Hospitallers and Knights

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Ruins of the Hospitaller church at Bethgibelin, the first military donation to the Order (1136).

According to tradition Raymond du Puy, who was elected to succeed Gerard, was a typical representative of the class from which the Hospitallers were now being recruited: a Frankish knight who had come to Jerusalem in the First Crusade and stayed to join the brotherhood of St John. His career as Master certainly supports the idea of a military origin, and he developed the role of the armed brethren of the Hospital far beyond their original calling. By 1126 the officers of the Hospital included a Constable; two years later we find Raymond on campaign with the army of Baldwin II at Ascalon, a sign perhaps that his knights had passed from the role of armed guards to that of fighting in battles; and by the end of the decade Raymond was sending knights to fight in Spain.

The Templars, for their part, had been pursuing their task with little recognition until in 1128 Hugo de Payns journeyed to France on a recruiting mission. He possessed the advantage that one of his followers was a kinsman of St Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote for him the tract, De laude novae militae. As a result of his advocacy the small band of knights grew almost overnight into a large and powerful order, which became the strongest element in the military defence of Outremer. It certainly overtook the armed strength of the Hospital, and the example of the Templars – the very fact that the concept of a military order had been sanctioned by the Church – had far-reaching influence on the Hospitallers. From about 1140 the title of Master was borrowed from the Templars for the superior of the Hospital, to whom previously titles such as Prior or Rector had been applied.

Rapidly the needs of the crusader states placed growing burdens on the knights of the Hospital. In 1136, ‘at the urging of the whole kingdom’, King Fulk of Jerusalem granted them the castle and fortified town of Bethgibelin, a stronghold of the first importance on the southern frontier of his kingdom. They were placed there to defend the border against Egyptian attacks from Ascalon, to colonise the territory (and therefore to protect the colonists) and to form a base for an eventual conquest of Ascalon, which in fact they helped to take seventeen years later. In 1142/4 the Count of Tripoli likewise turned to the Hospitallers when he sought a vassal to whom he could entrust the defence of his eastern frontier: he gave them five castles, including the famous Crac, which they were to turn into the most powerful castle in the East. By 1148, in the Second Crusade, the Order was a recognised part of the military effort for the defence of the Holy Land.

How this new role affected the Hospitallers’ internal life we do not know. Former knights and soldiers who had taken vows as ordinary brethren must gradually have been given tasks appropriate to their experience. There is no evidence of any conscious decision to militarise the Order; until 1206, when the knights were constituted a separate class, nobody could properly describe himself as a ‘Knight Hospitaller’. The Order may have relied for much of its military strength on confratres (a class known as early as 1111), men who without taking vows associated themselves with the work and spiritual benefits of the Hospital. Thus when we hear of four hundred knights residing in Jerusalem in 1163, and five hundred who marched against Egypt in 1168, we can be certain that these were not all professed: such numbers are greater than those of all the Hospitaller knights in Outremer in the thirteenth century. Yet the distinction between fratres and confratres was not clear-cut; a variety of vows developed and was not suppressed until 1216, when uniformity of profession was restored.

Important as this military development was, it was almost secondary to the vast expansion of the Order that took place under Raymond du Puy. In Jerusalem the Hospital overflowed its original site and engulfed the Abbey of St Mary, its mother house, which was obliged about 1130 to seek new quarters to the north-east. The buildings of the Hospital covered a square of 150 yards on the south side of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, and completely dominated the Christian quarter of the city. The precinct included the former abbey church of St Mary and the quaint little church of St John which gave the Order its name. The new hospital built in the middle years of the century was a vast hall measuring eighty yards by forty, ‘a building so great and marvellous that it would seem impossible unless one saw it’, divided into many aisles by 124 marble columns, with a further 64 pillars engaged in the massive walls; they carried intersecting vaults twenty feet high. It had a capacity for two thousand pilgrims, and hundreds of knights and other brethren filled the quarters along the Street of David, on the south side of the precinct. So palatial was this great building that it was to be occupied by Saladin and the Emperor Frederick II when they respectively came into possession of the city.

Moreover in the 1140s Raymond was building another house to receive the pilgrims by sea who landed in Acre, a hospital whose grand proportions, dwarfed only by the mother house in Jerusalem, demonstrate the regal conception of this outstanding Master.* He also directed the European expansion of the Order, which by the end of his rule was divided into at least seven national priories, two of them (Saint-Gilles and Aragon) already endowed with enormous estates. In 1157-58 we find Raymond, who is said to have been then about eighty, travelling in western Europe to organise these possessions. We do not know if he saw Jerusalem again before his death, which had taken place by 1160. His mastership of thirty-eight to forty years is the longest in the nine-hundred-year history of the Order, and it was as formative as that of the Founder himself. The Hospitallers had established themselves as one of the most flourishing religious orders in the Latin Church, with numerous communities composed mainly of lay fratres and confratres, whose vocation served the ideal of pilgrimage and helped to turn the eyes of contemporaries to the Holy Land. Except in Syria and Spain there were few military brethren among them, and perhaps even Raymond did not realise that the knights whose role he had developed were about to become the dominant branch of the Order.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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