Knights Hospitalers: The Knights of Malta

Malta became the fixed home of the order and gave its name to the knights. Under Jean de La Valette they built the great fortifications and defended the island against the Turks in 1565. Meanwhile, the Protestant Reformation had dealt a severe blow to the order. It refused to yield to Henry VIII in England, and the English branch was suppressed. In Malta the order continued to live in fear of the Turks. The city of Valetta was built, and, as in Rhodes, the rule of the order was beneficial. The battle of Lepanto (1571) checked the Turks in the Mediterranean and a time of relative quiet began. The hospital at Malta was the equal of any in Europe, and the knights continued their charitable work. There was some reorganization of the order, and admission became more and more a test of nobility of birth.

The order received its death blow when Napoleon Bonaparte on his Egyptian campaign took Malta (1798). The knights were compelled to leave. They chose Czar Paul of Russia as grand master by an illegal election, which was later validated. Many of the knights went to St. Petersburg. Thus a Roman Catholic order, with the permission of the pope, passed under the rule of an Orthodox emperor. The order was practically at an end. Admiral Nelson took Malta, and although by earlier agreement the island was to be returned to the knights, it was by the Congress of Vienna permanently ceded to Great Britain.

After Paul's death there was a period of some indecision and deliberation. The pope named Tommasi as grand master; in 1802 he became the last regular head of the order, which moved to Catania. After 1805 the knights had no regular head and the fraternity continued but had little more than nominal existence in Catania, then Ferrara, then Rome. The reestablishment of the grand priory in conjunction with the efforts of some French Hospitalers who had attempted to revive the order in France took place in 1827, but the reconstituted order had no organic connection with the old order.

In 1879 the pope restored the office of grand master, but the reconstructed order that resulted has little relation to the old Knights of Malta. Now headquartered in Rome, it is a charitable organization especially devoted to the care of the sick and the wounded, and has men and women as members (though the highest ranks are reserved for men). It has expanded considerably, and in 1926 an association was founded in the United States.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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