603 Jan 1
, Jerusalem

In 603, Pope Gregory I commissioned the Ravennate Abbot Probus, who was previously Gregory's emissary at the Lombard court, to build a hospital in Jerusalem to treat and care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. In 800, Emperor Charlemagne enlarged Probus' hospital and added a library to it. About 200 years later, in 1009, the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah destroyed the hospital and three thousand other buildings in Jerusalem. In 1023, merchants from Amalfi and Salerno in Italy were given permission by Caliph Ali az-Zahir to rebuild the hospital in Jerusalem. The hospital was served by the Order of Saint Benedict, built on the site of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist, and took in Christian pilgrims traveling to visit the Christian holy sites.

The Hospital of St. John was therefore believed to have been founded shortly before 1070 in Jerusalem, as a dependency of the Benedictine house of the Church of Saint Mary of the Latins. The founding Amalfian merchants dedicated this hospice to St. John the Baptist, reflecting the pre-sixth century Basilica of the Crucifix in Amalfi dedicated to the Assumption. Shortly thereafter, a second hospice for women was founded and dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. The hospital, in the Muristan district of Jerusalem, was to provide care for sick, poor, or injured pilgrims to the Holy Land.

Raymond du Puy par Alexandre Laemlein dans la Salle des Croisades du Château de Versailles

Founding of the Knights Hospitaller

1113 Jan 1
, Jerusalem

The monastic hospitaller order was created following the First Crusade by Blessed Gerard de Martigues whose role as founder was confirmed by the papal bull Pie postulatio voluntatis issued by Pope Paschal II in 1113. Gerard acquired territory and revenues for his order throughout the Kingdom of Jerusalem and beyond. Under his successor, Raymond du Puy, the original hospice was expanded to an infirmary near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Initially, the group cared for pilgrims in Jerusalem, but the order soon extended to provide pilgrims with an armed escort before eventually becoming a significant military force. Thus the Order of St. John imperceptibly became militaristic without losing its charitable character.

Order organized into three ranks

Order organized into three ranks

1118 Jan 1
, Jerusalem

Raymond du Puy, who succeeded Gerard as master of the hospital in 1118, organized a militia from the order's members, dividing the order into three ranks: knights, men at arms, and chaplains. Raymond offered the service of his armed troops to Baldwin II of Jerusalem, and the order from this time participated in the crusades as a military order, in particular distinguishing itself in the Siege of Ascalon of 1153.

Hospitallers granted Beth Gibelin | ©Angus McBride

Hospitallers granted Beth Gibelin

1136 Jan 1
, Beit Guvrin

After the success of the First Crusade in capturing Jerusalem in 1099, many Crusaders donated their new property in the Levant to the Hospital of St John. Early donations were in the newly formed Kingdom of Jerusalem, but over time the order extended its holdings to the Crusader states of the County of Tripoli and the Principality of Antioch. Evidence suggests that in the 1130s the order became militarised when Fulk, King of Jerusalem, granted the newly built castle at Beth Gibelin to the order in 1136. A papal bull from between 1139 and 1143 may indicate the order hiring people to defend pilgrims. There were also other military orders, such as the Knights Templar, that offered protection to pilgrims.

Krak des Chevaliers

Defense of the County of Tripoli

1142 Jan 1
, Tripoli

Between 1142 and 1144 Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, granted property in the county to the order. According to historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, the Hospitallers effectively established a "palatinate" within Tripoli. The property included castles with which the Hospitallers were expected to defend Tripoli. Along with Krak des Chevaliers, the Hospitallers were given four other castles along the borders of the state, which allowed the order to dominate the area. The order's agreement with Raymond II stated that if he did not accompany knights of the order on campaign, the spoils belonged entirely to the order, and if he was present it was split equally between the count and the order. Further, Raymond II could not make peace with the Muslims without the permission of the Hospitallers. The Hospitallers made Krak des Chevaliers a center of administration for their new property, undertaking work at the castle that would make it one of the most elaborate Crusader fortifications in the Levant.

