International status


International status  Foreign relations of the Sovereign Order Melitense of Saint John of Jerusalem, with its unique history  and unusual present circumstances,  the exact status of the Order in international law has  been  the subject of debate. It describes itself as a “sovereign subject of international law.” Its two headquarters in Malta and Geneva – Switzerland, where the Governor General resides and the Grand Chancellor. The Order maintains diplomatic  missions around the world and many of the states  reciprocate  by accrediting ambassadors to the Order. The Order has  a large number of  local priories and associations around the world. The birth of the Order 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 that ran  the hospital for the  pilgrims  in the Holy Land – became independent under the guidance of its founder, Blessed Gérard. The  constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem regarding  the crusades obliged the Order to take on the military defence of the sick, the pilgrims, and the  territories  that the crusaders had captured from the Muslims. The Order thus added the task of defending the faith to that of its hospitaller mission.

Rhodes  When  the  last  Christian  stronghold in the Holy Land  fell  in 1291,  the Order settled first in Cyprus and then, in 1310, led by Grand Master Fra’ Foulques de Villaret, on the island of Rhodes. From there, defense of the Christian world required the organization of a naval force; so the Order built a powerful fleet and sailed the eastern Mediterranean, fighting  many  famous  battles  for  the sake of Christendom,  including  Crusades  in Syria and Egypt. 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. The  initial seven such groups, or Langues (Tongues) – Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon  (Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland), and Germany – became eight in 1492, when Castille and Portugal were separated from the Langue of Aragon. Each Langue included Priories or Grand  Priories, Bailiwicks, and Commanderies.  The  Order was  governed  by  its  Grand Master  (the Prince  of  Rhodes)  and  Council. From its beginning, independence from other nations granted by pontifical charter and the universally recognised right to maintain and deploy armed forces constituted grounds for the international  sovereignty  of  the  Order, which  minted its own coins and maintained diplomatic relations  with other States. The senior positions of  the Order  were given to representatives of different Langues.

History of Malta under the Order of Saint John   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,  Holy Roman  Emperor  and  his  mother  Queen Joanna   of Castile  as  monarchs of  Sicily,  for  which  the  Order  had  to honour  the  conditions  of the Tribute  of  the Maltese  Falcon.   The   Reformation  which  split   Western  Europe  into Protestant and Roman  Catholic  states   affected   the   Knights   as well.   In  several  countries,  including England and Scotland, the Order was disestablished. In others, entire bailiwicks or commanderies (administrative divisions of the Order) experienced religious conversions.

Great Siege of Malta  In 1565 the Knights, led by Grand Master Fra’ Jean de La Vallette (after whom the capital of Malta, Valletta, was named), defended the island for more than three months during the Great Siege  by the Turks. The  fleet of the Order,  then  one  of the most powerful in the Mediterranean, contributed   significantly  to the ultimate destruction of the  Ottoman  naval  power in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, led by Don Juan of Austria, half brother of King Philip II of Spain.

Exile Two hundred years later, in 1798, the Order surrendered the Maltese islands to the French First Republic. The Order was dissolved and the knights were expelled from Malta and took refuge in Russia.

Sovereign Order of Saint John  – Knights of Malta