The Knights of Malta have a thousand faces. They were a peaceful hospital in Medieval Jerusalem, healing sick pilgrims. They were a fearsome military order of brutally effective knights, enforcing Christian rule in the Levant. They were austere stateholders, ruling a string of Mediterranean islands. They were colonists in the New World, forging European plunder of the Caribbean. And they are now a sedate charitable organization with a colorful history.
A history of the Knights of Malta – or, more fully, the ‘Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta’, often abbreviated to ‘SMOM’ – requires volumes upon volumes in order to encompass its sprawling 900-year history that spans from the Levant to the Caribbean. But this article will draw the history of the Knights of Malta in the broadest possible strokes, so that we can see the evolution of this fraternal order into a world-striding behemoth.
The Monks of St John’s Hospital
The story of the Knights of Malta starts all the way back in the 11th century – at a time of religious turbulence. Amidst the emergence of large, fairly stable kingdoms in Europe, a tradition of long-distance pilgrimages emerged that went into overdrive from the start of the 11th century. Local routes like St James’ Way (terminating at the reliquary of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in modern Spain) and British pilgrimages to Canterbury were well-established before the 1000s CE, but now, long-distance journeys to Rome and the Holy Land were now possible. But they were long and exhausting journeys: a pilgrim setting off to the Holy Land from Medieval France might have a journey ahead of at least two months’ constant travel on foot – but that doesn’t include days of rest, or the near-certainty of delays and diversions. Bandits, inter-state conflicts, hunger, sickness, injury and simple exhaustion were all ever-present dangers to the traveling pilgrims.
By the time these Western European pilgrims began reaching Jerusalem in the 11th century, they found a flourishing multi-cultural society. Local Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in a kind of chaotic co-existence under the dominance of constantly-jockeying Caliphate rulers – first the Fatimids, and later the Seljuks and their successor Sultanates. The rulers disapproved of non-Muslims and gave them few chances to integrate politically into society, but provided you paid the taxes levied on non-believers you were left broadly alone (note that Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity only parted ways in the middle of the 11th century).
One institution that Western Christians encountered in Jerusalem was a Christian hospital, in which robed Benedictine monks ministered to sick pilgrims. Although it had been founded almost four centuries earlier, the building was new, having been rebuilt on the site of an old monastery dedicated to St John the Baptist. Italian merchant patrons had funded the reconstruction in 1023, after a particularly frustrated Caliph had razed the earlier building to the ground. The monks and lay staff of this peaceful institution were the kernel for the Knights Hospitaller, the coming religious order that would take up the sword and become one of the most powerful military orders of the Crusader era – and would eventually evolve into the Knights of Malta.
The Hospitallers in the Crusader World
The closing years of the Early Middle Ages (c. 500 CE – 1000 CE) were a violent era. Chivalric military culture had spread across Europe. This was not what we consider ‘chivalry’, with high-minded virtues of defending the weak and Christian piety. European chivalric societies (from the French cheval, meaning ‘horse’) maintained a large class of mounted knights, who, as the kingdoms of France, England and Italy grew and became more stable, were increasingly idle and prone to pillaging their own peasants and warring with their neighbors. Eventually this became such a problem that the Papacy decided to tackle the issue. First they floated the doctrine of the ‘Peace and Truce of God’, where Christians were forbidden from fighting one another – but when this didn’t catch on, less scrupulous Church leaders began to reach for more self-serving options. Seeking to kill two birds with one stone, Pope Urban II aimed to shore up the position of the Papacy and displace knightly aggression outward from internal wars by launching a Crusade to ‘re-take’ the Holy Land. Between 1095 and 1099, somewhere around 50,000 warriors made their way to the Levant, capturing Jerusalem and establishing a network of Western Christian polities called the Crusader States. The Crusades were an enormous draw for the idle knights of the West, who were drawn by the promise of loot and social elevation. They were particularly attractive for the less reputable nobles, who eyed the promises of successive Popes for blanket absolution of any sins to those going on Crusade.