Défense de la Celesyrie par Raymond du Puy | ©Édouard Cibot

Siege of Damascus

1148 Jul 24
, Damascus

When the Second Crusade began in 1147, the Hospitallers were a major force in the kingdom and the political importance of the Grand Master had increased. In June 1148 at the Council of Acre, Raymond du Puy was among the princes who undertook the decision to undertake the Siege of Damascus. The blame for the resulting disastrous loss was placed on the Templars, not the Hospitallers. In the Holy Land, the influence of the Hospitallers became preponderant with a decisive role taken in military operations due to the governance of Raymond.

Battle between Baldwin IV and Saladin's Egyptians, November 18, 1177.

Battle of Montgisard

1177 Nov 25
, Gezer

Jobert's magisterium ended with his death in 1177, and he was succeeded as Grand Master by Roger de Moulins. At that time, the Hospitallers formed one of the strongest military organizations of the kingdom, diverging from the origin mission of the Order. Among Roger's first actions was to urge Baldwin IV of Jerusalem to continue to vigorously prosecute the war against Saladin and, in November 1177, he participated in the Battle of Montgisard, winning a victory against the Ayyubids. Pope Alexander III called them back to the observance of the rule of Raymond du Puy between 1178 and 1180, issuing a bull that forbade them to take up arms unless they were attacked and urged them not to abandon the care of those sick and in poverty. Alexander III persuaded Roger to make a truce in 1179 with the Templar Odo de St Amand, then Grand Master, also a veteran of Montgisard.

Crusaders castles in the Holy Land | ©Paweł Moszczyński

Magrat sold to the Hospitallers

1186 Jan 1
, Baniyas

In 1186, Bertrand Mazoir sold Margat to the Hospitallers as it was too expensive for the Mazoir family to maintain. After some rebuilding and expansion by the Hospitallers it became their headquarters in Syria. Under Hospitaller control, its fourteen towers were thought to be impregnable.

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 property of the Order was divided into priories, subdivided into bailiwicks, which in turn were divided into commanderies.

Saladin at the siege of Krak des Chevaliers | ©Angus McBride

Hospitallers defend against Saladin

1188 May 1
, Krak des Chevaliers

The Battle of Hattin in 1187 was a disastrous defeat for the Crusaders: Guy of Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, was captured, as was the True Cross, a relic discovered during the First Crusade. Afterwards Saladin ordered the execution of the captured Templar and Hospitaller knights, such was the importance of the two orders in defending the Crusader states. After the battle, the Hospitaller castles of Belmont, Belvoir, and Bethgibelin fell to Muslim armies. Following these losses, the Order focused its attention on its castles in Tripoli. In May 1188 Saladin led an army to attack Krak des Chevaliers, but on seeing the castle, decided it was too well defended and instead marched on the Hospitaller castle of Margat, which he also failed to capture.

Battle of Arsuf led by the Hospitaller charge | ©Mike Perry

Hospitallers win the day at Arsuf

1191 Sep 7
, Arsuf

Late in 1189, Armengol de Aspa abdicated and a new Grand Master was not chosen until Garnier of Nablus was elected in 1190. Garnier had been seriously injured at Hattin in 1187, but managed to reach Ascalon and recovered from his wounds. He was in Paris through that time waiting for Richard I of England to depart on the Third Crusade. He arrived in Messina on 23 September where he met Philippe Auguste and Robert IV de Sablé, soon to be Grand Master of the Templars.

Garnier left Messina on 10 April 1191 with Richard's fleet, which then anchored on 1 May at the port of Lemesos. Richard subdued the island on 11 May despite the mediation of Garnier. They set sail again on 5 June and arrived in Acre, under Ayyubid control since 1187. There they found Philippe Auguste leading the Siege of Acre, a two-year attempt to dislodge the Muslims. The besiegers eventually got the upper hand and, under the helpless eyes of Saladin, the Muslim defenders capitulated on 12 July 1191.

