The Hospitallers

As their name implies, the Order of the Knights of St. John, or Hospitallers, began as a charitable group, intended to assist pilgrims to Jerusalem who were in need of care and shelter. They seem to have been started sometime in the late eleventh century by some merchants from the Italian town of Amalfi. I say, “seem to” because there are no records of the foundation and because, like the Templars, the Hospitallers invented a mythology of their own in which, in some versions, the order was founded before the time of Christ and the parents of John the Baptist had once been associated with it.1

In the 1070s, the most likely time of establishment, Jerusalem was under the control of the Fatimid caliph of Egypt. He allowed pilgrims from the West to come to the city to visit the sites of Jesus’ life. The canons of the Holy Sepulcher were Syrian Orthodox Christians, under the control of the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem. Pilgrims from Italy felt the need of a place for pilgrims to rest and be cared for where there would be people who spoke their language and practiced their religious rites.2

The military side of the hospitallers may have started as an additional service for the pilgrims, especially those going to the Jordan River to wade in the water where Jesus had been baptized. The Hospitallers set up a hostel known as the Red Cistern where pilgrims could get water and stay the night in safety on their way to the river.3 Naturally, the cistern needed to be protected from raiders and one thing led to another until the Hospitallers had a contingent of knights. However, they never gave up the tradition of hospitality and often stressed that this was their main function.

By the late twelfth century the Templars and the Hospitallers were often spoken of in pairs, as if they were interchangeable. Rulers would send one member from each order on diplomatic missions. But there were several differences between the orders. From the early days of both, the Templars were largely drawn from French-speaking areas and theirs was solely a military order, whereas the Hospitallers were mostly Spanish- and Italian-speaking and focused on the care of the sick and the protection of pilgrims. As the Hospitallers grew, the order attracted more French speakers until it was largely French-speaking.

It’s clear that the military side of the order began early. In 1144, Raymond, count of Tripoli, gave the Hospitallers the fortress known as the Krak des Chevaliers. Eventually the Hospitallers acquired more property in the crusader kingdoms than the Templars.4

The Templars and Hospitallers are often seen as rivals, even enemies. I think of them more as brothers. Sometimes they got along fine, supporting each other against the rest of the world. Sometimes they were on opposite sides of a question and fought each other bitterly. In the end, the gallant death of the Templar master William of Beaujeu at the siege of Acre is mourned by the Hospitaller Grand Master, “On that day the Master of the Temple also died of a mortal wound from a javelin. God have mercy on his soul!”5

Many donation charters gave property equally to the Templars and Hospitallers. The most astonishing of these is that of Alfonso I, king of Aragon and Navarre, made in 1131 in which he left his entire kingdom to the Templars, Hospitallers, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.6 They weren’t allowed to keep the kingdom; the heirs that Alfonso had ignored protested and a settlement was arranged. But it shows dramatically how even at that early date, the two orders were united in popular thinking and connected with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It didn’t help in telling them apart that both the Templars and the Hospitallers often built their churches with a round nave, in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.7

The Hospitallers even loaned money, just as the Templars did. On the Second Crusade, Louis VII of France borrowed from the French Templar master, Everard de Barres, and also the Hospitaller master, Raymond du Puy.8

The Hospitallers also came in for their share of criticism, especially from that late-twelfth-century defender of the secular clergy, Walter Map. He was furious at the privileges granted to both the Templars and the Hospitallers at the Third Lateran Council. Walter saw both orders as equally wicked. “By many tricks they supplant us and keep us from the churches.”9 He felt that they lured impoverished knights into joining the orders by refusing to give them money unless they signed up. In that way they kept donations from coming to local parishes. There is no evidence that this charge was true.

Even popes would occasionally chide the Hospitallers. In 1209, Innocent III scolded them for keeping concubines and “shamefully involving themselves in secular affairs as if they were laymen.”10

There is a general belief that the Templars and Hospitallers were constantly in competition and rarely on good terms. While they did have their differences, particularly over land, on the whole they seem to have worked together quite well. During the crusade ofRichard the Lionheart the Templars and Hospitallers switched each day from the rear guard to the vanguard of the army.11 Also the Rule of the Temple makes it clear that, in a pinch, the Templar knight should make for the nearest unit of Hospitallers:

Rule 167. “And if it happens that any brother cannot go towards his banner because he has gone too far ahead for fear of Saracens who are between him and the banner, or he does not know what became of it, he should go to the first Christian banner that he finds. And if he finds that of the Hospital, he should stay by it and should inform the leader of the squadron.”12

The main issues that divided the two orders were political. Although in theory they were supposed to be outside of local squabbles, in reality it was impossible not to get pulled into them. One of the nastiest was when the orders became involved in the constant rivalry between the Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice. The city of Acre was largely divided among the military orders and the Italians, with a small area for other religious groups and the English. In a struggle that went on between 1256 and 1258, over some property that was owned by the monastery of St. Sabas, the Hospitallers supported the Genoese and the Templars the Venetians.13 This more than once led to blows between the knights.

