The origins of the Order, which is known as the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta, date back to around 1050 when the Republic of Amalfi obtained permission from Caliph Ali az-Zahir of Egypt to build a hospice in Jerusalem along with a church and convent to offer treatment and care to pilgrims of any faith or race. The hospice was built on the site of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist and was served by Benedictine brothers.
Following the First Crusade, and under the guidance of its founder, the Blessed Gerrard, the establishment of the Hospital and its Order was approved by a Papal Bull issued by Pope Paschal II in 1113. Placed under the aegis of the Holy See, the community (now known as The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem) had the right to freely elect its superiors without any interference by other secular or religious authorities.
After the Holy Land fell, the Order moved to the Kingdom of Cyprus. Fast becoming entangled in the kingdom’s politics, the Order set its sights on the island of Rhodes as its new home. In 1310, Grand Master Fulkes de Villaret completed a successful two year campaign to capture the territory as well as a number of neighbouring islands.
To survive the constant threats of Barbary pirates, the Egyptians and the Ottoman forces, the Order was forced to become even more of a military organisation and created a powerful naval fleet.
By the early 14th Century, the members of the Order were grouped according to regions (these groups were known as ‘Langues’). The seven initial Langues were Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland) and Germany. In 1492 Castille and Portugal split off from the Langue of Aragon and constituted the eighth Langue. Each Langue included the Priories, Bailiwicks and Commanderies. The Order was governed by its Grand Master and the Council. It also minted its own money.
In 1522, an invading armada of 400 ships under the command of Sultan Suleiman descended upon the Order in Rhodes. Against a force of 200,000 Ottomans, the Knights, under Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, had about 7,000 men-at-arms. Six months of siege ended with the brave Knights finally surrendering. The survivors were allowed to leave Rhodes with military honours, so they retreated to Sicily in 1523.