The extraordinary sequence of events which followed the fall of Malta to Napoleon was an unlooked for consequence of one of the most extended legal battles of early modern history. In 1609, Prince Janus of Ostrog made a will leaving his great estates in Poland first to his male heirs, then to the heirs of his brother-in-law and then, if both lines failed, to the order of Malta. In 1672 the order did indeed inherit the lands, but the knight appointed to manage them had obtained a dispensation to marry and on his death his widow enjoyed them herself until 1701, after which a man claiming to be the sole survivor of the family of Janus’s brother-in-law took them over with the king of Poland’s tacit support. The Ostrog case dragged on until 1776 when the order prevailed, and a Polish Priory of six commanderies was established. The case had been resolved only because the order had appealed directly to Poland’s neighbors, Prussia, and Russia, to intervene on its behalf. The appeal to Prussia had entailed the recognition of the Protestant Bailiwick of Brandenburg, the Herrenmeister at the time being King Frederick Ill’s brother. The appeal to Russia was to lead eventually to the bizarre mastership of Tsar Paul I.
The Priory of Poland was, in fact, a failure. It caused endless worry and provided little regarding financial support, being disrupted by the Third Partition of Poland in 1793; the Ostrog estates were in one of the regions taken over by the Russians. When Paul I, a romantic who was attracted by the order’s history ascended the Russian throne in 1795 he revived and re-endowed the Polish Priory under the tide of the grand priory of Russia. Then, in the disillusion and anarchy that followed Napoleon’s seizure of Malta, the Knights of that priory unilaterally deposed Grand Master Hompesch and turned to the tsar. Hompesch, in exile in Trieste, had little support; although the pope wrote to Monsignor Lorenzo Litta in Russia that he did not want Paul I a schismatic as head of the order. Nevertheless, Paul ran the order using a sacred council composed mostly of non-Catholic laymen and he founded, alongside the grand Catholic priory, a second, Orthodox, grand priory of Russia.
Paul was assassinated on the night of 23 March 1801. His successor, Alexander I, laid no claim to the mastership and urged the legitimate election of a new grand master. After the names of Catholic and professed candidates had been submitted by all the priories, the pope chose Bailiff Tommasi, whose election was ratified by a general assembly of brothers. In 1810, the council of the Grand Priory of Russia in St Petersburg voted its dissolution and surrendered most of the regalia and archives. Tommasi and his successor, the Lieutenant Grand Master Guevara-Suardo, were recognized by the Russians, but Tsar Alexander began to press for the abolition of the Russian Priory and in 1810-11 this was brought about by the confiscation of its properties. The abortive grand priory of Russia has, however, continued to haunt the world of Orders of St John.