Mysterious Brotherhood Won Praise from Welsh Poets and Their Caring Legacy Survives Today

Article excerpt

* YSTERY", "secret", "hidden" - these are the words widely used in the media and popular writing to describe the Knights Templar.

But the Knights Hospitaller are even more mysterious and hidden.

Modern writers hardly ever mention them, except to say vaguely that they were something like the Templars.

As for saying that these mysterious and secret institutions were active in Wales - well, so much rubbish has been written about these ancient groups that none of it can be true. Can it? And would we want to believe that such dubious organisations were ever working in this country? Were they heroes or villains? Myths and history There are many places in Wales with the word "Temple" somewhere in the name, so naturally some people claim that all these places once belonged to the Templars.

The Hospitallers owned some hospices in Britain - places where poor travellers could stay and sick people were cared for - and, as there are many places in Wales called "Ysbyty", it's simple to assume that the Hospitallers owned all these places.

The Templars were destroyed after being accused of heresy, and in the Middle Ages heresy could be linked to witchcraft. In the16th century, it was sometimes linked to science (remember Galileo? He was accused of heresy).

So, since the 16th century some writers have assumed that the Templars were involved in witchcraft and/or science, and they have been credited with introducing various sorts of secret knowledge to Britain.

All in all, the Templars start to look like villains - exotic and knowledgeable villains, but definitely villains. The Hospitallers, on the other hand, have had a better press. One of the true stories about the Hospitallers is that they were the forerunners of St John Ambulance.

King Henry VIII abolished the Hospitallers in 1540, after he abolished all the monasteries in England and Wales, but in 1553 his daughter Queen Mary re-established them.

When Mary died in 1558 her sister Elizabeth let the Hospitallers lapse.

In the 19th century, the order was revived and in 1877 it set up the St John Ambulance Association and supported the teaching of first aid in - among other places - the mining valleys of South Wales.

This new British Order of St John taught first aid to men and women and also did important emergency rescue work, especially (in South Wales) when mining disasters occurred.

Members of the Welsh St John Ambulance Brigades volunteered for overseas ambulance and hospital work during the First and Second World Wars, and also performed vital emergency rescue work after bombing raids.

Today the Order of St John in Wales is famed for its ambulance work and first aid training and for its eye hospital in Jerusalem.

These modern Hospitallers are clearly heroes, and so it's natural to assume that their medieval forerunners were too.

Nineteenth century industrial Wales also saw the establishment of temperance societies, in particular the so-called "Good Templars", or "Temlyddiaeth Dda" as they were known here.

"Good Templars" was a popular title for temperance societies, partly because of the play on words between "temperance" and "Templar", and also because they were fighting "a great crusade" against "this terrible vice" of alcohol.

They urged absolute abstinence from alcohol, campaigned for prohibition, promoted education and self-help, and supported decent working conditions for working people. So, even if their medieval forebears seem villainous, the modern "Good Templars" could be heroes.

Who were the Templars and Hospitallers? The original Hospitallers and Templars were founded in Jerusalem in the 11th and early 12th centuries.

The Hospitallers formed the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, set up by Italian merchants to care for poor sick pilgrims to the holy city.

After the First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099, the Hospital received generous donations from the new European settlers, who gave it property in western Europe to support its work in Jerusalem. …