The Sovereign Military Order Malta – history and present role

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Origins of the Order in Jerusalem

unnamedThe Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta (also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta – SMOM for short), saw its origin in Jerusalem in 1048. Merchants from the marine republic of Amalfi decided to create a modest convent and hospice in Jerusalem, to care for pilgrims who travelled to the Holy Land. Due to the violent and volatile situation in the region prevalent at the time, the Order eventually developed its own military branch to defend its property and members from marauders and armies by enlisting mercenaries from various countries in Europe. A pious conventual character of this community emerged parallel to the hospitaller and military aspects.

On 15 February 1113, Pope Paschal II, approved the foundation of the Order as a religious community which was to remain under his direct patronage up to the present day. All the Order’s religious and military members were bound by a statute to upkeep the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

To place the origin of the Order of St John in its historical context, it is worth making a parenthesis here, namely, that 16 years later – in 1129, the Catholic Church also formally approved another Order, that of the Knights Templars. Another Order often mentioned and sometimes confused with the other two was that of the Teutonic Knights that was founded in 1190. These three Orders were all based in Jerusalem.


In 1291, the Christian stronghold of Acre (today’s Akko, in northern Israel) fell to the Egyptian Mamluk Sultan Al Ashraf Khalil. The Order moved to Cyprus, then governed by Henry II, who had supported them and the Templars during the siege of Acre. After some 15 years stay there, the Order set eyes on the island of Rhodes, at the time forming part of the Byzantine Empire. After some four years of military campaigns, the Order conquered the island together with several smaller ones, where it stayed for the next 212 years.

rhodes knights
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The Order eventually enhanced its modest fleet to strengthen communication with both its other insular properties as well as with the rest of Europe where the knights came from. It also aimed at expanding its commercial routes while defending itself from corsairs and hostile maritime powers. The Order developed further as an institution, governed by its Grand Master and Council. It minted its own coins and maintained diplomatic relations with many other states. In the early 14th century the Order of St John divided the numerous knights who hailed from all over Christian Europe into groups according to the languages they spoke or the kingdom or region they came from. Initially, there were raised seven groups. These groups became known as Langues and they represented Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (Navarre), England and Germany. In 1492, Castille and Portugal split off from the Langue of Aragon and constituted the eighth Langue. Each Langue included priories or grand priories, bailwicks and commanderies. It was from these territories that the main financial resources were drawn, a system of taxation imposed on the subjects’ wealth. This financial income was known as the responsiones, monies that were transferred into the Order’s coffers.


the Order of St John in Malta

In 1522, after six months of siege and fierce fighting against the Ottoman Turks, the Order was forced to give up Rhodes and was expelled from the island, taking with it its maritime squadron and a small community of native Greek Rhodiots. For eight years the Order was to find temporary refuge in various places in Italy. Then, in 1530, the Emperor of Spain, Charles V, ceded Malta, then part of his Empire, to the Order to settle there.

On their arrival in Malta, the Order settled in the maritime small town of Birgu. Following the siege of 1565, however, the Order consolidated its stay when Grand Master, Jean Parisot de Valette decided that a new town was to be built on the then bare peninsula on the opposite side of the port, facing Fort St Angelo. In 1571 the Order shifted its base from Birgu to its new town, named Valletta after its founder.

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The Eight Pointed Cross

From then on the Order strove to make itself stronger economically, basing its commercial operations on the thriving maritime activity around the Grand Harbour. It also developed diplomatic alliances with overseas kingdoms. Thus, the Order of St John enhanced its status as a quasi sovereign state, while Malta became more visible on the commercial map of the Mediterranean. The Order reinforced its squadron and even joined other states to battle the Ottoman’s naval forces. One such instance was the famous sea battle of Lepanto in 1571. Through its maritime squadron the Order constantly harrassed Muslim shipping by intermittent and at the time legitimate privateering, by seizing merchandise to increase its own financial resources and to provide an income to hundreds of Maltese.

