Officially known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.
International Headquarters in Rome www.orderofmalta.org...
(also has links to official associations worldwide)
HISTORY OF THE ORDER
Two great Orders of crusading knight-monks grew in the Middle East out of the First Crusade and the capture of Jerusalem from the Moslems in 1099. One
was the military Order of the Knights of the Temple or Knights Templar, named after their quarters near the temple of King Solomon. The other was the
hospitaller-military Order of St. John of Jerusalem or Knights Hospitaller, which derive its name from the great hospital in Jerusalem and the seven
other "Hospitals of Jerusalem" or pilgrim hostels strung out along the route followed by pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Both Orders became, through Papal recognition, religious Orders of the Church and their members took the solemn vows of poverty, chastity and
obedience. The Knights Templar performed purely military duties of protecting pilgrims and the Holy Places. Once the Latin Kingdom in Palestine ended
in the late thirteenth century, the Templars retired to Europe, lost their military character and were dissolved by the Pope in the 1300's. Their
possessions were passed on in part to the Knights Hospitaller, who had begun as monks serving in the Jerusalem hospital. Gradually they assumed a
military character and continued, after the fall of the Latin Kingdom, to care for the sick and battle the Moslems from their now insular bases in
Rhodes and then in Malta.
Originally an Order of mounted knights and hospitallers, the Order shifted to naval warfare when forced out of the Holy Land to the islands of Rhodes
and Malta. For several centuries the Order operated in the Mediterranean as one of that sea's chief naval powers, holding the east-west sea lines
against the Moslems. Expelled from Malta by Napoleon and deprived of their island by the British in 1815, the Order finally came to rest in Rome
toward the middle of the nineteenth century, dedicating itself wholly to its traditional hospitaller activities. Once a prime motor for the defense of
Christendom, the Order now helps to heal humanity throughout the world.
THE FOUR PERIODS OF THE ORDER'S HISTORY:
The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and Cyprus (1099-1291)
Exile and Rebirth (1798 to the present)
1. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and Cyprus 1099-1291
The Holy Places of Jerusalem and area, once scenes of Christ's life and death, have always played a central role in the life of Christianity. In the
many centuries since Christ's death, pilgrims have ventured over land and sea, risking illness, the elements, exploitation and often death to relive
Christ's life on earth by visiting the Holy Places, thereby attaining for themselves great spiritual benefits. Until the seventh century, the Holy
Places were under the administration of the Roman Emperors. Constantine the Great became a Christian, moved his capital to the east in 330 in
Byzantium, and erected great churches on the Holy Sites. As the western Roman Empire gradually disintegrated under repeated attacks from barbarians,
the Christian Emperor of the East stood out as the Christian world's supreme ruler.
But in the 600's, new invasions burst upon the Byzantine world as outlying people poured in from the east and the Arabian deserts. In 614, Jerusalem
fell to Persian invaders, who permitted the destruction of many of the Christian foundations of the area. Then followed the Arabs, aroused by the new
faith of Islam. They fell upon Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, occupied Jerusalem in 638, the rest of Roman Africa around 700, reaching Spain in 711. At
first the Moslem rulers in Jerusalem tolerated Christian foundations and pilgrims, formally recognizing in 807 the new Emperor of the west,
Charlemagne, as the Christian's protector. Charlemagne assisted in rebuilding some of the destroyed buildings including a hospital reputed to have
been founded by Pope Gregory in 600, the great church of Maria Latina and a monastery housing Benedictines serving the hospital.
A second wave of systematic persecution of Christians took place at the end of the tenth century as the tolerant caliphs of Baghdad were replaced by
the more fanatical caliphs of Egypt. However, this wave quickly subsided. The new caliphs soon concluded a treaty with the Eastern Roman Emperor, who
assumed protection of the Holy Places and began to restore the damage done to over 3,000 Christian churches and foundations during the persecutions.
Many rulers and wealthy persons from Europe contributed to rebuilding the Christian presence in Palestine. Among these was a group of wealthy
merchants from the trading republic of Amalfi lying south of Naples. They purchased the ruins of Charlemagne's church and hospital close to the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They paid for the reconstruction of the hospital, church and monastery, where the Benedictines lived and worked again.