On 22 August 1191, Richard travelled south to Arsuf. The Templars formed the vanguard and the Hospitallers at the rear-guard. Richard travelled with an elite force ready to intervene where necessary. The Hospitallers came under attack on September 7, at the beginning of the Battle of Arsuf. Situated at the rear of the military column, Garnier's knights were under heavy pressure by the Muslims and he rode forward to persuade Richard to attack, which he refused. Finally, Garnier and another knight charged forward, and were soon joined by the rest of the Hospitaller force. Richard, despite the fact that his orders had been disobeyed, signaled for a full charge. This caught the enemy at a vulnerable moment, and their ranks were broken. Garnier thus played a large part in winning the battle, though in contravention of Richard's orders.

Knight Hospitaller | ©Amari Low

War of the Antiochene Succession

1201 Jan 1 - 1209
, Syria

Guérin de Montaigu was elected Grand Master in the summer of 1207. He was described as "the figure of one of the greatest masters of whom the Hospital has reason to be proud." He is believed to be the brother of Pierre de Montaigu who served as Templar Grand Master from 1218 to 1232. Like his two predecessors, Montaigu found himself involved in the affairs of Antioch in the War of the Antiochene Succession, begun with the opening of the will of Bohémond III of Antioch. The will directed his grandson Raymond-Roupen as successor. Bohémond IV of Antioch, second son of Bohémond III and Count of Tripoli, did not accept this will. Leo I of Armenia, as the maternal great-uncle, took the side of Raymond-Roupen. However, without waiting for the death of his father, Bohémond IV had taken possession of the principality. The Templars had aligned themselves with the bourgeoisie of Antioch and az-Zahir Ghazi, the Ayyubid sultan of Aleppo, while the Hospitallers sided with Raymond-Roupen and the king of Armenia.

When de Montaigu took over the Hospitallers, nothing had changed. Leo I of Armenia had made himself master of Antioch and had re-established his grand-nephew there. But it was of short duration, and as the Count of Tripoli remained master of the city. Leo I supported his claims by confiscating the Templars' property in Cilicia, ruining Antioch's trade by raids, and even risking excommunication in 1210–1213. An agreement was reached between the king and the Templars, and the excommunication was revoked. On 14 February 1216, Antioch was put in the hands of Leo I and of his nephew Raymond-Roupen. The Antiochene nobility allowed the return of Bohémond IV and the escape of Raymon-Roupen, who later died in 1222.

Bohémond IV exacted his revenge on the Hospitallers, taking back the castle of Antioch from them and their possessions of Tripoli were undermined. Honorius III interceded in their favor in 1225 and 1226, and his successor Gregory IX excommunicated Bohémond IV in 1230. He authorized Gerald of Lausanne, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, to lift the ban if Bohémond agreed to make peace with the Hospitallers. With the mediation of Gerald and the Ibelins, Bohemond and the Hospitallers agreed to a treaty which was signed on 26 October 1231. Bohémond confirmed the Hospitallers' right to hold Jabala and a nearby fortress and granted them money fiefs in both Tripoli and Antioch. The Hospitallers renounced the privileges that Raymond-Roupen had granted to them. Before long, Gerald of Lausanne lifted the excommunication and sent the treaty to Rome to be confirmed by the Holy See.

Siege of Jerusalem

Fall of Jerusalem

1244 Jul 15
, Jerusalem

In 1244, the Ayyubids allowed the Khwarazmians, whose empire had been destroyed by the Mongols in 1231, to attack the city. The Templars began fortifying the city of Jerusalem in 1244 when the Khwarezmian invasion occurred, a force summoned by as-Salih Ayyub, the sultan of Egypt. They seized Tiberias, Safed and Tripoli and began the Siege of Jerusalem on 15 July 1244. Because of the agreement between Frederick II and al-Kamil, the walls were inadequately fortified and unable to withstand the attack. The patriarch of Jerusalem Robert of Nantes and the leaders of the Templars and Hospitallers came to support the city's inhabitants and initially repelled the attackers. The imperial Castellan and the Grand Commander of the Hospital lost their lives in the battle, but no help from the Franks was coming.

