After its expulsion from Rhodes, the Order was deprived of its sovereign territory and had to content itself with a temporary home for seven years. The Holy Roman Emperor at the time was the Hapsburg Charles V, who was also King of Spain and Hungary. Hungary was then partly occupied by the Ottomans and his Spanish possessions in the Mediterranean were under constant attack from Turkish marauders. Their common enemy brought the Knights and the Emperor together and, seeking urgent relief in the defence of his southern flank, the Emperor was conscious of the need to ensure a strong Order in the Mediterranean with an impregnable base capable of keeping the Turks at bay. One of his possessions as King of Sicily was the archipelago of Malta which with its fine harbours and strategic position was the obvious choice as a home for the Order.
The decision to enfeoff the islands was reached as early as 1523 but was delayed because of French opposition at a time when Europe was torn by a war between the Emperor and France allied with a number of German states. In 1530 however Malta was given to the Order for the peppercorn annual rent of one falcon and Grandmaster Villiers de l’Isle Adam took formal possession.
Malta had two main cities, its capital Mdina in the centre of the island and Birgu, later to be renamed Vittoriosa by a grateful Order for its role in the Great Siege, on the main harbour.
The position of Birgu, with its castello of St Angelo, on a promontory of the Grand Harbour made the Knights look no further for their new Headquarters and they lost no time in strengthening the defences for the inevitable Muslim invasion. Under Homedes, the bastions were fortified and a sea-filled ditch dug around St Angelo. Grandmaster La Sengle transformed the Isla promontory across the inlet to the east into the city of Senglea enclosing it with bastions and constructing Fort St Michael to defend its land approach. He also built Fort St Elmo at the entrance to the harbour on the tip of the main promontory of Mt Sceberras.
The first Muslim assault was made in 1551 by a Turkish armada under the command of Dragut which was successfully repulsed by Malta. The sister island of Gozo fared less well, however, as the Turks managed to ravage the island and take almost the entire population into slavery.
Soliman II the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was at first reluctant to engage the knights again but by 1565 he was swayed by a majority of his Divan, or Grand Council, into making the final onslaught on the Order. On May 19 a fleet of 200 galleons bearing some 40,000 men landed in the bay of Marsaxlokk and the siege began. The isolated fort of St Elmo resisted a sustained attack until June 23 when its already tiny garrison by then reduced to some 100 souls was finally overwhelmed and all but 2 or 3 who managed to swim across the harbour to Birgu slaughtered.
The Muslims could now concentrate all their forces on St Angelo and Birgu itself. Under the inspired leadership of Grandmaster La Valette, the staunch defenders held out in spite of the carnage. By September 7 no more than 600 men were fit enough to continue the fight; the walls had been subjected to weeks of continuous bombardment and Fort St Michael was on the verge of collapse. Providentially the long awaited relief force, il Gran Soccorso appeared, spreading panic among the Muslims. On the feast of the Blessed Virgin the next day, the Turkish fleet fled from Malta and since that day, the 8th September has been celebrated as a National Feast by both the Order and Malta.
La Valette’s first task after the victory was to build an impregnable city on Mt Sceberras which was to become the capital city of Malta, and named Valletta to commemorate him. He died before it was completed but was buried in the existing church of Our Lady of Victories in the city. His remains were later translated to the Cathedral of St John where they lie to this day.
The Order moved its Headquarters to the new city on 18th March 1571 and Birgu lost its importance but it still retains its impressive fortifications and boasts a number of the original auberges.