The Hospitaliers of Saint John of Jerusalem, better known as the Knights of Malta, originally founded a hospice in Jerusalem to take in and care for pilgrims to the Holy Land.
The Knights of the Order have a long history in Arles. In 1118, the archbishop of Arles, Aton, gave the church of Saint Thomas in Trinquetaille to the hospitaliers, with commander, Étienne Raymond, in charge. A sick room was soon added.
In July 1357, the buildings were destroyed by the townspeople of Arles in an attempt to prevent their use by the looters, led by Arnaud de Servolle, who roamed France after the battle of Poitiers. The Order then retreated behind the walls of the city and in 1358, 1361 and 1392, brother Raymond de Plainchamp, commander of Saint-Thomas, bought three lots of land in the north of the town, in the new burgh.
Melchior Cossa, appointed commander by the pope in 1475 on the recommendation of King René, is behind the construction of some of the buildings we know today. He gave them their austere character, their only decoration being the false machicolation and watchtowers, giving the impression of a defensive building. In 1503, he had the Chapelle Saint-Jean built, where he was later buried.
The Grand-Prieuré of Arles
The turbulence that arose from religious wars and the destruction of the Order's property in Saint-Gilles led to transfer of the headquarters of the Grand Priory to Arles. The commanderie was enlarged and, from 1586 to 1603, an archive room, previously situated on the first floor, was created above the chapel. A brother-archivist looked after the nobiliaires, the registers of nobles who belonged to the Order, and the Order's property deeds.
On 11 Avril 1637, the title of Grand-Prieur was given to Honoré Quiqueran de Beaujeu, the Arles-born commander of Saliers, who was then serving in Malta. He undertook major building improvements to the Grand-Prieuré. He added a gallery to the chapel, over the main entrance, and replaced the old spiral staircase with a new stairway in the cour d'honneur.