The Knights


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The Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (to give their full name) were formed long before their reign on Malta. The Order was originally established in 1085 as a community of monks responsible for looking after the sick at the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem. They later became a military order, defending crusader territory in the Holy Lands and safeguarding the perilous routes taken by medieval pilgrims. The Knights were drawn exclusively from noble families and the Order acquired vast wealth from those it recruited.

The Knights came to Malta in 1530, having been ejected from their earlier home on Rhodes by the Turks in 1522. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, gave them the choice of Malta or Tripoli as a new base. Neither was to their liking, but nothing, they thought, could be worse than Tripoli.

Having chosen Malta, the Knights stayed for 268 years, transforming what they called ‘merely a rock of soft sandstone’ into a flourishing island with mighty defences and a capital city coveted by the great powers of Europe.

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The Order was ruled by a Grand Master who was answerable only to the Pope. Knights were chosen from the aristocratic families of France, Italy, Spain, England and Portugal. On acceptance into the Order they were sworn to celibacy, poverty and obedience.

The first rector of what was to become known as the “Order of the Hospital” was the Blessed Gerard. With his Bull of 15 February 1113, Pope Paschal II sanctioned the establishment of the Hospitallers’ order, dedicated to its patron, Saint John the Baptist. The Pontiff placed the Order under the direct protection and ecclesiastical authority of the Holy See. Pope Callixtus and subsequent Pontiffs granted the Order additional privileges over the next century. Gerard himself died in 1120 but the work of the hospice, which at one point was said to house two thousand patients, continued. By 1126, the Order had begun its military role in the defence of pilgrims in the Holy Land, building castles and other fortifications throughout Palestine. Their seat was the vast Krak-des-Chevaliers, acquired in 1142. Built upon an older Arab structure, it was the knights’ chief stronghold by 1144 and finally fell during a siege in 1271. The imposing fortress still stands today.

The Order of the Hospital was not only the first military-religious order of chivalry, but indeed the first order of knighthood of any kind. Previously, knights did not serve in corporate bodies other than the armies of particular sovereigns. The Order of the Temple, the Teutonic Order and the Order of Saint Lazarus were founded soon after the Order of the Hospital. Each of these orders had its own purposes, of which military defence was but one. Until this time, most knights had been minor feudatories obliged, as part of the feudal system, to undertake military service for a prescribed number of days each year; some were full time soldiers who served in garrisons.

Even at this early date, the Order of Malta was both a religious order and a military brotherhood. Today, its Grand Master is accorded the singular style “His Most Eminent Highness” and accorded a precedence in the Roman Catholic hierarchy immediately following that of the most junior cardinal. There are still professed knights of the Order, from among whose number Grand Masters are elected, who take religious vows namely celibacy, obedience and poverty.

The earliest members of the Order were drawn from throughout Europe. Most were of noble birth, being the younger sons of enfeoffed knights and other feudal lords. They belonged to one of three ranks, namely knights, who were of noble birth, chaplains, and serving brothers. Much later, the Order instituted the practice of investing as knights worthy gentlemen who, though not of noble birth, were received by the grace of the Grand Master. In our own times, this has become a specific grade of the Order (that of Magistral Grace), and the one into which into which the majority of knights and dames are accepted. This is due in part to the three American associations which do not demand noble proofs of candidates.

To arrive in Palestine, postulants might travel over land across the Balkans. More often, however, they would travel by land down the length of the Italian peninsula to Calabria, the toe of Italy, then cross over to Messina to board a galley for Palestine. Each aspirant would pay his own passage. Thus was instituted the tradition of making a monetary donation (droit de passage) upon entering the Order.

At first, the surcoats and habits of the knights of the Order were of coarse black cloth bearing a simple Latin cross in white. A little later this was forked at the ends, what a herald terms a “cross moline,” when later still the cross had straight sides, so famous as the cross of Malta. In 1126, the Blessed Raymond du Puy, second Grand Master of the Order, adopted as its distinctive emblem the white Cross of Malta, whose eight points represent the Beatitudes. The heraldic insignia, on which the flag of the Order was based, became a plain white Cross of Malta on a red field. This appears to have been used for some years before its approval by Pope Innocent II in 1130, and is generally considered the oldest extant vexillogical device used by a sovereign European government.

During this early period, though it could be said to have been an international organisation, the Order drew a large number of its knights from France and from the Norman-ruled territories of England and Sicily, and within its ranks the spoken language was French. So famous was the Order of the Hospital that it became known simply as “The Religion.” Sometimes called the Order of Saint John (after its Heavenly Patron), the Order of the Hospital grew in wealth and power throughout Europe. Toward the middle of the twelfth century, it was introduced in England, where a number of Hospitaller structures still stand, particularly the Gate House of Clerkenwell.

The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was invaded by Saladin “the Great” in 1187, and Jerusalem itself was captured following a series of bloody battles. Within five years, Saint John of Acre, the last fortified Christian town in Palestine, had fallen to the forces of Islam.


It was at this point that the Order of the Hospital moved to Cyprus, establishing its seat at Limasol, from whence it continued its war against Islam –on land but now also at sea.

The King of Cyprus would not grant the Order any genuine form of sovereignty, and in 1310 the knights occupied Rhodes. It was at Rhodes that the eight Langues, or tongues, were formed, with knights divided into national branches, each under the administration of a Bailiff.

In 1343, the Order conquered Smyrna, which it held for six decades. The knights of Malta took part in battles in Egypt and Syria, and supported the Armenians’ in their valiant defence against the Muslims.

Though the Order was becoming an important naval power in the eastern Mediterranean, the knights were expected to perform hospitaller tasks in addition to their military and naval duties. It is this role that has survived to the present. However, not everybody associated with the Order was a knight. There were chaplains, surgeons and serving brothers, as well as soldiers and sailors, men-at-arms who were not invested as knights but known as sergeants-at-arms.

At Rhodes, the Order was attacked by Muslim forces that it successfully repelled in 1440, 1444, 1469, and during a particularly fierce battle in 1480. The Middle Ages were nearly at an end, and the discovery of a new continent beckoned, but the Mediterranean was still the focus of maritime commerce for Europe, western Asia and northern Africa. It was the battle of 1522 that proved decisive to the Order. Suleiman the Magnificent launched an attack with 400 ships and, according to the best estimates, some two hundred thousand soldiers. Following a courageous defence for six months by a few thousand knights and other troops, the Order surrendered on Christmas Eve and the knights were allowed to depart on 1 January 1523.

Though without actual territory, the Order of Saint John was still recognised as a sovereign power. During the next few years, it established temporary seats at Crete and elsewhere.


In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, as King of Sicily, ceded to the Order the island of Malta. At first, the Order’s Maltese dominion, which also included the nearby islands of Gozo and Comino was considered a fief of the Kingdom of Sicily, its Grand Master a vassal. It was for this reason that an annual feudal tax was paid, though it was largely symbolic. It included, for example, a “Maltese falcon.” The Order would remain a military dependency of the Kingdom of Sicily until 1798, though, like the feudal tax rendered to the King, this was to be largely symbolic in actual practice during the centuries to follow. Pope Clement VII sanctioned this act in with a Bull of 7 May 1530, and the Order established its grand magistry on the island later in the year. The Order was also granted Tripoli, which it relinquished in 1551.

Thus did the Order become known as the “Order of Malta.” In deference to its origins in the Holy City, it was known as the Hierosolymitan Order of Malta well into the twentieth century. Adopting a new appellation was simple enough; developing this harsh land would be more difficult. Despite its obvious strategic importance, Malta was, for the most part, a hilly and deforested island having few natural resources other than olive groves, wheat fields and good fishing waters. It was, and is, similar to Pantelleria, Lampedusa and some parts of Sicily. The knights set about developing the islands they had been granted.

