|Ancient and Venerable
History of the Order
The Knights of St John originally began as a charitable institution caring for the sick in the Holy Land.
Over the following centuries it became one of the most powerful financial and military organisations.
The Hospitallers, or the Knights of St John, did not begin as a military order. Their origins lay
sometime in the 1070s when a group of Amalfi merchants founded a hospice in Jerusalem near the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The hospice, called the Hospice of St John the Almoner, cared for
pilgrims so that after they were fed and rested they could visit Christianity’s most holy places. At this
time the hospice was run by Benedictine monks and nuns chief of these being Brother Gerard who
was the first Master of the Order.
The First Crusade in 1099 changed the Order permanently. The crusaders gave many gifts to the
Order, which included some booty captured from an Egyptian army by Baldwin of Boulogne who was
the second ruler of Jerusalem, and this allowed the monks to open a chain of hospices throughout the
Holy Land by the time Brother Gerard died in 1120. It was also at this time that the Hospitallers
became an autonomous religious institution free from the Benedictine monks of Santa Maria Latina
and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and they took control of most other hospitals in the Crusader
The Hospitallers as a Military force
The Hospitallers probably became more military inclined when Gerard’s successor, Raymond du Puy,
extended the Order’s charter to include the protection of its hospitals, the city of Jerusalem, as well as
pilgrims on the route from sea to the holy city itself. Possibly at this early stage the Hospitallers were
using mercenaries although no details are known. It is known that military equipment was donated to
the Order before 1143.
Further details of the increasing importance of the Hospitallers, possibly as a fighting force too, is in
evidence when King Alfonso of Aragon and Navarre, after his death, left them his kingdom in 1134
(he also left it to the Templars as well.) The Hospitallers continued to be given lavish gifts: the fortress
of Gibelin by the king of Jerusalem in 1136; two castles by Count Raymond II of Tripoli, who was a
confrere of the Order, in 1139; and in 1142 the Hospitallers not only received three other castles but
also the mighty Krak des Chevaliers itself. It is assumed that the Hospitallers had significant military
power otherwise the rulers of the Holy Land would surely never have given them so many castles.
Certainly by 1136 the office of Marshal existed, whose duty was the hiring and control of mercenaries
and by 1168 he commanded the Order’s five hundred knights; whether they were actually part of the
Order or whether they were secular knights holding fiefs on their behalf is not known for sure.
But the Papacy issued a papal bull in 1179 binding the Hospitallers to their original modus operandi. It
wasn’t until the disaster of Hattin in 1187 when Saladin defeated the main crusader army (and took
most of their territory in Outremer as a result) that the Papacy wholeheartedly supported the religious
Military Orders and finally saw the need for the Hospitaller’s military role. By 1206 the Order’s statutes
were revised accordingly to allow for the provision of military brethren.
The Hospitallers and Templars as rivals
The continued growth of the Hospitallers was always going to encroach on the other powerful Order
of the day: the Templars, or the Poor Knights of Christ of the Temple of Solomon. By the early 13th
century the Hospitallers had rivalled the Templars in military power and clashes between them were
frequent even though the whole existence of Outremer depended on Christian unity. In 1216 the
Hospitallers actually captured Antioch from the Templars but the city rose in revolt and the Order was
The friction between the two Orders did not abate and rather than aim their efforts against the
Muslims they continued to undermine each other. A new low was reached when Hospitallers and
Templars fought and killed each other in the streets of Acre and a treaty had to be drawn up in 1258
to prevent things like this from happening. However, when the last crusader stronghold of Acre fell to
the Mamluks in 1291 both the Hospitallers and Templars fought together and died to a man.
The Hospitallers as a Naval power
Soon after the fall of Acre the Hospitallers established a new headquarters in Cyprus at Colos and
Limassol. The king of Cyprus refused to grant them any more land and so the Order had to look
elsewhere and find new methods to rebuild their power. The Hospitallers resorted to seaborne raids
against the Muslims along the nearby Middle Eastern coast where they would burn and pillage
villages before making a quick getaway. The Order had possessed a fleet since the early 13th
century but most were just transports used to convey troops, pilgrims and supplies to the Holy Land.
Fighting ships such as galleys and galleasses are first mentioned when the Hospitallers moved to
Cyprus was the launch pad by which the Hospitallers invaded the Byzantine-owned island of Rhodes.
Pope Clement V gave the Order permission to take possession of the island after Turks had seized
part of it. The original Orthodox Christian owners, who were seen as schismatics by the Papacy, did
not matter it seemed as the Hospitallers successfully conquered the island in 1309 after a three-year
invasion. The possession of Rhodes came at a great financial cost to the Order, in fact their revenues
for the next twenty years. Nevertheless the siege of the city of Rhodes taught them its value as a
great defensive platform. The Hospitallers then began an extensive programme of rebuilding the
island’s defences and gradually turned it into a formidable fortress. This came at an enormous cost to
the Order and even when they received the possessions of the suppressed Templars in 1312 their
debts were not cleared.
Once firmly established in Rhodes the Hospitallers became very powerful and maintained a garrison
of four hundred knights on the island. From here they would set about destroying Muslim shipping in
the eastern Mediterranean and they started well for in 1312 they secured a naval victory over the
Turks. Although the Order, along with a Papal force, gained control of the island of Smyrna, which
was previously occupied by the Emir of Aydin who was threatening Christian shipping as far as
Greece, it could never expand further than Rhodes (the Hospitallers lost Smyrna to the Mongols in
1402.) Moreover the Hospitallers’ role in the crusades of 1365, 1390, and 1396 was mostly limited to
providing transports and galleys.
