The yearning every country has for superstars, and the passage of time have conspired to shape a conveniently recognisable, if clichéd, profile of Grand Master Jean de Valette, the unchallenged hero of the Great Siege of 1565: austere, ‘deeply religious’, disciplinarian, ‘a soldier of Christ’, unrelenting in principles even to the point of savagery. He certainly was all that.
But he was also a seriously creative libertine. Up to some time ago, history books only had on the agenda how great the goodies were and how awful the baddies. They had faded out completely any other side of de Valette’s personality that did not sit comfortably with helpful stereotypes. What I will write about has never been hinted at before.
De Valette had at least two historically certified illegitimate children, and quite likely others too. Today, the stigma of illegitimacy has more or less faded, but in the Grand Master’s time, and up to quite recently, illegitimacy branded the parents as losers on the morality scale and tainted the children with indelible inferiority.
A scandal well and truly hidden, one which left no written trace at all in any contemporary source in Malta and elsewhere
The fate of offspring born out of wedlock could hardly be seen as privileged. Society and law considered them children of a lesser god, with their legal and society status inferior to that of legitimate children, their rights of succession to inheritance and to titles, curtailed. Many callings rejected them: they could not join the priesthood or the Order of Malta (the latter only made an exception for the children of sovereigns and absolute princes born on the wrong side of the sacramental four-poster – though this exemption did not apply to those who wanted to join the langue of Germany).
Add to that, de Valette was also the supreme head of a religious order that flaunted the vow of chastity as one of its defining constraints and still wanted to appear, in the 16th century, totally jealous of the ascetic ideals of ‘the convent’ – as the members of the Order of St John, not without good purpose, styled their aristocratic confraternity and their seat on the island.
I found in the French archives an amazing document: a process of legitimation by King Charles IX of one of de Valette’s illegitimate sons. In March, 1568, the eighth year of his reign, the French king ordered that Barthélemy de Valette, bastard son of Jean de Valette, Grand Master of the Order of St John and of Catherine ‘Grecque’, be no longer deemed illegitimate, but should henceforth be considered legitimate for all intents and purposes of law.
(To be more precise, the official register lists the father as Jehan de Valette, Grand Master of the Order of Saint-Jehan. Yes, de Valette, not La Valette or De la Valette).
Like many legal documents, the royal decree is sparse on facts and generous on rhetoric and on legal jargon. It sets out the bare essentials, but hardly anything else. It records that Barthélemy had petitioned the king to raise his status from bastardy to legitimacy, and that the king, sitting in Paris, had acceded to the request. From these ever so bald data, a few rational speculations are permissible.
But let’s harness the facts before the comments.
Firstly, that Barthélemy had been conceived in Malta from “immoral intercourse” (copulation illicite) between “our dear and well-beloved brother” Fra Jean de Valette, Grand Master of the Order of St John, and Catherine Grecque from Rhodes, a woman not bound by the sacrament of marriage (a spinster or widow), and that the son born from this union had lived in France for a long time. Apart from this, almost nothing.
A purely grammatical reading of the royal decree would indicate that the child was conceived when de Valette was already Grand Master; the document does not state the age of the petitioner. I believe it is, however, fair to assume that in 1568, Barthélemy was not a minor. This can be deduced from various circumstances.
Firstly, that he petitioned the king in his own name – a minor would have done it through a tutor or curator – and also because the king states he had been induced to legitimate the Grand Master’s son by reason of “the good and praiseworthy qualities” of his (the son’s) character – a reflection that hints to an adult rather than a boy.
The king adds that Barthélemy had also expressed his will to continue to reside and have his domicile in France, as his father and his paternal ancestors had done before him. Again, hardly remarks that apply to an underage boy.
I believe readers will find interesting a transcription and translation of the opening paragraphs of His Majesty’s edict (see excerpts of the document in box below).
Sadly, the royal decree says almost nothing else about the Grand Master’s mistress – in the sacred old tradition of women being faceless and expendable. All we know is that the person with whom the future Grand Master broke his solemn vow of chastity was a Greek woman from Rhodes and that, at the moment she fell pregnant, she was not married.
A significant number of Greek men and women had followed the Order in 1523 when the Turks expelled the Knights from Rhodes, their island home. The Rhodiot Christians understandably felt uneasy with a life under the new and powerful Islamic domination, and those who could, left the island with the defeated Knights.
The female refugees from Rhodes in Malta included aristocrats, women of the working class, wives and daughters of artisans, professionals and traders, with the inevitable hordes of courtesans and prostitutes always in tow. It is impossible to say where, in these several departments, de Valette had parked his lust.
