The 14th century in Malta was not an age when a woman would be expected to wield influence or power. They were turbulent times and, as part of the Aragonese kingdom of Sicily as well as its position on the centre of the Mediterranean, Malta was a hotbed of strife and intrigue which was to last at least until the Order of St John took over the island’s administration in 1530.
Italy then was no more than a conglomeration of little states, principalities, bishoprics and duchies. Naples and Sicily, Venice and Genoa, the Papal states, when not trying to keep external forces such as Islam at bay, were continually warring and plotting against each other in the battle for supremacy and influence. It took only the slightest political upset or the merest hint of a threat to turn partners within an alliance into implacable foes.
In such an atmosphere it was the man of action, the buccaneer and the soldier who dominated the scene. The man of letters was conspicuous by his absence and if any contemporary accounts were written during that period, none has come to light so far.
Fortunately, there is no scarcity of documentation as meticulous records of most transactions affecting the kingdom were kept in the Royal Chancery in Palermo. The Royal Archives in Palermo house a vast quantity of documents giving a wealth of detail on the Aragonese period of the Kingdom of Sicily and Malta. These records consist in royal decrees and grants, notarial deeds and a stream of correspondence between officials in Malta and Sicily. The archives of the cathedrals, monasteries and ecclesiastical foundations are also a fertile fount of information.
But it was not until the 16th century that historians began to take an interest in Malta as a separate entity and sure enough the names of powerful men such as Artale d’Alagona, Manfredi Chiaramonte, Guglielmo Moncada and Giacomo Pellegrino loom large in their accounts.
It is all the more surprising then that, in the midst of these swashbuckling heroes and anti-heroes, we keep coming across the name of one person who never handled a sword or tried to take on church and state. This person was Margarita d’Aragona.
The earliest historical records on Margarita d’Aragona refer to her as the daughter of Guglielmo d’Aragona, Count of Malta and, as we shall see further along, there is ample evidence to prove that she was of royal blood. Who though was Guglielmo d’Aragona?
Federico III was the first Aragonese monarch to visit Malta and some writers assumed that Margarita was the daughter of his natural son, Guglielmo who was created Count of Malta in 1377, the year of Federico’s death.
However there was another Guglielmo d’Aragona and he too had been Count of Malta. He was the third son of Federico II by his Queen, Eleonor of Anjou and was created Count in 1330. Guglielmo I was also Prince of Taranto and Duke of Athens and Neopatria. He was married to Maria de Exercica without issue but during his visits to Malta, there is little doubt that he would have formed a liaison with some local lady – concubinage was then established practice among the ruling classes. For instance, his father, Federico II spawned at least 4 natural children whom he later legitimised and gave important titles and positions in the kingdom.
The question of Margarita’s paternity has perplexed historians over the years but, examined in its historical context, a reasonable explanation soon emerges. The confusion could well have arisen because of the ambiguous way in which the Aragonese Federicos were styled.
The House of Aragon succeeded the House of Swabia (the Hohenstaufens) as rulers of Sicily as a result of the union of Pedro II of Aragon with Constance, daughter of Manfred, King of Sicily and heiress to the Sicilian throne. Manfred was the natural son of Frederick “Stupor Mundi” of Swabia, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily. As Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick was second bearing that name, but first as King of Sicily. When Federico (Frederick) of Aragon succeeded to the Sicilian throne, he would have assumed the title of Federico II, King of Sicily but he was sometimes referred to as Federico III, adopting the imperial rather than the regal indication. His grandson would have been similarly styled Federico III or Federico IV depending on the writer’s point of view. A few modern historians persist in this misconception to this day and it is therefore not hard to understand that such conflicting references could have led to some confusion as to which of the two Aragonese Fredericks Federico III actually was.
Evidence that Margarita would have been the daughter of Guglielmo I rather than Guglielmo II is corroborated by the dates gleaned from official documents relating to Margarita. In 1365 when Giacomo de Pellegrino was made Hakem of Malta, the first since the Saracen held sway over the islands, Margarita was already his wife. She would more likely have been closer to the age of Guglielmo II’s father King Federico III (born 1341), and could not possibly have been Guglielmo’s daughter.
On the other hand, if she were the daughter of Guglielmo I, who was Count of Malta in 1330, her birth could be established at some time prior to his death in 1338, say 1336, which would be more consistent with the other factors and would also make her 82 years at the time of her death in 1418.
The Royal Grant appointing Giacomo de Pellegrino Hakem for life was issued in Malta and would have been made during the state visit of Federico III to the island. Pellegrino’s star was then very much in the ascendant assisted, in no small way, by the fact that he was married to the king’s kinswoman.
Unfortunately the royal favour was not to last and seven years later Pellegrino was stripped of all his possessions and banished. It is unclear what caused the rupture between the king and Pellegrino, and conflicting accounts have been given of the events leading up to the crisis. The only facts that emerge with any degree of certainty are the following.
