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An eventful year for the Order of St John in Malta

1581 was an eventful year in the history of the Order of St John in Malta.

It was the ninth year of the rule of Grand Master Jean l’Evesque de la Cassière, a rule which saw the building of the Conventual Church of St John and other important buildings in Valletta, a protracted dispute between the Order and the Bishop, the appointment by the Pope of the first Inquisitor since the Great Siege, and mounting resentment against the Grand Master by the knights, culminating in his removal and imprisonment.

One of the main sources of information about the overthrow of La Cassière is found in the letters written by the French ambassador to the court of Pope Gregory XIII, Paul de Foix, to King Henry III of France, during 1581 and 1582, which were edited and published in 1628 by Charles Chappellain.

De Foix refers extensively to the affairs of the Order in his correspondence. Although not entirely objective, since De Foix was biased in favour of the French Grand Master (they both hailed from Auvergne), the letters are an important source because they were a contemporary record, the events being reported a few days after they happened.

De Foix, a learned scholar, was born in 1528 in an aristocratic family related to the houses of Valois and d’Albret. After studying law at Toulouse he was appointed chaplain to Catherine de Médicis in 1552. He later served as ambassador to Scotland in 1561 and England between 1562 and 1566.

In these years, De Foix, as French ambassador to the court of Quee­­­n Elizabeth I (he was famously played by French football legend Eric Cantona in the 1998 film Elizabeth) was deeply involved in religious disputes, notably those involving Mary Queen of Scots, and this earned him a reputation of adopting a conciliatory approach and making appeasing statements about the Reformation.

Doubts were raised about his religious integrity and he was even arrested when back in France for putting forward liberal views on the treatment of religious dissidents. He escaped punishment, however, and was later rehabilitated and regained the favour of the French court.

After much hesitation (again due to his dubious orthodoxy) he was made Archbishop of Toulouse by Pope Gregory XIII in 1577 and two years later King Henry III appointed him ambassador to Rome, a post he was to occupy till his death in 1584.

The first reference to Malta and the Order of St John by De Foix is found in the closing paragraph of the letter dated July 24, 1581. De Foix informs Henry III that after writing this letter he had received by messenger a letter from Messina advising him of the imprisonment of Grand Master de la Cassière by the Knights of Malta. He added that the Holy Father had been immediately informed of this and had displayed great anger towards the knights involved (grand indignation contre ledits Chevaliers).

What were the circumstances and events which led to this undesirable state of affairs, a mere 16 years after the glorious victory of the Knights in the Great Siege of 1565? This victory was, of course, achieved with great loss of life in the ranks of the Order, and, in order to fill the void left by the rigours of war, a host of young knights were brought over to Malta.

Discipline began to slip as the behaviour of these hot-blooded young nobles from different nationalities provoked quarrels and duels between individual knights as well as outright hostility between the Langues of the Order.

At the same time, the corsairing activities of the Order’s navy, which had started during the rule of Pietro del Monte, enriched many of the knights, resulting in a relaxation of the vows of poverty and obedience. Needless to say, the third vow of chastity had also fallen by the wayside.

This deplorable situation prevailed until 1572, when Jean Levesque de la Cassière was elected Grand Master. He was determined to rein in the errant knights and to restore dignity to what was, after all, a religious order.

At the same time, in order to complete important projects such as the Grand Master’s Palace and the Conventual Church of St John, La Cassiere had to resort to tapping the Order’s treasury, which did not go down very well with many of his subjects.

This, together with his efforts to reinstate the old disciplinary standards, led to general discontent, especially since moderation and tact could not be counted among La Cassiere’s greatest virtues.

His authority was gradually wea­ken­­ed and by 1581, when he was nearing 80, most of the knights paid him only the minimum obeisance.

In the meantime, the Inquisition, which he himself had reintroduced seven years earlier, became hostile towards him, and even Bishop Gargallo became his declared enemy.

The last straw which gave vent to this mounting unrest came with the Grand Master’s edict in June, issued without any consultation whatsoever, through which all courtesans (for which read mistresses of certain knights, including some of exalted rank) were to leave the city of Valletta forthwith.

De Foix states that the older knights exploited this to the full, using it to inflame the ardent young knights against La Cassière.

These, then, were the circumstances which led to the rebellion against La Cassière. The crisis came to a head when trouble broke out between the Langues of Italy and Auvergne, leading to the imprisonment of some Italian knights.

On July 5, during a Council meeting, two knights, a Spaniard and an Italian, called for the immediate convocation of the Council of State to discuss the unrest. Ironically such convocation required the assent of the Grand Master himself, which was requested and granted the next day.

La Cassière, however, was confined to his chambers due to illness, and the presidency of the Council was delegated to the Grand Prior, Antoine Cressin. The meeting was held that same afternoon.

Speaking on behalf of the French Langue, Louis Sacquenville launch­ed a fierce tirade against the Grand Master. Similar attacks were made by Italy, Aragon and Castille.

