of Small Collectors

article # 25




by F. A. Sinfield
click on images to enlarge

The Grand Master's Box

A gilded silver box with an embossed Coat of Arms was a gift to the Prussian nobleman, Fra' Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim, titular Bailiff of Brandenburg, upon his election in 1797 as the 71st Grand Master of the Knights of St John. (click note 1)

gilded silver box 
with embossed 
Coat of Arms
Grand Master 
de Rohan (1775-1797)
coat of arms

Having joined the Order, as a page during the reign of Grand Master Pinto (1741-1773), von Hompesch rose through the ranks, under Grand Master de Rohan (1775-1797). He, as the Grand Master became a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire with the ecclesiastical precedence of a Cardinal and expected to serve the Order for life according to the Hierosolymitan Order. (click note 2)

This Order of Knights dates from the 11th century and based in Malta since 1530 had Commanderies across Europe and the eight Auberges on Malta. Fra' Ferdinand von Hompesch elevation from Chief of the Anglo-Bavarian language to the Order's highest office was during turbulent years in Europe.
The French Republic had sequestered the 254 French Commanderies, depriving the Order of a large part of its revenue, causing a severe rupture in relations between the two countries. As well, the French overran the Papal States and Pope Pius VI (1717-1799) exiled to a monastery near Florence.

In the Mediterranean the French fleet, bypassed Admiral Nelson's fleet stationed off Sicily and launched attacks on Malta and Gozo on 9th June 1798. The Grand Master's force that consisted of 332 knights supported by 16,600 militiamen faced the French armada of nearly 400 ships with more than 50,000 land troops, sailors, marines so within days 250 knights capitulated.
The decision to capitulate was not unanimous, as the Grand Master did not sign the document. The support he expected from the Order's allies did not eventuate as Spain refused to come to Malta's aid being an ally of France and Ferdinand IV had departed Naples for Sicily when the French occupied southern Italy so was in no position to fulfil his obligation as military protector.

The French gave the knights the options to defect with a lifetime pension or depart Malta. Ferdinand IV granted the dispossessed knights refuge and the Order set up administrative offices on Sicily in 1802 until 1834 when it moved to Rome where the Grand Magistry is an extra-territorial sovereignty within Italy.
The Grand Master and twenty followers left for Trieste with the Orders most sacred relics, thus ending the Order's reign in Malta. The relics being the arm of St John and the Icon of Our Lady of Philermos stripped of the bejewelled settings.(click note 3)
Napoleon took the ring that had been on the Hand of the Baptist as his own and the jewelled sword given by King Philip 11 of Spain (1527-1598) to the French born, Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master 1557-1568.(click note 4)
As much of the silver and gold that could be found was confiscated by the French, few of the silver coins issued during the brief reign of von Hompesch survive but rarer are the obsidional ingot of 30 Tari value issued to the occupying French troops.

30 tari 1798
silver coin
of von Hompesch

30 tari 1798
silver coin
of von Hompesch

The majority of the citizenry of Malta did not accept the French domination, an insurrection and a two-year siege ending with the capitulation of the occupying French force of 1,000 to the blockading British navy on 5th September 1800.
The 1802 Treaty of Amiens recognised the Order's sovereign right to Malta but the British occupied the archipelago and refused to permit the Order to return or repossess.
Malta became an important strategic British Dependency with legitimacy confirmed by the 1814 Treaty of Paris and then the Congress of Vienna, thus began the British presence on Malta until Independence in 1964.

The Order's income had suffered another blow when Empress Catherine II, (1729-1796) confiscated the Order's wealthy priory in the Russian controlled Galacian Volhynian principality of the Ukraine. The Grand Master had dispatched Bailiff Guiliode Litta–Visconti-Arese to Russia in 1797 with the insignia of the 49th Grand Master La Valette, the hero of Malta's Great Siege of 1565. The intention being that Czar Paul I (1754-1801) should assume the role of Protector of the Order and create a Russian Grand Priory to compensate for the loss of the estates.

With the Grand Master in exile, members of the Russian Grand Priory and other knights residing in Russia deposed von Hompesch. The Czar, invested at a ceremony officiated over by Monsignor Lorenzo de Litta, the Apolostolic Delegate to St Petersburg, assumed the title of the 72nd Grand Master and not long after invested Field Marshall Graf Suvorov into his order of knights.


