820, and GM 93, dossier of 27 March 1818 etc., accompanying Litta's letter to Miari, 7/19 May 1818.