History of The Order

Courtesy of the Grand Priory of Malta, SHOSJ

The Knights’ origins are to be linked to a particular moment in European history: the resurgence of the Latin West as an Eastern Mediterranean power.

The first Crusade, was called by Pope Urban II in 1095 as an effort to consolidate the conquests of Christian powers. The Order of St. John became an Order of the Catholic Church in 1113. It was not the sole organization in Jerusalem to be elevated to the status of a regular order of the Church. The Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights were two other institutions which received this same privilege. Both were composed of monks who also had military duties, and both acquired a constitution which procured for them political power and extensive influence over the European noble families from which they recruited their members.

The establishment of the Knights of Saint John as a regular order of the Church came at a time when there was already a split between Orthodox and Latin Christians. The Order developed an internal hierarchy, where rank was associated with different grades of power and functions. Founded by the blessed Gerard, at first the Order focused on the care of the sick, but then also contributed to the defense of the Christian territories.

Its evolution into an order of warrior monks came about from the dismal conditions encountered by Christians in the East, in particular the continuous need for armed resistance to the Seldjuk Turks first, the Mamelukes later, and ultimately the Ottoman Turks.

Those seeking admittance into the Order were to take vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, and to follow the Augustinian rule. Knights also had to be members of nobility. The recruitment of Knights from different areas of Western Europe would lead to the formation of seven Langues, whose number was increased to eight in the fifteenth century; langues being from France, Italy, Germany, England, Aragon, Auvergne, Provance and Castile. Each langue was assigned different responsibilities, a division which would later be seen also in Malta.

After the loss of the Holy Land to Saladin, the Knights first settled in Crete, then joined the Templars in Cyprus. King Henri II was against this settlement and so the Knights settled in Rhodes in 1309.

This island’s geographical position made it a port of call for the Christian pilgrims on their route to Jerusalem, while potentially also serving as a stepping stone for the liberation of the Holy Land from Muslim control. The concentration of the Hospitaller Order on the network of roads that led to Rome, as well as its commitment to engagement in the East with the conquest of Rhodes, prevented the Order from dissolution as was the case with the Templars. In fact, when the Templars were dissolved by Papal order, their property was passed to the Knights of St. John.

The island of Rhodes came to be a Garden of Eden for the Knights with fertile plains, a mild climate, and abundant water. It also served as a useful base from which the Order’s fleet attacked Muslim shipping. Yet the tenancy of Rhodes would soon be challenged by the Muslim Turks. The first significant attack was mounted in 1440. Other attacks followed leading to the siege of Rhodes in 1522 by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The loss of Rhodes pitched the Order’s administration into crisis, and dealt a big blow to any vestigial nostalgia for the medieval ideals of chivalry that had been built up over the 200-year stay on this island. At this time, the control of the Mediterranean was keenly contested by three major European powers; Venice, France and the Ottoman Empire. After the loss of Rhodes, the Order briefly used Corinth as its base, and defended it against Muslim attacks.

Initially, the offer of Malta as a home base for the Order by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V seemed not good enough for the Knights. A first serious examination of Malta’s suitability as a home base for the Order took place in 1524. A commission of uomini saggi, or knowledgeable men, was sent to the Island but they were very negative about it; The island lacked water, fertile soil, fortifications, and was in a dilapidated state.

The only positive feature were the Maltese harbors, but the influence exerted on Pope Clement VII made it clear to many Hospitallers that there was no other place for the Order in Europe; so between Malta and Tripoli (Libya), the former was chosen as the Order’s new base.

Arrival in Malta

From Phoenicians to Romans to Byzantines and then to the Arabs, whose hold on the Maltese Islands was challenged in 1090 by Roger I, Count of Sicily, Malta had been an almost constant battleground. There followed a time when Malta was passed from family to family by marriage, inheritance or war, until Charles V’s determination to rid Europe of the Moors led to the decision that Malta should be entrusted to the Knights.

