Knights Hospitalers

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Knights Hospitalers

Knights Hospitalers, members of the military and religious Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, sometimes called the Knights of St. John and the Knights of Jerusalem. The symbol of the Order of St. John came to be a white cross worn on a black robe; thus the Hospitalers were the Knights of the White Cross, in contradistinction to the Knights Templars, the Knights of the Red Cross. The Maltese cross has been used by various secret organizations, which have been falsely alleged to have a connection with the Knights of St. John.

The Knights in the Holy Land and on Cyprus

Early in the 11th cent. the increasing number of pilgrimages to the holy city of Jerusalem led some Italian merchants to obtain from the city's Muslim rulers the right to maintain a Latin-rite church there. In connection with this church a hospital for ill or infirm pilgrims was established. When the Crusaders took Jerusalem, the master of the hospital was Gerard de Martignes, who created a separate order, the Friars of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. In 1113, Pope Paschal II recognized the order.

The object of the order was to aid the pilgrims, and it soon became apparent that military protection was necessary. Gerard's successor, Raymond du Puy, reconstituted the order as a military one. The members were divided into three classes—the knights of justice, who had to be of noble birth and had to be knights already; the chaplains, who served the spiritual needs of the establishment; and the serving brothers, who merely carried out orders given them. Besides these, there were the honorary members called donats, who contributed estates and funds to the order. The Hospitalers obtained a great income through gifts, and the necessity of caring for their estates led to the formation of subsidiary establishments all over Europe, the preceptories.

The knights took part in the major crusading campaigns, notably the capture (1154) of Ascalon. When Jerusalem fell (1187) to the Muslims, the Hospitalers established themselves at Margat and then (1189) at Acre. The subsequent period was marked by rivalry with the Knights Templars and by military failure. Meanwhile, the hospital work of the order went on. In 1291 the knights were driven from the Holy Land by the fall of Acre and established themselves in Cyprus. They continued to combat the Muslims but now by sea rather than by land; the Hospitalers became the principal agents of convoys for pilgrims. Cyprus, however, was not the ideal place for the establishment, and the grand master, William de Villaret, planned the conquest of Rhodes from the Saracens, a conquest achieved by his brother and successor, Fulk (or Foulques) de Villaret in a special crusade (1308–10).

On the Island of Rhodes

The order grew stronger on Rhodes. They had received some benefit from the dissolution of the Knights Templars, and the wealth of their grand priories all over Europe had greatly increased. To some extent, at least, the change was accompanied by a decline in moral standards. The Knights of Rhodes, as they came to be known, maintained their reputation as fighting men. In 1344 the knights, with the Genoese, retook Smyrna and held it for a short time. In 1365, in conjunction with the king of Cyprus, they captured Alexandria, which, however, they were unable to retain.

The island of Rhodes was an important strategic point, and the Turks on their advance after the capture of Constantinople determined to take it. A heroic episode in medieval military history was the successful defense of Rhodes by the grand master, Pierre (later Cardinal) d'Aubusson, against the forces sent by Sultan Muhammad II. But the knights could not summon the means to resist indefinitely, and in 1522 the grand master Philippe de L'Isle Adam was forced to capitulate. The knights wandered homeless until in 1530 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V conferred upon them the sovereignty of the island of Malta.

The Knights of Malta

Malta became the fixed home of the order and gave its name to the knights. Under Jean de La Valette they built the great fortifications and defended the island against the Turks in 1565. Meanwhile, the Protestant Reformation had dealt a severe blow to the order. It refused to yield to Henry VIII in England, and the English branch was suppressed. In Malta the order continued to live in fear of the Turks. The city of Valetta was built, and, as in Rhodes, the rule of the order was beneficial. The battle of Lepanto (1571) checked the Turks in the Mediterranean and a time of relative quiet began. The hospital at Malta was the equal of any in Europe, and the knights continued their charitable work. There was some reorganization of the order, and admission became more and more a test of nobility of birth.

The order received its death blow when Napoleon Bonaparte on his Egyptian campaign took Malta (1798). The knights were compelled to leave. They chose Czar Paul of Russia as grand master by an illegal election, which was later validated. Many of the knights went to St. Petersburg. Thus a Roman Catholic order, with the permission of the pope, passed under the rule of an Orthodox emperor. The order was practically at an end. Admiral Nelson took Malta, and although by earlier agreement the island was to be returned to the knights, it was by the Congress of Vienna permanently ceded to Great Britain.

After Paul's death there was a period of some indecision and deliberation. The pope named Tommasi as grand master; in 1802 he became the last regular head of the order, which moved to Catania. After 1805 the knights had no regular head and the fraternity continued but had little more than nominal existence in Catania, then Ferrara, then Rome. The reestablishment of the grand priory in conjunction with the efforts of some French Hospitalers who had attempted to revive the order in France took place in 1827, but the reconstituted order had no organic connection with the old order.

In 1879 the pope restored the office of grand master, but the reconstructed order that resulted has little relation to the old Knights of Malta. Now headquartered in Rome, it is a charitable organization especially devoted to the care of the sick and the wounded, and has men and women as members (though the highest ranks are reserved for men). It has expanded considerably, and in 1926 an association was founded in the United States.


See E. E. Hume, Medical Work of the Knights Hospitallers (1940); R. Peyrefitte, Knights of Malta (tr. 1959); R. Cavaliero, The Last of the Crusaders (1960, repr. 1963); C. E. Engel, Knights of Malta (1963); E. Bradford, The Shield and the Sword (1973).

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