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The Knights of Malta

 A Knight of Malta
by: Titian
c.1510-1515. Oil on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy
Courteousy of  Olga's Gallery #1,#5, #6
Knight of Malta
Courteousy of the
Edrichton Holidays Group of Companies #4
                The #2 Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (to give their full name) or the Knights of Malta were formed long before their reign on Malta. The Order was originally established in 1085 as a community of monks responsible for looking after the sick at the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem. They later became a military order, defending crusader territory in the Holy Lands and safeguarding the perilous routes taken by medieval pilgrims. The Knights were drawn exclusively from noble families and the Order acquired vast wealth from those it recruited and later from the ill-gotten gains of their privateering.  The Knights came to Malta in 1530, having been ejected from their earlier home on Rhodes by the Turks in 1522.  Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, gave them the choice of Malta or Tripoli as a new base. Neither was to their liking, but nothing, they thought, could be worse than Tripoli.
               Having chosen Malta, the Knights stayed for 268 years, transforming what they called "merely a rock of soft sandstone"  into a flourishing island with mighty defences and a capital city coveted by the great powers of Europe.
               The Order was ruled by a Grand Master who was answerable only to the Pope. Knights were chosen from the aristocratic families of France, Italy, Spain, England and Portugal. On acceptance into the Order they were sworn to celibacy, poverty and obedience. Those vows quickly eroded away and the order became more of an honorable men's club than chaste.  So, there were not many who lived up to those ideals; many were very wealthy and the Knights' standoffish attitude towards the locals does not always seem to have applied when it came to temptations of the flesh.
               Ironically, it was the two great victories of the Knights which spelt the death-knell of the Order. The Great Siege of 1565, followed by the crucial Battle of Lepanto in 1571, were so successful in checking the Ottoman advance into the western Mediterranean, that there was no longer an Infidel to fight.  The Order gradually grew complacent and corrupt, with little to do but scour the seas for any booty that could be seized from Muslim ships.
             After #3 their victory against the Ottomans, the Knights turned enthusiastically to the further development of Malta and Gozo. A golden era in culture, architecture and #7, #8the arts followed. Many of Malta's most attractive buildings were built during this period. A new fortress city, Valletta, was built and named in honor of the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette under whose inspired guidance the Knights and the Maltese had defied the Ottoman onslaught. Valletta is one of the earliest examples of a planned city built on the grid system. The Knights of St. John, coming as they did from the richest families in Europe, couId afford to hire the best taIent available and the buildings of Valletta, its fortifications and the art treasures in its museums and churches, are the work of the best European engineers and artists of  the time. #7, #8It was the magnificence of its palaces and other treasures that led Sir Walter Scott to describe Valletta as "The city built by gentlemen for gentlemen".
             The fall of the Ottoman Empire marked the beginning of the end of the military vocation of the Order.  However, the absence of a serious military threat to the Order's existence, and their increasing wealth, arrogance, lack of discipline and debauchery ate into the moral fabric of the Order.
             Thus, in 1798, when Napoleon, on his way to Egypt, dropped anchor outside Grand Harbor on the pretext that his expedition needed fresh water supplies, he found an Order which had lost its way.  Not surprisingly, the French Navy did not have to fire a single shot to secure Malta's surrender. #9 On June 12th, Napoleon entered Valletta bringing to an end 268 years of rule by the Knights of St. John. Napoleon spent six eventful days in Malta during which, through numerous edicts, he tried to transform the island into a typical "Department" of France.
             French rule in Malta, however, was short-lived. By 1800 the Maltese, with the help of Nelson, drove the French garrison out of Malta and sought the protection of the British throne.  During World War II, Malta was one of the staging areas for the U.S. Armed Forces invasion of Sicily. Both General Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt were visitors to the island and  FDR paid tribute to the Maltese people for their valorous service to the war effort by presenting a plaque on December 8th, 1943.
    It has been said of different geographical areas in the world that there seems to be a handful of places on the earth that seem to suddenly pop-up throughout history as "history making places" over and over again.  Malta certainly appears to be one of them. The place and its people have a habit of thrusting themselves to the centre of the world's vision every 500 years or so. Here, in 1565, the Knights of Malta, saved western Europe by beating off a Turkish armada of 200 ships and 30,000 men, colossal for its day, in a four-month siege (Smithsonian, January 1982). Here, between 1940 and 1943, a handful of British soldiers, sailors, airmen and Maltese civilians held out against everything that the Italians, and then the Germans, could throw at them. At one time their air defence was reduced to three Gloucester Gladiator biplanes named Faith, Hope and Charity. They were down to only a few days' supply of food and gasoline when the battered remnants of a relief convoy made it in from Gibraltar. But they kept Hitler from getting the supplies across the Mediterranean to Rommel's Afrika Corps that might have won the war for him.  Also, the earliest known man made stone buildings were on Malta and date back to 4000 B.C.
    Malta became independent in 1964 and adopted a Republican Constitution in 1974.
               (The first photograph above is of an ancient fortification built by the Knights of Malta on the island of  Malta, the second photograph is of the city of Valletta -- the capital of Malta  -- the third is a photograph of a sculpture in the likeness of Napoleon and was sculpted by Ray Farrugia, the fourth and last is a watch tower the Knights of Malta used to monitor the shoreline for unauthorized 'visitors')

Knights of Malta Links
History of the Knights of Malta Official Knights of Malta History Page
The Order of Saint John Knights of Malta & the Blondel Family
History of the island of Malta


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