In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, as King of Sicily, ceded to the Order the island of Malta. At first, the Order's Maltese dominion, which also included the nearby islands of Gozo and Comino was considered a fief of the Kingdom of Sicily, its Grand Master a vassal. It was for this reason that an annual feudal tax was paid, though it was largely symbolic. It included, for example, a "Maltese falcon." The Order would remain a military dependency of the Kingdom of Sicily until 1798, though, like the feudal tax rendered to the King, this was to be largely symbolic in actual practice during the centuries to follow. Pope Clement VII sanctioned this act in with a Bull of 7 May 1530, and the Order established its grand magistry on the island later in the year. The Order was also granted Tripoli, which it relinquished in 1551.
Thus did the Order become known as the "Order of Malta." In deference to its origins in the Holy City, it was known as the Hierosolymitan Order of Malta well into the twentieth century. Adopting a new appellation was simple enough; developing this harsh land would be more difficult. Despite its obvious strategic importance, Malta was, for the most part, a hilly and deforested island having few natural resources other than olive groves, wheat fields and good fishing waters. It was, and is, similar to Pantelleria, Lampedusa and some parts of Sicily. The knights set about developing the islands they had been granted.
Not surprisingly, hospitals were among the first projects to be undertaken on Malta, where French soon supplanted Italian as the official language (though the native inhabitants continued to speak Maltese, a language related to Sicilian). The knights also constructed fortresses, watch towers and, naturally, churches. Its acquisition of Malta signalled the beginning of the Order's renewed naval activity. Maritime trade greatly developed; indeed it became a primary means of economic support.
Because such trade was increasingly hindered by marauding corsairs, the knights were to become better known for bringing the sea crusade to the western Mediterranean. In this they were supported by sympathetic sovereigns and new orders of chivalry, most notably the Piedmontese Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus and, in 1561, the Tuscan Order of Saint Stephen. Since Malta occupied a strategic position between the Christian and Muslim worlds, the Order of Malta emerged as the most important obstacle to Islam's encroachment into the heart of Christendom. It must be said, however, that the initial goals of the grand masters and the Italian princes were more commercial than ideological, as the pirates' activities seriously threatened trade.
Serious Ottoman assaults occurred between 1551 and 1644. The most famous, the Great Siege, took place in 1565. An attacking Turkish force of 180 warships carrying almost 30,000 men was repelled by 600 knights and some 6000 soldiers and volunteers led by the intrepid Grand Master Jean de la Valette. Assistance eventually arrived from Europe. Only about 15,000 attackers survived to return to Turkey, while very few of the defenders went uninjured.
The Siege of Malta was, in the first instance, a defensive battle, and certainly a bloody one. The knights would encounter Muslim forces again at the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571. Knights of Malta fought at the Siege of Candia (in Crete) in 1668, and at the Conquest of Belgrade in 1689. With the defeat, at least for the time being, of Christendom's most serious foes, the Order's attention began to shift to the philosophical plain embodied by the Counter Reformation.
The expansion and fortification of Valletta, named for la Valette, was begun in 1566, soon becoming the home port of one of the Mediterranean's most powerful navies. The island's hospitals were expanded as well. the main Hospital could accommodate 500 patients and was renown as one of the finest in the world. At the vanguard of medicine, the Hospital of Malta boasted Schools of Anatomy, Surgery and Pharmacy. Valletta itself was renowned as a center of art and culture. The Church of of St. John the Baptist, completed in 1577, boasted works by Caravaggio and others.
The Grand Master was created a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, styled Serene Highness, in 1607. He was confirmed as a Prince in both Austria and Italy. In 1630 he was granted ecclesiastical precedence equal to that of a Cardinal. To this day, the Grand Master of the Order of Malta is styled His Most Eminent Highness.
In Europe, most of the Order's hospitals and chapels survived the Reformation, but not in Protestant countries. In Malta, meanwhile, the Public Library was established in 1761. The University was founded seven years later, followed, in 1786, by a School of Mathematics and Nautical Sciences. Despite these developments, some of the Maltese themselves grew to resent the Order, which they viewed as a privileged caste. This even included some of the local nobility, who were not admitted to the Order.
On 9 June 1798, on his way to Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte's fleet attacked Malta. It was immediately obvious that the Order's navy was no match for the mighty French force of 29,000 men. Though officially neutral toward the Christian powers, Malta was a military protectorate of the Kingdom of Naples, which was obliged by treaty to defend the island. Unfortunately, the King of Naples and Sicily (later the Two Sicilies) had departed Naples for Palermo six months earlier as the French occupied southern Italy, and was in no position to meet his obligation. What was worse, the Spanish brethren refused to fight (Spain being allied with France) and the Maltese made it clear that their loyalty was tenuous indeed. On 12 June, the 250 knights capitulated and departed their island state.
Not all of the brethren were in agreement with the surrender of Malta, and it was a decision which, several years later, prompted the removal of the Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim. This was an event virtually unknown in the Hierosolymitan Order, whose Grand Masters, like Popes, usually served for life once elected.
If he could not defend the knights, the King of Naples could at least grant them refuge in his dominions. In the decades following their expulsion from Malta, the knights' administrative offices were established in Sicily (at Catania and Messina) until 1826. In 1834, following a sojourn at Ferrara, the Order established itself in Rome. The Grand Magistry is still located in Palazzo di Malta, in Via Condotti near the Piazza di Spagna, where it enjoys extraterritorial sovereignty as one of the three sovereign governments within Italian borders (the others being Vatican City and the Republic of San Marino).