The history of the religious military orders begins after the First Crusade that culminated in the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. In the winter of 1119–20, a group of knights in the Holy Land formed a religious brotherhood with the aim of protecting pilgrims who travelled to sacred sites in the Eastern Mediterranean. The knights took the monastic vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, and the King of Jerusalem granted them headquarters on the Temple Mount. Thus, the Order of the Knights Templar was established.

In the 1120s, the Order of the Hospital of Saint John – the Order of Hospitallers – founded already in 1113, was also re-organized as a military order. Both fraternities of warrior monks defended Christian domains in the Holy Land from the attacks of Muslim rulers, forming a sort of elite military force. After the Third Crusade, in 1198, a community founded by German crusaders was also militarised – it became the Teutonic Order. The three great orders continued to fight in the Holy Land until it was completely re-conquered by Muslims in 1291.

Religious military orders were also founded elsewhere. In the Iberian Peninsula, for example, the Order of Santiago and the Order of Calatrava fought Muslim rulers. In the Baltic Sea region, the Order of Dobrzyn battled pagan Prussians, and the Order of the Sword Brethren advanced crusades and Christianisation in Livonia (nowadays Latvia and Estonia). Military orders had knight brothers of noble linage, priest brothers who conducted religious rites and sergeant and servant brothers who aided their cause – all lived together in monastic convent castles.

All great military orders accumulated remarkable influence and wealth and held numerous estates across Europe. The Templars were dissolved in 1312, but the Hospitallers first ruled the island of Rhodes, and later Malta, and the Teutonic Order established a theocratic lordship in Prussia and Livonia that existed until the 16th century. In the Middle Ages, the Teutonic Knights ruled most of Estonia – including the city of Tallinn, from 1346 to 1560. Nowadays, the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Order exist as religious organisations dedicated to charity.

Krac de Chevaliers, in modern-day Syria, was one of the most important castles of the Hospitallers in the Holy Land.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta

or simply the Order of Malta is a chivalrous religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. It is the oldest order in the world and can even be regarded as the first of the Chivalric Orders of Knighthood.

The history of the Order of Malta dates back to the second half of the 11th century. At that time, Jerusalem became the main destination of Christian pilgrimage. The journey was long and quite perilous – the roads and seas were full of pirates and marauding brigands. To ease the troubles of the pilgrims on their journey, several merchants from the Marine Republic of Amalfi acquired from the Caliph of Egypt the authorisation to build a small hospital and church in Jerusalem. At about the same time, a Christian mission led by Benedictine monks appeared not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The monks took on the responsibility of maintaining the hospital. One of these monks, who later came to be known as the Blessed Gerard, was instrumental in elevating the mission’s benevolent role. It was rumoured that during the First Crusade, in the summer of 1099, he helped the Crusaders besieging Jerusalem by hiding loaves of bread under his robes and throwing them over the walls of the city to the starving knights. After the siege was over he provided medical care to injured knights at the mission hospital. Under his guidance, the old hospital was reconstructed and transformed.

Blessed Gérard chained with a loaf of bread in the left hand, Chapel of the Grand Magistry in the Via Condotti in Rome

The monks of the brotherhood cared for all injured and sick irrespective of their means, age, nationality or religion and came to be known as Hospitallers. The proximity of the original hospital to the Church of Saint John the Baptist, not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, led to the eventual choice of Saint John as their patron. As the hospital’s success and size grew, Gerard, together with several knights interested in the ways of the Hospitallers, founded a new religious confraternity. The brotherhood abandoned the rule of St. Benedict and adopted that of St Augustine, which was more appropriate for their functions as it focused less on the ‘retreat’ aspect and strict regulations of everyday life and emphasised community, love and the human heart. To symbolise their renunciation of all worldly possessions, they chose as their uniform a simple robe with a white cross, a common symbol of Christian warriors, particularly Crusaders, of that time. The Knights soon started calling their brotherhood ‘Ordo’, or Order, and from then on all military-religious confraternities were described in such a way.

In 1113, by decree of Pope Paschal II’s papal bull, the Order of St. John gained approval and thus independence. The Order was able to elect its superiors without outside influence and own property. It was considered to be under papal protection, which granted many privileges and exempted the Order from paying tithes. The Masters or Grand Masters, as they were later called, were both the Religious Superiors and the Military Commanders of the Knights.


