Driven from Jerusalem
by Saladin, the two Catholic orders of professed monks moved to Acre, the
the Christian warriors in the Holy Land. In
itself fell to Muslim siege, and the two orders were driven from the Levant
into the sea. They found temporary refuge in Cyprus. There the Templars were
persecuted by Pope Clement and Philip IV of France for suspicion of heresy
and immorality, while the Order of St. John gathered strength and numbers
for twenty years. Not long after the Grand Master of the Templars was burned
at the stake, his order in ruins and
most of its wealth having passed to the Hospitallers, the latter captured
Rhodes, a lush and beautiful island in the Dodecanese, and established
its new convent there. With an island for their base, the Knights of St.
John became a seafaring order of corsairs in the service of Christ,
protecting Christian merchant ships at sea and preying upon Muslim shipping.
Though their numbers
were small, the knights were tough men to whom pillage came as easily as
prayer. Their ranks were filled with noblemen hailing from the greatest
houses of Europe, men who served their Grand Master under vows of poverty,
chastity, and obedience. The noble houses took great pride in the number of
knights on their family tree, pledging their sons to the Order at birth.
The sun was just beginning to rise over the
Ottoman Empire. Rhodes lay athwart the empireís shipping routes, and the
increasingly militaristic knights interrupted trade between Istanbul, the
Levant, and Egypt. Muslims making their pilgrimage to Mecca were captured
and enslaved. For many years the knights gnawed thus at the Ottoman
bellyónever strong enough to present a military threat to the empire, but
ever an irritation. Determined to drive out the infidel, Mehmet, the sultan
who conquered Constantinople, mounted a fierce siege of Rhodes. The Order
had heavily fortified the island, and Mehmet was unsuccessful.
Suleiman drives the Knights from Rhodes.
not the case with Mehmetís son, Suleiman. In the first major military
campaign of his reign, he took the city of Belgrade, striking at the door to
central Europe. The next year, only his third as Sultan, he turned his
attention to Rhodes. The knights fought bravely but stood no chance against
the four hundred ships and five army corps of Suleiman. In victory, the
Sultan showed magnanimity toward his enemies out of respect for their valor.
He allowed the knights to leave Rhodes with their banners and their honor,
their arms and their relics, their camp followers and even their animals, in
exchange for their solemn oath that they would leave his minions in peace.
It was an oath the knights would not keep.
For seven years the Order had no home,
taking only transitory residence in Sicily and Italy. In 1530 the knights
the small and barren islands of the Maltese archipelago, along with the city
of Tripoli on the North African coast, by the Hapsburg Charles V, the
Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. Charles knew the wisdom in having such
a military force to protect his southern flanks from Suleiman and his
allies, the corsairs of the Barbary Coast. Charles set rent for the island
at the annual payment of a falcon.
It is hard to imagine who was more unhappy at
the arrangement: the knights, dismayed over the barren, impoverished, and
poorly-defended land; the nobles and peasants of Malta, resentful and
suspicious of their new and foreign rulers, who did not bother even to learn
their language; or the Ottomans and their allies the corsairs, who realized
that the harbors of Malta were perfect for sheltering the troublesome
knights, who now commanded the vital sea lanes between Sicily and North
In 1530 Grand Master L'Isle Adam was received
by Malta's unhappy nobles at Mdina, an ancient walled city which at the time
was the island's capital. The seafaring knights preferred to build their
convent in the fishing village of Birgu. They slowly began fortifying the
area around the Grand Harbor against the Ottoman attack
that all knew was inevitable.
After the Great Siege, a new and more heavily
fortified capital was built on Sciberras, a peninsula overlooking the Grand
Harbor. The city was called Valetta, after the Grand Master who led the
island's defenders against the Ottoman attack. The knights continued
their traditions of maintaining one of Europe's finest hospitals, of raiding
enemy (Muslim) shipping, trading in slaves, and, of course, drinking and
debauching. In 1798 they were driven from Malta by Napoleon. Once
again they had no permanent home until 1834, when they established a new
headquarters in Rome. In recent years the Order has been refurbishing
Fort St. Angelo.
Organization of the Order.
sovereign Order of St John was created under protection of the Pope. It was
ruled by a Grand Master, elected for life by the knights. He presided
over the Sacro Consiglio, a governing council composed of the Orderís
highest officials. The Convent of the Order was scattered through
Birgu, an old fishing village that lay on the small peninsula behind Fort
St. Angelo, the Norman castle where the knights made their headquarters. The
convent consisted of the conventual chapel of St. Lawrence; the hospital, or
Holy Infirmary; the arsenal, where the Orderís galleys were maintained; and
the separate auberges, or dormitories, where the knights from each of
the Orderís eight langues, or nationalities, lived while at
convent. Those langues were of Auvergne, Provence, France, Aragon,
Castile, England, Germany, and Italy. Each langue was ruled by a
pilier, or master,
who in addition to his other duties often held another post within the
Order. The pilier of France was usually
the Grand Hospitaller, who held authority over the Orderís Holy Infirmary,
to which each knight, no matter his rank, devoted long hours of service. The
pilier of Italy was the Grand Admiral, with authority over the
Orderís all-important fleet of galleys.
Classes of Knights.
There were three
classes of knights. First among them were the knights of justice,
those most pure of blood, whose shields bore no fewer than sixteen
quarterings of hereditary nobility. Of second rank were conventual
chaplains, ecclesiastical knights whose service was devoted to work in
the hospital and chapel. The third rank were serving brothers,
knights who were of respectable if not strictly noble birthóso long as they
were not bastardsóand who served as soldiers. In addition, there were
magistral knights and knights of grace, honoraries appointed by
the Grand Master and confirmed by the council.
knight was initiated in an elaborate ceremony of investiture, in which he
swore oaths of poverty, chastity, obedience, and allegiance to the Grand
Master. The novice would then serve three seasons, or caravans, as an
officer in the galleys. Afterward he would either return to the
convent, to his estate on the continent, or to one of the priories or
commanderies maintained by the Order in each of the countries from which the
knights hailed, the income from whose crops and holdings went to support the
convent. A knightís first promotion would be to commander, at which time he
would be paid a salary to help defray his costs. A knight could always
supplement his income by investing in a private galley, so long as its
profits were shared with the Orderís insatiable treasury. A knight might
live in the convent or rarely visit, participating only in the General
Chapters, the assemblies held every five years, or answering the emergency
summons of the Grand Master.
warrior-monks of Jerusalem grew much more worldly as the knights of Rhodes
and then Malta, their pursuits sometimes more visceral than spiritual. In
theory, the convent was a united stronghold of knights, resolute in their
faith and dedicated to a common purpose. In practice, the convent was an
unruly nest of strong-willed nobles of eight nations, men united by vows but
often divided in politics, their families prominent participants in the
religious and political conflicts sweeping the continent.
the time of the Great Siege the knights wore two crosses. One, borne
on pennons and tunics, was a squared white cross
on a scarlet field. The other was the Cross of Profession, the ritual cross
with eight points embroidered on habits or worn on a chain. The cross is
said to have originated in Amalfi, an Italian Republic whose merchants
organized the first Jerusalem hospice in AD 1048. Some say each point
of the cross represents one of the eight langues, or
tongues, of the Order. Some say the points represent the Beatitudes of the
Sermon on the Mount. Others holding less charitable views of the monks
suggested each point represented one of the seven deadly sins committed by
the self-righteous knights, with an extra point added for good measure: a
spare sin, so to speak, for any occasion of need.
Click for a link
to a detailed history of the Order's cross.
Click here for
link to a General History of the Order
Click here to
visit the official site of the Order of St. John