The birth of the Order dates back to around 1050. According to the chronicles, 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 the Blessed Gérard Tonque. 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 any interference by other secular or religious authorities. By virtue of the Papal Bull, the Hospital became an Order exempt from the Church.
The role of the Order was to participate in the military defence of the sick, the pilgrims and the territories that the Crusaders had conquered from the Moslems. The Order thus became both religious and military. All the Knights were Religious, bound by the three monastic vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
As time went on, the Order adopted the white eight-pointed Cross that is still the symbol of St. John today, and broadened its charitable mission to include the duty of protecting Christendom.
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 the Grand Master Fra' Foulques de Villaret, on the island of Rhodes.
From that moment on, the defence of the Christian world required the organisation of a naval force. So 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.
The independence from other nations granted by Pontifical deed, and the universally recognised right to maintain and deploy armed forces, were the grounds for the international sovereignty of the Order from its beginning.
In the early 14th Century, the members of the Order who came to Rhodes from all over Europe and the institutions of the Order in Europe were grouped according to languages spoken. There were thus, initially, seven such 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 the Priories or Grandpriories, Bailiwicks and Commanderies.
The Order was governed by the Grand Master (the Prince of Rhodes) and the Council, minted its own money and maintained diplomatic relations with other States. The high offices of the Order were given to representatives of different Langues; and the seat of the Order, the Convent, was composed of various nationalities.
1530 - Malta
After six months of siege and fierce combats against the fleet and army of Sultan Soliman the Magnificent, the Knights were forced to surrender in 1523. They left Rhodes with military honours.
The Order remained without a territory of its own until 1530, when the Grand Master Fra' Philippe de Villiers de l'Isle Adam took possession of the island of Malta, a gift of the 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 the Grand Master Fra' Jean de la Vallette (after whom the capital of Malta, Valletta, was named), defended the island from attack and the Great Siege carried by the Turks (which lasted over three months).
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 during his Egyptian campaign. The Knights, because of the Rule of the Order that prohibited them to raise weapons against other Christians, were forced to leave Malta. In 1800 the British occupied Malta, but although the sovereign rights of the Order in the island of Malta had been recognised with the Treaty of Amiens (1802), the Order was never allowed to return to Malta.
1834 - Rome
After having temporarily resided in Messina, Catania and Ferrara, in 1834 the Order settled in Rome, where it owned the Palace of Malta in Via Condotti 68 and the Villa on the Aventine, both of which have extraterritoriality status.
The 20th and 21th Century
From then, the original hospitaller mission became the main activity of the Order, and grew stronger throughout the last century, especially because of the contribution of the activities carried out by the Grandpriories and National Associations in the various countries of the world.
Large-scale hospitaller and charitable activities were carried out during World Wars I and II under Grand Master Fra' Ludovico Chigi della Rovere Albani and further intensified under Grand Master Fra' Angelo de Mojana di Cologna (1962-1988), whom the current Prince and Grand Master Fra' Andrew Bertie has succeeded.
To discover more about the current activities of the Order, please visit the Medical and Humanitarian Activities in the Order in Action section.