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THE KNIGHTS OF MALTA
by Kt. R. W. Hudson
Once again it is a privilege to greet you all through these pages and I regard it as an honour to share my knowledge and findings with you all, but I must state from the outset, I make no claim of originality, I am not an Historian, neither am I Judge, but just an enthusiastic Masonic researcher who patiently sifts the wheat from the chaff, (and there is plenty of both), hopefully to effect a clearer understanding of our beloved Order, and to encourage as many of you as possible to commence or perhaps intensify your own Masonic researches.
My talk this afternoon is on the "quieter" of the two Military Orders to which many Masons belong. That of the popularly known "Knights of Malta". I used the word "quieter" to distinguish this Order from the more higher profile enjoyed by the Knights Templar. And my research proves that these Knights of Malta possessed just as much valour, honour and distinction as the much-heralded Knights Templar, which they still continue to this very day.
There are many publications and lectures on the Knights Templar, but by comparison, very little is available on The Knights of Malta. The only reason for this is that the Knights of Malta attract less notoriety and popular sensationalism than that of their brother Knights. In every other respect they have proved equal, if not, on occasion, superior.
It was only recently, (February 2001), that I holidayed in Malta, and was able to experience at first hand the work and efforts of this Order. I took the opportunity to research and investigate the Order from its inception until settling in its final home of Malta. My discoveries lifted my thoughts from just another Masonic Order to one of similar respect of that shown to the Knights Templar. I sincerely hope that what little I am able to portray in this lecture today, will have a similar effect on your good selves. On that note, Brother Knights, with your kind attention, I will begin.
The land where Jesus Christ lived, preached and died, has forever since been known as the "Holy Land". It has always been regarded with absolute reverence by the millions of devout Christians of Europe and the West. So far as natural wealth was concerned, it was a land of insignificant value. It was dry and barren, with very little produce forthcoming, barely enough to support its inhabitants. To some small degree it may have had some military value to the surrounding nations, and on occasion, also to those of a more far distant shore. So in overall terms the whole area was of little value, apart from that one all important fact that it held, for Christians world-wide, the core and heart of their faith.
The more devout followers of the Christian faith made pilgrimages to the heart and place that saw the formation of their religious beliefs.
In the 7th century, Jerusalem first fell into Moslem hands, thus the difficulties and hardships were decidedly increased for the pilgrims. The threat of bandits drastically became an occupational hazard for the increasing number of devout travellers. For these reasons, Charles the Great, popularly known as Charlemagne, (Charles-Magni), one of the foremost Roman emperors, opened hospices in Jerusalem for the accommodation of pilgrims. As the 11th century made its approach, the new Moslem rulers encouraged the further increase of the harassment and ill-treatment of Christian pilgrims, which reached its zenith with the Fatamite Caliph Hakim who was demented and fanatical in his pursuit of Christians. In 1009 he razed the Holy Sepulchre to the ground, and destroyed all Christian property.
It was not until 1048, 30 years after his death, that a number of charitable merchants from Amalfi in Italy managed to have the hospices and Holy Sepulchre rebuilt. Even this did little to relieve the perils encountered by pilgrims and Christians in Palestine. So much so that alarm and concern grew in Europe, further strengthened by the fiery sermons of Peter the Hermit and Pope Urbanus II.
Many of Europe's Princes were encouraged to embark on a Crusade to regain the Holy places from the Saracens in Palestine.
The first Crusade in 1096 came to grief, but there was an immediate retaliation from a second Crusade in 1097, which proved successful over the following two years, so that in 1099 Jerusalem fell to the Christians. During these two years of conflagration, the sick and wounded were attended to and nursed by the Amalfitian Hospitallers in a Benedictine hospital dedicated to St. John the Baptist in Jerusalem.
Their leader was an energetic Patrician of Scala and a Benedictine by the name of Brother Gerard de Saxo, who seeing that victory was imminent, and also the unqualified successful contribution of his group of Benedictine Brothers, gave full impact to conversion and expansion into an Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Many princes, knights and lords who had been sick or wounded and were healed as a direct result of this Amalfi group, bestowed gifts and even portions of their estates on the Order, not only to enable it to stand on it's own feet, but also to establish it's growth and future in various places in Europe. The Order acquired such respect that in 1113 Pope Paschal II took the Order under his protection and gave Brother Gerard a firm constitution in gratitude for the Orders great contribution and work.
