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It is Grand Master Jean De la Valette

Yes, the family name of the Grand Master, hero of the Great Siege of Malta, was De la Valette. Still, as scholar and historian Judge Giovanni Bonello has proved, during his tenure, the Grand Master chose to ‘call himself’, sign, and be referred to as De Valette.

The Grand Master’s family name was De la Valette. However, during his lifetime he used, and was more often referred to, simply as Jean De Valette

In an 18th-century manuscript with short notes about events in Malta even before the coming of the Knights in 1530, going down to around 1770, the author wrote that in 1563, “on November 14, the Bishop of Vabres, brother of Grand Master de Valette (Frà Giouanni di Valetta), arrived in Malta where he stayed for two months, during which time lavish receptions were held.” (translated from Italian).

This was Bishop François de la Valette-Cornusson, described as the first, because there were another two bishops with the same name, also in Vabres, and descendants of the same De la Valette family.

In H. Affre’s Dictionnaire des Institutions, Moeurs et Costumes du Rouergue (Rodez, 1903), Bishop François I de la Valette-Cornusson features on page 181, in the section about the Bishops of Vabres. He is described as a “grand-nephew” – not a brother – of the famous Jean de la Valette, Grand Master of Malta.

Bishop De la Valette attended the Council of Trent, opened by Pope Paul III in 1545, and closed, after numerous interruptions, by Pope Pius IV in 1563. We are informed that the bishop attended the Council in 1563. In fact, his name features among those of bishops attendees at the Seventh Session (XXIII) held on 15 July 15, 1563. He eventually came to Malta, where he arrived in mid-November of that year.

In Vabres, unrest by the religionnaires (participants in the Wars of Religion between French Catholics and Protestants) in 1568 made Bishop De la Valette retire to the Episcopal castle of Saint-Izaire, 12 km away, where he died on May 18, 1585. He was buried in the parish church of the city, and in 1679 a tombstone was placed on his resting place by the Bishop of Vabres Louis de Baradat (1673-1710).

The inscription reads: “Here lies the most illustrious and most reverend prince of the Church Monsignor François de la Valette-Cornusson, bishop and count of Vabres, who took part in the Sacred Council of Trent under the pontificate of Pius IV, now awaiting the joyful hope of the glorious coming of Almighty God.

“He was adorned with such great humility that he wanted to be buried among the dead of this place within the church of St-Izaire without any mausoleum. Preferring to be unrecognised after his death inside the House of Our Lord, which he illustrated during his life, he lies in the earth but a successor of this venerated bishop, Monsignor Louis de Baradet, passed on this inscription for posterity in 1679.” (translated from French).

In the Annuaire de la Noblesse de France, Grand Master Jean de la Valette is recorded as having been born the second son of Guillot de la Valette and Jeanne de Castres. His other brothers were Guillot and François – who, the Annuaire says – became Bishop of Vabres (1561-1585). (Annuaire de la Noblesse de France, publisher M. Borel D’Hauterive, Paris, 1862, page 224).

In this publication, branches of the De la Valette great family include those of Guilot de la Valette; François de la Valette; Jean de la Valette (not the Grand Master); Antoine de la Valette; another François de la Valette; another Antoine de la Valette; another Jean de la Valette; Jacques de la Valette ; Joseph-François, marquis de la Valette; Jacques-François, comte de la Valette-Chabriol; and Jean-Isaac-François-Marie, marquis de la Valette-Chabriol. (Ibid. pp. 224-7)

According to a note in my possession – unfortunately without reference to the source – Jean de la Valette was born on February 4, 1494 (1495 new style calendar), in the Chateau de Labro, in the village of Onet-le-Chateau near Rodez.

In another 18th-century manuscript, the unknown author gives a short description of Malta together with a list of the commanderies of the Knights and the following interesting description of Jean de la Valette, featuring the family name as ‘di Valetta

“This island (Malta) is governed by, and is the residence of, the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem whose Grand Master was the distinguished and most venerable Frà Giovanni di Valetta, a Frenchman from Provençe, and at about 72 years of age, was still in good health.

“He still rode a horse, walked and ate very well. He was as energetic as a young man and very sober in drinking. His well built physique, with quite proportionate limbs, was strikingly impressive. He was dark-skinned. He did not yet have much white hair.

“He was affable, very prudent, and rarely lost his temper. He gave wise advice, was resolute in campaigns, courteous in conversation, serious in public, and a good listener. Yet he enjoyed respect and love, not only from the knights, but from everybody.

“He used to meet the knights very frequently, and examine in detail past and present wars, and very often things which could take place in the future. He was a sworn enemy of the Infidels and was constantly planning how to defeat them.

