About the Knights – History of a Sovereign Order

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.

The Order had lost its territory and spent 7 years moving from place to place throughout Europe until, in 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles V of Spain, gave the Knights the Maltese Islands and the North African port of Tripoli as fief, under the overlordship of the Spanish Viceroy of Sicily. The annual fee for the island was a single Maltese falcon.

From their new base and small number of ships, the Knights were soon proving to be a thorn in the side of the Ottomans once again. It wasn’t long before Suleiman gathered another massive invasion force of about 48,000 men, including some of his elite warriors. In 1565, the Turks invaded Malta. What became known as The Great Siege of Malta resulted in one of the greatest victories in history for an undermanned and vastly outnumbered defence force. Under the inspired leadership of Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette, 700 Knights, 2,000 professional soldiers and 3,000 militia drafted in from the Maltese population and a handful of servants and slaves fought valiantly for three months until victory was secured.

Also in the year 1565, following the Great Siege, it seems that the Knights vowed to turn Malta into a fortress that befitted a military Order with a capital city worthy of so illustrious a group of noblemen. The foundation stone was laid by Valette for the city which would bear his name, and pride of place in the centre of the city was reserved for St John’s, the Church of the Order.

The fleet of the Order, becoming one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean region, contributed to the ultimate destruction of the Ottoman naval power in the battle of Lepanto in 1571.

The Rule of the Order, meaning that the Knights were prohibited to bear arms against fellow Christians, was ultimately to prove their downfall in Malta when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the island during his Egyptian campaign. Initially, the Knights granted Napoleon’s request for a safe harbour to resupply his ships, but once on the island, he turned on his hosts and claimed Malta as his own and the Knights were forced to leave the island. The British occupied Malta in 1800, but although the sovereign rights of the Order had been recognised with the Treaty of Amiens (1802), the Order was never allowed to return to Malta.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Order had been severely weakened. Government of the Order fell under control of Lieutenants from 1805 to 1879 until Pope Leo XIII restored a Grand Master to take leadership of the Order and signaled a revival of the Order’s fortunes. The revived Order established its headquarters in Rome as a humanitarian and religious organisation and became known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Large-scale hospitaller and charitable activities were carried out during World Wars I and II under Grand Master Fra’ Ludovico Chigi della Rovere Albani. The Order remains a Catholic organisation which claims sovereignty under international law and has been granted permanent observer status at the United Nations.