Fra’ Matthew Festing who has died aged 71 in Valletta, Malta, was the 79th Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. He was the third Englishman to have held the post, succeeding his saintly compatriot Fra’ Andrew Bertie in 2008. The other English holder of the post was Hugh de Revel in the 13th century. Matthew stood down in 2015 at the request of Pope Francis, after an internal dispute over the nature and government of the order with the German Chancellor of the Order, Baron Albrecht von Boeselager who appealed directly to the Pope against the decisions of his superiors, thereby undermining the sovereign integrity of the order with results which are not yet apparent.
Matthew spent the last five years of his life in retirement at the family home, Birks, near Tarset in Northumberland. Birks was a plain but welcoming Victorian shooting lodge, situated in rugged Borders landscape where the wild deer and red squirrels outnumbered the humans, and where he had been born. He was the youngest of four sons of Field Marshal Sir Francis Festing, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and military governor of Hong Kong, and Mary Cecilia Riddell of Swinburne Castle, Northumberland. Matthew was closer to his mother, and it was her family traditions and the aura of northern Catholic recusancy that infused his outlook. He liked to take guests to the hill nearby, where in 1745 his ancestors had joined Lord Derwentwater in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie. His was the world of the Riddells, Liddells, Charltons, Widdringtons … all Catholics, royalists and Jacobites, and his soul was hefted to the romantically, remote northern landscape.
He was educated at Ampleforth and Cambridge where he read History. After a spell in the Grenadiers, he worked as a land agent on the vast feudal estate of the Earl of Yarborough in Lincolnshire, before joining Sotheby’s, which gave scope for his interest in history, art , and “things”. For many years he was the Sotheby’s representative in the North-East where he also served as a DL and Colonel in the Territorial Army.
In 1972 he joined the British Association of the Order of Malta, as his parents and many relations had before him, and proceeded to become a professed Knight of Justice in 1991. He was appointed Grand Prior of England when the Grand Priory of England (suppressed at the Reformation) was restored as part of a campaign to invigorate the religious life of the order throughout Europe. In this role he achieved prominence for his relief work driving aid lorries from Northumberland to war-torn Bosnia and Serbia. Partly as a result, he was elected Grand Master in 2008.
In Rome, he cut a genial squirearchical figure among the European nobility of the order, and the Machiavellian bureaucrats of the Vatican, slipping out at night in a Barbour to help with soup kitchens and other social work. He played a strong leadership role in the order’s pilgrimages, and especially the week tending the sick at Lourdes and the order’s relief work in hotspots throughout the world. He was well-liked by his staff at the palazzo in the Via Condotti. When he first arrived, he wondered if the ancien régime amplitude of the staff with fleets of cars and men servants could be reduced, but all the drivers came to him and said that if they lost their job they would not be able to support their families.
Aside from his formal duties, receiving ambassadors and presiding over state occasions with easy dignity and charm, and overseeing the worldwide aid programme, he was an affable, well-educated figure and generous host and raconteur who liked to reminisce over a glass of whisky, and was a good mimic. His language was occasionally as colourful as his dress. He got on well with Pope Benedict, and achieved much for his order, doubling the number of professed knights from 30 to 60. The excellent cook in the Via Condotti and the Roman heat affected his health which began to decline. He loved to spend time in the Grand Prior’s two country houses, the 15th-century castle at Magione in Umbria – where the order produces a delicious red wine – and the villa La Pagana overlooking the Bay of Portofino on the Ligurian coast. His youthful role as a land agent proved useful and his interest in art and history were seen in the cataloguing and display of the order’s collections and plans to restore Villa del Priorato di Malta on the Aventine with its chapel by Piranesi.
In his last years, he reverted to the country-life of his childhood, making a detached cottage at the back of the main house at Birks. He also created a little private chapel there.
He was a good shot and a popular guest, not just of Northumberland neighbours but of the Catholic princes of Bavaria and Austria, among whom he attended the state funeral of the Archduke Otto in Vienna, and received the Golden Fleece. Ranking as a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, and a cardinal of the Roman Church, he retained a natural English modesty. While visiting a friend after returning to England, he fell into conversation after Sunday Mass with the priest who asked him where he had come from. “Rome,” he replied. “Oh,” said the priest, “there’s been quite a fuss there between the Pope and the Grand Master of Malta.” Matthew with charming restraint did not let on that he WAS that Grand Master.
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