A great deal of information is known about Mgr Peter Cavendish’s life (1869-1959) and ministry in the Church; however, one significant detail about him remains shrouded in mystery: how does a member of the Galea family end up with the surname Cavendish?

This cleric’s presence loomed large over previous generations of the author’s family as a result of his friendship with Prof. and Mrs Peter Xuereb; however, the origin of his surname remains a conundrum.

So who was he? When the Right Reverend Monsignor Peter Francis Cavendish died on April 23, 1959, his In Memoriam card listed the illustrious appointments he held in the course of an eventful life: canon of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Malta, domestic prelate to the pope and conventual chaplain of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The photograph featured therein shows him wearing not only an impressive selection of miniature medals but also the neck badges of three orders of chivalry, among which are those of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.

The details given in the Times of Malta (April 25, 1959) stated that a mass praesente cadavere would be sung in the Metropolitan Cathedral at Mdina, followed by interment. His inlaid marble gravestone can be seen today close to the main entrance of the cathedral.

Cavendish’s obituary also refers to his (spinster) sister Franca Galea and his brother Paul. Another brother, Anthony Galea, is also known to have existed. This information hints that the deceased cleric was a member of the Galea family.

Although Cavendish held high office in the Catholic Church in Malta as well as the Order of Malta, his early career was linked closely with Britain – as his adopted name would suggest; from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of World War I, Cavendish served as Roman Catholic chaplain to the British forces.

Despite his name, Mgr Cavendish was pro-Italian in his political leanings

The first published reference to Cavendish, discovered so far, dates to November 1900, where he is mentioned in The Tablet, the Catholic weekly newspaper published in the UK, as follows: “The Rev. P. F. Cavendish, chaplain to the British forces in Malta, has been named by his Holiness a private supernumerary chamberlain.”

Local sources, namely Critien’s Malta Almanac, include Cavendish for the first time in 1902 where he is listed as “Roman Catholic Chaplain to the Troops at Malta for the Cottonera and Ricasoli Districts” and given an address on St Barbara Bastion in Valletta.

Mgr Peter Cavendish, c. 1890. Photo: Hand-coloured cabinet card by Thomas Fenech of Cospicua.Mgr Peter Cavendish, c. 1890. Photo: Hand-coloured cabinet card by Thomas Fenech of Cospicua.

Between 1902 and 1908, Critien’s Almanac lists Cavendish as acting chaplain to the Forces (A.C.F.). However, it is only in 1908 that he is included for the first time in the British Army List as Roman Catholic chaplain in the Army Chaplain’s Department, and in June 1915, he was gazetted as having gained a commission as a temporary chaplain to the Forces 4th Class.

Also in June 1915, the Daily Malta Chronicle announced that the “Rev. Mgr P. Cavendish, Acting RC chaplain to the forces in charge of Ricasoli District, is about to proceed on active service” and, furthermore, that “Mgr Cavendish served with the British contingents in Candia during the Cretan insurrection”. Thus we can see that by this date, Cavendish had already been appointed a monsignor and that he had served abroad.

He was given temporary promotion to Chaplain 3rd Class from February 21, 1916, while senior chaplain (R.C.) to British forces in Salonika, and he relinquished this appointment on February 23, 1917. He was mentioned in despatches for services in Salonika.

Cavendish then served in Egypt from May 1917 until July 1918 when he was invalided to the UK where he appears to have been admitted to the Manchester General Hospital. He was demobilised from army service on September 7, 1919.

From July 1916, Roman Catholic chaplains were given rank in the same way as chaplains from other denominations. Thus, as chaplain 4th class, Cavendish held a rank equivalent to captain, and as chaplain 3rd class equivalent to major. At this time, Cavendish’s address is given as St Ursula Street, Valletta.

Cavendish’s medal index card records that he was at Suvla (Gallipoli) and Mudros in 1915, and that he was entitled to and claimed the 1914/15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal.

As can be seen from the accompanying photographs, Cavendish was a handsome man who cultivated an air of distinction as he grew older. The hand-coloured cabinet card reproduced here shows a youthful Cavendish wearing the monsignor’s ferraiolo (cape) over his cassock and sash. This portrait was photographed by Thomas Fenech of Cospicua and probably dates to the mid-1890s.

Mgr Peter Cavendish, 1929. Photo: The Grand StudioMgr Peter Cavendish, 1929. Photo: The Grand Studio

One of the most striking portraits of Cavendish is the black-and-white photograph taken in his 60th year. It is inscribed “Pietro F. Cavendish al suo Petrino, Natale 1929” and was a gift to his friend and doctor Prof. Peter Xuereb, MD (1886-1963). This is the first reference to the friendship that developed between these two gentlemen although it is likely from the wording of the dedication that they had been long-standing friends. At some point in his life, Cavendish lost a lung, and Xuereb, a leading medical practitioner of the day, was regularly consulted by Cavendish.