Not surprisingly, hospitals were among the first projects to be undertaken on Malta, where French soon supplanted Italian as the official language (though the native inhabitants continued to speak Maltese, a language related to Sicilian). The knights also constructed fortresses, watch towers and, naturally, churches. Its acquisition of Malta signalled the beginning of the Order’s renewed naval activity. Maritime trade greatly developed; indeed it became a primary means of economic support.

Because such trade was increasingly hindered by marauding corsairs, the knights were to become better known for bringing the sea crusade to the western Mediterranean. In this they were supported by sympathetic sovereigns and new orders of chivalry, most notably the Piedmontese Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus and, in 1561, the Tuscan Order of Saint Stephen. Since Malta occupied a strategic position between the Christian and Muslim worlds, the Order of Malta emerged as the most important obstacle to Islam’s encroachment into the heart of Christendom. It must be said, however, that the initial goals of the grand masters and the Italian princes were more commercial than ideological, as the pirates’ activities seriously threatened trade.

Serious Ottoman assaults occurred between 1551 and 1644. The most famous, the Great Siege, took place in 1565. An attacking Turkish force of 180 warships carrying almost 30,000 men was repelled by 600 knights and some 6000 soldiers and volunteers led by the intrepid Grand Master Jean de la Valette. Assistance eventually arrived from Europe. Only about 15,000 attackers survived to return to Turkey, while very few of the defenders went uninjured.

The Siege of Malta was, in the first instance, a defensive battle, and certainly a bloody one. The knights would encounter Muslim forces again at the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571. Knights of Malta fought at the Siege of Candia (in Crete) in 1668, and at the Conquest of Belgrade in 1689. With the defeat, at least for the time being, of Christendom’s most serious foes, the Order’s attention began to shift to the philosophical plain embodied by the Counter Reformation.


The expansion and fortification of Valletta, named for la Valette, was begun in 1566, soon becoming the home port of one of the Mediterranean’s most powerful navies. The island’s hospitals were expanded as well. the main Hospital could accommodate 500 patients and was renown as one of the finest in the world. At the vanguard of medicine, the Hospital of Malta boasted Schools of Anatomy, Surgery and Pharmacy. Valletta itself was renowned as a center of art and culture. The Church of of St. John the Baptist, completed in 1577, boasted works by Caravaggio and others.

The Grand Master was created a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, styled Serene Highness, in 1607. He was confirmed as a Prince in both Austria and Italy. In 1630 he was granted ecclesiastical precedence equal to that of a Cardinal. To this day, the Grand Master of the Order of Malta is styled His Most Eminent Highness.

In Europe, most of the Order’s hospitals and chapels survived the Reformation, but not in Protestant countries. In Malta, meanwhile, the Public Library was established in 1761. The University was founded seven years later, followed, in 1786, by a School of Mathematics and Nautical Sciences. Despite these developments, some of the Maltese themselves grew to resent the Order, which they viewed as a privileged caste. This even included some of the local nobility, who were not admitted to the Order.

On 9 June 1798, on his way to Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet attacked Malta. It was immediately obvious that the Order’s navy was no match for the mighty French force of 29,000 men. Though officially neutral toward the Christian powers, Malta was a military protectorate of the Kingdom of Naples, which was obliged by treaty to defend the island. Unfortunately, the King of Naples and Sicily (later the Two Sicilies) had departed Naples for Palermo six months earlier as the French occupied southern Italy, and was in no position to meet his obligation. What was worse, the Spanish brethren refused to fight (Spain being allied with France) and the Maltese made it clear that their loyalty was tenuous indeed. On 12 June, the 250 knights capitulated and departed their island state.

Not all of the brethren were in agreement with the surrender of Malta, and it was a decision which, several years later, prompted the removal of the Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim. This was an event virtually unknown in the Hierosolymitan Order, whose Grand Masters, like Popes, usually served for life once elected.

