The Military Orders
Part Two: The Hospitallers
Although the Knights Templar was the first and most famous of the military
orders, much of their fame today is tied to their dramatic fall. But the ultimately
most successful and important of the military orders was the Templars' great
rival, theSovereign Military Hospital and Order of St. John of Jerusalem,
or the Knights Hospitaller.
The Order's precise origins have been obscured in legend and romance, but precede
both monastic knighthood and the Crusades. All accounts name the founder as
one Gerald or Gerard Tum (also referred to as Tune, Tenque or Thom). Gerard
was likely born at Amalfi around 1040, and had come to Jerusalem with a merchant
caravan sometime prior to the First Crusade. This is where accounts begin to
differ. In some, Gerard was a merchant, in others, a soldier. Some claim that
he chose to remain in Jerusalem, and assumed the management of an Amalfian hospice
within the pilgrim's quarters of the city. This hospice was staffed by Benedictines
and dedicated to St. John of Alexandria. But other accounts say that he built
a new hospice and infirmary just outside the Holy Sepulchre, and dedicated it
to St. John the Baptist. Regardless, his title as founder is attested to by
a contemporary official document, the Bull of Paschal II of 1113, referring
to him as the founder of a hospice of St John the Baptist. This was renewed
and confirmed by Calixtus II shortly before Gerard's death in 1120.
Gerard Tum, founder of the
Hospitallers, from an 18th c engraving.
However Gerard's hospice came into being, it flourished with the establishment
of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099. Grateful pilgrims bequeathed the
hospice with territory and on-going sources of revenue, enabling Gerard's
successor, Raymond of Provence (1120-60), to build newer, larger buildings
around the church of the Holy Sepulchre. He also shifted the focus from
travelers' hospice to hospital. Strictly speaking, therefore, the Hospitallers
of Jerusalem began with Raymond of Provence. Raymond wrote the Order's
Rule, based on that of the Augustians, which established the Order's first
goal as the permanent maintenance of a hospital, staffed at its expense
with five physicians and three surgeons, with the monastic brothers serving
as attendants and administrators. There was no mention in the Rule about
knights or military duties.
As the hospital continued to grow and thrive, Raymond added a second
innovation: an armed escort to protect pilgrims. He drew this escort from
newly arrived, European knights andturcopoles(light cavalry,
recruited from among the natives of mixed blood). Raymond also created
the first two military offices: amarshal, to command the knights,
and aturcopolier, for the turcopoles, to manage this private army.
It is unclear precisely how this military attachment transformed the entire
organization into a military order, but it was probably inspired by the
growing fame and prominence of the Knights Templar, who has been established
The Templar's influence on the growing Order of St. John was obvious. Like
the Templars, the Order was exempted from all authority save that of the Pope,
paid no tithes and owned its own buildings. Like the Templars, as the Hospital
expanded beyond its Jerusalem headquarters, the Order establishedpriories,
which were further subdivided intobailiwicks, comprised of multiplecommanderies. Although these commanderies were always established around
a hospital, they were also carefully designed as a military instillation. Finally,
the Hospitaller knights followed their Templar brethren in adopting a distinctive
habit: a white "e;Maltese"e; cross on a black surcoat or cloak. In warfare,
this mantle might be exchanged for a red surcoat with a white cross.
The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (c.1090 - 1291)
By the mid-12th century, the Hospitaller knights were clearly considered
"e;military brothers"e;, co-equal with the infirmarians and subject
to the Rule of the Order. Although nothing in the Rule gave precedence
to the knights when determining overall leadership, it was perhaps inevitable
in a warrior culture that the martial arm would come to dominate the Order's
administration. Beginning with Gosbert, the fifth successor to Raymond,
all of the Order's grandmasters were knights, and routinely led the knights
into battle personally. Nevertheless, the first specific mention of military
service was not appended to the Rule until the statutes of the ninth grand
master, Alfonso of Portugal (c. 1200). Alfonso made a clear distinction
between confrere, secular knights who served for a pre-specified time
(usually of one to seven years), and monastic knights, who took the same
three vows as the infirmarians. Chaplains, or ordained priests, formed
the Order's third division.
By the time the Kingdom of Jerusalem reached its height under Kings Baldwin
III, Amalric and Baldwin IV (1160s - 1180s), the Hospitallers had over
140 estates throughout the kingdom, and over ten times that number in
Europe. They also built or took command of seven massive strongholds,
including the impenetrable Krak des Chevaliers, the most famous and impressive
of all the Crusader fortresses. Originally built by the Syrians of Aleppo,
during the 1170s the Hospitallers expanded it into the largest fortress
in the Holy Land, creating a concentric castle by adding an outer wall
three meters thick with seven guard towers eight to ten meters thick,
and adding a dry moat and barbican. The fortress held about 50-60 Hospitallers
and up to 2,000 turcopoles and foot soldiers. The Order's grandmaster
lived in one of the towers.
