Before proceeding to trace the history of the last two centuries of the Knights at Malta it will perhaps be advisable to examine the organisation of an Order which was the greatest and most long-lived of all the medieval Orders of Chivalry. The siege of 1565 was its last great struggle with its mortal foe; after that there is but little left for the historian but to trace its gradual decadence and fall. And, as might be expected in a decadent society, though outwardly the constitution changed but little in the last two centuries, yet gradually the Statutes of the Order and the actual facts became more and more divergent.

There were three classes of members in the Hospitallers, who were primarily distinguished from each other by their birth, and who were allotted different functions in the Order. The Knights of Justice[1] were the highest class of the three and were the only Knights qualified for the Order's highest distinctions. Each langue had its own regulations for admitting members, and all alike exercised severe discrimination. Various kinds of evidence were necessary to prove the pure and noble descent of the candidate. The German was the strictest and most exacting of the langues, demanding proof of sixteen quarters of nobility and refusing to accept the natural sons of Kings into the ranks of its Knights. Italy was the most lenient, since banking and trade were admitted as no stain on nobility, while most of the other langues insisted on military nobility only.

The chaplains, who formed the second class of the Order, were required to be of honest birth and born in wedlock of families that were neither slaves nor engaged in base or mechanical trades. The same regulations were in force for the third class - that of servants-at-arms, who served under the Knights both on land and sea. As the military character of the Order became less and less marked in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these servants-at-arms became fewer and fewer, but in earlier days they were of considerable importance. The chaplains performed their duties at the Convent or on the galleys; the priests at the various commanderies throughout Europe were a class apart, known as Priests of Obedience, and never came to Malta, but resided permanently in their respective countries. A number of commanderies was allotted to the two inferior classes.

The Order, as we know, was an international one, and for purposes of administration was divided into sections or langues. In the sixteenth century there were eight of these divisions, which, in order of seniority, were Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, England, Germany, and Castile. When Henry VIII. suppressed the English langue in 1540, the Knights, with a reluctance to face the facts which was characteristic of a proud Order of Chivalry, kept up the fiction of its existence. In 1782, when the Elector of Bavaria secured the establishment of a Bavarian langue, it was united to the dormant langue of England and named the Anglo-Bavarian.

Each langue had its own quarters at the Convent known as the "Auberge," presided over by a "conventual bailiff," who in all matters was the head of the langue. Each conventual bailiff had an important office in the hierarchy of the Order which was permanently appurtenant to the headship of that langue. Thus the conventual bailiff of the langue of France was always the Grand Hospitaller in charge of the Hospital of the Order, while that of England was Turcopolier, or commander of the light cavalry - a survival from the Syrian days. The possessions of each langue in its native land were divided into grand priories and bailiwicks. Thus England, which meant the possessions throughout the British Isles, was divided into the Grand Priory of England at Clerkenwell, the Grand Priory of Ireland at Kilmainham, and the Bailiwick of the Eagle, which was situated near Lincoln and had originally belonged to the Templars. These Grand Priors and Bailiffs of each langue, as well as its conventual bailiff, were all Knights Grand Cross, and, as such, entitled to seats in the Chapter-General of the Order.

The supreme control of the Order was vested in the Chapter-General, consisting of all the Knights Grand Cross. Though these chapters-General were often convened in the early history of the order, their difficulty of assembly and their clumsy method of procedure made them less and less frequently summoned, as the Grand Master had it in his power to convoke it when he pleased, though an interval of five years - later extended to ten - had been sanctioned by custom. In the seventeenth century the institution fell into utter disuse, and there was no meeting of the Chapter-General from 1631 to 1776, when its uselessness was finally demonstrated.

When the Chapter-General was not sitting the government of the Order was carried on by the Grand Master and the Councils, known as the Ordinary, Complete, Secret, and Criminal. The Ordinary Council consisted of the Grand Master, the conventual bailiffs, together with any Grand Cross residing at the Convent. This Council, as its name indicates, transacted the ordinary business of government, which mainly consisted of appointing to these offices and making those arrangements which were not definitely assigned to the Grand Master himself. The Secret and Criminal Councils, respectively, dealt with foreign affairs and offences against the Statutes, while the Complete, consisting of the Ordinary Council with the addition of two Knights from each langue of more than five years' residence at the Convent, dealt with appeals from the other Councils. In the later days of the Order the pernicious practice of appealing to the Pope destroyed all semblance of authority in this Council.