Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Knights of Malta, and Chevaliers of Malta
Ordre des Hospitaliers
The Hospitalier Maréchal Mathieu de Clermont defending the walls. Siege of Acre, 1291. Versailles.
|Type||Western Christian military order|
|Nickname||Order of Knights Hospitaller|
|Patron||St. John the Baptist|
|Engagements||The Crusades, including:
Siege of Acre (1291)
The Knights Hospitaller (also known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Order of St. John, Knights of Malta, and Chevaliers of Malta; French: Ordre des Hospitaliers) was a Christian organization that began as an Amalfitan hospital founded in Jerusalem in 1080, to provide care for poor, sick, or injured pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the Western Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, during the First Crusade, it became a religious/military order under its own charter, and was charged with the care and defense of the Holy Land. Following the loss of the Holy Land by Christian forces, the Order operated from Rhodes, over which it was sovereign, and later from Malta where it administered a vassal state under the Spanish viceroy of Sicily.
At times it competed in popularity with the Knights Templar, a more clandestine organization that developed the pan-European banking system which eventually made it the target of a zealous, impoverished French King Philip IV The Fair, leading to its dissolution in 1312. From their base in Malta, where they policed the seas, the Hospitallers survived much longer. They never ceased to function as healers and care-givers, so their humanitarian work was sustained alongside their military function. When Napoleon Bonaparte captured Malta in 1798, the Knights ceased to be associated with any one place, and splintered into various successor organizations until the present day, including the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the Order of St John of Jerusalem, which runs volunteer ambulances and represents the humanitarian and medical legacy of the parent order. Heirs of the order made important contributions to medical care during World War I and World War II. On the one hand, the order's military legacy may compromise its record of humanitarian service. On the other hand, throughout its history the order never lost its original commitment to serve the needy and the sick, which is testimony to spirit that has always motivated its work.
In 600, Abbot Probus was commissioned by Pope Gregory the Great to build a hospital in Jerusalem to treat and care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. In 800, Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, enlarged Probus' hospital and added a library to it. About 200 years later, in 1005, Caliph Al Hakim destroyed the hospital and three thousand other buildings in Jerusalem. In 1023, merchants from Amalfi and Salerno in Italy were given permission by the Caliph Ali az-Zahir of Egypt to rebuild the hospital in Jerusalem. The hospital, which was built on the site of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist, took in Christian pilgrims traveling to visit the Christian holy sites. It was served by Benedictine Brothers.
The monastic hospitaller order was founded following the First Crusade by the Blessed Gerard, whose role as founder was confirmed by a Papal bull of Pope Paschal II. In 1113, Gerard acquired territory and revenues for his order throughout the Kingdom of Jerusalem and beyond. His successor, Raymond du Puy de Provence, established the first significant Hospitaller infirmary near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Initially the group cared for pilgrims in Jerusalem, but the order soon extended to providing pilgrims with an armed escort, which soon grew into a substantial force. This shift from a purely humanitarian to a military order was, in part, a survival tactic. Founded in 1119, the Knights Templar quickly became so popular that they monopolized donations. Thus, the "Hospital was reorganized on military lines in imitation, and—which is more astonishing—soon began to attract as much support as the order of the Temple."
The Hospitallers and the Knights Templar became the most powerful Christian groups in the area. The order came to distinguish itself in battles with the Muslims, its soldiers wearing a black surcoat with a white cross.
By the mid-twelfth century, the order was clearly divided into military brothers and those who worked with the sick. It was still a religious order and had privileges granted by the Papacy; for example, the order was exempt from all authority save that of the Pope, and it paid no tithes and was allowed its own religious buildings. Many of the more substantial Christian fortifications in the Holy Land were built by the Templars and the Hospitallers. At the height of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Hospitallers held seven great forts and 140 other estates in the area. The two largest of these, their bases of power in the Kingdom and in the Principality of Antioch, were the Krak des Chevaliers and Margat. The property of the Order was divided into priories, subdivided into bailiwicks, which in turn were divided into commanderies. Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, pledged his protection to the Knights of St. John in a charter of privileges granted in 1185. Rivalry with the Templars had more to do with competition for prestige and popularity but they sometimes differed in their strategies. Howarth describes how, in 1187, the Grand Master of the Hospital disagreed with the Templars on the wisdom of retreating before a superior force (led by Saladin. The Templars saw non-retreat as a sacred duty. The Templar insisted on engagement. Their Grand Master, Jacqued de Mailly, was among the dead.
