The birth of the Order dates back to around 1048. Merchants from the ancient Marine Republic of Amalfi obtained from the Caliph of Egypt the authorisation to build a church, convent and hospital in Jerusalem, to care for pilgrims of any religious faith or race. The Order of St.John of Jerusalem - the monastic community that ran the hospital for the pilgrims in the Holy Land - became independent under the guidance of its founder, Blessed Gérard. With the Bull of 15 February 1113, Pope Paschal II approved the foundation of the Hospital and placed it under the aegis of the Holy See, granting it the right to freely elect its superiors without interference from other secular or religious authorities. By virtue of the Papal Bull, the Hospital became an Order exempt from the Church. All the Knights were religious, bound by the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
The constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem regarding the crusades obliged the Order to take on the military defence of the sick, the pilgrims and the territories that the crusaders had conquered from the Moslems. The Order thus added the task of defending the faith to that of its hospitaller mission.
As time went on, the Order adopted the white eight-pointed Cross that is still its symbol today.
1310 - Rhodes
When the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land fell in 1291, the Order settled first in Cyprus and then, in 1310, led by Grand Master Fra' Foulques de Villaret, on the island of Rhodes.
From then, the defence of the Christian world required the organisation of a naval force. Thus the Order built a powerful fleet and sailed the Eastern Mediterranean, fighting many famous battles for the sake of Christendom - for example, the Crusades in Syria and Egypt. From its beginning, the independence from other nations granted by Pontifical deed, and the universally recognised right to maintain and deploy armed forces, constitute the grounds for the international sovereignty of the Order.
In the early 14th century the institutions of the Order and the knights who came to Rhodes from every corner of Europe were grouped according to the languages they spoke. There were initially seven groups of Langues (Tongues): Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland) and Germany. In 1492 Castille and Portugal split off from the Langue of Aragon and constituted the eighth Langue. Each Langue included Priories or Grand Priories, Bailiwicks and Commanderies.
The Order was governed by its Grand Master (the Prince of Rhodes) and Council, minted its own money and maintained diplomatic relations with other States. The senior positions of the Order were given to representatives of different Langues. The seat of the Order, the Convent, was composed of religious of various nationalities.
1530 - Malta
After six months of siege and fierce combat against the fleet and army of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the Knights were forced to surrender in 1523 and left Rhodes with military honours.
The Order remained without a territory of its own until 1530, when Grand Master Fra' Philippe de Villiers de l'Isle Adam took possession of the island of Malta, granted to the Order by Emperor Charles V with the approval of Pope Clement VII.
It was established that the Order should remain neutral in any war between Christian nations. In 1565 the Knights, led by Grand Master Fra' Jean de la Vallette (after whom the capital of Malta, Valletta, was named), defended the island for more than three months during the Great Siege by the Turks.
1571 - The Battle of Lepanto
The fleet of the Order, then one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean, contributed to the ultimate destruction of the Ottoman naval power in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
1798 - In exile
Two hundred years later, in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the island for its strategic value during his Egyptian campaign. Because of the Order’s Rule prohibiting them to raise weapons against other Christians, the knights were forced to leave Malta. Although the sovereign rights of the Order in the island of Malta had been reaffirmed by the Treaty of Amiens (1802), the Order has never been able to return to Malta.
1834 - Rome
After having temporarily resided in Messina, Catania and Ferrara, in 1834 the Order settled definitively in Rome, where it owns, with extraterritoriality status, the Magistral Palace in Via Condotti 68 and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill.
The 20th and 21th Century
The original hospitaller mission became once again the main activity of the Order, growing ever stronger during the last century, most especially because of the contribution of the activities carried out by the Grand Priories and National Associations in so many countries around the world. Large-scale hospitaller and charitable activities were carried out during World Wars I and II under Grand Master Fra' Ludovico Chigi Albani della Rovere and further intensified under Grand Master Fra' Angelo de Mojana di Cologna (1962-1988), whose successor is the current Prince and Grand Master, Fra' Mathew Festing.
To discover more about the current activities of the Order, please visit the Medical and Humanitarian Activities in the Order in Action section of the Order of Malta Official Site.