GODE L'IMMUNITA ECCLESIASTICA
(A translation of the article
"Carsten Niebuhr - 1. Teil der Fortsetzung" written
by Dieter Salto)
Carsten Niebuhr was an explorer from Arabia, who
stayed in Malta for one week, in 1761.
lucky enough to take a look at one of the
few existing copies of his first edition of
a travel book (1774), which is more detailed
than the shortened version. Describing his
excursion to St. Paul's Bay, the original
text is as follows:
"There is a chapel, about 55 feet long
and 45 feet wide, which the inhabitants
built in honour of St. Paul."
Added to the text of 1774, there is also
"Above the door of this small and of many
churches in Malta there is a sign
fixed as a
warning to malefactors, with the
At the Chapel in St. Paul's Bay, which was
rebuilt in 1956, I did not find a similar
sign. But I found many all over Malta, one
of which is at the chapel at Ħal-Millieri,
on the outskirts of Żurrieq.
When Niebuhr was in Malta, laws and customs
were based on the above mentioned
inscription, and anybody breaking laws had
the chance to flee for sanctuary into any
church and hence could not be arrested by
the authorities as long as one stayed
inside. The crime rate in the mid-eighteenth
century was quite high. Burglary and theft,
deception and swindling, brawling and
fighting were the order of the day.
It was not only ordinary lower class men who came
into conflict with the law by stealing cattle or by
committing any other crime. In those days, even the
Hospitaller Knights broke the law by brawling and
fighting duels, although they were prohibited to
engage in such activities. Even a respected priest,
once, stole plenty of silver plates from the French
Auberge. The threefold jurisdiction in Malta at that
time, that of the Grand Master, of the Bishop and of
the Inquisitor, did not make it any easier to
attempt to fight crime.
Following are some stories about people who took
sanctuary in churches or ecclesiastical institutions
around the time of Niebuhr's stay in Malta. Not all
of these people were robbers or murderers.
In 1758 a
17-year old girl from Birgu, daughter of a
high ranking officer at the Bishop's Curia,
accepted an offer of a clandestine marriage
to the housekeeper at the Inquisitor's
palace, knowing her father would not agree.
(Clandestine marriages at that time always
gave cause for concern, especially with
ecclesiastical institutions being involved).
Inventing a ploy, the bride and the groom
managed to lure the parish priest out of his
house during the night and "happened" to
meet him somewhere in the streets of Birgu.
There and then they changed their marriage
vows and made the priest a forced witness.
The marriage, according to the law at that
time, was consummated. Of course, the affair
Hearing about the case, the Inquisitor fired his
servant, who fled for sanctuary to St. Theresa in
Bormla. The Bishop, being the bride's father
superior, ordered the girl to be taken to a nunnery.
However, the Judges declared the marriage valid. The
matter became a case for the Curia in Rome. In the
meantime, it is said, the love of the girl for her
husband cooled down and her father made a settlement
by paying a considerable sum to the husband, who
after that compromise left the sanctuary. The
Vatican agreed, and therefore the matter was solved.
Also in 1758, a Maltese from the countryside came
out of the Court building in Valletta, and happened
to meet a judge outside. Certainly still somewhat
confused after his court hearing, the former did not
notice the Nobleman and forgot to take off his cap.
The judge shouted at him in rude words and the man -
unfortunately - answered in the same way. When the
judge ordered the man to be arrested, the latter ran
to the Bishop's Curia for sanctuary. The Church
authorities, noticing what had happened, ordered
some officers from the Bishop's Curia to escort the
countryman to his home village church for sanctuary
there. In spite of many protests, even to the Grand
Master, the situation couldn't be altered. It was
not just a matter of the crime involved, but a case
of "l'immunita ecclesiastica".
In 1759 some thieves on the run, took sanctuary in
the Qormi parish church. The Bishop wanted them to
be sent to jail. When some of his officers
approached the Church, the thieves answered by
shooting at them, and one of the Bishop's officers
was shot dead. Eventually some of the culprits were
captured when they tried to get out of the church.
Most of them were sentenced to death and were
executed in a cruel manner by means of quartering,
beheading or hanging. The Grand Master ordered the
heads of the thieves to be stuck on poles in public.
This, however, made the fellow thieves who were
still in the church's sanctuary, furious.
They managed to take the
heads down from the poles and
buried the remains of
their colleagues in the church's
cemetery. This was against
all rules of decency
Bishop reported the case to Rome.
