Though the decline of the Order was obvious to Europe throughout the eighteenth century, and the value of such a fortress as Malta to a Mediterranean Power apparent to all, yet there is little definite proof of any desire to wrest the island from the Knights. Of all the nations round the Mediterranean, France alone could be said not to be in a state of decay; Venice, Genoa, and Turkey were becoming more and more feeble at sea, and there was little fear of an attack on Malta from any of them; and though Spain paid great attention to her fleet in the second part of the eighteenth century, there was little reason to fear her aggression. Britain was acquiring greater and greater interests in the Mediterranean, but most of her attentions were directed to Spain and France. While the Knights kept their neutrality, however decadent and feeble they might be, there was little fear of their being disturbed. Europe still respected the relics of a glorious past of six centuries of unceasing warfare against the Moslem; but the moment that past with its survivals became itself anathema the Knights and their organisation would collapse at once. The French Revolution meant death to the Knights of the Order of St. John as well as to other bodies of aristocrats.
A wealthy Order of Knights drawn exclusively from the ranks of the nobility was sure to attract the attention of the French revolutionaries. Its international character was a cause of offence to the strong French nationalism engendered during the Revolution, while its traces of monastic organisation helped to identify the Knights with the Church.
When Necker, in the financial distress of the autumn of 1789, appealed for a voluntary contribution from all landowners, the Order gave him a third of the revenue of its French commanderies, and later it pledged its credit for 500,000 francs to the destitute Louis XVI., to help him in the flight that ended so disastrously at Varennes. This last act put it in definite opposition to the Revolution.
The Constituent Assembly declared the Order of St. John to be a foreign Power possessing property in France, and, as such, liable to all taxes to be levied on natives, and immediately afterwards a decree was passed declaring that any Frenchman belonging to an Order of Knighthood which demanded proofs of nobility from entrants could not be considered a French citizen. This was followed by the main attack on September 19, 1792, when all the property in France was declared confiscate and annexed to the French national domains. There was some mention of indemnification to the despoiled Knights, but as the necessary condition to a pension was residence in France—a dangerous course for a noble in 1793 and 1794—the scheme came to naught. The decree of September, 1792, was the death-blow to the Order, and its extinction