CHAPTER IV. THE DECLINE
The history of the Order of St. John after the siege of Malta in 1565 is a sad story of gradual and inevitable decay. The magnificent heroism of the Knights at the siege raised their fame throughout Europe to the highest pitch, and the siege was rightly regarded as one of the first decisive checks received by the Ottoman conquerors.
It is easy to imagine the anxious expectation of Europe in that summer of 1565, when the heretic Queen of England ordered prayers to be offered in the diocese of Salisbury for the safety of the Knights of St. John.
The Battle of Lepanto, six years later, despite its lack of immediate results, dissolved the spell which the invincibility of the Ottoman fleet had woven, and in the seventeenth century the Turkish Empire showed plainly that it had passed its meridian. Now that they were in a weakened condition, the Ottomans, though never fully regarded as a European Power, were more acceptable to the Christian States, most of whom followed the example of Francis I. and concluded commercial agreements and treaties with the Porte. The Turk was no longer regarded as a being beyond human intercourse, and the Levant trade was too valuable to be ignored by France, England, or the Italian republics.
The Knights of Malta, with their attitude of truceless war against the infidel, were thus becoming more and more of an anachronism as time went on. They never concluded peace with the Sultan, and always regarded the possessions of the infidel as fair and lawful booty. It was obviously impossible for the Christian States trafficking in Turkish waters to allow such a theory to go unchallenged, and we therefore find the Order quarrelling with the Pope, Venice, England, and France, as to their rights of seizure of Turkish goods in Christian vessels or of Turkish vessels in Christian harbours. In 1582 this led to a dispute with Gregory XIII., and in 1666 with Louis XIV., and the Knights were forced to confine their attentions to Turkish vessels trading between Turkish ports. England was destined later to incur similar trouble with neutrals for a similar theory of international law.
Had the Knights wished, their unending warfare against the Mohammedan would have found a suitable enemy in the Barbary Corsairs, who were a plague to Europe right to the year 1816; but though we find many a struggle between Knight and Corsair in the seventeenth century, the sloth and decadence that were mastering the Order made it gradually neglect its duty in that direction. Whatever energies they had were more profitably spent in the Levant; for the Knights, in their seafaring expeditions, became little more than Corsairs themselves. When it was necessary, as at the twenty-five years' siege of Candia (1644-1669), the Knights displayed once more that magnificent heroism that had made their name ring throughout the world. We find through the seventeenth century many a display of bravery, but they became more and more infrequent, till, in the eighteenth century, the Order's squadron was used for little else but show voyages to different Mediterranean ports. It was becoming too great a task even to raid Turkish merchantmen.
After the siege it was determined to move the chef-lieu of the Order from Il Borgo to Mount Sceberras, and on March 28, 1566, the building of Valetta was commenced. It was originally intended to bring the hill down to a certain level and on the plateau thus constructed to build the city. The fear of another Turkish invasion, however, did not allow of the completion of this plan, with the result that Valetta consists of a long, narrow plateau with slopes descending to Marso Muscetto on one side and the Grand Harbour on the other. The difficulty of moving about in this hilly town is commemorated in Byron's lines:
Adieu, ye joys of La Valette,
Adieu, sirocco, sun, and sweat,
Adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs,
How surely he who mounts you swears.
Each Grand Master strove to enlarge and strengthen the town's fortifications, with the result that, in the eighteenth century, Valetta was recognised as one of the greatest fortresses in the world. The building and upkeep of these fortifications proved a great drain upon the resources of the Order, and served but little purpose, except that of ministering to the vanity of successive Grand Masters, who desired to leave behind them memorials of themselves by bestowing their name upon a new fort or outwork. The continual increase of security and strength did not serve to improve the daring of the Knights, but rather helped to engender a condition of sloth that was destined to prove fatal.