Of the 28 Grand Masters of the Order of St John who ruled Malta between 1530 and 1798, the last, Ferdinand von Hompesch (1797-98) was the only German.
He was born in Bollheim on October 9, 1744, to an ancient noble family: his parents were Baron Johann Wilhelm von Hompesch and Baroness Isabella von Bylandt zu Rheydt. He was admitted to the Order when still a boy.
Before he became Grand Master, Hompesch was very active in the Order as councillor of the Langue of Germany (1767), Castellan (1768), Lieutenant to the Grand Bailiff, who was responsible for the supervision of the fortifications (1770), and Commissioner for Armaments, whose duties included that of drawing up instructions of the naval operations undertaken by the Order’s fleet (1774).
He was put in charge of the administration of the Order’s commanderies of Rothenburg and Reichardsroth (1777), Bassel and Dorlisheim (1785), Sulz, Colmar and Mülhausen (1786), and Villingen (1796). In 1787 he became titular Bailiff of Brandenburg.
Up to the beginning of the 18th century, the Austrian Habsburgs, archdukes, kings and emperors, preferred to channel their diplomatic activities through high-ranking members (such as Grand Priors and Bailiffs) of the Order of St John. In 1775 the Court of Vienna appointed Hompesch its diplomatic envoy in Malta. He continued to serve in this capacity until 1797, when he was elected Grand Master.
In 1796 Hompesch was also elected Grand Bailiff (Pilier) – the head of the Langue of Germany. He was a member of the Council of the Order, which governed Malta.
Despite his illustrious career, Hompesch is often presented as a weak man. This image has lingered on in view of his conduct during the 1798 invasion of the island by the French, led by Napoleon, although this has been reassessed more objectively in recent studies.
There is no doubt that Hompesch was one of the Grand Masters close to their subjects, the Maltese. Indeed, three towns in Malta still recall his name: Żabbar (Città Hompesch), Siġġiewi (Città Ferdinando) and Żejtun (Città Beland). As the French invasion loomed, Hompesch tried to have the Maltese on his side.
When the French troops landed in Malta in June, 1798, a number of Maltese, particularly intellectuals, who sympathised with the French Republican ideals, joined the French; the French knights, who made up the majority of the members of the Order, were reluctant to fight their compatriots.
Under the circumstances, Hompesch soon realised he could offer little effective resistance to the French invaders. He wanted to avoid useless bloodshed, and for this the Maltese owe him a debt of gratitude.
The French expelled the Knights from the island and Hompesch left Malta for Trieste on June 18, 1798. He resigned as Grand Master on July 6, 1799. In 1804 he went to Montpellier in France, where he died one year later of asthma. He is buried in the Church of Sainte Eulalie in Montpellier.
Hompesch’s ancestry can be traced back to the 13th century in a small rural hamlet which soon took the family’s name. Situated between Mönchengladbach and Aachen, it has retained its name to this day, although the Hompesch family today no longer has any connection with the village.
The name Hompesch is derived from the Latin pascum, meaning pasture land, since agriculture then was its sole activity. The hamlet, whose history can be traced back to Roman times, today has about 200 residents.
Troops were stationed in the village during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). It suffered a severe outbreak of plague in 1636 and a dysentery epidemic in 1675.
The village inhabitants are predominantly Catholic. There is a small chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit and St Gereon, whose feast is no longer celebrated in the village but in nearby Boslar.
A folk festival, known as Hompescher Treff, is held in the village. It starts off with a religious service on the main square, followed by folk dancing and music. It is generally well patronised by people from the neighbouring villages.
There are many streets in a number of cities and towns in Germany named after Grand Master Hompesch, including Berlin, Bonn, Düsseldorf, Munich, and Mönchengladbach.
On May 3, 2005, feast of the Ascension, Fra Andrew Bertie, then Grand Master of the Order of St John, and the presidents of the French and German national associations of the Order, respectively Prince La Rochefoucauld and Leo Ferdinand Count Henckel von Donnersmarck, attended a High Mass celebratd by Archbishop Guy Thomaszeau in the church of Sainte Eulalie in Montpellier, to mark the second centenary of Hompesch’s death.
They also unveiled a memorial tablet on the tomb of Malta’s last Grand Master.