The head of the Knights of Malta has resigned on the request of Pope Francis, the ancient Catholic order has said.

The resignation of Grand Master Matthew Festing ends a bitter month-long dispute linked to the use of condoms that had become a test of the reforming pope's authority over conservatives in the Church.

Pope Francis asked him to step down at a meeting yesterday. Grand masters of the institution, which was founded in the 11th Century, usually keep their positions for life.

The Vatican said that the pontiff will appoint a personal delegate to run the order temporarily following Mr Festing's resignation.

Mr Festing and the Vatican have been locked in a bitter dispute since one of the order's top knights, Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, was sacked in December in the chivalric equivalent of a boardroom showdown - ostensibly because he allowed the use of condoms in a medical project for the poor.

Mr Von Boeselager appealed to the pope, who appointed a five-member commission to look into the unusual circumstances of the sacking, but Mr Festing refused to co-operate and called the commission illegitimate.

Mr Festing's resignation was the latest twist in a battle of wills between the heads of two of the world's oldest institutions.

Mr Festing, who is British, had denounced the papal commission as intervention in the order's sovereign affairs, accused members of having a conflict of interest and defiantly set up his own internal commission.

The Vatican, in turn, rejected what it said was an attempt to discredit members of the commission and ordered the leaders of the institution to cooperate with the inquiry.

The papal commission was due to deliver its findings to the pope at the end of the month.

The all-male top leaders of the Knights of Malta are not clerics, but they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope.

The institution has 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers worldwide.

The order, formed in the 11th Century to provide protection and medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land, has the status of a sovereign entity.

It maintains diplomatic relations with over 100 states and the European Union and permanent observer status at the United Nations.

When Mr Festing fired Mr Von Boeselager, he accused the German of hiding the fact that he allowed the use of condoms when he ran Malteser International, the order's humanitarian aid agency.

Mr Von Boeselager and his supporters say the condom issue was an excuse by Mr Festing and Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an arch-conservative who has accused the pope of being too liberal, to increase their power.