Catherine would almost certainly have been one of these many displaced people from Rhodes, or perhaps the daughter of one. In Malta, a woman of Greek or Rhodiot origin would be referred to as Grecque – today Grech.
The fact that Barthélemy already used the surname de Valette when he petitioned the king, tends to show that as a child he had been reared by the de Valettes; had it been otherwise he would have adopted his mother’s family name.
The statutes of the Order, which imposed the most uncompromising chastity on its members, prohibited a knight from acknowledging his illegitimate children. But, if these were brought up by his relatives, then, by convention, they felt free to take the father’s family name – not through their biological filiation by the father, but through fostering by members of the father’s family.
One can plausibly imagine a scenario with Catherine Grecque, finding herself pregnant by a high-profile dignitary of a religious order, being suddenly perceived as a career-wrecker and being bundled stealthily but firmly off to France, where she and her child would have been given shelter by some kind members of the de Valette family there – the poor shamed woman with few if any rights, fortunate if a bag of gold was thrown at her silence. We do not know how far Catherine suffered from social status anxiety.
Another stratagem the Grand Master could have resorted to would have been to marry off the pregnant Catherine to some compliant stooge – that happened over and over again. For reasons unknown, de Valette did not go down that road. But fast action was imperative to avoid shame on the loose woman and, more importantly, scandal to the absent-minded father whose advancement in the ranks of a religious Order also depended on how polished his chastity appeared to be.
A scandal well and truly hidden, one which left no written trace at all in any contemporary source in Malta and elsewhere, except in the almost secret register of legitimations I found in the French archives. Though I wonder whether the unspecified, grossly scurrilous insults which some young rebellious knights hurled anonymously at the Grand Master in the aftermath of the Great Siege, included slurs on his less than immaculate private life.
What Barthélemy made use of in Paris was an ancient and well-established legal institute – the ‘legitimation’ of children born out of wedlock. This, according to old law, could be achieved in three ways: if the parents, subsequent to the birth, contracted a legal marriage (per subsequens matrimonium), or by resorting to the prerogative powers of the sovereign (per rescriptum principis).
A third form, per oblationem curiae, limited the effects of legitimation strictly to the father alone and, differently from the others, did not extend them to the father’s family. But, by the 16th century, this latter form of legitimation had become quite obsolete.
Marriage was wholly out of the question for de Valette and Catherine . So Barthélemy resorted to the second option: appealing to the French sovereign’s good heart to release him from the opprobrium of his bastardy through the exercise of the king’s prerogative powers.
Charles IX’s good heart? Well, not really. He had himself fathered an illegitimate child by his mistress Marie Touchet. This son, Charles de Valois, the king then de-bastardised – same as he did with Barthélemy, the Grand Master’s embarrassment.
Eventually, the rulers of the Order of Malta paid back with interest the benevolence the accommodating French king had extended to their Grand Master’s son. The Hospitallers made the French sovereign’s legitimated son a knight in their own Order, propelling him on the fast track to a meteoric career. By the age of 16, de Valois, the king’s illegitimate son, already enjoyed the fabulous title and the more fabulous income of Grand Prior of France – talk of meritocracy.
This did not last long. Aged 18, he applied for and obtained a dispensation from the vow of chastity to be able to leave the Order of Malta and get married to Charlotte, daughter of the Duke of Montmorency. Marriage, naturally, did nothing to stop him keeping up with royal tradition and coming up with two illegitimate children of his own...
The official register which records Barthélemy ’s legitimation, contains a few other surprises with a strong Malta connection. Immediately after the Great Siege, King Charles IX legitimated the son of another leading knight of Malta, Fra Antoine de Rhodes (Rodès) of the Commanderie de Vaulx, born from his illicit relationship with a woman listed only as Antoinette.
Shortly later, another slipshod knight of Malta, Fra Geoffroy Regnauld, busied the king with a request to legitimate his sons. And in 1581, three illegitimate children of a fourth high-ranking knight of Malta, Fra Emé des Chesnes, Commander of de l’Isle-Bouchart, petitioned the king to have some grime dusted off their birth certificate.
The register houses other records of curious legitimations with a Malta connection, like that of Charles Zamet, a son born out of wedlock to Jehan Antoine Zamet and to Girolama Lavinia Mellazza, a married woman from Naples. As I sought to establish elsewhere, the powerful Zamets of France were quite likely of Maltese origin.
Another entry refers to Alexandre Alfonce, illegitimate son of Emanuel Alfonce, a Portuguese pilot of the galleys and of an unknown (sic) mother, born in Malta.
This register, seemingly unstudied so far, contains loads of facts of marked sociological relevance. It would appear that only people of some standing sought to have the illegitimacy of their offspring regularised by the king. Those without any claims to high birth, fame, power or money, couldn’t be bothered, perhaps because they believed the king couldn’t be bothered either.
