History of the Order of Malta

The Order of St. John was founded before the taking of Jerusalem in 1099 by the armies of the First Crusade. It began as a monastic community, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, which administered a hospice-infirmary for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Originally connected with the Benedictines, it became, under Bl. Gerard (+1120) (picture on the right), an independent organisation. By the Bull of 15 February 1113, addressed to Gerard, Pope Paschal II approved the confraternity of the Hospital of St. John, placed it under the protection on the Holy See, and ensured its right of freely electing its heads, Gerard's successors, without any interference from any other ecclesiastical or any law authority. in virtue of this Bull and of subsequent Papal acts, the Hospital became an exempt Order of the Church.

An Order of Knighthood
Owing to the political situation after the setting up by the Crusaders of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Order, now under its second head (and the first to be styled Master), Fra' Raymond du Puy, was obliged to assume military functions for the protection of the sick, the pilgrims, and the Christian territory which the Crusaders had won back from the Muslims. Accordingly, the Order of the Hospital of St. John acquired the additional character of an Order of Knighthood. The Knights where thus also Religious, bound by the three monastic vows of Obedience, Chastity, and Poverty. It thus became a persona mixta, a religious military Order.

The Maltese Cross
Fra' Raymond du Puy introduced the first rule of the Order known to us and also the white octagonal cross which has to this day remained the Order's emblem (the Maltese Cross).

Aims of the Order
While continuing on a vaste scale its hospitaller activity, one of its two aims : obsequium pauperum (service of the poor), the Order pursued valiantly its other aim, the defence of Christendom : tuitio fidei (protection of the Faith). However, in 1291, Acre, the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land was lost and the Order settled temporarily in Cyprus.

Rhodes, bastion of Christendom
From the beginning, the Order's independence of all other States, in virtue of Papal acts, and its universally recognised right to maintain armed forces and wage war constituted its international sovereignty. With the occupation of the island of Rhodes, completed in 1310 under the Grand Master Fra' Foulques de Villaret, the Order acquired territorial sovreignty as well (and the Knights of St. John came to be called Knights of Rhodes).
The island faced Muslim territorial and naval might and became a bastion of Christendom in the East Mediterranean sea.

The Fleet
The military defence of Christendom now of necessity required naval action. Accordingly, the Order came to possess a powerful fleet; it patrolled the East Med iterranean waters and engaged in many renowned battles with the enemy. It took part in the crusades in Syria and in Egypt and brought aid to the Christian Kingdom of Armenia (Cilicia) against Muslim invaders.

Eight Langues
The members of the Order who came to Rhodes from all over Europe, as well as the establishments of the Order in Europe, were from the beginning of the fourteenth century grouped according to languages spoken. There were thus, initially, seven such groups of Langues (Tongues):

Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (-Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland) and Germany. In 1462 Castile and Portugal separated from the Langue of Aragon and formed together the eighth Langue.
In the sixteenth century the Langue of England was suppressed and later, in 1782, temporarily re-established under the name of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue. Each Langue was composed of Priories or Grand Priories, Bailiwicks, and Commanderies.


The Order was ruled by the Grand Master and the Council, minted its own money and maintained diplomatic relations with other States. The Grand Master was Prince of Rhodes, as later he was Prince of Malta. The high offices of the Order were attributed to representatives of different Langues; and the seat of the Order, the Convent, was in effect composed of a number of national religious houses.

See also Structure of the Order of Malta

Loss of Rhodes
The Knights gallantly repulsed numerous Turkish assaults, until the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent attacked Rhodes with a large fleet and a powerful army. On Christmas Eve of 1522 the Knights were forced to capitulate and, on 1 January 1523, left the island with military honours. For the next seven years the Order, whil vested with international soverignty, was deprived of territory, until the cession by the Emperor Charles V (in his capacity as King of Sicily) of the islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino, as well as Tripoli in North Africa, in sovereign fief.

On 26 October 1530 the Grand Master Fra' Philippe de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam took possession of Malta, with the approbation of Pope Clement VII. It was stipulated that the Order was to remain neutral in wars between Christian nations.Yet the war of defence of Christendom went on.

The Turks attacked Malta, but in the Great Siege, from 18 May to 8 September 1565, were finally routed by the Knights led by theheroic Grand Master Fra' Jean de la Valette (picture on the right) after whom the island's capital Valetta is named. The decline of Ottoman sea power dates from the defeat of 1565. The navy of the Order of St. John (or of Malta as it now came to be called) became one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean and took part in the final destruction of the Ottoman naval might in the great battle of Lepanto in 1571.

In 1607 and again in 1620, the dignity of Grand Master was conjoined with the title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and in 1630 with the rank equal to the dignity of a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church with the style of Eminence.

Loss of Malta - Russian coup d'état
In 1798, Bonaparte, engaged in a campaign against Egypt, occupied the island of Malta and drove out the Order. The Knights again found themselves without a home. This was followed by what has been called the Russian coup d'état (1798-1803). The Emperor Paul I of Russia, who had shown himself a friend of the Order, now had himself proclaimed Grand Master by a handful of Knights then in Russia, in place of the Grand Master Fra' Ferdinand von Hompesch who had been obliged to abandon to the French. This proclamation of a married non-Catholic as head of a Catholic religious order was wholly illegal and void, and never recognised by the Holy See (a necessary condotion for legitimacy). Accordingly, a number of governments, can only be regarded as a Grand Master de facto, never one de jure. His successor Alexander I, on the other hand, helped the Order to return to legitimate rule; and in 1803 Fra' Giovanni Battista Tommasi was elected Grand Master. The British had meantime occupied Malta in 1801 and though the Treaty of Amiens (1802) recognised the Order's sovereign rights over the island, it has never been able to avail itself of them.

After temporary seats in Messina, Catania and Ferrara the Order finally established itself in 1834 in Rome, where it holds, extra-territorially, the Malta Palace at 68 Via Condotti and the Villa on the Aventine.

From 1805 the Order was ruled by Lieutenants, until in 1879 Pope Leo XIII restored the Grandmastership and the honours of a Cardinal attaching to it. Hospitaller work, the original work of the Order, became once again its main concern. The hospital and welfare activities, undertaken on a considerable scale in World War I, were greatly intensified and expanded in World War II under the Grand Master Fra' Ludovico Chigi della Rovere Albani.

The activities of the Order have been further expanded under the rule of Grand Master Fra' Angelo de Mojana di Cologna (1962-1988), who was succeeded by the present Prince and Grand Master, Fra' Andrew Bertie.

Copyright ©Museum of the Order of Malta / August 1998