“Who exactly were these Knights of Malta? I think they’re something to do with the Crusades, and you can pick up tiny knight statues in just about every tourist shop in the country, but where did the come from, and what were they doing here?”
Luckily I know the answers to these questions, (at least in an approximate sort of a way), so as not to provide you with a very unsatisfying post. The original knights order (the Knights Hospitallers) was established about 1,000 years ago as defenders of pilgrims going to Jerusalem, and of Jerusalem itself once it was captured from the Islamic orders. When the Holy Land was retaken by said Islamic forces, they knights wandered Europe for a while before ending up in Malta in 1530. Malta was effectively given to the order (henceforth to be known as ‘Knights of Malta’) by the Holy Roman Emperor in return for yearly rent of one trained falcon.
From their new base, the knights were able to battle both the Ottoman Turks and North African Barbary pirates. One of the more famous engagements occurred in 1565 when the Ottomans sent a massive invading force, against which the heavily outnumbered knights seemed sure to lose. Early defeats suggested that the Knights were indeed goners, but they successfully held out against the dwindling Ottoman forces in what became known as ‘The Siege of Malta’, and this victorious defiance is still celebrated today.
However as the Knights had about as much chance of launching a successful assault upon the moon as upon Jerusalem, there set in a sort of existential brooding. “Why are we here?” “What’s it all about anyway?” and et cetera. The order effectively became defenders of the Mediterranean, but with many of them enlisting with foreign navies and armies, the original Knights of Malta ethos got a little bit lost. The Knights did accomplish a lot in their 250 or so years on the islands though, including rebuilding what became Valletta into one of the most impressive cities in Europe and turning Malta into a hub of trading activity.
They also oversaw the construction of what was to become St John’s Co-Cathedral, the spiritual home of the Knights of St John, and visitors today can see the marble slabs which commemorate hundreds of the Knights of the order who were laid to rest here.
(note to self: complete this entry with ‘knight’ pun of some sort – everyone loves those)