The Inquisition in Malta

The Roman Inquisiton in Malta


its Palace in Birgu

(Title page: Facade of the Inquisitor’s Palace. Drawing dated to c. 1860).


The Holy See in Rome established the inquisition in 1542, with the papal bull, Licet ab Intitio, in retaliation against Protestantism and heresies created by individuals within the Catholic Church. Meantime, new variants of the Christian faith began to trickle into Malta, as the island was constantly exposed to the ideas of foreigners who landed here whether as traders or permanent residents. As the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) was about to come to a close, Pope Pius IV appointed the Bishop of Malta, Domenico Cubelles (1541 – 1566) to act as his apostolic delegate, that means, he was given the authority to act as inquisitor. Thus, the bishop of Malta was now to supervise and dictate the practice of spiritual life amongst the Maltese and to regulate their behaviour according to the teachings established at the Council of Trent. (C. Cassar 2000).

Bishop / Inquisitor Martin Royas

Years after Cubelles died, Bishop Martin Royas (1572 – 1574) was appointed bishop and similar to his predecessor was encumbered with the onus to act as inquisitor. Royas began to interfere in the affairs of the Order of St. John, and the sense of animosity between him and the Order grew. In one particular case, Royas accused some knights of the Order of practising the Lutheran faith. Apparently, this accusation greatly offended Grand Master La Cassiere and the relations between the Order and the bishop turned from bad to worse; so much so that the Grand Master requested the pope to send an another apostolic delegate to act as inquisitor to settle matters between him and the bishop’s  behalf.

Mons. Dusina becomes Malta’s inquisitor

 As a result, in 1574, Pope Gregory XIII sent Monsignor Pietro Dusina, as a fully fledged apostolic delegate, to intervene in the matter as well as to ensure that the Maltese were in conformity with all spheres of the Catholic teachings. Hence, Dusina established the Holy Office permanently in Malta and Royas was relegatted to his original role as bishop. After this case, Inquisitor Dusina embarked on a general enquiring about the spiritual state of the Maltese. He started by visiting all the parishes of Malta and Gozo, to probe on the administrative practices of the parish priests and to see in what physical condition the churches and chapels were preserved. He discovered that out of the 450 chapels and churches, many were kept in extremely poor condition. Wherever Dusina saw that the chapels were not in good shape, he profaned them and closed them down immediately. He also found that most of the clergy’s religious knowledge fell far short for them to impart the Catholic faith according to the Church’s official teachings.

The Palace of the Inquisitor

siculo norman _7914 - CopyWhen Dusina came to Malta, the Order of St. John had already moved its seat to Valletta, and therefore, the building in Birgu, which until 1571 was used by the Order as the Castellania (the law courts), was now vacant. This was therefore handed over to the inquisitor to be made use of as his administrative office and residence at the same time. The palace was then still a small building with a Gothic-style courtyard and columns. This was the style that the knights of St. John brought with them and used many times over in various buildings in Malta, both ecclesiastical as well as secular. From then on, the building, which at the time was attached to other residences, began to be enlarged, and by the end of the seventeenth century it had been turned into a imposing structure separate from other nearby habitations. The development took place piecemeal over the years, according to the wishes and needs of several inquisitors. Thus, the palace contains over thirty rooms and halls of all sizes, as well as prison cells located on different levels, all reachable by stairs and corridors in a very irregular manner.

Inq Palace main staircase _STV5914
Main staircase of the Inquisitor’s Palace. (photo: courtesy Heritage Malta)

The large and wide main staircase leading to the first floor was built in 1730, designed by the Order’s architect Romano Carapecchia, the architect of several other monumental buildings. The five spacious rooms of the piano nobile served as the administrative offices of the inquisition. Next to them was the courtroom as well as a tiny chapel that was fitted in between. On different floors there are halls which served as the living quarters of the inquisitor, as well as other spacious rooms wherein employees involved in the administration of the tribunal lived. Some of these are located precisely on the prisoners’ communal cells, of which there are three.

The role of the inquisitor

crossxxxAs the guardian of the Catholic faith in the Maltese islands, amongst other things, the inquisitors were always careful books and other publications that were allowed in circulation. There was a whole list of ‘forbidden books’, that were feared could instil new beliefs in the minds, as well as shed unfavourable light on the Catholic Church (C. Cassar 2000). Then there was the issue of the habitual superstitious beliefs of the Maltese. Many often infused their prayers with ritualistic phrases that were certainly alien the teachings of the Catholic Church. Many believed in the power of witchcraft without being aware that this was against the principles set by the Church. It was not the first time that people who practised witchcraft were brought before the tribunal of the inquisition. Magic spells and lucky charms were sought for many reasons, such as to cure ailments, to entice a lover, and to help ward off the evil eye. Many of those who offered their services in magic would often be foreigners, mostly Muslim slaves, hundreds of whom were allowed to wander the streets, seeking to earn some money. (Alexander Bonnici 1993).