Auvergne, Provence and Germany, on the other hand, were the voice of moderation.

Eventually it was decided to adopt an equitable solution which allowed for the replacement of the Grand Master (which had always been the motivation behind the convocation of the Council) without infringing the rules of the Order: a delegation of three knights, together with the Chancellor, was detailed to visit the Grand Master and ask him to nominate a lieutenant, as permitted by the Order’s statute.

They were met with an outright refusal, La Cassière maintaining that he was still perfectly capable of governing the Order. Furthermore he did not believe it was within the Council’s competence to take such a decision against his authority, and he declared that he would appeal for support to the Pope and to the Christian princes.

This response led to some confusion among the councillors, but it was eventually agreed that the Council itself would elect the lieutenant whom the Grand Master had refused to nominate.

The majority voted for Mathurin d’Aux de Lescaut, popularly known as Romegas, famed hero of the Great Siege and of the Corso, Prior of Toulouse and Ireland, who had acquired an illustrious reputation as a valiant, though hard-hearted, warrior.

Romegas immediately took his place as replacement ruler of the Order, and one of his first actions was to pass through Council a decision that La Cassière was to be removed from the Palace in Valletta and placed under guard at the Castle of St Angelo, the previous Convent of the Order, which had now become a prison for errant knights and common criminals.

Informed of this ultimate humiliation, the Grand Master at first refused to obey but later gave in, requesting, however a period of grace of four days. On July 11, he again changed his stance and declared that he would not go of his own free will to St Angelo.

At this, Romegas and the Council had the palace surrounded by knights-in-arms and mercenaries and seized the Grand Master, whom they found in his chamber, holding a crucifix.

Refusing any assistance from Romegas, La Cassière descended the stairs and took his place in the sedan chair which had been prepared for him. In the middle of the day he was carried through the streets of Valletta and round the Grand Harbour to his place of confinement in the Castle of St Angelo.

The old corsair Romegas had committed the ultimate act of piracy – the seizure of the ship of state! At least, Romegas, to his credit, asked the Chatelain of St Angelo to treat La Cassière not as a prisoner but as a guest.

Having accomplished this bloodless coup, Romegas and the Council now started to consider diplomatic approaches to appease the likely negative reactions of European rulers, particularly that of Pope Gregory XIII.

Three ambassadors were chosen to convey to the Pope the justification for the removal of the Grand Master from power: Louis Sacquenville (the knight who had viciously attacked him during the Council meeting of July 5), Don Come de Luna, a Spaniard, and Berard Capece, from the Langue of Italy. The latter two were already in Rome, having been sent there earlier on unconnected diplomatic assignments.

Sacquenville carried two letters from Romegas addressed to His Holiness, in which the Lieutenant Grand Master claimed that the Council had only resorted to such extreme measures in the interest of the general good of the Order, which they felt was being threatened by the Grand Master’s negligent and tyrannical administration. Similar letters of justification were sent to King Henry III of France, to his ambassador to Rome, De Foix, to the King of Spain and to the Viceroys of Sicily and Naples.

In the following days, two supporters of La Cassière, Sebajac from the Langue of Auvergne and the Spaniard François de Gusman, left Malta for Rome with a memorandum containing the Grand Master’s reasoned argument that his removal from power was both illegal and unjustified. They also carried supplementary letters for the Pope, the Secretary of State and for other cardinals who La Cassière hoped would rally to his cause.

Once their Roman mission was concluded, Sebajac was asked to proceed to the King of France and Gusman to Philip II of Spain.

De Foix records these diplomatic advances in his letter to King Henry III of August 5. He only mentions Sacconville (sic) as a representative of Romegas and the Council and says that this intermediary from Normandy gave him a letter from Romegas and another from the Council, copies of which he enclosed in his letter to the King.

He also refers to the arrival of Savajac (sic) and Gusman on behalf of the Grand Master, and confirms that these two were to proceed to France and Spain respectively after concluding their mission to Rome.

In his letter De Foix expresses his disdain for the actions of the knights and aligns himself clearly with La Cassière.

The French ambassador to Rome mentions another occurrence related to the events in Malta: The Viceroy of Sicily, Marco Antonio Colonna, on learning of the disorders, dispatched three galleys to Malta, to be followed later by five others, on the pretexts of preserving the peace in the island and the proximity of the Turkish forces in Barbary.

It is quite probable, however, that the real reason was that Colonna seized the opportunity to underline the Spanish crown’s view that it had not renounced its sovereignty over the Maltese archipelago despite the cession of Malta to the Order by Charles V.

With the summer drawing to a close, the stage was now set for an autumn which would be marked by intense diplomatic activity and which would see violence erupting in Malta as well as in Rome, where the Knights of St John present in the Holy City were immediately divided into two opposing camps.

(To be concluded)

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