Today as seen from Sliema, the city of Valletta built by the Order of St. John. Photo by Mark Spiteri

The Knights Hospitallers and Malta

The loss of Rhodes to the Ottoman Turks in 1523 caused the Hospitaller Order of St John to become dependent upon the Emperor Charles V for a new role and home. The Emperor, facing an Ottoman threat to Vienna in the East and the capture of Algiers by Barbarossa in the south, needed a barrier against the invasion of Italy and Spain. Charles thus offered Malta and Tripoli to the Order for the annual rent of a (Maltese) falcon. Due to internal disagreements created by the enmity between France and Spain, which influenced the Hospitallers, six years passed before they finally accepted the Emperor’s offer and took possession of the Maltese islands in November 1530.

The islands’ population was then around 12,000. Expecting an attack from the Ottoman Empire, the Order of St John transferred the centre of Government from Notabile (Mdina) to Birgu in view of its strategic harbour location.

Under the guidance of Grand Masters L`Isle Adam, de Homedes, and de Valette, the Knights fortified the Grand Harbour by constructing Fort St Elmo on the tip of Mount Sciberras, strengthened the walls of the medieval Castello a Mare (later St Angelo) at Birgu, deepening and widening the ditch separating it from Birgu. The Knights purchased a large chain from Venice to protect the Order’s galleys within the creek between Birgu and L’Isola, on which was built Fort St Michael.

In 1551, Barbarossa’s successor, Dragut, launched an attack on Malta, which failed, however he succeeded in carrying off almost the entire population of Gozo as slaves, and also in capturing Tripoli.

These events led up to the much larger attack by Suleiman’s army and navy on Malta in 1565, which came to be known as the Great Siege. In April of that year, an estimated 40,000 men on 180 galleys left Constantinople and sailed for Malta, arriving on 18th May. The Order had at its disposal around 540 Knights and sergeants at arms, 400 Spanish troops sent by Don Garcia de Toledo, Viceroy of Sicily (including his own son Fadrique, who was to die defending Malta) and some 4000 Maltese militia. A further 500 Spanish troops came to Malta’s defence at a later stage.

The Ottoman (Turkish) army was commanded by Mustapha Pasha, and the fleet by Suleiman’s son-in-law, Piali Pasha. Dragut arrived 2 weeks later with more troops and artillery. The Ottomans, with such a long line of communications, knew they had to conquer before the winter; they attacked Fort St Elmo on 25th May, committing the feared 6000 Janissaries to the battle, confidently expecting victory in a week; in the event, it took until 23rd June, with the loss of 8000 troops, including Dragut, to overwhelm the Fort. The rest of the summer was dominated by continuous assaults on Birgu and L’Isla; the latter was on the verge of falling on 7th August, but a false rumour of an assault on the Ottoman camp in Marsa led to a retreat at the last moment.

As the bloodiest siege that Europe had ever seen waged through summer, Don Garcia persuaded Catholic Europe to gather a relief force for Malta; an army of 10,000 landed on the island on 6th September, destroyed the most of the rear of the Ottoman forces on the 7th, and chased them to the sea by the 8th. The Siege was over.

In order to safeguard Malta against any future invasions, de Valette immediately began to build a fortified city on the strategically important Mount Sciberras, later to called Valletta. The Hospitallers (subsequently known as the Knights of Malta) gained legendary status in Christian Europe following the events of 1565 and the subsequent involvement of the Order’s galleys alongside the Venetian fleet in the destruction of the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in 1571. The Order’s coffers, filled with donations from its European admirers, lined the island with watchtowers and completed the reconstruction of the damaged forts around Valletta. Grand Masters were raised to the status of Prince by the European powers, and that of Cardinal by the Catholic Church.

In addition, the Hospitaller Order became renowned for the teaching and practice of medicine in Europe; the Sacra Infirmeria was able to accommodate 500 patients and included a medical and pharmacy school.

Although always dependent upon Europe for provisions, Malta flourished culturally and socially between the 16th and 18th centuries; the Co-Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Valletta became an architectural and artistic jewel; palaces, University and a school of Mathematics and Nautical Sciences and a public library were established.

Militarily, the Order attained its height of strength during the 17th century, its galleys crossing the central Mediterranean, fighting and capturing Barbary corsair galleys, but also European vessels, leading to periods of tension.

By the end of the 18th century, the Order had declined in influence; lack of discipline undermined its success; funding declined, as did its role in Europe.

On 9th June 1798, on his way to Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte attacked Malta. Deprived of the protection of the defeated King of Naples and Sicily and weakened by divided loyalties amongst the Spanish and French Knights, the Order meekly surrendered on 12th June after brief resistance put up by Maltese militias.

So ended the Order of Malta’s rule over the island. Unusually among Grand Masters, Hompesch resigned, leaving a broken Order to rediscover itself gradually over the following 25 years; it settled, first in Sicily, and, subsequently in Rome, where it remains today, recognised as a sovereign government, with its Grand Magistry located in the Via Condotti. The Order has been granted a 99 year lease on Fort St Angelo and is engaged in restoration work on this historic structure.

Dr. Anton Borg


Aerial view of Fort St Elmo as seen before recent restoration
Aerial view of Fort St Elmo as seen before recent restoration
Graphic reconstruction of the Castello a Mare before being transformed into Fort St Angelo
Graphic reconstruction of the Castello a Mare before being transformed into Fort St Angelo
Map showing the Harbour area with its fortifications before and during the Great Siege 1565
Map showing the Harbour area with its fortifications before and during the Great Siege 1565
Aerial view from the sea side of the Grand Harbour nowadays
Aerial view from the sea side of the Grand Harbour nowadays
Aerial view of the Grand Harbour from the land side
Aerial view of the Grand Harbour from the land side
Fort St Michael as portrayed by D'Aleccio on one of his paintings' about the Great Siege of 1565
Fort St Michael as portrayed by D'Aleccio on one of his paintings' about the Great Siege of 1565
Part of Fort St Michael as seen today
Part of Fort St Michael as seen today
The Sacra Infermeria once a hospital but today houses the Mediterranean Conference Centre
The Sacra Infermeria once a hospital but today houses the Mediterranean Conference Centre
The Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta
The Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta

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