The Order of Saint John and the Kingdom of Sicily

© 2002 L. Mendola

"They came to Sicily with Charles of Anjou, flourished under the Aragonese, the Spanish, the Bourbon kings... They were Peers of the Realm, Grandees of Spain, Knights of Santiago, and when they have a fancy to be Knights of Malta they need only raise a finger and the Via Condotti turns them out a diploma all fresh from the oven without a word of complaint. Until now, at least."

-- Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard


Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel, published in 1958 (as Il Gattopardo in the original Italian), described situations which had existed among the Sicilian aristocracy a century earlier, but the age-old links of the Order of Malta to Sicily transcend mere geography or the race memory of particular families. The Order of the Hospital was founded in the Holy Land as a hospice and monastic community to care for the sick late in the eleventh century by the Blessed Gerard (who was probably from southern Italy). In 1113 it received papal approval. By this time it was an order of knights whose principal objective was the defense of pilgrims. It soon became a military as well as religious order which participated in many crusader activities and military campaigns. Gerard died in 1120, succeeded by a series of grand masters beginning with Raymond du Puy.

There were a few Norman-Sicilian knights of Saint John (sometimes called "Hospitallers") as early as the reign of King Roger II. It was this monarch who, in 1136, invited the Hospitallers to establish hospices in his kingdom under his sponsorship (i.e. at his expense) and protection. In fact the order's greatest influence in Sicily, in the form of commanderies similar to those of the Teutonic Knights and the Templars, was most felt around the beginning of the reign of Roger's grandson, Frederick II, circa 1200.

Frederick later confiscated most of Sicily's Templar commanderies, eventually assigning a few to the Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights, following an affront by the arrogant Templars during his "Sixth Crusade" in Palestine in 1228. The Master of the Order of the Temple, Pierre de Montaigu, had sent a letter to the Sultan al-Kamil suggesting the assassination of Frederick, and the sultan, who was amiable to the emperor, revealed its contents to him. Then, when Frederick's troops surrounded the Templar stronghold at Acre, the cowardly de Montaigu refused to leave the security of the castle to meet him. Frederick took seriously his rights as King of Jerusalem (and King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor).

In 1239, when Pope Gregory IX, in a redundant excommunication, accused Frederick of despoiling Templar properties in Sicily, some Hospitaller holdings were also mentioned. However, while the Order of Saint John continued to exist on the island, the Templar presence had effectively vanished. Though the Teutonic Knights never held much property in Sicily, their preceptories at Palermo (the Magione church) and Messina (Saint Mary of the Germans) were active for centuries following the rule of the Swabian Hohenstaufens in Sicily (ending with Frederick's death in 1250) who, for the knights' loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperors favored them above the other military-religious orders. Nevertheless, the Hospitallers' relations with Frederick were at least cordial; the saintly Gerland de Pologne, Hospitaller Commander in the predominantly Muslim-Arab town of Caltagirone, was diplomatic head of his order in Sicily and ensured that it was well-received at Frederick's eclectic court.

In considering the situation of the military-religious orders in Sicily during the first half of the thirteenth century, it should be observed that no single order --not even the faithful Teutonic Knights-- had exceptional economic influence on the island. Despite a certain decline during Frederick's minority, the Kingdom of Sicily (here referring to the island itself rather than the mainland Italian regions south of Rome which were then part of the same realm) was still probably the wealthiest European dominion, as it had been in the Norman era (the twelfth century). Unlike his English counterparts, Frederick had little or no need for Templar loans or other services. Though the Hospitallers and Templars certainly recruited into their ranks some younger sons of Sicily's Norman and Longobard nobility, the "new" Catholics (former Eastern Orthodox or Muslims) of the island's emerging landed classes, in what was still to a significant degree a multicultural (and multi-faith) society, were not so inclined. Frederick actually travelled with Muslim bodyguards drawn from the Arab community he had settled at Lucera in Puglia. In Sicily the major impact of the Crusading spirit was the passage of crusaders and knights through Messina en route to the Holy Land or, in the case of Louis IX, through Palermo on the way to Tunisia. Indeed, while Frederick's Sicilian confiscation of Templar property and a few Hospitaller estates was exceptional for its time, it is barely noted by historians precisely because of its comparatively minor importance.