The city fell rapidly. The Khwarazmians plundered the Armenian Quarter, where they decimated the Christian population, and drove out the Jews. In addition, they sacked the tombs of kings of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and dug out their bones, in which the tombs of Baldwin I and Godfrey of Bouillon became cenotaphs. On 23 August, the Tower of David surrendered to the Khwarazmian forces, some 6,000 Christian men, women and children marched out of Jerusalem. The Knights Hospitaller and Templars moved their headquarters to the city of Acre.

Battle of La Forbie

Battle of La Forbie

1244 Oct 17
, Gaza

After the fall of Jerusalem, a combined force was assembled, consisting of Templars, the Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights, joining a Muslim army of Syrians and Transjordanians under al-Mansur Ibrahim and an-Nasir Dā’ūd. This army was placed under the command of Walter IV of Brienne and left Acre, now the headquarters of the Order, and departed on 4 October 1244. They fell on the Khwarezmians and the Egyptian troops commanded by Baibars, future Mamluk sultan of Egypt, on 17 October. In the Battle of La Forbie near Gaza, the Muslim allies of the Franks dropped out at the first encounter with the enemy and the Christians found themselves alone. The unequal fighting ended in disaster––16,000 men lost their lives and 800 were taken prisoner, among them 325 knights and 200 turcopoliers of the Hospitallers. Guillaume de Chateauneuf himself was captured and taken to Cairo. Only 18 Templars and 16 Hospitallers managed to escape. The resulting Ayyubid victory led to the call for the Seventh Crusade and marked the collapse of Christian power in the Holy Land.

Order gets its coat of arms

Order gets its coat of arms

1248 Jan 1
, Rome

In 1248 Pope Innocent IV approved a standard military dress for the Hospitallers to be worn during battle. Instead of a closed cape over their armour (which restricted their movements), they wore a red surcoat with a white cross emblazoned on it.

Mamluks take Krak des Chevaliers

Fall of Krak des Chevaliers

1271 Mar 3 - Apr 8
, Krak des Chevaliers

On 3 March 1271, Mamluk sultan Baibars' army arrived at Krak des Chevaliers. By the time the Sultan arrived the castle may already have been blockaded by Mamluk forces for several days. There are three Arabic accounts of the siege; only one, that of Ibn Shaddad, was by a contemporary although he was not present. Peasants who lived in the area had fled to the castle for safety and were kept in the outer ward. As soon as Baibars arrived he began erecting mangonels, powerful siege weapons which he would turn on the castle. According to Ibn Shaddad, two days later the first line of defences was captured by the besiegers; he was probably referring to a walled suburb outside the castle's entrance.

Rain interrupted the siege, but on 21 March a triangular outwork immediately south of Krak des Chevaliers, possibly defended by a timber palisade, was captured. On 29 March, the tower in the south-west corner was undermined and collapsed. Baibars' army attacked through the breach and on entering the outer ward where they encountered the peasants who had sought refuge in the castle.

Though the outer ward had fallen, and in the process a handful of the garrison killed, the Crusaders retreated to the more formidable inner ward. After a lull of ten days, the besiegers conveyed a letter to the garrison, supposedly from the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in Tripoli which granted permission for them to surrender. Although the letter was a forgery, the garrison capitulated and the Sultan spared their lives. The new owners of the castle undertook repairs, focused mainly on the outer ward. The Hospitaller chapel was converted to a mosque and two mihrabs were added to the interior.

Matthieu de Clermont défend Ptolémaïs en 1291, by Dominique Papety (1815–49) at Versailles

Fall of Acre

1291 Apr 4 - May 18
, Acre

The siege of Acre (also called the fall of Acre) took place in 1291 and resulted in the Crusaders losing control of Acre to the Mamluks. It is considered one of the most important battles of the period. Although the crusading movement continued for several more centuries, the capture of the city marked the end of further crusades to the Levant. When Acre fell, the Crusaders lost their last major stronghold of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. They still maintained a fortress at the northern city of Tartus (today in north-western Syria), engaged in some coastal raids, and attempted an incursion from the tiny island of Ruad, but when they lost that as well in 1302 in the siege of Ruad, the Crusaders no longer controlled any part of the Holy Land.

After Acre, the Knights Hospitallers sought refuge in the Kingdom of Cyprus.