Then there was apostasy. Many were those Maltese who, when in slavery in other countries, had converted to Islam. When they returned to Malta, they would often be exposed for who they had become and brought to the Tribunal to admit their guilt. There were also those who would go before the inquisitor of their own free will to admit that they had converted to Islam. Then there were other cases that the inquisitors were accused of, such as acts of bigamy, prostitution as well as uttering blasphemous words or heretical statements. (Alexander Bonnici 1993).

InquisitorsMarch 2010 233

The inquisitor, as the pope’s nuncio, could intervene in every aspect of life. It was he who decided whether a non-Catholic foreigner was to be allowed to disembark in Malta. The purchase by the Order of its the first printing press created a great rift between the inquisitor and the grand master, and because this caused such a rift it took a hundred years for this device to be put into use. Disagreements often arose between him and the Order of St. John over the immoral behaviour of some of the knights. Some of them were accused and prosecuted by the inquisitor. Sometimes, when a quarrel arose between the knights and the grand master, the matter would be brought to the attention of the inquisitor to seek redress and convey the grievance to the pope. This was because the pope, apart from being the head of the Catholic Church was also the supreme head of the Order of St. John. (photo: One of the main halls serving as the office of the inquisition. Photo courtesy Malta Tourism Authority)

Penitence, torture and imprisonment

More often than not, defendants who were brought before the inquisitor and found guilty were given a fairly light sentence. This was the norm when for example, there were allegations of violations of the rules of fasting and abstinence. As penance such defendants were often made to recite prayers, or obliged to attend mass numerous times. These light sentences were conferred to those who immediately admitted their guilt and promised to change their way of life. In the case of more serious accusations or when the accused was a recidivist and showed his unwillingness to change his wrongdoings, he was sentenced to months, if not years, in one of the dark cells of the palace. Occasionally there were cases where the offender was sent to row on the Order’s galleys amongst the forzati and the buonavogli. This was also done not least because the prison cells were few and so there was not enough space to retain inmates.

strappadoOccasionally, if during the trial the accused did not admit his guilt, or appeared to be shirking from telling the truth, he or she would be submitted to torture, to extricate swiftly that which the interrogator wanted to hear. However, these methods of interrogation were not frequent and when such were employed the accused were monitored by a medical doctor! The most common instrument of torture was the strappado, also known as the corda. The accused was tied with his hands behind his back, and hoisted off the ground with a rope to hang there for a quarter or half an hour. He would then be lowered back to the ground and if he did not admit his guilt the same treatment would be repeated to augment the discomfort and pain. Another instrument of torture was the cavalletto. This was a kind of high standing bench that had a triangular shape on which the accused was cavallettoforced to ride on for period of time, The accused was meant to slowly suffer pain as he sat on the sharp edge that pressed up against his behind. Sometimes heavy weights were tied to his feet so that the pressure would be increased and the admittance of guilt would be extracted sooner. Another instrument of torture was the stringitore, a wooden vice in which the feet and ankles were squeezed slowly against one another thus causing pain in no time at all. Incidentally, until a few years ago, among the people of Vittoriosa, there was a rumour that circulated, that in this palace there was a pit into which the convict would be shoved into to land onto a bed of‘knives’  that jutted up from the bottom’(Maltese: il-bir tas-skieken) possibly for the poor soul to suffer great pain and to be torn to shreds. This rumour is simply not true, and such a pit was never found. (K. Gambin 2004). Alexander Bonnici tells us that during the years of the Inquisition in Malta, there were four cases in which the accused were sentenced to death (S. Mousù 1994). There could have been more than that.

From Dusina in 1574 until the arrival of the French in 1798, sixty two inquisitors were posted in Malta. They averaged a three year stay. It seems that this position proved useful in showing the worth of the apostolic delegate in administering higher offices. Some twenty four inquisitors eventually were promoted to cardinals, and two of these even became popes. The popes were Fabio Chigi (1634-39) who became Pope Alexander VII, and Antonio Pignatelli (1646 – 1649) who became Pope Innocent XII.

When in 1798, the French came to Malta and the Order of St. John was expelled from the islands, the office of the inquisition was abolished. The new government took over the palace and on June 28, 1799, the French General Doblot moved into it (F. Ciappara 2000).

