awoke forty miles distant from Sicily. We
were now on the main ocean, and saw no
land but mount Aetna which is the perpetual polar star of these seas. We had a fine breeze, and about two o'clock we discovered the island of Malta; and in less
than three hours more, we reached the city of Valletta. The approach of the island
is very fine, although the shore is rather
low and rocky. It is every where made
inaccessible by an infinite number of fortifications.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour to Sicily and Malta in 1770
In 1291 Acre, a port in Northern Palestine, fell into the hands of the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt: it was the last remnant of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem: its loss led Pope Boniface VIII to call the first Jubilee Year in 1300, which granted special indulgences to the believers who visited Rome and prayed at St. Peter's tomb, thus replacing the pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
Two Christian military orders showed all their valour in the defence of Acre: the Templars and the Hospitallers (Knights of St. John). The latter order had as its primary objective providing shelter and medical care to pilgrims, but it also protected them during their journey, which accounts for its military organization: the knights who joined it came mainly from Southern France: they were usually cadets of noble families who looked for an opportunity to serve their faith and show their gallantry. The Order was named after the first hospice which was dedicated to St. John (most likely St. John the Baptist).
After the capitulation of Acre the Hospitallers went to Cyprus which at the time was a Christian kingdom ruled by the Lusignan family. The Order was able to reorganize its structure and its ranks there and in 1308, with the endorsement of Pope Clement V, the Hospitallers established themselves on Rhodes. In the following years they occupied Kos and some smaller islands and they built a fortress at today's Bodrum on the Asian mainland.
After the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II, the Hospitallers started to build new imposing fortifications at Rhodes and at other sites, fearing that the Ottomans would sooner or later attack them. An Ottoman siege of Rhodes in 1480 failed, but in June 1522 Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent landed on the island with an army of 100,000. After six months of siege Grand Master Philibert Villiers De l'Isle Adam agreed to surrender the town and all the other castles which were still controlled by the Order. On January 1, 1523 the Knights and the Catholic inhabitants of Rhodes left the town carrying with them their banners and their holy images.
On this barren rock, nature has lavished the
most precious of her gifts to a maritime and insular
people: a series of ports, the finest and most
singular to be found. (..) The ports
in general are irregularly formed; but, extending
far inland, they are perfectly safe and commodious.
Richard Colt Hoare - A classical tour through Italy in 1790
The fate of Malta commonly depended on that of Sicily, till the emperor Charles V. about the year 1530, gave it, together with the island of Gozzo, to the knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who at that time had lost the island of Rhodes. In testimony of this concession, the grand master is still obliged every year, to send a falcon to the king of Sicily, or his viceroy; and on every new succession, to swear allegiance, and to receive, from the hands of the Sicilian monarch, the investiture of these two islands. Brydone
When the Knights left Rhodes, the season was not favourable for sailing, so they reached Candia (Crete), a Venetian possession, where they waited for weather conditions which allowed them to reach Sicily. Grand Master Villiers de l'Isle then started a sort of pilgrimage across Europe to talk to the Pope, to the Kings of England and France and to Charles, who was at the same time Holy Roman Emperor (V) and King of Spain and Sicily (I). The Grand Master hoped to be given another island or a maritime territory from which the Knights could continue to operate against the Ottomans and possibly reconquer Rhodes.
Results of the mission were disappointing as all the leaders he met tried to make use of the Knights for their own profit. Eventually he accepted the proposal of Charles V who offered the Order: a) the County of Malta (Malta, Gozo and three nearby islets), which was a fiefdom of Sicily; b) Tripoli, in today's Libya, which the Spaniards had conquered in 1510.
(left) Map of the Great Harbour of Malta (green dot: Borgo/Cittą Vittoriosa); (right) elargement showing Valletta (from 1897 World Atlas printed by W. & A. K. Johnston)
Hopes of reconquering Rhodes soon vanished because of the political and religious divisions among the Christian Nations which were supposed to help the Knights. Tripoli was lost in 1551, so Malta became by necessity the permanent home of the Order of St. John.
Cittą Notabile (today's Mdina) was the main town of the island and the see of its bishop, but it was located inland so the Knights chose to place their headquarters at Borgo (the name in Italian indicates a settlement outside a town) which was well positioned inside a very large natural harbour. Auberges, hostels where the knights of each tongue (country) lodged or just met, were therefore built at Borgo, which was renamed Cittą Vittoriosa after having withstood an Ottoman siege in 1565. Consistent with the motto of the Order Pro Fide, Pro Utilitate Hominum (For the Faith, In the Service of Humanity), the Knights built a small hospital, although no pilgrims called at Malta on their way to the Holy Land.
Map of Southern Italy by Emanuel Bowen 1750 ca; (inset) Bowen noted about Malta: "Subject to a Grand Master and the Knights Hospitallers, who are always at War with the Turks."
It is now so well fortified
and manned that it would prove a very difficult matter for the greatest Prince or Potentate in the world
to take it by force having, when it was in far worse
condition then now it is, resisted and baffled the Arms
of one of the greatest Emperours the Turks ever had.
John Ray - Observations (..) made in a journey through part of (..) Italy in 1663
This institution, which is a strange Compound of the military and ecclesiastic, has now subsisted for near seven hundred years; and though, I believe one of the first-born, has long survived every other child of chivalry. It possesses great riches in most of the catholic countries of Europe. Brydone
The mission of the Knights during their stay at Malta focused on attacking Ottoman ships and raiding the coasts of Ottoman territories, especially those of Tunisia. They also confiscated goods belonging to Muslim or Jewish merchants on board Christian ships. Their constant aggressive behaviour was summarized by Emanuel Bowen, Royal Mapmaker to King George II of England, in the note shown above. The title of this section is The Pro Fide Knights because during their stay on Malta the Hospitallers did not attach great importance to Pro Utilitate Hominum, the second half of their motto.
The image used as background for this page shows a detail of a painting in the Grand Masters Palace at Valletta showing a Maltese warship in action.
Note: the naming of Maltese locations is often confusing: today's Mdina was Melita for the Romans, Medina (walled town) for the Arabs, Cittą Notabile during the Aragonese rule, Cittą Vecchia (old) after the foundation of Valletta and eventually Mdina in 1934 when Maltese became an official language alongside English, and Italian was dropped from official use.
In this section locations are usually referred to by the names they had at the time the event occurred/the monument was built.
Brief outline of the history of Malta before 1530
The Grand Masters of the XVIth century
The Grand Masters of the XVIIth century
The Grand Masters of the XVIIIth century
Valletta: the fortifications
Valletta: the churches
Valletta: other monuments
Borgo/Cittą Vittoriosa (Birgu)
Cittą Cospicua (Bormla)
Cittą Vecchia (Mdina)
Churches in the minor towns
Other monuments in the minor towns
Rome and Malta