Hospitaller Ships and Transportation across the Mediterranean

Crusader vessel – medieval cog

The main functions of the Order of St John, after its militarization, were the maintenance of Christian rule in the Holy Land and caring for the pilgrims and the poor. The priories in the West, especially in present-day France and in the Kingdom of Sicily, supported the Convent in the Levant with resources of cash, manpower, military equipment, horses, mules, fodder, grain, other foodstuffs, and some additional commodities. Maritime transportation was vital for the operation of the Order, since it ensured the eastward flow of reinforcements and supplies, as well as communication between its houses across the Mediterranean. Surprisingly, the Order’s involvement in maritime transportation has so far been addressed in passing only, and not always accurately. Several issues regarding that involvement warrant a thorough investigation. Three of them are examined here: since when did the Hospitallers own ships, the functions of these vessels, and the development of the Order’s fleet until the fall of the Frankish states in 1291. In view of space limitations, the focus of this study is on the role of Marseilles in relation to these issues, a role that is fairly well documented.

The earliest extant record of a Hospitaller ship appears in the business account of a Genoese merchant who returned home in 1156. Considering the oriental commodities he handled, among them spices, it is likely that the ship had visited Acre. Marseilles was presumably its final destination, rather than Genoa, which never served as a base for Hospitaller vessels. In 1161 another Genoese merchant was due to sail, on a large vessel that had formerly belonged to the Order. The reason for its sale cannot be established.

Interestingly, Hospitaller and Templar ships were carrying pilgrims from Narbonne around that time, as is revealed by that city’s treaty of 1166 with Genoa. In 1178 the Hospitallers obtained from Bertrand of Marseilles and his nephews William le Gros and Raymond Barral, joint viscounts of Marseilles, tax exemption for the transit, sale or purchase of their vessels and marketable goods in the harbour adjoining the sector of the city and other territories under their rule. In 1190 King Richard I of England transferred a ship to the Hospitallers. It is likely that it transported men and provisions of the Order to the vicinity of Acre, which was then besieged by Christian forces participating in the Third Crusade.

Shortly after the death of Emperor Henry VI of Hohenstaufen on 28 September 1197 his widow, Empress Constance, granted the Hospitallers in the Kingdom of Sicily the right to export goods to support the Convent in the Holy Land without paying taxes. In addition, they were allowed to carry peregrini on their ships without having to transfer a portion of the fare collected from them to the royal court. The term peregrini covered both pilgrims and crusaders, as is evidenced, for instance, with respect to the passengers of the ship St Victor in 1250. Occasionally, though, the former were distinguished from the latter, called milites peregrini or peregrini crucesignati. Peregrini sailing with their horses were obviously crusaders. The Hospitallers’ request from Empress Constance was apparently related to their wish to participate in the transportation of German crusaders from southern Italy to Acre, which had been proceeding since March 1197. It is doubtful, however, that the Order was regularly carrying pilgrims or crusaders from the Kingdom of Sicily to the Levant by that time. Significantly, in 1211 Otto IV confirmed the Order’s taxation privileges in the Kingdom of Sicily without referring to ships, and Frederick II acted likewise in 1209, 1215, 1216 and 1224.

The evidence regarding Hospitaller vessels becomes more abundant from the early thirteenth century onwards. In 1210 King Hugh I of Cyprus granted tax exemption throughout the island for the Order’s trade in its own goods, the purchase of commodities for its own needs, and free anchorage in Cypriot ports for its ships carrying them. However, the Order could not fully ensure the transportation of its men and provisions. Two years later, in 1212, Guy, lord of Gibelet (Jubail in presentday Lebanon) granted the Hospitallers tax exemption for trade in the city and the territory of his lordship, as well as for any ship visiting Gibelet for provisioning. He did not directly refer to the Order’s own ships and clearly alluded to chartered vessels.

In March 1216 Hugh I of Baux and his wife Baralle granted the Hospitallers the right to build or anchor in the port and territory of Marseilles any type or number of ships that would sail to the Frankish Levant, Spain, or any other region to defend Christendom. The transport of their own goods, pilgrims, crusaders, merchants and the latter’s money on these ships, whether for fare and freight or without payment, was to be tax exempt. The concession also covered the operation of ships chartered by the Order for its own needs. This grant of shipping privileges to the Order in Marseilles was not the first of its kind, but rather the confirmation of an earlier concession. A shorter version of the privileges enjoyed by the Hospitallers and the Templars appears in a charter of 1233, which reveals that they had been jointly bestowed by the five viscounts of Marseilles holding portions of the seigniorial rights in the city, namely, Hugh I of Baux, Raymond of Baux and Giraud Adhémar and their respective wives, in addition to Roncelin and Raymond-Geoffrey of Trets. It is likely that the concession to the two Orders was made while the five viscounts held all the seigniorial rights in their sector of Marseilles. Raymond-Geoffrey of Trets and his sister Alasacie, married to Raymond of Baux, inherited portions of the viscounts’ rights from their father, Hugh Geoffrey, at some unknown date before the last days of March 1213. The former sold some of his rights to the commune of Marseilles on the 28th of that month, Roncelin acted likewise two days later, and a third sale, by Raymond of Baux, took place on 2 April. It follows that the Hospitallers and the Templars obtained their shipping privileges before late March 1213.

