The French Revolution and the Loss of Malta

Museum of the Order of St John Isobel MacAuslan, Museum Assistant

In our collection we hold a letter sent by a member of the French Order of St John in the year 1789. Whilst the majority of the letter is concerned with the death of the Commander of Golfech, there are a number of references to the troubling political climate of France. At one point the writer refers to ‘the storm’ ‘breaking over our horizon’. He expresses his fear ‘that the Order is, at the moment, to lose all that it possesses in France, of rights and goods’. 

The writer’s worst fears were realized. The French Revolution had a huge impact upon the Order of St John, not just in France, but internationally.  

Complex and fraught, there is little about The French Revolution that is not contested. The end date is disputed, its success is disputed. Significantly, the ideology of the Revolution, and the political climate, evolved over time. The King convened the French Parliament, the Estates General in 1789 in an attempt to prevent national bankruptcy in part caused by overspending on the American War of Independence. The grievances expressed in the lead up to this meeting were diverse and ample. However, they were moderate compared to those that would be expressed in coming years. They did not demand the formation of a Republic, international war or mass execution.  

However, there are two core issues that can be traced throughout the Revolution: the impending threat of national bankruptcy, and a hatred of the ‘ancien regime system’ of privilege. Subsequent attempts to deal with these two issues would prove disastrous for the Church, including the Order of St John because they were seen as contributors to these problems.  

Prior to the Revolution, Roman Catholicism was at the center of French life. Protestants and Jews were denied full membership of the French state. Although the extent to which religion was practiced is debated, the Church was certainly a powerful institution. In part, this was to do with its wealth. The Church had an immense combined revenue. It owned around 6% of the land in France and collected 1/10 of all agricultural production through a tax known as the Tithe. The Church also exerted soft influence, running many schools and hospitals.  

Yet, it was not without criticism.  Despite being a major tax collection, the Church was exempt from tax. This caused great popular resentment, especially because the population faced rising taxes to salvage the nation’s finances. This opinion was vocalized in a document entitled ‘statements of grievances’ published May 1789 as the Estates General prepared to gather for the first time since 1614.  

The Order of St John was thriving in France on the eve of the Revolution. There were 3 tongues within the 1789 boarders of France with 6 priories. In 1776, they had acquired the 40 commandries of a disbanded Order of St Anthony, increasing the amount of land it possessed. However, in French society, the Order embodied noble and ecclesiastical privilege meaning it represented all that the revolutionaries despised. The kings of France were attracted by the Order’s wealth and thus from 1719 onwards, the Prior of France was given to members of the royal family. Napoleon would later dismiss it as an institution that supported the idleness of noble younger sons. In the context of these issues, our writer was certainly right to be cautious.  

When considering the link between the Revolution and the loss of Malta, it is important to note that the stability of the Head Quarters of Order in Malta was intimately connected with that of the Order in France. French property made up around 3/5 of its income. The majority of the knights on Malta were French. Even the Grand Master in 1789 was Frenchman Emmanuel de Rohan, a personal friend of King Louis XVI. Political unrest in France thus had great potential to upset the Maltese establishment.  

Soon the ‘storm’ broke and a chain of laws and events were set in motion on 4th August 1789 when feudal privilege was abolished. Clergy gave up the Tithe and the state took over the funding of the Church. A few weeks later, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen ended the special place of the Church in French society. Thus, the Church and the Order lost its political influence and special status. On 2nd November 1789, all Church property was placed at the disposition of the nation to raise funds however it was not until late 1792 that the Order relinquished all of its land. This proved a major blow for the finances of the Order given that French property was valued at 112 million livres. Prior to his execution, Louis XVI would be locked in The Temple, a tower in Paris the Order had owned since the dissolution of the Templars.  

By the end of April 1792, the French revolutionary wars began, initially as a defensive measure. These wars would lead to the French occupation of parts of Italy and Germany and thus the spread of revolutionary ideology. In consequence, the Order lost even more land.  

