The Knights of Malta: A story of courage, might and extravagance!
The Knights of Malta (full name: the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem) were formed much before their reign on Malta.
Established in 1085 as a community of monks, they were responsible for looking after the sick, at the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem.
The Knights of Saint John later became a military order, defending crusader territory in the Holy Lands.
They came to Malta in 1530, after having been forced out of Rhodes by the Turks in 1522. The Holy Roman Emperor of that time, Charles V, gave them a choice between Malta and Tripoli.
Though the knights were not keen on any of the two, they ended up choosing Malta because they preferred it to Tripoli.
When the islands were ceded to the Knights, King Charles set a condition – the Knights were to send him a Maltese falcon every year. The falcon had to be raised and trained by the grandmaster’s falconer.
Little did the king know that the legacy of the Maltese falcon would live on centuries after he had given that order!
The Knights of St John developed and transformed the island into a flourishing one with very powerful defenses, fortresses, watch towers and many churches and palaces. Boasting a capital city that was the envy of the great power of Europe of that time, that city became known as Valletta – “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen.” Still the capital city of Malta to this day, Valletta is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Knights of Malta who were volunteer Christian crusaders came from the crème de la crème of aristocratic Europe. Hailing from wealthy families from Italy, Spain, France, England and Portugal, the knights were sworn to celibacy, poverty and obedience. However, judging by the grand palaces, portraits and the many other artifacts that they left on the Maltese islands, it is very clear that the Knights of Malta led incredibly extravagant lifestyles.
Right at the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta occupied a strategic position between the Christian and Muslim worlds. It therefore became evident that the Knights of Malta and the islands were the most important obstacle that were hindering the Muslims to advance and invade Christian Europe.
Many Ottoman attacks took place between 1551 and 1644. Without any doubt, the most famous one was the Great Siege of Malta that occurred in 1565.
This bloody incident in the history of Malta, saw 30,000 turks get defeated by 600 knights and 6000 soldiers and volunteers.
When the invasion began, the Ottoman empire was expecting victory within a few days. But with the knights’ military know-how and the Maltese people’s bravery and courage, the seemingly indestructable Ottoman empire, fell short of conquering Malta.
News of the victory of the Knights of Malta over the turks, traveled fast and it is said that this important victory, dates the beginning of the fall of the Ottoman empire and its power in the Mediterranean and Europe.
The expansion and fortification of Valletta, named for Grand Master La Valette, begun in 1566. Malta’s impenetrable Baroque capital, is enclosed by a ring of grand fortifications. The city is full of churches, palaces, museums and art galleries.
Valletta is literally choc-a-block with superb Baroque buildings and in order to detail them all, one would have to write a whole book! However, if you’re here in Malta for a few days, there are two sites that you must absolutely visit before you leave!
St. John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum
A major legacy of the Knights of Malta's wealth, pomp and vanity, the cathedral was designed by Gilormu Cassar. Mattia Preti supervised the transformation of the interior – a fascinating showcase of Baroque art.
Rich and flamboyant decorations adorn the cathedral but it is the oratory that literally steals the show with perhaps Malta’s most treasured masterpiece: Caravaggio’s magnificent painting of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist.
The cathedral and museum are located in Republic Street, Valletta. Open from Monday to Friday from: 9.30am to: 4.30pm and Saturday from: 9.30am to: 12.30pm. Entrance fee is Euro 6.00.
Grand Master’s Palace and the Armoury
Originally the residence of the Grand Master, today it houses the President’s office and Maltese parliament. Impressive frescoes depict important events in the history of Malta during the Knights’ era.
Rich timber ceilings, massive crystal chandeliers and countless other lavish decorations all indicate the Knights of Saint John lived a very extravagant life while here in Malta.
The Armoury boasts over 5000 pieces. The impressive collection on display consists of various armaments produced between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.
The palace and armoury are in Misrah San Gorg, Valletta. The palace is open Monday to Wednesday and Friday, from: 10.00am to: 4.00pm and Saturdays and Sundays, from: 9.00am to: 5.00pm. You might want to call (Tel No: 21 249349) before you visit just in case it is closed on the day that you plan to visit, due to a state visit or special event. Entrance fee is Euro 4.66.
The armoury is open daily from: 9.00am to: 5.00pm and entrance fee is Euro 4.70.
If you were always interested in learning more about the famous Knights of Malta, then the Maltese Islands offer you plenty of opportunities to really get to know the story behind these courageous knights!