The most dramatic divisions had to do with the several conflicts over who was to inherit the crown of Jerusalem. One of these took place later in the history of the Latin kingdoms, long after Jerusalem had been lost. In 1277, the claimants were Hugh III, king of Cyprus, descended from Sybilla, the sister of Baldwin IV, and Charles of Anjou, the brother of the king of France, who had bought rights to the throne from Maria of Antioch, Hugh’s cousin.14 The Hospitallers supported Hugh; the Templars supported Charles. One reason the Templars did this is that the Grand Master, William of Beaujeu, was related to Charles.

The Hospitallers had one edge over the Templars: when the criticism got too hot, they could retreat into their hospices. They seem to have done this after the debacle of the Second Crusade, although they don’t seem to have played a large military role in the expedition in any case.15

The idea that the Templars and the Hospitallers were much the same was emphasized in the way they were viewed by chroniclers. “So the Hospitallers and the Knights Templar armed themselves taking with them a great many very strong Turcopoles.”16King Richard orders “the Templars and the Hospitallers to come to him.”17“Count Raymond of Tripoli wanted the fortresses and castles to be in the keeping of the Temple and the Hospital.”18 The Templars and Hospitallers are given joint custody of the town of Messina, until it can be decided who should have it.19

This is reflected in the number of times that an envoy included a Templar and a Hospitaller apparently as witnesses or perhaps even bodyguards. They are rarely named; they are simply seen as representatives of their orders. The popes, including Clement V, customarily had one Templar and one Hospitaller as chamberlains. The papacy used the brothers indiscriminately as messengers and relied on loans from both orders to shore up papal finances.20

Even negative remarks were aimed at the military orders as if they were all the same. Pierre Dubois, one of Philip the Fair’s employees, wrote that the Templars and the Hospitallers should be able to live off their lands in the Holy Land and Cyprus and donate the money they gained in the West to start schools for missionaries and pay for mercenaries to fight.21

It’s possible that in 1307 King Philip the Fair was interested in condemning the Hospitallers as well as the Templars, or it may be that the Templars were just more accessible. When Jacques de Molay was summoned to meet with Pope Clement V and the king, the master of the Hospitallers, Fulk de Villeret, was supposed to be there as well. But he was “stopped in his way at Rhodes by the Saracens . . . and could not come on the date set and was given a legitimate excuse by the messengers.”22 Whew!

So Fulk escaped the fate of Jacques de Molay and the Hospitallers actually gained something by the dissolution of the Templars at the Council of Vienne, since most of the Temple property eventually reverted to them, although they had to make deals with the various kings in order to get it.

At the same time that the Templar trials were going on, the Hospitallers were busy organizing the conquest of the island of Rhodes. On August 11, 1308, Pope Clement proclaimed a special crusade to be undertaken by the Hospitallers for the defense of Cyprus and Armenia. 23 He offered indulgences to those who gave to the cause and had boxes put in the churches particularly marked for the Hospital.24Fulk de Villeret thought Rhodes was a better goal and so took that island. He was right in that it was easier to hold on to. The Hospitallers would be based at Rhodes until 1522.

Now that they were headquartered on an island, the Hospitallers concentrated on sea power. They hired a fleet of pirate corsairs that were licensed to harry Moslem trading ships and those of the Italians who did business with Moslems. The booty made a welcome addition to their income.25

In the fifteenth century the arrival of the Ottoman Turks in the east put the Hospitallers on the front lines again. They had come to terms with the familiar enemies, like the Mamluks. Now they were faced with another batch of newly converted conquerors. Under the sultan, Selim, the Ottoman armies expanded into eastern Europe and attacked Rhodes. The last Hospitaller Grand Master on Rhodes was forced to surrender the island to Selim on January 1, 1523.26

The remnants of the Hospital had no base for seven years. In 1530, the Spanish Holy Roman Emperor gave the order the islands of Gazon, Camino, and Malta. From there, the Christians still had dreams of reconquering the Holy Land.27

The Hospitallers became known as the Knights of Malta, the name they bear to this day. The next time they were conquered, it would not be by the Moslems but by the natural force known as Napoleon Bonaparte.