On June 10, 1798, General Napoleon Bonaparte, while on his way to Egypt, landed on Malta with a powerful fleet demanding immediate possession of the islands from the Order. The Knights were forced to surrender but the Grand Master and individual knights were allowed to leave Malta to settle elsewhere. The last Grand Master who ruled Malta, Ferdinand von Hompesch, sought temporary refuge in Trieste, Italy and then in Nice, France. Some knights decided that they ought to elect a more powerful Grand Master, namely, Paul 1, the Tzar of Russia. This decision was overruled by the Pope, because Paul I, was neither a Catholic – he was Orthodox – nor a celibate.

In signing the Treaty of Amiens (1802) Britain and France came to an agreement that stipulated that Malta was to be returned to the Order of St John, albeit under certain restrictive provisions. This restoration of power never took place as France and Britain resumed their belligerent stance against one another and the treaty fell through. Britain retained Malta as a ‘protectorate’ at first, but ultimately, in 1814 chose to claim Malta as a colony.

Meantime, the members of the Order of St John dispersed and were to keep a low profile for many decades to come. After having temporarily resided in Messina, Catania and Ferrara, in 1834 the Order – then a small nucleus of knights – settled definitively in Rome, where it still is based, namely in the Magistral Palace in Via Condotti, no. 68, and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill.


Today, the Sovereign Military Order of St John’s role harks back to its original status, basing its mission statement on the primary tenets of helping out those in need, just as it did in Jerusalem 900 years earlier. The goal is to assist the elderly, handicapped, refugees, children, homeless, those with terminal illness and leprosy all over the world, without distinction of race or religion. In several countries – including France, Germany and Ireland – the local associations of the Order are important providers of first aid training, first aid services and emergency medical services.

The Order’s members count some 12,500 knights and dames, worldwide. There are some 80,000 permanent volunteers and 20,000 medical personnel including doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and paramedics. Through its worldwide relief corps – ‘Malteser International’ – the Order is also engaged to aid victims of natural disasters, epidemics and armed conflicts.

      Stamp issued by SMOM

The Order retains its claim of sovereignty under international law and has been granted permanent observer status at the United Nations. Its international nature is useful in enabling it to pursue its humanitarian activities without being seen as an operative of any particular nation. Its claimed sovereignty is also expressed in the issuance of  passports, licence plates, stamps, and coins.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta has formal diplomatic relations with 104 states. The Order has non-diplomatic official relations with 6 more states: France, Germany, Belgium, Switrzerland, Luxembourge and Canada.

The supreme head of the Order is the Grand Master, who is elected for life by the Council Complete of State with a final approval by His Holiness the Pope. The present Grand Master is Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto.

Members of the Order of SMOM – copyright SMOM

Membership in the Order is divided as follows:

  • Knights of justice or professedknights who take religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience  (until the 1990s membership in this class was restricted to members of families with noble titles).
  • Knights of obedience – similarly restricted, these knights make a promise, rather than a vow, of obedience.
  • Knights of honour and devotion.
  • Knights of grace and devotion.
  • Knights of magistral grace- the last three classes have members who take no vows.
  • The lowest rank is that of donata title which is offered to those who join the order in the class of “justice” but who are not knights.

In 1998, the Order was provided by the Maltese government a 99 year lease to retain the upper part of Fort Saint Angelo in Birgu. There, the Order’s old flag flies from on top of the old castello, next to the Maltese flag. In Valletta the Order also has its embassy inside St John’s Cavalier, once a defence tower paired to another, St James’s, to defend the land front of Valletta.

Fort St Angelo – Birgu

*           *            *

The information of the present day role and its status is taken from the official website  of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. For furthewr information on the subject see:

AA cover page

This book deals with the story of Maltese humour since Roman times up to present.

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Further reading:

Blouet Brian, The Story of Malta. Midsea Books. 2017.
Buttigieg Emmanuel & Philips Simon, Islands and Miltiary Orders, c. 1291 - 
c. 1798.
Freller Thomas, Malta - The Order of St John. Midsea Book Ltd. 2004.
Mallia Milanes, (ed,) Hospitaller Malta 1530 - 1798. Mireva Publications. 
Mercieca Simon, Les Chevaliers de Saint Jean a Malte, Miller Distributors 
Ltd. 1916.
Sacra Militia - an ongoing Maltese periodical that presents scholarly 
articles on the Order of St John.
For other publications by the same author of this website please click here:

‘Ajjut ….!’ … ‘Help …!’


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