  One of the leaders of the First Crusade, Godfrey of Bouillon, first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, praised the deeds of the Hospitallers and granted generous land allotments to the monastic community. Many crusader knights, thankful for the help they received at the hands of the monks, gave generous donations to the cause and began to join the brotherhood. As the Order expanded to provide medical care in all parts of the Holy Land, protection of hospitals and pilgrims on their journeys became an important part of their mission. Thus, the Order developed a military wing. By 1140, the Order was transformed into a powerful military organisation, not only protecting the pilgrims on their journeys but taking an active part in military campaigns in the vanguard of Christian armies. In 1124, the Order was instrumental in lifting the Arab siege off Jaffa, the main port of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and in the capture of Tyre, one of the richest cities in the East. Several years later they took an active part in the siege of the fortified port city of Ascalon in southern Palestine.

Becoming through their military and humanitarian efforts one of Europe’s richest and most powerful military organisations, the Hospitallers hired the best builders, doctors, architects, and armourers and created a network of fortified settlements on the borders of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. At the height of the Kingdom, they controlled close to 150 various estates in the area, including seven magnificent forts. The largest of these were the Krak des Chevaliers and Margat. These castles served as the basis for a border patrol network organised to prevent attacks by Muslim military units.

Nonetheless, despite all the combined efforts, by 1291 the Christian armies were defeated and upon losing their last stronghold – Acre – had to flee the Holy Land.

Godefroy de Bouillon captures Jerusalem 14th century manuscrip

Grand Cross, from the estate of Ludovico Chigi Albani della Rovere (1866-1951), the 76th Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (1931-51); silver-gilt, Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood

The island of Cyprus remained in Christian hands, and by the time of the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem the Hospitaller Order of Saint John already held vast properties there. The Knights relocated to the island and built up a large fleet, protecting Christian routes in the Mediterranean Sea from pirates, marauders and the ships of the emergent Ottomans. Not wanting to become too involved in Cypriot politics, the Order looked for a home of their own and in 1307 set sail for the island Rhodes. After two years of fighting, the Hospitallers secured the island and remained there for more than two centuries, during which time they came to be known as the Knights of Rhodes. The Order’s secular power was remarkable: the Hospitallers minted their own coins and maintained diplomatic relations with other countries. They significantly increased the size of their fleet and continued to patrol the Mediterranean, taking part in many famous battles.

In 1312, when the powerful Christian Order of the Knights Templar was dissolved, the Hospitallers received all of the Templar’s property. With the acquisition of vast lands in Europe, it became necessary to ensure their effective management, and the Order was organised into eight ‘Langues’ (tongues – languages) of the noblemen who joined the Order: Auvergne, Provence, France, Aragon, Castile and Portugal, Italy, Bavaria (Germany), and England (with Scotland and Ireland), with a prior at the head of each. The Knights were not organised by country, but by the language they spoke. Interestingly, the German Langue included apart from German-speakers also Slavic-speakers, Scandinavians, and Hungarians. The Order was governed by its Grand Master (sovereign ruler of Rhodes) and Council. The members of the Order were divided into three main classes. First were the Knights – the core of the Order, they took monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and had to be of noble birth. Second – the Chaplains, exempt from fighting, they served the spiritual needs of the Knights and those under the Order’s rule. Third – the Sergeant-at-arms or Serving Brothers, divided in turn into Brothers of Arms, fighting side by side with the Knights, and Brothers of Office, who fulfilled administrative roles. By the end of the 14th Century, the Hospitallers’ symbol – the cross – acquired its present eight-pointed form, two centuries later it will be known as the Maltese Cross. The eight points of the cross commemorate the Beatitudes of Jesus and symbolise the eight Langues.

Badge in Barock style, gold, c 1700-20, Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood

Concerned with the growing influence of the Order, the Turks made several attempts to capture Rhodes. First, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, with an army of 100,000 warriors, unsuccessfully laid siege to the island in 1479. Then, in 1522, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent returned with a much larger army consisting of 200,000 soldiers and 400 ships. At that time, there were only about 600 knights and 5,000 soldiers in the island fortress. Christian Europe did not send any assistance to the besieged but, nevertheless, the Knights held the island for six months. After losing 44,000 men, the Sultan offered honourable terms of surrender to the Hospitallers. He promised that Christian faith would be preserved on the island and no churches desecrated. The Knights were allowed to leave the island with all of their vessels, relics, weapons, and valuables, which they did seeing that further resistance would be futile.

In 1530, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, looking to increase his influence in the Mediterranean and create a bulwark against the Turks and pirates, presented the Order with the whole Maltese archipelago: Comino, Malta, and Gozo. The condition for ownership of the islands, among others, was an annual tribute of one falcon. The Knights settled in Malta and became known as the Knights of Malta. The Tribute of the Maltese Falcon was paid faithfully until 1798.

