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.

The election of the Grand Master was an exceedingly complicated affair, the intention being to prevent intrigue. Each langue solemnly elected three Knights to represent it, and this body of twenty-four chose a triumvirate, which consisted of a Knight, a chaplain, and a servant-at-arms. These three co-opted a fourth, and the four a fifth, and so on, till the number of sixteen was reached, and this body of sixteen elected the Grand Master. Every stage of the proceedings was hedged about with meticulous precautions to prevent intrigue and corruption, and it was a thoroughly typical medieval attempt to secure an honest election.

The framers of the Order's Statutes had taken the precaution of limiting the authority of the Grand Master by a minute enumeration of all his rights. But, as the Order developed into a purely military body, even officially his powers became greater. No subject for discussion could be introduced at the Councils except by himself; he had a double vote, and, in case of an equal division, a casting vote also; he had the right of nomination to many administrative posts besides all those of his own household, and in each priory there was a commandery in his own gift whose revenues went to himself. But even such wide powers were less than the reality. While the Order was at Rhodes, and during the first half-century at Malta, it was obviously necessary that the Grand Master should possess the powers of a commander-in-chief. As a purely military body, surrounded by powerful foes, the Order was in the position of an army encamped in enemy territory. Further, the absolute possession of Rhodes, and later of Malta, tended to give the Grand Masters the rank of independent Sovereigns, and the outside world regarded them as territorial potentates rather than as heads of an Order of aristocratic Knights.

But when the Order's existence was no longer threatened the Grand Master's position was assailed from many sides. No one, while reading the history of the Knights, can fail to be impressed by the numerous disturbances among them during the last 200 years of the Order. Drawn from the highest ranks of the nobility, young, rich, and with very little to occupy their time (except when on their "caravans"), the Knights were perpetually quarrelling among themselves or defying the constituted authorities of the Order.

Charles V. had insisted on keeping in his own hands the nomination of the bishopric of Malta, and the custom grew up that the Bishop of Malta and the Prior of St. John - the two most important ecclesiastics in the Order - should be chosen from the chaplains who were natives of the island. This was intended as a compensation for an injury which had been inflicted on the Maltese. To prevent the Grand Mastership falling into the hands of a native, the Maltese members of the Order were unable to vote at the election. The Bishop was often engaged in quarrels with the Grand Master, and the disputes were generally carried to the Pope, who, as the Head of Christendom, was regarded as having supremacy over all Religious Orders. But the Pope himself often encroached upon the rights of the Order, not only by sending nuncios to Malta with large and undefined powers, but by arrogating to himself the patronage of the langue of Italy when he wished to bestow gifts upon his relatives and friends. This led to bitter resentment among the Italian Knights, who saw all the lucrative posts of their langue given away to strangers. The introduction of the Inquisition in 1574 and the Jesuits in 1592, brought additional disputes about the chief authority in the island, and these different ecclesiastical personages had no hesitation in interfering in matters which should have been entirely beyond their province. Many a Grand Master of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had his time occupied in efforts to assert his authority.

The Grand Mastership was also weakened by the practice of electing very old men to the post, as the short tenure of the office and the feebleness of its holder meant a lax control over the turbulent Knights. This practice became very common in the last two centuries of the Order's existence. But many of the Grand Masters, though over seventy at the time of election, disappointed expectation by living till eighty or even ninety.

We possess detailed accounts of the financial system of the Order in the work of two Knights, Boisgelin and Boisredon de Ransijat, accounts which agree almost entirely.

The average revenue of the Order before the French Revolution was L136,000 per annum - i.e., the revenue which definitely reached Malta. It is to be remembered that this sum only represented the residue which was sent to the chef-lieu. The Knights possessed over 600 estates throughout Europe, each of which, besides sending contributions to Malta, maintained several members of the Order, gave a liberal income to its commander, and contributed towards the revenues of the Grand Priory in which it was situated. The chief items of the above sum were:


A proportion of the net income of each commandery fixed by the Chapter-General and liable to increase in case of need - L547,520 per annum.


On the death of a commander all the net revenues from the day of his death to the following May 1 went to the Treasury: this was the MORTUARY; the whole revenue of the succeeding year was also sent to Malta: this was called the VACANCY - L521,470 per annum.


These were sums paid for admission into the Order, and were especially heavy for those who wished to enter the Order at an age earlier than that laid down in the Statutes - L520,324 per annum.


These were the effects of deceased Knights, who were only allowed to dispose of one-fifth of their property by will, the remainder going to the Treasury - L524,755.

These made up about five-sixths of the total revenue, the remainder being small sums accruing from various sources, such as the proceeds from the timber of the commanderies (which went entirely to the Council), rents from buildings in Malta, and so forth.

At the height of their prosperity the Knights derived a very considerable revenue from their galleys, and just as Algiers, Tunis, or Tripoli throve on piracy, even so the wealth of the East contributed largely to the splendour of Malta. But during the seventeenth century various Christian Powers, such as Venice or France, insisted on restricting the Knights' claims to unlimited seizure of infidel vessels and infidel property on board ship. As early as 1582 the Pope had forbidden the Order to seize in a Christian harbour Turkish ships or Turkish property on Christian ships, and, despite the strenuous opposition of the Knights, enforced his commands.