It appears that as a sign of gratefulness to their sponsors from Amalfi, the monks adopted the republic of Amalfi's badge, a white, eight-pointed
cross on a black background.
Toward the end of the eleventh century, a third period of hardship opened for the Holy Sites when the Turkish Moslems conquered Jerusalem. The Holy
Places were closed to pilgrims, and pilgrims arriving at Jerusalem were turned back at the city gates. This time however, Europe had both the strength
and the will to take the offensive against Islam. By the year 1000, western Europe had begun to experience a remarkable vitality and activity, which
was to result in the crusades. In 1095 Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade to win back the Holy Places and at the same time to encourage the
Peace of God in Europe by diverting feuding nobles to fight the infidel. In early 1097, a great Christian army advanced from Constantinople through
Asia Minor, capturing Antioch in 1098 and finally Jerusalem in 1099.
Meanwhile, throughout the siege of Jerusalem, the Benedictine hospital had continued to operate under its rector Brother Gerard. After the city fell,
many wounded crusaders were cared for in his hospital, who later made generous donations to the hospital in thanks for this aid. The elected ruler of
Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon, also gave the hospital his moral and material support. Brother Gerard now decided to cut the brothers' links with the
Benedictines and reorganize the brotherhood serving in the hospital under the name of "The Poor Brethern of the Hospital of St. John". The
confraternity recognized the statutes and the brethern of the Hospital submitted its new statutes to Pope Pascal I. In 1113, the Pope recognized the
statutes and the brethern of the Hospital became a religious Order of the Church. Seven years later, Gerard died and was succeeded by Raymond du Puy,
one of the Order's great innovators and administrators. He was the first to take the title of Master of the Hospital. The title of Grand Master for
the Order's head appears in the XIIIth century.
The young Kingdom of Jerusalem represented a fragile feudal structure built upon independent-minded barons and surrounded by enemies. The Kingdom
needed knights and colonizers, but the Turks in the north obstructed the land routes, making the Kingdom dependent upon sea routes and Italian
merchants. Because of increasing Moslem pressure, the brothers of the Hospital gradually associated to themselves knights, who took the same three
vows as the monks but employed their arms to defend pilgrims and the Christian kingdom. All the members of the Order of St. John, or Hospitallers as
they were called, wore the Hospitaller's black robe with the plain white, eight-pointed cross. A century later, the knights were given permission to
wear a red surcoat with a plain white cross over their armour. The Knights Templar and Hospitaller were unquestionably the strongest and most cohesive
fighting units in the Kingdom. Both Orders constructed forts and castles along the Kingdom's frontiers to protect pilgrims. Master du Puy also built
the Order's vast Hospital in Jerusalem, which eventually measured 230 feet by 120 feet and contained about a thousand beds. It was Master du Puy as
well who set up the Order's European structure to administer the properties granted to the Order there by admiring or grateful donors. One priory was
set up in St. Gilles, in the south of France to look after western Europe, while another administered central and southern Europe from Messina. Both
St. Gilles and Messina were chosen as they were embarkment points for the sea voyage to the Holy Land. After forty years of service as Master, Raymond
de Puy died in 1160.
About that time, the kings of the Christian Kingdom began to fall out of favour with their barons, while in 1174 a new threat appeared in the form of
a union of Moslems from Syria and Egypt led by a young Kurd of genius named Saladin. The internal state of the Kingdom was chaotic when Saladin
proclaimed a Holy War against the Christians. Saladin's first success was the defeat of an army of Templars and Hospitallers in Galilee. He then
captured Tiberias and at Hattin surrounded and destroyed the main Christian force. More than 1,500 knights and 20,000 footsoldiers were slain. Only
two knights escaped the battle. Jerusalem was surrounded and its inhabitants preferred to ransom themselves to escape massacre. On October 2, 1187
Saladin occupied the city and transformed most of its churches into mosques. The few Christian strongholds left were cities along the Syrian seacoast
such as Antioch, Tyre and Tripoli.
