The Knights of Malta Malta

With a history stretching from the Crusades to the present day, the Knights of Malta are probably the most important military order ever in existence. Originally known as the Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, their name changed to the Knights of Rhodes in 1309 and to the Knights of Malta in 1530, and as this suggests, they were formed long before their reign on Malta.

The origin of the Knights of Malta dates back to 11th century Jerusalem, where a community of monks cared for the sick and wounded pilgrims arriving in the Holy Land. Their duties rapidly expanded and soon the Knights were true 'Soldiers of Christ', whose job it was to fight the infidels as much as help the sick and protect the routes taken by pilgrims. The order gained wealth and land by recruiting only from the nobility. Once accepted into the order, the Knights took the oaths of poverty, celibacy and obedience, although it seems their aristocratic upbringings meant that few lived up to these ideals.

Their location made the Knights an importance force in defending the Mediterranean, and the military and naval duties of the monks increased. But as Islamic powers increased, the Knights were forced to retreat from Jerusalem and move their headquarters briefly to Cyprus, and then to Rhodes where their enjoyed territorial sovereignty. Unfortunately, Rhodes had few pilgrims to protect and little crusader territory and as a result, the Knights became more and more militaristic, focusing their efforts on training for land and sea battles.

Over the next 80 years, the Knights were subject to s series of attacks, and it was only a matter of time before they were overcome. In 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire invaded Rhodes with 200,000 men and 400 ships. After holding them back for an impressive six months, the Knights admitted defeat and fled to Italy where the Holy Roman Emperor granted them Malta as a new homeland. It was at this point that the Order adopted the famous Maltese Cross, whose 8 points symbolise the obligations and aspirations of the order.

Geographically, Malta was on the cusp of both the Christian and Islamic worlds and the Knights were a barrier to the Islamic forces wishing to encroach upon the heart of Christianity. It wasn't long until Suleiman, regretting his former mercy, sent nearly 40,000 troops to fight against the Order. Although heavily outnumbered, the Knights stood firm and eventually the enemy withdrew.

Sadly, with no one left to fight, the Order became complacent corrupt, and began to crumble. When Napoleon arrived in 1798, he found an Order that had lost its focus and it took very little to bring to an end the 268 year rule of the Knights of Malta.