Knights Hospitaller

The Knights of Malta: Defenders of Faith and Humanity

The Knights of Malta, known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.  Is a centuries-old religious and chivalric order.  Founded in the 11th century, the Knights have a rich history of service.  Embodying values of charity, faith and defending the weak.  This article explores the origins, mission and contributions of the Knights of Malta.  Highlighting their role as protectors of the faith and providers of humanitarian aid.

Origins and History

The Knights of Malta have a long and fascinating history.  When founded, the Knights of Malta were known as Knights Hospitaller.  Later as the Knights of the Order of St John and the Knights of Rhodes.  At present, as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Founded during the 11th Century at the time of the Crusades.  Established as a monastic community.  The Order had a religious identity which was affiliated with the Catholic Church.  The Order’s primary goal was to provide medical care to the pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land.  The Knights set up and ran a hospital in Jerusalem.  To care for pilgrims to the Holy Land irrespective of their faith or race.  In 1113, Pope Paschal II declared this monastic community was independent.

All its members came from various European countries.  They were bound by the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  In time, the Order added another duty to their hospitaller mission.  That of the military defense of pilgrims.  They began to provide armed escorts to pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land.  The Order recruited Knights from among the crusaders of Europe.  Who served as a heavy cavalry.  Little by little the Order became military without losing its hospitaller characteristic.

After the fall of Jerusalem in 1291, the Knights of Malta faced many challenges.  They relocated to the island of Rhodes.  During this period they became known as the Knights of Rhodes.  Here they built a naval fleet to protect the pilgrims on their sea route to the Holy Land.  They defended the region against attacks by the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottoman Empire attacked Rhodes in 1522.  After a siege that lasted several months the Ottoman Empire overpowered the Knights.  Leading to their expulsion from Rhodes.  The surviving Knights escaped to Sicily.

In 1530, Emperor Charles V of Spain granted the Knights the Maltese islands.  These became their new headquarters.  The Maltese islands played a crucial role in defending Christendom against Ottoman invasions.  The Order became known as the Knights of Malta.  Their presence on the island lasted for over two centuries.

During their time in Malta, the Knights transformed the island.  Turning it into a formidable stronghold.  With success they defended Malta against several Ottoman attacks.  Earning a reputation for their military might and resilience.

The Knights’ military prowess and dedication to the Catholic faith earned them admiration and respect.  Yet, in 1798, the Knights of Malta faced another significant challenge.  When Napoleon Bonaparte and his forces captured the island.  This event marked the end of their rule in Malta and led to the dispersion of the Order.  Despite this setback, the Knights continued their humanitarian work.  They adapted to new circumstances operating from various locations across Europe.  Establishing priories and continuing their charitable activities.  The Order’s focus shifted more towards humanitarian and medical endeavors.

The rich history of the Knights is characterized by their unwavering commitment to serving others.  Defending the faith, and upholding the values of chivalry.  Their journey from the Holy Land to Rhodes and finally to Malta.  Is a testament to their resilience and dedication to their mission.

Knights Armour

Mission and Structure

The primary mission revolves around the principles of faith, charity, and defense.  They are committed to witnessing the Christian faith through their actions.

The Order operates in over 120 countries.  Their mission is to provide humanitarian, medical aid and support.  To those in need, regardless of their religious faith or race.

The governance of the Order is led by the Grand Master.  Who is elected for life from among the Knights.  The Grand Master oversees the activities of the Order.  The Order is organized into eight different language groups called “Langues.”  Each Langue is further divided into priories, sub-priories and national associations.  Ensuring a structured and coordinated approach to their work.

As their symbol the Order adopted the white eight-pointed Cross.  Known as the Maltese Cross.  The eight points of the Cross represent the eight beatitudes.  Which Jesus pronounced in his Sermon on the Mount.

Auberge de Castille

The Knights and their Rule over Malta

After years without a territory of their own.  In 1530 King Charles V of Spain, gifted the Knights the Maltese islands.  It was Grand Master Fra’ Philippe de Villiers de l’Isle Adam that took possession of Malta.  In exchange for an annual contribution of a single Maltese Falcon.  Though the islands were not to their liking.  They accepted the gift, at least they had a home now.  Yet, they never intended to make it their permanent home.

