Since the days of the granting of a flag by Count Roger the Norman, since the hierarchical feudal system began to function here within European Christendom, since the establishment of a great cathedral at Mdina, so long has the Maltese nobility formed an intrinsic part of Maltese society.
Its members have occupied stations of trust since the early days of its inception, and all the way down the paths of time into the twentieth century.
Francesco Gatto, Baron of Djar il-Bniet, Hemsija and Buqana and lord of various other fiefdoms on the island, at the time of writing his will in 1350 was Governor of Malta. Among his royally granted privileges was the right to place his coat of arms beside the sovereign’s on the Mdina gate. The de Nava family virtually ruled in the east and their Castello a Mare, which is now known as Fort St Angelo, was their great castle.
The Order of St John received help from the native nobility in the administration of the Maltese Islands. The momentous battle of 1565 which we call the Great Siege, only took place some 30 years after the arrival of the Order, and there is little doubt that the Knights needed to call on all the influence and encouragement which the local nobility could muster for the momentous encounter which would establish the future course of Malta’s history.
As the years progressed, the Knights enhanced the number of nobles by creating new titles and re-granting extinct fiefs. All titles were officially registered in their Castellania. Sometimes, perhaps as a compliment to foreign monarchs they would also recognise a small number of titles granted by other Christian princes to locals since the arrival of their sovereign Order in Malta.
The Maltese nobility served the order well. They were given office in towns and villages as jurats, Captains of the Rod, segreti – the administrative of magisterial property – and offices within the military and self-administering commune known as the Universita.
Napoleon, to his peril, rode roughshod over the ancient traditions of the Maltese people. He ransacked the churches and abolished the Maltese aristocracy who were ordered to burn their nobiliary grants in public. When the people rose against the French, they elected four leaders to direct them, and three of these were members of the native nobility.
While Lord Nelson was invited to blockade the island at sea, the Maltese, in their thousands, lost their lives on their glorious path to victory.
The History of the Committee of Privileges
Under British protection, every assurance was given that the rights and privileges would be sustained. The Nobility of Malta was recognised after a Royal Commission established the legitimacy of each individual claim. In order to protect the claims of further generations, a Committee of Privileges of the Maltese Nobility was created with functions analogous to those of the Committee of Privileges of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. After the death of a Maltese titleholder a claim, and sometimes more than one, is made to the Committee of Privileges which, with the confirmation of learned advice at its disposal, decides on the soundness or invalidity of an appellant’s case.
After Independence in 1964, the autonomous Maltese government showed every courtesy to the old nobility whose history was honourably tied to the identity of the people.
The Republic feeling that there might be monarchial links with a nobility, decided in 1975 not to abolish the nobility, but to cease to recognise its de facto existence.
The traditions are now borne by the democratically elected Committee of Privileges. Every year for 105 years, the General Assembly of the Nobility has been electing 7 titleholders to sit on this historical committee.
Precedence among the titleholders is regulated by the antiquity of the title and not by its degree. The oldest titles are almost predictably barons. Malta’s nobility consists of the titles of baron, count, and marquis. A titleholder and his wife are styled “The Most Noble”. The children and brothers and sisters of a titleholder are styled by courtesy “The Noble”. The heir to a title is Baroncino or Baronessina; Contino or Contessina; Marchesino or Marchesina. The wife of the heir to a barony would, of course be entitled to the courtesy title of “The Noble Baronessina” and so on. Those qualifying to “The Noble” will sometimes add, “dei Baroni” or “dei Conti” or “dei Marchesi” as a prefix to their surnames or to the names of their family’s fiefdom. Some of the names are magnificent and the tradition that created them can be looked at as a sheer delight of Maltese European gentility.
Information in these pages has been approved by the Committee of Privileges.