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Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta

Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta

The Knights Hospitaller (also known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Order of St. John, Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes, and Chevaliers of Malta) is a Christian organization that began as an Amalfitan hospital founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to provide care for poor and sick pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade it became a religious/military order under its own charter, and was charged with the care and defense of the Holy Land. Following the loss of the Holy Land by Christian forces, the Order operated from Rhodes, over which it was sovereign, and later from Malta where it administered a vassal state under the Spanish viceroy of Sicily.

When Napoleon captured Malta in 1798 the Knights ceased to be associated with any one place, but gave rise to successors in existence until the present.

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' hospital and added a library to it. About 200 years later, in 1005, Caliph Al Hakim destroyed the hospital and three thousand other buildings. In 1023, merchants from Amalfi and Salerno in Italy were given permission by the Caliph Ali az-Zahir of Egypt to rebuild the hospital in Jerusalem. The hospital, 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 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Initially the group cared for pilgrims in Jerusalem, but the order soon extended to providing pilgrims with an armed escort, which soon grew into a substantial force.

The Hospitallers and the Knights Templar, formed in 1119, became 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 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 built by the Templars and the 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 the Krak des Chevaliers and Margat. 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.

The rising power of Islam eventually expelled the Knights from 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 Cypriot politics, 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 15 August 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 and the Anatolian ports of Bodrum and Kastelorizo.

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). Each was administered by a Prior or, if there was more than one priory in the tongue, by a Grand Prior. At Rhodes and later Malta, the resident knights of each tongue were headed by a Bailli. The English Grand Prior at the time was Philip Thame, who acquired the estates allocated to the English tongue from 1330 to 1358.

On Rhodes the Hospitallers, now known as the Knights of Rhodes, 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 the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1480 who, after capturing Constantinople, made the Knights a priority target.

In 1494 they created a stronghold on the peninsula of Halicarnassus (now Bodrum). They used pieces of the partially destroyed Mausoleum of Maussollos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, to strengthen Bodrum Castle.

In 1522 an entirely new sort of force arrived: 400 ships under the command of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent delivered 200,000 men to the island. Against this force the Knights, under Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, had about 7,000 men-at-arms and their fortifications. The siege lasted six months, at the end of which the surviving defeated Hospitallers were allowed to withdraw to Sicily.

After seven years of moving from place to place in Europe the Knights became established in 1530 when the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles V of Spain, as King of Sicily, gave them Malta, Gozo and the North African port of Tripoli in perpetual fiefdom in exchange for an annual fee of a single Maltese falcon, which they were to send on All Souls Day to the King's representative, the Viceroy of Sicily.

The Hospitallers continued their actions against the Muslims and especially the Barbary pirates. Although they had only few ships they quickly drew the ire of the Ottomans, who were unhappy to see the order resettled. In 1565 Suleiman sent an invasion force of about 40,000 men to besiege the 700 knights and 8000 soldiers and expel them from Malta.

At first the battle went as badly for the Hospitallers as Rhodes had: most of the cities were destroyed and about half the knights killed. On 18 August 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 Fort St. Angelo, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette refused.

The Viceroy of Sicily had not sent help; possibly the Viceroy's orders from Philip II of Spain were so obscurely worded as to put on his own shoulders the burden of the decision whether to help the Knights at the expense of his own defences. A wrong decision could mean defeat and exposing Sicily and Naples to the Ottomans. He had left his own son with La Valette, so he could hardly be indifferent to the fate of the fortress. Whatever may have been the cause of his delay, the Viceroy hesitated until the battle had almost been decided by the unaided efforts of the Knights, before being forced to move by the indignation of his own officers.

On 23 August 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 Fort St. Elmo, the fortifications were still intact. Working night and day the garrison had repaired the breaches, and the capture of Malta seemed more and more impossible. Many of the Ottoman troops in crowded quarters had fallen ill over the terrible summer months. Ammunition and food were beginning to run short, and the Ottoman troops were becoming increasingly dispirited at the failure of their attacks and their losses. The death on 23 June of skilled commander Dragut, a corsair and admiral of the Ottoman fleet, was a serious blow. The Turkish commanders, Piyale Pasha and Mustafa Pasha, were careless. They had a huge fleet which they used with effect on only one occasion. They neglected their communications with the African coast and made no attempt to watch and intercept Sicilian reinforcements.

On 1 September they made their last effort, but the morale of the Ottoman troops had deteriorated seriously and the attack was feeble, to the great encouragement of the besieged, who now began to see hopes of deliverance. The perplexed and indecisive Ottomans heard of the arrival of Sicilian reinforcements in Mellieħa Bay. Unaware that the force was very small, they broke off the siege and left on 8 September. The Great Siege of Malta may have been the last action in which a force of knights won a decisive victory.

