The birth of the Order of St. John dates back to around 1048. Merchants from the ancient Marine Republic of Amalfi obtained from the Caliph of Egypt the authorisation to build a church, convent and hospital in Jerusalem, to care for pilgrims of any religious faith or race. The Order of St. John of Jerusalem – the monastic community which ran the hospital – became independent under the guidance of its founder, Blessed Gérard. Pope Paschal II approved the foundation of the Hospital with the Bull of 15th February 1113, and placed it under the aegis of the Church, granting it the right to freely elect its superiors without interference from other lay or religious authorities. By virtue of the Papal Bull, the Hospital became a lay-religious order. All the knights were religious, bound by the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
The constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem obliged the Order to take on the military defence of the sick and the pilgrims, as well as guarding its medical centres and main roads. The Order thus added the task of defending the faith to that of its hospitaller mission. As time went on, the Order adopted the white eight-pointed cross that is still its symbol today.
After the fall of Saint John of Acre and the loss of the Holy Land in 1291, the Hospitaller Order of St John transferred its seat and hospital to Limassol on the island of Cyprus, where it had been present since 1210 thanks to the concession of important properties, privileges and commercial rights. It continued to build new hospitals faithful to its hospitaller mission, and benefitted from the strategic position of the Island to constitute a naval fleet to protect pilgrims on the sea route to the Holy Land. The number of members coming from all over Europe continued to grow and contributed to the strengthening of the Order’s structure, acquiring new possessions on the Mediterranean shore. Amongst these were the important port of Famagusta, the city of Nicosia and numerous Commanderies.
Due to the consequences of increasing instability in Cyprus, which resulted in restricting their expansion on the island, the Hospitallers sought to consider a more suitable base for the seat of the Order of St John on the Island of Rhodes. Nevertheless, Magistral Lieutenants remained present in Cyprus to govern the Priories and Commanderies (said to have been over sixty by 1374) for another century until the middle of the fifteen century, when the Knights were recalled to the Conventual Seat in Rhodes.
Under the leadership of Grand Master Fra’ Foulques de Villaret, in 1307, the Knights of the Order of St. John landed with their fleet in Rhodes, completing the acquisition of the island by 1310 when it transferred its seat there. Besides offering natural ports for its fleets, the island was a strategic location that linked the eastern and western worlds.
From then, the defence of the Christian world required the organisation of a naval force. Thus the Order built a powerful fleet and sailed the Eastern Mediterranean, fighting many famous battles.
The Order’s independence from other nations granted by Pontifical deed, and its universally recognised right to maintain and deploy armed forces and to appoint ambassadors, has constituted the grounds for its international sovereignty.
In the early 14th century the institutions of the Order and the knights who came to Rhodes from every corner of Europe were grouped according to the languages they spoke. There were initially seven groups of Langues (Tongues): Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland) and Germany, and later on an eighth: Castille and Portugal. Each Langue included Priories or Grand Priories, Bailiwicks and Commanderies.
The Order was governed by its Grand Master (Prince of Rhodes) together with the Council, it minted its own money and maintained diplomatic relations with other states. The senior positions of the Order were given to representatives of different Langues. The seat of the Order, the Convent, was composed of religious members of various nationalities.
After six months of siege and fierce combat against the fleet and army of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the knights were forced to surrender in 1523 and left Rhodes with military honours.
The Order remained without a territory of its own until 1530, when Grand Master Fra’ Philippe de Villiers de l’Isle Adam took possession of the island of Malta, granted to the Order by Emperor Charles V with the approval of Pope Clement VII. It was decided that the Order should remain neutral in any war between Christian nations.
In 1565 the knights, led by Grand Master Fra’ Jean de la Vallette defended the island for more than three months during the Great Siege of the Ottomans.
Following this victory the city and port of La Valletta was built and named after the Grand Master, its founder. The knights transformed Malta, undertaking urban construction projects: palaces and churches were built, as well as formidable new defence bastions and gardens. Architecture flourished as well as artistic patronage. The island was given a large new hospital, considered to be one of the best organised and most effective in the world. A school of anatomy was also founded and the faculty of medicine followed. In particular, the Order contributed to the development of ophthalmology and pharmacology.
As well as these activities, for centuries the Order of Malta’s fleet took part in the most important manoeuvres in the Mediterranean against the Ottoman fleet and against North African pirates.
1571 The Battle of Lepanto
In 1571 the fleet of the Order of Malta took part in the Battle of Lepanto, contributing to the victory of the Christian fleet against the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into Europe.
1798 Difficult years
Two hundred years later, during his Egyptian campaign in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Malta for its strategic value. Because of the Order’s code prohibiting them from raising weapons against other Christians, the knights were forced to leave their island. The Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802, which established the sovereign rights of the Order over the island of Malta, was never applied.
After having temporarily resided in Messina, Catania and Ferrara, in 1834 the Order settled definitively in Rome, where it owns, with extraterritorial status, the Magistral Palace and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill.
The 20th and 21st Centuries
In the second part of the 19th century, the original hospitaller mission became once again the main focus of the Order, growing ever stronger during the last century, most especially because of the contribution of the activities carried out by its Grand Priories and National Associations in so many countries around the world. Large-scale hospitaller and charitable activities were carried out during World War I, and World War II under Grand Master Fra’ Ludovico Chigi Albani della Rovere (1931-1951).
Under the Grand Masters Fra’ Angelo de Mojana di Cologna (1962-1988) and Fra’ Andrew Bertie (1988-2008), the projects expanded until they reached the furthermost regions of the world.
To discover more about the current activities of the Order, please visit the Medical and humanitarian activities section of this web site.