'No mystery here' say the Knights of Malta

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An ancient Roman Catholic order tried yesterday to dispel the conspiracy theories surrounding it as it buried its Grand Master.

Princess Michael of Kent, a member of The Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta, was present in Rome for the state funeral of Fra Andrew Bertie, 78, the Briton who headed the knights until his death earlier this month. Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, also attended the ceremony at the organisation's headquarters on the Aventine Hill.

The order, which has 12,500 members, was founded in the 11th century to protect the Holy Land, and was a rival to the equally powerful and secretive Knights Templar.

In the Middle Ages it became fabulously wealthy, owning more than 140 estates in the Holy Land and around 19,000 manors in Europe. Its membership was drawn exclusively from Europe's aristocracy, which led conspiracy theorists to accuse it of being part of the "Illuminati", a cabal of nobles bent on controlling the world.

But today, the order has 80,000 volunteers working on charitable projects.

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