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From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Malta was ruled by the Order of the Knights of St John. But who were they and what did they do for the island?
The Order of the Knights of St John – also known as the Knights Hospitaller, Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem, and Order of Hospitallers – was a Catholic Military Order established in 603 when Pope Gregory commissioned a hospital to be built in Jerusalem, with the main purpose of caring for the sick and injured pilgrims arriving at the Holy Land. By 1530, the Knights had arrived and settled in Malta, after being given the island by the King of Sicily, Charles I of Spain. The knights stayed in Malta and the island remained under the rule of the order for the following 250 years.
Following the Ottoman siege in 1522, the Order of St John were forced to leave Rhodes and, after several years of moving around Europe, eventually settled in Malta with Birgu (one of Malta’s three cities) becoming their capital. The area surrounding Birgu was fortified with extra buildings to strengthen their defences including a fortress, Fort St Angelo, which was previously a Medieval castle known as Castrum Maris. Fort St Angelo was to become the knights’ main headquarters during the Great Siege – a perfect location overlooking Malta’s Grand Harbour. With Malta as their new home, the order began to produce its own mint of coins on the island – the scudo.
Facing Muslims, Barbary Pirates and the Ottomans, it was the Ottomans who attempted to take control of Fort St Angelo. However, hugely outnumbered, the Ottoman forces took to invading Malta’s sister island of Gozo instead. Nearby Tripoli was captured by the Ottomans and the knights made a mission to repopulate the island of Gozo, while at the same time strengthening the Grand Harbour’s defences with the construction of new fortresses of St Elmo and St Michael, around which the city of Senglea began to take shape. In the mid-16th century, however, one of the deadliest tornadoes ever recorded hit Malta, killing nearly 600 people and destroying four of the order’s galleys – a major setback for the order.
The constant battle between the Order of the Knights and the Islamic Ottoman Empire over the rule of the Mediterranean came to a head in 1565 in the form of the Great Siege. The Ottoman sultan, Suilemon the Magnificent, gave orders for Malta to be invaded, sending 40,000 men to fight against 700 knights and 8,000 soldiers in a quest to take over Malta. As the situation became desperate, the council requested that the fortresses of Birgu and St Micheal were abandoned and concentration should be put in protecting the island purely from Fort St Angelo. Grand Master of the Knights, Jean Parisot de Vallette refused profusely. After a considerable hesitation, help was eventually sent from the Viceroy of neighbouring Sicily under the orders of Philip II of Spain.
The course of the Great Siege saw the Turks winning over Fort St Elmo and attacking Fort St Angelo and Fort St Michael whereby almost all the knights and soldiers defending them were killed. The Maltese people aided the knights as much as possible by throwing boiling oil and stones on the Turks from the top of the fortifications. On September 7, after a long and desperate wait, Catholic reinforcements arrived from Sicily in the form of the ‘Gran Soccorso’. Not as great in numbers as expected, the help was enough for Turkish Admiral, Piali Pasha, to realise his ships would soon be surrounded. On September 8, the Turks destroyed all their tents on Malta, and the following days saw the Turks back on their ships heading home, defeated.
La Vallette was named a hero throughout Catholic Europe and was awarded a dagger, and a gold and jewelled sword by the Holy Roman Emperor, Philip II of Spain. Vallette was now on a mission to restore the areas ruined during the siege and appealed to the European Courts to build a new city on the area known as the Sciberras Peninsula. In 1566 the foundation stone was laid for the city ‘built by gentlemen, for gentlemen’. The new city would be known as Valletta.
The Knights of the Order of St John remained in Malta for the next 200 years. In 1798, the island came under siege again by the French forces under Napoleon. The order was expelled and the islands of Malta came under French occupation. This remained until 1800 when the Maltese rebelled against the French and the islands became protected by the British. In 1802, the islands were returned to the order but remained under British rule. Malta continues to celebrate the end of the siege on September 8 every year, known as Victory Day.