Over the centuries many countries colonised the Maltese Islands and left their mark, the most noteworthy being the British and the French – although the French occupation was brief.
However, the most emphatic long-term mark was left not by a country, but by an organisation, the Sovereign Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, today known as the Sovereign Order of Malta.
In the early 1500s, the Order was located in Rhodes and Cyprus but the Knights were expelled by the Turkish Ottomans and for some years had no fixed location.
However, in 1530, King Charles V, King of Spain and Sicily, donated Malta to them to establish their headquarters in exchange for the nominal sum of an annual Maltese Falcon! At the time small Malta was seen to be of no importance and without any resources, but at least it was a base for the Knights and therefore a home.
The Order was founded by Blessed Gerard who became its first Grandmaster and who was born in the south of Italy at the time of The Crusades. Early in the 11th Century he went to Jerusalem to work in a hospital for pilgrims and the sick. Thus originated the founding of the Order dedicated to St John and later stipulated that for a Knight to be qualified to join the Order they had to be related to one of Europe’s royal families.
It was also decided the Knights be divided in different “langues”, according to their countries of origin and their mother tongue so as to ensure their “home feeling” in a residence for each “langue”.
The “langues” were:
Thus came into being an Order of Knight Warriors pledged to defend the Christian faith (albeit Roman Catholic) but also an Order to provide hospitalisation and medical care, originally for pilgrims but later extended to all. Hence the origin of Malta becoming famed as “the nurse of the Mediterranean” right down to the Second World War but also the originator of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade which still bears the eight-pointed Maltese Cross as its emblem.
The great leap to fame came in the mid-15th Century when the Frenchman Jean Parisot de la Valette was appointed Grandmaster and managed to defend the Maltese Islands from the invading Ottomans who saw Malta as a crucial stepping stone into the south of Italy and thus a passage to the rest of Europe.
This was the great three-month Malta Siege in 1565 by the Ottomans, a Siege that ended when the Ottomans commander, Dragut, was killed at Tigne’ Point in Malta and the invaders were forced to retreat and the Siege was ended on 8th September, 1565.
This victory was heralded throughout Europe and led to Queen Elizabeth I of Britain commending Malta for its bravery and in having “saved” Europe. This was echoed in April of 1942 when Britain’s King George VI awarded Malta the George Cross for the resistance of its people to the Axis forces of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Following the Great Siege, Grandmaster La Valette came out with his brainchild that Malta needed a capital city on a seashore and not inland at Mdina which was then the capital. Work began immediately and was inaugurated in 1568 although sadly La Valette had passed away a few months earlier, but the new city was named Valletta, to honour and commemorate him.
The Order became so powerful that for many years the Grandmasters claimed to be the actual leader of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Pope and this led to many clashes with The Vatican in the tussle to establish authority.
The Knights remained in Malta until the late 1700s before being expelled by Napoleon Bonaparte who saw them as a threat to Republican France and their expulsion was approved later by the British when in turn, the French were expelled from Malta by Lord Horatio Nelson.
The Order still thrives and exists and is now known as The Sovereign Order of Malta. All these thoughts came to mind during the recent burial earlier this month in Malta of Fra Matthew Festing, one of the latest Grandmasters, in the crypt of St John’s Co-Cathedral which was built by the Order.
Festing was British, born in Northumberland in 1949, and was dedicated to the Roman Catholic religion and the Order and was only the second British Grandmaster in the long history of the Order, the other being the late Fra Andrew Willoughby Ninian Bertie who died in 2008 and was succeeded by Festing until 2017.
Sadly enough, Festing’s successor, Fra Giacomo Dalla Torre, the 80th Grandmaster, only lasted two years and died last year. No Grandmaster has todate been appointed as the successor and the latest Grandmaster.
The burial ceremony of Festing in Valletta was carried out with all the pomp and circumstance of past decades and conducted by the Pope’s Special Delegate to the Order, Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi.
However, when the crypt in the Co-Cathedral was opened there was a further surprise just as Festing’s coffin was about to be lowered into the crypt.
The unmarked tomb of Grandmaster Francisco Ximenes buried in 1775 was discovered and solved the mystery of the whereabouts of his remains. They were found in a lead-lined coffin in the crypt but were unmarked.
Cathedral Curator Cynthia De Giorgio said that Festing’s burial re-writes history because the findings of Ximenes means this was the first burial in the crypt for 250 years and not as previously thought, 400 years. It also means that in all, 13 Grandmasters are buried in the crypt.
As I always maintain, every corner of the Maltese Islands contains some mystery or discovery related to the evolution of humanity in the European and world sphere.
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“Whichever way you turn, the problem remains the same”
Useless to try and find a solution because the problem will inevitably remain the same.