The Knights of Malta
Founding of the Order
The Knights of the Order of St. John or Knights of Malta as they are better known tend to conjure up images of quests for Holy Grails and scenes from the Da Vinci Code movie. However the Knights of Malta were a catholic military order founded around 1023 and were associated with the Amalfitan hospital in Jerusalem. Over a thousand years ago Christians, Muslims and Jews mingled in the city of Jerusalem without incident, respecting each other’s faith while sharing the holy sites that existed there. However the rising threat of Muslim Turks along the routes into the holy land was cause for great concern.
The Knights Hospitalier as they are better known was founded by a lay brother Gerard Thom in the Benedictine order to provide care for the sick and poor pilgrims arriving in the holy land at that time. Thom was put in charge of the Hospital of St. John which was built on the site of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist around 1080 by the abbot. Thom acquired lands and revenue throughout the city of Jerusalem and further afield making it into a powerful organisation and allowing the building of other hospitals along the pilgrim route to Jerusalem.
Following his death around 1120, the Hospitaliers tried to preserve Brother Gerard's body, keeping it in the monastery in Jerusalem. However after the fall of Jerusalem his body was moved to Acre and later to the west. By 1283, his body was held in the Hospitalier chapel in Manosque, Provence. In 1749 his skull was transferred to Monasterio Santa Ursula, in Valletta, Malta, while the rest of his remains were sadly lost during the French Revolution.
The Military Role
After the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099 in which Christians were expelled from Jerusalem, the Order of St. John under Thom’s successor Raymond Du Puy became a religious and military one with its own charter from Pope Paschal II. This meant they were allowed to receive and own and property an only answered directly to the pope himself. The order now not only provided care to the pilgrims but also began providing armed escorts which inevitably changed the role of the order to primarily a military one.
Under Raymond Du Puy, the order was divided in three distinct ranks, Knights, Men at Arms and Chaplains. The order participated in many crusades distinguishing itself as a well-trained military force which lead to the Pope giving the order its Coat of Arms, a sliver cross in a field of red. In 1185 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederkick Barbarossa formally pledged his protection of the Knights of St. John in the charter of privileges. Following the fall of Jerusalem the Knights sought refuge in Cyprus on which the remained for 4 years before settling on the Greek island of Rhodes.
In 1312, Pope Clement IV dissolved the rival order of the Knights Templar, turning over much of their property to the Order of St. John. The properties were organised into the eight newly created divisions of the order known as Langue’s. These were the Crown of Castile, Holy Roman Empire, Auvergne, Crown of Aragon, Provence, France, Italy and the Kingdom of England. During the 15th century the Knights fought valiantly withstanding two invasions. One by the Sultan of Egypt in 1444 and another by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed The Conqueror in 1480, however nothing prepared them for what was about to come.
In 1522, 400 ships under the command of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent arrived at the island with a force of over 100,000 men. With the Knights only numbering 7,000 the outcome was inevitable. The siege lasted six months with the defeated Knights eventually withdrawing to Mediterranean island of Sicily.
Knights of Malta
In 1530, King Charles of Spain gave the islands of Malta and Gozo to the Order in exchange for an annual fee of a Maltese Falcon. With only a small force of about 700 knights and less than 8,000 men, the Knights continued their fight against the rise of the Ottoman Empire much to the annoyance of the Sultan Suleiman. In 1565 Suleiman sent a force of 40,000 men to lay siege to the island destroying many of the cities and killing almost half of the Knights. The siege took its toll on both sides with the Ottoman’s forces morale dwindling rapidly.
In Sept of 1565 the Ottomans made on last final attempt to besiege the island but failed miserably. On hearing of Sicilian reinforcements arriving in Mellieha Bay the Ottomans broke off their siege of the island and left only a week later. The Great Siege of 1565 was finally over leaving the Knights of Malta with less than 600 men that were capable of bearing arms.
In the year 1607 the Grandmaster of the Order was granted Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Following the siege, the Grandmaster Jean de Vallette, set about the construction of a new city which was named Valletta. From here the Knights adopted a new role of policing the Mediterranean against the Barbary pirates who were primarily operating from the North African coastline and so began a new era for the Knights of the Malta.