The expenditure of the Order was, on the whole, within the limits of its revenue. The chief charge upon the expenditure was the fighting forces - the fleet and the garrisons - which together absorbed about half the revenue. Of the other items, the most important were the Hospital, the Churches of the Order, and the support of its officers both at the Convent and in the various European countries. The Knights were never seriously threatened financially till the French Revolution wiped out half their revenues at one fell swoop. Emergencies were always successfully met by an appeal to the self-denial of the members of the Order and the generosity of Europe.

The control of the revenues was in the hands of the Chambre de Commun Tresor, which consisted of eight officials, the most important of whom were the President, who was always the Grand Commander (the conventual bailiff of Provence, the senior langue of the Order), and the Secretary through whose hands all the revenues passed. In each langue certain specified towns were used as receiving Treasuries, under the control of receivers who paid the money direct to the Central Treasury; these towns numbered twenty-nine in all. These receivers obtained the revenues from each estate or commandery within their district. At first the Order had possessed one common chest, but with the growth of its possessions each Grand Prior was put in control of his Priory's revenues; this proving unsatisfactory, from the difficulty of exercising control over these powerful Knights, the finances of each estate were administered by the commanders themselves, who dealt directly with the receivers in their area. They paid their quota or "responsions" biennially, and were subject to inspection from their Grand Priors; commanderies were rewards to aged Knights, and good administration brought promotion to richer estates.

The Criminal Council, which consisted of the Grand Master, the Bishop of Malta, the Prior of St. John, the conventual bailiffs, and any Grand Crosses present at the Convent, dealt with offences against the estates of the Order. The accused were brought in, the evidence taken, and the verdict declared. All evidence was verbal and no written testimony was accepted; each Knight, unless he could show good reason to the contrary, had to plead in person. Any English or German Knights, who knew only their own tongue and so had difficulty in being understood, were allowed advocates. The Order, by its Statutes, discouraged litigation to the utmost, desiring to promote concord and harmony among its members, and for that reason all legal procedure was made as simple and as summary as possible.

In such an exclusive and aristocratic Order there was naturally much jealousy of the power of its head. Facts gave the Grand Master a very strong position, but technically he was only primus inter pares. To make sure the Knights were not oppressed, they were always at liberty to disregard the Grand Master's or any superior's command and to appeal to a Court of Egard to prove that the given command was a violation of the Order's Statutes. The Court of Egard consisted of nine members, each langue choosing one from its own ranks, and the Grand Master appointing the President. Either disputant could object to any member of the Court, whereupon that member's langue chose a substitute. After hearing the evidence, which was entirely oral, the Court discussed the case behind closed doors and came to a decision. The litigants were called back, and if they agreed to accept the verdict the Court's decision was announced and was deemed final; if they refused to accept it, an appeal lay to another Court, called the Renfort of the Egard, which was constituted by each langue electing another member, thus doubling the original number. The same procedure was carried out as in the first Court, and if the litigants expressed themselves still dissatisfied, a new Court was summoned, called the Renfort of the Renfort, which was formed by the election from each langue of another member, thus making twenty-five with the President. If their decision was not accepted a final Court of Appeal, called the Bailiffs' Egard, was formed by the addition of the conventual bailiffs, or, if absent, their lieutenants, and their decision was final. This admirable Court of Equity existed almost unaltered right down to 1798.

The Hospital was a characteristic institution of the Order, and deserves some mention. Originally the chief scene of their activities, the Hospital was never forgotten by the Knights. Their first duty, wherever they went, was always to build a Hospital to tend the sick, and to the end every Knight at the Convent, in theory at least, went to take his turn in attending at the Hospital for one day in the week. The site of the Hospital, on the south-east side of Valetta, has been condemned by science as unhealthy, and it is very easy with modern knowledge to find many faults in its organisation. Howard, in his "Lazarettos in Europe," in 1786, gave a vivid description of its condition and exposed its defects. At that time, however, the Hospital was sharing the general decadence of the Order, and discipline had become very lax. But, even so, the Hospital was far superior to most other hospitals in Europe and still kept much of that distinction it had acquired in the great days of the Order. We must remember that hospital organisation is a very recent science, and it would be unfair to accuse the Knights of neglecting what had not yet been discovered. Their Hospital was one of the most famous in Europe, and was used by many from Sicily and Southern Italy as well as by the natives of Malta. It was open to all who wished to use it, and the attendance of patients from a distance proved that it supplied a need. The hospital, which had generally over 400 invalids, was maintained at great cost to the Order, and the regulations were drawn up with great care, though they reveal an amazing ignorance of some fundamental laws of health. Patients, for instance, who were members of the Order received meals twice as large as other patients.

[Footnote 1: So called because they were Knights "by right" of noble birth.]