The beginning of the Crusader age upended the world of the monks of the Hospital of St. John. The establishment of the Crusader States meant that the Papacy was much more open to patronizing the creation of new orders linked with the maintenance of this new axis of power. Within a few years of the conclusion of the First Crusade, the monks of St. John, under their rector ‘Blessed’ Gérard de Martigues, were formally recognized by the Pope in 1113 as a monastic Hospitaller Order under the sole purview of the Church, exempting it from the authorities in Jerusalem. This papal blessing is also the origin of the Knights of Malta’s earliest symbols: the white cross on a red field. Blessed Gerard’s tenure, first as rector of the Hospital and then as the first Grand Master of the newly established Order of St. John of Jerusalem, saw the Hospitallers receive lands and incomes around the city and in other Crusader principalities in the form of donations from the victorious Crusader nobles, beginning its rise as a temporal power as well as a spiritual one.
The Knights of St. John
But quickly, the focus of the order began to shift. Other religious orders with far less peaceful aims were rapidly coalescing in the Holy Land. The Knights Templar was founded in 1119 at the site of the Second Temple of Jerusalem – they were an order of knights who swore a vow of poverty and chastity in defense of poor pilgrims (and exploitative feudal Crusader States). The Knights of Calatrava and the Order of St. James would be founded in Spain a few years later, and the Teutonic Knights were founded in the Crusader city of Acre at the end of the century. These standing military forces were justified by the need to defend pilgrims on their journeys – but they very quickly became a major part of the militaries wielded by the various Crusader nobles in their constant expansionism at the expense of local Muslim states. The Hospitallers were by no means unique when they began to militarize in the 1120s, under their second Grand Master Raymond de Puy.
Where Blessed Gerard had likely been a Benedictine lay-brother for all of his life, de Puy was a Crusading French knight. De Puy’s tenure saw the Order formalize its processes and arm itself: he delineated the order into monastic members and clerical members, and added an armed wing of Hospitallers. This was initially a defensive militia pledged to serve under the Crusader King Fulk of Jerusalem, but it rapidly became a crack force of heavily armed elite knight-brothers. These wealthy sons – many of whom were thoroughly disreputable and disgraced in Europe – were drawn to the Hospitallers and other military orders with promises of the remittance of their sins and a fast-track to heaven after a heroic death in battle. Their first major engagement was alongside the Knights Templar and the army of King Baldwin III of Jerusalem before the walls of the Fatimid fortress at Ascalon in 1153 CE. By the end of the century, the Hospitallers maintained a force of several thousand sworn knights with a network of fortresses and compounds across the region, as well as monasteries and clerical lay staff who administered to the Order’s rapidly growing holdings – both in the Levant and increasingly in the Latin West.
The Rise and Fall of the Levantine Hospitallers
Frequently, the Hospitallers were the staunchest warriors, whose independence from the endless infighting of the petty Crusader nobles welded them all together into a far more effective fighting force. Their superior arms and armor, bought by the significant wealth of their Order, marked them out on the battlefield, where they fought clad in red or black, with stark white crosses on their mantles. Whilst their military record is not comparable to the Templars, whose Order was an exclusively military one and whose Rules included the holy pledge to never retreat from battle unless ordered by only their Grand Master, the Hospitaller forces were large and extremely effective. They even exercised some degree of independence from Papal control in military affairs, exercising their discretion not to participate in several Crusades that occurred in the period. Although many of the Grand Masters of the forerunners of the Knight of Malta were knights themselves, the Hospitallers never seem to have become wholly militarized to the exclusion of all else – their focus remained primarily humanitarian, at least in the sense of offering services to civilian Crusader society.
However, especially as their military might and landed wealth grew exponentially, they could not maintain neutrality in all cases. Though courses of action seem to be much more moderate and temperate then those of the Templars (for example, the two Orders clashed frequently over policy towards Saladin’s Ayyubids, with the Hospitallers recommending a more accomodationist strategy over the Templar’s near-suicidal refusal to back down), they were drawn more than once into temporal affairs. They ended up becoming embroiled in the messy War of the Antiochene Succession, in which Crusader nobles squabbled over the remaining Crusader rump states following the Ayyubid capture of Jerusalem, to the long-term detriment of both the Order and the Crusaders’ project as a whole.