The original document is still held in the Malta Library and reads:
Thereby creating an exempt Order of the Church under the protection of the Apostolic See.
During the period of fighting with the Saracens some of the Knights of the Order had to become soldiers, and from the new readily found recruits to the overall cause was formed the military Order of the Knights Templar.
This Order soon gained much power and importance since they were required to do the actual fighting against the Moslems. Then a much more glamorous aspect to the Crusades. Their fame, bravery and achievements becoming legendary. Despite all this, the Crusade of 1147 was a total failure, and it was not until 1180 that sufficient forces and supplies could be rallied for another Crusade.
Among the leaders of this Crusade was the legendary King Richard I of England, or Richard Plantagenet of "Lionheart" fame. And it was largely through his courage and singleness of purpose that the success of this Crusade was achieved. It was from this Crusade that he acquired the appellation "Coeur de Lion" the Lionheart. Despite his dedication and determination the Order was plagued by disagreements between the leaders.
The element of chivalry which was the epitome of the crusades became tarnished, and it was not long after that King Richard was left virtually alone to fight his battles. It was only his implacable certainty and reckless singleness of purpose together with his overwhelming energy and self sacrifice that he managed to win the battle for Acre. But alas he knew that this was the beginning of the end for this Order, in this context, so he left Palestine.
The Knights Templar moved to Cyprus in 1191, thereby leaving the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, initially a nursing brotherhood, to take up arms to defend pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. This consequence, naturally, emphasised a military role for the Hospitaller Order, which was now lead by Frater Raymond du Puy, who was the first to be styled Master. Under the guidance of Raymond du Puy, who had long advocated for an integral military arm for the Order as opposed to the mutual, but independent, support of a separate Order, such as the Knights Templar.
He drew up a code of regulations or "Rule" founded upon the ancient chivalric virtues of Chastity, Obedience and Poverty, upon which, all future statutes and ordinances of the Order were based. The militarisation of the Hospitallers was the major work of this great soldier. Under his leadership the Order grew in strength, influence and possessions.
It was this Grand Master who introduced the 8 pointed cross of the Order, which has remained ever since, and is popularly known as the Maltese Cross. It's origin was from the Maritime Republic of Amalfi in Italy, which was the birthplace of many of the pious merchants who founded the first hospice in Jerusalem in 1048.
The 8 points symbolise the 8 Beatitudes, and also the 8 Langues of the Order, which will be detailed later. The 4 parts of the Cross represent the 4 Cardinal Virtues of : Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice.
It was at this time that the Order acquired the additional distinction of an Order of Knighthood, the Knights being obligated to the 3 monastic vows of Chastity, Obedience and Poverty.
The Knights were divided into 5 groups.
The first group dominated the Order and were called the Military Knights of Justice. These Knights had to be of Noble birth from both parents going back 4 generations, and in fact all of the Military Knights were from the greatest families in Europe. All applications to join the Order were stringently checked and no exceptions were made. The accepted applicant was conferred with the accolade of Knighthood by the Grand Cross of the Order. Together with the Grand Cross they would walk, bareheaded, in their armour and investiture robes, into the hall of the Auberge, where they were received by their comrades. They would sit on a carpet and be offered bread, salt and water. They would then make their Knightly vows and obligations to the Order. A brief history and acquaintance of the rules of the Order were delivered.
The vows taken by the Knights were proof of the religious character of the Order, and they would embrace and kiss each other in token of friendship, peace and Brotherly love, and called each other "Frater".
After the investiture a banquet would be given for the new Knights as if to balance the sense of austerity conveyed by the investiture ceremony. One could almost equate our modern ceremony and Festive Board with this ancient system.
The new Knights had to undergo a novitiate of 1 year before they could join the central body, which was called a Convent, in which they fulfilled their military duty and service. Each year of this duty was called a "Caravan". Then after 3 such "Caravans" a Knight would have to reside in the Convent for a further 3 years. Making a total of 7 years before the completion of Knighthood was effected. Once again we experience the use of "7" to indicate completeness. After this 7 years of service, the Knights would be free to return to their home in Europe, but would always be subject to recall by the Grand Master in case of need. All promotions to the higher posts such as Bailiff, Commander or Prior would be made from this first group.
