By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
Now called the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, the order’s name was originally The Knights Hospitaller. A Roman Catholic religious order founded in 1048 by Italian merchants from the Amalfi coast, the group originally consisted solely of men who took monastic vows to build a hospital in Jerusalem and tend to all Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. The order quickly adopted military force as requested by various popes to help defend Christians and their land from the Muslim population in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Knights of St John (the Hospitallers) were forced out of Jerusalem in 1291 and moved to the Greek island of Rhodes under the protection of Pope Clement V and the French King Philip IV.
After several hundred years and several failed invasions, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent arrived on the Rhodesian shore with a fleet of 400 carrying an estimated invasion force of 100,000 men. Unable to repulse this massive army, the Knights fled Rhodes for the island of Malta in 1523. Formally granted by Emperor Charles V to the knights in 1530, the Knights would rule Malta until 1798 when Napoleon invaded and expelled the Order.
The Right to Strike
It wasn’t until the Order occupied Rhodes and became a sovereign power that they began striking their own coinage. Until this point, the Order “had no attributes of sovereignty” and was not able to “emit money”.
Instead, the Knights of Malta seized the right to strike coins. As the 25th grandmaster, Foulques de Villaret struck the Order’s first coin or grosso based on the French gros ď argent or “great silver piece”.
On the obverse the coin depicts the Grand Master kneeling in front of a patriarchal double cross. In a sign of humility, de Villaret’s feet are bare, and he wears a Maltese cross on his sleeve. The obverse legend states Fratri Fulcho De Villerto Dei Gratia lerosolymae, which translates roughly as “Brother Folques De Villaret, by the Grace of God of Jerusalem”.
The reverse is dominated by a cross that is surrounded by two concentric rings of legend. This legend reads Magistro Hospitālis Conventus Sancii Johannis Hierosolimitani, or “Master of the Hospital of the Convent of St. John of Jerusalem at Rhodes”.
While the obverse design of this type was copied by the succeeding Grand Masters with only slight variations, the denomination was shifted to that of the Italian gigliato. As a result, the small reverse cross became a cross fleurée. Copying of Napalese silver was not unusual, as many of the Crusader states in the 11th and 12th centuries produced imitations of these high-grade silver coins.
It was Dieudonne de Gozon, who served as Grand Master from 1346 to 1353, that issued the Order’s first gold coin based on the Venetian zecchino. The obverse designs of these coins are very similar, with the Venetian zecchino depicting Andreo Dandolo, the Doge, kneeling before St. Mark, and the Order’s ducat portraying Gozon kneeling before St. John. The ducat’s reverse shows a seated angel facing the open tomb of Christ. Most likely used as presentation pieces, these gold coins are extremely valuable, and “are now among the greatest rarities of all the issues of the Knights”. Examples, when they come to auction, can cost between $20,000 to $45,000 USD.
In addition to these gold and silver denominations, the Order struck a number of anonymous billon deniers during their time on Rhodes. Ordinarily poorly struck, these coins were used as small change and tend to resemble the various small denomination coins produced by the contemporaneous Crusader states.
Knights Hospitaller Rights Revoked
When the Order moved to Malta in 1530, they did so under the protection of Charles V. As a result, there was a dispute over their right to issue coins. While he had granted the “very reverend Grand Master of the Religion and the Order of St. John in feudal perpetuity noble, free and uncontrolled” rights over Malta, the Grand Masters would be required to rule as vassals of the Kingdom of Sicily. The Viceroy of Sicily was directly opposed to this agreement. As such, the Grand Master l’Isle Adam did not travel to Malta until the 26th of October, 1530, to sort out this issue – seven months after his ascension.
Originally, the emperor did not wish to allow them complete sovereignty, even though Pope Nicholas V had previously “recognized the order’s full jurisdiction over its territory” in 1448. This papal declaration had confirmed the Grand Master as an “independent, free prince” who had the right to mint coins. It was, however, soon discovered that Charles had purposefully not included this right in the Order’s new charter.
Pope Clement VII was quickly notified, and the pontiff used his ecclesiastical power to pressure the emperor into granting the Order their full rights. Charles was also fearful of the French, who opposed this major enfeoffment. Additionally, across the Malta Channel, the Master of the Mint at Messina unsuccessfully attempted to lobby the emperor and pontiff to “deny… the right of mintage”. All of this political wrangling resulted in Charles giving his “grudging ascent” for the Order to mint coins “as they had done in Rhodes”.
For a long time, there are no known coins struck by him produced on the island. It was believed that his coins were either struck on Rhodes or in various Italian mints. However, these two ducats mark the evolution in the Order’s gold coins that occurred when they fled Rhodes, with the second coin having been struck on Malta. While both coins were struck by l’Isle Adam, the first has the traditional legends. Instead of naming St. John, the second type spells out l’Isle Adam’s full name and title. Additionally, the reverse legend was changed to COTRA HOSTES TVOS DA MIHI VIRTVTEM, which translates to “Give Me Strength Against Your Enemies”. This “carefully redesign[ing]” of the legends was used to delineate the move from Rhodes to Malta.
That being said, before Grand Master La Valette (r. 1546–1549), there are no extant historical records regarding the Knight’s mint in Malta. While it is clear that there was a facility producing coins on the island starting in 1530, it is unknown where this mint was located. Starting in 1604, the second mint was built on Strada San Sebastiano.
These early coins of the Knights Hospitaller are fascinating – happy collecting!
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).