Knights of Malta
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The Knights of Malta
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.
A Knight of Malta
c.1510-1515. Oil on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy
Courteousy of Olga's Gallery #1,#5,
Knight of Malta
Courteousy of the
Edrichton Holidays Group of Companies #4
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
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
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,
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')
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