The second group was reserved specifically for ecclesiastical service such as Chaplains or Chaplains of Obedience. The incumbents who would have Holy Orders were normally allocated to work in hospitals or conventual churches, but were not exempted from duties in the "Caravans". They were eligible for promotion to Priors and even Bishops of the Order.
The 3rd group was made up of Serving Brothers who were only required to be respectable and not necessarily of noble birth. They were required to do Military service.
The 4th and 5th groups were made up of Honorary Knights in the grades of Magisterial Knights and Knights of Grace as nominated by the Grand Master.
A further division was made on the basis of nationality, corresponding in number with the 8 points of the Cross of the Order. These divisions were called Langues (Tongues) and were allocated thus:- Aragon, Auverne, Castile, England (with Scotland and Ireland), France, Germany, Italy and Provence. The 3 French Langues indicated the numerical superiority of the French.
Each Langue was governed by a Turcupolier also known as "Dean" of the Langue. There were many senior positions that the Knights could aspire to, such as, Bishop, Prior, Conventual Bailiff, Knights Grand Cross. These officers also made up the Supreme Council or "Sacro Consiglio", the President of which was the Grand Master, who was democratically elected by all the Knights, having proved years of devoted and efficient service in the major positions.
For general administration purposes there was a Chapter General, which was normally convened every 5 years. These meetings were announced a year ahead so as to give time for the various Langues and individual Knights to submit drafts for reforms.
Despite their strength of growth, by 1291 the Moslems occupied the last Christian strongholds, thereby making the Orders position in Palestine extremely untenable. So they moved to Cyprus. The choice of Cyprus was not really theirs, as in the panic which had set in to speedily find a new base, they were forced to settle for Cyprus. They were concerned for many reasons.
Cyprus, in their view, did not provide the right environment conducive to their long-term plans for the re-organisation and perfection of the Order. Moreover, they believed, that the Templars, who had transferred there 100 years earlier, had succumbed to the earthly temptations of wealth and power, and even at this early stage, uncomfortable rumours were developing around the Knights Templar, and the Hospitallers were very conscious of anything similar happening to their Order.
This desire, not to be tarred with the same brush, created enormous pressure to find a new base. This they found in 1308, just less than a year after the termination of the Knights Templar on charges of heresy, in the Byzantine island of Rhodes, for which they also acquired territorial sovereignty. Their position was strong. Rhodes was fertile and fruitful, also it's geological structure provided ample strong rock and strategic sites for the Knights to build the fortifications it needed.
In 1314, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jaques de Molay was burned at the stake in Paris. The Knights Hospitaller were supposed to have inherited a good part of their property and assets, but this fact, in reality, is most doubtful. It is more probable that the King of France and the Pope shared the lion's portion, and the dregs were what the Hospitallers received, but the field was clear for them to attract the noble youth of Europe's aristocracy and to continue with the Order's re-organisation it badly needed and desired.
This was effected by the Grand Master of the time, Foulkes de Villaret, who was regarded as one of the best Grand Masters of the Order.
During their time on Rhodes they not only built and strengthened the Order, but also were forced to develop a new style of fighting. Rhodes is an island, so the style and tactics of land battles naturally diminished, and the need for sea warfare and transportation was imperative.
This the Order developed, and acquired a great reputation for their many successes. They took great delight in assuming the role of Corsair in raiding the ships of the Turks and returning with their coffers brimming with booty. This persistent bombardment eventually roused the Turks determination for a revenge against the Order.
Suleiman the Magnificent, the powerful Sultan of the Ottomans, had not forgotten the Order of St. John.
He had always admired it's prowess, and since acceding to the throne, he had cultivated a sense of chivalrous respect for the Knights and their new Grand Master Phillipe de l'Isle Adam. Nonetheless this respect was far outweighed by his national pride and determination to honour the oath of his forefathers and throw the Order out of Rhodes. He exercised patience until he could rally every vessel, every man and every engine of war under the flag of Islam. He launched his attack on Rhodes in 1522.
