The Knights of Malta and their rule over the Maltese islands
The Knights of Malta (also referred to as the Order of Saint John) ruled the Maltese islands for centuries and left a strong mark. A lot of the structures they built centuries ago are still very popular in sightseeing tours and excursions in Malta.
The impact of the Knights on Malta and its history that is still highly visible today. You can find various buildings and landmarks around that have survived the test of time.
You can also see the influence of the Knights through the use of the Maltese Cross. That symbol is still very much associated with Malta as a nation.
Who were the Knights of Malta?
The Knights of Malta were (and still are – more on that below) a religious (Roman Catholic) and military order under its own Papal charter, that was established in the 11th century.
Before the established Order existed, their predecessors (then referred to as the Knights Hospitaller) were associated with a hospital in Amalfi (present-day Italy). Their primary mission was to provide care for the sick, poor or injured pilgrims returning from the Holy Land (which refers to the present-day region of Israel and the Palestinian territories).
The Knights’ main mission was to defend the Holy Land and provide care for the injured. They built several forts and estates in the area to support that mission.
Organisation and structure
Around 1300 the Knights organised themselves through langues or tongues, which were administrative divisions roughly based on the geographical distribution of the Orders’ members and possessions.
Each of these langues had a headquarters, referred to as Auberges (which translates to hostel or inn in French).
The seven langues that existed were:
The Knights were led by a Grand Master as the head of the order.
The Knights in Cyprus and Rhodes
After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, the Order settled in Cyprus but found themselves in a weak position. They took on a four-year campaign to establish a new stronghold in Rhodes (part of present-day Greece).
Between 1310 and 1522, Rhodes was to be the home of the Knights Hospitaller, who by then were referred to as the Knights of Rhodes.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) and constant threats of pirates (including the Barbary pirates – mostly Ottoman) meant that the Knights were forced to become a more militarised force.
Although they managed to withstand fierce attacks on Rhodes until 1522, they were vastly outnumbered during a 6-month siege by the Ottoman Empire and were defeated.
The remaining Kights, out of a force of around 600 knights and 4,500 soldiers in Rhodes, were allowed to escape to Sicily with no fixed headquarters until 1530.
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The Knights of the Military Order of Saint John in Malta
The year 1530 is when the Knights’ chapter in Malta starts. After years of not having a fixed quarters to call their home, Charles V of Spain (then ruler of Malta as King of Sicily) gave the Knights the islands of Malta and Gozo, as well as the city of Tripoli (present-day capital of Libya).
When the Knights took hold of Malta and Gozo, the islands were seen as small and offering little resources. Although it was a step forward from having no home at all, the Knights accepted the gift of Malta because it was basically better than having no base at all.
That meant that Malta was never meant to be the Knights’ permanent home. They still hoped to one day recapture Rhodes but after the Great Siege of 1565 decided to stay in Malta and build a stronghold there.
Making do, the Order started building a naval base in Malta because they recgonised that the location meant it could prove to be a strategic value. Positioned at the centre of the Mediterranean, having a stronghold in Malta meant it could serve as a gateway between East and West and in that way support the Knights’ core missions of defense and support. In the end, they transformed Malta from a bare island to a thriving stronghold with magnificent fortifications.
Although they were offered the key to Mdina (its then capital city), the Knights decided to settle in present-day Birgu (Vittoriosa) and improved Fort St. Angelo (which had existed in Medieval times as a castle) to be their main fortification and seat of power.
The local population initially weren’t very enthusiastic about the intruders, with the Maltese being excluded from serving the order. However, both groups peacefully coexisted, with the Maltese recognising the protection and relative improvement in prosperity which the Knights brought along.
Invasion of Gozo and loss of Tripoli
1551 Proved to be an important year. Up until that point the Knights were under constant threat from Ottoman pirates led by commander Dragut Reis (a highly skilled and successful military prowess).
The Ottomans, having allowed the remaining Knights to escape their previous stronghold of Rhodes, weren’t happy to see them re-established and developing in Malta (and Tripoli).
Dragut and his admiral Sinan Pasha attempted to invade Malta in 1551 with a force of 10,000 men, entering what we now refer to as Marsamxett harbour. This harbour is located on the West side of the Sciberras peninsula on which Valletta was built (although the city didn’t exist at this point in time) while the Knights in Birgu were located on the East side, across present-day Grand Harbour.
After landing, the Ottoman forces marched on Birgu and Fort St. Angelo but soon realised it was too well-fortified to be taken easily.
They decided to raid and loot villages and take Mdina instead, but by the time word spread, the city was also up in arms and an attack was decided against. Meanwhile, their fleet that lay anchored at Marsamxett harbour were under attack from relief forces.