When the capital of the Christian Kingdom Jerusalem fell before the Moslem onslaught, the Hospital of St. John had to be transferred to Margat and
then to Acre, captured by Richard the Lion Hearted and destined to be the new Christian capital for almost a century. Renamed St-Jean-d'Acre, the
city was defended by both Templars and Hospitallers. However, in 1291 a Moslem army of 100,000 laid siege to the city and its garrison of 14,000, of
which 240 were Knights Templar and 140 were Knights Hospitallers. When the city finally capitulated after six weeks, only six knights and the Master
of the Hospital, John de Villiers, managed to avoid the ensuing massacre by escaping by sea.
2. Rhodes 1310-1522
With the fall of Acre, two centuries of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem ended forever. John de Villiers and his knights fled to the Christian Kingdom
of Cyprus, where they established a new convent of the Order. As the Order grew through the arrival of new knights from Europe, the King of Cyprus
began to encourage the knigths to look elsewhere for a permanent home. So, in 1310, the knights sailed three hundred miles to the west and captured
the island of Rhodes just off the mainland of Asia Minor, establishing their new base there. At this point, the Order began to turn to naval warfare
in defence of the faith. At Rhodes, the knights built a great fortified city able to withstand long sieges. In 1312, the Templar Order was suppressed
by the Pope and many of its possessions went to the Knights Hospitaller of St. John at Rhodes.
For the next two centuries, the fertile island of Rhodes became the home of the Hospitallers, who built a large fleet of fighting galleys to keep the
eastern Mediterranean free of Moslems and pirates. From the wealth transferred to it from the Templars, donations made by wealthy patrons, revenues
from its European possessions and cargoes captured from the Turks, the Order prospered and built on Rhodes one of the strongest fortresses in
existence. Around this center of military activity were other splendid buildings including the Grand Master's palace reflecting the Order's
sovereign status. The knights were now divided into seven (and later eight) langues or tongues representing different cultural and geographical areas
of origin in Europe. Each langue built its own auberge or college-type hostel to house its knights. Other fine buildings were constructed including
churches and a few hospitals.
Meanwhile, pressure on the Byzantine Empire continued. The Ottoman Turks replaced the Saracens as the driving force of Islam, and it was these
redoubtable fighters who captured Constantinople in 1453. The Order was now outflanked on land by the Turks, who held the mainland only a dozen miles
away. At the same time as the Turks turned their attention to Rhodes, Europe began to lose interest in its insular outpost due to rising political,
social - and later religious - divisions at home. War, civil war, class war, feudal rebellion and plain banditry afflicted a good deal of Europe in
the fifteenth century. These included the Hundred Year War between France and England which ended in 1453, the Hussite Wars in Germany and Bohemia
until 1436, Jack Cade's rebellion in England in 1450, the War of the Roses ending in 1485, peasant uprisings in France and social frictions in the
Low Countries. The rise of a new secular, town-based Renaissance in cities and courts of southern Europe, turned men's eyes away from traditions of
Christian chivalry. At the end of the fifteenth century, Italy became a battleground between France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and Rome itself
was sacked by Spanish and German mercenaries in 1527. Further, the fourteenth century witnessed a struggle between the papacy and the kings of France
and other monarchs, which resulted in the "Babylonian Captivity" of the Church as the Pope moved to Avignon. Then followed the schism with a Pope in
Rome and one in Avignon. This split was only healed in 1414 at the council of Constance, while the next thirty years saw a continuing tug for
supremacy between the new Pope and councils. In 1438, the Gallican or French church declared its administrative independence from the Holy See in the
Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges. The counciliar movement finally came to an end in 1449 and a great jubilee was held in 1450 to celebrate the papal
triumph. These unsettled political, social and religious conditions were further aggravated by the Black Death or bubonic plague, which swept over
Europe in successive waves from east to west beginning in 1347. Finally the sixteenth century was to experience the Protestant Reformation and the
Catholic Counter-Reformation, which for over a century sparked interminable and bitter wars and civil wars, ending only at the termination of the
Thirty Year War in 1648.
