The historic legacy of the Knights of St John can still be felt across Malta, if you know where to look
The Knights of St John, also known as Knights Hospitaller, were a prominent medieval order charged with the care of pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem and the protection of Malta. While the order’s heyday was in the 16th and 17th centuries, its influence can still be felt in museums, palaces and churches across the island. Next time you visit Malta, take a step back in time and explore sites such as St John’s Co-Cathedral, Fort St Angelo and Sacra Infermeria to discover the Knights’ lasting legacy.
At the heart of the historical city of Vittoriosa, a former home of the Knights of St John, lies The Inquisitor’s Palace – one of the few surviving palaces of its kind and the only in the world that’s open to the public. A fascinating insight into Malta’s history, the palace museum invites visitors to learn about the Knights and explore reconstructions of the rooms as they would have been in previous centuries. Before leaving Vittoriosa, head to Vittoriosa Square to see the Green Victory Monument, which commemorates the Great Siege of the 16th century in which the Knights stood their ground against the invading Ottoman Empire and saved Malta from capture.
A grand castle rebuilt by the Knights of St John as a fort to protect the island, Fort St Angelo played a monumental part in the Great Siege of 1565. Located on the Vittoriosa waterfront across the Grand Harbour from the capital, the fort is considered the jewel of the island’s military heritage. While the interior is closed for renovations, visitors can get a picturesque view of the fort from Valletta. To feel part of the action, visit the Saluting Battery where, each day at noon and 4pm, replica cannons are fired over the harbour in the direction of Fort St Angelo.
A striking relic dating to the Knights Templar period of Maltese occupation, the Santa Marija Tower is the most prominent of very few manmade structures on Comino Island. Originally built in 1618 as a defence and communication tower by the Knights, the tower has since been used to house livestock and even served as a quarantine hospital. Today, the square, turreted structure is striking to witness up close, and is open to the public when the flag’s flying.
St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta was built as a church for the Knights of Malta. Architecture, art and religion come together in the beautiful Baroque building, whose walls are filled with important works of art, tapestries and artefacts donated by the Grand Masters or the Knights, such as Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’. Look closely at the walls themselves and you’ll find the Maltese cross – the emblem of the Knights of St John – carved into the opulent décor.
For many, the most striking symbol of the Knights was their armour. The Palace Armoury in the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta is home to one of the largest collections of armour and arms in the world. From the original stronghold in Valletta, the museum showcases items used by the Knights of St John in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, as well as suits of armour worn by noblemen such as Jean Parisot de La Valette, 49th Grand Master of the Order of Malta.
A cornerstone of the Knights’ work, Sacra Infermeria was a large hospital established by the order in 1574. The 600-bed infirmary was particularly famous as it was so ahead of its times in terms of surgical techniques and hygiene. Visitors can tour the site to learn about the lifesaving work of the Knights, walk through the huge Great Ward and see a reconstruction of a medieval pharmacy.