Interlude on Cyprus

Interlude on Cyprus

1291 May 19 - 1309
, Cyprus

The Hospitallers relocated to Kingdom of Cyprus following the fall of Acre. Taking refuge in Limassol at the Castle of Kolossi, Jean de Villiers held a General Chapter of the Order on 6 October 1292. He wanted to put the Hospitallers in a position to reconquer the Holy Land. He prepared for the defense of Cyprus and the protection of Armenia, both of which were threatened by the Mamluks. Entangled in Cypriot politics, de Villaret formed a plan to acquire a new temporal domain, the island of Rhodes, then part of the Byzantine Empire.

After the loss of Acre, the balance of power in the Holy Land between Christians and Mamluks was clearly in favor of the latter, who continued to advance. However, the Christians could count on the Mongols of Persia led by Mahmud Ghazan Khan, whose expansionism pushed them to covet the Mamluk lands. His army took Aleppo, and was there joined by his vassal Hethum II of Armenia, whose forces included some Templars and Hospitallers, all of whom participated in the rest of the offensive. The Mongols and their allies defeated the Mamluks in the Third Battle of Homsin December 1299. The khan sent an ambassador to Nicosia to establish an alliance. Henry II of Cyprus, Hethum II and Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay decided to have him escorted to the pope to support the idea of an alliance, which became effective in 1300.

The king of Cyprus sent an army to Armenia accompanied by 300 knights of the two Orders led personally by the Grand Masters. They stormed the island of Ruad, near the Syrian coast, with the aim of turning it into a base for their future operations. They then took the port city of Tortosa, pillaged the region, captured many Muslims and sold them as slaves in Armenia while waiting for the arrival of the Mongols, but this only led to the Fall of Ruad, the last battle for the Holy Land.

Prise de Rhodes, 15 août 1310 | ©Éloi Firmin Féron

Hospitaller conquest of Rhodes

1306 Jun 23 - 1310 Aug 15
, Rhodes

When the Hospitallers retreated to Cyprus, the island was ruled by the titular king of Jerusalem, Henry II of Cyprus. He was less than pleased that an organization as powerful as the Order could compete with him for the sovereignty of his small island and likely set Guillaume de Villaret on the path to conquer the island of Rhodes.

According to Gérard de Monréal, as soon as he was elected as Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in 1305, Foulques de Villaret planned the conquest of Rhodes, which would ensure him a liberty of action that he could not have as long as the Order remained on Cyprus, and would provide a new base for war against the Turks.

Rhodes was an attractive target: a fertile island, it was strategically located off the southwestern coast of Asia Minor, astride the trade routes to either Constantinople or Alexandria and the Levant. The island was a Byzantine possession, but the increasingly feeble Empire was evidently unable to protect its insular possessions, as demonstrated by the seizure of Chios in 1304 by the Genoese Benedetto Zaccaria, who secured recognition of his possession from Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282–1328), and the competing activities of the Genoese and Venetians in the area of the Dodecanese.

The Hospitaller conquest of Rhodes took place in 1306–1310. The Knights Hospitaller, led by Grand Master Foulques de Villaret, landed on the island in summer 1306 and quickly conquered most of it except for the city of Rhodes, which remained in Byzantine hands. Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos sent reinforcements, which allowed the city to repel the initial Hospitaller attacks, and persevere until it was captured on 15 August 1310. The Hospitallers transferred their base to the island, which became the centre of their activities until it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1522.

Knight Hospitaller

Hospitallers help capture Smyrna

1344 Oct 28
, İzmir

During the Smyrniote Crusade in 1344, on October 28, the combined forces of the Knights Hospitallers of Rhodes, the Republic of Venice, the Papal States and the Kingdom of Cyprus, captured both the harbor and city from the Turks, which they held for nearly 60 years; the citadel fell in 1348, with the death of the governor Umur Baha ad-Din Ghazi.

In 1402, Tamerlane stormed the town and massacred almost all the inhabitants. Timur's conquest was only temporary, but Smyrna was recovered by the Turks under the Aydın dynasty after which it became Ottoman, when the Ottomans took over the lands of Aydın after 1425.