Czar Paul I 
assumes the title 
of Grand Master

This coup d'etat made the Czar de facto ruler of the Order but not Grand Master de jure as he was neither a Catholic nor celibate and the Holy See considered the proclamation illegal and void but was powerless to intervene.
Then the Florentine born, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire Francis II (1768-1835) ordered his subject, von Hompesch, to relinquish the office of Grand Master and send the Order's relics to Austria's Russian ally and the new Grand Master.

In Russia a group of conspirators, lead by the Governor of St Petersburg, Count Pahlen proposed to force the mentally unstable Czar to abdicate in favour of his son but this ended in regicide.
Paul's heir, Czar Alexander (1777-1825), returned the Grand Magistracy to Rome but retained the position as Grand Prior of Russia. Pope Pius VII (1740-1823) then designated Bailiff Giovanni Battista Tommasi as the 73rd Grand Master of the Order in 1803, a post he held for two years.
He outlived by a month von Hompesch who died in penury on the 12th May 1805, at Montpellier, France, aged 61 years.(click note 5)
An interregnum existed from 1805 to 1879 when Papal appointed lieutenants ruled the Order. On 28th March 1879 the lieutenant of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem since 1872, the Austrian nobleman Johann Baptist Geschi di Santa Croce was elevated by Pope Leo XIII 'motu proprio' to be the 74th Grand Master.

Later in the century, George Frederick Ernest Albert of the House of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha married his cousin, Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes, the daughter of the Duke of Teck of the House of Wurtemberg on 6th July 1893.
On 22nd June 1911, he was crowned George V, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Defender of the Faith and Emperor of India. He also became the Sovereign Head and Patron of The Grand Priory of the Order of The Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in England and the Queen a Lady of Justice of the same Order.

To attend their Coronation Durbar in India the new P & O ship Medina, was fitted out as a Royal Yacht. On 10th January 1912, the King and Queen left India on the return voyage with a stop at Malta. (click note 6)
The Royal couple were greeted by the Governor and C.I.C. of Malta, (1909-1915), Gen. Sir Henry Macleod Leslie Rundle G.C.B., K.C.B., K.C.M.G., C.M.G., D.S.O. who was a Knight of Grace of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in England and is wife Lady Eleanor Georgina a Lady of Grace of the same Order. (click note 7)

During a busy three days stay they attended numerous events and on 25th January, there was an athletic carnival at the Marsa Sports Club.
A circular box, later engraved on the rim, was “Presented by Queen Mary at Malta Gymkhana Meeting February 1912.”
The lid of the silver and gilded box has the embossed Coat of Arms of Ferdinand von Hompesch and on the side is the Cross and Shield of Malta.

Ferdinand von Hompesch
coat of arms

Cross and 
Shield of Malta

Shield of Malta

A silversmith whose mark (?A?) is uncertain made the box in the Papal State of Foligno as indicated by a fleur de lis used late 1700's into early 1800's.

fleur de lis 
Papal State
Foligno hallmark

In its travels, the box passed through Naples and acquired on the lid and base the State mark of Partenope head with 'E' and '8' (used between 1823 and 1870's for '883 1/3' foreign silver click note 8)) and somewhere else (Germany?) as indicated by '800'.

foreign silver

800 M

The box, 60mmx115mm and weighing 280g, probably for tobacco, has 'M' stamped twice on the base, in differing scrip, probably indicating being assayed in Trieste and Malta.

How this box with such an extraordinary past survived is surprising but poses many unanswered questions. Where was it during the 19th century, how did it return to Malta and who was the recipient in 1912 are a few of those questions? (click note 9)

Knights of Malta & Montpellier. Britannica CD. Version 97. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1997.
Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh & Henry Lincoln. The Messianic Legacy. Corgi Book, U.K., 1986.
Insight Guide. Malta. Editor Geoffrey A. Ross, APA Publication (HK) Ltd, 1996.
John Bowle. Napoleon. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1973.
Burkes Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage. London 1912.
V. A. Durov. Russian and Soviet Military Awards” Order of Lenin State History Museum. 1990.
The Sunday Times, Christmas Supplement, 10th December 1989.
Virginia Cowles. The Romanovs. Penguin Books, Harmondworth, U.K. 1974.
E.J. King. The Knights of St John in the British Empire. John Wright & Sons Ltd., Stonebridge House, Bristol. 1934.

Internet sites:
Order of Malta - Official site
A Short History of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem
The blessed Virgin Mary venerated in the Order of Malta
Maltese Obsidional Coins - Siege Silver Ingot of 30 Tari

copyright by F. A. Sinfield ©