The Knights Hospitaller - Defenders of Sick and Injured Pilgrims

Group of Knights Hospitaller


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In the mid-11th century, a Benedictine abbey was established in Jerusalem by merchants from Amalfi. About 30 years later, a hospital was founded next to the abbey to care for sick and poor pilgrims. After the success of the First Crusade in 1099, Brother Gerard (or Gerald), the hospital's superior, expanded the hospital and set up additional hospitals along the route to the Holy Land.

On February 15, 1113, the order was formally named the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem and recognized in a papal bull issued by Pope Paschal II.

The Knights Hospitaller were also known as Hospitalers, the Order of Malta, the Knights of Malta. From 1113 to 1309 they were known as the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem; from 1309 to 1522 they went by the Order of the Knights of Rhodes; from 1530 to 1798 they were the Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights of Malta; from 1834 to 1961 they were the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem; and from 1961 to the present, they are formally known as the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta.

Hospitaller Knights

In 1120, Raymond de Puy (a.k.a. Raymond of Provence) succeeded Gerard as leader of the order. He replaced the Benedictine Rule with the Augustinian Rule and actively began to build up the order's power base, helping the organization to acquire lands and wealth. Possibly inspired by the Templars, the Hospitallers began to take up arms in order to protect pilgrims as well as tend their illnesses and injuries. Hospitaller Knights were still monks and continued to follow their vows of personal poverty, obedience, and celibacy. The order also included chaplains and brothers who did not take up arms.

Relocations of the Hospitallers

The shifting fortunes of the western Crusaders would also affect the Hospitallers. In 1187, when Saladin captured Jerusalem, the Hospitaller Knights moved their headquarters to Margat, then to Acre ten years later. With the fall of Acre in 1291 they moved to Limassol in Cyprus.

The Knights of Rhodes

In 1309 the Hospitallers acquired the island of Rhodes. The grand master of the order, who was elected for life (if confirmed by the pope), ruled Rhodes as an independent state, minting coins and exercising other rights of sovereignty. When the Knights of the Temple were dispersed, some surviving Templars joined the ranks at Rhodes. The knights were now more warrior than "hospitaller," though they remained a monastic brotherhood. Their activities included naval warfare; they armed ships and set off after Muslim pirates, and took revenge on Turkish merchants with piracy of their own.

The Knights of Malta

In 1522 the Hospitaller control of Rhodes came to an end with a six-month siege by Turkish leader Suleyman the Magnificent. The Knights capitulated on January 1, 1523, and left the island with those citizens who chose to accompany them. The Hospitallers were without a base until 1530, when Holy Roman emperor Charles V arranged for them to occupy the Maltese archipelago. Their presence was conditional; the most notable agreement was the presentation of a falcon to the emperor's viceroy of Sicily every year.

In 1565, grand master Jean Parisot de la Valette exhibited superb leadership when he stopped Suleyman the Magnificent from dislodging the Knights from their Maltese headquarters. Six years later, in 1571, a combined fleet of the Knights of Malta and several European powers virtually destroyed the Turkish navy at the Battle of Lepanto. The Knights built a new capital of Malta in honor of la Valette, which they named Valetta, where they constructed grand defenses and a hospital that attracted patients from far beyond Malta.

The Last Relocation of the Knights Hospitaller

The Hospitallers had returned to their original purpose. Over the centuries they gradually gave up warfare in favor of medical care and territorial administration. Then, in 1798, they lost Malta when Napoleon occupied the island on the way to Egypt. For a short time they returned under the auspices of the Treaty of Amiens (1802), but when the 1814 Treaty of Paris gave the archipelago to Britain, the Hospitallers left once more. They at last settled permanently in Rome in 1834.

Membership of the Knights Hospitaller

Although nobility was not required to join the monastic order, it was required to be a Hospitaller Knight. As time went on this requirement grew more strict, from proving nobility of both parents to that of all grandparents for four generations. A variety of knightly classifications evolved to accommodate lesser knights and those who gave up their vows to marry, yet remained affiliated with the order. Today, only Roman Catholics may become Hospitallers, and the governing knights must prove the nobility of their four grandparents for two centuries.

The Hospitallers Today

After 1805 the order was led by lieutenants until the office of Grand Master was restored by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. In 1961 a new constitution was adopted in which the order's religious and the sovereign status was precisely defined. Although the order no longer governs any territory, it does issue passports, and it is recognized as a sovereign nation by the Vatican and some Catholic European nations.

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Snell, Melissa. "The Knights Hospitaller - Defenders of Sick and Injured Pilgrims." ThoughtCo, Sep. 23, 2021, Snell, Melissa. (2021, September 23). The Knights Hospitaller - Defenders of Sick and Injured Pilgrims. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "The Knights Hospitaller - Defenders of Sick and Injured Pilgrims." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).