1. Giacomo Pellegrino was a sea captain and in all likelihood held a warrant to carry out acts of piracy against the infidel as well as the enemies of Aragon. Amongst the latter were Naples, the arch enemy, and their allies, the Genoese with whom Pellegrino had been involved in several skirmishes.
2. In 1368 Federico called a truce with the Angevin court of Naples and its allies, writing to the leading families of the kingdom including Pellegrino to prohibit further acts of piracy.
3. Pellegrino had incurred a substantial debt to the Genoese Commune. It is unknown whether this was in connection with his acts of piracy or for some legitimate commercial transaction.
4. Malta was invaded in 1371 by a fleet of Genoese ships under the command of Tommaso Morchio.
5. Pellegrino was exiled and his possessions confiscated in 1372.
The theory mooted by Giovanni Francesco Abela, writing in the early 1600s, was that Pellegrino attacked the Genoese in reprisal to Morchio’s attack. But it seems more likely that the opposite was the case. In spite of the royal edict, Pellegrino’s hatred towards the Genoese was such that he persisted in his acts of piracy and Morchio’s invasion can be construed as the latter’s act of reprisal. The drastic consequences of the invasion must have been the major factor in arousing the king’s displeasure and his natural reaction would have been to punish Pellegrino for having provoked the invasion.
However Federico’s anger dissipated hardly a year after he had banished Pellegrino from the kingdom. This indicates that the truce with Naples was superficial and, underlying it all, the king was secretly in sympathy with Pellegrino’s actions. The royal purse was much depleted in that period and Federico had been forced to borrow heavily. Some of his creditors had strong links with Genoa and may well have forced his hand in taking retributive action against Pellegrino. The enmity between Aragon and Genoa however was too ancient and deep seated to be swept away overnight.
The chancery records provide the only certain evidence of the king’s feelings towards Pellegrino.
In 1372, Margarita d’Aragona appealed to Federico for clemency towards her husband. In his decree of November 1372, the king ignored her plea. It was too soon after the conflict for the king to contemplate modifying his sentence on Giacomo but he ordered the Secreto to give Margarita, consanguineam fidelem nostram, an annual grant of 50 uncie in order to enable her to maintain the position expected of her rank.
In 1373, Margarita made a further plea for clemency. This time her appeal met with greater success. The king’s decree issued in Messina on 11 October 1373 stated that “… following the renewed humble supplications to Our Excellency by Our faithful kinswoman and friend, the noble Margarita d’Aragona, consort of Giacomo de Peregrino, Milite, We graciously grant the same noble lady that the said Giacomo, her husband (having first settled his debt to the Magnifico Doge and Commune of Genoa) may, freely and without fear of reprisal, come to the noble city of Messina……”
It would seem however that the confiscated property was never restored, as none appears in Margarita’s will of 5 June 1418. The will lists the following property owned by Margarita in her own right.
Bahria (Bahrija) – Fief
Deylimara (Delimara) – Fief
Marnesi (Marnisi) (Zejtun) – Fief
Marsa – Fief
Deylbinet (Djar il-Bniet)- Garden
Ghariexem (Gheriexem) – Vineyard or Garden
Gnien el feres (Gnien il-Fieres) (Wied il-Qlejgha) – Garden
Fiddeni iddenum (Fiddien) – Land
Galabir il hal chadin el mula (Bubaqra) – Agricultural land
La Arcata (Zurrieq) – Land
Suatar (Swatar) – Cultivated and uncultivated land
Weden – Agricultural land
Panedes et Villa Franca (Vilafranca en Penedés) (Catalonia) – Property and rights
Maymona – Land
Guicobbira (Sancto Leonardo) – New Construction (Lunzjata Carmelite Church)
Two Store Rooms in Rabat
The fiefs owned by Pellegrino prior to 1372 were
Ajn Kajet (Ghajn Qajjed) 1361
Ajn Teuzin (Ghajn Tewzin) 1360
Ajn Toffieha (Ghajn Tuffieha) 1361
Benuarrat (Benwarrad) 1361
Gnien is-Sultan 1361
la Hafe 1360
ta Zaccari (lu Zacuni) 1372
Margarita possessed a generous but also strong willed personality. She left several valuable legacies of money and land to her servants and innumerable gifts and endowments to the church.
On the other hand she revoked the donation of Marnisi and Bahria she had made previously by public deed in the City of Agrigento in favour of her grandchildren Giovanni Antonio and Federico del Carretto, sons of her daughter Leonora on the grounds that the donation had been made by coercion and against her will while she was lying ill in her daughter’s house. She did however make some concessions, allowing Leonora to keep a proportion of her estate given to her as a dowry and also donating Marnisi to Giovanni del Carretto on condition that the will was not to be contested.
Margarita, in accordance with her wish, was buried in the Cathedral of Mdina though no trace of her monument remains as the old Cathedral was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693. But the greatest monument to Margarita is the Lunziata Church near Rabat which she rebuilt and bequeathed together with other endowments to the Carmelites in her will and, for that reason, was instrumental in founding the first Carmelite community in Malta. This church, although altered over the years, still stands and is used to this day as a place of worship and retreat.