Although the Order and it's fleet were in a state of preparedness, it was hopelessly outnumbered. Rather than wasting his vessels, l'Isle Adam disembarked his Knights to strengthen his garrisons on the island. Suleiman persisted with all his pressure and besieged the island for 6 months. After this siege and a betrayal by one of their own, a certain d'Amaral, the decimated and half-starved Knights were forced to capitulate on Xmas Eve of the same year. Their heroic stand increased Suleiman's admiration, and Grand Master l'Isle Adam, together with his remaining Knights, were not only allowed to leave Rhodes unmolested, but were also given a ceremonial guard of honour to see them off the island in their own galleys.
The Order was defeated, but not dishonoured. It retained it's high prestige, and although in a state of dis-order, it was given the chance to recoup and fight another day. It's only immediate problem was, again, finding a new home.
Charles V of Spain, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, allowed the Order of St. John to use Sicily as a base until it could find a new home. The Knights formed a Convent at Syracuse, which was not large enough to accommodate all the Order, so some were sent to other Convents in Europe.
The Grand Master, l'Isle Adam, was intent on regaining Rhodes, and at the same time, his Order's pride. He petitioned all the Kings of Europe for help, but none was forthcoming. There are various reasons for this lack of support. Nationalism was becoming a dominant force in Europe, and the Order's total allegiance to the Pope, and their vow to fight only the infidel, made them insusceptible and useless for national allegiances. Because of their wealth and power, envy created the bed for malicious rumours, and also the fear and apprehension which had crept in amongst the European nations of Suleiman's power, who had not only conquered nations in the Persian Gulf and the shores of the Arabian Sea, but had also reached Belgrade and Budapest with his armies, and added them to his Ottoman Empire, which was now at the peak of it's glory.
The only one to give some small assistance was, ironically, Henry VIII of England. This is surprising when you consider his stand against the Pope and his feelings towards Catholicism, also he was seeing the Order in England in a bad light. None the less, he received l'Isle Adam with much respect at St. James' Palace, and gave him guns and armour to the value of 20,000 crowns. Some of this very equipment can be seen in the Armoury at the Grand Master's Palace in Valetta. It bears the Tudor Royal Crest.
The Grand Master returned to Sicily a very disappointed man. He now realised he would have to drop his plan for a recapture of Rhodes. He also realised that, spread out as they were, away from his watchful eyes, the Knights would become susceptible to worldly aspirations and perhaps relax their monastic vows. He was also deeply concerned that idleness could easily turn the Order towards decay. He finally concluded that without a new base, the Order would almost certainly disintegrate.
The Emperor, Charles V, was by this time becoming perturbed by the length of time that was passing with the Knights stay on Sicily. He was also concerned with the defence of Malta, which had become the regular target for raids with many of the people being carried off as slaves. Malta was a barren rocky island with scanty soil and water and very little vegetation. Where possible the Maltese grew cotton and cumin, which they exchanged for grain, and with the exception of a few springs, there was no running water.
These factors served to make Malta a useless possession. An even greater headache to the Emperor was Tripoli, for he was extremely stretched to maintain the dependency of this Christian enclave, lost as it was amongst the Barbary States of North Africa. Why not hand it to the Knights to defend as a condition to the transfer of Malta? Subsequently, the offer was made to the Order.
The Grand Master saw through this double-handed offer, but had no other choice. Spurred on by the desire to regroup the Order, and to acquire a permanent base for its future, he finally accepted this Hobson's Choice. Malta turned out to be worse than even he thought, apart from one important aspect, which lifted slightly his descending optimism, and that was, that Malta had two spacious natural harbours capable of housing many galleys. With the Orders natural growth and expansion into sea-faring activities, he decided that this distinct advantage could, in time, prove to outweigh the many other disadvantages. He therefore accepted the terms of the transfer. On the 26th October 1530, Grand Master l'Isle Adam and his Knights sailed into the Grand Harbour at Malta, in the Carrack St Anne, to take possession of their new home.