Because of the internal difficulties in Europe, the knights at Rhodes were left largely to their own resources when the Turks decided to attempt to
reduce Rhodes in 1480. In that year, Mahomet the Great, conqueror of Constantinople, landed an awesome multi- national army of 70,000 on the island,
invested the city and blockaded the island with his fleet. Eighty-nine days of pounding siege followed, in which the Turks tried through cannon fire
and mining to breach the fortress' walls without success. Turkish attacks were regularly beaten back and a final counter-attack led by the Grand
Master convinced the Turks to withdraw from the island defeated. Almost half a century later, the Turks decided once again to attack Rhodes. By this
time they had crossed the Bosphorus in vast numbers and had conquered most of southeastern Europe. In 1522, Sultan Suliman the Magnificent sent a vast
force of 200,000 to Rhodes, protected now only by a Christian garrison of 5,000. The great siege of Rhodes, directed by the great Sultan himself,
lasted six months. Attempts to send reinforcements from Europe were hampered by Europe's internal divisions and by the elements. Five days before
Christmas, the Grand Master surrendered the city on honorable terms in order to save the civilian population. Sultan Suliman allowed the knights to
leave the island with their ships, arms and possessions, and even provided some Turkish ships for their transport. The city of Rhodes was not
destroyed nor was the civilian population harmed.
3. Malta 1530-1798
For seven years the Order was homeless, while the Grand Master toured Europe seeking assistance for the recapture of Rhodes. Emperor Charles V offered
the Grand Master the barren island of Malta instead, an offer which was at first refused. Finally, because an expedition for Rhodes proved impossible
to organize, the offer of Malta was accepted with the condition that the knights would be responsible for the defence of Tripoli. In fact, Emperor
Charles and his son Philip II of Spain did lead some expeditions into North Africa with help from the knights, but these adventures were badly
organized and sporadic, with the result that Tripoli was finally lost to the Moslems. The knights still kept Malta, which they had received in
sovereignty from the Emperor in return for an annual tribute of a falcon. Expecting an inevitable attack on the island by the Moslems, the knights
began to fortify it in 1530. The task was incredibly arduous as the island was rocky, without adequate water supplies, unable to grow the necessary
food, and soon to be isolated by the religious wars in Europe.
As a result of the Reformation, confiscation of the Order's possessions in Europe began to take place. The wealthy Grand Priory of England before the
Reformation had numbered thirty-six commanderies administered for the benefit of the Order by knights commander. In 1540, the Grand Master refused
Henry VIII's demand that the Order stop recognizing papal supremacy in England. As a result, the king dissolved the Order and confiscated all the
Order's properties. Reinstated briefly under Mary Tudor, the Order was again stripped of its properties in 1560 under Elizabeth I. This was
equivalent to the suppression of the Grand Priory of England. Most of the German and all the Dacian or Scandinavian priories and properties
disappeared as well during the Reformation.
While the rulers were occupied in confiscating church and Order lands or crusading at home against religious opponents, the Order continued its
fortification of Malta and naval engagements with Turks and pirates from the Barbary coast of North Africa. In 1564, the Order captured the largest
galleon of the Turkish fleet. Sultan Suliman the Magnificent, who had driven the knights from Rhodes and was now seventy years old, decided to repeat
his former success over the knights. At the beginning of the summer of 1564, Suliman landed with a force of 30,000 troops, outnumbering the defenders
four to one. After an initial unsuccessful attack on the main fort, the Turks turned their attention to the small fort of St. Elmo on the tip of the
peninsula guarding the harbour and its great chain across the mouth. Eventually, at the cost of 8,000 Turkish and 130 Order dead, the fortress was
reduced by the attackers. The Turkish commander cut off the knights' heads, impaling them on spikes for the view of the other Order defenders across
the bay, and nailed the bodies slashed with great crosses to boards floated across to the other side. Stung to the quick, the knights decapitated
their Turkish captives and shot their heads from cannons into the Turkish camp. While the Turks continued their siege of the fortified city, requests
for help to the rulers of Europe fell upon deaf ears. Still Grand Master Jean de la Valette urged his men to hold on. Finally, when the ability to
fight on had almost come to an end, a relieving army arrived from Sicily and broke the sixteen-week siege. The Order had stopped the Turks from
controlling the western Mediterranean.
