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Your Guide to Malta and Gozo - The Knights of St. John

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The Knights of St. John

Philippe Villiers de l'Isle Adam, the first Grand Master of the    Knights Hospitalliers in Malta

The Knights of Malta trace their origins to the 11th Century. Christian pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem after this city was captured from the Muslims, medical care to pilgrims that required it was provided by Benedictine monks, assisted by recruited paramedics. These paramedic took over the running of the hospitals, and were granted the status of a religious society by Pope Paschal II in 1113. A few years later, this society also took on military duties, protecting the Holy Lands from would—be Mulsim invaders. In 1187, Saladin captured Jerusalem and these Knights were driven out of the city. The order found refuge in Acre, in Northern Israel until 1291 when Muslim invaders took over this city and the Knights fled to Cyprus which was to be their home until 1309 . The Order took over Rhodes where they enjoyed sovreinity until the Ottoman invasion of 1522 under Suleiman II. De facto rule of Malta was granted to the Knights by King Charles V of Spain after seven years of homelessness. Amongst other conditions, the Knights would have to take on the defence of Tripoli.

In 1551, Targut Reis, popularly known as Dragut, with a 10,000—strong army unsuccessfully attempted to capture Malta but managed to devastate Gozo and practically took the entire population into slavery. Grandmaster D'Homedes resolved to strenghten the defence of the islands. In order to achieve this, hefty new taxes needed to be imposed on the locals.

In 1557, Grand Master La Valette sought to beef up his defence capabilities as news of an impending Ottoman attack on the Islands reached him, military assistance in the form of provisions and manpower poured in from his Christian allies around Europe. The Ottoman fleet reached Maltese shores in May, 1565 in what is famously known as the Great Siege. The Turkish forces captured Fort St. Elmo on June 23rd but the Turks got more than they bargained for,as the fearsome Targut was mortally wounded. They found that the combined might of the Knights, their allies, and local mercenaries in their thousands was a force to be reckoned with. They finally surrendered and fled on September 8th.

The feared Targut Reiss, better known as Dragut, launched a vicious attack on Malta in 1565.
The feared Targut Reiss, known as Dragut launched a spiteful attack on Malta in 1565

Malta needed a new capital city, Sciberras hill was selected as the location of choice. La Valette secured as much financial assistance and other resources as he could get his hands on.The Italian architect Francesco Laparelli was asked to design the layout of the new city, La Valette himself laid the foundation stone on March 28th 1568. In 1571, Grand Master Del Monte transferred the residence of the Knights from Senglea to Valletta, this, in order to motivate the Knights to speed up the construction of the new city. The celebrated architect, Girolamo (Glormu) Cassar designed many of the important buildings in the new capital, most famously the majestic St. John's Cathedral. On July 8th, 1581, Grand Master La Cassiere was removed from power by a circle of conspirators and locked up in Fort St. Angelo, and Romegas took over leadership. The Pope ruled in favour of La Cassiere in a hearing in Rome, but the Grandmaster died before he could return to Malta.

Financial crisis hit many countries in the Mediterranean in 1590 during the reign of Grand Master Verdalle, and Malta was not spared. Furthermore, famine swept across Italy and the Maltese islands, perhaps due to unfavourable climatic conditions. The Knights resorted to plundering grain-laden vessels traversing the Mediterranean in order to feed the populace, provoking the ire of the Republic of Venice and Turkey. In 1592, a bubonic plague epidemic claimed the lives of some 800 locals.

Following Grand Master Verdalle‘s death, a Spanish successor was elected. Garzes took measures in order to help the poor by establishing a local "Mount of Piety" in order to enable them to secure loans at minimal interest rates. He also made financial provisions for the fortification of Gozo. The fort bearing his name was erected, but was to be razed to the ground by the British some two and a half centuries later.

A major engineering feat was accomplished under the rule of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, with the construction of an aquaduct running from the outskirts of Rabat to the capital. Part of the aquaduct was raised on arches, stretches of which survive until today. The project was completed in April, 1615. Wignacourt also enhanced the defence capacity of Malta by the construction of St.Mary's watch tower on Comino, Wignacourt Tower at St. Paul's Bay, St. Thomas Tower in Marsaskala, and St. Lucian at Marsaxlokk. Antione de Paule, his successor met with much oppostion when with Papal approval, he resolved to impose new taxes on both laity and clergy to fund the construction of new bastions at the outskirts of Valletta to protect the city from land-based attacks. The project went ahead anyway under the supervison of Pietro Paolo Floriani, after whom the town of Floriana (Furjana) is named.

In 1644, the Knights plundered an Ottoman galleon off the island of Rhodes and the alliegiance between the Ottomans and the Venetians was significantly dented, as the Turks claimed that the latter did not carry out their duty to ward off aggressors and protect Ottoman territory.

The Maltese feared an Ottoman attack in response to this act of hostility, the bronze cannons at Mdina were taken to Valletta — a move which met much disapproval from the inhabitants of Rabat and its environs, and even though these were replaced with other cannon made of iron, the women of these localities went berserk and staged heavy protests. The Turks however, chose to attack the Venetian territory of Crete, they occupied the cities of La Canea and Rettimo, and were next poised to capture Candia, the capital city. A fleet of Christian allies was mobilised to assist the Venetians, it was with reluctance however that the Knights joined in.Candia fell to the Ottomans in September 1669.

In 1753, trade and diplomatic ties between Malta and the Kingdom of Sicily were severed after Grand Master Pinto, in an effort to underscore the Knights' sovereignty in Malta, did not grant permission to an envoy sent by King Charles IV of Naples to disembark. This situation persisted for 11 months, until Pope Benedict IV implored the King to re-establish trade between the two islands.

In 1768, Pinto banished the Jesuits from Malta, under the pretext that since they were expelled from the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, he was compelled to follow suit. Through his delegate Bretuil, he obtained Papal consent to take possession of the Jesuits' property, and the Jesuits' Colegium, Melitensae in Valletta was replaced by a new University run by the Knights.

The end of an era - Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch who handed the Maltese Islands to Napoleon on a silver platter.

Malta's coffers were depleted after much squandering by Pinto, so his successor, Grand Master Ximenes was faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the country's finances. He introduced various austerity measures and new taxes. On September 8th 1775, in an attempt to get the Grand Master to reduce the price of wheat, a group of priests led by Gaetano Mannarino and Joseph Zahra staged a revolt. They were banking on the support of the Maltese populace which however did not materialise. The coup failed, and three of the rebel priets were decapitated and their heads impaled for public display. Ximenes died in November 1775 and was succeeded by the French Grand Master Emmanuel De Rohan Polduc. De Rohan tried to win over the Maltese, and amongst other measures, he reduced the price of wheat.

Ferdinand Von Hompesch was elected in July 1797. A large fleet of vessels led by Napoleon Bonaparte, who was on his way to conquer Egypt, approached Maltese shores on June 9th, 1798 and requested fresh water for the crew. The Grand Master replied that this request would be acceded to but only two vessels would be allowed in at any one time, and then, they would only be allowed water from the spring at Lazzaretto. This infuriated the French and on the following day, they launched a massive attack on the islands. Thus Malta was conquered and this brought the Knights' rule in the country to an abrupt end.