Founded in the 11th century as a lay religious order of hospital workers who observed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in Jerusalem, the Knights of Malta (variously known as: Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem; the Soverign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta; the Order of St John of Jerusalem and similar permutations) were contemporaries with the more military inclined Knights Templar, and provided care to Christian pilgrims.
A 12th century Papal Bull granted these Hospitaller Knights of St John independence, but they were required to provide armed escorts for pilgrims and adopt a more active military role in defending the faith against Muslim attacks. Later that century however, the forces of Saladin captured Jerusalem and the Knights fled, first to the north and then onto the island of Cyprus and eventually, at the beginning of the 14th century, they relocated to the island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea.
As part of their continuing duty to defend the faith, the Knights built a formidable naval fleet that cruised the Eastern Mediterranean for more than a century, supporting Crusades into Egypt and Syria and engaging in battles with Barbary pirates and later, Ottoman ships under Suleiman the Magnificent. By this time, the Knights Templar had been absorbed by the Knights of Rhodes and the multinational Order had virtual sovereign status, with their own mint and diplomatic connections to other States.
In 1523, after a continual onslaught by the Ottoman forces, the Order was ejected from Rhodes and in 1530, under a Spanish Crown/Papal edict, were granted the island of Malta as a perpetual fiefdom in exchange for an annual fee of a Maltese falcon (yes, that's where the Dashiell Hammet plot element comes from). Of particular note during their tenure on Malta (in addition to their role as a slave trading hub), the Order, comprising less than 10,000 men under Grand Master Jean de la Valette, managed to withstand a three month seige by 40,000 Ottoman Turks. When it came time to rebuild the damaged cities, the capital was renamed Valetta in honour of their victorious leader.
It should be noted that the tendrils of influence and operation of the Knights of Malta always exceeded their nominal homelands. They had varying holdings across Europe and members of the Order had significant roles in the Russian and pre-Revolutionary French navies as well as a presence in Caribbean affairs. The greatest blow to their organisation occurred in 1798 with the invasion and occupation by the forces of Napoleon who used Malta as a launching pad for an assault on Egypt. There followed an ejection of the Knights who were effectively dispersed and their headquarters was moved around Italy until in 1834, the current sovereign-state location was established in Palazzo Malta in Rome.
Today, the 12,000 (invite only) members and volunteers of the charitable religious Order engage in humanitarian and medical relief work in more than 100 countries. Only vestiges of the military tradition (without function) remain. The head of the Order is the 78° Prince and Grand Master Fra' Andrew Bertie, elected in 1988 for life by the Council Complete of State. He is the first British subject to have been made Grand Master of the Order.
The honorific watercolour/ink/inkwash album featured above was produced in 1781 by Le Bailli de Froullay and Fr. Ludovicus d'Almeyda with the Greek notations by a certain Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is entitled: 'Mausolées des Grans Maîtres de l'Ordre de S. Jean de Jerusalem qui etoitent en Rhodes, tirés des dessins originaux qui existent dans la chancelerie de l'Ordre à Malthe' and is available in html or flash format from La Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence.
- All of the above images are spliced from screencaps and were uploaded (with a few more illustrations not seen) to this Webshots album. [The image quality is a little strange in that it appears just slightly blurry which is not overcome with the flash zoom. It's similar to the appearance of images from the same digitising company seen previously with 'La Très Sainte Trinosophie'. Basic image sharpening introduced digital artifact so I've essentially left the pictures alone, save for spot cleaning them all]
- The Soverign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta offical website (multlingual).
- Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem at New Advent.
- Wikipedia: List of Grand Masters (I could identify a few names from the latinized versions in the sketches); Knights Hospitaller.