SOVEREIGN ORDER MELITENSE OF SAINT JOHN – KNIGHTS OF MALTA
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