It is a fact, that the Maltese, as a nation, had gone through extremely hard times. Their life had been one of continuous routine of back breaking toil to make a living, with only the occasional interruption by attacks of Moslem Corsairs who would also take slaves. And in truth, the Maltese people were past caring who would rule their country.
The relative document, by Charles V, is still held in the National Malta Library and it reads:-
And this was all conditioned, although not specifically mentioned, by the left-handed gift of Tripoli.
Besides their personal arms and belongings, the Knights did not take much with them to Malta. They certainly took their sacred icon containing one of the hands of St' John the Baptist, a silver processional cross, (still on view at the Cathedral of Mdina), and some ecclesiastic vestments and treasures. The most important thing which they couldn't afford to leave behind was the set of their archives, which is still preserved today in Malta. It is obvious from this that they had decided to start again from scratch. And so they did.
The investiture ceremonial was observed with all the pomp and formalities in which the important elements of Maltese society also participated. The climax was attained when the Grand Master, l'Isle Adam, proceeded to the city gates, beneath a baldachin borne by Maltese officials, and then swore upon the great cross of the Cathedral and the cross of the Order of St. John, to observe the privileges and usages of the island as granted by the King of Aragon and Sicily. After this the Captain of the Rod, a senior Maltese Official, knelt to kiss the Hand of the Grand Master and formerly surrendered the silver keys. Then the gates were opened to allow the Grand Master to enter amidst salutes and the ringing of bells.
The changeover clicked successfully and heralded a hive of industry. Much building work was done on fortifications, bastions, castles and housing. Many of the locals found new trades as artisans and craftsmen, learning new skills from the Knights. Affluence began to spread throughout Malta, and the locals, originally non-caring and somewhat resigned to whatever their fate may be, found a great respect for the Order, and had indeed a lot to thank them for. The Maltese revelled in their new found prosperity and developed a national pride in their progress. Trade bustled, and there were presented many opportunities for the intelligent Maltese to greatly improve their standard of living.
Many naval actions were dispatched successfully from Malta, which everybody seemed to share in various ways, the booty that was amounting. The whole situation continued to progress with only a few minor hiccups. But soon a looseness began to slowly pervade the Order. Material comfort and success together with a succession of weak Grand Masters began to erode the original strong foundation stones of the Order. Changes in human institutions, throughout their time of existence, is always inevitable, and there was no exception with the Order of St. John.
Because of the lax atmosphere that had crept in due to their unmolested successes, insufficient attention was paid to the strength of certain bastion walls and exposed possible sites of invasion. Some senior Knights nursed a growing concern regarding weak leadership and the possibility of Malta not being able to withstand and survive the inevitable revenge that they felt sure would-sooner or later-be forthcoming from the Ottoman Turks.
But, it was felt and realised by many, that the Order was not in a position to resist an attack from the Ottoman Turks. It was indeed this important factor that made them realise that no amount of lamenting or regret over their lapses would improve the situation. They knew how time and success, plus a weak leadership, had made them deteriorate in their duties and that they were being considered as having neglected to live in the service of Christ. But now, after an examination of conscience, they concluded that they were, none the less, prepared to die in His service. But first they had to have the right person to effect this transformation and direct the Order to recover it's ancient authority. There was only one person who could do this.
It was therefore, by universal agreement, that on the death of the Grand Master, La Sengle in 1557, they elected Jean Parisot de la Valette as their Grand Master.
La Valette joined the Order in 1514, at the age of 20, and to him this calling was a serious vocation. He had excelled in all the various positions he held throughout his distinguished career. He was, at various times, Governor of Tripoli, General of the Fleet, Bailiff of Largo, Grand Commander and General Prior of St. Giles, and also Lieutenant to the Grand Master. He spoke several languages, a brilliant soldier and tactician with strict disciplinarian qualities which made him outstanding as a leader. But above all this, he enjoyed the respect and confidence of all the Knights, which was no small thing, as it was appreciated all round that he would certainly not tolerate the state to which many of them had sunk. All this made him the man of the moment.
On receiving his ultimate appointment, La Valette wasted no time. He set about a program of re-strengthening all the fortifications and bastions, and correcting all the weak spots. He used everything at his disposal not waiting for charity or benevolences. He had the willing Maltese, of which there was many, trained for battle, and called all of his resources and manpower from all over Europe.