The Grand Seige fo Malta by Charles-Philippe Larivière (1798–1876). Salle des Croisades, Versailles. Near the centre – the heroic Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Jean Parisot de Valette.

The Order reached the height of its military fame under the leadership of Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette. In 1565, Jean de Valette and his Knights fought and successfully repelled the Turks at the Great Siege of Malta. During that legendary battle, the vastly outnumbered Christians held out for over four months against an overwhelming Ottoman force of no less than 30,000 soldiers, including the Janissaries, as well as the Sultan’s fleet of some 193 ships (approximately 15,000 more attackers). According to various sources, the military forces of the Hospitallers consisted of about 500 knights and no more than 6,000 soldiers. The siege continued from May to September and an estimated 130,000 cannonballs were launched at the island. The Knights Hospitaller lost a third of their number, and the island of Malta lost a third of its inhabitants. Two cities were practically razed to the ground, but the defenders managed to withstand the siege. With the arrival of reinforcements sent by Pope Pius V, the Turks were forced to retreat. The Maltese fleet continued to patrol the Mediterranean and in 1571, played an active role in the Battle of Lepanto. These victories assured the safety of European sea routes in the region as they undermined the military power of the Turks and weakened the Ottoman Empire. In the first half of the 17th Century, the fleet of the Hospitallers remained one of the strongest in the Mediterranean.

Commander Cross, gold, Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood

Commander Cross, diamonds, silver, 19th century, Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood

The anti-clericalism and criticism of the Catholic Church during the French Revolution – furthered by the campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte – led to the disbanding of the Order of Malta and the confiscation of its properties in many countries. As Napoleon expanded his Empire, he saw the significance of Malta in controlling the Mediterranean. On campaign to Egypt in 1798, Napoleon stopped at the island to resupply his ships. He was aware that the Hospitallers had a rule that only two foreign ships could enter the port at one time, and when the Grandmaster Ferdinand von Hompesch refused Bonaparte’s demand to allow his entire convoy entrance, Napoleon ordered an invasion. The French Knights deserted the Order, and the remaining Knights failed to mount a meaningful resistance. Although the island was strong enough to hold out against a lengthy siege, Bonaparte was able to negotiate a surrender with Hompesch, who soon after resigned from his post as Grand Master, leaving the Order without a supreme head. 

The Order of Malta in Russia

The Order was offered sanctuary in Russia by Czar Paul I, who had long been interested in the Catholic faith and the activities of the Maltese knights. He generously endowed the hospitaliers and granted them a number of privileges. Under Paul I, the coat of arms of Russia was decorated with the Maltese cross, and the title “Grand Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem” was included in the official title of the Russian emperor. It was in Paul’s plans to make Malta the province of Russia. Generalissimo Suvorov, Admiral Ushakov, Field Marshal Kutuzov, General Bagration and other famous Russians, were all presented with the Order. After the assassination of Paul, Alexander I, who ascended the throne, renounced the Maltese title and already in 1811 ceased the activity of the Order in Russia, prohibiting Russian citizens from joining it.

Find out more!

To find out more information on the history of the Order of Malta in Russia, as well as learn about the precious items presented to the Russian Empire and now stored in the Kremlin Armoury Chamber, read Liudmila Gavrilova’s book Foreign Orders of the Russian Emperors. Now in English!

Reliquary, belonged to Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1464–1534), Grand Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes, has been kept in the Kremlin Armoury Chamber since 1799 according to the order of Emperor Paul I.

In 1806, the Swedish government offered the island of Gotland to the Hospitallers. This offer was declined since it would have meant renouncing the Order’s claim to Malta.

In 1834, the Order established its new headquarters in Rome. It was no longer considered military; the Hospitallers reverted to their original mission, concentrating their efforts in the field of medicine and hospital care. The Order is especially involved with helping victims of armed conflicts and natural disasters.

For a long time the Order only owned several mansions in Rome, but in 1998 the Government of Malta granted the Knights the Fort St Angelo for exclusive use over 99 years with limited extraterritoriality. At present, the Order of Malta has observer status with the UN and the Council of Europe, it has diplomatic relations with 105 states, which are maintained through a large number of ambassadors. The Order issues its own passports, prints its own currency and stamps, and has postal agreements with close to 80 countries. Today, there are over 13,000 knights and dames of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta worldwide.

Grand Cross set for ladies, gold, provenance House Habsburg-Lothringen, c 1880 -1900, Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood