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.

This period is marked by constant tumults among the members of the Order and by acts of defiance against the Grand Masters. Even in the days of its glory there had been much jealousy and friction between the different nationalities composing the Order. The three French langues of Provence, Auvergne, and France, by acting together, exercised a preponderant influence; they contributed half the revenues of the Order, and were generally able to secure their object against the opposition of the remaining Knights. The constant wars between Spain and France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to constant troubles at Malta, and the Grand Masters throughout this period had great and increasing difficulty in preserving the Order's neutrality. Many Knights broke their Oath of Obedience by enlisting in the French and Spanish armies. When this was discovered, the offended King would make out that the Order had taken sides and would threaten it with his vengeance. As the Order possessed many estates in both kingdoms, the Grand Masters were in constant fear that these would be encroached upon if an excuse could be found to justify such an action. But Spain, while it possessed the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, possessed an even surer method of punishing the Order. Malta, despite all the care lavished upon it, has never been able to produce sufficient corn for its population, and for this reason imported food regularly from Sicily, where the Order had built granaries for storing the corn while awaiting transshipment. As soon as the Knights offended the King of Spain Malta was plunged into scarcity, and the unhappy natives had often to suffer heavily because the Grand Master was a Frenchman.

Another result of the wars of France and Spain was the frequent internal quarrels at Malta. As the feelings of the two nations towards each other were often embittered, it is not surprising to find that French and Spanish Knights would come to open blows in the streets of Valetta. The unhealthy life of those young and idle aristocrats was conducive to turbulence, and the Grand Masters often adopted the policy of sending them to sea as soon as trouble was foreseen. The French were generally in the preponderance, as we can see from the great number of French Grand Masters; and the increasing greatness of the French monarchy in the seventeenth century was reflected at Malta.

The position of the Maltese became worse and worse as the Order declined. The natives, who had enjoyed a considerable measure of local autonomy under Spanish rule, had been very reluctant to submit to the Knights, and had protested to Charles V. against their surrender to the Order, as a violation of the promise given in 1428 by Alphonse of Sicily that Malta would never be separated from the Sicilian Crown. They knew that the Order would conduct itself in Malta as a garrison in a fortress, and that this would mean strict military control over the inhabitants. It was also probable that the Turks would again besiege the Knights, as they had done at Rhodes in 1480 and 1522, and the Maltese were strongly averse to being drawn into such danger.

During the residence of the Knights the native population of Valetta was considerably modified. Some of the Rhodians who had, in 1523, accompanied the Knights, came with them to Malta; mercenaries who fought for the Order sometimes stayed on in the island, and many in this new population were illegitimate children of the Knights. For, though the vow of chastity was insisted on to the end as a condition of entrance into the Order, in practice, by the eighteenth century, it had become entirely ineffective.

At first the Knights made but slight inroads on the privileges of the natives, curtailing them only so far as was necessary for their military security, and imposing but few taxes upon them. As the island grew rich with the wealth brought in by the raids of the Knights, the condition of the Maltese also improved, and while the Order flourished it was not an excessive burden to the natives. But when the Knights started upon their decline the condition of the islanders deteriorated. They had always suffered from the occasional scarcity due to the ill-humour of the Spanish King or the natural failure of the Sicilian harvest. But now the taxes became heavier and heavier, and the free services of the Maltese, either as labourers in the constant fortifying of Valetta, or as soldiers in the garrison, or as sailors in the fleet, were more and more rigorously exacted. Many natives lost their lives while fighting with the Order, and from the generous behaviour of Grand Masters to the native women and children, which we find mentioned in chronicles, we can see there was occasionally acute distress in the island.

In its degeneracy the Order treated the Maltese with boundless contempt, as might be expected from spoiled members of the great European aristocracies towards petty islanders. One of the most intolerable forms of the arrogance of the Knights during their last years at Malta was their disgusting behaviour towards the womenfolk of the natives; complaint was dangerous and futile. When the British captured the island in October, 1800, the mere proposal to restore the Order raised such a storm of protest from the Maltese as to prove conclusively to all how hated had been the domination of the Knights.

The splendour of the Knights at the height of their greatness can be judged from the many magnificent buildings they constructed in the island. The Church of St. John in particular received such careful and lavish attention that it became one of the most splendid churches in Christendom, being especially famous for its wonderful mosaic floor. The "auberges" of the various langues were also built in the most magnificent manner, and the palace of the Grand Master at Valetta was a sumptuous building worthy of a king.