In turn, these events heavily impacted Malta. To try and combat the loss of revenue, the Order sold some of its silver, yet they continued to subsidize corn to help feed the Maltese poor, creating a debt of 1.5 million scudi. Beyond draining the Order’s finances, the Revolution created tensions on Malta. Once the intentions of the revolution became clear, Malta received many of the escaping emigres. The French knights on the island, were increasingly discriminated against, being excluded from official banquets, a move which caused tensions. In July 1791, the knights were stripped of their French citizenship. Some knights became sympathetic with the revolution as propaganda disseminated across the island.  

By the time de Rohan died in 1797, the situation in France was far more stable. The Terror had ended in 1794 and support for conservative ideas was on the rise. However, the French Revolutionary Wars had intensified and spread across Europe. The election of the new Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch coincided with the meteoric rise of a young French General named Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was keen to increase influence in the Mediterranean. Malta strategic location proved tantalizing for him.  

Historians are divided over whether Malta was prepared to face a French invasion. On the eve of the attack there were 200 knights on the island and 7000 soldiers. However, the Order financially weakened by the loss of land and national allegiances presented an issue.  Allegedly Von Hompesch knew of Napoleon’s intentions yet preparations were only made when the first French frigates appeared. An appeal for help sent to Admiral Nelson arrived a week too late.

The French attack on Malta began on the 7th June 1798, Napoleon’s fleet of 5-600 vessels carrying 29,000 men asked to enter the harbor at Valletta. Von Hompesch refused entry on the basis of Malta’s neutrality, leading Napoleon to declare Valetta an enemy city.  

After a brief bombardment and several significant Maltese defections, Von Hompesch sent wrote to Napoleon on 11th June requesting a cease-fire. We hold this letter in our collection. The cease-fire would not last and the Order surrendered the following day. Bonaparte came ashore was able to walk into Valletta victorious. 

The Order left the island a week later, heading to Trieste where they were granted asylum. They were permitted to take their most treasured relics with them, The Fragment of the True Cross, the sacred Icon of Our Lady of Philermo and the right hand of St John the Baptist. Von Hompesch retired to Montpellier and abdicated in 1799, dying in poverty in 1805. For a moment in 1802, the Peace of Amiens between Britain and France proposed returning the island to the Order. However, this peace was broken and in 1815 the Congress of Vienna gave the island to Britain, ending hopes that the Order might return there.  

Much of the Order’s treasure was stolen. The silver altar rails of St John’s Cathedral were spared because someone cleverly them painted black. The treasures were to be lost soon after when Napoleon’s flagship L’Orient was sunk by admiral Nelson at the battle of the Nile. After the Maltese revolted in September against the French there was an acute lack of coinage. Remaining gold and silver was melted down to create siege ingots which were used as currency. There are only seven silver ingots still in existence, two of which are in our collection.  


Evidently, the writer of our letter was right to be cautious. The French Revolution proved disastrous for the Order of St John in Malta. Ideologically, it undermined the Order, abandoning Catholicism and eliminating the privilege upon which it had thrived. The loss of land in France and beyond significantly weakened the Order, stripping it of valuable income. The French Revolutionary wars led to the loss of their Mediterranean base, bringing the Order’s prominent status in the Mediterranean to an end. 

However, inadvertently, the French Revolution helped contribute to the reinstitution of the Order in Britain. The Romantic movement reacted against the ideology of revolutionary France. It rejected rationality, celebrated emotion and, among other things, promoted a love of all things medieval. The individuals who re-founded the Order of St John in England during the 1820s can certainly be described as romantics. They used to sail down the river on boats bearing St John flags and dress up as knights, reveling in the medieval heritage of the Order.  

In the century following loss of Malta, the Order of St John shifted its outlook away from the privileged lifestyle the Revolutionaries had so despised, towards adopting the humanitarian approach that it is famous for today. The ramifications of this monumental European event on the Order of St John were certainly profound.  



Attard, Joseph, The Knights of Malta, Book Distributors Ltd (2013, Malta).  

Betros, Gemma, ‘The French Revolution and the Catholic Church’, History Review, Issue 68, December 2010. 

Doyle, William, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, Oxford University Press (1990).  

McHugh, Rosita, The Knights of Malta; 900 Years of Care, Irish Association of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta (1996). 

Sire, F.J.A, The Knights of Malta, Yale University Press; New edition (1996). 

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