Hospitaller galley c. 1680 | ©Castro, Lorenzo

Order constructs Bodrum castle

1404 Jan 1
, Çarşı

Confronted by the now firmly established Ottoman Sultanate, the Knights Hospitaller, whose headquarters were on the island of Rhodes, needed another stronghold on the mainland. Grand Master Philibert de Naillac (1396–1421) identified a suitable site across from the island of Kos, where a castle had already been built by the Order. Its location was the site of a fortification in Doric times (1110 BC) as well as of a small Seljuk castle in the 11th century.

The construction of the castle began in 1404 under the supervision of the German knight architect Heinrich Schlegelholt. Construction workers were guaranteed a reservation in heaven by a Papal Decree of 1409. They used squared green volcanic stone, marble columns and reliefs from the nearby Mausoleum of Halicarnassus to fortify the castle.

The castle came under attack with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, first after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and again in 1480 by Sultan Mehmed II. The attacks were repelled by the Knights of St John. When the Knights decided to fortify the castle in 1494, they used stones from the Mausoleum once again. The walls facing the mainland were thickened in order to withstand the increasing destructive power of cannon. The walls facing the sea were less thick, since the Order had little to fear from a sea attack due to their powerful naval fleet. Grand Master Fabrizio del Carretto (1513–21) built a round bastion to strengthen the land side of the fortress.

Despite their extensive fortifications, the Crusaders's towers were no match for the forces of Süleyman the Magnificent, who overpowered the knights in 1523. Under the Ottoman rule, the castle's importance waned, and in 1895 it was converted into a prison.

Siege of Rhodes

Siege of Rhodes

1522 Jun 26 - Dec 22
, Rhodes

On Rhodes the Hospitallers, by then also referred to 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 the Conqueror in 1480 who, after capturing Constantinople and defeating the Byzantine Empire in 1453, made the Knights a priority target.

In 1522, an entirely new sort of force arrived: 400 ships under the command of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent delivered 100,000 men to the island (200,000 in other sources). 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. Despite the defeat, both Christians and Muslims seem to have regarded the conduct of Phillipe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam as extremely valiant, and the Grand Master was proclaimed a Defender of the Faith by Pope Adrian VI.

Philippe de Villiers de l'Isle Adam takes possession of the island of Malta, 26 October 1530 | ©René Théodore Berthon

Knights of Malta

1530 Jan 1
, Malta

In 1530, after seven years of moving from place to place in Europe, Pope Clement VII – himself a Knight – reached an agreement with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, also King of Spain and Sicily, to provide the knights permanent quarters on Malta, Gozo and the North African port of Tripoli in perpetual fiefdom in exchange for an annual fee of a single Maltese falcon (the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon), which they were to send on All Souls' Day to the King's representative, the Viceroy of Sicily.In 1548, Charles V raised Heitersheim, the headquarters of the Hospitallers in Germany, into the Principality of Heitersheim, making the Grand Prior of Germany a prince of the Holy Roman Empire with a seat and vote in the Reichstag.

La Valette, leader of the Knights of St. John, at the siege of Malta (1565). | ©Angus McBride

Hospitaller Tripoli

1530 Jan 2 - 1551
, Tripoli

Tripoli, today the capital city of Libya, was ruled by the Knights Hospitaller between 1530 and 1551. The city had been under Spanish rule for two decades before it was granted as a fief to the Hospitallers in 1530 along with the islands of Malta and Gozo. The Hospitallers found it difficult to control both the city and the islands, and at times they proposed to either move their headquarters to Tripoli or to abandon and raze the city. Hospitaller rule over Tripoli ended in 1551 when the city was captured by the Ottoman Empire following a siege.

A painting showing Maltese galleys capturing an Ottoman vessel in the Malta Channel in 1652.

Navy of the Order of Saint John

1535 Jan 1
, Malta

While based in Malta, the Order and its navy participated in a number of naval battles against the Ottoman Navy or the Barbary pirates. The Order sent a carrack and four galleys to support the Spanish Empire and its allies in the conquest of Tunis in 1535. It also participated in the Battle of Preveza (1538), the Algiers expedition (1541) and Battle of Djerba (1560), in which the Ottomans were victorious over the Christian forces.