The Hospital in Jerusalem was large enough for 2,000 patients. Wards (usually 11) were staffed by a brother-in-charge and twelve assistants. There were separate wards for women staffed by female servants. There were four physicians and four surgeons. Wards were kept clean and well ventilated. There were about 300 brothers altogether resident in the Crusading states. Food was "lavish." The order knew the basic connection between recovery and eating good food. There may, although this is disputed, have been Arab influence in terms of the practice of medicine. Many patients would have found themselves sleeping "in separate beds for the first time in their lives." The sick were admitted regardless of gender, creed, or nationality and there is some evidence that the dietary rules of non-Christian guests were honored. Nursing the sick was understood as an act of Christian love, "Every poor man and woman was Christ; he or she should not just have good treatment, but the best and most luxurious treatment possible." The interest in cleanliness, in ventilation and in standards of nursing care predate and contributed to more modern ideas of quality hospital care.
The rising power of Islam eventually expelled the Knights from Jerusalem. After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Jerusalem itself fell in 1187), the Knights were confined to the County of Tripoli, and when Acre was captured in 1291, the order sought refuge in the Kingdom of Cyprus. Finding themselves becoming enmeshed in Cypriot politics, their Grand Master Guillaume de Villaret created a plan of acquiring their own temporal domain, selecting Rhodes to be their new home. His successor, Fulkes de Villaret, executed the plan, and on August 15, 1309, after over two years of campaigning, the island of Rhodes surrendered to the knights. They also gained control of a number of neighboring islands and the Anatolian ports of Bodrum and Kastelorizo.
The Knights Templar were dissolved in 1312, and much of their property was given to the Hospitallers. A suggested merger of the two orders failed to attract Templar support. The holdings were organized into eight tongues (one each in Aragon, Auvergne, Castile, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Provence). Each was administered by a Prior or, if there was more than one priory in the tongue, by a Grand Prior. At Rhodes and later Malta, the resident knights of each tongue were headed by a Bailli. The English Grand Prior at the time was Philip Thame, who acquired the estates allocated to the English tongue from 1330 to 1358.
On Rhodes, the Hospitallers were forced to become a more militarized force, fighting especially with the Barbary pirates. They withstood two invasions in the fifteenth century, one by the Sultan of Egypt, in 1444, and another by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, in 1480, who, after capturing Constantinople, made the Knights a priority target. With the loss of the last crusading state (Acre in 1291), the Hospitallers found a new role for themselves.
In 1494, they created a stronghold on the peninsula of Halicarnassus (now Bodrum). They used pieces of the partially destroyed Mausoleum of Maussollos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, to strengthen Bodrum Castle.
In 1522, an entirely new sort of force arrived: 400 ships under the command of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent delivered 200,000 men to the island. Against this force the Knights, under Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, had about 7,000 men-at-arms and their fortifications. The siege lasted six months, at the end of which the surviving defeated Hospitallers were allowed to withdraw to Sicily.
After seven years of moving from place to place in Europe, the Knights became established in 1530, when the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles V of Spain, as King of Sicily, gave them Malta, Gozo, and the North African port of Tripoli in perpetual fiefdom in exchange for an annual fee of a single Maltese falcon, which they were to send on All Souls Day to the King's representative, the Viceroy of Sicily. (This historical fact was used as the plot hook in Dashiell Hammett famous book, The Maltese Falcon.)
The Hospitallers continued their actions against the Muslims and, especially, the Barbary pirates. Although they had only few ships they quickly drew the ire of the Ottomans, who were unhappy to see the order resettled. Howarth argues that they succeeded in keeping the sea free of pirates. In 1565, Suleiman sent an invasion force of about 40,000 men to besiege the 700 knights and 8000 soldiers and expel them from Malta.
