A prison cell in the Castellania
The Magna Curia Castellania (Italian: Gran Corte della Castellania; English: High Court of the Castellania), was the courts and tribunals during the rule of the Order of St. John. The institution was founded for the first time in Palestine in 1186, then established in Rhodes when it became known as Pragmaticæ Rhodiæ, and remained active there until the expulsion of the Order from the island in 1522.
The institution was established in Malta after the arrival of the Order on 5 September 1533, during the magistracy of Grandmaster Philippe de L'Isle-Adam and it is sometimes distinguishably known as the Magnæ Curiæ Castellaniæ Melitensis. Johannes Quintinus was given responsibility to prepare the first set of laws for Malta, which were later established by the Grand Master. The institution followed the Sicilian legal system, known as the Ritus Magnæ Curiæ Siciliæ, and was headed by a Castellan who was a knight of the Order. He was ceremonially always followed by a page boy carrying a rod on a cushion when walking in public, with the rod symbolising his position, earning him the nickname captain of the rod.
The institution included two judges, one for the civil court and one for the criminal court. In the same building were the Office and Court of Appeals. The judges of the Castellania were native Maltese and dealt with cases that took place in the district of Valletta, Floriana and the Three Cities. Other districts, such as those under the courts of Mdina and Rabat, followed the same model and had to adopt decisions taken at the Castellania. On three days per week, the Fiscal Prosecutor brought cases before the judges. A Head Notary liaised for decisions taken by the institution. There was a Cancelliere, who was responsible for receiving and preserving judicial acts, registering the sentences meted out by the judges and supervising the other workers in the courts. There was a Gran Visconte (the Chief of police) who coordinated the police, and the Capitani di notte who implemented the sentences. Other workers included an official who saw that prisoners were treated fairly, those who were responsible for the archives and advocates for legal aid. Advocates were generally Italian-speaking Maltese, as most knights and foreigners considered the position as for the inferior people. A report was drafted weekly and sent to the palace of the Grand Master, informing about occurrences presented to the Castellania.
The Castellania was the supreme court of justice of the islands, hence called Gran Corte or the variants in legal documents. The Grand Master had the absolute power to preside over the institution. The Papacy quarreled for a superior decision, such as when there was conflict with the court of the Bishop, but citing sovereignty of the princely Grand Master it was never conceded. The Castellania originally had decision over every aspect of life, including public morality and religion, but having the Islands been visited by an official of the Holy See in the 16th century and found lack of enforcement by the knights in religious aspects, the Inquisition was established. With the presence of the Inquisition, the Holy See considered Malta similar to a colony, but through the Castellania the Order kept rigid control and sovereignty over Malta. Though the Inquisition had the power to issue a death penalty in cases related to religion, such as heresy, fornication and sodomy, it generally left it at the discretion of the Castellania. Religious monks, including the Bishop of Malta, were not to be subject of decisions taken by the Castellania but there were instances of having to make exceptions as per offense to the state.
In its time, the Castellania was considered to be a secular court and treated people with more equity; religious courts in Malta under Roman Catholicism would refer to non-Christians and people with diverse abilities as creatures, because of their "imperfection", whereas the Castellania considered all people as humans. However the Castellania distinguished the non-Christians by considering all others as aliens of which difference also has had negative impact in terms of equality before the law. Women had same rights as men to institute for court action. In military context the knights were not subject to the Castellania, and were instead prosecuted at the Military Tribunal (Tribunale Militare), however it received assistance from the higher hierarchy of the Castellania such as from the judge of the criminal court. The law was amended with the issue of a Bando by the Grand Master.
From Birgu to Valletta
The courts and tribunals were initially housed in a building in Birgu. After the Order moved their headquarters to Valletta, the Castellania was moved as well. It was initially housed inconveniently in Strada Stretta, at the back of the Treasury of the Order, in a building belonging to Bailiff Bandinelli. It was sometimes known as baglio, an Italian architectural reference to courthouses, or Tribunale della Giustizzia. Grand Master Jean de la Cassière bought the present site of the Castellania in Valletta for the courts to have an adequate location. Meanwhile, the original Castellania in Birgu was converted into the Inquisitor's Palace in 1574. The building of a Castellania was made in the original plans of Valletta. One of the plans for the Castellania was also to be built within the reserved area of the auberges of the knights, known as the Collacchio, but limiting access to a vast area in Valletta was found to be unpractical and the initiative was abandoned.
The first purposely built Castellania in Valletta was built in 1572 by la Cassière, and was likely designed by Girolamo Cassar, similar to other Valletta buildings of the late 16th century. The building had a military appearance, with the corners designed with massive quoins, typical of Cassar. The Castellania made use of a bell, became popularly known as the ruffiana, to convey messages to the people and inform about an event. A chapel was located in the building for the spiritual services of prisoners. Similar to other prominent buildings, the Castellania was provided with water within its courtyard by connection to the Wignacourt Aqueduct. In 1646, Pierre Garsin was commissioned to execute works within the prison section of the first Castellania which constituted of works on the walls that were examined to be in a state close to collapse.
The Magistrato degli Almamenti or Tribunale degli Armamenti, founded by Grand Master Wignacourt, was initially housed in the first Castellania building but moved to a separate location during the rule of Grand Master Perellos, who had established the Consolato del Mare in 1697. The first Castellania of Valletta was demolished in the mid-18th century on orders of Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, as he despised its austere architecture and wanted a symbolic building of his absolutism. Pinto continued on similar steps of his predecessor, Grand Master Wignacourt, by taking several initiatives and make stately projects, and a new Castellania was one of the main prospects.
There are claims based on word of mouth that in the 18th century the courts and tribunals were housed at 254, St. Paul's Street (now known as Europe House, and occupied by the offices of the European Commission and the European Parliament), plausibly between 1757 and 1760, however this is considered as a hearsay.