Arts & Books Comment

The knights who took on pirates, sultans and Hitler

Chivalric spirit: members of the Knights of Malta proceed towards St Peter’s in 2013 (AP)

In the Middle Ages, the Knights of Malta manned both the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem and the immense fortress of Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. They sent Suleiman the Magnificent packing at the Siege of Malta in 1565. Two centuries later, they were pursuing Barbary pirates around the Mediterranean.

Henry Sire sets out to plot how the order has fared in modern times, meaning his story begins with a whimper, not a bang. Aristocratic to its core, the order faced extinction in the wake of the French Revolution. Then Malta, which the Knights had ruled since 1530, fell limply to Napoleon, leaving the order a sovereign government in want of
a territory.

The Congress of Vienna was botched, however. In no time, the Knights, for all their long tradition of “unsleeping warfare against the Moslem foe” and service to “Our Lords the Sick”, were reduced to “a scattering of old men nursing their memories in provincial towns”. Sire, the order’s historian, is not one to hide its record of self-inflicted wounds.

Some of the pleasure to be had from this book comes from entering that implausible, dreamlike world of European nobility and mingling with the fantastically titled Prince Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingf ürst, who organised field hospitals when Prussia and Austria fought Denmark in 1864. Here also are Fra’ Philippe de Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Baron van Voorst tot Voorst, Major Sigismund Trafford, Baron Ludwigstorff von Goldlamb and Fra’ Carlo Maresca dei Duchi di Serracapriola. I was put in mind of Jack Lemmon’s superb comic turn as Crown Prince Hapnick of Pottsdorf in The Great Race.

Indeed, in the late 1940s, the French ambassador to Rome (himself a nobleman) saw fit to treat the order’s highest office-holders “like characters in an operetta”. Sire recounts breaches of protocol that should, he thinks, make our hair stand on end. To unknighted ears, though, they sound unreal or simply absurd. Yet however preposterous and unjust the old order may have been, one can’t help thinking that it was better than much of what followed once full-blown, full-blooded nationalism held sway.

The order’s post-revolutionary gloom finally began to lift in the mid-1830s. This is not to say that there are no further episodes of misjudgment and venal backbiting.

As late as the 1950s, there was a grotesque power tussle with the Vatican. The Grand Master of the day died of a heart attack, having been threatened with excommunication by a Jesuit priest sneakily admitted to his presence by a cooperative valet. No wonder the French ambassador thought he was at the opera. There was room, too, for some realpolitik, with deals being cut with Mussolini and Franco.

But World War II threw up some shining examples of the Christian chivalric spirit as well. Count Max Ulrich von Dreschel, for instance, was executed for his part in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. When Italy was eventually disarmed, 100 aeroplanes were transferred to the order. These would later be used for, among other things, transporting pilgrims to Lourdes, where one of the surviving plotters against Hitler, Baron Philipp von Boeselager, had begun masterminding the order’s work. Later in the century, relations of Philipp von Boeselager would complete heroic, historic tasks on behalf of the order in communist Hungary and in the field of emergency medical aid.

Political impotence enabled the order to expand in numbers and strength as a purely charitable institution, sprouting national associations across the world. Knights of Magistral Grace, who do not take religious vows or have noble lineage, now account for most of the 13,500 members. Sire provides glimpses of the order mobilising to fight leprosy and diabetes or rushing to help victims of wars the world over – in Biafra, for instance, Princess Cecile of Bourbon-Parma stayed when many other Westerners had fled.

This book, though, is largely about the inner workings of the order, in all their conspiracy theory-inducing complexity. The current Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, is English, as was his immediate predecessor, Fra’ Andrew Bertie (despite an Italian Marchese telling his confrères that a man who never drove above third gear was not suited to running the Order of Malta). To this day, the order remains a sovereign, international body, with all the trappings, save land.

Sire, a meticulous narrator and stern judge to the end, cannot shake off a sense of failure: the original Hospitallers, he believes, would have considered that the order had lost its raison d’être as it has not made a second pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and the defence of Christianity in that region, the centre of its inspiration.

He finishes, nevertheless, signalling hope in a tentative return: the order runs a state-of-the-art maternity hospital in Bethlehem, with the Irish association making a particularly strong contribution. It serves without distinction of religion. Staff make regular visits among Bedouin encampments in the Judaean desert. In new and surprising ways, these knights march on.

This article first appeared in the April 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here.