Though being offered the key to Mdina, the Knights settled in Birgu, close to the sea.  They upgraded Fort St. Angelo and made it the main seat of power.  The Knights began building a naval base.  Recognizing the island’s strategic position in the Mediterranean.  To be able to provide some resistance to the pirates who attacked in the Mediterranean.  Next, they started building the island’s defences.

Through spies in Constantinople, the Knights were informed of an impending attack.  Hence, preparations began taking place.  Such as harvesting all crops, poisoning wells.  The Ottoman Empire besieged Malta in 1565.  They attacked the islands with a large army of around 36,000 soldiers.  A severe siege ensued.  Under the supervision of Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Vallette.  The Knights and Maltese defended the island for more than three months.  The battle became famous throughout the years because of what was at stake.  The fall of the islands would have meant the Ottoman Empire’s control of the Mediterranean.  Against all odds the Knights emerged victorious.  Preventing the Ottoman Empire from gaining a foothold on western Europe.  This battle became to be known as the Great Siege of Malta.

After the Great Siege of 1565 the Knights decided to fortify the island.  They built several structures and undertook major projects.  The most renowned project is the construction of the city of Valletta.  The city was named Valletta after its founder Grand Master Jean de la Vallette.  This became the Knights new seat of power.  Valletta still stands today as Malta’s capital city.  Together with most of its original buildings and fortifications.  Making it a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Knights transformed Malta.  Building palaces, auberges, churches, bastions, gardens and a theater.  Under their rule architecture flourished.  A large hospital was built in Valletta.  Known at the time as La Sacra Infermeria.  This is the emblem of the Knights service mission.  It served as a school of anatomy and a faculty of medicine.  As an emblem of their faith they built the St. John’s Co-Cathedral.  The Cathedral’s interior is spectacular.  With walls gilded in gold, mosaic floors and paintings.

Forts were built to guard the harbour areas.  Fort St Elmo, Fort Ricasoli and Fort San Salvatore guard the Grand Harbour.  Fort Tigne and Fort Manoel guard the Marsamxett Harbour.  Fort Chambray guards the Mġarr Harbour in Gozo.  The Knights improved the coastal defence with the construction of watch towers.  Each tower within sight of the next.  With the purpose to serve as an early warning of invasion.

The Knights built bastions around Valletta, Floriana and the Three Cities.  They upgraded the medieval bastions of Mdina and the Citadel in Gozo.

They constructed Palaces and Auberges to live and conduct their business.  These buildings are characterized by baroque architecture and splendid art.  A couple of Palaces worth mentioning are the Verdala Palace, the Inquisitor’s Palace.  The Grand Master’s Palace and San Anton Palace.  The Auberges were home to the Knights from all around Europe.  The Auberges reflect the Knight’s organisation.  Each language had its Auberge based on the country of origin.  Several Auberges still stand today.  In Birgu, there are two Auberges.  Auberge de France and Auberge d’Angleterre.  In Valletta, you’ll find a total of five Auberges.  These are the Auberge de Castille, Auberge d’Aragon, Auberge d’Italie, Auberge de Provence and Auberge de Baviere.

Though ruling the Maltese islands, with its naval fleet the Order still took part in Mediterranean battles.  Both against the Ottomans and Pirates.

After more than two centuries, the Knight’s popularity declined.  There was a growing dislike by the Maltese towards the Knights.  During the rule of Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, the Knights led a lavish lifestyle.  Resulting in bankruptcy.

In 1798, the Knights were ousted from Malta by the French and Napoleon Bonaparte.  While on their way to Egypt, the French army invaded Malta.  The Knights offered little resistance.  In part, because of the Order’s code.  Prohibiting them from raising weapons against other Christians.  After several hours of fighting, the Maltese in the west of the island surrendered.  Faced with the massive French army and loss of the west.  The Grand Master opened negotiations for the surrender of the Capital City, Valletta.  The Knights were forced to leave Malta.  They were dispersed around Europe.  The majority of the surviving Knights took refuge in Saint Petersburg.  Hence, the Order remained in existence though in a diminished form.

