The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (Latin: Ordo Fratrum Hospitalis Sancti Ioannis Hierosolymitani), commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller or the Order of Saint John, was a medieval and early modern Catholic military order. It was headquartered in the Kingdom of Jerusalem until 1291, on the island of Rhodes from 1310 until 1522, in Malta from 1530 until 1798 and at Saint Petersburg from 1799 until 1801. Today several organizations continue the Hospitaller tradition, most importantly the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
The Hospitallers arose in the early 11th century, at the time of the great monastic reformation, as a group of individuals associated with an Amalfitan hospital in the Muristan district of Jerusalem, dedicated to John the Baptist and founded around 1099 by Gerard Thom to provide care for sick, poor or injured pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. Some scholars, however, consider that the Amalfitan order and hospital were different from Gerard Thom’s order and its hospital.
After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, the organisation became a military religious order under its own papal charter, charged with the care and defence of the Holy Land. Following the conquest of the Holy Land by Islamic forces, the knights operated from Rhodes, over which they were sovereign, and later from Malta, where they administered a vassal state under the Spanish viceroy of Sicily. The Hospitallers were one of the smallest groups to briefly colonise parts of the Americas: they acquired four Caribbean islands in the mid-17th century, which they turned over to France in the 1660s.
The knights became divided during the Protestant Reformation, when rich commanderies of the order in northern Germany and the Netherlands became Protestant and largely separated from the Roman Catholic main stem, remaining separate to this day, although ecumenical relations between the descendant chivalric orders are amicable. The order was suppressed in England, Denmark, as well as in some other parts of northern Europe, and it was further damaged by Napoleon‘s capture of Malta in 1798, following which it became dispersed throughout Europe.
In 1530, after seven years of moving from place to place in Europe, Pope Clement VII – himself a Knight – reached an agreement with Charles I of Spain, to provide the knights permanent quarters on Malta, Gozo and the North African port of Tripoli in perpetual fiefdom in exchange for an annual fee of a single Maltese falcon (the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon), which they were to send on All Souls’ Day to the King’s representative, the Viceroy of Sicily. In 1548, Charles V raised Heitersheim, the headquarters of the Hospitallers in Germany, into the Principality of Heitersheim, making the Grand Prior of Germany a prince of the Holy Roman Empire with a seat and vote in the Reichstag.
The Order may have played a direct part in supporting the Malta native Iacob Heraclid who, in 1561, established a temporary foothold in Moldavia (see Battle of Verbia). The Hospitallers also continued their maritime actions against the Muslims and especially the Barbary pirates. Although they had only a few ships they quickly drew the ire of the Ottomans, who were unhappy to see the order resettled. In 1565 Suleiman sent an invasion force of about 40,000 men to besiege the 700 knights and 8,000 soldiers and expel them from Malta and gain a new base from which to possibly launch another assault on Europe. This is known as the Great Siege of Malta.
At first the battle went as badly for the Hospitallers as Rhodes had: most of the cities were destroyed and about half the knights killed. On 18 August the position of the besieged was becoming desperate: dwindling daily in numbers, they were becoming too feeble to hold the long line of fortifications. But when his council suggested the abandonment of Birgu and Senglea and withdrawal to Fort St. Angelo, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette refused.
The Viceroy of Sicily had not sent help; possibly the Viceroy’s orders from Philip II of Spain were so obscurely worded as to put on his own shoulders the burden of the decision whether to help the Order at the expense of his own defences. A wrong decision could mean defeat and exposing Sicily and Naples to the Ottomans. He had left his own son with La Valette, so he could hardly be indifferent to the fate of the fortress. Whatever may have been the cause of his delay, the Viceroy hesitated until the battle had almost been decided by the unaided efforts of the knights, before being forced to move by the indignation of his own officers.
On 23 August came yet another grand assault, the last serious effort, as it proved, of the besiegers. It was thrown back with the greatest difficulty, even the wounded taking part in the defence. The plight of the Turkish forces, however, was now desperate. With the exception of Fort Saint Elmo, the fortifications were still intact. Working night and day the garrison had repaired the breaches, and the capture of Malta seemed more and more impossible. Many of the Ottoman troops in crowded quarters had fallen ill over the terrible summer months. Ammunition and food were beginning to run short, and the Ottoman troops were becoming increasingly dispirited by the failure of their attacks and their losses. The death on 23 June of skilled commander Dragut, a corsair and admiral of the Ottoman fleet, was a serious blow. The Turkish commanders, Piali Pasha and Mustafa Pasha, were careless. They had a huge fleet which they used with effect on only one occasion. They neglected their communications with the African coast and made no attempt to watch and intercept Sicilian reinforcements.