Knights of Malta

views updated May 18 2018


The Sovereign Military Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta, commonly called the Knights of Malta or Knights Hospitaller, a religious and knightly order dating from the 11th century.

History of the Order. Whatever its possible antecedents, the order began in Jerusalem in a hospice-infirmary for pilgrims founded by Blessed Gerard (d.1120) before the First crusade. Together with the adjoining church, the hospice was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and served by a religious confraternity following a variant of the rule of St. augustine. Gerard was its first rector. After the formation of the kingdom of jerusalem this confraternity received approbation in a bull of paschal ii, February 15, 1113 (P. Jaffé, Regesta pontificum romanorum 6341), which also ensured to the new order the protection of the Holy See and the right of freely electing Gerard's successors without interference from any other authority, ecclesiastical or lay. Succeeding popes confirmed and enlarged these privileges. Gerard's successors were styled masters and then grand masters of the hospital. Under its second head, Raymond de Podio (du Puy), the order acquired its military-chivalric character because of the need to defend pilgrims and the Christian kingdom against Muslim attacks.

The growing prestige of the order brought it great donations, especially the templar properties granted to it by the Holy See in 1312. Throughout its extensive possessions, East and West, it spread a network of domus hospitales for the service and defense of pilgrims. These were grouped into bailiwicks, priories, and grand priories. The failure of the Crusades forced the order to abandon the Holy Land; in 1310 it acquired the island of rhodes, becoming a territorial state and a naval power

patrolling the eastern Mediterranean against the Muslim assault. In the 14th and 15th centuries the order was divided into national units called Tongues (Langues ). The advance of Islam, now led by the ottoman turks, could not be arrested. After four unsuccessful Turkish attacks, the Sultan Süleyman I the Magnificent conquered Rhodes in 1522 and forced the Knights to retreat to the West. In 1530 the Emperor charles v ceded to them the sovereign possession of the islands of Malta, Gozo, and Camino, as well as Tripoli in North Africa. Malta's strategic position between the Christian and the Moslem world enabled the order to block Islam's advance toward the heart of Christendom. This island was subjected to violent Ottoman attacks especially in 1551, 1565 (the Great Siege), and 1644. Galleys of the order took part in the Battle of lepanto (1571), which broke the Ottoman tide. On Malta the order reached the height of its power. Grandiose fortifications made the island impregnable. The order's navy became one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean and waged incessant war on the Ottomans and the Barbary pirates.

The reformation deprived the order of its English and of many of its German possessions, and during the 17th and 18th centuries the Knights experienced a period of decline. Growing nationalism in the West clashed with the order's supranational character, and finally the french revolution, hostile both to the Church and to the Knights Hospitaller, despoiled the order in France and advanced irresistibly toward its Mediterranean holdings. Greek Orthodox Russia, however, motivated by the Russian Emperor Paul I's personal admiration for the Knights, his abhorrence of the Revolution, and Russia's very practical perennial drive toward the Mediterranean, appeared ready to oppose France. The rapprochement that resulted was sealed in the Convention of Jan. 15, 1797, between the Grand Master de Rohan and Paul I, establishing a new grand priory of the order in Russia. This foundation was formed in part from the Polish grand priory, which, in the partitions of Poland, had fallen under Russian control. In November 1797, under the new Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch, Paul I was proclaimed protector of the order. The French reply was the seizure of Malta. On his way to Egypt, napoleon i moved on the island in violation of the order's internationally guaranteed neutrality, and on June 12, 1798, the island fell to the French. Hompesch and the convent removed to Trieste under Austria's protection. Russia's reply to this seizure of Malta was to produce a claim to it. On September 6, 1798, profiting by the indignation aroused by the surrender of Malta, the Russian grand priory proclaimed Hompesch deposed; on September 21, Paul assumed the "supreme direction" of the order; on November 7 the Russian grand priory proclaimed him grand master and on November 24 he accepted that dignity and the sovereignty over Malta implied by it. On January 8, 1799, he announced the formation (December 10, 1798) of another "Grand Priory of Russia" for non-Catholics.

Despite Paul's pressure the Holy See refused to recognize him as grand master. Recognition came from many of the knights and from European governments, however, and on July 6, 1799, the Court of Vienna forced Hompesch to abdicate. Thus de facto, if not de jure, Paul I was the head of the order. By September 1800 the British had taken Malta from the French; Paul I was murdered (March 23, 1801), and his son and successor Alexander I assumed protection of the order. Laying no claims to the grand mastership, he called for a canonical election of a new grand master. With the approval of pius vii the Bailiff John Baptist Tommasi became grand master on February 9, 1803, and was recognized by the allied powers and by Russia. In 1803 Alexander I tacitly abandoned the protectorship of the order; in 1810 the order's properties were confiscated by the crown; and in 1817 a decision of the Russian cabinet, sanctioned by the Emperor, declared that the order no longer existed in Russia. The Grand Master Tommasi had died in 1805, and an interregnum followed, during which the order was ruled by lieutenants. In 1834 the convent was finally moved to Rome. leo xiii restored the grand mastership in the person of the Lieutenant Ceschi a Santa Croce (18791905), who was succeeded by the Grand Masters Thun-Hohenstein (190531) and Chigi della Rovere Albani (193151). The position of the order vis-à-vis the Holy See was defined anew, January 24, 1953, by a commission of cardinals appointed by pius xii. John XXIII (June 24, 1961) approved the new Constitutional Charter of the order.

The Knights of Malta have also had a second order, the Hospitaller Sisters of St. John of Jerusalem, still existing in Spain and Malta, but no longer under the grand master's jurisdiction.