At first the battle went as badly for the Hospitallers as Rhodes had: Most of the cities were destroyed and about half the knights killed. By August 18, the position of the besieged was becoming desperate: Dwindling daily in numbers, they were becoming too feeble to hold the long line of fortifications. But when his council suggested the abandonment of Il Borgo and Senglea and withdrawal to Fort St. Angelo, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette refused.
The Viceroy of Sicily had not sent help; possibly the Viceroy's orders from Philip II of Spain were so obscurely worded as to put on his own shoulders the burden of the decision whether to help the Knights at the expense of his own defenses. A wrong decision could mean defeat and exposing Sicily and Naples to the Ottomans. He had left his own son with La Valette, so he could hardly be indifferent to the fate of the fortress. Whatever may have been the cause of his delay, the Viceroy hesitated until the battle had almost been decided by the unaided efforts of the Knights, before being forced to move by the indignation of his own officers.
On August 23 came yet another grand assault, the last serious effort, as it proved, of the besiegers. It was thrown back with the greatest difficulty, even the wounded taking part in the defense. The plight of the Turkish forces, however, was now desperate. With the exception of Fort St. Elmo, the fortifications were still intact. Working night and day the garrison had repaired the breaches, and the capture of Malta seemed more and more impossible. Many of the Ottoman troops in crowded quarters had fallen ill over the terrible summer months. Ammunition and food were beginning to run short, and the Ottoman troops were becoming increasingly dispirited at the failure of their attacks and their losses. The death, on June 23, of skilled commander Dragut, a corsair and admiral of the Ottoman fleet, was a serious blow. The Turkish commanders, Piyale Pasha and Mustafa Pasha, were careless. They had a huge fleet which they used with effect on only one occasion. They neglected their communications with the African coast and made no attempt to watch and intercept Sicilian reinforcements.
On September 1, they made their last effort, but the morale of the Ottoman troops had deteriorated seriously and the attack was feeble, to the great encouragement of the besieged, who now began to see hopes of deliverance. The perplexed and indecisive Ottomans heard of the arrival of Sicilian reinforcements in Mellieħa Bay. Unaware that the force was very small, they broke off the siege and left on September 8. The Great Siege of Malta may have been the last action in which a force of knights won a decisive victory. This epic battle is the subject of the historical fiction, The Religion, by Tim Willocks.
When the Ottomans departed, the Hospitallers had 600 men able to bear arms. The most reliable estimate puts the number of the Ottoman army at its height at some 40,000 men, of whom 15,000 eventually returned to Constantinople. The siege is portrayed vividly in the frescoes of Matteo Perez d'Aleccio in the Hall of St. Michael and St. George, also known as the Throne Room, in the Grand Master's Palace in Valletta. Four of the original modellos, painted in oils by Perez d'Aleccio between 1576 and 1581, can be found in the Cube Room of the Queen's House at Greenwich, London. After the siege, a new city had to be built—the present city named Valletta, in memory of the Grand Master who had withstood the siege.
In 1607, the Grand Master of the Hospitallers was granted the status of Reichsfürst (Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, even though the Order's territory was always south of the Holy Roman Empire). In 1630, the Grand Master was awarded ecclesiastic equality with cardinals, and the unique hybrid style His Most Eminent Highness, reflecting both qualities qualifying him as a true Prince of the Church. This status enabled the order to attract lay funding by conferring knighthoods on generous donors.
Following the Christian victory over the Ottoman fleet in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Knights continued to attack pirates and Muslim shipping, and their base became a center for slave trading well into the eighteenth century, selling captured Africans and Turks and freeing Christian slaves. A thousand slaves were needed to equip and man each of the Order's galleys.
The Order lost many of its European holdings following the rise of Protestantism and French Egalitarianism, but survived on Malta. The property of the English branch was confiscated in 1540. In 1577, the German Bailiwick of Brandenburg became Lutheran, but continued to pay its financial contribution to the Order until the branch was turned into a merit Order by the King of Prussia in 1812. The "Johanniter Orden" was restored as a Prussian Order of Knights Hospitaller in 1852.
The Knights of Malta had a strong presence within the Imperial Russian Navy and the pre-revolutionary French Navy. When De Poincy was appointed governor of the French colony on St. Kitts, in 1639, he was a prominent Knight of St. John and dressed his retinue with the emblems of the order. The Order's presence in the Caribbean was eclipsed with his death in 1660. He also bought the island of Saint Croix as his personal estate and deeded it to the Knights of St. John. In 1665, St. Croix was bought by the French West India Company, ending the Order's presence in the Caribbean.
In 1789, France erupted in revolution and anti-clerical and anti-aristocratic furor, forcing many French knights and nobles to flee for their lives. Many of the Order's traditional sources of revenue from France were lost permanently.
The decree of the French National Assembly Abolishing the Feudal System (1789) abolished the Order in France:
V. Tithes of every description, as well as the dues which have been substituted for them, under whatever denomination they are known or collected (even when compounded for), possessed by secular or regular congregations, by holders of benefices, members of corporations (including the Order of Malta and other religious and military orders), as well as those devoted to the maintenance of churches, those impropriated to lay persons and those substituted for the portion congrue, are abolished…
The French Revolutionary Government seized the assets and properties of the Order in France in 1792.
Their Mediterranean stronghold of Malta was captured by Napoleon in 1798, during his expedition to Egypt. As a ruse, Napoleon asked for safe harbor to resupply his ships, and then turned against his hosts once safely inside Valletta. Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim failed to anticipate or prepare for this threat, provided no effective leadership, and readily capitulated to Napoleon, arguing that the order's charter prohibited fighting against Christians. In 1799, in disgrace and under pressure from the Austrian court, he resigned his office and retreated into obscurity. Riley-Smith dates this as the real end of the Crusading movement itself.
The knights were now dispersed, though the order continued to exist in a diminished form and negotiated with European governments for a return to power. The Russian Emperor, Paul I, gave the largest number of knights shelter in St. Petersburg, an action which gave rise to the Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller and the Order's recognition among the Russian Imperial Orders. The refugee knights in St Petersburg proceeded to elect Tsar Paul as their Grand Master—a rival to Grand Master von Hompesch until the latter's abdication left Paul as the sole Grand Master. As Grand Master Paul I created, in addition to the Roman Catholic Grand Priory, a "Russian Grand Priory" of no less than 118 Commanderies, dwarfing the rest of the Order and open to all Christians. Paul's election as Grand Master was, however, never ratified under Roman Catholic canon law, and he was the de facto rather than de jure Grand Master of the Order.
By the early 1800s, the order had been severely weakened by the loss of its priories throughout Europe. Only 10 percent of the order's income came from traditional sources in Europe, with the remaining 90 percent being generated by the Russian Grand Priory until 1810. This was partly reflected in the government of the Order being under Lieutenants, rather than Grand Masters, in the period 1805 to 1879, when Pope Leo XIII restored a Grand Master to the order. This signaled the renewal of the order's fortunes and vocation as a humanitarian and religious organization. Hospital work, the original work of the order, became once again its main concern. The Order's hospital and welfare activities, undertaken on a considerable scale in World War I, were greatly intensified and expanded in World War II under the Grand Master Fra' Ludovico Chigi della Rovere Albani (Grand Master 1931-1951).
The Order has recently returned to Malta, after signing an agreement with the Maltese Government which granted the Order the exclusive use of Fort St. Angelo for a term of 99 years. Today, after restoration, the Fort hosts historical and cultural activities related to the Order of Malta.
In 1834, the revived Order established a new headquarters in Rome. The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, better known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), remains a Roman Catholic religious order which along with one other Order (the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem) acts as a virtual sovereign state, with membership of many international bodies and observer status at others (such as the United Nations). The Grand Masters of the two Orders serve as Papal Viceroys who provide Vatican diplomacy with procedural support for making motions, proposing amendments and requiring votes in the sphere of international diplomacy. Both Orders maintain Embassies in and receive Ambassadors from those (mostly majority Catholic) countries which recognize their sovereignty. Their claims to sovereign status are disputed by some scholars and remain unrecognized by many other countries.
