It is often said, following Voltaire’s quip about God, that if such-and-such did not exist it would have to be invented. This is not the case of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It is so particular and unusual and improbable that it would defy invention. How can it be that a military religious order with sovereign status – issuing its own passports, coins and postage stamps – can still exist in the 21st century? Indeed, how can a military religious order exist at all?
To find the answer, one has to go back to the mid-10th century when a group of Latin knights established a community to care for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem. After the city fell to the First Crusade in 1099, these knights of St John followed the newly formed order, the Templars, in taking up arms to protect Christian pilgrims from Muslim marauders.
The military order was an idea whose time had come. A lay knight’s military obligation was limited to 40 days; the monk knight was on permanent standby. A lay knight was undisciplined and had a family to think of; a monk knight took vows of chastity and obedience. The military orders were answerable only to the pope, not kings and barons, while for the kings and barons endowing the orders was a convenient alternative to themselves going on crusade.
In 1187 the Crusaders lost Jerusalem to Saladin, and in 1291, following the fall of Acre, were expelled from the Holy Land altogether. The Templars withdrew to France where their wealth attracted the cupidity of King Philip the Fair: he charged them with treachery, sodomy and blasphemy, and arrested all the knights in France. After a long tussle with the pope, the order was dissolved.
However, most of the Templars’ assets, including the Grand Master’s palace on the Aventine Hill in Rome, went not to King Philip but to the Knights of St John, who, after the fall of Acre, had shrewdly established themselves beyond the reach of greedy kings on the island of Rhodes. In 1523, they were expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks, and were given Malta by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. For the next 275 years they provided a potent naval force, protecting Christians from the Barbary pirates and fighting the Turks.
However, in 1798, the order’s impregnable fortress of Valletta was taken by Napoleon en route to Egypt and the Knights evicted. Henry Sire, in his impressive new book The Knights of Malta: A Modern Resurrection, describes the 20 years following the fall of Malta as the worst in its history, “a time in which its misfortunes came not from external blows but from the faults of its own government which made permanent the temporary losses of the revolutionary years’’. Proposals for a new base on a Greek island for a Catholic naval force was plausible in theory but not in practice, because Britain now ruled the waves, and its Protestant government did not like the idea of a papist fleet in the Mediterranean.
But it was not just the antagonism of Britain that thwarted the progress of the Order of Malta: it was, writes Sire, abandoned by all the powers including Rome – “stretched on the rack of Pius VII’s indifference … ground by that pontiff into the dust’’. No religious order, he believes, has suffered so much from papal policy as the Order of Malta under Pius VII, Pius IX and Pius XII.
The truth was that the religious military order was now an idea whose time had gone. However, warfare had not been the original charism of the Knights of St John: the order had been founded to care for the sick, and it was to this original calling that it returned in the second half of the 19th century, and adheres to today.
It is an irony that Christians in the Middle East are now in a more perilous situation than they were at the time of the Crusades. The great powers, with the possible exception of Russia, are indifferent, and Pope Francis has no battalions.
The best weapon – the only weapon – that the Church can wield is the manifestation of Christian love through charitable work of the kind undertaken by the 13,000 Knights and Dames of Malta. Their work is extensive – the order spends £140 million a year on charitable projects – and should be one of the best-known charitable organisations in the world; but, as Henry Sire points out, it is “precisely because it works under an illustrious name that it is liable to be regarded as an ornamental body’’.
With its ancient rituals and traditions, strange titles, flowing robes, silk sashes and bejewelled eight-pointed crosses, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, if it did not exist, could not be invented. But it does exist and, if the world is largely unaware of its good works, they are well known to God.
Piers Paul Read is a novelist, historian and biographer
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