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By Vagabond, 2004; Revised
Category: Medieval Europe: Political History
The Knights of Malta were originally known as the Knights Hospitaller or Knights of St. John (named for St. John the Almoner a 7th Century Cypriot and Patriarch of the church at Alexandria, he was well known for founding and maintaining hospitals.)
In 1020 the first hospital was founded in Jerusalem by the knights, a group of 3rd and 4th sons of noble families from across Europe who had no land, no obligation to the church, and very good connections. The order was structured into Inns or Auberge for each of the different tongues or languages of the members. Visiting Knights from France would meet at the Inn of the tongue of France, those from Provence at their own Inn. There were Inns representing more than 10 languages, although French and Latin were the official Tongues of the Order. Knights took vows of Poverty and Chastity, and the political structure was based on many of the Monastic orders of the day.
The order set out founding hospitals for Pilgrims to the Holy Land, pledged to the maintenance of these hospitals (as the Knights Templar pledged to protect the Pilgrims.) The Knights originally served in the hospitals themselves, caring for and ministering to their patients: they accepted all pilgrims regardless of social standing. The hospital conditions here were not to be duplicated for centuries; by the 19th Century sanitary conditions began to reach this standard again in most of Europe.
In 1113 the Knights Hospitaller were officially recognized by the pope. This formal deed of incorporation is now in the Royal Malta Library. They worked in a black robe with white eight pointed cross, to distinguish the Hospitallers from the many military orders in the Holy Land at that time, but out of necessity a military branch developed to protect the Hospitals. This military branch of the Knights Hospitaller became for a time the strongest military force in the Mediterranean, wearing the white surcoat with a red cross that has become the symbol which we know today as the Maltese Cross.
In 1187 the Knights were driven from Jerusalem, and in 1291 driven from Acre. They were the last European Christian military order to leave the Holy Land. They retired to Cyprus, then to Rhodes in 1306, led by Grand Master Foulgues de Villaret. The Grand Master's Palace on Rhodes was the center of a group of fortresses on the Turkish and Greek coasts and scattered through the islands of the Mediterranean. From here, the Knights joined with the French, Italians and Byzantines in fighting against the Saracens, and from their base on Rhodes were a thorn in the side of Ottoman shipping throughout the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.
One after another, the smaller fortresses fell to the growing might of the Ottoman Empire. The fortress on Rhodes was besieged in 1444, and again in 1482, but both times the knights held against great odds. In 1522, a third siege took place when Suleiman the Magnificent sent an army of 100,000 against only 600 Knights, 1000 auxiliary troops, and the starving local residents of Rhodes. The Knights held the fortress for six months while pope Hadrian VI tried in vain to get reinforcements through the Ottoman Blockade.
On January 1, 1523, the Knights were betrayed, and the Ottomans were let into the city of Rhodes. Popular legend reports that Suleiman had such respect for the ability of the surviving Kinghts that they were allowed to retire from Rhodes rather than surrender. Grand Master Phillipe Villiers De L'Isle Adam sailed from Rhodes with the 180 surviving Knights.
In 1530 the Knights were given Malta by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and King of Spain. Some stories relate that the price for Malta was that they give Charles yearly one black hunting falcon - the beginnings of the legend of the Maltese Falcon. Malta was to become their new base from which to defend Europe against the incursions of the Ottomans.
In 1565 the Ottomans undertook an unsuccessful siege of Malta which some say broke the strength of the Ottoman army, and ended the Ottoman threat to Europe.
The Knights ruled on Malta until 1798, when Napoleon took Malta, leaving the Knights again homeless. The headquarters of the order moved to Rome, where it survives in a somewhat changed form today.
The British order was sequestrated by Henry VIII and remained dormant until 1831, when it was revived by the French Auberge. In 1888 the British Chapter received a charter from Queen Victoria that is unique even today in that it admits all persons regardless of religious affiliation. The British Chapter is now represented in Rome, and in 1961 made a convention of Alliance with the remaining orders in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden.