The creation of the Order
The histories of the emergence of knight orders date back to the times of the first Crusades. After the capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099, several orders were formed at once, one of which survived all the vicissitudes of historical events and managed to survive to this day as an organisation with sovereign rights, occupying the second place in its antiquity and continuous existence after the Papal State, now more commonly known as the Vatican.
Starting to settle in the captured Jerusalem, the Crusaders discovered a Christian hospital, the history of which goes back to the beginning of the 7th century, when Saint Gregory the Great in 600 sent his emissary, Abbot Probus, to Jerusalem with the aim of organising the construction of medical facilities for pilgrims. In the year 800, the hospital was expanded by the order of Charlemagne. Over the subsequent period, the hospital was built, expanded, destroyed, and restored again. The last restoration took place relatively shortly before the events of the First Crusade, in the middle of the 11th century. Merchants from the Italian city of Amalfi, which at that time was an independent trading republic, received permission from the Egyptian caliph Ali-al-Zahir to restore the previously destroyed hospital for pilgrims. At that time, the journey to the Holy Land was long, difficult, and dangerous, so many pilgrims needed medical care upon arrival in Jerusalem. Upon completion of the work, the merchants decorated the hospital with the coat of arms of their city—the Amalfitan eight-pointed cross, which is now much more commonly known as the “Maltese”.
The Crusaders, many of whom were wounded during the siege of the city, also needed medical assistance. Then, some of them, after recovery, began to help other wounded knights. After that, the knights formed a special squad that patrolled the path from Jaffa, from the coast where ships arrived from Europe, to Jerusalem, which was located slightly inland. The knights assisted them in ensuring a safe path to complete the pilgrimage because this route for pilgrims presented some danger because local gangs might attack them.
As a result, an organisation gradually developed around the hospital that Gerard, a Benedictine monk, founded. Since the hospital was located on the site of a previously destroyed church of St. John, the knights began to call themselves Johannites, or simply hospitallers. On February 15, 1113, Pope Paschal II issued a bull in which he recognised the Order of the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem and took it under his personal patronage. From this moment begins the official existence of the Order, which will subsequently be called Maltese. However, it will take a little more than 400 years before the Order moves to Malta as the place of its permanent deployment.
The Order in the Holy Land
Following the conclusion of the First Crusade, several Christian states were established in Jerusalem and its environs. This provided an opportunity for the further development of newly formed orders in this territory, including the Hospitallers. They began to receive reinforcements from Europe – young knights flocked to the orders. Being representatives of European nobility but deprived of the opportunity to inherit due to the principle of primogeniture, they were forced to seek their military fortune in the lands of the Levant. In addition, the orders began to receive land grants in Europe from Christian rulers, as well as fortresses in the Holy Land, for the purposes of security, further expansion of presence, and also the influence of Christian kingdoms on the recently conquered territories.
One of the most famous such citadels was the fortress of Krak des Chevaliers, which the Order of Hospitallers received in the lands of modern-day Syria. The fortress has survived to this day but recently suffered significant damage due to the consequences of the civil war in Syria in 2014.
To make governance more effective, the Order began to form and develop its own infrastructure, resulting in an administrative division into priories, bailiwicks, and commanderies. In addition to the title of Grand Master, other important positions appeared in the Order, to which the most deserving and respected knights were elected. Some of these positions, such as the Grand Hospitaller or the Receiver of the Common Treasure, still exist in the Order today. The main symbols of the Order became a white straight cross on a red background, as well as an eight-pointed cross, which would later be called “Maltese.”
Despite the significant resources received by the knight orders, they proved insufficient to effectively counter the attempts of Muslims to reclaim lost lands. In 1187, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin, took Jerusalem and expelled the Christian rulers from there. The remnants of the Christian forces, as well as the knight orders, were forced to move slightly northward to the city of Acre. In the mid-13th century, Jerusalem was briefly returned to Christian rule, but it was soon lost again, this time finally. In 1291, Europeans were expelled from the Holy Land, and the knight orders of the Hospitallers and Templars evacuated from the lost Acre to the nearby island of Cyprus.
The Order in Cyprus and Rhodes
The duration of the Hospitallers’ stay in Cyprus was relatively short. At that time, the island was under the rule of the kings of the Lusignan dynasty, for whom the relocation from the Holy Land of two major knight orders was perceived as a source of potential problems. Both orders, being independent Catholic organisations and directly subordinate to the Roman Pope, competed with each other and openly disliked each other, provoking constant conflicts. In such an environment, it was obvious that two influential orders on the small island of Cyprus would clearly be cramped. After some time, the Hospitallers began to look for a place where they could move for a more comfortable existence. And such a place was soon found – it was an island in the Aegean Sea, not far from the coast of Anatolia – Rhodes.
At the beginning of the 14th century, the island of Rhodes was still formally owned by Byzantium, but in fact, it had long been a centre of maritime piracy and was under the rule of local Greek and Muslim corsairs. In 1309, the Order managed to expel them from the island and settle there for the next two hundred years. During the hospitalers’ stay in Rhodes, the appearance of the island changed significantly. A large number of new fortifications were erected, including the famous Rhodes fortress, rebuilt in the early 14th century from the building of a former Byzantine palace that had previously stood in the same place. The knights themselves began to be called by the name of the island, “Rhodian”.
In the “Hospitaller” period, trade on Rhodes was actively developing, and diplomatic relations were being established with neighbours, including the Ottoman state itself. After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II continued the Turkish expansion into neighbouring lands. After a relatively peaceful coexistence with the Johannites, in 1480, the Sultan decided to annex Rhodes to his possessions and put an end to the existence of the Order on this island. The result was a three-month siege of Rhodes by the Turks, but the knights under the command of Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson, albeit with great difficulty and losses, managed to defend their possessions.
However, 42 years later, the Turks came again. In 1522, Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent appeared under the walls of Rhodes and brought a huge army, which numbered from 30 to 40 thousand soldiers. After almost a half-year siege, Rhodes fell, and the Sultan allowed the knights to leave the island on honourable terms, with all the weapons, property, and relics. After two centuries of prosperity on Rhodes, the Order had to look for a new haven again to continue the fight against the spread of Islam in the Mediterranean.
Knights of Malta
After seven years of wandering through the territories of Christian rulers in Europe, the Order was finally offered to move to Malta in 1530 by Emperor Charles V. In addition to this, the Order received the small neighbouring island of Gozo and the city of Tripoli on the coast of North Africa, recently conquered by the Spanish.
The island of Malta did not seem attractive to the knights—the absence of rivers and forests, a hot climate, an Arabized but Christian small population. Nevertheless, there was no choice, and the knights began to fortify and develop the island. From this moment on, they acquired the name they bear to this day – “Maltese knights”. The island had to be built up almost from scratch, requiring serious financial resources, and the knights had to rely mainly on themselves for this.
While still on Rhodes, the knights had mastered maritime affairs perfectly. They built excellent galleys and managed them highly professionally. On Malta, the development of naval art was continued. Although there were not many galleys (less than ten), they terrified the sea routes used by Muslim sailors. The knights managed to carry out several major operations to capture significant financial resources, which allowed them to strengthen Malta’s defensive infrastructure. In addition to man-made fortifications, nature itself helped the knights by creating an intricate coastline of the island with convenient bays where impregnable fortresses could be placed.
The military activity of the Order on Malta did not go unnoticed by the significantly strengthened Ottoman Empire. Sultan Suleiman I, who had once expelled the knights from Rhodes, intended to repeat this with Malta. In May 1565, being already in his declining years, he sent a large number of ships and troops to Malta to capture it, expel the Order from there, and create an outpost for attacks on the states of the western Mediterranean. However, his plans failed – the knights and people of Malta, under the command of Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, managed to withstand the cruel siege and wait for reinforcements from Sicily. The Turks suffered huge losses and were forced to leave this region forever. This event became one of the most significant in the history of the Order and elevated its authority among the states of the Christian world to an unattainable height. A few years after this victory, a city was built on the island, which later became the capital of Malta and was named after the most famous Grand Master – La Valletta.