Changing plans yet again, Dragut sent Sinan to attack Gozo and its citadel. Although also heavily fortified, the bombardment that ensued moved local governor Gelatian de Sessa to capitulate. The Ottomans sacked the citadel, enslaved the 6,000 or so Gozitan civilians that sought protection in the citadel and took control over the island.
Knowing that it wouldn’t be long for the Ottomans to try and take Malta again, the Knights set out to fortify Fort St. Angelo and in a very short period of time (less than six months) built Fort St. Michael (at present-day Senglea, which like Birgu forms part of the Three Cities) and Fort St. Elmo across the harbour, at the tip of present-day Valletta.
That proved to be a crucial move that laid the foundation for victory in the Great Siege. Having been fortified as a strategic stronghold for the Christians, they were well aware of the big threat of the Ottomans taking control of such a strategically important location as Malta was back then.
The Great Siege of 1565
Being informed by spies in Constantinople of an imminent attack in early 1565, then Grand Master de Valette put in place preparations for the battle to come. He ordered all crops to be harvested, even those that weren’t yet ripe to ensure that the opposing forces wouldn’t be able to source food for their troops. He also made sure all wells were poisoned to make the situation even tougher.
The Ottoman armada consisted of a force of 36,000-40,000 soldiers that were sent to take Malta in March 1565. It was a force expected to be easily large enough to take on the Knights who only commanded a force of around 6,100 soldiers and civilians (of which only around 500 were Knights Hospitaller).
What ensued was a battle and siege that became legendary in Western modern history. Not just because of the Knights’ victory against all odds, but also because what was at stake was potential domination and control over the whole Mediterranean by the Ottoman Empire.
Although the Ottomans successfully gained control over Fort St. Elmo, they lost around 6,000 in that battle alone, for example.
Several attacks on Fort St. Michael (Senglea) followed but progress was slow and losses in troops high and apart from becoming demoralised, it was only a matter of time for relief forces to come to the aid of the Knights.
In September, that force in the shape of around 8,000 men sent by the Viceroy of Sicily under pressure from his most senior officers, landed in the North of Malta. They massacred a large part of what remained of the Ottoman forces.
Despite large casualty numbers, the Knights were victorious in their defense of Malta, and of the Christian West as a whole, having successfully prevented the Ottomans from gaining a foothold on the doorstep of Western Europe.
The Knights and Malta after Great Siege
Now firmly controlling and defending the permanent residence of the Knights Hospitaller and with victory in hand that prevented an even bigger Ottoman threat to Christendom, the Order received funding and architectural expertise to improve fortifications in Malta.
During their 268-year reign, the Knights built various structures as part of major projects, most notably:
- The city of Valletta, which still retains most of its fortifications and key buildings built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Named in honour of Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette, who withstood the Ottomans, the city became the seat of power of the Knights and is Malta’s capital city nowadays.
- In support of their original role of caretakers, the Knights built several hospitals, most notably La Sacra Infermeria in Valletta, which became known to be one of the best hospitals in Europe. It also served as the School of Anatomy and Surgery in the 17th century.
- Several fortifications around the Grand Harbour area, including the Floriana and Santa Margherita Lines, as well as the Cottonera Lines. Parts of those fortifications are still visible today, although modern infrastructure demands have had an impact over the years unfortunately. Not to mention the actions of subsequent rulers of Malta.
- The construction of several watch towers around Malta and Gozo which together improved coastline defense and served as an early warning system for invasions.
- Additional forts in strategic places, including Fort Ricasoli, Fort Tigné, For Manoel and Fort Chambray in Gozo.
Decline of the Knights’ rule in Malta
During the 18th century, during the reign of Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, the Knights successfully obtained sovereign rule over Malta, cutting themselves loose of the Kingdom of Sicily.
That sovereign rule only lasted a few decades, with the rise of power of Napoleon, Grand Master Pinto’s lavish rule and bankruptcy as a result as well as a growing dislike of the Knights among the Maltese.
Napoleon managed to seize Malta in 1798, with little resistance from the Knights, although the French themselves were ousted by Maltese revolutionaries who received support from Great Britain. Although the Knights tried to regain control, Malta became a colony of the British Empire officially in 1813.
Once again the Knights of the Order of Saint John no longer had a headquarters.
Knights of Malta documentary
Here’s a good overview of the Knights’ history in a documentary by Deutsche Welle (German broadcaster) in English:
The Sovereign Order of Malta today
Focusing on humanitarian activities in the original spirit of the Knights Hospitaller and shedding its military functions, the Order of Saint John settled in Rome in 1834.
In the late 20th century, treaties were signed with the Republic of Malta for the Order to be able to use the upper portion of Fort St. Angelo as well as St. John’s Cavalier in Valletta to support its missions.
Still strongly religious in its practices, the Order is nowadays an international organisation that carries out humanitarian missions and charitable activities around the world. The Order is financially supported by the UN, governments across European Union, foundations and private donors, having around 1.5 billion Euros in support annually.