Skip to content
Ferdinand von Hompesch, of the venerable language of Germany, Grand Bailiff of Brandenburg, was elected Grand Master on the death of De Rohan on the 17th July 1797. Born in 1744, of one of the noblest families of the Lower Rhine, Hompesch joined the ranks of the fraternity at a very early age as a page to Grand Master Pinto. In an incredibly short time rose high in the estimation of his comrades for the tact and prudence which he displayed in the discharge of the several appointments to which he had gradually been named. For twenty-five years he resided in Vienna as ambassador of the Order to that Court, after which period he was elected to fill the important post of Chief of the Anglo-Bavarian language, which had been established in 1782.
The rule of Hompesch opened brightly owing to the support which Paul 1, then Emperor of Russia, gave to the Order, of which he was an enthusiastic admirer. He created a Russian Priory, which he endowed with revenue of £7,500, and which was incorporated with the Anglo-Bavarian language. For this practical proof of his friendship towards the fraternity, Paul 1 was accorded the title of “Protector of the Order of Malta, and decorated with the identical Grand Cross which had been worn by the celebrated La Valette.
An ambassador extraordinary to the Imperial Court of St. Petersburg was also named, and on the 27th November 1797 the Bailiff Count De Litta was formally appointed in this capacity.
The day, however, was drawing near when the Order was to be dispersed from the island-home which for nearly three centuries had witnessed scenes of its most glorious achievements, and over which its chiefs had ruled so wisely and beneficially.
Hompesch paid but scant attention to the continual warnings which he had received of the vast armament which Napoleon was preparing at Toulon, believing that the French Government had no intention of showing any hostility to the Order, and that the real destination of the fleet was Egypt. It was not long, however, before he discovered that he had lulled himself into a sense of false security.
On the 9th June 1798 the great armada appeared off Malta, comprising four hundred transports convoyed by fifteen ships of the line, fifteen frigates, seven corvettes and three armed vessels of smaller size, carrying a total strength of 54,000 men, under the command of the already celebrated General Bonaparte.
Napoleon at once sent an aide-de-camp to the Grand Master asking free entrance for his fleet into the Grand Harbour under pretence that his ships were short of water. Hompesch met this demand with a stern refusal, alleging that such an act would be a breach of neutrality, and that in virtue of the Treaty of 1798 it was only possible to admit four vessels at a time. This was the answer that Napoleon desired, as it gave the necessary pretext for a quarrel. As soon as Bonaparte received the message, he ordered the French Consul Caruson, whom he detained on board the “Orient,” to write a threatening letter to the Grand Master. In which he was given to understand of Bonaparte’s intention was to obtaining by force what should have been granted to him by the principles of hospitality, which he knew to be the basis of the Order of the Knights of Malta.
Hompesch, however, was not the man for this crisis. Easily led by others, who were only scheming to bring about his downfall, he in this supreme moment was unable to inspire that confidence which a stronger-minded and more resolute chief would have done.
On Sunday, the 10th June, 15,000 men were landed at eleven different points, and in less than two hours the French occupied the whole outlying country. Meanwhile great confusion was everywhere. Rumours of treachery were rife, and the ingenuous populace in their blind fury committed many acts of violence against the Knights, for which the French emissaries of sedition were alone to be blamed. Several sorties were made in order to prevent the combined advance of the besieging army, but to no purpose, and at last negotiations were entered into with Bonaparte demanding a cessation of hostilities. This was granted on condition that it was only to treat for the surrender of the island. The agreement was signed on the 12th June, in virtue of which ” the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem delivered ” to the French Army the town and forts of Malta, renouncing ” in favour of the French Republic the sovereign rights and property they possessed in the islands.
Such were, the principal terms of the capitulation, which handed over the islands of Malta to the French. Their sway, however, was only of a short duration. After two years of vicissitude the ultimate destination of the islands was determined on the 30th May 1814, in the seventh article of the Treaty of Paris, in the following terms “The Island of Malta with its dependencies will appertain in full authority and sovereignty to His Britannic Majesty.”
Hompesch Died on the 12th May 1805