“He was very religious and very respectful of the divine cult. Because of this, it is said that he had a saintly death. He died on August 21, 1568, precisely the eleventh year of his reign as Grand Master and, what is of notable consideration, on the same day, the 27th, when he was elected Grand Master, in the month of August, on Saturday, he passed away to a better life to universal grief.

“This gentleman, from the very beginning, when he took on the habit (of a knight) in Rhodes, remained in the Order until his very death – 57 years in all. He gained many of the honours bestowed by the Order.

“When he was still a young man he was the cup-bearer of the eminent Grand Master in Rhodes and used to accompany him on all his visits to the courts of Christian princes. He was then appointed Castellan, that is, Lieutenant to the Chief Justice. He was Knight Commander of the Artillery. He was elected Chamberlain or Councillor to the Grand Master – a highly esteemed post.

“He filled the office of Agozzino Reale (Royal Slave-driver), which is like a Commissioner responsible for all the provisions for war, and who, during his tenure, is empowered to mete out punishment. He was captain of a galley of the Order. He owned and was captain of a galley of 22 benches together with which, after suffering head injuries, he was taken slave. Soon after, he was ransomed.

“He was Lieutenant to the Knight Commander who administers the Treasury. He was Commissioner responsible for inspecting the fortress in Africa (Tripoli). He commanded the army in the land battle against Zoara. For four years he was Governor of Tripoli when it was still in the Order’s possession.

“When he was still Piccola Croce, he was General of the galleys of the Order. He was Grand Cross Bailiff of Langen, and Prior of St Giles. He was Lieutenant to the Grand Master, and later Grand Master when he fought so courageously and prudently in the siege, as – some say – no other one else did.

“During his magisterial rule, besides the galleys of the Order, for six years he owned a galley of 27 benches, and then, for five years he held two galleons. During the last year of his life he kept yet another galleon. He spent 9,000 scudi on every galleon, and 6,000 on the galley.

“ After 12 years, in 22 journeys made in various open seas, these vessels had seized a great amount of booty totalling: Rowing vessels – 13, square-rigged vessels of which some captured, and some drowned – 36; men taken into slavery – 2,883; Christians freed from slavery – 562. And all this without taking into account his other journeys which cannot be counted. The quantity of riches found on these vessels, and the value of the slaves, could amount to 400,000 scudi.” (translated from Italian).

A unique short description of the Grand Master which must have been ‘composed’ during his last years, before his death in Malta in 1568, is that by Pierre de Bourdeille, known as Brantôme, in his posthumously published Mémoires de Messire Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme (1665-66).

Pierre de Bourdeille, Abbot and Lord of Brantôme, was a French writer and soldier (Bourdeille Périgord, ca.1540–1614). He travelled to Italy, Scotland, England, Africa, Spain, and Malta (where he worked on the Order’s galleys) in search of adventure.

A fall from a horse in 1583 forced him to retire to his castle. During this enforced solitude he wrote his Mémoires. In his work – without real historical value – Brantôme used the knowledge of his life in the court of the last Valois which helped him draw a portrait of an acute and unscrupulous age, violent, and cruel, but also refined, vital, and exuberant.

Brantôme must have come to Malta sometime between 1562 and 1568, and stayed here with the Knights of Malta, for three-and-a-half months. He must have seen or met Grand Master de la Valette, whom he must have heard using the languages he knew.

“Monsieur Grand Master Parisot was a very great captain; he had all the qualities. Besides his valour and ability, he was a very handsome man, big, of a high stature, of very beautiful appearance and… speaks very well several languages like French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Arabic, and Turkish, which he learned when he was a slave under the Turks and elsewhere. I have seen him speak all these languages without the help of any interpreters.” (translated from French. Cf. Brantôme as quoted in Le Marquis de Valady, Les Chateaux de l’Ancien Rouergue – La Basse-Marche – I – Cantons de Najac, Rieupeyroux, Saint-Antonin, Rodez, 1935, pp. 454–5.)

The family name of Grand Master de la Valette has been spelled differently in various manuscripts and writings. In fact, there has been a debate on how it should be spelt, without any decision being taken on one definite rendering. The first time I heard of the different options was way back in the late 1970s, from Victor Mallia Milanes, when, together with Louis Scerri and Charles Eynaud, we four edited the now defunct Junior College journal Hyphen.

However, after the recent unveiling of a statue of this Grand Master, which stands next to St Catherine’s church in Valletta, Giovanni Bonello, who presented a talk on the Grand Master, insists that it should be written De Valette – as it has been rendered in the name of the relevant square.

Meanwhile, members of the De la Valette family, who were in Malta last November, said they own old documents pertaining to the family and stressed that they have always seen the surname written as De la Valette (The Times, November 27, 2012). To this, Bonello replied that he had always encountered the name as De Valette in documents the Grand Master signed, and in references to him during his magisterial tenure, but would apologise if anyone found “one single reference during the Grand Master’s lifetime when he referred to himself, or was referred to, as De la Valette or as La Valette”.

