The Malta Independent 11 August 2022, Thursday

How Malta was given to the Order

Noel Grima Friday, 26 November 2021, 10:33 Last update: about 10 months ago

The Renaissance. Volume 5 – The History of Civilization. Author: Will Durant. Publication: The Easton Press / 1992. Pages: 777pp

Every schoolboy in Malta knows that Emperor Charles V gave the Maltese archipelago to the Order of St John after the Order lost its base in Rhodes and was roaming around Italy looking for a substitute.

Malta was offered by Charles V and the Order, after some initial hesitation, accepted the offer. That happened in 1530 when the Order's representatives were in Viterbo. Grand Master L'Isle Adam arrived in Malta in October and took possession of the island, moving the capital to Vittoriosa from Mdina.


In so doing, Charles was breaking the solemn oath of his predecessor as King of Aragon, the Magna Carta Libertatis given by King Alfonso V of Aragon on 20 June 1428 that Malta was to become part of the royal demanio and never farmed out as had happened earlier when the Maltese had to fork out 30,000 gold florins and free themselves from Don Gonsalvo de Monroy and his cruel rule.

For a long time I believed that the decision by Charles V was a relatively simple decision and a reply by the emperor to a plea by a group of homeless knights. It is only by studying the wider picture that we gain an understanding of what could have been the emperor's intentions in all this.

Charles I, grandson of Ferdinand II, became King of Aragon, Castile, Naples and Sicily in 1516, when Ferdinand died. When his other grandfather, Maximilian, died in 1519, Charles wanted to succeed him as head of the Holy Roman Empire. But King Francis of France thought he was fitter to be Emperor than the 19-year-old King of Spain.

Pope Leo X Medici found himself in a difficult position: he would have preferred to support France for he foresaw that the union of Naples, Spain, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands under one head would destroy the balance of power that had hitherto protected the Papal States. On the other hand the election of Charles over papal opposition would alienate the new emperor precisely when his aid was vitally needed to suppress the Protestant revolt. Leo hesitated too long to influence matters and Charles I was chosen, becoming Charles V.

Leo died in December 1521 and was succeeded by Adrian VI, an austere Dutchman, formerly Charles' tutor. He was pope for just 13 months and tried his best to reform the fun-loving and corrupt Vatican. He appealed to Charles and Francis to make peace and join in repelling the Turks who were preparing to attack Rhodes, held by the Knights of St John. He died in September and Rhodes was taken in December, the last Christian stronghold in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The conclave met in October 1523 and chose another Medici, Giulio de Medici, the illegitimate son of Giuliano killed in the Pazzi conspiracy inside Florence's cathedral and of a mistress. He was protected by Leo X, his half-brother, and became Clement VII.

The Turks were overrunning Hungary and one third of Europe was in full revolt against the Church. Clement was indecisive. He feared the power of an Emperor holding both Lombardy and Naples and he hoped by siding with Francis to secure a French veto on Charles' troublesome idea of a general council to decide the affairs of the Church.

But the Pope, while assuring Charles of his loyalty and friendship, secretly signed an alliance with Francis. Charles never forgave the deception and vowed revenge. At that time some even hoped Luther could be made pope and Clement forced out.

On 24 February 1525 the French army was almost annihilated outside Pavia and the French king was captured and imprisoned near Madrid.

After 11 months, he was forced to sign impossible conditions which he promptly renounced, with the Pope consenting, once he was freed.

Charles persuaded the Pope to come to an agreement with the Colonna family and to disband the troops that were guarding him. While the Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent captured Budapest, the Colonna entered Rome encountering feeble resistance and plundered the Vatican, St Peter's and the neighbouring Borgo Vecchio. Clement fled to Castel Sant'Angelo.

This was only a foretaste of what was coming. A new army was raised on the Emperor's side and, promised rich plunder, advanced on Rome. The Pope's money ran out and his army was reduced 300 men. The advancing horde had suffered a thousand hardships in the hope of plundering Rome. Most of them were now in rags, many were shoeless, all were hungry and none had been paid.

The Sack of Rome began on 6 May 1527. The invaders had the city at their mercy. As they rushed through the streets they killed indiscriminately all the people that they found on their way. They marched into St Peter's and slew the people who had sought sanctuary there. They pillaged every church and monastery they could find and turned some into stables. Hundreds of priests, monks, bishops and archbishops were killed.

Every dwelling in Rome was plundered and many were burnt. Every palace paid ransoms for protection, only to face later attacks from other packs and pay ransom again. Thousands were killed; children were flung from high windows to pry parental savings from secrecy.

One cardinal was lowered into a grave and was told he would be buried alive unless ransom was brought within a stated time; it came at the last moment.

Nuns and respectable women were violated in situ or were carried off to promiscuous brutality in the various shelters of the horde. Women were assaulted before the eyes of their husbands or fathers. Many young women, despondent after being raped, drowned themselves in the Tiber.

The number of deaths cannot be calculated. Two thousand corpses were thrown into the Tiber from the Vatican side; 9,800 were buried. A low estimate places the thefts at over a million ducats, the ransoms at three million.

The Sack lasted eight days, while Clement looked on from the towers of Sant'Angelo. He cried out to God like tortured Job: "Why did Thou take me out of the womb?" He ceased to shave and never shaved again.

Charles, still in Spain, was glad to hear that Rome had been taken, but was shocked when he heard of the savagery of the sack. He disclaimed responsibility for the excesses but took full advantage of the Pope's helplessness. On 6 June his representatives compelled Clement to sign a humiliating peace.

More was to come. Plague had visited Rome in 1522 and had reduced its population to 55,000. Murder, suicide and flight must have reduced it below 40,000 in 1527. Now, in July 1527, the plague came back in the full heat of summer and joined with famine and the continued presence of the ravaging horde to make Rome a city of horror, terror and desolation. The impartial plague struck the invaders too; 2500 Germans in Rome died by 22 July; and malaria, syphilis and malnutrition cut the horde in half. Soon, they fled Rome.

On 7 December, after seven months of confinement, the pope left Sant'Angelo and, disguised as a servant, made his way out of Rome to Orvieto, a broken man.

There he was lodged in a dilapidated palace, whose roof had caved in, whose walls were bare and cracked, whose floors admitted a hundred draughts. English ambassadors, visiting him to get King Henry VIII a divorce, found him huddled in bed, his pale emaciated face half lost in a long and unkempt beard. He spent the winter there and then moved to Viterbo.

Charles and Clement met at Bologna on 5 November 1529, each now convinced he needed the other. It was the first time these two had ever seen each other. Clement swallowed all pride, forgave all offences, he had to. He could no longer look to France. The aid of the Emperor was needed against Luther in Germany, against Suleiman in the East.

It was in these conditions that Charles gave Malta to the Knights.

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