Thus, Grand Master L’Isle Adam was the first of a series of Grand Masters who ruled these Islands for over 268 years. A new era had begun for strategically-located Malta. Since this was also a time of a religious division in Europe, the acquisition of the island of Malta secured further for the Hospitaller’s the favor of the Holy See. The island being geographically placed in the south of Europe emphasized its religious mission as a bastion of Christianity on the border with Islam.

It is no surprise that, once in Malta, the Hospitallers became active in strengthening their military resources, both in naval and army forces. This implied that all the medieval privileges enjoyed by the local Maltese gentry had to be curtailed. The Hospitallers refused to establish the seat of their Convent in the old capital city of Mdina, which was a fortified city surrounded by a moat in a rural environment, and instead preferred to settle in the harbor town of Birgu, this being more in accordance with their military and naval requirements.

Though still entertaining hopes of returning to Rhodes or finding a base more suitable than Malta, the Order set about building the Islands’ defenses including a couple of new forts, such as Fort St. Elmo. The illustrious hero of the Siege of Rhodes, L’Isle Adam, died in 1534, and after a succession of four more Grand Masters, Jean Parisot de Valette took command in 1557.

Ottoman raids on Malta continued, that of 1551 being particularly devastating. The Maltese countryside was ravaged and much of the population of Gozo, some 5,000 souls, was carried into slavery. The same year the Knights lost Tripoli (Libya).

The Great Siege

In 1565, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, ordered a Turkish Armanda consisting of around 200 galleys and 40,000 men to attack Malta. Their mission was to take over the island at all costs. The fleet, under the command of admiral Piali Pasha, appeared on Malta’s horizon on the 18th of May.

The Knights and the Maltese, let by Grand Master Jean Parrisot de Valette, needed to react quickly. All civilians were ordered to take refuge in the walled city of Mdina in the centre of the island, as the fury of the Turkish attacks would initially be concentrated around the main harbor of Valletta and along the coast. On the 24th of May, army chief Mustafa Pasha and the legendary Turkish General Dragut led the attack on Fort St. Elmo both by land and sea. The resistance of the Fort was heroic, beyond any expectations. And after three weeks of siege, the Fort was still not taken.

On the 23rd of June, the Turks finally entered the Fort and slaughtered the defenders. But the price the Turks had to pay for this small victory was high: The one month siege cost them over 3,000 lives, including that of General Dragut himself. De Vallette reacted to the slaughter of the defenders of St. Elmo by be-heading all Turkish prisoners. The severed heads were used as cannon balls against the Turkish ships.

The Turkish forces next launched an attack on Fort St. Michael and Fort St. Angelo, but the measures adopted by De Vallette enabled his defending forces to hold on until reinforcements from Sicily arrived. As winter approached, the Turkish troops started to lose heart.

On the 7th of September, the grand soccorso consisting of 10,000 men arrived from Sicily to aid the Knights. On September 8th, the arrival of these new troops, combined with the threat of the approaching winter forced Piali to lift the siege and retreat in defeat – almost four months after the siege had began.

News of the Hospitallers’ victory spread throughout Europe, with the Hospitallers making judicious use of the printing medium to publicize their triumph. The victory of 1565 persuaded the Order to give up thoughts of a resettlement in Rhodes or Tripoli. Malta was now their home. The Order embarked on a program of constructing extensive defenses for the Islands. Magnificent fortifications encircled the Gozo Castello and Mdina, and the three cities in the Grand Harbor area were ringed by the Cottonera lines. Coastal defenses were strengthened by the erection of watch towers, redoubts, entrenchments, batteries fougasses and underwater harbor walls. Forts Manoel, Chambray and Tigne were built in the final century of the Order’s rule.

The most important fortification, on which the Order started to work upon right after the Great Siege, was that of the building of a new city on the barren ground of the Sciberras Peninsula; it was named for the Grand Master and hero of the siege, Jean Parisot de Vallette.

The European monarchies were asked to tangibly express their recognition of the Order’s success by contributing to the building of this new city. This appeal did not fall on deaf ears; cash and equipment made its way to Malta from most of the Christian monarchies. In 1566, the building of the new city was assigned to the architect Francesco Laparelli from Cortona, who after long discussions proposed a grid pattern for the new city.

