Fra Andrew Bertie, the 78th prince and Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta, died on Thursday night in a Rome clinic, aged 78.

Fra Bertie, who headed the 900-year-old charitable Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and Malta, will be laid to rest in a state funeral in Rome on February 23.

President Eddie Fenech Adami was saddened by the unexpected news of his loss, describing him as a perfect gentleman and a man of few words.

"When you spoke to him, you felt you were in the presence of a serene, humble person. He was a very holy man who loved Malta a lot, especially for its ties with the Order," Dr Fenech Adami said when contacted.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta also regretted the demise of a man who loved the island so much that he spent his holidays at his residence in Attard.

"He loved the climate and the Maltese people and took pleasure from picking the oranges from the garden. He was an intelligent, humble man who was dedicated to the Catholic Church," said SMOM president Alfred Caruana Galizia. The Embassy of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta described Fra Bertie as a "man of quiet reflection and wide interests" and, although of a quiet British reserve, Fra Bertie was much loved by all who worked with him on his many projects.

"He was very involved in organising and teaching judo courses for children in Malta and enjoyed tending his farm, where he grew four different varieties of oranges that were his constant source of pride in good weather and anxiety in bad," the embassy said. Fra Bertie was elected to lead the Order in a secret conclave in 1988 and is credited with modernising the group's humanitarian programmes, increasing membership and extending its reach in troubled and far-flung regions.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and Malta was founded with a pilgrims' hospice in 11th century Jerusalem and has the status of an independent state.

It maintains diplomatic relations with 100 nations, increased from 49 at the start of Fr Bertie's tenure. The Knights of Malta has 12,500 members and operates in 120 countries providing medical and social services, particularly in war zones and impoverished areas.

The grand commander of the Order, Fra Giacomo della Torre, was sworn in as interim head of the group until a new grandmaster is elected.

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