The Knights Hospitaller’s departure from the island of Rhodes stands as a significant moment in geopolitical and religious history. Rhodes, a jewel controlled by the Knights since 1309, held a position of profound strategic significance. Located southeast of Greece, it was a maritime crossroads, a potential springboard for Christian naval operations Ottoman might. The Knights of St. John, devout Christian warriors in a predominantly Islamic region, were seen as a scourge that, in Ottoman eyes, needed to be removed. After multiple attempts, the gruelling Siege of Rhodes of 1522 resulted in Christian defeat, and the expulsion of the Knights from the island.
The Knights of St. John and their dilemma
Throughout their search, the Knights considered numerous locales: Cerigo in the Morea, Elba, Suda in Crete, Minorca, Ischia, and Ponza. Each option was dismissed due to strategic vulnerabilities, logistical inadequacies, or geopolitical constraints.
The Knights of St. John displayed limited excitement with the proposal from Charles V in 1524 to settle in Malta and Tripoli, due to the specific terms attached to the offer. Yet, in December 1525, the Council of the Order chose to explore the option further, requesting and receiving approval to dispatch a group to personally assess Malta, Gozo, and Tripoli for their potential as new bases.
Tripoli and Malta
Tripoli was strategically located, and the Knights did briefly consider and later attempt to establish themselves there. However, they encountered significant challenges, including resistance from the local Muslim powers, the need for extensive fortifications, and the harsh desert climate. As a result, Tripoli was not a viable long-term solution for the Knights.
The commission sent by the Order to survey Malta and Tripoli did not return with glowing reports. Malta, described as a barren limestone rock with scant resources and vulnerable defenses, seemed a far cry from the lost idyll of Rhodes. The lack of fortifications, the island’s reliance on food imports, and its exposed position to Ottoman naval power painted a grim picture.
Yet, there were redeeming features. Just 180 km north of Tripoli, Malta offered the Knights of St. John a way back to reassert control over vital shipping routes. The island’s natural landscape, marked by rugged coastlines and sheltered harbours, proved ideal for erecting strong fortifications. Fort St Angelo and its neighboring town, Birgu, offered some potential for development. The Knights, still dreaming of a return to Rhodes, grappled with the decision. Here, the Knights could continue their age-old tradition of providing medical care to the infirm and wounded, offering medical aid to sailors and travelers traversing the Mediterranean. Malta had the necessary characteristics that allowed it to become the shield to the Knights’ sword.
The Turning Point
Despite these efforts, Grand Master l’Isle Adam and his advisors remained unconvinced. They considered the inclusion of Tripoli in the offer as too burdensome. Additionally, the prospect of their sovereignty and neutrality being compromised under the emperor’s influence was unappealing to them. It took until 1530 before they ultimately agreed to accept Charles V’s proposition as the Pope Clement VII’s intervention and improved terms. The improved conditions included Malta’s status as a free fief, the right to mint currency, and a degree of ecclesiastical autonomy.
Defenders Against the Ottoman Tide
The Knights’ relocation to Malta allowed them to live out their enduring mission: the defence of Christendom in the face of external threats, particularly the formidable Ottoman power. Malta provided the Knights with a strong Christian foothold, from which they could stave off the relentless Ottoman advances, culminating in what later became known as the Great Siege of 1565, as well as their participation in the Battle of Lepanto of 1571. Malta became the first line of defence for Christendom in a turbulent sea, remaining under the Knights’ protection until their exile by Neapolonic forces in 1798.
Trischitta, M.M.M., 1999. The Knights of Malta. A Legend towards the Future.
Buttigieg, E., 2014. The sovereign military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta–a general history of the Order of Malta.