In the event, de Valette did not live to see the new city completed. It fell to his successor, the Italian, Pietro Del Monte. He immediately ordered the Hospitaller Convent to be transferred from Birgu to Valletta. Del Monte also made a priority of defense structures. Formidable fortifications were raised on the peninsula on which the city would be constructed. They employed the most contemporary ideas on military architecture. Two massive cavaliers, or towers, were planned, while Fort Saint Elmo was rebuilt in the form of a star.

Later Grand Master La Cassière commissioned the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar to design most of Valletta’s early palaces, and entrusted him with overseeing the execution of the plan of the new Co-Cathedral dedicated to Saint John, the patron saint of the Order.

It was in La Cassière’s time that the new hospital, or Sacra Infermeria, was built at the tip of the peninsula, overlooking the entrance to the harbor. There followed a time of conflict within the Order, and this resulted in a loosening of the ethic of communality. After La Cassière, the Grand Masters made use of an important trump card to restore peace, the constant threat of a new Turkish invasion, hence constraining many within the Order to refocus energy and money on an on-going program of fortification and defense.

Verdale was one of the first Grand Masters in Malta to visibly and publicly mix leisure with defense. Some small rooms built by la Valette as hunting lodges at the Boschetto woods in the limits of Rabat were upgraded into a fortified castle to serve as his and his successors’ country residence. His successor fortified Gozo by building the sole fortified town on this island, the Cittadella.

Grand Master De Paule commissioned Pietro Paolo Floriani to supervise the construction of a new line of fortifications in the Valletta suburbs. Grand Master Senglea commissioned the re-construction of the Cottonera lines, a line of fortifications around the three cities.

In the middle of the 18th century, a new fortress city was planned for Gozo : Fort Chambray. However, only the outer lines of fortifications were built, for the fort remained unpopulated.

The Order had effective and firm control in Malta. There were, however, two other authorities on the Island, namely the Bishop of Malta, and the Inquisitor of Malta, with whom friction sometimes arose over the degree of jurisdiction the various authorities had over the Maltese. Disputes between the authorities led to the complete suspension of printing in Malta for a while, this being later resolved by the granting of the imprimatur to all three authorities.

Although sworn to vows of chastity and obedience, an occasional Knight did stray into lawlessness, unruly behavior and wenching, or even heresy. The raison d’etre of the Order had become its role as the defender of Christendom in the central Mediterranean. However, the Order still retained its original purpose: caring of the sick. This is evidenced by the hospital in Birgu and the Sacred Infirmary in Valletta. The latter achieved fame as being one of the finest in Europe, and Maltese surgeons and physicians gained international recognition.

During the Order’s rule, the Maltese population grew from barely 15,000 in 1530 to 84,000 in 1798. Occasional blips such as the plague of 1675-76 carried off some 10,000 of the 60,000 population. Villages and towns grew larger and vied with each other for the splendor of their Baroque churches, many of these built by Lorenzo Gafa’.

The Order provided the stability in Malta necessary for growth and investment. It was Malta’s largest economic unit, its major source of income and employment. There was also input from the private family fortunes of individual knights like Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt for example, contributed half a million scudi to the Order’s coffers, personally paying for an aqueduct to provide Valetta with an adequate water supply, and also constructing a number of coastal fortresses, including that of Comino. The Order’s shipbuilding yard in Birgu provided employment, as of course did the boon given to the building industry. The cotton industry, already in place in the Middle Ages, flourished during the Order’s rule. Materials had to be imported from Europe, and sometimes Barbary corsairs disrupted these supplies. The corso or state piracy was a profitable industry for Malta at the time. Farming was also popular, cotton and citrus fruit enjoying a high reputation.

Artistic heritage

A general consensus exists among historians that the arrival of the Order of St. John changed forever the political, social and economic character of the small community in Malta. The Knights dismantled Malta’s medieval structures and brought the Island into the late Renaissance world.

Thus we see the peninsula opposite to Birgu changed into a hunting paradise by Grand Master d’Homedes, de Valette’s Boschetto hunting lodge, the building of two grand palaces by de Paule, one being the renowned San Anton Palace with its enormous gardens which now serves as the official residence of the President of the Republic of Malta, the numerous churches in Valletta and the relining of a number of Church facades in the Roman Baroque style.

