What Is The Order Of St John And Why Are They Important To Malta?

Order of St John

It is a connection you will see throughout any research that you conduct into Malta.

Whether searching for accommodation or air conditioning, seafood restaurants or scuba diving, marine life or maritime history, there is one name which crops up time and time again: the Order of St John.

Interwoven with the fabric of Maltese culture, and cropping up time and again in stories and historical accounts, they pervade the streets of this Mediterranean Island, their influence still in some ways as strong as in their heyday.

So just who were this elusive Order? Where did they come from, and where did they go?

What did they achieve in their time on the island?

And just why are they considered such a crucial and essential element of the history of Malta?

knights of st johnImage Source: maltatvchannel.com

Who Were They?

The Order of St John was a medieval Catholic organisation, also known as the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem.

As this latter description suggests, the organisation consisted of a group of monks who considered it their holy duty to care for pilgrims who came to the Holy Land.

Originating in Jerusalem in the 11th century, the Hospitallers, as they became known, took a vow to care for any travellers who came their way and required assistance, irrespective of faith or race, and became officially recognised by the church as a religious order in 1113.

In addition to a sacred duty, the volunteers took on a military role following the capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, and this is when they were given their distinction as ‘Knights.’

knights of the order of st john of jerusalem

What Was Their Journey?

The Order was conceived and developed in Jerusalem but had something of a journey to get to the shores of Malta.

Following the occupation of Palestine by Muslim conquerors in 1291, the Order had a temporary move to Cyprus to continue their work.

In 1309, they moved on again, this time to the Greek city of Rhodes.

They remained here in relative peace until 1522, when they were forced to move again due to the victory of Suleiman the Magnificent, a Turkish Sultan, who conquered Rhodes and forced the Order out.

It was at this time that they made their way to Malta.

They were not finished with confrontation, however; there was a further attempt by Suleiman in 1565, known as the ‘Great Siege of Malta,’which both the Knights and the people of Malta survived.

Following this, a new capital city was built on the island: The now famous Valetta.

The Order then remained on the island, with the ships patrolling the Mediterranean oceans, until 1798, when Napoleon forced a surrender of the island.

During this time, however, their influence on a rock of soft sandstone”, as they referred to Malta, was truly extraordinary.


What Did They Achieve?

The arrival of the Knights was not without controversy.

The Maltese natives were not permitted to serve in the Order, and suspicion and hostility existed on both sides.

The two groups had advantages to harmonising, however, as the Knights were hugely beneficial to the economy, as well as protecting and fighting against Muslim attacks and performing a number of charitable duties.

As the name suggests, their primary priority focused on the creating and establishment of hospitals, and this is an area which still continues today: the famous eight-pointed star which was the symbol of the Order is now an internationally recognised symbol for ambulances: the St Johns Ambulance Service, a sign that the organisation survived even to modern times.

In addition, there was a focus on defence: Malta was already in a prime location to defend itself against incoming attacks, but lacked the necessary fortifications.

The Grandmasters Palace

Perhaps one of the most notable achievements by the Knights was the construction of the Palace.

Upon establishing Valetta as the capital city in 1566, the intention was to create a palace for the Grandmaster located in the south of the city on high ground.

The site was originally located across several buildings, including the home of Eustachio del Monte, which was constructed in 1569.

The Grandmaster officially moved the headquarters of the Order to Valetta in 1571, and, as Eustachio was his nephew, took up occupation within the house.

The Council of the Order officially purchased the house and began the creation of the Palace in 1574.

It was originally constructed in the style of the Mannerist designs of Glormo Cassar, and later additions and modifications added a Baroque style to the structure. 

grandmasters palace 

Whether it is in the symbol carved into a wall or displayed on a shop, the fortifications and ruins which still stand proudly on the landscape of Malta, or the majestic city of Valetta itself, there is no denying the influence of the Order of St John on the island even today.

Their legacy lives on in an ambulance service which is dedicated to helping anyone, regardless of sex, race and religion, and in this way, an 11th-century duty is still being performed.

Everywhere you look in Malta you are reminded of the work of the Knights, and it is an organisation which has transcended its medieval roots to still remain relevant today.


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