The British period and later

fireplace GR III IMG_7929xOnce the French were ousted from Malta by the British, the latter turned the palace into a hospital, and later as a residence for British officers to live separately from their troops that were stationed at Fort St. Michael, Senglea. (K. Gambin 2003). The British made many structural changes to the palace and indeed today one may still see three fireplaces installed in different halls, each bearing the coat of arms of King George III (1760 – 1820). Meanwhile, the older generation of Vittoriosa continues to refer to this palace as the ‘Mess’, as testimony to this period.

When the Dominican church and convent, situated less than fifty meters away from the palace, were hit by bombs in World War II, the monks were temporarily allotted the palace for their own use, to serve both as a convent and a chapel for the daily spiritual requirements of the community living nearby.

Fabio Chigi _Aless VII
Inquisitor Fabio Chigi later Pope Alexander VII

In 1966, the Inquisitor’s Palace was opened as a museum equipped with meagre furniture and some other folklore-related items. Since then, the building has been well studied and has undergone many interventions and even excavations’to uncover architectural elements previously hidden in order to discover the original spaces as they were originally intended centuries earlier. While the palace is obviously of great interest due to its history related to the Inquisition in Malta, it also serves as a museum of antiquities that relates to the traditional way of life of the Maltese during the last 450 years.

Papa Alessandru VII388856_n - Copy
Monument to Pope Alexander VII at the Vatican. On the European map depicted on the globe (bottom left of  monument), Malta is shown disproportationately large. Photo: Courtesy Paola Buono.

Martin Morana

24 March 2022

For further reading in publications by same author plse click here:

AA cover page

This book deals with the story of Maltese humour since Roman times up to present.

The author tackles humour both on the individual level as well as that which was and is presented in the theatre and on screen. The writer draws from many past and present anecdotal episodes and situations to elucidate on the genral state of the Maltese psyche. Humour is a two way style of communication that sizes up the temperament of both the presenter as well as the receiver humour.

Paperback; paġni: 226. Euro 12.95. Available at bookstores …. If you are in Valletta try Agenda or Meli Bookshops.

Also available in ebook format from Amazon Kindle. Price: $.7.30.

The Inquisition in Malta - Bibliography 

Azzopardi John & Zammit William, ‘Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa’. 
Treasures of Malta, Vol. V, no 2, 1999.
Bonnici Alexandro, ‘L’Inquisizione di Malta (1574 - 1798) - Riflessioni 
critiche circa il materiale edito e inedito’. Melita Historica, Vol 5. no.1, 1968.
Bonnici Alexander. A series of articles published on each and every 
inquisitor who held his post in Malta. Published on Il-Mument, 1988 - 1989.
Bonnici Alexander, ‘Maltese Society under the Hospitallers in the light of 
the Inquisition documents’. Hospitaller Malta 1530 - 1798. Mireva 
Publications. 1993.
Cassar Carmel, Society, Culture and Identity in Early Modern Malta. Mireva 
Publications. 2000.
Cassar Carmel & Sant Cassia Pul, ‘Patrolling society’s borders: slavery, 
apostasy and the Inquisition’. Sacra Militia, Issue 6, 2007. Sacra Militia 
Ciappara Frans, The Roman Inquisition in Enlightened Malta. PIN. 2000.
Gambin Kenneth, The Inquisitor’s Palace, Vittoriosa. Heritage Malta. 2003.
Gambin Kenneth, The Prison Experience at the Inquisitor’s Palace. 
Heritage Malta. 2004.
Gambin Kenneth, Torture and the Roman Inquisition. Heritage Malta. 2004.
Grima Joseph F., Mgr. ‘Pietro Dusina’s arrival in Malta in 1574’. 
The Sunday Times of Malta. August 2, 2002.
Mousù Salvator, ‘The Roman Inquisition in Malta’. The Times, Tuesday, 
November 25, 1994.
Vella Andrew P. ‘Prince versus Pastor’. Heritage Encyclopedia, Vol IV. 
Midsea Books Ltd.
Vella Andrew P., ‘A Concise History of Malta: The Quakers Incident’. 
Heritage Encyclopia, vol. IV. Midsea Books Ltd.
Zahra Lorenzo, ‘The Palace of the Inquisitor at Vittoriosa’. Heritage 
Encyclopedia, Vol. III. Midsea Books Ltd.

AA cover page

This book deals with the story of Maltese humour since Roman times up to present.

The author tackles humour both on the individual level as well as that which was and is presented in the theatre and on screen. The writer draws from many past and present anecdotal episodes and situations to elucidate on the genral state of the Maltese psyche. Humour is a two way style of communication that sizes up the temperament of both the presenter as well as the receiver of humour.

Paperback; paġni: 226. Euro 12.95. Available at bookstores …. If you are in Valletta try Agenda or Meli Bookshop.

Also available in ebook format from Amazon Kindle. Price: $.7.30.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s