Only in this special case did the Pope intervene and
lifted "l'immunita". The thieves were
captured and sentenced for life on the galleys. The
case was brought to an end just three months before
Niebuhr arrived in Malta in 1761.
Another story spans over quite a long period, from
1756 till 1766. International complications were
inevitably the order of the day with ships in the
Grand Harbour from the four corners of the world.
Not only England and France were at war with each
other, but many other European countries during the
Seven Years' War which started in 1756. There were
several cases when either English or French ships
took shelter from attacks on each other, in neutral
Malta. The French had lots of friends in Malta, with
the French Knights the most predominant of the
The English Langue of the Order was non-existent.
But since 1756 there was an English Consul in
Valletta by the name of John Dodsworth. This man, a
merchant by profession, was an opportunist. He and
his family however were accepted by everybody. He
had rented many of the so called Pinto stores in the
Grand harbour area. These were packed with all types
of goods - even stolen goods. Years passed by, when
in 1762 an English privateer sailing under a
Prussian flag captured an Austrian ship in Maltese
Dodsworth stowed the booty in his stores. The courts
of Vienna and Berlin were consulted and the Grand
Master decided, that because of Dodsworth's rather
doubtful conduct, he (i.e. Dodsworth) had to deliver
an inventory of all his belongings. Orders were
given to arrest him in Fort St. Elmo. Immediately,
Dodsworth's two sons ran for sanctuary into the
The Prior made it clear that he did not want to give
them protection and the following night they crept
away to find sanctuary at St. Roque's. Dodsworth's
wife and two daughters and even his mother-in-law
accompanied them. They all lived a carefree life
there and whenever an English ship arrived in Grand
Harbour, the captains or representatives used to pay
them a visit. It was not rare for the Dodsworth
family to give a party in St. Roque's sacristy.
However the belongings of that unreliable man were
expropriated and sold by public auction, but still
left a lot of debts. He and his family left Malta
for Spain in 1766.
Although a Papal Bull in 1764 abolished sanctuary in
churches for anyone connected with murder, the
people still stuck to traditional customs. When in
1766, early one morning, an advocate of the Bishop's
Curia looked into the bedroom of his unmarried
sister, he found her and the servant stabbed to
death. Their 20 year old nephew, hid in a house next
to a church which would give easy access for
By his behaviour he aroused suspicion. His uncle
however thought that a much safer place would be the
Curia building, where he used to be on duty. Here
with the help of some colleagues he planned the
flight of his nephew from Malta. But in this case
the Grand Master referring to the above mentioned
Bull ignored all objections and the culprit was
arrested when he tried to board a boat in order to
Fugitives hiding for sanctuary in churches often
were supplied with all necessities, such as
foodstuff and clothing, by friends and relatives.
Some of them were able to hide out for 30 to 40
years or even until they died.
Sanctuary was abolished in some monasteries earlier
that century on the grounds that the monks could no
more guarantee safety and order for criminals
loafing around in great numbers. Grand Master Pinto
had abolished, what he called 'antiquated' rules of
sanctuary, for all employees in the Palace, the
hospital and auberges in 1750.
The ecclesiastical laws about church sanctuary were
not practised in Malta only. In the statutes of the
Knights of St. John, one can read about sanctuary
not only granted in their churches and hospitals,
but also under special bridges, trees, and in some
crossroads. Remarkable is the fact that these rules
were already practised when the Knights lived in
Rhodes. For Niebuhr this was evidently unknown and
so he noted down in his diary that the words on the
plaques near churches' doors should be understood as
a "warning" and not as a "privilege". This could
have been interpreted from an incorrect translation
of "Non gode l'immunita' ecclesiastica". A
possible translation/interpretation could have been:
It is not God, who gives immunity from prosecution,
but only the ecclesiastical building maintaining
inviolable secrecy. The Church can grant asylum from
What Niebuhr couldn't have known when he arrived in
Malta was that Bishop Rull, by arrangement with
Grand Master Pinto, two weeks before, i.e. on 31st
May 1761, had ordered to be read from the pulpits
all over Malta, that the right of sanctuary in
churches was temporarily abolished and the church
doors had to be closed. This was done in connection
with the "Corona Ottomana" affair, the captured
Turkish ship. In fact, everybody fit for military
service, even thieves and other criminals, were
called to arms. An attack of the Turks seemed to be
unavoidable. The Great Siege, just 200 years before,
had clearly not been forgotten.