A History of the Knights of Malta

The Founding of the Order of the Knights of St. John

It all began with a plea from an emperor to a pope.

The year was 1095.  In the East, the ever-dwindling Byzantine Empire was once again under attack – this time by Seljuk Turks.  Emperor Alexius I appealed to Pope Urban II for mercenaries to battle this newest threat and Urban responded by exhorting Christians to take up arms, defend their eastern brethren, and wrest control of the Holy Land from the Muslims.  It didn’t hurt that he also promised forgiveness of all sins, wealth for the survivors, and paradise for those who fell in the holy war.

Thousands responded.  By the summer of 1096, vast armies had massed and were headed toward Constantinople.  There were five armies in all:  four separate armies for Knights from southern France, Flanders, Germany and southern Italy (then under Norman control), and a fifth army of peasants.  The peasant army soon devolved into a pillaging rabble.  When they arrived outside Constantinople in August 1096, Alexius had them ferried to Anatolia, where they fell victim to the Seljuks.   The four main armies, which got off to a later start, crossed into Asia Minor in 1097 and began their bloody trek down the coast, capturing city after city.  They reached Jerusalem on June 7, 1099, took the city after a month-long siege, and established the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Pilgrims began to stream into “Outremer,” as the new Christian kingdoms were known.  “Hospitalia” were established to shelter them, including one founded by a Frenchman, Blessed Gerard, in 1113.  While other orders relied on alms to sustain them, Gerard’s new Order of St. John benefitted from donations of land and revenue in Europe and Jerusalem made by grateful Crusaders.  The Order’s mission to shelter the poor and strangers was expanded to include the care of the sick and the provision of armed escorts for pilgrims arriving and departing from the Holy Land.  These escorts became an army of sorts, composed of European Knights and Turcopoles (light cavalry) recruited from among half-European locals.

While some of the Grand Masters led the Knights into battle, others secured its future.  In the 13th century, Hugh of Ravel reorganized the Order’s financial administration, ensuring the regular payment of revenues from possessions in Europe.  Thanks to the steady cash flow, the Order was able to survive the end of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, when Egyptian Mamluks overran the last Crusader outpost at Acre (1291).

The Knights of Rhodes

Those Hospitallers who survived the siege of Acre sought refuge on the island of Cyprus.  Now living as islanders, the Hospitallers took to the sea from their base in Limassol, but their transformation would not be complete until after two key events in the early 14th century – the conquest of Rhodes and the suppression of the Knights Templar.

Almost since their founding, the Hospitallers had been autonomous, subject only to Rome.  In Cyprus, however, things were different and they were being drawn into the quagmire of Cypriot politics.  They needed a home of their own, and they found one in Rhodes, which they took from the Byzantines in 1309.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Templars had run afoul of French King Philip IV, who owed them quite a bit of money.  Like the Hospitallers, the Templars had grown rich, and there was talk of establishing their own monastic state.  This made some rulers nervous:  the Templars owned vast tracts of land in Europe, controlled many businesses, and had a standing army.  Philip seized on rumors of impropriety and convinced Pope Clement V to move against the order, eliminating the possibility of a Templar state being carved out of his kingdom and ridding him of debt.  In 1307 Clement ordered the arrest of all Templars and the confiscation of their property; in 1312, after years of investigations, confessions and executions, Clement dissolved the order.  The Templars’ property was given to the Hospitallers, who absorbed many of the surviving members.

With their future secure, the Hospitallers set about remaking their Order and their new home.  The new Knights of Rhodes reorganized themselves into the seven “tongues” of Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, England and Germany.  Each tongue was responsible for maintaining an auberge (inn) for its members, and for maintaining and manning specific sections of the fortifications that ringed the new Gothic city.

The Order’s character changed, too:  they were no longer knights, but corsairs, and their military mission eclipsed their charitable one as they took on an old foe in a new guise – the Ottoman Turks.  Having supplanted the Seljuks, whose rule had disintegrated due to internal fragmentation and pressure from invading Mongols, the Ottomans posed a renewed threat to Europe as they began to expand westward.

