The storied Knights of Malta shaped the Maltese capital of Valletta into a ‘city for gentlemen’, but how much longer can chivalry survive in the modern age?

At 21:00 one Sunday evening this past October, I telephoned Fra John Critien and he was none too pleased. A gentleman does not, he told me, cold call a knight at such an unreasonable hour. The conversation ended there. Click. 

But when I promptly sent him a follow-up email to explain that I had come to Malta to learn how to behave in a manner befitting of the storied knights of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, he responded more willingly the next morning.

“Well, I suppose being a gentleman also means trying to accommodate others even after being taken by surprise on Sunday evening,” he wrote.

And so I met him that Tuesday afternoon at Fort St Angelo, across the Grand Harbour from the Maltese capital city of Valletta, where he has been the sole inhabitant of the stronghold’s secluded upper part since 1998. Dressed in a cream-coloured polo shirt and boat shoes, he greeted me with a warm smile and floated his hand upward. “This way,” the knight said, and we climbed up a rampart.

You may also be interested in:
• The last lighthouse keeper of Capri
• The last of the good Samaritans
• Where being nice is the law

The Order of Malta, founded as the Knights Hospitaller around 1099 in Jerusalem, is a Roman Catholic chivalric society that received the Maltese Islands in a perpetual lease in 1530 from Charles I of Spain in exchange for the promise of one Maltese falcon a year. Grand Master Jean de la Valette, along with his knights, began created the country’s new capital, which would later be described by former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. Today, Fra Critien is the only remaining knight on the archipelago who has taken the Order’s full vows, making him the last true Knight of Malta on Malta.

Fra Critien and I strolled through the upper part of Fort St Angelo, a honey-hued medieval bastion rebuilt in the 16th Century. It served as the Maltese seat of the head of the Order, who was known as the grand master, as well as the Order’s headquarters during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when the Ottomans tried to invade the archipelago. While the bulk of Fort St Angelo is always open to public tours, limited numbers of travellers were able to also tour Fra Critien’s secluded section of the fort this year in conjunction with Valletta’s status as the 2018 European Capital of Culture, though Fra Critien is in negotiations with The Malta Heritage Trust to allow visitors continued access beyond 2018. He also hopes to create a small museum dedicated to ongoing knightly projects.  

We settled in his capacious living room where the walls were adorned with oil paintings of grand masters past, and I straightened my shoulders to match Fra Critien’s noble posture. Given de la Valette’s vision to create a city for gentlemen, I wanted Fra Critien to reflect on what exactly it means to be a gentleman in the eyes of the Order.

The Order’s official motto, ‘tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum’ (‘defence of the faith and assistance to the poor’), clearly defines its dedication to religion and charity. “In the past, the defence of the faith was riding horses, fighting enemies,” Fra Critien said. “Now we can defend the faith by being an example to those around us.”

Though conduct such as donations and work with hospitals and youth programmes demonstrate the medieval gallantry of the knights of Malta, Fra Critien explained that knights and proper gentlemen both display a key characteristic: humble pride.

“I hope there is an ‘ooo-ah’ reaction when we wear our uniforms or church robes,” he said. “But what I pray is that I don’t take myself too seriously as a result.”

I see no great difference between being a knight and a gentleman

Today, he explained, the Order has some 100 knights and dames (as female members are known) in Malta. Worldwide, from New York to London to Rome, there are about 13,500 knights and dames in the Order. But many find it difficult to take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that Fra Critien has – hence his status as the lone full knight on Malta and one of only about 55 in the Order worldwide.

“Is the gentleman a dying breed?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, to a certain extent, yes,” he replied.

Fra Critien, though, believed that one doesn’t need to be a knight to act like one. “To be honest, I see no great difference between being a knight and a gentleman,” he said.

The next day when I arrived at Casa Rocca Piccola in Valletta, I made sure to hold my carriage upright in a gentlemanly posture. The home of Marquis Nicholas de Piro, a member of the Order of Malta who comes from one of Malta’s famous aristocratic families, retains its 16th-Century Baroque elegance with a limestone facade that glows gold in the late afternoon sun. Today, the marquis and his wife offer tours through their historical abode’s maze of rooms.

“Everybody thinks being a knight is just being posh, or being smart or being grand,” the marquis told me as we stood in his sun-dappled garden next to his parrot, Kiku. But the real impact of the Order of Malta, he stressed as he adjusted his maroon sweater, is in charity work.

Misbehaviour among knights is also a big no-no, he added. For instance, Renaissance bad-boy Caravaggio became a knight of the Order after he arrived on the island in 1607 from Rome, where he’d killed a man in a duel. Because they needed a court painter, the knights gave Caravaggio the benefit of the doubt. The creation of his largest and only signed work, The Beheading of St John, which remains on display at Valletta’s St John’s Co-Cathedral, secured his value to the Order. But a year later when he was arrested for his participation in what many assume to be a brawl, the knights imprisoned the artist at Fort St Angelo and expelled him from the Order.

As we toured his home, the marquis revealed another knightly attribute. He insisted knights often demonstrate a shred of humour, even amid their valour. He mentioned the gravestone of Anselme de Cays, a famed 18th-Century knight of the Order who is buried in St John’s Co-Cathedral. The inscription on his marble tomb begins, ‘Qui me calcas calcaberis’ (‘He who treads on me will be trodden upon’), in a statement that, according to the marquis, is meant to be a humorous challenge.

After bidding farewell to the marquis, I headed for a sundowner at The Phoenicia Hotel’s Club Bar, where for some 30 years Pierre ‘Pitro’ Walton has been head bartender and served the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and Frank Sinatra. As I was trying to review my lessons in gallantry – humble pride, charity work, valour, humour – I wondered what Walton, a commoner like myself, thought of his country’s knightly legacy.

The same blood of the knights flows through the veins of Maltese men

“To be a proper knight, you have to have a big sword and go to battle, but the same blood of the knights flows through the veins of Maltese men,” Walton told me. This is why, he continued, the Maltese are known for their hospitality.

Hospitals – and by extension, hospitality – are integral to the Order’s duties, Walton said. In fact, it was an 11th-Century Jerusalem health facility for refugees that marked the Order’s emergence. Later, Valletta’s famed 16th-Century Sacra Infermeria hospital – now the Mediterranean Conference Centre – welcomed everyone, from beggar to noble. It was here that the knights set medical standards, such as changing bed linens and using silver plates and utensils, but also had chemists create innovative honey-based healing salves.  

Of course, Walton’s medicine comes in cocktail form. After telling me about the openness of the Maltese, he served me a St Elmo, a legend of chivalry in elixir form to commemorate the Great Siege of Malta. In it was Bajtra (prickly pear liqueur for the Maltese), gin (for the British), Cointreau (for the French), lime (for the sour sting of life) and cranberry juice (for the blood).

“Now sit back,” he said, straightening the napkin on the table in front of me.

As I sipped my St Elmo, which sparkled like a ruby in the martini glass, the teachings of the Order swirled in my head. And for the first time since meeting Fra Critien, I felt my shoulders relax.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed the quote "a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen" to Grand Master Jean de la Valette. We regret the error.

Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.