After the Great Siege of Malta, many more wars, battles, and important historical events occurred. But time went on, and the era of the active spread of the Reformation in Europe began. Its consequences led to the Order losing a large number of possessions and property in various countries that had converted to Protestantism.
The Great French Revolution of 1789 abolished the Order in France. But the most significant blow to the Order was struck a little later, during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in 1798. On the way to Egypt, Napoleon’s fleet stopped at Malta to replenish water supplies, but the Order did not allow the French ships into the guarded bay. The result was an ultimatum from Napoleon to surrender Malta, and the Order had to accept his terms, as they clearly lacked the strength to defend the island. The island came under French jurisdiction, and the knights had to move to the continent, preserving only a few sacred relics of the Order, “generously” left to them by the future emperor.
Subsequently, in 1800, Britain conquered the island of Malta from France, creating a colony there, which existed in this status until gaining independence in 1964. To this day, it is quite common for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to be confused with the state of Malta. These are completely different and have not been related to each other for more than two hundred years, although they have the same geographical name in the title. Diplomatic relations have been established between the states, and ambassadors have been appointed.
The Order in the Russian Empire
Russian Emperor Paul I had been interested in stories about knights and the orders they created since childhood. Perhaps partly for this reason, the Maltese knights, after their expulsion from Malta, decided to seek protection from Emperor Paul and ultimately even offered him the title of Grand Master, which was gladly accepted. However, Paul I became the Grand Master only de facto, as he was not a Catholic, and this circumstance prevented him from obtaining this title de jure. Despite the appeals of Russian diplomats to two Roman Popes, Pius VI and his successor, Pius VII, they could not find it possible to break the centuries-old rules.
The entire Russian nobility was overwhelmingly Orthodox, so for the Catholic Order in Russia, there seemed to be an insoluble collision. It was partly overcome by creating the Orthodox Grand Priory of Russia, based on previously existing precedents when corresponding Maltese Orders arose in countries that had converted to Protestantism, outside the jurisdiction of the Catholic Grand Master. These orders still exist in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Great Britain and are recognised by the Catholic Maltese Order as part of membership in the common association.
Paul I introduced the Maltese cross as one of the highest awards in Russia, sometimes overshadowing the highest order of the empire—St. Andrew. The regalia of the Order even became part of the coat of arms of the Russian Empire, which testified to the highest honour. However, after the assassination of Paul in 1801, the popularity of the Order in Russia declined, and his successor, Emperor Alexander I, finally banned the wearing of Maltese awards in 1817, actually ending the existence of the Order on the territory of the Russian Empire. And again, the Order had to look for a new location.
All roads lead to Rome
In 1834, the Order finally decided to settle in Rome, where it remains to this day. The Order’s main residence is the Magistral Palace on Via dei Condotti 68, a small street adjacent to the Spanish Steps. In addition to this palace, the Order also has the Magistral Villa on the Aventine. The Order also has long-term leases on the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome and Fort St. Angelo in the city of Birgu in Malta. It was in this fort that Grand Master de La Valette commanded the defense of Malta against the Turkish invasion in 1565, making the fortress of symbolic importance to the Order.
What does the Order of Malta represent today? Over the centuries, the Order has completely demilitarised, and the military uniforms of its senior officers are merely a ceremonial nod to ancient tradition. The Order’s primary activity has long been charity. It maintains medical facilities worldwide and organises volunteer work “for the service to the sick and the poor”, regardless of their nationality or religion. The Order has about 14,000 members and around 100,000 volunteers worldwide. Under the Order’s patronage are numerous charitable foundations in many countries, including Estonia, where this foundation was established in May 2023. The foundation in Estonia aims to develop volunteer activity in the country and implement humanitarian programmes for all those in need.