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The Hospitaller Order of St John in Malta

The monastic hospitaller Order of the Knights of Saint John, also known as the Knights Hospitallers, was originally established in 1085 as a community of monks responsible for tending the sick at the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem, during the crusades. They later evolved into a military order, defending crusader territory in the Holy Lands and safeguarding the perilous routes taken by medieval pilgrims. Following the conquest of the Holy Land by Islamic forces, the Order operated from Rhodes, over which it was sovereign, and later from Malta where it administered a vassal state under the Spanish viceroy of Sicily.

Having chosen Malta, the Knights stayed for 268 years, transforming it into a flourishing island with mighty defences and a capital city coveted by the great powers of Europe.

The Order was ruled by a Grand Master who was answerable only to the Pope. Knights were chosen from the aristocratic families of France, Italy, Spain, England and Portugal. On acceptance into the Order they were sworn to celibacy, poverty and obedience. The eight-pointed Maltese Cross was officially adopted by the Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John in 1126, and it remains a symbol of the island of Malta to this day.

Shortly after the Order of St. John had arrived in Malta in 1530, each of the eight territories that were present in the Order – the so-called langues, started to erect their auberges in Birgu. The auberges served as accommodation for the knights, as well as being hostels housing pilgrims and visitors from the relevant countries. The two French langues of Provence and Auvergne shared one building, so that seven hostels were built in Birgu, of which only three have survived to this day: the Auberge de France, the Auberge d’Angleterre and the Auberge de Provence and Auvergne.

After the foundation of Valletta in 1566, the Order moved its auberges to the new city. New hostels had to be constructed for all langues, with the exception of the English one, which was forced to disband due to the Reformation of 1534. The Maltese architect Gerolamo Cassar was commissioned with the design of the seven auberges. Each langue was responsible for the financing of its building, and it was supposed to build the auberge in a certain part of Valletta, namely near the section of the fortification where the langue was responsible for the defence of the new city. The Auberge was administered by a grand gentleman knight known as the bali, or the Grand Conservator, who was responsible for the purchasing of food and clothing and for the provision of transport and everything necessary for both the hospitals and the troops.

In 1565 the knights, led by Grand Master Fra’ Jean de Vallette, successfully defended the island for more than three months during the Great Siege by the Turks, however their Mediterranean stronghold of Malta was captured by Napoleon in 1798 during his expedition to Egypt. Malta later fell under British rule, however the knights were never re-instated on the island. Although the order continued to exist in a diminished form, the knights were dispersed.

In 1834, the order settled definitively in Rome, and hospital work, the original work of the Order, became once again its main concern. Today, the Order is especially involved in helping victims of armed conflicts and natural disasters by providing medical assistance, caring for refugees, and distributing medicines and basic equipment for survival, and its status is recognised by numerous international bodies like the United Nations, and others. This Order is the world's oldest surviving order of chivalry.