The sales of seigniorial rights to the commune of Marseilles in March and April 1213 and a further sale negotiated by Raymond-Geoffrey of Trets in March 1216 must have seriously worried the Hospitallers. In addition, after the death of viscount Roncelin on 21 December 1215 the abbey of St Victor of Marseilles claimed his entire portion of seigniorial rights. The Hospitallers obviously feared that the commune and the abbey would refuse to uphold their shipping privileges. In March 1216, therefore, they requested confirmation of the original concession from Hugh I of Baux, who had retained his portion of the viscounts’ rights. The charter he jointly issued with his wife, Baralle, mentioned above, appears to reflect faithfully the wording of that concession. In addition, the Order turned to Pope Honorius III, who on 20 December 1216 confirmed the original shipping privileges obtained from the five viscounts of Marseilles.

The pope also ordered, again in response to the Hospitallers’ request, that the archbishop of Arles and his suffragans should prevent churchmen and laymen from taxing the Order for the transit of timber assigned for shipbuilding, as well as for goods intended for the assistance of the Holy Land. The wording of Honorius III implies that the timber did not necessarily originate from the Order’s estates, yet was clearly intended for ships it commissioned. The request was motivated by the location of Arles and several cities within the bishopric along waterways that enabled the floating of timber to shipyards in Marseilles. It has been suggested that the timber was to be sent to Acre for shipbuilding in the Hospitaller’s darsana or shipyard, presumably located in the Cale dou Marquis just north of the suburb of Montmusard. This construct is not plausible for several reasons.

First, the transfer of timber to Acre would have been costly and contrary to economic rationale, since ships could be built in Marseilles. Secondly, the darsana of the Hospitallers attested in 1250 was clearly situated in the Old City of Acre, because it was contiguous to a Genoese garden and close to other houses of the Order. The presence of houses of the Order north of the city walls is excluded. Finally, the darsana was located at some distance from the shore. Therefore, it must have been a workshop for an undisclosed activity rather than a shipyard. In any event, the recently excavated shipyard in Acre, which on fourteenth-century maps appears as arsenal to the east of the Venetian quarter, was only suitable for the building and repair of small and medium-sized vessels, whereas the Order was using large vessels by 1250.

It is noteworthy that the Templars obtained from the five viscounts of Marseilles the same shipping concessions as the Hospitallers, presumably at the same date as the latter, and faced the same problems. They, too, appear to have been troubled by the viscounts’ sales of seigniorial rights to the commune of Marseilles and by the death of Roncelin. However, instead of turning, like the Hospitallers, to Pope Honorius III to strengthen their privileges, they asked Frederick II to confirm them. In September 1216 he issued a charter to that effect, mentioning the five viscounts. It is noteworthy that a vessel of the Templars was about to leave Constantinople for Acre in April 1207. Apparently the same or another ship of that Order, the name of which is garbled, sailed from Constantinople to Venice in the spring of 1210.

The evidence surveyed so far warrants several observations. The Hospitallers already owned one or several transport ships crossing the Mediterranean around the mid-twelfth century. However, the Order also relied on private carriers or chartered whole ships. The loss of numerous estates in the Levant in 1187 substantially reduced its self-supply and revenues in that region, as well as the income from the sale of its produce, such as sugar, despite the temporary recovery of some lands until the midthirteenth century. As a result, the Hospitallers in the Levant were compelled to rely, far more than before 1187, on supplies from the West. The papacy assisted them by prohibiting the imposition of taxes on the movement of their goods. The frequent transfer of reinforcements, and especially of supplies, across the Mediterranean after 1191 induced the Hospitallers to purchase ships or commission their construction on a much larger scale than before, as implied by the shipping privileges they obtained in Marseilles before late March 1213. As noted above, these included a sweeping tax exemption both on the operation and on the building of vessels. All these considerations also applied to the Templars.

