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Pope Francis has taken control of the Knights of Malta, requesting (and getting) the resignation of the group’s leader. Why does this matter? And who are the Knights of Malta anyway?

The current round between the Knights and Pope Francis is only the latest in the centuries-old family feud.

Since the the infamous October 13th betrayal of The Temple by The Vatican in 1307, there has subsequently survived a paradoxical relationship between The Hospital and The Holy See. The knights have long memories and so a vigilant mix of filial loyalty and sovereign independence has prevailed.

Flashback 450 years ..

It was Voltaire who said, “Nothing is better known than the Siege of Malta!” Voltaire was recalling the event two hundred years earlier, in 1565, when the Knights Hospitaller achieved their greatest victory. Under the order’s most famous leader, Jean Parisot de La Valette, a French nobleman and the 49th Grand Master of the Hospital, the knights defeated the Ottoman Empire at Malta in one of military history’s most famous battles.

The Great Siege

The Ottoman Empire was the greatest world power of the day and was on the move. Its plan was to conquer Europe. The only remaining obstacle in its path was the little Mediterranean island fortress of the knights – Malta. The Sultan of Turkey, Suleiman the Magnificent, determined to get rid of these knights once and for all and he dispatched one of the largest invasion fleets in history against the Knights of Malta.

He attacked with an armada of 130 galleys, 50 sailing ships, and a fleet of transports carrying 30,000 experienced troops with a further 20,000 reinforcements, totalling 50,000. La Valette had only 540 knights and 5000 Maltese militia plus 3000 Italian and Spanish reinforcements, totalling 8500. In other words they were outnumbered six to one!

La Valette (who was one of the knights that Sulieman had set free at Rhodes forty-two years earlier) was already 71 years old when the Ottoman Empire attacked his sovereign island fortress of Malta. Hopelessly outnumbered he withstood one of history’s greatest sieges.

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Ernle Bradford’s account The Great Seige is the stuff Hollywood’s epics are made of:

From May until September the Turkish forces remained on the island, and the fighting employed every device and stratagem of sixteenth century warfare. There were conflicts between armed galleys, hand-to-hand combats, siege weapons and artillery duels, cavalry charges, and even armed bands of swimmers. When the Turkish forces at last withdrew defeated, the Ottoman power had suffered an immense reverse. In the long war between East and West the Great Siege of Malta proved one of the turning points in history.

Image result for parisot de valette    Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette had repelled the Turkish force saving not only his sovereign territory but the heart of Europe itself. It was a heroic defence and prayers of thanks were heard all over Europe. Jean de la Valette was hailed as ‘The Shield of Europe’. Rewards and riches piled in from grateful monarchs.

Philip II of Spain sent the Grand Master a fabulous gold sword and dagger encrusted with pearls, diamonds and precious jewels with the punning device ‘Plus quam valor valet Valette’ which today can be seen in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

But, for a rollicking, page-turning good read, the best modern book written about the great siege of Malta is Tim Willock’s epic The Religion

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From the shores of the Golden Horn, Suleiman the Magnificent, Emperor of the Ottomans, has sent the greatest armada since antiquity to wipe out Islam’s most implacable foe, the Knights of Malta. To the Turks the knights are known as ‘The Hounds of Hell’. The knights call themselves ‘The Religion’.

Meanwhile, in Sicily, a disgraced and exiled Maltese noblewoman, Carla La Penautier, has been trying to return to the doomed island in an attempt to find the bastard son who was taken from her at his birth. The Religion have refused her every plea and a tormented Roman Inquisitor, Ludovico Ludovici, seeks to imprison her. But Carla recruits a notorious adventurer and arms merchant – Mattias Tannhauser – to help her evade the Inquisition and to escape on the last galley to run the Turkish blockade. As the ensuing apocalyptic conflict between Islam and Christianity becomes the most brutal and harrowing siege in military history, Tannhauser and Carla must survive the bloody inferno and track down a twelve-year-old boy whose face they have never seen and whose name they do not know. And neither of them reckon on the return of the avenging Inquisitor, Ludovico Ludovici.

The Religion is an epic and exuberant tale of love and war, of intrigue and obsession, of politics and faith and high adventure. Against a rich and meticulously detailed historical backcloth, it tells of a small band of intrepid men and women who defy the madness of Holy War to realize their own vision of God and Eternity.

A gripping story with reliable factual underpinnings – Times Literary Supplement

Even in England where Henry VIII had suppressed the order twenty years earlier, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, directed that prayers be offered and all the bells of England to be rung in celebration. She, too, sent him gifts. Many prizes were bestowed upon the French knight and his order all of which he accepted … except one.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1c/El_Greco_050.jpg Pope Pius V tried to get La Valette to accept a cardinal’s red hat but he refused! One can scarcely imagine today what it was like in those day’s to be offered a red hat by the pope and what it would have meant in personal prestige for La Valette to wear one. One can imagine even less the level of courage it took to refuse it.

Why did La Valette refuse a red hat?

It was a matter of sovereignty. Bearing in mind the fate of the Templars, he wanted to maintain the independence and sovereignty of his Order from the meddlesome politics of the Vatican. La Valette knew that while it was one thing for his Order to serve the pope, it was yet another to be under the thumb of Rome so he declined his cardinal’s hat.

In the hot summer of 1568, three years later, La Valette, returning to his Magistral Palace after a day’s hawking, was felled by a stroke. On the 21st of August the knights and their Maltese comrades heard that their Grand master, Jean Parisot de la Valette, was dead. Bradford concludes his book: “The Knights of the Order had his body placed aboard the admiral’s galley and rowed across Grand Harbour to the city, Valetta, that bore his name. Four other galley’s shrouded in black, accompanied this greatest of Grand Masters on his last voyage.”

La Valette now lies in the great crypt of the cathedral of St. John. Beside him rests an Englishman, his secretary and faithful friend, Sir Oliver Starkey–the only man other than a Grand Master to be buried in the crypt. The Inscription on La Valette’s tomb was composed in Latin by Sir Oliver Starkey. Translated it reads:

Here lies La Valette, worthy of eternal honour. He who was once the scourge of Africa and Asia, and the shield of Europe, whence he expelled the barbarians by his holy arms, is the first to be buried in this beloved city, whose founder he was.

Around him lie the Grand Masters who were to follow him in later centuries. Above, on the tessellated floor of the great cathedral, shine the arms and insignia of Knights who, for more than 200 hundred years, were to maintain the impregnable fortress of Malta.

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