Despite the many honours bestowed upon them by the Holy Roman Empire throughout the sixteenth century, the Knights of Malta struggled on a reduced income as many European nations no longer saw the necessity in funding their continued operations after the successful defense of Malta in 1565, and the Christian victory over the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Financial matters for the Order were only compounded by changes in local exchange rates that saw their trading power diminish. Unable to use the barren island they now inhabited for any mercantile gain, the Hospitallers instead expanded their naval mandate protecting Catholic cities on the Mediterranean from the piracy of Ottoman endorsed Barbary Corsairs to include city-states like Venice, using such activities to engage in the outright raiding of Muslim ships.
Seeing the treasures their brothers returned with from these raids, many of which who went on to live idly and luxuriously while becoming privateers with the French and Spanish fleets in search of further treasures to adorn their homes with, the Knights of Malta more and more turned to this dangerous practice. However it is this very activity that resulted in a perceived moral decline of the Order, as they became the preferred mercenaries of the seas. The practice also raised questions about their continued operation, as their direct service of a European power could place them in conflict with another Catholic power and cause a violation of their mandate. Or as in the case of France, with a power that still signed trade agreements and held an informal cease-fire with the Ottoman Empire.
Knights who served in the French navies proved their moral ambivalence and true interests in pursuit of profit, only heightened by the arrival of the High Baroque period which saw a boundless indulgence in covetousness and luxury as members sought to out do the palaces of Europe with the wealth they brought to their Maltese kingdom. Despite vows of poverty, the Hospitallers were permitted to keep a portion of the spoils and prize money awarded for a captured ship. The line as a result between infidel and Christian blurred as the Knights of Malta began to believe themselves above the reach of even the European monarchs.
Armed with the self-proclaimed power to stop and board any shipping suspected of carrying Turkish goods and confiscating their cargo for sale at Valletta along with the ship’s crew, claims by nations being victim to “overzealous” knights seizing their property without just cause rose to such numbers that the authorities in Malta had to establish a court where wronged captains could plea their case. The damage however was already done, as the Knights of Malta were no longer seen as the protectors of Christendom, defending the borders from a remote outpost against a hostile infidel enemy, to yet another nation-state greedily plying the seas for their own gains.