When the Ottomans departed the Hospitallers had 600 men able to bear arms. The most reliable estimate puts the number of the Ottoman army at its height at some 40,000 men, of whom 15,000 eventually returned to Constantinople. 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 Grand Master's Palace in 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 at Greenwich, London. After the siege a new city had to be built – the present city named Valletta in memory of the Grand Master who had withstood the siege

In 1607 the Grand Master of the Hospitallers was granted the status of Reichsfürst (Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, even though the Order's territory was always south of the Holy Roman Empire). In 1630 the Grand Master was awarded ecclesiastic equality with cardinals, and the unique hybrid style His Most Eminent Highness, reflecting both qualities qualifying him as a true Prince of the Church.

Following the Christian victory over the Ottoman fleet in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Knights continued to attack pirates and Muslim shipping, and their base became a centre for slave trading well into the 18th century, selling captured Africans and Turks and freeing Christian slaves. A thousand slaves were needed to equip and man each of the Order's galleys.

In 1789 France erupted in revolution and anti-clerical and anti-aristocratic furor, forcing many French knights and nobles to flee for their lives. Many of the Order's traditional sources of revenue from France were lost permanently.

The decree of the French National Assembly Abolishing the Feudal System (1789) abolished the Order in France. The French Revolutionary Government seized the assets and properties of the Order in France in 1792.

Their Mediterranean stronghold of Malta was captured by Napoleon in 1798 during 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, arguing that the order's charter prohibited fighting against Christians. He resigned his office and retreated into obscurity. The order continued to exist in a diminished form and negotiated with European governments for a return to power. The Tsar 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 1798, following Napoleon's taking of Malta, the order was dispersed, but with a large number of refugee knights sheltering in St Petersburg, where they elected the Russian Emperor, Paul I as their Grand Master – a rival to Grand Master Ferdinand Hompesch, then held in disgrace. Hompesch abdicated in 1799, under pressure from the Austrian Court, leaving Paul as the de facto Grand Master. As Grand Master Paul I created, in addition to the Roman Catholic Grand Priory, a Russian tradition within the Hospitaller Order – the "Russian Grand Priory" of no less than 118 Commanderies dwarfing the rest of the Order, and open to all Christians. Paul's election as Grand Master was never ratified under Roman Catholic Canon law, and the Russian Priory was a de facto rather than a de jure part of the Roman Catholic 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 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. 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 (Grand Master 1931-1951).

The Order has recently returned to Malta, after signing an agreement with the Maltese Government which granted the Order the exclusive use of Fort St. Angelo for a term of 99 years. Today, after restoration, the Fort hosts historical and cultural activities related to the Order of Malta.

In 1834, the revived Order established a new headquarters in Rome. The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, better known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), remains a Roman Catholic religious order which along with another order is a virtual Sovereign State with membership of many international bodies and observer status at others (such as the United Nations). The Grand Masters of the two Orders are thus Papal Viceroys who provide Vatican diplomacy with procedural support for making motions, proposing amendments and requiring votes in the sphere of international diplomacy. Both Orders maintain Embassies in and receive Ambassadors from the (mostly majority Catholic) countries who recognise their Sovereignty. Their claims of sovereignty are disputed by some scholars and remain unrecognised by many other countries.

Malta, 1899, Galley of Knights of St. john

Malta, 1904, Galley of Knights of St. john

Malta, 1907, Galley of Knights of St. john

Malta, 1965, Knights of Malta

Malta, 1965, Maltese Navy

Malta, 1970, Allegory of the Order

Malta, 1973, Knigts

Malta, 1987, Officer (XVI c.)

S. M. O. M., 1980, The Siege of Rhodes

S. M. O. M., 1980, The Siege of Rhodes

S. M. O. M., 1980, The Siege of Rhodes

S. M. O. M., 1980, The Siege of Rhodes

S. M. O. M., 1980, The Siege of Rhodes

S. M. O. M., 1984, The Knights of Malta (XVII cent.)

S. M. O. M., 1984, The Knights of Malta (XVI cent.)

S. M. O. M., 1984, The Knights of Malta (XVI cent.)

S. M. O. M., 1987, The Knights of Malta (XV cent.)

S. M. O. M., 1987, The Knights of Malta (XV cent.)

S. M. O. M., 1992, The Knights of Malta (XVI cent.)

S. M. O. M., 1992, The Knights of Malta (XVII cent.)

S. M. O. M., 1993, The Knights of Rhodes

S. M. O. M., 1998, Grang Master of Malta (XVI cent.)

S. M. O. M., 2002, The Knights of Malta (XV cent.)

S. M. O. M., 2004, The Knights of Malta (XVII cent.)


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