The Order continued to maintain a large fleet of galleys to police the western sea against Turks and pirates. Three galleons of the Order took part in
the last victory of the crusades, when naval forces under Don Juan of Austria destroyed the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571. In the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, young knights wishing to enter the Order paid a "passage money" of about one thousand gold écus upon beginning their
apprenticeship in the Order's navy, and then underwent three of four caravans or tough naval campaigns on board Order ships against the enemy. In
some cases, wealthy knights equipped their own ships and maintained them from the share of the booty captured. Following the Great Siege of 1564,
Grand Master de la Valette, decided to build a new fortified city on the peninsula behind Fort St. Elmo. The city was named after him, and built with
contributions from rulers, the Order's possessions in Europe and captured Turkish wealth. Much of the actual construction was carried out by Turkish
slaves. A magnificent conventual church was built and a splendid palace for the Grand Master. One of the main central points was the Sacred Infirmary
built in 1575, the largest single room in Europe, measuring 450 feet in length. Grouped around these central buildings were the auberges of the
various langues, two-storied buildings constructed with several central courtyards and operated very much in the same way as Oxford or Cambridge
colleges. The knights were expected to attend common services and to eat several times a week together in the auberge's refectory. Each langue was
expected to provide its knights one day a week to serve in the Order's infirmary.
With the decline of its traditional enemies after 1700, the rise of new centralized monarchies in Europe and the shift of trade patterns to the
Atlantic, the great naval role of the Order began to decline. Gradually during the eighteenth century, especially during the time of Grand Master
Pinto de Fonseca (1741-1773), political aspects of the Order began to assume greater importance to the detriment of the religious. Theoretically
neutral in differences between Christian rulers, the Order found it more difficult to escape the frictions on the European continent. Forced to take
sides by the wars which emanated from the French Revolution, the Order dropped its traditional policy of neutrality in order to align itself against
the revolution. As a result, the rest of the Order's possessions left in Europe following the confiscations of the Reformation were lost. Most of the
property owned by the three French langues were confiscated in 1792 and the rest shortly afterwards. The langue of Castile and Portugal was surpressed
in the 1790's.
The French Revolution posed a serious threat to all traditional states including the Order of Malta. Menaced ideologically and politically by
revolutionary France and undermined by serious financial problems resultant from revolutionary confiscations, the Order looked around for allies. At
the same time, Czar Paul I of Russia for similar reasons dropped his traditional hostility to Roman Catholicism and even to Islam in order to find
allies in the Order and in the Ottoman state against the revolution. Through the partition of Poland in 1797, the Catholic Grand Priory of the Order
in Poland passed to Russia. As a result of this mutual new search for allies, in the same year Czar Paul of Russia and Grand Master de Rohan of the
Order, signed a convention creating a Catholic Grand Priory of Russia out of the Polish Grand Priory. Czar Paul was granted the honorary title of
Protector of the Order in return for his protection of the Catholic Grand Priory of Russia. Paul hoped through these agreements with the Order to
counter the French thrust to the east and to penetrate the Mediterranean using the Order's strategically-placed island for his fleet.
The French countered Paul's plans boldly. On his way to Egypt in 1798, Napoleon forced the new Grand Master von Hompesch and the knights to surrender
the island following a purely token resistance. The knights dispersed to their homelands or to Russia, where Czar Paul welcomed them. On their own,
members of the Catholic Grand Priory of Russia together with some of the other refugee knights in Russia proclaimed Czar Paul Grand Master of the
Order following von Hompesch's resignation under Austrian pressure. Once so proclaimed, Paul set up in Russia a second Grand Priory of Russia for his
Greek Orthodox subjects, for which he recruited his nobles. In effect, two Grand Priories, one Catholic and the other Orthodox, existed in Russia
between 1798 and 1810, after which date both became extinct.
Thus after 250 years of rule in sovereign Malta, the Order was forced in 1798 into exile. Most of its remaining European holdings quickly disappeared.
