History of Malta under the Order of Saint John

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Order of Saint John of Jerusalem
Ordine di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme (Italian)
Ordni ta' San Ġwann ta' Ġerusalemm (Maltese)
Vassal state of the Kingdom of Sicily with de facto independence (1530-1753)
Sovereign state (1753-1798)





Flag Coat of arms
Map of Malta, Gozo and Tripoli within the central Mediteranean
Capital Birgu (1530–1571)
Valletta (1571–1798)
Languages Italian, Maltese
Government Absolute
 -  1530–1534 Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (first)
 -  1797–1798 Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim (last)
 -  Agreement 24 March 1530
 -  Established 26 October 1530
 -  Loss of Tripoli 15 August 1551
 -  Purchase of Caribbean territories 21 May 1651
 -  Loss of Caribbean territories 1665
 -  Proclamation of sovereignty 1753
 -  Capitulation to the French 11 June 1798
Currency Maltese scudo[1]
Today part of Territories:

 Saint Kitts and Nevis
 U.S. Virgin Islands

Malta was ruled by the Order of Saint John from when Emperor Charles V (as Charles II of Sicily) gave the Order the islands of Malta and Gozo as well as Tripoli in 1530 until the French occupied Malta in 1798. The Order also had de facto control over some islands in the Caribbean in the mid-17th century

Sixteenth century[edit]

Early years[edit]

After seven years of moving from place to place in Europe the Knights became established in 1530 when Charles I of Spain, as King of Sicily, gave them Malta,[2] Gozo and the North African port of Tripoli in perpetual fiefdom in exchange for an annual fee of a single Maltese falcon, which they were to send on All Souls Day to the King's representative, the Viceroy of Sicily.[3]

The Hospitallers continued their 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 July 1551, Ottoman forces attempted to take over Fort Saint Angelo and later Mdina but saw that they were outnumbered and invaded Gozo several days later. They sailed to Tripoli and captured the city in August. Following these attacks, the Order tried to repopulate Gozo and strengthen the Grand Harbour fortifications. Several forts including Saint Elmo and Saint Michael were built, and the city of Senglea began to develop around the latter fort.

Great Siege and aftermath[edit]

Main article: Great Siege of Malta

Fourteen years later, 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.[2]

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 Vittoriosa 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 Knights at the expense of his own defences.[citation needed] 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.

Re-enactment of military drills of the Knights at Fort Saint Elmo in 2005.

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 St. Elmo, the fortifications were still intact.[4] 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, Piyale 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.

On 1 September they made their last effort, but the morale of the Ottoman troops had deteriorated seriously and the attack was feeble, to the great encouragement of the besieged, who now began to see hopes of deliverance. The perplexed and indecisive Ottomans heard of the arrival of Sicilian reinforcements in Mellieħa Bay. Unaware that the force was very small, they broke off the siege and left on 8 September. The Great Siege of Malta may have been the last action in which a force of knights won a decisive victory.[5]

View from Valletta showing Fort Saint Angelo.

When the Ottomans departed, the Hospitallers had but 600 men able to bear arms. The most reliable estimate puts the number of the Ottoman army at its height at some 40,000 men, of whom 15,000 eventually returned to Constantinople. The siege is portrayed vividly in the frescoes of Matteo Perez d'Aleccio in the Hall of St. Michael and St. George, also known as the Throne Room, in the Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta; four of the original modellos, painted in oils by Perez d'Aleccio between 1576 and 1581, can be found in the Cube Room of the Queen's House at Greenwich, London.

After the siege a new city was built, Valletta, which was named in memory of the Grand Master who had withstood the siege. It became the Order's headquarters in 1571 and remains Malta's capital city to this day.

Seventeenth century[edit]

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Order was still a powerful force in the Mediterranean, with a navy of galleys based in the Grand Harbour. Coastal defences began to be built during Alof de Wignacourt's reign, and towers were constructed in various parts of the islands between 1610 and 1649. During Grandmaster Lascaris' reign, smaller towers were built, and his successor de Redin also built a series of similar towers. Moreover, forts in the Grand Harbour were strengthened and upgraded. In the eighteenth century, various fortifications were also built such as Fort Chambray in Gozo.


The Order also took part in the colonization of the Americas. On 21 May 1651, it acquired four islands in the Caribbean: Saint Barthélemy, Saint Christopher, Saint Croix and Saint Martin. These were purchased from the French Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique which had just been dissolved. The Order controlled the islands under the governorship of Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy until his death, and in 1665 the four islands were sold to the French West India Company. This marked the end of the Order's influence outside the Mediterranean.

Eighteenth century[edit]

A naval battle between the Ottoman navy and the Order's fleet in 1719.
The Grand Harbour in 1750.

The eighteenth century was dominated by two Portuguese grandmasters - António Manoel de Vilhena and Manuel Pinto da Fonseca who ruled the islands in 1722-1736 and 1741-1773 respectively. Their reigns were influential for Maltese architecture as many Sicilian Baroque style buildings were commissioned by them, such as Auberge de Castille. In de Vilhena's reign, the town of Floriana was founded just outside Valletta. During Pinto's rule, the Order became bankrupt due to his lavish spending and this led to the Order becoming unpopular with the Maltese people. In his reign there was the Revolt of the Slaves of 1749, in which Turkish slaves were planning to revolt and assassinate Pinto, but this was suppressed before it even started due to their plans leaking out to the Order. In 1753 Pinto proclaimed the sovereignty of the Order on Malta and a dispute started with the Kingdom of Sicily under King Charles V. The dispute eventually ended a year later on 26 November 1754 when Sicily and the Order returned to normal relations. Despite this Sicily no longer had any control over the Maltese islands and Malta under the Order effectively became a sovereign state.[6] In 1775, during the reign of Ximenes, an unsuccessful revolt known as the Revolt of the Priests occurred.

Decline and fall[edit]

The Order's possessions in France were seized by the state due to the French revolution in 1792 which led to the already bankrupt Order into an even greater financial crisis. The Order surrendered without a fight when Napoleon landed on the islands in June 1798, and the French then briefly occupied the island until 1800, when they were ousted by Maltese revolutionaries aided by Great Britain. Malta became a British protectorate and although the Treaty of Amiens stated that they should be handed back to the Order, nothing materialized. When the new Grandmaster Giovanni Battista Tommasi demanded that the British Civil Commissioner Alexander Ball hand back the Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta, Ball replied on 2 March 1803 that Britain was authorised to continue basing troops on the island and that the government palace could not be vacated since it was occupied by British civil servants.


  1. ^ "Coinage of the Knights in Malta". The Coinage of Malta. Central Bank of Malta. Retrieved 2014-08-11. 
  2. ^ a b "Malta History". Jimdiamondmd.com. Retrieved 2008-10-12. 
  3. ^ "Malta History 1000 AD–present". Carnaval.com. Retrieved 2008-10-12. 
  4. ^ "Knights of Malta". Knightshospitallers.org. Retrieved 2008-10-12. 
  5. ^ Ottoman Siege of Malta, 1565, World History at KMLA. Accessed 14 September 2007
  6. ^ Zammit, Vincent (1992). Il-Gran Mastri - Ġabra ta' Tagħrif dwar l-Istorja ta' Malta fi Żmienhom - It-Tieni Volum 1680-1798. Valletta, Malta: Valletta Publishing & Promotion Co. Ltd. pp. 405–406.