I tend to have a now ingrained sentimental leaning for De la Valette; I feel it has become very popular.

The citations below, picked up from records in archives and published works where the family name is always written De la Valette, support the view of the descendants of the Grand Master’s family. The latest very informative article by Dennis De Lucca, ‘De Valette or De la Valette’ (The Sunday Times of Malta, January 13) also supports this opinion.

Which surname should we adopt? I am inclined to agree that we may use both

In the 16th century, at least three relatives of the Grand Master’s family were bishops of Vabres. Besides the one already referred to in the first part of this article published last Sunday, there were François II de la Valette-Cornusson (1600-1622), and François III de la Valette-Cornusson (1622-1644).

The first – born around 1562 – was grand-nephew of the Bishop of Vabres, François I de la Valette-Cornusson. He died at the age of 60 in Carnusson Castle, on August 2, 1622. He is buried in the parish church of Saint-Affrique (H. Affre, op. cit., p. 181).

The latter was born around 1590. He was grand-nephew of Bishop François II de la Valette-Cornusson. On January 8, 1618, aged 28, he was appointed coadjutor bishop to François II de la Valette-Cornusson. Two months later, on March 4, he was consecrated in Rome titular Bishop of Philadelphia in Arabia by Florentine Cardinal Giovanni Bonsi (1554-1621). On August 2, 1622, he became Bishop of Vabres. He died on November 20 or 24, 1644, aged 54.

Members of the family, referred to as De la Valette, are mentioned on pp. 247-249, while others as La Valette on pp. 252 and 253, in Nicolas Le Roux, La Faveur du Roi – Mignons et Courtisans au temps des Derniers Valois (vers 1547-vers 1589), Champs Vallon, 2000.

Abbè de Vertot’s (1655-1735), Histoire des Chevaliers Hospitaliers de S. Jean de Jerusalem, Volume 4, p. 400, lists several knights with the family name De la Vallette – evidence, most probably, that they were in some way related to the Grand Master’s family.

These are: Jean de la Vallette-Parisot, 1515 (the Grand Master); Begot de la Vallette-Parisot, 1550; Henri de la Vallette de Cornusson, 1550; Henri and... de la Vallette-Cornusson, 1554; Jean de la Vallette-Cornusson, 1556; François de la Vallette-Parisot, 1558; Antoine de la Valette-Parisot, 1559; François de la Vallette-Parisot, 1562; Jean de la Vallette-Cornusson, 1588; and François de la Valette-Cornusson, 1604.

The family name De la Valette spread to several parts of Europe. It entered old Silesia, where the first known representative of the family was the Noble Guillaume Jouary d’Uclaux, who lived in the beginning of the 15th century. The family started using the second surname De la Valette since the marriage, on August 24, 1654, of Louis d’Uclaux and Dauphine de Vissec de Latude, the heiress of the La Valette estate.

It even spread to America. In the first two decades of the 20th century, at least five people with the family name De la Valette, from France, were registered in the passenger records of Ellis Island, before they were allowed to enter America.

There are others whose name Valette had been spelt differently, too.

The De la Valette family name could have been established in southern France, most probably associated with the name of a fief in La Valette (sic), today known as La Valette-du-Var (in Provençal Occitan: La Valeta), a commune in the Var department in the Province-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, in south-eastern France.

Parisot (found with both the Grand Master’s name and other family members) is the name of a small community, southwest of Villefranche-de-Rouergue, which was most probably the birthplace of the some members of the Grand Master’s relatives.

Similarly, Cornusson – a name associated with the De la Valette family members too – is a name associated with a château: Château de Cornusson. It is found on the south of Parisot and west of Caylus, in France.

It seems that these two names of places were distinguishing factors which were used together with the otherwise common family name De la Valette. The distinguishing name factor De la Valette was probably adopted by one of the Grand Master’s ancestors, one of whom joined one of the Crusades in the 12th century.

Meanwhile, Parisot and Cornusson were added especially during the 16th century to members of De la Valette family – as extra distinguishing factors – all of whom were at the time coming from these places, in the vicinity of Rouergue, in Provençe, in the south of France.

Rodez, Saint-Affrique, Vabres (today Vabres l’Abbaye), Parisot, Cornusson, La Valette-du-Var, Rouergue, and Château de Saint-Izaire – names of places associated with the De la Valette family members – are all found near each other, in Provençe.

This is evidence that the Grand Master’s family name was De la Valette. However, as shown by Bonello, during his lifetime he used, and was more often referred to, simply as Grand Master Jean De Valette.

Which surname should we adopt? I am inclined to agree with Dennis de Lucca that we may use both.

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