by Wilfred L. Camilleri
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In 1020, merchants from Amalfi and Salerno in Italy, obtained permission from the Caliph of Egypt to build a hospital in Jerusalem. The hospital was built to take care of Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land to visit the birthplace of Christ. The hospice was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Monks attached to the hospice were know as the Freres Hospitaliers de St. Jean de Jerusalem.
As time passed on, the monks started providing armed escort to pilgrims through perilous Syrian territory. Following the success the monks had in the First Crusade, the Hospitalers evolved into a Military Order. The rules of the new Order were confirmed by Pope Pascal II in the year 1113. Pope Pascal II acknowledged the Hospitalers as a religious order.
As the Islamic movement gained momentum, the Order started retreating from the Holy Land and eventually moved their headquarters to Cyprus. Their stay in Cyprus was not to last. Once again, retreating form the advancing Islamic powers, the Order moved to Rhodes, where they enjoyed territorial sovereignty for the first time. However, once more, the knights were forced to abandon their home. They capitulated to Islamic forces led by Suleiman I of Turkey on Christmas Eve of 1522. Suleiman attacked Rhodes with a fleet of 400 ships and over 200,000 men, a formidable force against the Knight's 7,000 men. The siege lasted six months.
The Knights had nowhere to go so they moved with what little they could carry to Civitavecchia in Italy. From there they moved to Viterbo and then to Niece. This period of wondering lasted seven years. In March of 1530, under pressure from Pope Clement VIII, Grand Master Philippe Villiers de l'Isle-Adam accepted the islands of Malta in perpetual fief for the annual rent of a Falcon.
The Maltese Period (1530-1798)
The Knights were not impressed with their new home. They found it too barren. But they had no choice but to make the best of it. It was not until 1533 that the Order allowed Maltese Chaplains into the Order. Their peace did not last long however, as once more Islamic forces followed the Order to Malta in a bid to expand their empire.
The Great Siege - A.D. 1565
On may 18th, 1565, a Turkish fleet of 138 galleys approached the island. About 38,000 men disembarked at Marsaxlokk and eleven days later, another 3,000 men from another 38 ships joined them. The men were led by Dragut and the Bey of Algiers. The siege started with an attack on Fort St. Elmo. It is said that over sixty thousand cannon-balls were fired during the attack. Dragut was killed during the assault on the Fort.
The fort did not survive the fierce battle and on June 23rd, it fell to the Turks. The survivors of the hundred knights and five hundred soldiers who had defended the fort were massacred and their corpses were floated in the Grand Harbour tied upon wooden crosses. This was intended to intimidate the Knights.
However, Grand Master de la Valette strengthened the defenses of the cities of Birgu and Senglea across the harbour during the attack on Fort Sant' Elmo. The fortifications at Mdina were also strengthened. Sixty days after Fort Sant' Elmo fell to the Turks, a small force of six hundred men and forty-four knights arrived from Italy to assist the embattled defenders. Once Fort Sant' Elmo was no longer a threat, the Turks turned their sights on Birgu and Senglea across the harbour. The attack was furious by all accounts. However, the knights and the Maltese people staunchly defended the fortifications and the Turks lost 2,500 men in a single assault upon Birgu in July. An attempt to subdue Mdina also failed.
Don Garcia set sail from Syracuse with his men and two hundred fifty knights and on September 7th, landed at Mellieha Bay. The next day the Turks raised the siege of Malta and by September 12th, they had all left the island. September 8th, the feast of the birth of the Virgin and Our Lady of Victories holds a special place in the hearts of the Maltese people.
More than nine thousand men were lost during the siege, of whom two hundred and nineteen were knights. The island's fortifications were in ruins. This spurred de la Valette to build the City of Valletta and its now historic bastions and palaces. Valletta has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. Standing on top of the bastions still gives one the feelings of the great battles fought by the knights and the Maltese people during the Great Siege.
Footnote: The same bastions which surround the Grand Harbour were to witness another great siege during World War II. But as before, the resiliency of the Maltese people under harsh circumstances was to be witnessed by the whole world. This earned the Maltese people the George Cross, the only time the Cross was given to a whole country.
The knights eventually lost sight of their vows of poverty although generally speaking, they fought hard to live by their code - the eight aspirations symbolized by the eight-pointed cross. As time went on, the Order was becoming redundant as a fighting force. When the French Revolution broke out, the French knights were deeply divided about were their loyalties stood. In 1791, a decree deprived the French knights of their nationality and in September of 1792 the Order's estates and holdings in France were confiscated.
