On January 1, 1523, a fleet of fifty vessels put out from the harbour at Rhodes for an unknown destination in the West. On board were the shattered remnants of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, accompanied by 4,000 Rhodians, who preferred the Knights and destitution to security under the rule of the Sultan Solyman. The little fleet was in a sad and piteous condition. Many of those on board were wounded; all - Knights and Rhodians alike - were in a state of extreme poverty. For six months they had resisted the full might of the Ottoman Empire under its greatest Sultan, Solyman the Magnificent; Europe had looked on in amazed admiration, but had not ventured to move to its rescue. Now they were leaving the home their Order had possessed for 212 years, and were sailing out to beg from Christendom another station from which to attack the infidel once again.

The Knights of Rhodes - as they were called at the time - were the only real survivors of the militant Order of Chivalry. Two centuries earlier their great rivals, the Templars, had been dissolved, and a large part of their endowments handed over to the Hospitallers. The great secret of the long and enduring success of the Order of St. John was their capacity for adapting themselves to the changing needs of the times. The final expulsion of the Christians from Syria had left the Templars idle and helpless, and the loss of the outlets for their energy soon brought corruption and decay with the swift consequence of dissolution. All through the history of the great Orders we find the Kings of Europe on the lookout for a chance to seize their possessions: any excuse or pretext is used, sometimes most shamelessly. An Order of Knighthood that failed to perform the duties for which it was founded was soon overtaken by disaster.

The Hospitallers had realised, as early as 1300, that their former role of mounted Knights fighting on land was gone for ever. From their seizure of Rhodes, in 1310, they became predominantly seamen, whose flag, with its eight-pointed cross, struck terror into every infidel heart. Nothing but a combination of Christian monarchs could cope with the superiority of the Turk on land: by sea he was still vulnerable. The Knights took up their new part with all their old energy and determination: it is but typical that henceforward we never hear of the "Knights" of Malta fighting as cavalry.

After various adventures the fleet found itself united at Messina, whence it proceeded to Baiae. The election to the papacy of the Cardinal de' Medici - one of their own Order - as Clement VII., gave the Knights a powerful protector. He assigned Viterbo as a residence for the Order till a permanent home had been discovered.

Villiers de L'Isle Adam, Grand Master of the Order, was faced with many difficulties. Remembering the fate of the Templars, he was afraid that the Order would disperse, and its present helpless condition was surely tending to disintegration. At this time the war between Charles V. and Francis I. was at its height, and the quarrel between France and Spain was reflected within the ranks of the Hospitallers. As the French and Spanish Knights formed the greater part of the members, the unity of the Order was threatened by the quarrels between them that arose out of national sentiment. The Reformation was rapidly spreading, and was likely to prove dangerous to the lands of the Order in Northern Europe, and various monarchs were meditating the seizure of the Hospitallers' estates now that the Order was temporarily without a justification for its existence.

The Grand Master showed himself a skilful diplomat, as well as a brave soldier. From 1523 to 1530 the Order remained without a home, while L'Isle Adam visited the different European courts to stay the grasping hands of the various Kings. All this time negotiations were proceeding between Charles V. and the Knights for the cession of Malta. The harsh conditions which the Emperor insisted upon in his offer made the Knights reluctant to accept, while his preoccupation with the war against France made negotiations difficult. Further, the cause of the Knights had been damaged when the Pope - who had acted as their intercessor - joined the ranks of Charles's enemies, and Clement VII. was now a prisoner in the Emperor's hands. In March, 1530, an agreement was finally arrived at, which was the most favourable the Emperor would grant. One harassing burden the Knights could not escape: Charles insisted that Tripoli must go with Malta, a gift which meant a useless drain upon their weak resources, and which fell in 1551 to Dragut-Reis and the Turkish forces at the first serious attack. L'Isle Adam had insisted that he could not take the island over as a feudatory to the King of Spain, as that was contrary to the fundamental idea of the Order - its impartiality in its relations to all the Christian Powers. The only condition of service, therefore, that was made was nominal: the Grand Master henceforth was to send, on All Souls' Day, a falcon to the Viceroy of Sicily as a token of feudal sub-mission.[1]

This was a splendid bargain for the Emperor. Malta had hitherto been worthless to him, but henceforth it became one of the finest bulwarks of his dominions. To understand the supreme value of the island, we must take a glance at sea power in the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century.