The only sad occurrence which hurt Valette, about which he could do nothing, was the suppression of the branch of the Order in England. The accession to the throne of England in 1558 by Elizabeth I had raised some hopes for the recovery of the Order in her country but nothing of the sort occurred, in fact some Knights of the Order were to die at her hands. By 1560 the English Langue had dwindled to only 2 Knights in the Convent, and all the property of the Langue in Malta was sold. One of these two remaining Knights, a Oliver Starkey, was appointed by La Valette to be his secretary and confidante in Malta, and he never was to regret such a wise decision.
La Valette created vast stores of food and water in preparation for an expected siege. Gunpowder, ammunition and weapons were made ready. Plans and instructions were effected for the careful and sparing use of gunpowder, food and water. Arrangements were put in place for reinforcements from neighbouring Sicily. Every concentration was applied to all the necessary aspects.
La Valette's foresight, tactics and astute preparations paid off. For on 29/3/1565 the Ottoman fleet left the Bosphorous heading towards Constantinople, on its way to Malta. It took the armada 6 weeks to reach the central Mediterranean. On Friday 18/5/1565 it came about 15 miles away from the shores of Malta.
There are many excellent books giving full details of the siege of Malta, from which this lecture has borrowed heavily, and all are recommended for your perusal. It was an unbelievable battle, clearly demonstrating the bravery, dedication and sense of purpose by the Knights against incredible odds, also, it has to be said, the similar courage and fanaticism of the Turks.
The battle raged first one way and then the other. Casualties were colossal especially the Turks, whom although greatly outnumbered the Knights and Maltese, suffered tremendous losses.
The Maltese, every man, woman and child fought and worked alongside the Knights, equally giving no quarter and expecting none.
When the Turks finally had their first success in taking the fortification of St. Elmo, at unbelievable cost of human life, on the eve of the feast of the Order's patron saint, Mustapha Pasha surveyed the incredible scene of destruction and carnage, and the thousands of dead Turks. Looking across the harbour he made the famous exclamation that was not to be omitted by any historian:
The battle raged for 3 more months when finally the humbled Turkish armada left for Constantinople and by the evening of 8th September 1565 the siege of Malta had ended.
All Europe rejoiced at the Maltese victory over the Turks. Bells rang out from Palermo to Paris and in London the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, laid down a Form of Thanksgiving for 6 weeks. The island was dubbed as "The Island of Heroes", and "The Bulwark of Faith". Honours and gifts were bestowed on the Grand Master La Valette. Fired by the glory and success attained, and in total awe and admiration for the people of Malta, La Valette was even more determined to rebuild Malta and was prepared to bury himself beneath Maltese ruins rather than abandon the island.
And he was not alone in his belief, for there were many others who, like him, felt that the Great Siege had settled once and for all the question of the Order's home. The Knights had not been able to stay in Palestine, as they also had to leave Cyprus, and to be eventually ousted from Rhodes. Their victory against the Turks at Malta had earned them the right to make the island their permanent home. They could not lose sight of the fact that with her strategic position, astride the trade routes of the Mediterranean, Malta could offer more to the Order in its commerce and its sworn fight against Islam.
It was time for the Order to change it's title, and become The Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta. It's members henceforth to be known as "THE KNIGHTS OF MALTA"
From these profound events the people of Malta and the Knights would be forever bound in a single common purpose that still abounds today.
Malta was rebuilt, commerce was structured and flourished and the legacy of the Knights of Malta is and will be forever revered.
Although the Order is the "quieter" of the two, it is one that has its origins and longevity firmly set in piety, bravery, dedication and care, and we all should appreciate and fully understand the glory and pride that we, as Brother Knights, have the privilege of sharing.
This concludes my lecture for this occasion. I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed it, and that I have at least brought you something of interest, or perhaps have stimulated you sufficiently to take a holiday in Malta and see the evidence for yourselves.
This lecture was written in Malta surrounded by the evidence of that illustrious Order, and I hope it reflects that atmosphere of glory and pride.
Thank you all for your kind attention.
Kt. R. W. Hudson
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