The Knights Hospitaller (the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem or Knights of Malta or Knights of Rhodes) is a tradition which began as a Benedictine nursing Order founded in the 11th century based in the Holy Land, but soon became a militant Christian Chivalric Order under its own charter, and was charged with the care and defence of pilgrims. Following the loss of Christian territory in the Holy Land, the Order operated from Rhodes, of which it was sovereign and later from Malta as a vassal. The mediĉval Order can be said to have come to an end following its ejection from Malta by Napoleon. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (see below) is the modern successor to this tradition.
Foundation and early history
In 600, Abbot Probus was commissioned by Pope Gregory the Great to build a hostel in Jerusalem to treat and care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. In 800, Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, enlarged Probus' hostel and added a library to it. Unfortunately, about 200 years later, in 1005, Caliph El Hakim, a fanatic who demanded that his subjects worship him as a god, destroyed the hostel in addition to 3000 other buildings. He made the Christians wear wooden crosses, half a metre long by half a metre wide, around their necks. Although Christians were not allowed to buy slaves, male or female, and had few other privileges, they were allowed to ride horses on the condition that they ride with wooden saddles and unornamented girths. Ironically, El Hakim's mother was Christian. In 1023, merchants from Amalfi and Salerno in Italy were given permission by the Caliph Haroun el Raschid of Egypt to rebuild the hospice in Jerusalem. The hospice, which was built on the site of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist, took in Christian pilgrims traveling to visit the birthplace of Jesus. It was served by Benedictine Brothers.
The monastic hospitaller order was founded following the First Crusade by the Blessed Gerard, whose role as founder was confirmed by a Papal bull of Pope Paschal II in 1113. Gerard acquired territory and revenues for his order throughout the Kingdom of Jerusalem and beyond. His successor, Raymond du Puy of Provence, established the first significant Hospitaller infirmary near to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Initially the group just cared for those pilgrims who made it to Jerusalem but the order soon extended into providing an armed escort to pilgrims. The escort soon grew into a substantial force.
Together with the Knights Templar, who were formed later in 1119, they became one of the most powerful Christian groups in the area. The order came to distinguish itself in battles with the Muslims, its soldiers wearing a black surcoat with a white cross. By the mid-12th century, the order was clearly divided into military brothers and those who worked with the sick. It was still a religious order and had useful privileges granted by the Papacy, for example, the order was exempt from all authority save that of the Pope, and it paid no tithes and was allowed its own religious buildings. Many of the more substantial Christian fortifications in the Holy Land were the work of either the Templars or Hospitallers, at the height of the Kingdom of Jerusalem the Hospitallers held seven great forts and 140 other estates in the area. The two largest of these, their bases of power in the Kingdom and in the Principality of Antioch, were Krak des Chevaliers, and Margat, both located near Tripoli. The property of the Order was divided into priories, subdivided into bailiwicks, which in turn were divided into commanderies.
Knights of Rhodes
The rising power of Islam eventually pushed the Knights out of their traditional holdings in Jerusalem. After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Jerusalem itself in 1187), the Knights were confined to the County of Tripoli and when Acre was captured in 1291 the order sought refuge in the Kingdom of Cyprus. They then organised a fleet, and in 1310 they took the island of Rhodes as their new base of operations.
The Knights Templar were dissolved in 1312 and much of their property was given to the Hospitallers. The holdings were organized into eight tongues (one each in Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, Castile, Germany and England). The English prior at the time was Philip Thame, who acquired the estates allocated to the English tongue from 1330 to 1358. On Rhodes, now known as the Knights of Rhodes they were forced to become a more militarized force, fighting especially with the Barbary pirates. They withstood two invasions in the 15th century, one by the Sultan of Egypt in 1444 and another by Mehmed II in 1480, who after the fall of Constantinople made the Knights a priority target.
However in 1522 an entirely new sort of force arrived when 400 ships under the command of Suleiman the Magnificent delivered 200,000 men to the island. Against this force the Knights had about 7,000 men-at-arms, and the walls of the city. The resulting siege lasted six months, at the end of which the few remaining Knights were allowed to leave Rhodes and retreated to the Kingdom of Sicily. In exchange, the knights promised to leave Suleiman's minions in peace. It would not be a promise they would keep.
Knights of Malta
After seven years of moving from place to place in Europe, the Knights were re-established on Malta in 1530 by the order of Pope Clement VIII and Emperor Charles V of Austria. Their annual fee for the island was a single Maltese falcon, which they had to give annually on All Souls Day to the Viceroy of Sicily, who acted as the King's representative. Here the once-again re-named Knights of Malta continued their actions against piracy, their fleet targeting the Barbary pirates.
