Early HistoryIn 1020, merchants from Amalfi and Salerno in Italy were given permission by the Caliph of Egypt to build a hospice in Jerusalem. The hospice, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, took in Christian pilgrims traveling to visit the birthplace of Christ.
The monastic order was founded by a man named Gerard following the First Crusade, his role as founder was confirmed by a Papal Bull of Pope Pascal II in 1113. Gerard acquired territory and revenues for his order throughout the Kingdom of Jerusalem and beyond. His successor, Raymond of Provence, established the first significant Hospitaller infirmary near to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Initially the group just cared for those pilgrims who made it to Jerusalem but the order soon extended into providing an armed escort to pilgrims. The escort soon grew into a substantial force.
Together with the Knights Templar they became one of the most powerful Christian groups in the area. The order came to distinguish itself in battles with the Muslims, its soldiers wearing a black surcoat with a white cross. By the mid 12th century the order was clearly divided into military brothers and those who worked with the sick. It was still a religious order and had useful privileges granted by the Papacy - the order was exempt from all authority save that of the Pope, it paid no tithes and was allowed its own religious buildings. Many of the more substantial Christian fortifications in the Holy Land were the work of either the Templars or Hospitallers, at the height of the Kingdom of Jerusalem the Hospitallers held seven great forts and held 140 other estates in the area.
Knights of RhodesThe rising power of Islam eventually pushed the Knights out of their traditional holdings in Jerusalem. After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Jerusalem itself in 1187), the Knights were confined to the Principality of Tripoli and when Acre was captured in 1291 the order sought refuge in the Kingdom of Cyprus. They then orgamized a fleet, and in 1309 they took the island of Rhodes as their new base of operations
The Knights Templar were suppressed in 1312 and much of their property was given to the Hospitallers. The holdings were organized into eight tongues (one each in Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, Castile, Germany and England). On Rhodes, now known as the Knights of Rhodes they were forced to become a more militarized force, fighting especially with African pirates (the Barbary coast pirates). They withstood two invasions in the 15th century, one by the Sultan of Egypt in 1444 and another by Mehmed II in 1480, after the fall of Constantinople made the Knights a priority target.
However in 1522 an entirely new sort of force arrived when 400 ships under the command of Suleiman the Magnificent delivered 200,000 men to the island. Against this force the Knights had about 7,000 men-at-arms, and the walls of the city. The resulting siege lasted six months, at the end of which the few remaining Knights were allowed to leave Rhodes and retreated to the Kingdom of Sicily.
Knights of MaltaAfter seven years of moving from place to place in Europe, the Knights were re-established on Malta in 1530 by the order of Pope Clement VIII. Their annual fee for the island was a single Maltese falcon. Here the once-again re-named Knights of Malta continued their actions against piracy, their fleet targetting the Barbary pirates.
Although they had only a small number of ships, they nevertheless quickly drew the ire of the Ottomans who were less than happy to see the order re-established. Accordingly they assembled another massive army in order to dislodge the Knights from Malta, and in 1565 invaded. At first the battle looked to be a repeat of the one on Rhodes. Most of the city was destroyed and about half the Knights died in battle. But things changed dramatically when a relief force arrived from Spain. In the ensuing retreat the Ottomans lost some 30,000 men, enough to secure the island for a time. The siege is vividly portrayed in the frescoes of Matteo Perez d'Aleccio in the Hall of St Michael and St George, also known as the Throne Room, in the Grandmaster’s Palace, Valletta. Copies of these, painted in oils by Perez d'Aleccio himself betweeen 1576 and 1581, can be found in the Centre Bridge Room of the Queen’s House, Greenwich, London. After the siege a new city had to be built -- the present city of Valletta, so named in memory of its valiant grand master La Valette who had sustained this siege.
In 1571 the growing Ottoman fleet decided to give challenge once again, but this time were met at sea by a huge and very modern Spanish fleet under the command of Don Juan de Austria (son of Emperor Karl V). The Ottomans were outgunned, outmanuvered and outrun, and by the end of the day almost the entirety of their fleet was destroyed or captured in what is now known as the Battle of Lepanto. The Ottomans were never again to be a naval force of import, and the security of the Knights was thus ensured.
Following the victory at Lepanto the Knights continued to attack pirates, and their base became a centre for slave trading, selling captured Africans and Turks and conversely freeing Christian slaves. Malta remained a slave-market until well into the eighteenth century. It required a thousand slaves to equip merely the galleys of the order.
The group lost most of its European holdings following the rise of Protestantism but survived on Malta. They had a strong presence within the pre-revolutionary French Navy. When De Poincy was appointed Governor of the French colony on St Kitts in 1639, he was a prominent Knight of St. John and dressed his retinue with the emblems of the order. The Order's presence in the Caribbean was eclipsed with his death in 1660. He also bought the island of Saint Croix as his personal estate and deeded it to the Knights of St. John. In 1665 St. Croix was bought by the French West India Company. This marked an end to their exploits in the Caribbean.
Their Mediterranean stronghold of Malta was captured by Napoleon in 1798 when he made his expedition to Egypt. They continued to exist in a diminished form and negotiated with European governments for a return to power.
The group soon split into a number of factions but the order still exists in a humanitarian and ceremonial form today. Now known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, they still enjoy a special status, though their activities are now humanitarian and spiritual in nature and focus on charity, especially medical and relief work.
- Order of Malta - Official site of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta