February 15, 1113: Who Were the Knights Hospitaller?

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A Brief History

On February 15, 1113, the reigning Pope of the Catholic Church, Pope Paschal II, issued a Papal Bull titled “Pie Postulatio Voluntatis,” recognizing the Order of Hospitallers, a military order of Catholic knights that had existed in the Holy Land since about 1099.  The order had begun in Jerusalem during the 11th Century in service of an Amalfitan (established by people from the Italian city-state of Amalfi) hospital that was founded in Jerusalem to see to the medical needs of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, part of the Christian Crusades.  Known more formally as The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, the Hospitallers saw themselves as protectors of Christian pilgrims in a very dangerous land teeming with robbers and warring factions.

Digging Deeper

Once the Order was recognized by the Papal Charter, the knights were formally tasked with defending the Christian Holy Land against Muslim usurpers that would overturn Christian rule.  The Order established their headquarters on the island of Rhodes, an island over which they held total sovereignty.  The original mission of the Order did not last long, as the Christian rulers of Jerusalem were beaten by the Muslims in 1187 and the Knights were forced to move to the city of Tripoli (in what is now Lebanon, not the one in Libya).  Once even this area had fallen to the Muslims, the Order established their headquarters on the island of Rhodes, an island over which they held total sovereignty which was taken by conquest.  A previous attempt to establish its base on the island of Cyprus found the Knights enmeshed in politics and yearning for their own territory without interference from a parent government, which led to the invasion of Rhodes.  While masters of Rhodes, the Order also absorbed a few other small islands in the area into their realm.

Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson with senior knights, wearing the “Rhodian cross” on their habits. Dedicatory miniature in Gestorum Rhodie obsidionis commentarii (account of the Siege of Rhodes of 1480), BNF Lat 6067 fol. 3v, dated 1483/4.

In 1312, Pope Clement V disbanded the more famous Knights Templar, turning over a fair amount of the holding of the Templars to the Hospitallers.  With these new territories and riches, the Hospitallers now had branches in 8 regions, called “Tongues” or “Langues,” including Aragon, Castile, France, Provence, England, Holy Roman Empire, Italy and Auvergne.  Battles with the Barbary Pirates, Egypt, and especially the Ottomans (who had conquered the Byzantines and Constantinople by 1453) followed, as well as battles in the Holy Land in defense of remaining Christian enclaves.

Also called The Knights of Rhodes, the Hospitallers were granted the island of Malta in 1530, by the King of Spain, Charles I, who gave them Malta in his capacity as also being the King of Sicily.  The Order was also granted a fiefdom over the North African city of Tripoli and the island of Gozo.  The Hospitallers paid a tribute of one Maltese Falcon to the King for these lands.  (Unlike the famous movie from 1941, this annual tribute was in the form of an actual bird of prey, a real falcon.)  Also in return, the Knights promised to not turn their military power against the interests of Spain and its allies.

Theatrical release poster

The Ottomans were upset that their nemeses, the Hospitallers, had landed a new base of operations, and launched an invasion of Malta in 1565 known as the Great Siege of Malta.  About 40,000 Ottomans invaded Malta defended by only 6100 Knights Hospitaller (who were aided by another 3000 or so civilians), and over half the Knights were killed.  Sicily failed to respond to assist the Knights, despite orders to do so from Spain, possibly in fear of leaving Sicily and Naples naked to Ottoman attack.  The situation appeared hopeless, but as the Knights began to actually prevail, assistance from Sicily finally arrived as the Ottomans had been suffering from summer heat, diseases, lack of food and ammunition, and decreasing morale.  By September of 1565, the surviving 15,000 Ottomans got on their ships and sailed back to Constantinople.  Only 600 Knights Hospitaller remained, over 90% of their number had been killed, wounded or died.  The Great Siege of Malta was the last time (probably) in history when a force of knights was victorious in a major battle.

By this time, that is, the 16th Century, there were no longer Christian Holy Lands for the Knights to protect.  The Protestant Reformation in Europe and the Schism eliminated many sources of patrons of the Order.  Looking for a new mission, a raison d’être if you will, the Hospitallers turned to the New World, and set about colonizing 4 small Caribbean islands in the name of the Order.  Those islands were ceded to France by the 1660’s.  The Knights turned to raiding Muslim ships as a source of income and a reason for existing, while some of the Knights went into the military service of the larger nations.  Many of the Knights seem to have lost their way morally and lived a life of plunder and leisure.

Map by Fishal of the order’s territories in the Caribbean.

The Knights Hospitaller had found a stronghold on the island of Malta, and over the years had built up considerable defenses on the island.  They ruled Malta for 268 years, until the French, led by Napoleon Bonaparte on his way to invading Egypt, invaded and seized Malta in 1798.  The Knights were now dispersed throughout Europe, with no base or headquarters and had ceased to exist as an important entity.  Many of the Knights found refuge in St. Petersburg, Russia, one of the few places to welcome their presence.  The grateful Knights elected Czar Paul I (1754-1801) as their Grandmaster, though as a non-Catholic the Czar was not “officially” sanctioned by the Church.  Pope Leo XIII restored a Catholic Grand Master to the order 1879, which gave the organization a new lease on life, this time as a charitable organization of religious and humanitarian pursuits.  Meanwhile, the controversy over the legitimacy of the appointment of Czar Paul as Grandmaster gave rise to competing claims of the true leadership of the Order, and with it the “right” to claim the island of Malta.

Today the Order survives in the forms of several competing organizations, each of which claim to be the rightful heir to the title of the Knights Hospitaller.  In 2013, the discovery of the ruins of the original hospital of the Amalfitans in Jerusalem was announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority.  Measuring a whopping 150,000 square feet in area, the hospital served as many as 2000 patients at a time.  Many of the children of patients, especially orphans, became Knights of Rhodes.

Israel Antiquities Authority storage room.  Photograph by תמר הירדני.

Questions for Students (and others): Have you heard of the Knights Hospitallers?  Do you believe military orders of knights have a place within a church structure?  Are you familiar with The Crusades?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land.  Ecco, 2010.

Bedford, WKR. Malta And The Knights Hospitallers. Digital Text Publishing Company, 2011.

Bradford, Ernie. The Shield and the Sword: The Knights of St. John. Hodder and Stoughton, 1972.

Bradford, Ernie. The Great Siege, Malta 1565: Clash of Cultures: Christian Knights Defend Western Civilization Against the Moslem Tide. Open Road Media, 2014.

The featured image in this article, the flag of the Order of St John from http://www.orderofmalta.int/government/flags-emblems/ (original upload: en:Image:Flag of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.svg) by Zscout370, has been released into the public domain by its author, Zscout370 at English Wikipedia.  This applies worldwide.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.