Four of the Order's galleys, Santa Fè, San Michele, San Filippo and San Claudio, capsized in a tornado in the Grand Harbour in 1555. They were replaced with funds sent from Spain, the Papal States, France and the Prior of St. Giles. One galley was built at the expense of Grand Master Claude de la Sengle.

When the city of Valletta began to be built in the 1560s, there were plans to build an arsenal and mandracchio for the Order's navy. The arsenal was never built, and while work started on the mandracchio, it stopped and the area became a slum known as the Manderaggio. Eventually, an arsenal was built in Birgu in 1597. A dock was built in Valletta's ditch in 1654, but it closed in 1685.

Order loses their possession in Europe

Order loses their possession in Europe

1540 Jan 1
, Central Europe

Even as it survived on Malta, the Order lost many of its European holdings during the Protestant Reformation. The property of the English branch was confiscated in 1540. The German Bailiwick of Brandenburg became Lutheran in 1577, then more broadly Evangelical, but continued to pay its financial contribution to the Order until 1812, when the Protector of the Order in Prussia, King Frederick William III, turned it into an order of merit.

Lifting of the Siege of Malta by Charles-Philippe Larivière (1798–1876). Hall of the Crusades, Palace of Versailles.

Great Siege of Malta

1565 May 18 - Sep 11
, Grand Harbour

The Great Siege of Malta occurred in 1565 when the Ottoman Empire attempted to conquer the island of Malta, then held by the Knights Hospitaller. The siege lasted nearly four months, from 18 May to 11 September 1565.

The Knights Hospitaller had been headquartered in Malta since 1530, after being driven out of Rhodes, also by the Ottomans, in 1522, following the siege of Rhodes. The Ottomans first attempted to take Malta in 1551 but failed. In 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan, made a second attempt to take Malta. The Knights, who numbered around 500 together with approximately 6,000 footsoldiers, withstood the siege and repelled the invaders. This victory became one of the most celebrated events of sixteenth-century Europe, to the point that Voltaire said: "Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta." It undoubtedly contributed to the eventual erosion of the European perception of Ottoman invincibility, although the Mediterranean continued to be contested between Christian coalitions and the Muslim Turks for many years.

The siege was the climax of an escalating contest between the Christian alliances and the Islamic Ottoman Empire for control of the Mediterranean, a contest that included the Turkish attack on Malta in 1551, the Ottoman destruction of an allied Christian fleet at the Battle of Djerba in 1560, and the decisive Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

17th century Maltese galley


1600 Jan 1 - 1700
, Mediterranean Sea

Following the knights' relocation to Malta, they had found themselves devoid of their initial reason for existence: assisting and joining the crusades in the Holy Land was now impossible, for reasons of military and financial strength along with geographical position. With dwindling revenues from European sponsors no longer willing to support a costly and meaningless organization, the knights turned to policing the Mediterranean from the increased threat of piracy, most notably from the threat of the Ottoman-endorsed Barbary pirates operating from the North African coastline. Boosted towards the end of the 16th century by an air of invincibility following the successful defence of their island in 1565 and compounded by the Christian victory over the Ottoman fleet in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the knights set about protecting Christian merchant shipping to and from the Levant and freeing the captured Christian slaves who formed the basis of the Barbary corsairs' piratical trading and navies. This became known as the "corso".

The authorities on Malta immediately recognised the importance of corsairing to their economy and set about encouraging it, as despite their vows of poverty, the Knights were granted the ability to keep a portion of the spoglio, which was the prize money and cargo gained from a captured ship, along with the ability to fit out their own galleys with their new wealth.