Krak des Chevalier
The Temple and the Hospital were both military Orders, headquartered
in Jerusalem, and with similar, papal dispensations, so it is no surprise
that a fierce rivalry developed between them. Unfortunately, this rivalry
played its own part in destabilizing the Crusader kingdom. Kings and generals
were reliant upon the Orders' combined might, but they also had to navigate
the jealousy and competition they felt for one another. On the battlefield,
each Order demanded to be given the most perilous posts - the van and
rear guard. Of these, the vanguard had the most prestige, so it became
impossible for a commander to simply assign one Order to the rear and
one to the van without someone taking offence. Peace could only be achieved
by having the two Orders alternate who held which position. While this
achieved political peace, it added needless complexity to the kingdom's
After Saladin captured Jerusalem, the Hospitallers only remaining Levantine
possessions were in the Principality of Tripoli. They lost these a little
over a century later when Acre fell in 1291. Fortunately, as with their
rivals of the Temple, the Hospitaller's great wealth and European possessions
allowed them to survive the loss of their Asian possessions. Still wealthy,
well-armed and well-numbered, the Order retreated to the city of Limassol,
on the island Kingdom of Cyprus, where they already had possessions.
A 14h century depiction of the Hospitaller Grandmaster
and his knights.
The Knights of Cyprus and Rhodes (1309 - 1522)
Although King Amaury Lusginan had granted the Order a new home, the knights
quickly found themselves drawn into the internal politics of the island kingdom.
Guillaume de Villaret, the 24th grandmaster of the Order, determined that the
only way to protect its autonomy was to acquire a desmesne of its own. He chose
the island of Rhodes, which was under Greek Byzantine rule. Guillaume died before
further plans could be made, and the conquest of the island passed to his successor
and nephew, Fulk de Villaret.
Besieging an island required the knights to transform from a cavalry-based
army to a naval power. Fulk proved up to the task, equipping the Order with
galley fleets, built on the Venetian model. The attack on Rhodes and its surrounding
islands was launched in 1307, and the island capitulated two years later. The
Order of St. John had a new home.
Although considered the same Order, the Knights of Rhodes differed in practice
from their Jerusalem-based antecedents in many ways. Firstly, the Order was
now a temporal principality, with the sole responsibility and authority over
its island territories. Secondly, the Order now found itself a naval power,
with a unique position between Latin, Greek and Muslim territories. Rather than
protecting pilgrim routes, their new role was to patrol seaways; their galleys
giving chase to Muslim sea pirates, and in turn praying against Turkish merchant
The third change was the Order's sudden rise in wealth and numbers with the
unforeseen suppression of the Templars in 1312. This required the Order to reorganize
yet again, dividing itself into "e;nations"e;, priories and commanderies.
Each of the eight nations, loosely corresponding to an existing kingdom, was
led by one of the eight senior officers of the Order. The grandmaster was elected
from these eight officers, and ruled from Rhodes. He had supreme authority,
but ruled with a curia regis comprised of both the leaders of the eight nations,
and a local "e;supreme council"e;. Each nation was subdivided into three
priories, and the priories were divided into 656 commanderies.
The Knights of Rhodes used their new wealth to build an impressive navy. Throughout
the 14th century, they progressively turned from naval patrol to raiding Levantine
coastal cities, targeting the wealthy ports of Egypt, which the Mameluke sultans
proved powerless to stop. But in the 15th century a new power arose in the Orient;
the Ottoman Turks. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Sultan,
Mehmet II, decided to turn his attention to the Order, which was now the largest
threat to Muslim ships.
The Siege of Rhodes, 1480
The Order found itself waging a defensive war for its survival. After
years of skirmishing, in 1480 Mehmet personally led an attack in with
50 ships and 70,000 men which struck at Rhodes itself. Bolstered by reinforcements
from France, the Order repulsed the invaders and broke the siege. Their
success bought the knights another two generations of military stalemate.
But when the Ottomans returned in 1522, the new Sultan, Suleiman II, determined
to overwhelm them with sheer numbers. Rhodes was besieged by a fleet of
400 ships and an army of 100,000 - 140,000 men. Against this horde, Grandmaster
Pierre d'Aubusson had a force of 7,000 men. Only the Venetian garrison
at Crete answered his call for aid. The Knights resisted daily onslaughts
for six months. By the end of November, both sides were demoralized, exhausted,
and suffering from disease. Suleiman offered the citizens peace, their
lives and food if they surrendered, versus a promise of torture, death
or slavery for continued resistance. On 22 December the inhabitants of
Rhodes accepted Suleiman's terms. The knights were given twelve days to
leave the island and allowed to take their weapons and any valuables or
religious icons. Native islanders who wished to leave were given a three
year passport off of the island, and those who remained were granted a
five year exemption from taxation. Finally, the Sultan forbade his troops
from desecrating any churches, or converting them into mosques.