Xuereb’s daughter, Mafine Grech (the author’s mother, born in 1924), recalls that in the 1930s, Cavendish lived at No. 4, St Paul Street, Mdina, which is the long, narrow street that runs along the eastern edge of the city between the Cathedral Museum and Misraħ il-Kunsill. As a child, she was most impressed by the small iron balcony that protruded from one of the rooms in this cleric’s house perched perilously above the bastions commanding a spectacular view across the island towards Valletta.

Crucifix given to Mafine Grech on her Confirmation. Photo: Peter Bartolo ParnisCrucifix given to Mafine Grech on her Confirmation. Photo: Peter Bartolo Parnis

Mafine remembers Cavendish as a friendly and approachable man always keen to be kept abreast of all the local gossip; consequently, he was a bountiful source of information as he seemed to have had a pretty good idea of where everyone was and what they were up to – or reputed to have been up to!

The young Mafine was a favourite of Cavendish’s and, on her Confirmation, he gave her a colourful enamel crucifix which she still treasures to this day. When it came to her wedding to the lawyer Leslie Grech in 1951, it was Cavendish who was invited to be the principal celebrant at the ceremony held at the Mosta Rotunda.

Prof. and Mrs Xuereb. Photographer unknown.Prof. and Mrs Xuereb. Photographer unknown.

Around 1937, Cavendish vacated the premises in Mdina and lived with the Xuereb family in Valletta for a few months until he found suitable accommodation of his own. The monsignor was well looked after by the Xuereb family; they gave up a bedroom for him and Mrs Xuereb would repair the monsignor’s clothes. He was also be given pride of place at the head of the dining table, and in return for his hosts’ hospitality, Cavendish celebrated daily mass for them in their home – now the location of the United Nations Institute on Ageing in St Paul Street, Valletta.

Eventually Cavendish found an apartment opposite the church of St James in Merchants Street and the family was often invited to watch carnival parades from his house.

Despite his name, Cavendish was pro-Italian in his political leanings. Mafine Grech remembers hearing that Cavendish frequently held clandestine political meetings in his house, and these activities brought him to the attention of the British authorities who put Cavendish under observation.

Mgr Peter Cavendish officiating at Mr and Mrs Leslie Grech’s marriage ceremony. Photo: H Borg Carbott

Mgr Peter Cavendish officiating at Mr and Mrs Leslie Grech’s marriage ceremony. Photo: H Borg Carbott

Mgr Peter Cavendish enjoying a drink with the bride and groom. Photo: H Borg Carbott

Mgr Peter Cavendish enjoying a drink with the bride and groom. Photo: H Borg Carbott

According to Max Farrugia, in his book L’Internament u L’Eżilju matul l’aħħar Gwerra, Cavendish was one of the three clerics (together with Mgr Albert Pantelleresco and the Dominican Gerardu Paris) interned in 1940 for their pro-Italian sympathies. Farrugia writes that Colonel Ede (chief intelligence officer) suspected that Cavendish, together with a number of pro-Italian priests, was conspiring to coordinate widespread anti-British propaganda from the pulpits.

Cavendish was released by January 1941 for health reasons. Prof. Xuereb had been summoned to carry out medical examinations on a number of the political internees and it is likely that being cognisant of the cleric’s respiratory ailments, he may well have facilitated Cavendish’s liberation.

Returning to the question of the Cavendish name, many options have been proposed; one spurious suggestion was that he took the name from a ship docked in the Grand Harbour. However, resorting to official sources, a Public Registry document records that the names of Cavendish’s parents were unknown; however, a copy of his death certificate lists them as Giovanni Francesco Cavendish and Giovanna (née Cutajar).

A search through the electoral registers in the years before and after his birth does not reveal any voters by this name, which indicates that his father, if resident in Malta, did not meet the criteria to be eligible to vote.

The word from the Galea family was that Cavendish’s family was impoverished, so they (the Galeas) adopted him informally. Nevertheless, Cavendish chose to retain his father’s name.

Cavendish’s family was impoverished, so the Galeas adopted him informally

Mgr Peter Cavendish’s silver cigarette case. Photo: Peter Bartolo ParnisMgr Peter Cavendish’s silver cigarette case. Photo: Peter Bartolo Parnis

The same surname is shared by the aristocratic dynasty that produced the British dukedoms of Devonshire and Newcastle. Indeed, despite his humble beginnings, the cleric was known to have enjoyed a privileged lifestyle (amassing a sizeable collection of fine furniture and works of art) and aspired to an elevated station in life. In fact, Mafine Grech recalls that the monsignor wore a ring bearing the Cavendish family crest.

It would seem, therefore, that Cavendish’s adoption by the Galeas allowed him to be considered as a sibling to Franca, Paul and Anthony.



The author is grateful to Tonio Cuschieri, a descendent of the Galea family that adopted Cavendish, and to David Blake, curator of the Museum of Army Chaplaincy in the UK, for their assistance in the research for this article.


Image copyright

All the images used in this article are from the author’s family collection. The unauthorised reproduction of images from this article is not permitted.

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