The Knights Hospitallers: Courageous Crusaders of Many Names, Homes, and Roles
The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (known simply also as the Knights Hospitaller) was a religious military order that was founded in Jerusalem during the 11th century AD. Although the order was initially established to provide care for poor and sick pilgrims, it later took up arms to defend pilgrims and the Holy Land. After the fall of the Crusader states, the knights relocated and continued their fight against the Muslims. The role played by the Knights Hospitallers in the defense of Christendom allowed the order to maintain its relevance long after the Crusades and the Middle Ages. The order has survived till this day, losing its military role, but retaining its original commitment to care for the poor and sick.
From a Hospital to the Knights Hospitallers
Around 1048, merchants from the Republic of Amalfi (in Italy) obtained permission from the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt to build a church, convent, and hospital in the holy city of Jerusalem. The hospital was founded on the site of the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, and the task of running it was given to a community of Benedictine monks. The monks were to provide care for poor and sick pilgrims who visited the holy city.
Grand master Pierre d’Aubusson & senior Knights Hospitaller. (Public Domain)
In 1099, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was established, following the success of the First Crusade. At that time, the superior of the hospital was a lay brother by the name of Gerard. Under Gerard’s guidance, the community’s work in Jerusalem intensified and more hospitals were founded in Provencal and Italian cities that were along the route to the Holy Land. On February 15, 1113, a papal bull issued by Pope Paschal II recognized the foundation of the hospital, and the order was formally named as the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Although the papal bull placed the order under the Church, it was free to elect its superiors without interference from either secular or religious authorities.
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"Piae Postulatio Voluntatis". Bull issued by Pope Paschal II in 1113 in favor of the Order of St. John Hospitaller, which was to transform what was a community of pious men into an institution within the Church. By virtue of this document, the pope officially recognized the existence of the new organization as an operative and militant part of the Roman Catholic Church, granting it papal protection and confirming its properties in Europe and Asia. (Public Domain)
The reorganization of the Knights Hospitaller into a military occurred partially due to the rise of the Templars. This order was established in 1119 for the protection of pilgrims to the Holy Land and was immensely popular. In order to compete with the Templars for support, the Hospitallers imitated the military role of their rivals, which soon paid off. Nevertheless, the Hospitallers retained their role as care-givers. As a result, the hierarchy of the order consisted of three ranks – knights, chaplains, and serving brothers.
Knight Hospitaller of Saint John. (JLazarusEB/Deviant Art)
Hospitallers on the Move
In 1291, the last major Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land, Acre, fell to the Mamluks. As a consequence, the Hospitallers were forced to move their headquarters to Limassol, on the island of Cyprus. From their new base, the knights built up a naval fleet, which they used to protect pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land by sea. At that time, Cyprus was a Crusader state known as the Kingdom of Cyprus, and the knights sought to acquire a state of their own. The knights targeted the island of Rhodes, which was part of the Byzantine Empire. A fleet landed on the island in 1307, and by 1301, the knights were the new masters of the island. With their new headquarters on Rhodes, the order became known also as the Knights of Rhodes.
Battlements of the Knights’ castle at Rhodes. (Antiquarian/CC BY SA 3.0)
As the Knights of Malta
From Rhodes, the knights continued to develop as a naval force and especially fought against the Barbary pirates. The island was besieged by the Mamluks in 1444 and by the Ottomans under Mehmed II in 1480. The knights withstood both sieges, but fell to the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522. After six months, the knights capitulated and were allowed to leave the island. For the next seven years, the knights were without a base.
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In 1530, Malta was given by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to the Hospitallers (who became known as the Knights of Malta), and the island was held until 1798, when it was conquered by Napoleon, who was on his way to Egypt. During their time on the island, the Hospitallers gradually reduced their military activities and became more focused on providing medical care. Nevertheless, the knights defeated the Ottomans during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 and participated in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The Hospitallers were allowed to return to Malta under the Treaty of Amiens, which was signed in 1802. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1814, however, Malta was given to Great Britain and the knights lost their base once more. Finally, in 1834, the order settled in Rome, where it remains till this day. The Hospitallers, now known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, continues the work of its Medieval forebears in providing medical aid to the poor and the sick.
Coat of arms of the Knights of Malta from the façade of the church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, Florence, Italy. (Sailko/CC BY SA 3.0)
Top image: A modern representation of a member of the Knights Hospitallers. Source: MrElagan/Deviant Art
By Wu Mingren
New World Encyclopedia, 2018. Knights Hospitaller. Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Knights_Hospitaller
Snell, M., 2018. The Knights Hospitaller - Defenders of Sick and Injured Pilgrims. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-knights-hospitaller-1788970
Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, 2018. 1048 to the Present Day. Available at: https://www.orderofmalta.int/history/1048-to-the-present/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Hospitallers. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hospitallers
www.lordsandladies.org, 2017. Knights Hospitaller. Available at: http://www.lordsandladies.org/knights-hospitaller.htm