The property of the Order in England was confiscated by Henry VIII because of a dispute with the Pope over the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which eventually led to the dissolution of the monasteries. Although not formally suppressed, this caused the activities of the English Langue to come to an end. A few Scottish Knights remained in communion with the French Langue of the Order. In 1831, a British Order was founded by Frenchmen claiming to act on behalf of the Order in Italy, and eventually became known as the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem in the British Realm. It received a Royal Charter from Queen Victoria in 1888 and spread across the United Kingdom, the British Commonwealth, and the United States of America. (The British sovereign awards Knighthoods of the Order, although recipients are not entitled to use the prefix "Sir" or "Dame" but they do add the appropriate post-nominal initials.) However, it was only recognized by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in 1963. Its most well-known activities are based around the St. John Ambulance.
Following the Protestant Reformation, most German chapters of the Order declared their continued adherence to the Order while accepting Protestant theology. As the Balley Brandenburg des Ritterlichen Ordens Sankt Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem (Brandenburg Bailiwick of the Knights' Order of the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem), the Order continues in Germany today, gaining increasing independence from its Catholic mother order.
From Germany, this Protestant branch spread into several other countries (such as Hungary, the Netherlands, and Sweden). These sub-branches are now autonomous as well. All four branches are in loose alliance with the British order in the Alliance of Orders of St John of Jerusalem.
Following the end of World War II, and taking advantage of the lack of State Orders in the Italian Republic, an Italian called himself a Polish Prince and did a brisk trade in Maltese Crosses as the Grand Prior of the fictitious "Grand Priory of Podolia" until successfully prosecuted for fraud. Another fraud claimed to be the Grand Prior of the Holy Trinity of Villeneuve, but gave up after a police visit, although the organization resurfaced in Malta in 1975, and then by 1978, in the U.S., where it still continues.
The large passage fees collected by the American Association of "SMOM" in the early 1950s may well have tempted a man named Charles Pichel to create his own "Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller" in 1956. Pichel avoided the problems of being an imitation of "SMOM" by giving his organization a mythical history, claiming that the American organization he led had been founded within the genuine Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller in 1908; a spurious claim, but which nevertheless misled many including some academics. In truth, the foundation of his organization had no connection to the genuine Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller. Once created, the attraction of Russian Nobles into membership of Pichel’s "Order" lent some plausibility to his claims.
These organizations have led to scores of other mimic, or self-styled, Orders. Two offshoots of the Pichel Order were successful in allegedly gaining the patronage of the late King Peter II of Yugoslavia, and King Michael of Romania. The former Order, based in California, gained a substantial following under leadership of the late Williams Formhals, who for some years, and with the support of historical organizations such as The Augustan Society, claimed to be a Polish prince of the Sangusko family.
An order founded to care for the sick transformed itself into a military order perhaps more due to circumstances than due to a fundamental change in its original mission, which was to "venerate the holy poor." Riley-Smith suggests that the order's origin lies in the same reformist tendency that produced Francis of Assiss's emphasis on "charitable and pastoral work" in reaction to the wealth and secular power of the church. The Hospitallers "thought of themselves as serfs of the poor of Christ." Brothers dressed modesty and "in their abject humility and loving respect for the poor they foreshadowed the Franciscans." Although the order did grow wealthy, it did not incite the passions or the jealousy that the Templars attracted and, unlike the Templars, was able to adjust better to changed circumstances. Howarth suggests that this was a vital factor in the order's ability to survive the demise of their sometimes rivals, "The Hospitallers, in short, modernized their order; they changed to meet the needs of a changing world. The Templars did not." When the idea of a Christian order that was also a military organization itself lost currency, the Hospitallers still had their humanitarian work to pursue. The continued role played by successor organizations fulfills an important social role. These organizations can look back on a proud history. Even if many members today may not wish to celebrate the Hospitallers military exploits, these may be understood in the context of an earlier Christian reality in which violence and was not understood as "intrinsically evil" but that its morality depended on circumstance. Self-defense and defense of Christian space could be "positively good." Lacking the secretiveness of the Templars, the Hospitaller's legacy has not generated the same amount of conspiracy literature although, arguable, it has a greater moral claim to be remembered. Like the legacy of the Templars, though, it has provided material for fictional explorations of its history.
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