For several centuries a handful of military outposts along the southern coasts of Sicily were manned by the knights of Malta to defend the island from marauding pirates. By 1700 the inland commanderies were few and most of the coastal fortifications had been abandoned. The role of the knights in Sicily was never as important as in other nations. For this reason the Sicilian holdings of the knights of Malta, even with the former Templar properties, were never as extensive as those in certain other countries. In England, where their legacy endures in place names such as London's Saint John's Wood and Saint John's Gate, Henry VIII suppressed the order, which enjoyed a short-lived revival following his death.

Though a number of Sicilian feudal knights of the Swabian era participated in the Crusades, apart from Frederick's single peaceful Sixth Crusade they usually did so independently of their king (contrast this to the crusading fervor of Louis IX of France), leaving to join the military-religious orders. In general, though his policies changed with the times, Frederick --like his Norman predecessors-- chose to accomodate his own Muslim subjects rather than offend them through such activities as crusading.

After the fall of Jerusalem the knights established their seat at Cyprus and, in 1310, at Rhodes, where they remained until a bloody defeat at Muslim hands in 1523. They established a purely administrative grand magistry in Italy, but this was not viewed as a permanent solution.

In March 1530 the King of Sicily, who was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, gave the knights the island of Malta, an act later confirmed by his viceroy with a ceremony in the barons' hall in Steri Castle in what is now Piazza Marina in Palermo. Initially the knights' Maltese dominion was actually a fief of the Kingdom of Sicily, its Grand Master a vassal. Thus an annual feudal tax was paid, though this was largely symbolic. This was a falcon. The Order would remain a military dependency of the Kingdom of Sicily (by then ruled by the House of Bourbon of the "Two Sicilies") until 1798 though, like the feudal tax rendered to the king, this was to be largely symbolic in actual practice except for a few specific policies.

As apostolic legate, a privilege dating from the times of his Norman predecessors, the King of Sicily could appoint bishops in his realm (or, more precisely, choose from candidates proposed by the Church), and this meant that he could nominate the bishop of Malta from among candidates proposed by the knights. In Malta, the Hospitallers were obliged to cooperate with Sicilian officials in certain legal matters, such as extradition of fugitives from Sicily seeking refuge on Malta or Gozo. By terms of the 1530 Deed of Donation, they could not side with any power against the King of Sicily.

Napoleon's forces expelled the knights from Malta in 1798 en route to Egypt, and following the defeat of the French the island nation passed to British control. At the Congress of Vienna the delegate of King of Naples and Sicily protested the British occupation, but to no avail. The grand magistry was transferred to Messina and Catania and finally, Carlo di Borbone with Andrew Bertie.in 1834, to its present location in Rome.

The degree of actual sovereignty enjoyed by the knights on Malta is, in fact, a matter of scholarly debate. Certain it is that the Holy See, and the monarchs of Naples and Sicily (later the "Two Sicilies"), Sardinia (Savoy), Spain, Austria and other Powers continued to accredit ambassadors to the Order long after its expulsion from Malta. It seems that the Order's unique position as a sovereign entity existed before it obtained Malta, and therefore as an intrinsic right apart from possession of the islands it logically survived the loss of territory. In the event, the Order did (and does) possess extraterritorial properties in Italy.

In the nineteenth century, after its removal from Malta, the decoration of the order (the white "Maltese Cross") came to be regarded as a "reward" for titled Catholic aristocrats, from whose ranks the military (fighting) knights were drawn for many centuries. There were, of course, also professed knights who took vows and lived much as clerics, though without ordination to the priesthood. There are still professed knights today. As it is a military-religious order, knighthoods in the Order of Malta have never been bestowed exclusively for merit (which is the purpose of the Order of Merit "Pro Merito Melitense"). Instead, being a knight or dame of Malta represents a means of performing service in the Christian tradition.

The rapport of the Order of Malta with the House of the Two Sicilies (the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily were unified as the "Two Sicilies" in the nineteenth century) has survived to the present day, and remains important historically and symbolically. The Prince-Grand Master, His Most Eminent Highness Frà Andrew Bertie, has accepted the Order of Saint Januarius and the Collar of the Constantinian Order of Saint George from Prince Ferdinando of the Two Sicilies. He bestowed upon Prince Carlo of the Two Sicilies, Ferdinando's son and heir, the insignia of a Bailiff Grand Cross of Honour and Devotion of the Order of Malta. (A photo taken at the Palazzo di Malta following the ceremony is shown here.) The previous Grand Master, Frà Angelo de Mojana, was also a knight of the Constantinian Order bestowed by the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies. The tradition lives on.

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