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1581 affair ended by death, diplomacy

The news of Grand Master la Cassière’s imprisonment by Romegas reached Rome around July 24, 1581, and caused quite a commotion. At the time, a large body of Knights of St John were present in Rome and these split into two opposing factions, for and against La Cassière. Hostility between the two camps led to open fights and quarrels.

One such episode, documented in the letters of Paul de Foix, French ambassador to the Holy See, involved the Receiver of the Order’s Common Treasury in Rome, Giovanni Bosio. and his brother Giacomo, the future historian of the Order. The Bosio brothers were leaving the Vatican, where they had been pleading the cause of La Cassière.

On St Peter’s Square they encountered a group of knights led by the brother of the Viceroy of Calabria, Francesco Guevara, who was a supporter of Romegas. A fight broke out between the two groups and Guevara was killed. Though wounded themselves, the Bosios fled and were given sanctuary by Cardinal d’Este, a staunch supporter of La Cassière.

The clash leading to the death of Guevara, as well as other violent quarrels which were continuously breaking out, aroused the Pontiff’s indignation. However Gregory XIII was outwardly impartial and he considered that the only way to save the Order was to propose an equitable and objective solution.

The kings of France and Spain had themselves taken sides, the former that of the Grand Master and the latter openly supporting Romegas.

Wanting to establish clearly what had actually happened in Malta, the Pope decided to send there a special Nuncio. His shrewd choice fell on one of the auditors of the Sacra Rota, Gaspare Visconti, who was a subject of Spain but who also had French connections.

Visconti was given the following two briefs: firstly to order that La Cassière be freed immediately so that both he and Romegas could travel to Rome where justice would be done to all; secondly to govern the Order jointly with the Council and to investigate all the points of disagreement which had arisen.

Visconti was also asked to deal diplomatically with the Spanish garrison which had been sent to Malta by the Viceroy of Sicily, Marco Antonio Colonna, so as to appease the King of Spain. At the same time, in order not to ruffle the French king’s feathers, the Apostolic Nuncio to France informed Henry III of Visconti’s mission.

After an eventful journey, Visconti arrived in Malta on September 8, an important date for Malta and the Order. Besides being the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, it was also the anniversary of the lifting of the Great Siege of 1565.

The Malta he found was the scene of bitter enmity between the supporters of La Cassière and those of Romegas. Violent affrays were the order of the day, so much so that on October 29 the Council was constrained to prohibit the carriage of arms, while 200 Spanish soldiers from the Viceroy’s galleys were deployed to the Grand Master’s Palace to maintain order.

An indication of Visconti’s authority and diplomatic skill was given on the very day of his arrival: on September 8 it had become the custom to hold a procession in the city with the Grand Master carrying the sword of Jean Parisot De Valette, the hero of the Great Siege. Not surprisingly, a dispute had arisen as to whether Romegas, as Lieutenant Grand Master, had the right to carry the prized sword.

Visconti shrewdly solved the problem by ordering the cancellation of the event.

Following two days of rest, the Nuncio convened the Council on the morn-ing of September 11 and divulged the instructions given to him by the Pope. After some opposition, La Cassière was given back his liberty and happily agreed to go to Rome to defend his case. Romegas also agreed to proceed to Rome.

On September 20 the Grand Master, accompanied by some high dignitaries of the Order and about 200 faithful knights, embarked on three galleys of the Order, while Romegas, also accompanied by a large number of supporters, left a week later. Once La Cassière had left, Visconti ordered the Sicilian Viceroy’s Spanish galleys and men-at-arms to leave the island, which they did, though not without some reluctance. The island was now solely under Visconti’s control.

La Cassière’s journey was fraught with interruptions. On leaving Grand Harbour the flotilla was hit by a violent storm and was forced to seek shelter in St Paul’s Bay, where they had to wait for five days till it abated. The journey to Rome was interrupted by stays at Augusta, Messina, Pozzuoli, Naples and Gaeta.

At each of these stopovers the Grand Master was greeted with great pomp and ceremony, most of the noblemen of these towns showing homage and presenting him with valuable gifts and mementoes at the lavish receptions and banquets to which La Cassière and his party were treated. It was no great surprise, therefore that the fragile quasi-octogenarian fell ill at Pozzuoli, where he was confined to his bed for eight days.

The Grand Master and his retinue finally arrived at Civitavecchia on October 26. Here he was greeted with military salutes. The final stage of the journey, from this port to Rome, was to be completed in great style. Organised by Cardinal Luigi d’Este and by the French ambassador to the Holy See, de Foix, 20 carriages and 200 horses were ready to convey the Grand Master’s party to the Holy City. It must have been a magnificent sight as the colourful procession of carriages, mounted knights, Swiss Guards and local notables and prelates, with the Grand Master and two bishops bringing up the rear, approached the walls of Rome.

Elisabeth Schermerhorn, in her book Malta of the Knights waxed lyrical, describing the spectacle as “a brilliant cavalcade” preceding “the venerable Grand Master, with his flowing white beard, riding between two bishops and followed by 12 grooms in black velvet livery”.