Heroes of Rhodes
With the fall of Jerusalem, the Hospitallers upped sticks to their new headquarters in Acre. But gradually, a combination of factors (enervating in-fighting, poor harvests and larger macro-political changes in the Islamic world involving the Mongols and the Egyptian Mamluks) chipped away at the Crusader States until they had all fallen by 1291 CE. This left the once-great Hospitallers with no headquarters (although they maintained a great deal of patronage from the Western Christian kingdoms). It is in this period, after the final fall of the Crusader States, that the Knights Templar were condemned as heretics and violently suppressed. The Hospitallers did not meet the same fate, because, as we have seen, their constitutions were quite different: the militaristic Templars had acquired an enormous banking network, and had generated some powerful enemies such as King Phillip IV of France, who was heavily endebted to the Templars – whilst the Hospitallers were immensely wealthy, they had not wielded it in such an aggressive manner, and their focus on alms and healing retained goodwill.
After the fall of Acre in 1289 CE, the Hospitallers briefly relocated to Cyprus, but the Cypriot Kings resented the independence that the Hospitallers expected – and so the Hospitallers set their designs on carving out their own state, free of any interference, on the island of Rhodes, a Byzantine island off the coast of Anatolia. After a bitter four-year war with the Byzantine Emperor, they secured the island and an archipelago of smaller islets in 1310 CE. The Hospitaller dominance of Rhodes proved to be remarkably durable: it lasted for more than 300 years, during which time they policed Barbary pirates in the region, repulsed repeated invasions by the Ottomans, and built a spectacular network of fortifications on the Dodecanese archipelago. But Hospitaller Rhodes was to become a victim once again of shifting tides in the Muslim world. Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent made dislodging these stubborn holdouts a priority, and in 1522, a fleet of 100,000 Ottomans in four hundred ships made landfall in Rhodes. Despite the sophistication of their defenses, the Knights could not expect to hold against such overwhelming force – and so, reluctantly, they agreed to surrender in return for safe passage.
The Maltese Falcon
The Knights Hospitaller spent another period in the wilderness, before their well-cultivated network of patronage helped them out once again: with the blessing of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the Hospitallers would be made vassals of Malta and Tripolitania. In return, the Emperor asked but one thing as an annual tribute: a single Maltese falcon, a tradition which continued from the granting of the fief in 1530, to the expulsion of the Hospitallers from the island in 1798 by the armies of Revolutionary France. Finally, they had become the Knights of Malta.
Against all of the odds, the Hospitallers retained control of Malta throughout the Early Modern era. Frustrated that the Hospitallers had survived, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sent a second enormous fleet against them, which reached Malta in May 1565 – but this invasion, known as the Great Siege of Malta, was improbably repulsed by the Knights and the other motley defenders of the island, who were outnumbered by more than five-to-one by the invaders.
It is from Malta that the Knights of Malta also engaged in a brief attempt to colonize the Americas. The bankruptcy of the French Company of the American Islands in 1651 provided an opportunity for the savvy Hospitallers, who purchased the company’s holdings though their contacts in the French state, acquiring Saint Christopher, Saint Martin, Saint Barthélemy, and Saint Croix. Their policies were little different to the unrelenting brutality towards indigenous peoples displayed by other states and companies of the era, and they failed to turn a profit from their venture, selling up to the French Crown fifteen years later. In the second half of the 18th century, the Knights of Malta entered what was to prove to be a terminal decline, starting a pointless sovereignty battle with the Kingdom of Sicily and bankrupting themselves with lavish spending. The Knights of Malta, the Medieval monastic healers-turned-holy warriors, were finally turfed out from Malta by Napoleon in 1798, when they surrendered the island after a desultory skirmish.
Though Malta was promised by the British to be restored to the Order, they reneged on the promise, scattering the Knights to the wind for the final time. The SMOM reformed in the mid-19th century with a headquarters in Rome, from where it undertook significant charitable efforts during the First and Second World Wars, and from where today it continues its patient and restrained work – very much like the original monks of the Hospital of St. John, a millennium ago.