Knights Hospitaller

The Knights Hospitaller (also known as Knights of Rhodes, Knights of Malta, Cavaliers of Malta, and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem) is a tradition which began as a Benedictine hospitaller religious order founded in Jerusalem, following the First Crusade around 1100, and soon became a Christian military order under its own charter, and was charged with the care and defense of pilgrims to the Holy Land. Following the loss of Christian territory in the Holy Land, the Order operated from Rhodes, over which it was sovereign, and later from Malta as a vassal state under the King of Sicily. Although the nation-state can be said to have come to an end following its ejection from Malta by Napoleon, the Medieval Order survived.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (abbreviated SMOM) is the main successor to this tradition. The Order of the Dames of Malta is the female auxiliary to the Knights.

Baron Vassiliev, a 19th-century Knight Commander
Baron Vassiliev, a 19th-century Knight Commander


Foundation and early history

In 600, Abbot Probus was commissioned by Pope Gregory the Great to build a hospital 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. About 200 years later, in 1005, Caliph Al Hakim destroyed the hostel and three thousand other buildings. He made the Christians wear wooden crosses, half a meter long by half a meter 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. In 1023, merchants from Amalfi and Salerno in Italy were given permission by the Caliph Ali az-Zahir 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 Christian holy sites. 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 de 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, formed 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. Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, pledged his protection to the Knights of St. John in a charter of privileges granted in 1185.

Grand Master and senior knights Hospitaller in the 14th century
Grand Master and senior knights Hospitaller in the 14th century

Knights of Cyprus and 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 fell 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. Finding themselves becoming enmeshed in the politics of that kingdom, their Grand Master Guillaume de Villaret created a plan of acquiring their own temporal domain, selecting Rhodes to be their new home. His successor Fulkes de Villaret executed the plan, and on August 15, 1309 after over two years of campaigning, the island of Rhodes surrendered to the knights. They also gained control of a number of neighboring islands, as well as the Anatolian ports of Bodrum and Castellorizon.

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 Aragon, Auvergne, Castile, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Provence). 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 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 survivors 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

Re-enactment of 16th century military drills conducted by the Knights. Fort Saint Elmo, Valletta, Malta, May 8, 2005.
Re-enactment of 16th century military drills conducted by the Knights. Fort Saint Elmo, Valletta, Malta, May 8, 2005.

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 King Charles V of Spain, with the consent of their feudal landlord the King of Sicily. 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. (This historical fact was used as the plot hook in Dashiell Hammett's famous book The Maltese Falcon.)

It was from here that the renamed 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 resettled. Accordingly, they assembled another massive army in order to dislodge the Knights from Malta, and in 1565 invaded, starting the Great Siege of Malta. This siege proved one of the great victories of history for an undermanned and vastly outnumbered defense force. At first the battle looked to be a repeat of the one on Rhodes. Most of the cities were destroyed and about half the Knights died in battle. On August 18 the position of the besieged was becoming desperate: dwindling daily in numbers, they were becoming too feeble to hold the long line of fortifications; but, when his council suggested the abandonment of Il Borgo and Senglea and withdrawal to St. Angelo, La Valette remained obdurate. The Viceroy of Sicily had not brought help. Possibly the orders of his master, Philip II. of Spain, were so obscurely worded as to put on his own shoulders the burden of a decision; a responsibility which he was unwilling to discharge because the slightest defeat would mean exposing Sicily to the Turk. He had left his own son with La Valette, so he could hardly be indifferent to the fate of the fortress, and Malta in Turkish hands would soon have proved a curse to Sicily and Naples. Whatever may have been the cause of his delay, the Viceroy hesitated till the indignation of his own officers forced him to move, and then the battle had almost been won by the unaided efforts of the Knights. On August 23 came yet another grand assault, the last serious effort, as it proved, of the besiegers; it was thrown back with the greatest difficulty, even the wounded taking part in the defence. The plight of the Turkish forces, however, was now desperate. With the exception of St. Elmo, the fortifications were still intact. By working night and day the garrison had repaired the breaches, and the capture of Malta seemed more and more impossible. The terrible summer months had laid many of the troops low with sickness in their crowded quarters; ammunition and food were beginning to run short, and the Turkish troops were becoming more and more dispirited at the failure of their numerous attacks and the unending toll of lives. The death of Dragut, an Algerian corsar and skilled commander, on June 23, had proved an incalculable loss. The Turkish commanders took few precautions, and, though they had a huge fleet, they never used it with any effect except on one solitary occasion. They neglected their communications with the African coast and made no attempt to watch and intercept Sicilian reinforcements. On September 1 they made their last effort, but all threats and cajoleries had but little effect on dispirited Turkish troops, who refused any longer to believe in the possibility of capturing those terrible fortresses. The feebleness of the attack was a great encouragement to the besieged, who now began to see hopes of deliverance. Perplexity and indecision of Turks were cut short by the news of the arrival of Sicilian reinforcements in Melleha Bay. Hastily evacuating, they sailed away on September 3.

