Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The Knights of Malta
Eventually, however, the Muslim forces were able to come together and drive out the Christian presence from the Holy Land, conquering (or re-conquering) Jerusalem in 1187. The Knights Hospitaller relocated their main base to the County of Tripoli until the last Christian foothold in the Holy Land, Acre, was captured by the Muslims in 1291. It was at that point that the Knights Hospitaller withdrew to the island of Rhodes, after a brief stay on the Kingdom of Cyprus where they found the political atmosphere not to their liking. So, at that point, many began to refer to the order as the Knights of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes. This took time though as Rhodes was then held by the Byzantine Empire (sometime ally and sometime enemy of the Latin Crusaders) and it took more than two years to conquer Rhodes and the surrounding islands which the Knights then held for some time thereafter. Once secure in their new base, the Knights won more battles and earned greater fame. They also got a considerable boost with the unfortunate dissolution of the Knights Templar, many of whom chose to continue their vocation by joining the Knights of St John.
In 1522 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sent an invasion force of 400 ships and more than 100,000 troops to conquer Rhodes which was defended by a scant 7,000 knights and their auxiliaries. Obviously, the odds were hopeless for the knights, but they fought with immense tenacity and held out for some six months before finally accepting the Turkish terms for surrender which allowed the survivors to evacuate to Sicily. The Knights were then homeless for a time until the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted the Knights the island of Malta in return for a rather unique annual rent payment which was a Maltese falcon to be paid to the Viceroy of Sicily every year on All Souls Day. Today, at least among film noir fans, “The Maltese Falcon” is quite famous even if few know exactly where it comes from. In any event, the move to Malta was of great benefit to the Knights, thereafter known as the Knights of Malta, who settled in and began to grow and strengthen again while still standing guard on the southern frontier of Europe to ward off the ever present Barbary pirates and the occasional Turkish offensive. The Ottoman Sultan was still determined to see the Knights of Malta eliminated and once they reappeared on Rhodes, Suleiman sent another invasion force against them.
This was undoubtedly the most famous battle and “finest hour” for the Knights of Malta but they carried on for quite a while afterwards. Because of their island location they became as much a naval power as they had been a cavalry force in the Holy Land. They sent ships to fight with the Christian fleet at the battle of Lepanto and their war galleys escorted Christian vessels in the Mediterranean to protect them from pirates and hostile powers. When money became scarce they began to hire out their ships to the navies of France and Spain. Money became an ever bigger problem, especially after the spread of Protestantism meant that many who had previously supported the Knights would no longer do so and many Catholics had other priorities closer to home to deal with and could no longer make their usual donations. So, the Knights of Malta adapted and despite being a Catholic order did their best to make friends with Protestant powers as well. The increase in mercenary work, usually for France, also meant that at times the Knights of Malta would be allied with their old enemies the Turks while fighting against the Catholic Spanish who had once been their saviors. Still, they did the best they could to survive and carry on. They remained secure on their island fortress of Malta until 1798 when the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the island on their way to Egypt.
Protestant countries founded several different orders inspired by the Knights of Malta and there are numerous groups which make use of the name, or some variant of it, with no real connection at all to the original order (much like the Knights Templar). The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is the only valid continuation but, again, it is for all intents and purposes something new. Among those royals who have been granted ranks in the Knights of Malta are King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Prince Albert II of Monaco, King Albert II of the Belgians, Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg and Vittorio Emanuele Prince of Naples (former Crown Prince of Italy). There are over 10,000 members of the order around the world, membership is by invitation only and until recently was exclusive to the aristocracy. Today, however, the lower ranks are open to commoners while the higher still require an extensive pedigree.