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On Sale Jan 6, 2004

A Delacorte Book
Bantam Dell
A Division of Random House, Inc.
ISBN 0-385-33601-2
$ 24.95

On Sale in the UK
Nov 2003

under the title

The Sword and the Scimitar
A Division of
Random House UK
ISBN: 0091799414

On Sale in Germany May 2003
under the title
Asha: Sohn von Malta
ISBN: 3795118263
EUR 22,90

Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1602-22), portrait by Caravaggio

The Order of St. John of Jerusalem, known as the Hospitaller Knights of St. John, the Knights of Malta, and the Knights of Rhodes

During the First Crusade, Christian pilgrims making the journey to the Holy Land were protected by two orders of knights, Christian monks sworn to poverty and celibacy. One, the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ, made their quarters in Jerusalem in al-Aqsa, in the Temple of the Lord on the Temple Mount, and so called themselves Templars. The second order, the Hospitaller Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, ministered to the sick from a large hospice in the Patriarchís Quarter of the city, very near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Driven from Jerusalem by Saladin, the two Catholic orders of professed monks moved to Acre, the last capital of the Christian warriors in the Holy Land. In a.d.1291 Acre 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.

Such was 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 were granted 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 Africa.

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.

The 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.

Each 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.

The 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 Cross.

At 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