At the moment of departure the Order had left 600 men capable of bearing arms, but the losses of the Ottomans had been yet more fearful. The most reliable estimate puts the number of the Turkish army at its height at some 40,000 men, of which but 15,000 returned to Constantinople. It was a most inglorious ending to the reign of Solyman the Magnificent. The siege is portrayed vividly 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 modellos, painted in oils by Perez d'Aleccio 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 Jean de la Vallette 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 modern Spanish-Venetian 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. In 1607 the Order's Head of State, the Grand Master, was granted the status of Reichsfürst (Prince of the Empire, even though their territory was always south of the empire), and in 1630 awarded ecclesiastic equality with the cardinals and the unique hybrid style His Most Eminent Highness, reflecting both qualities qualifying him as a true Prince of the church.

Following the naval victory at Lepanto the Knights continued to attack pirates, and their base became a center 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.

Turmoil in Europe

A portrait of a 12-year-old Ranuccio Farnese (Cardinal) by Titian.
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 "Johanniter Orden" was restored as a Prussian Order of Knights Hospitaller in 1852.

The Knights of Malta had a strong presence within the 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, ending their exploits in the Caribbean.

In 1789, France erupted in revolution and anti-aristocratic furor, forcing many French knights and nobles to flee for their lives. (This would be repeated in Russia a century later.) Many of the Order's traditional sources of revenue from France were lost permanently. Adding insult to injury, the French Revolutionary Government seized the assets and properties of the Order in France in 1792.

The loss of Malta

Their Mediterranean stronghold of Malta was captured by Napoleon in 1798 when he made his expedition to Egypt. As a ruse, Napoleon asked for safe harbor to resupply his ships, and then turned against his hosts once safely inside Valletta. Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim failed to anticipate or 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 Catholic master was restored to the Order in Rome.

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 traditional sources in 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 renewal of the Order's fortunes as a humanitarian and religious organization. In 1834, the revived Order established a new headquarters in Rome. The revived organization is known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which is discussed further.

Revival in England as the Venerable 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 British Order was founded by French Knights and became known as the Most Venerable Order of St. John of Jersualem in 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, the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem was only recognized by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in 1963. Its most well-known activities are based around St. John Ambulance.

Protestant Continuation in Continental Europe

Following the Protestant Reformation, most German chapters of the order declared their continued adherence to the Order while accepting Protestant theology. As the Balley Brandenburg des Ritterlichen Ordens Sankt Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem, the order continues today, gaining increasing independence from its Catholic mother order. The Protestant branch spread into several other protestant countries (i.e. Hungary, the Netherlands, and Sweden). These sub-branches are now autonomous too.

All four branches are in loose alliance with the British order in the Alliance of Orders of St John of Jerusalem.

The modern Sovereign Military Order of Malta

Official flag of the Order of Malta
Official flag of the 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, remains a Catholic order which claims sovereignty under international law and has been granted permanent observer status at the United Nations. (Its claims of sovereignty are disputed by some scholars.) SMOM is considered to be the direct successor to the medieval Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Knights of Malta, and today operates as a largely religious, charitable and hospitaller organization.

Name and motto

The full official name is Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (in English) or Sovrano Militare Ordine Ospedaliero di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme di Rodi e di Malta (in Italian). Conventionally, they are also known as the Order of Malta. The Order has a large number of local priories and associations around the world but there also exist a number of organizations with similar-sounding names that are unrelated, including several fraudulent orders seeking to capitalize on the name. The Order's motto is Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum (Latin for Defence of the faith and assistance to the poor).