Those who could not legitimate their out-of-wedlock children by getting married (per subsequens) resorted to the gracious prerogative of the sovereign (per rescriptum). These included a large number of nobles, followed by church prelates, from bishops to canons, parish priests and mothers superior, knights – and a Grand Master thrown in for good measure. The professions figure generously too: judges, lawyers, notaries, doctors, surgeons, with a brave sprinkling of braver army officers – all advertising their ineptitude in resisting the siren calls of concupiscence.
It was mostly the illegitimate child himself or herself who set the process of legitimation in motion, but, not all that infrequently either, the father or the mother would be the ones to take the initiative.
Obviously, if it was the father who requested the legitimation of his offspring, then the consequences would affect both. The child would acquire all the legal advantages attached to legitimate birth, and the father would assume all the responsibilities: full maintenance obligations, education, dowry and hereditary duties.
In Barthélemy’s case, it was the son, living in France probably since his birth, who petitioned the king – the Grand Master would seem to have had no interest in attracting public attention to the fact that he had battled testosterone and lost. One who insisted on the strictest chastity from everyone else would hardly want others to see in what contempt he held that chastity himself.
Contemporary law deemed the power to legitimate bâtards to be inherent in every sovereign prince, including the pope. In the unlikely event of the Grand Master desiring to legitimate his son, he could in theory have ordered it himself, in his sovereign capacity as prince of Malta (the kings of France frequently legitimated the offspring of their own carelessness).
In March, 1568, the French king ordered that Barthélemy de Valette, bastard son of Jean de Valette and of Catherine ‘Grecque’, be no longer deemed illegitimate
But this, an almost monastic theocracy like Malta, would have reprehended as nothing short of scandalous. Other alternatives open to de Valette, had he wanted to legitimate Barthélemy, would have been: either petition the king of France, as the father was him-self a French national, or the king of Spain (in his capacity as king of Sicily), the overall sovereign of Malta. Or even the pope in Rome, as supreme head of the Order which fell under his personal jurisdiction.
One can well see why de Valette would not have chosen to wash his dirty drawers in the grand halls of the Escorial or of the Vatican. Though Pope Pius IV would have sympathised – he had three illegitimate children himself to boast of, compared to that ninny successor of his who only had one.
The king’s reflections on this case are well worth recording. “The vices of our nature,” he muses, “cannot and should not reasonably bring about or result in any disadvantage (in the children), and honesty and good character should delete and abolish such a fault (illegitimacy)”. It was for this reason, Charles IX added, that he had determined not only to consider Barthélemy as of legitimate birth, but also as a French national. Two hits, legitimacy and naturalisation, for the price of one.
Then follow details as to how the king’s order translated in practice. Firstly, the Grand Master’s son was to enjoy all the rights, privileges, honours and dignities pertaining to those legitimately born. Moreover, Charles, invoking his own “unique grace, full powers and royal authority” cancelled and abolished “any shade of infamy that could darken Barthélemy for having neither been born nor conceived in honest marriage”.
From here onwards, the decree turns technical and legalistic: basically a series of orders to all authorities under the jurisdiction of the king to treat Barthélemey as an entirely legitimate subject of the French monarchy, to remove from his way any obstacles to the full enjoyment of his legitimate status and of French nationality and to disregard anything to the contrary.
Quite curious is the king’s order that Barthélemy could inherit his parents in full (civil law then recognised to illegitimate offspring very limited succession rights). The Grand Master, as a knight of St John, could only dispose by will of one-fifth of his estate – the rest automatically devolved on the Order.
I do not know if de Valette mentioned Barthélemy specifically in his will (it does not seem to have survived), but a secondary source states that he did leave legacies to vague “other persons beloved by him and towards whom he bore affection” – that would have covered family and illegitimate descendants. For these he would, more likely, have made private arrangements before his death, not recorded in his official testament.
Not surprisingly, Barthélemy had to pay a fee in exchange for his legal, moral and social emancipation, but the king reassured him this would be a finance modérée, due only once. The file contains a receipt for payment signed by Jacques Huppeau, receveur général de Paris: six gold écus. Huppeau, before becoming treasurer, had made his fortune as a silk merchant.
The records remain dismally silent as to what happened to Grecque after the birth of her son, or to Barthélemy after success crowned his efforts to obtain his legitimation. It is quite likely that father and son never met, as the Grand Master did not visit France after settling in Malta in 1530, and died five months after the king’s decree; before that, his son had seemingly always lived in France.
In 1651, Alexandrine, daughter of a Barthélemy, was born in Uzès, France. But the date is certainly too late for her to be a granddaughter of the hero of the Great Siege.
To be concluded.
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