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On January 1, 1523, a fleet of fifty vessels put out from the harbour at Rhodes for an unknown destination in the West. On board were the shattered remnants of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, accompanied by 4,000 Rhodians, who preferred the Knights and destitution to security under the rule of the Sultan Solyman. The little fleet was in a sad and piteous condition. Many of those on board were wounded; all - Knights and Rhodians alike - were in a state of extreme poverty.

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.


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.


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.

There can be no doubt whatever that, after 1530, the Order was no longer independent and sovereign, and that L'Isle Adam, despite all his efforts, had become a feudatory, though the service demanded was very slight. The Act of Donation of Malta put them definitely into the position of feudal vassals of Charles V. as King of the two Sicilies. This is plain to everyone who examines the Charter itself (Vertot, III., p. 494, or Codice Diplomatico, II., p. 194).

During the Napoleonic wars the surviving Knights were too scattered and too helpless to be able to improve their condition. But from 1815 onwards we find various attempts of the Order to obtain from Europe another chef-lieu, and representatives of the Knights at the Congress of Vienna (1815) and at the Congress of Verona (1822) tried in vain to persuade the Allies to grant them an island.

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