Although they had only a small number of ships, they nevertheless quickly drew the ire of the Ottomans who were less than happy to see the order re-established. Accordingly they assembled another massive army in order to dislodge the Knights from Malta, and in 1565 invaded. At first the battle looked to be a repeat of the one on Rhodes. Most of the cities was destroyed and about half the Knights died in battle. But things changed dramatically when a relief force arrived from Spain. In the ensuing retreat the Ottomans lost some 30,000 men, enough to secure the island for a time. The siege is vividly portrayed in the frescoes of Matteo Perez d'Aleccio in the Hall of St Michael and St George, also known as the Throne Room, in the Grandmaster's Palace, Valletta. Four of the original modello's, painted in oils by Perez d'Aleccio himself between 1576 and 1581, can be found in the Cube Room of the Queen's House, Greenwich, London. After the siege a new city had to be built -- the present city of Valletta, so named in memory of its valiant grand master La Valette who had sustained this siege.
In 1571 the growing Ottoman fleet decided to give challenge once again, but this time were met at sea by a huge and very modern Spanish fleet under the command of Don Juan de Austria (son of Emperor Charles V). The Ottomans were outgunned, outmanuvered and outrun, and by the end of the day almost the entirety of their fleet was destroyed or captured in what is now known as the Battle of Lepanto. The battle, however, had little political impact for the Ottomans quickly rebuilt their fleet.
Following the victory at Lepanto the Knights continued to attack pirates, and their base became a centre for slave trading, selling captured Africans and Turks and conversely freeing Christian slaves. Malta remained a slave-market until well into the eighteenth century. It required a thousand slaves to equip merely the galleys of the order.
Retreat in Europe
A portrait of a 12-year-old Ranuccio Farnese (Cardinal) by Titian
The group lost a number of its European holdings following the rise of Protestantism but survived on Malta. The property of the English branch was confiscated in 1540. In 1577 the German Bailiwick of Brandenburg became Lutheran, but continued to pay its financial contribution to the Order, until the branch was turned into a merit Order by the King of Prussia in 1812. The "JohanniterOrden" was restored as a Prussian Order of Knights Hospitaller in 1852.
The Knights of Malta had a strong presence within Imperial Russian Navy and the pre-revolutionary French Navy. When De Poincy was appointed Governor of the French colony on St Kitts in 1639, he was a prominent Knight of St. John and dressed his retinue with the emblems of the order. The Order's presence in the Caribbean was eclipsed with his death in 1660. He also bought the island of Saint Croix as his personal estate and deeded it to the Knights of St. John. In 1665 St. Croix was bought by the French West India Company. This marked an end to their exploits in the Caribbean.
The loss of Malta
Their Mediterranean stronghold of Malta was captured by Napoleon in 1798 when he made his expedition to Egypt. Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch failed to prepare for this threat, provided no effective leadership, and readily capitulated to Napoleon. This was a terrible affront to most of the Knights desiring to defend their stronghold and sovereignty. The Order continued to exist in a diminished form and negotiated with European governments for a return to power. The Emperor of Russia gave the largest number of Knights shelter in St Petersburg and this gave rise to the Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller and recognition within the Russian Imperial Orders. In gratitude the Knights declared Ferdinand von Hompesch deposed and Emperor Paul I was elected as the new Grand Master. Following Paul's murder in 1801, in 1803 a Roman Catholic master was restored to the Order.
By the early 1800s the Order had been severely weakened by the loss of its Priories throughout Europe. Only 10% of the Order's income came from Europe, with the remaining 90% being generated by the Russian Grand Priory until 1810. This was partly reflected in the government of the Order being under Lieutenants, rather than Grand Masters in the period 1805 to 1879, when Pope Leo XIII restored a Grand Master to the Order. This signalled the revival of the Order’s fortunes as a humanitarian and ceremonial organization. In 1834, the revived Order established a new headquarters in Rome. The revived organisation is known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which enjoys a special status, which is discussed further.
Revival in England as the Order of St John of Jerusalem
The property of the Order in England was confiscated by Henry VIII because of a dispute with the Pope over the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which eventually led to the dissolution of the monasteries. Although not formally suppressed, this caused the activities of the English Langue to come to an end. A few Scottish Knights remained in communion with the French Langue of the Order. In 1831 a revived English Order was founded by French Knights and became known as the Most Venerable Order of St. John of Jersualem of the British Realm. It received a Royal Charter from Queen Victoria in 1888 and spread across the United Kingdom, the British Commonwealth and the United States of America. However, it was only recognized by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in 1963. Its best known activities are based around St. John Ambulance.
It is in an alliance with three other Johanniter orders in the Alliance of Orders of St John of Jerusalem.
