Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Knights of Malta

Next to the Knights Templar, probably the most well known group of Crusader knights is the Knights of Malta, also known as the Hospitallers and the Knights of St John. Alongside the Templars they were one of the preeminent defenders of the Christian presence in the Holy Land, mostly the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Their names come from the fact that St John the Baptist was their patron saint (hence, Knights of St John) and because they originally ran a hospital for Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem they became known as the Hospitallers. Later, after the fall of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem they took the name of whatever their base of operations was, particularly Rhodes and finally Malta. The Knights of St John were one of the earliest military orders, founded around 1099 in the aftermath of the First Crusade and the capture of Jerusalem by the Christian forces. As their name suggests, they got their start simply running a hospital, founded by Blessed Gerard Thom, a native of southern Italy (exactly where is disputed) who became guardian of a hospital built in Jerusalem. Eventually, the need for military protection became more evident as his organization grew until it was granted official sanction by Pope Paschall II in 1113. This was because pilgrims became more and more in need of armed escorts to ensure their safety throughout the region but, it is important to note, even when they became a specifically military religious order, the Knights Hospitaller never lost their commitment to their humanitarian medical role.

Like other religious military orders, the Knights Hospitaller had religious as well as military discipline to keep but they always maintained both a fighting arm and a medical arm to look after the sick and injured pilgrims. Even the most illustrious and high born knights were still expected to spend time caring for the most poor and destitute of the hospital. In fact, the earliest records of the Knights Hospitaller deal exclusively with their medical role and it is not until much later that we can find documents dealing with the rules and regulations for their soldierly role. The “uniform” was a black robe with a white 8-pointed cross; another symbol being a white cross on a red field to distinguish them from the Templars who displayed a red cross on a white field. There were three types of Knights Hospitaller; the military brothers, the medical brothers and the religious brothers or chaplains who were the clergymen attached to the order and loyal to the grand master of the order. On the battlefield, the Knights Hospitaller were quick to distinguish themselves as one of the most elite groups of soldiers of the Christian powers and their reputation spread throughout both the territories of Christendom as well as the Islamic lands. As they grew with their success the Knights Hospitaller established hospitals and fortified bases throughout the Holy Land with seven major castles and over a hundred smaller outposts throughout the region.

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.

The Hospitallers became such a large and significant military order that they reflected almost the entirety of European Christendom in their ranks. Because of that the order was divided into “tongues” which were Aragon, Castile, Italy, France, Auvergne, Provence, England and Germany based on language. Obviously, as with much of the Crusades in general, the French presence was usually the largest but the ranks included knights from all across Christendom. They also attracted an increasingly illustrious membership with many members of the most old and noble families joining the order. One example of this was a member of the House of Savoy, which eventually became the Royal Family of Italy, and the motto of the Savoy comes from the ancestor who defended Rhodes with the Knights of St John and the Savoy arms of a white cross on a red shield are obviously those of the Knights of St John (or at the time, the Knights of Rhodes). During this time the military duties of the knights became increasingly dominant as a matter of necessity. Besides harassment from Barbary pirates, the Knights had to defend Rhodes from a number of Muslim invasions, defeating forces vastly greater than their own. Because this was rather embarrassing, the Ottoman Sultan made the eradication of the Knights of Rhodes a top priority and after conquering Constantinople in 1453 the Turks came after the knights with a vengeance.

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 the spearhead of what was planned as a major invasion of southern Europe. The idea was to conquer Malta, then Sicily and then to advance up the “boot” of Italy to capture Rome itself. Suleiman the Magnificent sent about 180 ships and 31,000 men against the Knights of Malta who numbered only 641 knights backed up by 8,000 auxiliaries. They were led by Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette who had himself spent a year as a slave in a Turkish galley. He had a religious process, led by the Blessed Sacrament, in La Valette (at least as it is now known) to invoke the help of God as the Turkish fleet approached. The attack began on May 18, 1565 and the Turks attacked with determined ferocity, at one point launching six attacks on the Christian walls in one day. However, despite taking terrible losses, the Knights and their companions just managed to hang on and repel each attack. They knew, again, the odds against them were hopeless, but they fought on while waiting for a Spanish fleet sent by King Philip II to come to their rescue. The battle was long, hard and desperate. Maltese civilians pelted the Turkish attackers with stones, taken from the rubble of the holes blasted in the walls by Turkish artillery. Women fought on the walls and children carried food and water to the fighting forces. Everything was in ruins, ammunition supplies were so exhausted that the Knights had to fire back the canon balls the Turks shot at them and eventually there were only 600 Christian defenders left alive. But, just as the Turks were preparing what would likely have been the final attack, the Spanish fleet arrived and the Turks, who had taken heavy losses themselves plus being weakened by sickness and the climate, withdrew.

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.

The Knights would never rule Malta again as, after the French occupation ended, the island would become part of the British Empire. Some of the Knights joined other orders, most simply waited for a new home to be provided for them as had happened in the past. One monarch who wanted to come to their rescue was Tsar Paul I of Russia who welcomed a large number of Knights to St Petersburg. He admired their traditions and sympathized with their plight. Catholic authorities were rather shocked when the knights in Russia elected the Tsar as their Grand Master and he founded a Russian establishment for the Knights of Malta that was open to all Christians rather than only Catholics (which was necessary for his new “job” as he, of course, was a devout Russian Orthodox). The Catholic Church did not and does not recognize the Grand Mastership of Tsar Paul as legitimate but the Russian establishment carried on for the rest of the life of the Russian Empire and even afterwards in the exile community. In Western Europe, the order was homeless and fatherless until 1879 when Pope Leo XIII appointed a new Grand Master and in 1834 it was more formally revised as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a purely humanitarian organization with nothing military about it aside from their traditional attire. This order was given a home in Rome and still exists today, including among its ranks a great many nobles, royals (mostly non-reigning royals unfortunately) and some of the most successful people in the world. However, they are really not the same as the knights of old and are purely a charitably organization which carries out and funds medical and social work.

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.


  1. Interesting post about a group I had not known that much about. Thanks for writing-

  2. There is also the British Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem. (Grand Prior : Duke of Gloucester) still using the black robe and 8 pointed cross insignia. It now concentrates on medical services and charity work particularly the international first aid and medical assistance group the 'St John's Ambulance Brigade'. despite henry VII's best efforts at stamping them out ,on any given day in Commonwealth countries you can see the 'Hospitillars Cross' on the uniforms of trained first aid volunteers at football matches, sports events, pop concerts, street parades etc..


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