The acquisition and operation of ships by the two Orders was primarily aimed at cutting transportation costs. As noted above, they also enabled profit-generating maritime activities consisting in the transportation of merchants, private cargo, crusaders and pilgrims on ships not filled to capacity with the Orders’ own men and goods. Some of these services are already attested by 1156, possibly also by 1197 in the Kingdom of Sicily, if we may rely on the charter issued by Empress Constance, and in any event by the second decade of the thirteenth century. The Hospitallers and the Templars offered these services until the fall of the Frankish states in 1291. Three factors account for the intrusion of the two Orders into the highly competitive business of pilgrim transportation. There was a large demand for that service after 1191, closely related to greater geographic mobility in the West. Ships of increasing carrying capacity were being built from the second half of the twelfth century. And the sailing across the high seas from the late twelfth century onward shortened trans-Mediterranean voyages, reduced their cost, and further enhanced the profitability of pilgrim transportation. It is likely that the two Orders expected and encouraged the pilgrims sailing to Acre on their ships to be particularly generous towards their respective houses in that city, both of which owned a number of relics.

The development of the Hospitallers’ fleet.
The Order operated barks and small vessels for short-distance transportation, as in the Dead Sea and between Acre and its sugar-cane plantations along the river Na’aman flowing into the Bay of Acre. It used small or medium-sized craft, not exclusively its own, to concentrate goods in specific ports from where they were shipped on larger vessels to the Levant. This practice is attested, for instance, in 1273 for the port of Bari, to where products were brought from the Order’s estates in the region, and was most likely the rule with respect to Marseilles, as suggested by the various tax exemptions the Hospitallers obtained for river navigation to the Mediterranean. Sound economic considerations induced them to acquire large ships capable of ensuring long-distance transportation, a costly service when using private vessels, especially since the Order had to maintain regular shipping to the Levant. Clearly, its transport vessels were based in Western ports from where reinforcements and supplies were sent. However, since the Order could not always fill them to capacity, it occasionally embarked merchants, goods and pilgrims to reduce sailing expenses. The problem was particularly acute on return voyages, when the Order’s reduced requirements left ample space on the ships. Instead of searching for passengers and cargo for a one-way voyage, it was sometimes more profitable to lease the entire ship to merchants who operated it on their own behalf, as in 1279.

The Hospitallers’ exclusive transportation of pilgrims on specific vessels practically ensured that the ships were filled to capacity on both the outward and the return journeys, although some pilgrims may have died on the way to or in the Holy Land, and others may have decided to stay there. This was a purely financial operation. While it prevented the loading of cargo, it must have yielded substantial revenue that could be spent on the purchase of ships, goods or services. Hospitaller ships carrying only pilgrims are attested in Marseilles until 1253, but we do not know how long this type of operation continued beyond that year. In view of the strong competition from Italian carriers, it is excluded that such ships sailed from Apulia and Sicily. On the other hand, it is likely that some of the Order’s vessels carried pilgrims together with merchants and cargo to Acre, although evidence of this is lacking.

The growth of the Hospitaller fleet in the thirteenth century appears to have been rather slow. There is no evidence of Hospitaller vessels transporting crusaders at the time of the Fifth Crusade, which lasted from 1218 to 1221, presumably because they only carried the Order’s own forces and supplies. Despite their having several ships in 1248, none appears to have transported pilgrims or crusaders during the crusade of Louis IX, which began in that year. The Falcon, first attested in 1238, had been sailing for at least ten years by 1248. The ships hired by King Louis IX in 1246 were to be less than six years old. A Venetian maritime statute of 1233 refers to the loading of ships of that age. Another Venetian statute, dated 1255, deals with the maximum cargo a ship of 94 metric tons or more, travelling outside the Adriatic, was allowed to carry, and imposes a reduction after five years of sailing and a further one after two additional years. In 1248 the priory of St Gilles had ready cash, which it invested in the enlargement of its property. However, it appears to have been reluctant to finance the replacement of the Falcon at that time. It has been noted that the Hospitallers failed to participate in the evacuation of Acre’s population in the last months before the city’s fall to the Muslims, although the Templars’ Falcon did participate in the operation. This was clearly not owing to a lack of Hospitaller ships. Rather, it is likely that the Order’s vessels carrying pilgrims and supplies stopped on the way to Acre when news of that city’s siege reached them.

The Hospitallers resorted to four options for conveying their men, provisions and messages across the Mediterranean. They took advantage of private ships engaging in commercial sailings, hired whole vessels, purchased them, or commissioned their construction. The simultaneous resorting to these options, which apparently continued until 1291, implies that the Order was never capable of ensuring on its own the volume of maritime transportation that it needed, despite increasing investment in ocean-going ships after 1191. It also contradicts the common belief, expressed again recently, yet never documented, that the Order owned a considerable number of vessels in the thirteenth century. All the ships mentioned above were naves. In 1288 the Hospitallers in Acre equipped a saitie, an elongated oared vessel capable of swift sailing, yet no galleys of the Order are attested until 1291.This distinguishes the Hospitaller fleet before that year from the one operating later from Cyprus, which included a naval force of galleys.


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