On 1 January 1523, the remaining knights and soldiers marched out of
the town in full military order, armed and armoured, with banners flying
and drums beating. The show of strength belied the reality; the ships
they boarded had been leant to them by Suleiman himself. They sailed to
Crete, accompanied by several thousand civilians. The second phase of
the Order's history had come to an end, but it was about to once more
rise like a phoenix.
The Knights of Malta (1530 - 1798)
After the flight to Crete, the leadership of the Order came to Sicily, which
was then under Spanish rule. The grandmaster appealed to Charles V to provide
his Order with a new home, and was granted the island of Malta, along with the
cities of Gozo and Tripoli. In Malta, the knights swiftly built a small fleet
of galleys and turned to fighting the Barbary pirates. As nominal vassals of
the Spanish king, they proved useful in aiding Charles V in his expeditions
against Tunis and Algiers.
The Ottomans were not happy to see the Order resettled, and in 1565 a new expedition
was launched against Malta. The island's 700 knights and 8000 soldiers were
besieged by an invasion force of about 40,000 men. Initially the siege seemed
destined to be a repeat of Rhodes, as the Turks seized half of the island, slaughtered
about half of the knights, and destroyed nearly the entire old city. But as
the siege dragged on throughout the summer, the tide slowly turned against the
Turks, and disease ran rampant through their camp. The siege was broken in September
by a relieving Spanish army, thereby giving the Hospitallers the victory. The
retreating Turks are said to have left with more than half of their army slain.
A new city was built, and named Valette, in memory of the Order's grandmaster
who led the island throughout the siege.
While the knights would also gain renown for their aiding of the Venetian fleet
at the great naval battle of Lepanto (1571), which decisively broke Ottoman
sea power, these were the final great deeds of an Organization which had endured
for over half a millennia. After Lepanto, the history of the Knights of Malta
becomes nothing more than an endless series of inconclusive raids and naval
actions against the pirates of the Barbary Coast. Many charged that the Knights
became little more than corsairs themselves, rescuing Christian slaves and selling
those captured Turks that were deemed unsuitable to rowing in one of the Order's
galleys. Certainly, slaving became one of the largest enterprises in Malta,
and both the island and the Order slowly gained a reputation for decadence.
In 1581, Grandmaster Jean de la Cassière was the victim of a revolt by
his own knights. Their principle demand was enforcement of the vow of celibacy
and the expulsion of the concubines and courtesans that were found throughout
the capital. Outside of Malta, individual commanderies became increasingly autonomous,
the knights carving out small, island fiefs for themselves.
The overall decay of the Order was probably hastened by the Protestant Reformation,
as large swathes of the Order's property were confiscated by Protestant nobles,
particularly in German-speaking lands. With the Order's power weakened and its
prestige badly damaged, even Catholic monarchs began to encroach upon the commanderies,
absorbing a territory and recasting it as a monarchical, ceremonial "e;knightly
order"e;, while keeping the local treasury for themselves.
In the end, Malta did not fall to the cannons of the Turks, but in a bloodless
betrayal by its own grandmaster, Count Ferdinand von Hompesch. On 12 June 1798,
Napoleon Bonaparte asked for the right to harbor and resupply his ships during
his expedition to Egypt. Once inside Valletta, Napoleon turned on his hosts,
and von Hompesch immediately surrendered the island and all of the Order's holdings.
His defense was the rather hollow argument that the Order's Rule forbade fighting
against fellow Christians. Von Hompesh resigned his position and abandoned the
island in disgrace, signaling an apparent end to the Knights of St. John.
And yet, the remnants of the Order persisted, rising from the ashes as it had
twice before. While over 90% of its holdings had been lost, and there was no
grandmaster, individual commanderies persisted, mostly in Eastern Europe, where
the Order had found a patron in the Russian Czar. When the Order was summoned
to attend the first of the Geneva Conventions (1864) it was recognized as both
a military and humanitarian organization, and given an equal seat with the other
nations of Europe. This set the stage for Pope Leo XIII to reinstitute the office
of the grandmaster in 1879. At that time, the pope also reaffirmed the conditions
for admission to the Order: membership in the Catholic faith, nobility of lineage,
attainment of full legal age, and a recognized integrity of character. The Knights
entered the 20th century with a return to their roots as humanitarians and medical
personnel, based out of four commanderies: three in Italy and one in the Czech
Republic. In the final years of the 20th century, the Order was allowed to return
to the island of Malta, and established its headquarters in the Fort St. Angelo,
on the escorts of Valletta.
Brockman, Eric.The two sieges of Rhodes. 1480 - 1522. London 1969.
Nicholson, Helen J.,The Knights Hospitaller, 2001
Peyrefitte, Roger.Knights of Malta, 1968
Pickles, T.Malta 1565: Last Battle of the Crusades; Osprey Campaign
Series #50, 1998.
Seward, Desmond,The Monks of War: The military religious orders, 1972.
Tenison, EM.,A Short History of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem: from
its earliest foundation in 1014 to the end of the Great War of 1914 - 1918.
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From the Pen of History- The Tumultuous 15th Century