The great controversy that surrounded the knights' corso was their insistence on their policy of 'vista'. This enabled the Order to stop and board all shipping suspected of carrying Turkish goods and confiscate the cargo to be re-sold at Valletta, along with the ship's crew, who were by far the most valuable commodity on the ship. Naturally many nations claimed to be victims of the knights' over-eagerness to stop and confiscate any goods remotely connected to the Turks. In an effort to regulate the growing problem, the authorities in Malta established a judicial court, the Consiglio del Mer, where captains who felt wronged could plead their case, often successfully. The practice of issuing privateering licenses and thus state endorsement, which had been in existence for a number of years, was tightly regulated as the island's government attempted to haul in the unscrupulous knights and appease the European powers and limited benefactors. Yet these efforts were not altogether successful, as the Consiglio del Mer received numerous complaints around the year 1700 of Maltese piracy in the region. Ultimately, the rampant over-indulgence in privateering in the Mediterranean was to be the knights' downfall in this particular period of their existence as they transformed from serving as the military outpost of a united Christendom to becoming another nation-state in a commercially oriented continent soon to be overtaken by the trading nations of the North Sea.

Participation in the Ottoman-Venetian Wars

Participation in the Ottoman-Venetian Wars

1644 Sep 28
, Crete

The Hospitaller navy participated in a number of the Ottoman–Venetian Wars in the 17th and early 18th centuries. A notable engagement was the action of 28 September 1644, which led to the outbreak of the Cretan War. The navy reached its peak in the 1680s, during the magistracy of Gregorio Carafa. At this point, the dockyard in Birgu was enlarged.

The Grand Harbour in 1750. | ©Gaspar Adriaansz van Wittel

Decline of the Order

1775 Jan 1
, Malta

In the last three decades of the eighteenth century, the Order experienced a steady decline. This was a result of a number of factors, including the bankruptcy that was a result of Pinto's lavish rule, which drained the finances of the Order. Due to this, the Order also became unpopular with the Maltese.

In 1775, during the reign of Francisco Ximénez de Tejada, a revolt known as the Rising of the Priests occurred. Rebels managed to capture Fort St Elmo and Saint James Cavalier, but the revolt was suppressed and some of the leaders were executed while others were imprisoned or exiled.

In 1792, the Order's possessions in France were seized by the state due to the French Revolution, which led the already bankrupt Order into an even greater financial crisis. When Napoleon landed in Malta in June 1798, the knights could have withstood a long siege, but they surrendered the island almost without a fight.

Napoleon takes Malta

Loss of Malta

1798 Jan 1
, Malta

In 1798, during his Napoleon's Expedition to Egypt, Napoleon captured Malta. Napoleon demanded from Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim that his ships be allowed to enter the port and to take on water and supplies. The Grand Master replied that only two foreign ships could be allowed to enter the port at a time. Bonaparte, aware that such a procedure would take a very long time and would leave his forces vulnerable to Admiral Nelson, immediately ordered a cannon fusillade against Malta. The French soldiers disembarked in Malta at seven points on the morning of 11 June and attacked. After several hours of fierce fighting, the Maltese in the west were forced to surrender.

Napoleon opened negotiations with the fortress capital of Valletta. Faced with vastly superior French forces and the loss of western Malta, the Grand Master negotiated a surrender to the invasion. Hompesch left Malta for Trieste on 18 June. He resigned as Grand Master on 6 July 1799.

The knights were dispersed, though the order continued to exist in a diminished form and negotiated with European governments for a return to power. The Russian Emperor, Paul I, gave the largest number of knights shelter in Saint Petersburg, an action which gave rise to the Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller and the Order's recognition among the Russian Imperial Orders. The refugee knights in Saint Petersburg proceeded to elect Tsar Paul as their Grand Master – a rival to Grand Master von Hompesch until the latter's abdication left Paul as the sole Grand Master. Grand Master Paul I created, in addition to the Roman Catholic Grand Priory, a "Russian Grand Priory" of no fewer 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 he was the de facto rather than de jure Grand Master of the Order.

Sovereign Military Order of Malta

Sovereign Military Order of Malta

1834 Jan 1
, Rome

In 1834, the Order, which became known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, established its headquarters in its former embassy in Rome, where it remains to this day.

Hospital work, the original work of the order, became once again its main concern. The Order's 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 Albani della Rovere (Grand Master 1931–1951).


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