For the next two hundred years and more after arriving in Malta, the Hospitallers continued their rear-guard crusade through piracy. Then the French Directorate, still finding its feet after the Revolution, learned that Malta might be taken over by its enemies, the Austrians and the Russians.28

They sent Napoleon to take care of matters. He took Malta without a fight. The master and the brothers left on June 17, 1798, taking some of their relics with them. Many other relics and all the records the Hospitallers had inherited from the Templars were among the loot taken by the French soldiers. Much of the loot was put aboard Napoleon’s ship l’Orient.29

Napoleon set off to take his army for a fun summer in Egypt. “On the evening of 1 August the British fleet under Nelson caught up with the French fleet in Aboukir Bay off the north Egyptian coast and defeated it in the battle of the Nile. L’Orient was blown up and sunk, with the Order’s relics on board.”30

Just think how many questions could be settled if that ship could be found.

The next years of the former Hospitallers were exceedingly strange and included having Paul I, the Russian tsar and son of Catherine the Great, as Grand Master. That experiment didn’t last long.

In 1834 Pope Gregory XVI gave the Knights of Malta a hospital, where they returned to their original duty of taking care of poor and sick pilgrims. In this form the order has spread over the world, and even has Protestant affiliates.31

Why did the Hospitallers survive when the Templars didn’t? I believe that it was because of the things that made them different. They always said that the care of the poor and sick was their first responsibility. When times got tough, they had that to fall back on. While, like the Templars, they were involved in banking, they did not have such high-profile depositors. So the average person did not associate the Hospitallers with untold wealth.

Perhaps the Templars might have been saved if they’d simply founded a few hospitals. . . . Perhaps not.


Helen Nicholson, The Knights Hospitaller (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 2001) p. 3.


William of Tyre, Chronicon, ed. R. B. C. Huygens (Turnholt, 1986) book 18, 4-5, pp. 814-17.


Malcolm Barber, “The Charitable and Medical Activities of the Hospitallers and Templars, Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries.” The Whichard Lecture, March 23, 2000, p. 6. Text at:


Joshua Prawer, The Crusaders’ Kingdom: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages (London: Phoenix Press, 1972) p. 260.


Quoted in Nicholson, p. 37 (Cartulaire 4, no. 4157) tr. Edwin James King, The Knights Hospitaller in the Holy Land (London, 1931) p. 301.


The text of this charter is translated in Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate, The Templars: Selected Sources translated and annotated (Manchester University Press, 2002) pp. 161-62. See also chapter 8, Go Forth and Multiply.


Nicholson, p. 6.


Suger, abbot of St. Denis. Omnitt Opera, p. 27.


Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium tr. Frederick Tupper and Marbury Ogle (London: Chatto and Windus, 1924) book xxiii, p. 44.


Alan Forey, The Military Orders (London: McMillon, 1992) p. 199.


Helen Nicholson tr., The Chronicle of the Third Crusade (Ashgate, Aldershot, 1997) pp. 240-62.


J. M. Upton-Ward tr., The Rule of the Templars (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1992) p. 60.


Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood (Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 155.


Nicholson, p. 37. For more on Charles of Anjou please see The Templars and the Saint.


Ibid., p. 20.


Helen Nicholson tr., The Chronicle of the Third Crusade (Ashgate, Aldershot, 1997) p. 258.


Ibid., p. 370.


Peter W. Edbury tr., The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade (Ashgate, Aldershot, 1998) p. 14.


John Gillingham, Richard the Lionheart (New York: Times Books, 1978) p. 153.


I. S. Robsindo, The Papacy 1037-1198 (Cambridge University Press 1990) p. 243.


Forey, p. 218.


Guillaume de Nangis, Chroniques capétiennes Tome II 1270-1328, tr. François Guizot (Paris: Paleo, 2002).


Sylvia Menache, Clement V (Cambridge University Press, 1998) p. 105.


Ibid., p. 109.


Nicholson, p. 57.


Ibid., p. 67.




Ibid., p. 135. The Austrians were especially angry because the French had decapitated Marie Antoinette, who had been born an Austrian princess.


Ibid., p. 136.




Ibid., p. 144.

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