The Order of the Hospital (also known as the Order of St. John, and later as the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights of Malta), was an international military religious order that originated in the city of Jerusalem before the First Crusade (1096-1099). Originally established as an order whose function was to provide hospital service, it gradually assumed military responsibilities and became involved in the defense and internal politics of the Frankish states of Outremer. At the same time, the order received European properties that were organized into langues (literally, “tongues”) that paid annual dues, called responsions, to the central convent.
The order moved its central convent and hospital to Acre (mod. `Akko, Israel) when Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187. After the fall of Acre in 1291, the order briefly moved to Cyprus. By 1310 it had captured the island of Rhodes (mod. Rodos, Greece) from the Byzantines, and it became a naval power in the eastern Mediterranean, maintaining a fleet of galleys and garrisoning castles. On Rhodes the Hospitallers faced several major sieges, including two by the Mamlüks in 1440 and 1444 and two by the Ottomans in 1480 and 1522. The Hospitallers surrendered Rhodes to the Ottomans in 1522. In 1530 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, gave the order the island of Malta. The Hospitallers ruled Malta until 1798, when Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch surrendered the island to Napoleon Bonaparte. Subsequently the order briefly found refuge in Russia and in Italy. Today, the order is still sovereign and devoted to hospitaller activities, administering medical charities worldwide from its headquarters in Rome. It no longer has a military character.
Origins and Militarization
The Order of the Hospital began as a pilgrim’s hospice, established in the city of Jerusalem by merchants from the Italian city of Amalfi. The hospice was operated by a lay con fraternity under the auspices of the Benedictine abbey of St. Mary of the Latins. The Hospitallers of St. John began receiving grants of lands and properties in Europe and Outremer after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and were recognized as a separate order by Pope Paschal II in 1113. The first master, Gerard, died in 1120 and was succeeded by Raymond of Le Puy (1120-1158/1160), a French knight who had come to Jerusalem with the First Crusade (1096-1099). Raymond’s leadership shaped the order, and it was under his mastership that the Hospitallers began to assume military duties in addition to the care of pilgrims and the sick in their Jerusalem hospital. References to the Hospitallers as a primarily charitable institution appear in papal documents until the late twelfth century. However, it appears that the entry of Raymond and other former knights into the order, the need to police pilgrimage routes, and a new definition of the Chris tian knight as a lover of justice and defender of the weak, influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux’s De laude novae militiae ad milites Templi (1128), caused the Hospitallers to gradually assume military responsibilities.
By the end of the twelfth century, the Hospitallers, along with the Templars, provided military forces for the Christian states of Outremer and garrisoned frontier castles. They were granted their first castle, Bethgibelin (mod. Bet Guvrin, Israel), in 1136 by Fulk of Anjou, king of Jerusalem. In 1142/1144 Count Raymond II of Tripoli gave them the Krak des Chevaliers. This castle and the castle of Margat (mod. Marqab, Syria, acquired in 1186) became major administrative centers with extensive domains that provided income for the order.
The early charters do not indicate whether Hospitallers initially garrisoned the castles themselves, and there is no definite reference to military personnel as members of the order before the middle of the twelfth century. Hospitallers did, however, serve in the armies of Outremer. Raymond of Le Puy fought in the army of Baldwin II of Jerusalem in 1128, and according to the chronicler William of Tyre, Hospitallers served at the siege of Ascalon (mod. Tel Ashqelon, Israel) in 1153. In Aragon, Hospitallers were present at Tortosa in 1148 and received the castle of Amposta in 1149. The order may have reexamined its military role following the resignation of the master Gilbert of Assailly (1163-1169/1170), who had encouraged King Amalric of Jerusalem in his unsuccessful invasion of Egypt and left the order in debt.
It is probable that the order initially followed the Rule of St. Benedict until the promulgation of its first rule, attributed to Raymond of Le Puy and strongly influenced by the Rule of St. Augustine. Subsequent masters augmented the rule with statutes approved by meetings of the chapter general of the order. By the 1170s these statutes had institutionalized the Hospitallers’ military duties. The 1206 statutes of Margat first describe the offices of knights and sergeants-at arms, and by the 1270s knights held all the high offices in the order. The 1206 statutes also reveal the international structure of the order and were influential in shaping its development. At the end of the thirteenth century, William of St. Stephen compiled the customs of the order (called esgarts and usances), which were based upon decisions made at meetings of the chapter general. The statutes of the order were not compiled and organized until Guillaume Caoursin, the vice-chancellor, published the Stabilimentum in 1494.
The Hospitallers in Outremer (to 1291)
Under Roger of Les Moulins (1177-1187), the Hospitallers became more involved in the politics of the Frankish states of Outremer, particularly the succession of Guy of Lusignan and his wife Sibyl to the throne of Jerusalem in 1186. Roger, a supporter of the faction led by Count Raymond III of Tripoli, vied with Gerard of Ridefort, the master of the Temple, who supported the Lusignans. Roger was killed in May 1187, at the battle of the spring of Cresson, leaving the Hospitallers leaderless at the battle of Hattin (4 July 1187). There the order suffered considerable losses, and in the aftermath of the battle lost its castles of Bethgibelin and Belvoir (mod. Kokhav ha-Yarden, Israel), although Saladin did not attempt to besiege Margat and Krak des Chevaliers.
After Hattin, the Hospitallers and Templars became more important as military and political advisors to the Frankish rulers, and their Western resources became essential for the survival of European rule in Outremer. The Hospitallers received money and provisions from their Western priories in addition to income from their properties in Outremer and from their participation in the coastal sugar trade. They contributed substantially to the campaigns of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), serving as senior advisors to King Richard I of England.
The two major military religious orders also assumed some administrative responsibility in the kingdom of Jerusalem, which for much of the thirteenth century was ruled by a series of regents for an absentee monarchy. As Mamlük power increased in the later part of the thirteenth century, the Hospitallers played an important role in making treaties with Egypt. Masters such as Hugh Revel actively acquired properties around the Krak des Chevaliers and adopted an aggressive policy against the Mamlüks. However, the Mamlüks took Krak des Chevaliers in 1271 and Margat in 1285. The Hospitallers left Outremer after the fall of Acre in May 1291, when the master, John of Villiers, was severely wounded during the city’s defense and was evacuated to Cyprus with the remains of the convent.