The modern Sovereign Military Order of Malta
The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, better known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or SMOM, is a Catholic lay order and claims to be a sovereign entity and which has permanent observer status at the United Nations. SMOM is considered to be the most direct successor to the medieval Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Knights of Malta, and today operates as a largely charitable and ceremonial organization.
Name and motto
The full official name is Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta or Sovrano Militare Ordine Ospedaliero di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme di Rodi e di Malta. They are now also known as the Order of Malta. The order has a large number of local chapters around the world but there also exist a number of organizations with similar-sounding names that are unrelated. The Order's motto is Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum (Defence of the faith and assistance to the suffering).
International status of the Order
The exact nature of the entity is somewhat nebulous and subject to controversy: it claims to be a traditional example of an entity, other than a country, that is sovereign. Its headquarters in the Via Condotti in Rome are considered extraterritorial to Italy (like an embassy), but unlike Vatican City the SMOM has no sovereign territory. The United Nations does not classify it as a "non-member state" but as one of the "entities and intergovernmental organizations having received a standing invitation to participate as observers." While the International Telecommunications Union has granted radio identification prefixes to such quasi-soverign jurisdictions as the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority, SMOM has never received one. For awards purposes amateur radio operators consider SMOM to be a separate "country," but stations transmitting from there use an entirely unofficial callsign starting with the prefix "1A."
Although some scholars accept a claim to sovereign status, leading experts in international law do not, notably Dr. Ian Brownlie, Dr. Helmut Steinberger, and Dr. Wilhelm Wengler who took into account its ambassadorial status among many nations. The Holy See in 1953 proclaimed "in the Lord's name" that it [i.e. the Order of Malta] was only a "functional sovereignty" - due to the fact that it did not have all that pertained to true sovereignty.
The SMOM has diplomatic relations with 93 countries. Its international nature is useful in enabling it to pursue its humanitarian activities without being seen as an operative of any particular nation. Its claimed sovereignty is also expressed in the issuance of coins and stamps, which are appreciated more for their subject matter rather than for use as postage or currency. Note that the SMOM website does not indicate the production of any coins after 2003, which may indicate that production ceased with the introduction of the Euro. As of late 2003 stamps are still being issued denominated in grani, tari, and scudi.
Government of the Order
The proceedings of the Order are governed by Constitutional Charter and the Order's Code. It is divided internationally into various territorial Grand Priories, Priories and Sub-Priories.
The supreme head of the Order is the Grand Master, who is elected for life by the Council Complete of State. Voters in the Council include the members of the Sovereign Council, other office-holders and representatives of the members of the Order. The Grand Master is aided by the Sovereign Council, which is elected by the Chapter General, the legislative body of the Order. The Chapter General meets every five years; at each meeting, all seats of the Sovereign Council are up for election at each meeting. The Sovereign Council includes six members and four High Officers: the Grand Commander, the Grand Chancellor, the Grand Hospitaller and the Receiver of the Common Treasure. The Grand Commander is the chief religious officer of the Order and serves as "Interim Lieutenant" during a vacancy in the office of Grand Master. The Grand Chancellor is responsible for the administration of the Order. The Grand Hospitaller coordinates the Order's humanitarian and charitable activities. Finally, the Receiver of the Common Treasure is the Order's financial officer.
The Order's finances are audited by a Board of Auditors, which includes a President and four Councillors, all elected by the Chapter General. The Order's judicial powers are exercised by a group of Magistral Courts, whose judges are appointed by the Grand Master and Sovereign Council.
Following the end of the second world war and taking advantage of the lack of State Orders in the Italian Republic, an Italian had given himself an identity of a Polish Prince, and did a brisk trade in Maltese Crosses as the Grand Prior of the fictitious "Grand Priory of Podolia". Others followed suit such as the Grand Prior of the Holy Trinity of Villeneuve. The former was successfully prosecuted for fraud, and the latter gave up after a police visit. However the latter organisation resurfaced in Malta in 1975, and then by 1978 in the USA, where it found very fruitful soil and still continues.
The large passage fees (alleged in some cases to be in the region of $50,000) collected by the American Association of "SMOM" in the early 1950s seemed to have tempted a Charles Pichel to create his own "Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller" in 1956. Pichel avoided the problems of being an imitation of "SMOM" by giving his organization a mythical history by falsely claiming the American organization he led was founded within the genuine Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller in 1908, a spurious claim, but which never-the-less misled many including some academics. These organizations have led to scores of other mimic Orders. Two offshoots of the Pichel Order have been successful in gaining the backing of exiled Monarchs, King Peter II of Yugoslavia, and King Michael of Romania.
List of Grand Masters
- Official site of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (http://www.orderofmalta.org/)