The Knights have left a significant mark on the Maltese Islands.  They shaped the history of Malta over their two century occupation.  The impact of which is still visible today!

Grand Harbour

Present State of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta

In 1834, the Order settled in Rome.  The Order’s hospitaller mission became once again its primary focus.  Especially during World War I and II.  They remain an important institution.  Embodying the ideals of charity, compassion, and the protection of the vulnerable.

In modern times, the Knights of Malta are recognized as a sovereign state.  Subject to international law.  The Order has two headquarters in Rome.  It owns the Magisterial Palace and the Magisterial Villa on the Aventine Hill.  The Knights of Malta are known not only for their historical significance.  But also for their humanitarian work around the world.  The Order continues its mission to provide medical care and humanitarian aid.

The Order has diplomatic relations with 112 countries.  Whilst it keeps embassies in other countries.  It enters into treaties and issues its own passports, coins and local stamps.

In the olden days the members of the Order came from aristocratic families.  This is not the case today!  Now, it’s important for members to have a noble spirit and conduct.  The Order counts 13,500 Knights and Dames.  Today’s Knights are categorized into three classes.  The first class being Knights of Justice.  Those who make the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  The second class undertakes a promise of obedience.  They make a commitment to live in accordance to Christian and Order principles.   The third class do not profess religious vows.  But live according to the principles of the Church and Order.

Humanitarian Aid

Humanitarian Work

Renowned for their extensive humanitarian efforts.  The Knights run hospitals, clinics and medical centers around the world.  Providing healthcare to millions of people in need.  Their commitment to medical services has continued.  Since their founding, upholding the legacy of their original purpose during the Crusades.

The Order employs doctors and nurses assisted by several volunteers.  It assists sick people, children, homeless, disabled, without distinction of ethnicity or religion.

Besides medical care, the Knights are involved in disaster relief operations.  They respond to natural disasters, conflicts, and other emergencies.  Providing essential supplies, medical teams, and logistical support.  The Order’s worldwide presence enables them to deliver aid fast.  Making a significant difference in the lives of those affected by crises.

One of the notable initiatives of the Order is their support for refugees and migrants.  Recognizing the plight of displaced individuals.  The Order operates shelters.  Offers medical aid and advocates for the protection of their rights.  They also provide education and vocational training programs.  To enhance the prospects of refugees and migrants, promoting their integration into society.

Faith and Chivalry

As a religious order, faith is at the core of the Knights of Malta’s mission.  They take part in religious ceremonies.  Retreats, and pilgrimages, reinforcing their commitment to Christianity.  The Knights also engage in interfaith dialogue and cooperation.  Fostering understanding and harmony among different religious communities.

Chivalry is another fundamental aspect of the Knights’ tradition.  Embodying the values of honor, courage, and selflessness.  The Knights of Malta exemplify the chivalric code in their conduct.  Their commitment to defending the weak and providing aid to the vulnerable.  Promoting justice aligns with the principles of chivalry.


For over nine centuries, the Knights of Malta have represented a remarkable institution.  That has stood the test of time.  The Knights of Malta have stood as beacons of faith, compassion, and courage. From their humble beginnings as caretakers of pilgrims during the Crusades.  To their current global humanitarian efforts.  The Order has left an indelible mark on history.

The Knights of Malta’s dedication to serving humanity transcends borders and religious differences.  In a world grappling with complex challenges, the Knights of Malta continue to adapt.  They evolve while staying true to their foundational values.  They embrace innovation, leveraging technology and modern practices to enhance their humanitarian efforts.

Amidst the changes, the core principles of faith, charity and defense of the weak remain steadfast.  Their work encompasses a wide range of initiatives.  Including medical care, disaster relief, and support for refugees.  Their hospitals and clinics provide vital healthcare services.  To those who would otherwise be unable to afford or access treatment.  Through their disaster response efforts, the Knights offer a lifeline to communities.  Devastated by natural calamities or conflict.  Providing immediate aid and helping rebuild lives.

The Knights of Malta are not mere bystanders in a troubled world.  They seek to ease suffering and promote justice.


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