We are all aware of the Knights of Saint John’s influence in Malta, but how many know who they REALLY were? And where are they now?
The Order of the Knights of Saint John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, was established in the eleventh century as a group of monks responsible for tending to the sick at the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem. This was during the Crusades, and they later evolved into a military order, defending crusader territory in the Holy Lands, and safeguarding the dangerous routes taken by medieval pilgrims.
Following the conquest of the Holy Land by Islamic forces, the Order first operated from Rhodes, over which it was sovereign, and later from Malta, where it administered a vassal state under the Spanish Viceroy of Sicily. The Knights stayed in Malta for 268 years, transforming it into a rich and flourishing island with mighty defences and a capital city coveted by the great powers of Europe.
The Head of the Order was called a Grand Master, and he was answerable only to the Pope. Knights were chosen from the aristocratic families of Europe and on acceptance into the Order, they were sworn to celibacy, poverty and obedience.
The eight-pointed cross was officially adopted by the Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John in 1126, and symbolises the eight obligations or aspirations of the Knights. The eight points also represent each of the territories from where the Knights originated, known as langues. In the fifteenth century these were Auvergne, Provence, France, Aragon, Castille and Portugal, Italy, Baviere (Germany) and England (with Scotland and Ireland). The cross remains a symbol of the island of Malta to this day and is referred to as the Maltese Cross.
In 1530, the Order of St. John arrived in Malta and within a short time, each of the eight langues erected their auberges in Birgu. The auberges served as accommodation for the Knights, as well as being hostels which housed pilgrims and visitors from the relevant countries. The two French langues of Provence and Auvergne shared one building, so that seven hostels were built in Birgu, of which only three have survived to this day: the Auberge de France, the Auberge d’Angleterre and the Auberge de Provence and Auvergne.
In 1565, Grand Master Fra’ Jean de Valette led the Knights of Saint John during the Great Siege against the Ottoman Empire. They successfully defended the island and were victorious after three months of incredibly arduous fighting against incredible odds. Recognising the importance to properly defend the Grand Harbour, the Grandmaster embarked on the ambitious plan to build an incredible city on the peninsula opposite Birgu.
After 1566, the Order moved its auberges to its newly built city which was called after its founder, de Vallette. New hostels were constructed for all the langues, with the exception of the English one, which was forced to disband due to the Reformation of 1534. The well-known Maltese architect Gerolamo Cassar was commissioned to design the seven auberges. Each langue was responsible for the financing of its building which had to be built close to a particular section of the fortifications. This was the section that the langue was responsible for, especially when it came to the defence of the city.
The Auberge was administered by a grand gentleman knight known as the Bali, or the Grand Conservator. He was also responsible for food purchases as well clothing and for the provision of transport and all that was necessary for both the hospitals and the troops.
Over the following centuries, the Knights created a veritable stronghold in the middle of the Mediterranean. The islands were eventually conquered by Napoleon in 1798 on his way to Egypt. After just a few years of French Rule, Malta was ruled by the British until it gained independence in 1964.
The Knights never regained control of Malta, and although the Order continued to exist in a diminished form, the Knights became dispersed across Europe and Russia. In 1834, the Order settled definitively in Rome, and once again, its main concern became hospital work, as it had been when the Order was first established.
Today, the Order is especially involved in helping war victims and casualties of natural disasters by providing medical assistance, caring for refugees and distributing medicines and basic equipment for survival.
The Order of the Knights of Saint John is the world’s oldest surviving order of chivalry.