Cruel capital punishment during era of Knights of St John

Capital punishment is banned in many countries today including many nations in the EU such as Malta. However, historical research has revealed the cruelty of capital punishment during the time of the Knights.

The cell at the Castellania, which served as the Court at the time of the Knights and today is the Health Ministry, has a lot of tales to tell.

Researcher Dr William Zammit explained that the cell was often the last stop before a prisoner was executed, although in his book, Kissing the Gallows he said that even prisoners whose death sentence had been pardoned, would be taken to the gallows to kiss it.

Execution by public hanging used to be quite common up to 400 years ago. The execution did not only used to occur inside the prisons but, towards the end, it was even done in the squares. It often took place where today there is the monument which commemorates the Second World War. At other times it used to take place at the site of the crime. In one case, it took place in Senglea at il-Ponta tal-Isla, where the accused was found guilty of drowning his wife.

William Zammit said, “A procession used to leave from the Castellania, walk around Valletta and then leave Valletta Gate where the gallows were situated outside of Valletta. It was public. It was a show. People used to see this as the ritual of power of the state over the people.”


In certain cases, the sentence was even more macabre with the Court even ordering the prisoner to be tortured. Two slaves who were accused of planning to murder Grandmaster Pinto were tied to a raft  while their arms and legs were tied and pulled by eight boats being rowed in different directions.   It was also common for prisoners to be sentenced to work as galley slaves, on ships.

“The Knights had their own fleet – the fleet needed men to row the ships, and criminals were often sentenced for many years, even for a lifetime, to be galley slaves. The idea of reforming criminals was completely nonexistent,” said Dr Zammit.

In Kissing the Gallows, Dr Zammit has published the research he has been working on for the last ten years with descriptions of the crimes committed in various towns and villages. The punishments given were collected from correspondence and diaries, most of which were kept at the Vatican archives.

Among the cases mentioned was one where a young man who had stolen a crucifix from St Philip’s Church in Zebbug. The Court sentenced him to a lifetime of hard labour, but Grandmaster Pinto sentenced him to the gallows.

In contrast to the Maltese and slaves, the Knights did not used to receive a death sentence but were locked up in a hole in t he ground, such as can be found at  Fort St Angelo.