Napoleon's fleet arrived off Valletta on May 10, 1798 and Grand Master de Hompesch surrendered to Napoleon without a single shot being fired. The knights left in a hurry and Napoleon followed them six days later. This turned out to be a blessing for the Maltese people who revolted against the French. The French garrison left behind by Napoleon surrendered to the Maltese in 1800.
The departure of the Knights from Malta resulted in a splintering of the Order. Different groups were formed or evolved from the Order and were scattered all over Europe. There are now many groups that have some sort of historical or other claimed connection to the original Order.
The Hierarchy of the Order
The Order started with three classes. These were:
• Knights of Justice
• Sergeants at Arms
Another class, that of Knights of Grace, was added later. the title of Knight of Grace was conferred on persons who had been of conspicuous service to the Order.
To enter the Order, a youth had to prove himself to be of unblemished, noble, Catholic parentage. The Order conducted an exhaustive inquiry into the background of each candidate. Sergeants were recruited from the people and served either in military or nursing capacities. The Chaplains acted as clerks and also served the churches, chapels and hospitals of the Order.
Knights were grouped into eight 'langues' or 'Tongues', according to their nationality. The eight langues were:
After the Reformation, England was no longer represented as a 'langue' Each langue had a prior - a person of great importance. Each language was responsible for specific duties.
• Prior of Provence - Grand Commander, or treasurer, master of the stores and ordinance and master of artillery
• Prior of Auvergne - Grand Marshall
• Prior of Castille - Grand Chancellor
• Prior of Italy - Grand Admiral
• Prior of Aragon - Drapier
• Prior of England - Turcopilier (Coastal defense flotilla)
• Prior of Germany Fortifications
The Grand Master had absolute rule of the Order. The Grand Master was elected for life not more than three days after the death of his predecessor. The reason for this was primarily to prevent interference from the Pope, to whose authority alone the Grand Master was responsible. The Grand Master was elected by the Knights who were available at the time of the election although there were rules set down as to the eligibility to vote. It is interesting to note that fifty four of the sixty-eight Grand Masters were of French origin.
Members of the Order wore a black habit and a camel-hair cloak of the same colour. A white eight-pointed cross adorned the breast of the black habit. The cloak was only worn for ceremonial occasions. The same eight-pointed white cross against a scarlet background was used on the Order's standard. The cross represented the eight obligations or aspirations of the Knights.
The Maltese Cross When the Order was acknowledged by Pope Pascal II as a religious order, the Knights became bound by the Augustinian rules of Chastity, Poverty and Obedience. The Knights were also expected to observe the eight obligations represented by the symbol of the eight-pointed cross. These obligations were to:
• live in truth;
• have faith;
• repent of sins;
• give proof of humility;
• love justice;
• be merciful;
• be sincere and whole-hearted; and
• endure persecution.
The Knights are now know as the Knights of Malta. Their eight-pointed cross became known as the Maltese cross.
The Grand Masters of the Maltese Period
1530 Phillipe Villiers de l'Isle-Adam: France
1534 Pietro del Ponte: Italy
1535 Didier de Saint-Jaille: France
1536 Juan d'Omedes: Aragon
1553 Claude de la Sengle: France
1557 Jean de la Valette-Parisot: Provence
1568 Pietro del Monte San Savino: Italy
1572 Jean l'Eveque de la Caissiere: Auvergne
1582 Hugues Loubenx de Verdala: Provence
1595 Martin Garzes: Aragon
1601 Alofe de Wignacourt: France
1622 Louis Mendez de Vasconcelles: Castille, Leon, Portugal
1623 Antoine de Paule: Provence
1636 Jean-Paul de Lascaris-Castellar: Provence
1657 Martin de Redin: Aragon
1660 Annet de Clermont-Gessan: Auvergne
1660 Raphael Cotoner: Aragon
1663 Nicolas Cotoner: Aragon
1680 Gregoire Carafa: Italy
1690 Adrien de Wignacourt: France
1697 Ramon Perelles y Roccaful: Aragon
1720 Marc Antoine Zondadari: Italy
1722 Antoine Manoel de Vilhena: Castille, Leon, Portugal
1736 Ramon Despuig: Aragon
1741 Manuel Pinto de Fonseca: Castille, Leon, Portugal
1773 Francisco Ximenes de Texada: Aragon
1775 Emmanuel Marie de Rohan-Polduc: France
1797 Ferdinand von Hompesch: Germany