Status. The order is a religious community of lay men and women, and chaplains, whose aims are the sanctification of its members, service of the faith and of the Holy See, and welfare work. It is also the oldest order of chivalry in existence, composed of both religious and lay knights and of other associates, and is internationally recognized as sovereign. In its latter capacity it deals with the Papal Secretariate of State and maintains diplomatic relations with the Holy See and a number of states in both hemispheres. The sovereign aspect of the order enables it to carry on its religious and charitable activities freely on a worldwide scale. Like chivalry itself, the order has been traditionally an institution of the nobility, but in modern times, its membership includes Catholics on the basis of merit as well as birth.

Classes of Members. Its members are divided into three classes: (1) the knights of justice and professed chaplains, forming the religious and directive core, and bound by religious vows, both simple and solemn; (2) the knights of obedience and donates of justice, who promise to strive toward Christian perfection in their lives; the "donates" are not knights, but persons who have served the order; (3) the lay members and secular chaplains, subdivided into knights and dames of honor and devotion, honorary conventual chaplains, knights and dames of grace and devotion, magistral chaplains, knights and dames of magistral grace, and donates of devotion. Several grades require proof of nobility in addition to other qualifications; others require merit alone. Within them, the higher ranks of grand cross or bailiff may be acquired. Cardinals are traditionally invested with the insignia of bailiffs grand cross of honor and devotion.

Territorially the order is now divided into five grand priories (Rome, Lombardy-Venetia, Naples-Sicily, Bohemia, Austria) and 26 national associations including two of master knights, i.e., knights of magistral grace. In the U.S. Members not belonging to either priories or associations are in gremio religionis, depending directly on the grand master in Rome. The supreme head of the order is the grand master, elected for life from among the solemnly professed knights of justice, with papal approval. In his absence the order is ruled by a lieutenant. The grand master has the title of prince and is equal in rank to a cardinal. He is styled most eminent highness and is internationally recognized as a chief of state. He governs the order with the assistance of the sovereign council; the supreme assembly is the general chapter convoked at regular intervals. For the elections of grand master or lieutenant the complete council of state is convoked. The pope is represented in the order by a cardinal patronus. The order's headquarters and the grand master's residence (the convent) are at the Malta Palace in Rome.

Activities. The order's principal charitable activities fall into the following categories: (1) Hospital work: the order maintains a great number of hospitals, clinics, medical and research centers, and dispensaries in various parts of the world.(2) Care for the wounded in war and peace: it operates first-aid centers and maintains a number of ambulance corps, equipped with hospital facilities, trains, and transport planes. (3) Relief work for refugees and the needy.

The spiritual character of the order is founded on the mixture of its religious and chivalric ideals. Its service of Christ and of the unfortunate, its honor, courtesy, and noblesse oblige have lost none of their worth with the passage of time. The blending of these two aspects in the military-monastic orders of the Crusades helped to spiritualize military valor on the model of its ideal, the soldier of Christ.

Bibliography: f. de hellwald, Bibliographie méthodique de l'ordre souv. de St. Jean de Jérusalem (Rome 1885). e. rossi, Aggiunta alla bibliographie méthodique de l'ordre souv. de St. Jean de Jérusalem de F. de Hellwald (Rome 1924). g. bottarelli and m. monterisi, Storia politica e militare del sovrano ordine di S. Giovanni di Gerusalemme, detto di Malta, 2 v. (Milan 1940). j.m. delaville le roulx, Cartulaire général de l'ordre des Hospitaliers de St. Jean de Jérusalem, 4 v. (Paris 18941906). t. michel de pierredon, Histoire politique de l'ordre souverain de St. Jean de Jérusalem (ordre de Malta ) 17891955, 2 v. (2d ed. Paris 195663). e. e. hume, Medical Work of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem (Baltimore 1940). j. h. van der veldt, The Ecclesiastical Orders of Knighthood (Washington 1956). j. a. brundage, "A Twelfth-Century Oxford Disputation concerning the Privileges of the Knights Hospitallers," Mediaeval Studies 24 (Toronto-London 1962) 153160. Constitutional Charter of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (Rome 1961). Order of Malta, Livre blanc (Rome 1962). h. j. a. sire, The Knights of Malta (New Haven 1994). r. mchugh, The Knights of Malta: 900 Years of Care (Dublin, Ireland: 1996).

[o. p. sherbowitz-wetzor/

c. toumanoff/eds.]


views updated May 18 2018

Hospitallers. Originally established at the end of the 11th cent. to care for Jerusalem pilgrims, following the success of the First Crusade the Hospitallers' role expanded, with papal support, to include care of the sick and armed protection of pilgrims. They followed the Augustinian rule, and were divided into three groups, the knights, the infirmarians, and the chaplains. During the 12th cent. the order spread rapidly both in the crusading states and in western Europe. The first English priory was founded c.1144 at Clerkenwell and other smaller preceptories or commanderies followed, administering the order's estates, training its knights, and dispensing hospitality. Following the suppression of the Templars (1312) most of their possessions passed to the Hospitallers, whose headquarters had been transferred to Rhodes in 1309 following the fall of Acre (1291). After the Turkish capture of Rhodes (1522) the order moved to Malta until the island's capture by Napoleon. Its English properties were confiscated in 1540.

Brian Golding


views updated May 29 2018

Hospitallers (Knights of Malta): see TEMPLARS.

Knights of Malta

views updated Jun 11 2018

Knights of Malta: see TEMPLARS.

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Knights of Malta

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