One of the most enigmatic orders in history, yet one whose actions are still quite visible today, the Knights of Malta has been the subject of many books, movies, video games and other media in recent times. While they were indeed competent warriors, they were also builders and great administrators. The structures they’ve built on the island of Malta centuries ago are still standing to this day and are very popular tourist spots. But just who were the Knights of Malta? How have they become such a well-known order?
We’ll be exploring just that.
The Knights of Malta, otherwise known as the Knights Hospitaller and the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, traces their beginnings to the 11th century, when they first operated in the Marine Republic of Amalfi, in present-day Italy, under the guidance of their founder, brother Gerard Thom. The order was originally tasked to supervise the construction and administration of a church, covenant, and, as the name “Hospitaller” would suggest, a hospital in Jerusalem. Their primary directive was to provide care for the poor, sick, or injured pilgrims going to or returning from the Holy Land.
The fame of the Hospitallers grew, and eventually gained acknowledgement from Pope Paschal II in 1113, where they were officially recognized as a formal religious order, independent from secular rule. The order eventually grew not just in influence, but also in the number of its members, where they strengthened their presence in Rhodes, Cyprus, as well as in Malta.
Before claiming the island of Malta for themselves in 1530 and created their chapter in the island, the order was without a territory of its own. The history of the island of Malta is closely intertwined with the Knights of Malta from the 16th century onwards, and while it’s nearly impossible to mention one without the other, Malta itself has its own history prior to the Order, and if you want to know more about it, the website https://www.choiceholidays.eu/blog/history/malta.aspx has a brief overview of Malta’s history, culture and other information on its scenic sites.
The Fall of Jerusalem and the Rise of the Order
The main mission of the Knights of Malta was to defend the Holy Land, referring to a swath of territory in present-day Israel and Palestine, as well as to care for the Pilgrims that pass through. To accomplish this, the Knights built several forts, hospitals and estates in the region to support their objectives.
The fall Jerusalem in 1291 to the Saracens forced the Order to relocate to the Island of Cyprus, but their position there was not ideal, so they were forced to reestablish in the island of Rhodes after 4 years of campaigning. The order made Rhodes their home for 200 years, where they were then known as the Knights of Rhodes.
The eventual rise of the Ottoman Empire and the constant attacks from Barbary pirates forced the knights to become more militarized, fortifying the island of Rhodes, allowing them to hold the island for a long time. Despite their efforts, however, a vast Ottoman force lay a 6-month long siege of Rhodes, where they defeated the Knights and forced the approximately 5,000 surviving members out.
The Order settled in Sicily after their defeat until 1530, where they eventually took control of Malta.
The Great Siege of Malta
The Island of Malta became the Order’s home after they took control in 1530, but the constant threat of Ottoman attacks loomed heavily over the Mediterranean horizon. Constant raids kept the order in high alert, which eventually culminated to the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, arguably the most legendary military last stands in history, rivalled only by the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae.
The attack force sent by the Ottomans numbered 35,000 – 40,000 soldiers and made landfall in March 1565. It was expected that a force that size could easily overpower the island’s defenders, who only numbered 6,100, of which only 500 were actual knights. The rest were regular soldiers, militia and civilians.
Despite being heavily outnumbered, the order, thanks to weeks of preparation, managed to inflict heavy casualties on the Ottoman army. Despite the Knights of Malta sustaining heavy casualties themselves, they emerged victorious, and continued to rule the island for the next 268 years.
The Knights’ Reign
Their reign after the siege was relatively peaceful. The knights focused more on administering and building in Malta, where they’ve built numerous structures still standing today. These include the City of Valletta, La Sacra Infermeria, and several forts and towers built to defend the island.
The Knights continued to administer Malta until the island was seized by the French Empire led by Napoleon in 1798. After the Napoleonic War, the British took control of Malta, and while the Knights tried to regain control after that, the island became an official British colony in 1813.
The Knights Today
The Order of Saint John eventually shed their military functions and began focusing on more humanitarian efforts. They eventually settled in Rome and is still considered to be a strongly religious order. It is now an international organization that carries out humanitarian and charitable activities around the world, no doubt just as important as their actions were centuries ago.