The Knights rose to the challenge.  They built a fleet and took on the Turks at sea.  In 1334, they defeated Turkish mercenaries in league with Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III at Edremit; they joined the Genoese in raiding Smyrna (1344); and they were part of a Crusader force that sacked Alexandria (1365).  The Knights also preyed upon merchant shipping, earning them a reputation as pirates with Genoese, Venetian and Catalan merchants who traded with the Turks.

The Sultan of Egypt attempted to deal with this problem in 1444, when he unsuccessfully besieged Rhodes.  Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II tried to roust the Knights from the island in 1480, when an Ottoman fleet of 160 ships landed 70,000 troops to besiege the city.  Turkish artillery – the cutting edge of battle technology at the time – breached the city walls, but the Knights, led by Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson, repelled two Turkish infantry charges.  The Turks captured the Tower of Italy in a third attack and invaded the town’s Jewish Quarter.  D’Aubusson once again directed the Knights in the fierce fighting that followed.  After suffering casualties in the thousands, the Turks withdrew and the siege was lifted.

Following the siege of 1480, the Knights strengthened their fortifications in expectation of yet another invasion.  This came in 1522, when Suleiman the Magnificent himself led an expedition to expel the Knights from their island stronghold.  This time, the Turks mounted an invasion force of 100,000 men, who were ferried to the island in 400 ships.  Artillery bombarded the landward walls but did limited damage until powder magazines beneath the Tower of England exploded.  Turkish infantry surged through the breach but were beaten back by the English and German brothers manning that section of the wall.

Unable to overrun the fortifications, the Turks began to undermine them, all while continuing the artillery barrage.  Eventually, the walls were destroyed and Grand Master Philippe Villiers de l’Isle-Adam had no choice but to surrender.  Suleiman gave the Knights twelve days to leave the island with their weapons and valuables.  On January 1, 1523, the surviving members of the Order boarded the 50 ships provided by Suleiman and sailed to Crete, then a Venetian possession.

The Knights of Malta

The Knights were once again homeless.  They relocated from Crete to the Kingdom of Sicily, then part of Charles V’s Holy Roman Empire.  In 1530, Charles acceded to pleas from the Order’s commanders and gave them the islands of Malta and Gozo.

Located at the center of the Mediterranean, Malta provided an ideal base for the Knights to stop Ottoman expansion into Western Europe.  On arrival, they began building fortresses, churches and, in a return to their roots, a hospital.  Then they set to sea to take on the Barbary pirates.   From bases in North Africa, these Ottoman corsairs preyed upon shipping and raided coastal settlements, enslaving their captives.  Pirate chief Turgut Reis staged several attacks on Malta and, in 1551, besieged the citadels of Birgu and Senglea.  Unable to capture Malta with his relatively small force of 10,000 men, Turgut moved on to Gozo, where he enslaved all 5,000 inhabitants.

The Knights knew that more invasions were likely, and began to improve Malta’s defenses.  Birgu’s Fort St. Angelo was strengthened, and the new forts of St. Michael (on Senglea) and St. Elmo (at the end of Mt. Sciberras) were constructed.  All the while, the Knights continued their raids on Ottoman shipping.  When they captured the governors of Cairo and Alexandria in a successful 1564 raid, Suleiman decided it was time to deal with the Knights once and for all.

Informed of Suleiman’s plans by his spies in Constantinople, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette raised troops in Italy, beefed up fortification and laid in supplies in expectation of a siege.  It came in 1565, when an Ottoman fleet left Constantinople carrying approximately 40,000 invasion troops.  Facing them were 500 Knights, 2,000 Spanish and Italian soldiers, and another 3,000 fighting men recruited from the Maltese population.  When the Turks arrived in May, the civilian population took refuge in the fortified cities of Mdina and Birgu, destroying crops and poisoning wells as they went.

The Turks attacked Fort St. Elmo to clear the way for disembarkation of their troops.  They bombarded the fort from Mt. Sciberras and virtually destroyed it.  The defenders hung on for a month, until the Turks finally overran St. Elmo and put the survivors to death.  The Turkish commander, Mustafa Pasha, had their headless corpses crucified and floated across the harbor to Fort St. Angelo.  In response, de la Valette decapitated his Turkish prisoners and used their heads as cannonballs.

As summer began, the fighting continued.  In July, Mustafa launched simultaneous land and sea attacks on Fort St. Michael.  Reinforcements from Fort St. Angelo helped repel the land attack, while its sea-level cannon were instrumental in blowing a small flotilla of Turkish vessels out of the water.  Then the Turks turned their siege guns on the landward side of Senglea and Birgu in a nearly continual bombardment.  They breached the walls of Birgu in early August, but retreated when they mistook a sortie of cavalry from Mdina for a larger Christian relief force.  When a larger part of Birgu’s walls were breached later that month, de la Valette himself led the charge that repelled the attackers.

Summer turned to fall, and the chances of Turkish success were slipping away.  Mustafa ordered a march on Mdina, where he intended to pass the winter.  Then word came of the landing of a Sicilian relief force on the northern end of the island.  The Sicilians attacked and massacred the retreating Turks, who fled in their ships on September 11, 1565.  Birgu and Senglea were in ruins, one third of the population was dead and only one-half of the Knights had survived – but they had won the last great Crusader battle.

The post-siege world saw a decline in the Order’s economic fortunes.  The Reformation cost the Knights many of their properties in Germany, the Netherlands and England while their mission to protect Christian shipping expanded due to increased trade between Genoa, Venice, Tuscany and the Knights’ sworn enemy, the Ottomans.  The Knights fell back on their only trade, the interception and seizure of “infidel” ships, even those suspected of carrying Turkish goods.   Each “corso” (sea expedition) held the possibility of individual enrichment since Knights could keep a portion of the spoils, including the captive ships’ crews:  Malta became a virtual slave market until well into the 18th century.

Revenues from these seizures allowed successive Grand Masters to improve and beautify their new capital of Valletta.  In addition to fortifications and churches, other public works included a hospital, a medical school, and an aqueduct.  But while the Knights prospered, the average Maltese did not.  In 1775, a rise in the price of imported wheat led to the Rebellion of the Priests, an unsuccessful revolt against the rule of Francisco Ximenes de Texada, who had promised reforms but failed to deliver.  The French Revolution of 1789 sparked dreams of greater rights and freedoms, but Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc refused to allow the Maltese any involvement in government.  When Napoleon seized Valletta in 1798, while en route to Egypt, 268 years of rule of the Knights of Malta came to an end.

The Knights Today

After their expulsion from Malta, the Knights were again in need of a new home.  Their properties in France were gone, seized by the Revolution.  At the invitation of Russian Emperor Paul I, they found refuge in St. Petersburg.  In gratitude, the Knights elected Paul to replace the disgraced Grand Master Ferdinand von Hempesch, who had surrendered to Napoleon.  Paul’s election never received Papal approval.  Following Paul’s assassination in 1801, his son and successor, Alexander I acknowledged the Pope’s control over the Order and the process for selecting a Grand Master.

Meanwhile, Malta passed from the French to the English in 1800.  Despite an 1802 treaty, the British did not hand the island back to the Order.  The Knights continued to unsuccessfully press their claim for sovereignty of the island as they wandered from St. Petersburg to Messina, Catania, Ferrara and, in 1834, Rome, where they resumed their original Hospitaller mission.

Today, the Order numbers approximately 13,000 members, with 80,000 permanent volunteers and 20,000 medical personnel assisting the elderly, handicapped, homeless and terminally ill in more than 120 countries.  In Western Europe, the Order provides first aid training and emergency medical services, while its international branch, Malteser International, aids victims of natural disasters, epidemics and wars.

The Order celebrated its 900th anniversary on February 15, 2013, and still claims sovereignty under international law; it has permanent observer status at the UN, and issues its own international passports.  It also owns, with extraterritorial status, the Convent of S. Maria del Priorato on Rome’s Aventine Hill and the Magisterial Palace on Via Condotti.

In 1998, the Order finally returned to Malta when the government there gave it an extended lease for the exclusive use, with extraterritoriality, of Fort St. Angelo.


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