In 1802, the Spanish Crown took over the Order lands within its realms, while its Italian, German and Bavarian possessions disappeared during the
4. Exile and Rebirth: 1798 to the present
Once again the Order was without a home. Between 1798 and 1801, there was even some confusion as to whom exactly was the Order's Grand Master. On the
one hand, Czar Paul had been declared Grand Master by some knights within Russia. On the other hand, Grand Master von Hompesch's resignation had not
been accepted by the Pope, and Paul was neither a Catholic nor a monk as the Order's constitution demanded for its Grand Master of the Order. In
fact, he urged strongly that a new Grand Master be elected quickly according to the stipulations of the Order's constitution. As the political
situation obviated the organizing of a general assembly of the Order, Czar Alexander suggested that the Pope choose a name from among those submitted
to him by the remnants of the various priories. The Pope accepted the idea and as a result Bailiff Giovanni Batista Tommasi was elected in 1803. He
was recognized by Czar Alexander as Grand Master of the Order, as well as by other rulers and priories of the Order. In 1810, Czar Alexander dissolved
both Russian priories established by his father through forcing the Sacred Council of the Order in Russia to vote its own dissolution. At the same
time, he handed over its authority to the new, legitimate Grand Master of the Order.
During the Napoleonic wars, the question of where the Order would re-establish itself remained open. In 1800, the British took the island of Malta
from the French. In 1806, the Swedish King proposed to the Order that it take over the island of Götland in the Baltic Sea, but the Pope and the King
of Sicily thwarted this plan. Finally, the 1814 Treaty of Paris following Napoleon's defeat, recognized Malta as British, and the Congress of Vienna
refused to reopen the question. As a result, Malta seemed permanently lost to the Order. The Austrian statesman Prince Metternich hoped that the
Congress would at least give the Order some other Mediterranean island such as Elba, where it could be recognized again as a sovereign, neutral power
entrusted with combatting the Barbary pirates. But this scheme too failed.
During this period, the Order moved from city to city in Italy before it found its present home in Rome. In 1834, the Pope permitted the Order to move
into its old embassy to the Holy See on the via Condotti in Rome, granting it at the same time extra- territoriality. Its headquarters are still today
in this building. The Pope also allowed the re-establishement of the priory of Rome in the Papal states. In 1839, with the permission of the Emperor
of Austria and the King of the Two Sicilies, the priories of Lombardy-Venezia and Naples were re-opened. Through these priories new knights were
recruited, while others were created elsewhere directly from Rome and attached to the Grand Magistry. Where no priories existed, it was later decided
to create national associations. Thus in 1859, the first of these national associations, the Rhineland- Westphalian was formed, followed eight years
later by the Silesian, the British in 1877 and the Spanish in 1891.
Following Grand Master Tommasi's death, the Order was ruled for seventy-four years by lieutenants. In 1879 the Pope restored the dignity of Grand
Master with the rank of Cardinal of the Church. In that year he recognized Lieutenant of the Order, Fra John Ceschi a Santa Croce as Grand Master. The
next year, the first secular state, Austria, recognized him as a sovereign prince, a title once granted by the Holy Roman Emperor. And so the ancient
office and titles were again fully re-established. Several other countries followed Austria's lead in recognizing the Grand Master as a sovereign
prince and the Order as an independent state. Russia had maintained diplomatic relations with the Order between 1803 and 1810, and relations
thereafter remained cordial.
The Order's welfare work in hospitals was once again taken up on both national and international levels. In 1869, the Order participated in the third
international conference of the International Red Cross. It also took part in the 1927 League of Nations conference called to establish an
International Relief Union. Since 1945, many new national associations have been founded in Europe, North and South America and even Asia (the
Philippines). By 1974, there were six Grand Priories, three Sub-Priories and forty-two national associations with over 8,000 members. It is aided by
the work of tens of thousands of auxiliaries. The Order has been recognized as sovereign by about forty states and is an independent member of such
international bodies as the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the International Leprosy Association, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and
recently, the United Nations.
(from "The Order of Malta: Past and Present", published by the Canadian Association of the Knights of the Order of Malta, Montréal, 1978)