If he could not defend the knights, the King of Naples could at least grant them refuge in his dominions. In the decades following their expulsion from Malta, the knights’ administrative offices were established in Sicily (at Catania and Messina) until 1826. In 1834, following a sojourn at Ferrara, the Order established itself in Rome. The Grand Magistry is still located in Palazzo di Malta, in Via Condotti near the Piazza di Spagna, where it enjoys extraterritorial sovereignty as one of the three sovereign governments within Italian borders (the others being Vatican City and the Republic of San Marino).


The Order, which continues its mission of defending the poor and the sick, is a sovereign entity enjoying diplomatic relations with eighty-one nations (though not with the United Kingdom or the United States). It maintains national associations (and in some cases also priories) in various countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Ireland, the United States and many others. Recently, the Order of Malta, which has observer status at the United Nations General Assembly, signed an agreement with the Maltese government for the use of Fort Sant’Angelo.

Since 1988, the Prince and Grand Master of the Order of Malta has been Frà. Andrew Willoughby Ninian Bertie, born in London in 1929. He is the seventy-eighth Grand Master, having succeeded Frà. Angelo de Mojana de Cologna, born at Milan in 1905, who was elected in 1962. [A list of grand masters appears on another page.]

The Grand Master, drawn from the knights of justice, who have taken the usual religious vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, must have the nobiliary requirements of a Knight of Honour and Devotion. Ranking as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, he is elected for life and is assisted by a Sovereign Council on which sit, amongst others, the Great Officers who are: The Grand Commander, the Grand Chancellor, the Hospitaller, and the Receiver of the Common Treasure.

The Sovereign Council is elected by the Chapter General, which usually meets every five years, and which considers both general policy and such matters as amendments to the Statutes of the Order. The Chapter General is composed of representatives of the grand priories and the national associations together with members of the Sovereign Council.

A grand priory consists of professed knights erected into a monastic body with the approval of the Grand Master and the Holy See. Since grand priories usually reflect national boundaries, the jurisdictions of some older ones coincide with the territories of states or regions which no longer exist as distinct countries. In Italy, for example, there are three grand priories that were erected long before the nineteenth-century unification of that nation, namely those of Naples and Sicily, Lombardy and Venice, and Rome. The Grand Priory of England has recently been revived.

Associations are corporate charitable bodies which embrace all of the knights and dames in a certain area. Such associations are usually, but not always, chartered on a national level. That for the United Kingdom is the British Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (BASMOM), formed in 1875. In the United States, however, there are three distinct associations, namely the American Association founded in New York in 1927, the Western Association established in San Francisco in 1953, and the Federal Association formed in Washington in 1974. The Order has associations in 37 nations.

Today, there are some 11,000 knights and dames of the Order of Malta worldwide, 240 of them in Britain, presided over by the Grand Master and Sovereign Council based in Rome.

In the New World the majority are knights and dames “of magistral grace,” although not in Britain and European countries with a nobiliary tradition where a large number belong to ranks traditionally reserved to members of the aristocracy. Worldwide, about 50 are knights of justice who have taken the full religious vow of profession. Others, the knights of obedience, have taken a lesser promise of obedience to their religious superior, usually their Grand Prior. There are also many clergy who serve as chaplains of the Order.

In addition to honours bestowed in these ranks, the Grand Master confers an Order of Merit. Recipients of this Order “Pro Merito Melitensi” are individuals who have rendered outstanding service to the Order of Malta or its works; unlike knights and dames of the Order itself, those in the Order of Merit need not profess the Catholic Faith. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta observes as its feast day Saint John’s Day, June 24th.

The Order of Malta has ambassadors or diplomatic representatives in more than eighty nations, and enjoys Permanent Observer status at the United Nations General Assembly.

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An informative website about St. Agatha Tower, popularly known as the Red Tower, located in Mellieha Bay, Malta.

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