The decline of the Order brought with it a diminution of respect from the nations of Europe, and we read of constant and increasing interference from outside in the affairs of the Order. The greatest offender was the Pope, who had always enjoyed a nominal headship over the Order, and who had been kept at a distance with difficulty even while the Knights had been at Rhodes. The creation of a bishopric at Malta, the introduction of the Inquisition, and then of the Jesuits, had led to constant quarrels between the Knights and the ecclesiastics, and from these had arisen the evil practice of appeals to the Curia. In the seventeenth century the Popes regarded the valuable patronage of the langue of Italy as in their gift, and the Grand Masters were powerless to protect their defrauded Knights. The depths of the Order's humiliation were shown by the demand of Pope Urban XIII., in 1642, that the Order's galleys should help him fight the League of Italian Princes which had been formed to resist his invasion of Parma. Lascaris, the Grand Master, was unable to refuse, and for the first time the famous red galleys were seen arrayed against Christian neighbours.

The operations of the Knights in the seventeenth century were mainly carried out in alliance with the Venetians, who were the one Power who continued to resist the Turk at sea. They were still lords of the great island of Crete, which lay athwart the trade routes of the Levant, and only by its conquest would the Ottoman control of the Eastern Mediterranean be complete. In 1645 Ibrahim I. declared war on Venice and besieged Candia; but the attack was so remiss that success seemed impossible. The Knights of Malta threw themselves into the struggle on the side of the Venetians, feeling bound in honour to do so, as the refuge of Maltese galleys in Venetian harbours was the Turkish pretext for war. In 1656 Mocenigo, the Venetian Admiral, with the aid of the Knights, won a brilliant victory off the Dardanelles, capturing Lemnos and Tenedos. This imminent peril brought Mohammed Kiuprili to power as Grand Vizier, and the war was thenceforward conducted with great energy by the Turks. Year after year volunteers flocked to Candia to save the last Christian outpost in the Levant, but it was all fruitless, and in 1669 the island, with the exception of three ports, was surrendered to the Turks - their last important conquest in Europe, and the final term of their advance.

The seventeenth century saw the gradual displacement of galleys in favour of sailing ships. The long voyages across the Atlantic and to the East had given great impetus to the development of the sailing vessel; its increasing use, and the entrance of England and Holland into the Mediterranean, had shown the Powers of that sea its superiority over the galley; finally, slaves were becoming more difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities, while criminals had never been a satisfactory source of supply. The Knights were slow in changing the oar for the sail, and to the end kept a small squadron of galleys as well as men-of-war. When Napoleon captured the island, in 1798, he found there two men-of-war, one frigate, and four galleys.

The pride and the renown of the Order had always demanded a salute from the warships of other nations, and even the mighty Louis XIV. yielded this privilege to the little squadron. There is extant an interesting correspondence between Charles II. and the Grand Master, Nicholas Cottoner, on the subject of salutes. A squadron of the British Fleet, under Admiral Sir John Narborough, had refused to salute Valetta unless assured of a response from the guns of the fortress - a mark of respect that the Order was unwilling to pay to the British flag. The Grand Master had also ventured to doubt Narborough's rank as Admiral, but the affair was amicably settled to the satisfaction of all.

Though the decline of the Order was obvious to Europe throughout the eighteenth century, and the value of such a fortress as Malta to a Mediterranean Power apparent to all, yet there is little definite proof of any desire to wrest the island from the Knights. Of all the nations round the Mediterranean, France alone could be said not to be in a state of decay; Venice, Genoa, and Turkey were becoming more and more feeble at sea, and there was little fear of an attack on Malta from any of them; and though Spain paid great attention to her fleet in the second part of the eighteenth century, there was little reason to fear her aggression. Britain was acquiring greater and greater interests in the Mediterranean, but most of her attentions were directed to Spain and France. While the Knights kept their neutrality, however decadent and feeble they might be, there was little fear of their being disturbed. Europe still respected the relics of a glorious past of six centuries of unceasing warfare against the Moslem; but the moment that past with its survivals became itself anathema the Knights and their organisation would collapse at once. The French Revolution meant death to the Knights of the Order of St. John as well as to other bodies of aristocrats.