Probably Carapecchia’s most important secular building in Malta was the Manoel Theatre. Also worth mentioning are the tapestries commissioned by Grand Master Perellos and Pinto’s relining and expansion of the Grand Master’s palace in Valletta. The most significant episode in the Knights’ patronage of the arts occurred when they employed Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573 – 1610). He remained on the Island for fifteen months and painted some of his masterpieces during that time, including the beheading of St. John the Baptist for the Oratory of Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta, the portrait of the Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (now at the Louvre), St. Jermome, a painting of Saint Mary Magdalen and another portrait of Wignacourt.

The next painter of international repute to work in Malta was Mattea Preti. The Calabrese, as Preti was often referred in acknowledgement of his origins from the town of Taverna in Calabria, was responsible for most of the paintings and decorations of the Conventual’s Church of Saint John. Indeed it could be said that true artistic renaissance in Malta began during the reign of the two Cottoner brothers, Raphael and Nicola. It was thanks to their efforts and patronage that Preti completed the ceiling and many of the side chapels with other works of art. In the backdrop to this artistic development, Maltese artists began to make a name; Lorenzo Gafa, who excelled in architecture, one of his most important buildings is the Mdina Cathedral, and his brother Melchiorre who had made headway in Rome in baroque sculpture.

In spite of the relative stability and prosperity the Order brought to the islands, there were some in 18th century Malta who began to see them as philandering despotic rulers. An uprising of a group of discontents led by the clergy in 1775 was quickly put down. But a more serious threat to the Order was looming. The menace of Ottoman aspirations in Europe was on the decline, and so, therefore, was the role of the Order as the defender of Christendom. In 1792 the French Revolution confiscated all possessions in France of this religious and aristocratic Order. From then on the Order ceased to be economically viable. Attempts to solve the financial crisis by asking help from Tsar Paul I of Russia failed as the loss of Malta to the French in 1798 brought this new source of revenue to an end.

Napoleon Bonaparte

On the morning of 9 June 1798, the fleet of Napoleon Bonaparte stopped in Malta on its way to Egypt. Bonaparte requested the Grand Master’s permission to enter the fleet in the harbor but was refused. Bonaparte took this as a personal affront and ordered the invasion of the island. The disembarking French soldiers were faced with little or no opposition as the various garrisons in the massive fortifications surrendered, offering abject or no resistance.

The Grand Master accepted a truce on 9 June and three days later the capitulation was complete, with the Order signing the agreement by which it ceded Malta to the Republican forces of France. Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch and a bevy of Knights, with a few of their movable possessions, sailed ignominiously out of Grand Harbor.

The largest group of Knights, led by the French Prince de Conde, then moved to Russia and placed themselves under the imperial protection of an Orthodox monarch, Tsar Paul I.

The aftermath of the loss of Malta had very important consequences for the Knights. In the following two decades, differences between sections of the Order became more manifest and culminated in the abdication of Grand Master von Hompesch and the creation of a separate order of the Knights of St. John in Russia.

The Knights of Malta in Russia

Relations between the Russian empire and the Order of St. John were first established one hundred years before their expulsion from Malta, when in 1698 the Russian ambassador Boris Petrovich Sheremetev was received with honor in Valletta by the Order’s Grand Master Raymond de Pereylos. Although Sheremetev was of the Russian orthodox faith, he was still made a Knight soon after, and became the first Russian knight of this Catholic order.

During the reign of Empress Catherine II, many Russian naval officers were sent to Malta to conduct special military training with the Knights. One of the Knights, Count Giulio Renato de Litta, took up service at St. Petersburg and soon was taken into the inner circle of the Empress Catherine.

Emperor Paul I was a great admirer of the Maltese Order. He was shaken to hear of the Knight’s financial situation because of the French Revolution and came to the aid of the Order. On the 4th January 1797, the Convention on the foundation of the branch of the Order in Russia was signed. This Convention combined the former Grand Priory of Poland with the new Orthodox Grand Priory of Russia and, following its ratification, enabled Paul I to assume the title of the Protector of the Order.