“As they passed Castel Sant’Angelo”, writes de Foix, “the artillery put on a show worthy of a public festivity”. In Rome Cardinal d’Este put his sumptuous premises at the Grand Master’s disposal and he had also rented neighbouring houses to accommodate the knights accompanying La Cassière. The ageing ruler of a chivalrous order based on a small island had received a welcome which was truly worthy of emperors and kings.

The magnificent treatment of La Cassière did not bode well for the cause of his opponent Romegas, who had arrived in Rome a week earlier. The haughty Lieutenant had been given a cold reception and was even reduced to rent lodgings at his own expense.

After the pomp and circumstance (or lack of it in the case of Romegas), the diplomatic efforts of the two contenders’ visit to the Holy City started in earnest. La Cassière’s audience with the Pope took place on October 28. Accompanied by his knights and a crowd of important personalities, he was received by the Pontiff and 12 cardinals. His first act was to prostrate himself and kiss the Pope’s feet, expressing his joy at being in the presence of the judge who was to proclaim his innocence and goodwill.

In a short but moving address, the deposed Grand Master declared that he had dedicated the last 60 years to the Religion and that his conscience was clear and did not accuse him of any unworthy acts. The Pope replied that he did not attach importance to the allegations made by his adversaries but was only interested in the truth.

Although convinced of La Cassière’s innocence Gregory XIII was not harsh towards Romegas and his followers. His wish was to bring about reconciliation so that the two would return to Malta on good terms. In fact, the outcome was that the followers of Romegas were ordered to visit the Grand Master in the presence of a number of cardinals and ask for his forgiveness and mercy. La Cassière granted his pardon to the rebels without even giving them a severe reprimand.

Romegas himself, entreated to do so by de Foix and Cardinal d’Este, had agreed to undergo this humiliation, but at the last moment he excused himself.

Badly disillusioned, he fell into a deep depression and was gripped by a fever which confined him to bed. An attempt by the doctors to drain some fluid from his legs was not successful and he died during the night of November 3.

His followers were deeply aggrieved by the death of their illustrious hero, and immediately put about rumours that he had been poisoned. But a post-mortem examination ordered by the Governor of Rome found no signs of foul play.

Mindful of the great qualities of his valiant adversary, La Cassière ordered all the knights and Grand Crosses to attend the funeral service for Romegas, which was held with great pomp in the church of Trinità dei Monti. His epitaph, on a black marble slab, recalls his brave deeds and victories in the name of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

With the death of Romegas, any obstacles in the path of La Cassière’s rehabilitation and his reinstatement as head of the Order were removed. The Pope, however, was constrained to await the outcome of the investigations carried out by Visconti in Malta.

Visconti’s report was long overdue, and there was even a rumour that he had also died in Malta. This, however, was false (although it was true that he had fallen ill), the real reason for the delay being the lengthy process of his investigations.

A delegation of knights led by Judge Paul Bruno eventually left Malta for Rome in the early days of December with the report of the inquiry, which ran to a thousand pages and recorded the testimony of around 500 witnesses.

Fate, however, was to play another part in this long saga: the vessel bearing Bruno and his delegation, which included a number of high-ranking knights, was shipwrecked during a violent storm off Capo Palinuro near Salerno. Five knights perished, and with them Visconti’s precious report.

But Death was not yet satisfied: La Cassière, during a visit to the Pope, was taken ill and had to take to his bed. Several haemorrhages weakened him considerably and left little hope of recovery. On December 21 Gregory XIII sent his benediction to the Grand Master, who realised the end was near and drew up his last will and testament. He succumbed during the night.

Before his death, La Cassière had expressed his wish to be laid to rest in the Conventual Church of St John which he himself had built. But before his remains could be transported to Malta a temporary interment in Rome was necessary. Two days later his body was carried in a magnificent and solemn funeral cortege, attended by numerous dignitaries, to the church of Saint-Louis-des-Français where his embalmed heart was buried.

In view of the Christmas and New Year celebrations, the funeral service was postponed till January 4, 1582. It was attended by cardinals, ambassadors, bishops, members of the Pope’s household and hundreds of knights. The famous prelate Marc’Antonio Muret delivered a beautiful funeral oration in Latin and composed the commemorative inscription marking the spot where the Grand Master’s heart was buried.

A few days later the body of Jean Levesque de la Cassière was conveyed to Civitavecchia and thence to Malta on the galley S. Giacomo. On January 11, 1582, his body was solemnly entombed in the crypt of the Conventual Church of St John in a monumental sarcophagus which was situated directly below the main altar. The cover is a plain marble slab inscribed with a Latin epitaph.

This extraordinary affair, which had shaken the Order’s foundations, came to a close when Gregory XIII issued a Papal Brief on September 3, 1582, which nullified all those acts of the Council which had led to the arrest of La Cassière and the election of Romegas as Lieutenant.

The Pontiff went further by divesting the Council of any authority to deliberate in future on any matters against Grand Masters or to set hands on them. The final posthumous honour bestowed by the Pope on the Grand Master was his edict that henceforth La Cassière’s coat of arms as well as those of his successors were to be surmounted by a ducal crown.

(Concluded)

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