Knights of Malta

For centuries, the seas around Malta were ruled by the Knights of St John, an ancient order of monks – the legal pirates of the Mediterranean.

Jerusalem and many other places in Palestine are very important to three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. To this day, pilgrims from all three religions travel to the area to worship at their sacred places, and call the area their Holy Land.

For centuries, Christians from Europe made the long, tough journey across mountains, sea and deserts to make pilgrimages to the places where they believed Jesus had lived and died. In the seventh century, the city of Jerusalem was conquered by the army of Islam, to whom the city was also sacred, but Christian pilgrims were still allowed to visit the city and worship.

But from the eleventh century, the Christian countries of Europe tried to win back Jerusalem – these wars were called the Crusades.

History of the Knights of Malta
The Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem (later called the Knights of Malta) was set up in 1100.

It began as a religious Order which provided care and protection for Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Members of the Order were young men drawn from the noble families of Europe. The Knights Hospitallers set up hospitals to care for the sick and weary, and provided military protection along the pilgrim routes. They were monks, nurses and warriors.

Thrown out of the Holy Land in 1291, the Knights settled first at Cyprus, then Rhodes, until in 1530 they were offered the islands of Malta for the rent of two Maltese falcons per year.

By the 1500s, Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire had been engaged in constant war for centuries. The Knights built their huge and powerful navy of galleys to attack the ships of the Ottomans and the Barbary corsairs, but also took slaves and booty from Venetian ships trading with Barbary ports. The Barbary corsairs attacked Christian ships and fought great battles against the Knights and against the navies of Spain and Venice.

After the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sent a vast fleet against Malta in the Great Siege of 1565, the Knights rebuilt the cities, built a chain of watchtowers around the coast, and fortified the Grand Harbour so it would never again suffer such a dreadful siege.

Valletta lion
Napoleon comes to Malta
By 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet arrived, the Knights were not the great power they had once been. Many of the Knights were older and not many of them had ever really been in a war. A lot of the Knights were French, so they didn’t want to fight against their countrymen.

At first, the Grand Master told Napoleon that he wasn’t allowed to bring all his ships into the harbour, but the French landed anyway in several places around the coast, and so the Grand Master had to surrender Malta and allow Napoleon to land.

Napoleon sent all the remaining Knights away from Malta, except for the French Knights who wanted to fight in his army. The Grand Master fled to Russia to live under the protection of the Tsar.

The Maltese Cross
Since the 19th century, the Order has re-established itself as a religious and charitable organisation. The English branch of the Order, for example, has evolved into St John’s Ambulance Service.

The famous eight-pointed Maltese Cross came to symbolise safety and support provided by a whole range of services like fire fighters and ambulances.

It now flies, a white cross on red background, once again over the ramparts of Fort St Angelo, looking out across the Grand Harbour.

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