In ecclesiastical heraldry, the Order of Malta is one of only two Orders whose insignia may be displayed in a clerical coat of arms. (Laypersons have no such restriction.) The shield is surrounded with a silver rosary for professed knights, or for others the ribbon of their rank. Members may also display the Maltese Cross behind their shield instead of the ribbon (Noonan 1996).

International status of the Order

Blason of the Knights, from the façade of the church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, Florence.
Blason of the Knights, from the façade of the church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, Florence.

With its unique history and unusual present circumstances the exact status of the Order has been the subject of debate: it claims to be a traditional example of a sovereign entity other than a state. Its two headquarters in Rome, namely the Palazzo Malta in Via dei Condotti 68 (where the Grand Master resides and Government Bodies meet), and the Villa Malta on the Aventine (which hosts the Grand Priory of Rome, the Embassy of the Order to Holy See and the Embassy of the Order to Italy), are granted extraterritoriality. However, unlike the Holy See, which is sovereign over the Vatican City, SMOM has no sovereign territory since the loss of the island of Malta, in 1798. 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". For instance, while the International Telecommunication Union has granted radio identification prefixes to such quasi-sovereign 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 "1A0".

Although some legal scholars accept a claim to sovereign status, leading experts in international law, notably Dr. Ian Brownlie, Dr. Helmut Steinberger, and Dr. Wilhelm Wengler, do not. Even taking into account its ambassadorial status among many nations, such a claim is rejected. Specifically Professor Dr Wilhelm Wengler, a German Professor of International law, addresses this point in his book "Völkerrecht", and rejects the notion that recognition of the Order by some states can make it a subject of international law. The Holy See in 1953 proclaimed "in the Lord's name" that the Order of Malta was only a "functional sovereignty" - due to the fact that it did not have all that pertained to true sovereignty, such as territory.

Foreign relations with the SMOM ██ diplomatic relations ██ other relations
Foreign relations with the SMOM ██ diplomatic relations ██ other relations

SMOM has formal diplomatic relations with 94 states (many of which are non-Catholic), and has official relations with another 6 countries, non-state subjects of international law like the European Community and International Committee of the Red Cross, and a number of international organizations. 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 passports, licence plates, stamps, and coins. The latter are appreciated more for their subject matter rather than for use as postage or currency. Starting in 2005, SMOM issues stamps with the Euro as the unit of postage, while Scudo (pl. Scudi) remains the SMOM's official currency.

Government of the Order

The proceedings of the Order are governed by its Constitutional Charter and the Order's Code. It is divided internationally into various territorial Grand Priories, Priories, and Sub-Priories. There are also national associations which operate in parallel with the priories.

The supreme head of the Order is the Grand Master, who is elected for life by the Council Complete of State. The present Grand Master is a Briton, Fra' Andrew Bertie. 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. 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.

Prior to the 1990s, all officers of the Order had to be of noble birth, i.e armigerous for at least 100 years. This remains the case. However, Knights of Magistral Grace [i.e. those without noble proofs], may make the Promise of Obedience and may, at the discretion of the Grand Master and Sovereign Council, enter the novitiate to become professed Knights of Justice. The latter are religious, essentially monks practising the triple vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, although seldom living in monastic community. Once invested as a new knight, a Knight of Magistral Grace, if not already noble, is thereby ennobled, and expected to become armigerous. Worldwide there are some 10,000 knights and dames, a small minority of whom are professed religious. Membership of the Order is by invitation only and solicitations are not entertained.

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.

Mimic Orders

Following the end of World War II, 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 one claiming to be 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 still continues.

The large passage fees collected by the American Association of "SMOM" in the early 1950s may well have tempted a man named 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 claiming the American organization he led was founded within the genuine Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller in 1908, a spurious claim, but which nevertheless misled many including some academics. In truth, the foundation of his organisation had no connection to the genuine Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller. Once created, the attraction of Russian Nobles into membership of Pichel’s 'Order' lent some credence to his claims.

These organizations have led to scores of other mimic Orders. Two offshoots of the Pichel Order have been successful in gaining the backing of two exiled monarchs: the late King Peter II of Yugoslavia, and King Michael of Romania.

List of Grand Masters

See also


  • Cohen, R. [1920] (2004-04-15). Julie Barkley, Bill Hershey and PG Distributed Proofreaders Knights of Malta, 1523-1798. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved on 2006-05-29.
  • Noonan, Jr., James-Charles (1996). The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church. Viking, p.196. ISBN 0-670-86745-4.

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