A wealthy Order of Knights drawn exclusively from the ranks of the nobility was sure to attract the attention of the French revolutionaries. Its international character was a cause of offence to the strong French nationalism engendered during the Revolution, while its traces of monastic organisation helped to identify the Knights with the Church.

When Necker, in the financial distress of the autumn of 1789, appealed for a voluntary contribution from all landowners, the Order gave him a third of the revenue of its French commanderies, and later it pledged its credit for 500,000 francs to the destitute Louis XVI., to help him in the flight that ended so disastrously at Varennes. This last act put it in definite opposition to the Revolution.

The Constituent Assembly declared the Order of St. John to be a foreign Power possessing property in France, and, as such, liable to all taxes to be levied on natives, and immediately afterwards a decree was passed declaring that any Frenchman belonging to an Order of Knighthood which demanded proofs of nobility from entrants could not be considered a French citizen. This was followed by the main attack on September 19, 1792, when all the property in France was declared confiscate and annexed to the French national domains. There was some mention of indemnification to the despoiled Knights, but as the necessary condition to a pension was residence in France - a dangerous course for a noble in 1793 and 1794 - the scheme came to naught. The decree of September, 1792, was the death-blow to the Order, and its extinction was simply a matter of time. The course of the war and the constant French successes made their position even more perilous. Half the revenues had gone with the confiscation in France; but this was not all, for Bonaparte's Italian campaigns meant the loss of the Order's estates in Northern Italy, and the conquests of the French on the Rhine diminished the German possessions. With decreasing resources and dwindling numbers, the fortress of Malta could not long hold out if attacked, and the position of the Order was becoming desperate. De Rohan, the Grand Master, temporised and refused to declare war on France, but he seems to have helped the Spanish and English fleets by allowing them to recruit at Malta, a privilege hitherto granted very sparingly by the Knights. But whatever the Grand Master's policy, no words or pretences could disguise the fact that the French Republic by its confiscation had assaulted the Order. It was only too probable that France would seize the first opportunity of attacking the Order in its own home and by this means increasing its power in the Mediterranean.

One gleam of light came to cheer the gloom at Malta. The third dismemberment of Poland had brought the Polish Priory into the hands of the Tsar Paul I. Among other eccentricities of that monarch was a passionate admiration for chivalry, which he displayed by changing the Polish into a Russian Priory, increasing its revenues to 300,000 florins, and incorporating it in the Anglo-Bavarian langue; he also assumed the title of "Protector of the Order of Malta."

In 1797, at Ancona, Napoleon had intercepted a message from the Tsar to the Grand Master containing this news. Plans for the capture of Malta took shape in Bonaparte's mind, and he sent a cousin of the French consul at Malta, Poussielgue by name, to spy out the condition of the island, at the same time ordering Admiral Brueys, on his journey from Corfu to Toulon, to examine the situation of Malta. When the expedition to Egypt was decided upon, the capture of Malta formed part of the instructions to Napoleon.

Bonaparte, relying on the demoralisation of the island, intended the capture to be a swift piece of work, and Poussielgue had helped him by winning over some natives and French Knights to his side. The Grand Master, Von Hompesch, seems to have been utterly unnerved by the bewildering problems before him, and the cowardice and irresolution he displayed were a disgrace to the traditions of the Order. Speed was essential to the French army, as discovery by Nelson would be fatal to Bonaparte's plans, but had Von Hompesch been an utter traitor the capitulation could not have been more sudden and disgraceful and beneficial to the enemy.

On June 6 the vanguard of the French appeared off the island, and on the 9th it was joined by the main fleet, the whole now numbering about 450 sail, of which 14 were ships of the line and 30 were frigates; the Grand Master had about 300 Knights and 6,000 men, chiefly Maltese, under arms. Had this garrison been resolute and united, the fortifications of Valetta could have held the French for a considerable time. But the natives were divided, many regarding the French, despite their doubtful career of the last few years, as liberators from a detestable tyranny. Two-thirds of the Knights were French, and many of them had become infected with republican principles, though the French langues also contained the fiercest opponents to the invaders.

Bonaparte sent for permission for his fleet to enter the harbour for water and for his soldiers to land - a request which was tantamount to a demand for surrender. Von Hompesch sent back a conciliatory letter, saying that treaty obligations forbade the entrance of more than four vessels at a time. Napoleon thereupon threw off the mask, and during the night landed troops at seven different parts of the island. A slight resistance was encountered from a few detached forts, but by the evening of the 10th Valetta was closely invested. The mob was encouraged by hired emissaries to attack as traitors the Knights, who were really the most bitter enemies of the invaders. While Napoleon's agents were busy throughout the town, Von Hompesch sat motionless in his palace, and no subordinate commander would take the responsibility of firing on the besiegers. Finally, a party of citizens interviewed Von Hompesch and threatened to surrender the town if he refused to capitulate.

At this point a mutiny broke out in the garrison, and the Grand Master and his Council, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, sent for an armistice preliminary to surrender. The armistice was concluded on the 11th, and on the 12th Napoleon entered Valetta, full of amazement at the might of the fortress he had so easily captured. On the 12th the capitulation was drawn up, of which the main clauses were:

  1. The Knights surrendered Malta and its 
  sovereignty to the French army.

  2. The French Republic would try to secure 
  to the Grand Master an equivalent principality 
  and would meanwhile pay him an annual pension 
  of 300,000 livres.

  3. The French would use their influence with 
  the different Powers assembled at Rastadt to 
  allow the Knights who were their subjects to 
  control the property of their respective langues.

  4. French Knights were allowed to return to 

  5. French Knights in Malta were to receive a 
  pension from the French Government of 700 
  livres per annum; if over sixty years old, 1,000 

Such was the end of the Order at Malta. Napoleon treated the Knights and the Grand Master with extreme harshness. Most of them were required to leave within three days, and some even within twenty-four hours.

On June 18, Von Hompesch, taking with him the three most venerable relics of the Order - all that the conqueror allowed him from the treasures at Valetta - left for Trieste, whence he withdrew to Montpellier, dying there in obscurity in 1805. Most of the homeless Knights proceeded to Russia, where, on October 27, 1798, Paul I. was elected Grand Master, though Von Hompesch still held the post.

But on the Tsar's death in 1801 the Order lost the one man who might have been powerful enough to bring about a restoration, and the survival of some scattered relics could not conceal the fact that vanished for ever was the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.