When, in June 1798, Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch had been obliged to abandon Malta to the French, the knights who were at the Russian Court declared him guilty of this negligence and elected the Russian Emperor Paul I as their Grand Master. On the 29th November 1798, the solemn ceremony took place by which Paul I assumed the title of the Grand Master. Russia became the official centre of the Maltese order, and St. Petersburg became the residence of the Grand Master. Two Grand Priories were established – a Polish, Catholic Priory and a Russian, Orthodox Priory. An institute of honorary and hereditary commanders was established with hereditary rights to knighthood given to 23 Russian noble families. The Corpes de Pages consisting of the elite guards of the Czar was formed to train and form the future Knights of the Order. The cross of the Order was awarded for services to the Russian state, either military or civil.

In 1799, Grand Master von Hompesch abdicated, leaving Paul I as the only Grand Master. The Order’s three most holy relics were brought from Malta to St. Petersburg. These relics included a piece of the Holy Cross, the icon of the Mother of God from Philerimos (Rhodes) and the right hand of John the Baptist.

Paul I gave to the knights of the Russian Grand Priory the church of St. John the Baptist on St. Petersburg’s Stone Island, and the Vorontsov Palace (now the Suvorov Military Academy) to use as the Order’s headquarters. Next to the Vorontsov Palace the architect Giovanni Quarenghi built a Maltese chapel, and at the royal palace in Gatchina the architect Lvov created the Priorski Chapel. From August 1799 to 1801, the Maltese cross was included in the emblem of the Russian Empire.

Paul I was assassinated on the night of 23 March 1801. His successor, Emperor Alexander I, was forced to pay attention to defeating Napoleon, and so had little interest in serving as Grand Master. Alexander I, however, kept the title of the Protector of the Order (until 1803).

In 1810/1811, Alexander I enacted a number of Imperial Decrees the main motive of which was to gain the property and money of the Order in Russia for the war chest in the struggle against Napoleon. These Decrees created a fiscal and legal separation of the Order’s Orthodox main Grand Priory of St. John from the Roman Catholic Grand Priory in Poland, with the latter being returned to the control of Pope Pius VII (successor of Pius VI).

This Russian Hospitaller tradition of St John continued within the Russian Empire throughout the 19th Century. The last Grand Master of the Russian Order was Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, brother-in-law to Tsar Nicholass II. In 1911 the American Grand Priory was officialy formed and after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the descendants of the Family hereditary knights Commanders of the Russian Grand Priory, with the support of members of the Imperial Family, continued that Russian Order in exile.

In the 20th century, Hospitaller work, the original role of the Order, became once again its main concern. Hospitaller work, charity and social welfare activities were once again undertaken on a considerable scale.

In 1976, after long discussions held in America between the Order’s priories, certain hereditary Knights decided to elect the Priory of Malta, which at the time was led by Count Joseph Frendo Cumbo

The Island was once again chosen to be the Knights’ headquarters, and in 1991 Castello dei Baroni in Wardija was made available by Dame Marie Angelique Caruana and Chevalier Adrian Busietta as the Grand Magisterial Chancery of the Order, seat of the Supreme Council, and headquarters of the Grand Master.

This famous building was first constructed as a hunting lodge on a territory of land known as Ta Tanti. Subsequently it was upgraded to the status of a castle during the rein of Grand Master fra Emmanuel de Rohan Puldoc circa 1783. While keeping its original form intact, the castle went though various upgrades and renovations to meet the different current needs in its long history.

Today, The Sovereign Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta, works in the fields of charity, medical and social welfare care and humanitarian aid. Important donations made by the Order include mobile hospitals to various nations, among them China, Russia and Africa, and the donation of medicines to various countries.

The siege of 1565 has made the Knights of Malta famous throughout the world for their chivalry and courage. Today the knights, as it has been in the past, still direct their efforts and generosity towards helping the sick and the poor irrespective of their religion and culture. Our Order carries on the traditions of old, under the spiritual protection of His Most reverend Eminence Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani.