But following the addition of four such 'Knights of Justice' to its ranks, the ancient military religious order has at last received permission from Pope John Paul II to restore its Grand Priory, abolished by Henry VIII 450 years ago.
'At the moment the Grand Priory is restored only in a spiritual sense because we don't possess any money or any buildings, but I dare say in time we will,' Matthew Festing, a British Knight of Justice and Sotheby's auctioneer said. 'All our properties were confiscated by Henry VIII - I don't suppose for a moment we will get any of them back.' Neither are they likely to recover Knightsbridge and St John's Wood, both of which derive their names from the order and were also confiscated by Henry VIII.
There are 10,000 Knights worldwide, of whom 250 are British, but until last year there were only three top-ranking Knights of Justice. Five were needed for the establishment of a Grand Priory. Now there are seven who, like Mr Festing, have taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. 'We do take our vows very seriously,' Mr Festing, 43, said. 'We are not exactly let off, but we do have a slightly extenuating form of the vow of poverty. I'm not expected to live like a hermit in a mud hut. Because we don't live in a community it's understood that we have to keep a roof over our heads, have a telephone, things like that.'
The only other concession to 20th-century living is that the Knights are absolved from wearing a habit - a black robe sporting a large white Maltese Cross - on a daily basis. 'The habit was dispensed with by Pope Benedict XIV,' Mr Festing said. 'It certainly makes one's daily existence easier. It might raise a few questions if I had to do my auctioneering in it.'
It may also come as something of a relief to other members of the order, such as Bill Cash MP, the Duke of Norfolk and Edward Stourton, the newsreader. Edward Leigh, a former trade and industry minister, was also recently proposed as a Knight of Honour and Devotion.
If he succeeds, he will be joining an organisation that dates back to 1099. 'The first document referring to us is dated 1113,' Mr Festing said. 'We're the third oldest order after the Benedictines and Augustines.'
The poet and the accountant? The poet and novelist to join the Knights of Malta is Alfried Marnau, formerly of Austria and now settled in Britain, the accountant is Freddy Crichton-Stuart. Six out of seven of the Knights, it seems, are former soldiers.Reuse content