His Most Eminent Highness Fra’ Andrew Willoughby Ninian Bertie (pronounced “Barty”), who has died aged 78, was Prince and Grand Master of the Order of Malta, that is, the Knights of Saint John. It was pointed out by Paul Johnson that he was, in technical fact, “The Grandest Living Englishman.” He was the 78th and first British, Grand Master of the Order, and breathed new life into it.
Tracing who is who, in the various Orders of St. John, can be mind-bogglingly difficult. There is always a risk that the bearer of some sonorous and ancient-sounding title in fact heads an Order created on the Internet last week. Some Orders are more respectable than others, and the various degrees of legitimacy would fill a book.
But the Order which was headed by Fra’ Bertie (grandson of an Earl on his father’s side and a Marquess on his mother’s, a distant cousin of the Queen and a former Scots Guards officer) is The Real Thing, its title (let’s be careful and really try to get it right!) being given among other things as: “The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ,” or the “Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes, and Chevaliers of Malta,” or, as I have heard some of lesser orders put it with a mixture of awe and envy, simply “the real knights.”
Anyway, these were the same Knights of Saint John who had protected pilgrims in the Holy Land from the earlier days of the Crusades, emerging just before 1100, and who, in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, held off an attacking force of Turks and Saracen pirates for four months, the captains standing the Gate who preserved the Mediterranean for Christendom. There were about 500 knights, and about 5,600 other Christian defenders, including some galley-slaves. One chronicler recorded with wonder that, inspired by their heroism, some Jews joined them in manning a doomed outpost, though at that time Jews had little reason to love the knights. The numbers of the attackers are uncertain but figures have been given of up to 48,000 Ottoman troops and Moorish Corsairs.
The knight’s leader then was the aged but mighty Jean Parisot de Valette. His secretary, Sir Oliver Starkey, like Fra Bertie, was that great rarity in the higher reaches of the Order, an Englishman. La Valette regarded him as indispensable. There was a Crypt in Malta’s Co-Cathedral reserved for the very greatest of the Grand Masters, and Sir Oliver is the only non-Grand Master to be buried there. He was also given the honor of composing Valette’s epitaph. There were also a couple of English Catholic gentleman volunteers at the Great Siege, but since Henry VIII had dissolved the Catholic Orders of Chivalry, Sir Oliver Starkey was the only English Knight of the Order. He had to be good. Even the Protestant Queen Elizabeth was watching the outcome fearful for the fate of Christendom if the Turks prevailed. The garrison endured what was probably the most fearful and sustained artillery bombardment in history to that date. There were few left alive on either side when relief finally arrived and the surviving Turks fled.
The Knights, were, however, a medical and hospitaller even before they were a military order. Their hospital in Malta survives as well as their palace and Co-Cathedral, and all are, to say the least, well worth a visit, which is an understated way of saying they are astonishing. The hospital was probably the best and most advanced in the world in its day.
THE ORDER WAS evicted from Malta by Napoleon in 1798, but since 1834 has occupied a Palazzo between Italy and the Vatican, possibly the world’s smallest Sovereign State (unlike some other micro-mini states it issues internationally valid passports). It also has some sovereign territory in various embassies, including, thanks to Fra’ Bertie, an embassy again in one of the ancient fortifications of Malta. The relationship between the knights and the ordinary Maltese had not always been good, but any breach is healed now, as was symbolized by Fra’ Bertie’s award of an honorary doctorate in Jurisprudence by the University of Malta in 1993. Fra’ Bertie doubled the Order’s diplomatic missions around the world to about 100.
Although it has given up its military role, the Order, whose higher officers are Catholics with proof of nobility and who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, continues to do charitable work in many parts of the world. Its galleys no longer sweep the Mediterranean of Moorish corsairs, but it runs ambulance boats on African lakes. Fra’ Bertie said: “Our aims today are exactly the same as they were in 1099, the sanctification of our members through service to the sick.” The Order, with about 12,500 members and about 80,000 volunteer support staff plus about 13,000 doctors and other medical personnel, does recognizably that it did in the beginning.
It specializes in helping refugees and victims of war and disaster. Fra’ Bertie, though a self-effacing man, is judged to have been one of the most successful Grand Masters of the modern era. He greatly increased its membership and the scope of its activities, and expanded its work into new remote areas.
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