How inept leadership nearly destroyed the Knights of Malta – in 1798

Ferdinand von Hompesch, the only German ever to have held the office of Grand Master

As the Knights of Malta prepare to elect a new Grand Master – the situation is well analysed here – my mind has turned to a previous crisis in the order. It was in 1798, when they lost the island of Malta. At the time the Grand Master was Ferdinand von Hompesch, the only German ever to have held the office of Grand Master, and generally regarded as the worst leader the Knights have ever had.

Before his election to the Grand Magistracy in June 1798, Hompesch, a Rhinelander, had held most of the important posts in the Order, and his election may well have seemed like the natural thing to do. However, he inherited a ruinous situation. The order, thanks to the French Revolution, had lost most of its income, which came from properties in France – all of which had been secularised in 1792. Moreover, of the 300 Knights vowed to defend Malta from the infidel, some two thirds were French and had been infected by Jacobin ideas. Thus, when Napoleon turned up on his way to Egypt in July 1798, perhaps a majority of the Knights were ready to welcome him, and the order as a whole was in no shape to resist. The Knights surrendered with hardly a shot being fired, and the mighty fortifications of Malta, which had never been put to the test since 1565, were meekly handed over to the invader.

Napoleon could hardly believe his luck, and after just a few days in Malta, sailed off to Egypt. Hompesch and the Knights were allowed to leave the island, and sailed to Sicily and then on to Trieste. They were compelled to leave almost all their property behind, apart from their archives, their most precious icon of Our Lady, and their most valued relic, the hand of John the Baptist. The said hand wore a ring, which Napoleon himself is supposed to have pulled off, saying: “It looks better on my hand.”

Once in Trieste, Hompesch shouldered the blame for the debacle and was deposed; he later moved to Montpellier, where he died in poverty in 1805, at the age of 60. As for the Knights who had deposed Hompesch – an event unprecedented in the Order’s history – they rapidly dissolved into factions, with one faction offering the Grand Magistracy to Tsar Paul of Russia, who was not even a Catholic, but who wanted to get hold of Malta and thus gain a port in the Mediterranean. (Russian foreign policy does not change much over the centuries.) But some Knights wanted to go along with this, given that Paul had money, of which they were now very short, and seemed the only person who would enable them to retake Malta.

In fact the Congress of Vienna, in its desire to restore order in Europe, did propose giving Malta back to the Knights, but this never happened, largely because the British then occupying Malta had other ideas, as did the Maltese themselves. As the inscription over the Main Guard in Palace Square, Valetta, says:


“To great and unconquered Britain, the love of the Maltese and the voice of Europe confirms these islands, 1814.”

As for the Knights, despite the disastrous flirtation with Russia, they did survive, though for a time that looked unlikely. Hompesch did not kill the order off. The only monument to him, apart from the names he gave to three villages, is the Hompesch Arch, which was built to mark, among other things, his acceding to the Grand Magistracy and which was only completed after the expulsion of the Order. It is a lovely thing and a fitting and elegant coda to all the fine public buildings with which the Knights endowed Malta. Indeed, looking at the Arch, one feels only compassion for the Grand Master, who is said to have been personally popular in Malta, and was the only Grand Master ever to bother to learn Maltese.

Let us hope that, just as the survived the crisis of 1798 and the succeeding years, the Knights will survive their present difficulties.