As the years drew on in the 15th century Christian powers in the east began to rapidly decline while at
the same time the Muslim empires became stronger. Cyprus became a vassal state of the sultan of
Egypt and the Byzantine Empire was being quickly devoured by the Ottoman Turks. The Egyptian
sultan prepared for an invasion of Rhodes in 1435 and by 1444 a vast army of mamluks had overrun
the island. But after a month’s siege of the city of Rhodes the mamluks were driven out.
The Hospitallers and the Turks
The full might of the Ottoman Empire was brought to bear against Rhodes in 1480. The Turks wanted
to extinguish the last Christian outpost in the east and as the Byzantine capital of Constantinople had
fallen to them in 1453 there was no reason to believe that the little island of Rhodes would not suffer
the same fate.
Thus sultan Mohammad II, also known as Mehmet the Conqueror, demanded tribute from the
Hospitallers but was refused. The Turks made three assaults against the city of Rhodes but the
arrival of relief ships enabled the Hospitallers to drive them off. The Ottomans probably suffered some
9,000 dead and 15,000 wounded at the end of the siege.
In 1522 the Turks invaded Rhodes again with some 100,000 men but this time led by Sultan
Suleiman. Meanwhile the Hospitaller Grand Master had 600 Hospitallers and 4,500 auxiliaries at his
disposal. But Rhodes was one of the most formidable fortresses in the world and it took two months
for the Turks to affect a breach in the walls of the city. The Ottomans attempted three assaults
against the city but were repulsed each time although at considerable cost to the garrison. The island
was then completely blockaded by the Turkish fleet making it impossible for the Hospitallers to be
relieved from the outside. As a result on 20th December the Order surrendered to the sultan rather
than face utter extinction. Sultan Suleiman, although the Hospitallers were his deadly enemies, held
the Order in high regard and apparently dismissed his guards when he met the Grand Master de L’
Isle Adam, confident that he would come to no harm. The terms of surrender were generous and the
Knights of St John accepted and moved to Malta.
The Hospitallers and Malta
When the Hospitallers moved to Malta they made a fortress even more formidable than Rhodes. The
star-shaped fort of St Elmo guarded the harbour approach and when the Turks finally invaded at the
end of May 1565 they came ashore on the west coast. It took them a month to put the fort out of
action but it was costly having suffered some 8,000 casualties in the process while the defenders lost
600. With St Elmo out of action the Ottoman could bring their entire force round to the harbour of
Marsa Muscatto to the north of the harbour and further more the Knights could no longer rely on
steady supplies from the sea.
For seven weeks the inner defences of Malta were subjected to assaults, bombardment and mining
but the defenders’ discipline held firm. The Turks attempted some seaward assaults but they failed
disastrously. By the end of August the Turks had finally had enough and a reinforcing fleet arrived
which only helped to reinforce their decision to withdraw.
The head of the order was known as the Master. He was elected by committee and served for the rest
of his life and had his own household and servants.
The order’s administrative second-in-command was the Grand Commander. He was responsible for
supplies, domestic administration, the Order’s Middle Eastern properties and the Central Convent in
Palestine when the Master was absent. The Grand Commander was seen as the Master’s
The Marshal was the most senior military official in the Order of St John and all brothers-in-arms
(fighting brethren) fell under his command. The Marshal continued to have supreme authority over
the order’s fighting forces, and most of its officers, unless the Master himself was present. He was
also senior to the Admiral, one of the last military ranks to be created in around 1300. Other
responsibilities involved the distribution of military equipment and horses. The Marshal was assisted
in his duties by the Sub-Marshal.
The Constable was another senior military figure and subordinate to the Marshal.
The Gonfanier was the Order standard bearer and its position was reward to a knight of great skill
and courage in battle (from 1270 it could only be given to a brother-knight of legitimate birth.) The
Gonfanier was an important position and gave authority to the knight who held it to lead the brother-
knights in battle if the Master or the Marshal were not present.
The Grand Esquire was the officer in charge of the Master’s own squires.
Commander of Knights
Despite the title the Commander of Knights was a relatively junior position although it did give the
authority of the man who held it to lead the other knights of the Order into battle if the Master and the
Marshal were not present.
Every permanently garrisoned Hospitaller castle of importance was under the authority of an officer
called the Castellan and they were all subordinate to the Marshal.
One of the last military positions to be created was that of Admiral and he was in charge of all galleys
and armed ships smaller than a galley, as well as of men-at-arms and sailors aboard such vessels.
The officer in charge of the Turcopoles (soldiers of Middle Eastern origin).
The Master Esquire of the Central Convent was an office which dated from 1206. It involved
supervising the Order’s squires and grooms along with the horses and stables. The position of Master
Esquire was usually given to the most experienced or senior of the brother-sergeants.
By the mid-thirteenth century preference was given to those of knightly rank who wanted to join the
Hospitallers. Being nobles they could bring substantial amounts of money to the order’s treasury.
There were never many brother-knights in the Order but wherever they were stationed they always
formed an elite. For example, when the town of Arsuf fell to the Mamluks in 1265, 1000 men were
killed or captured, but of these only 80 were Hospitaller brethren. Every brother-knight was allowed to
own four horses and was permitted two esquires, one to lead the spare horses and another to carry
the knight’s lance.
Brother-sergeants-at-arms, or caravaniers, became a distinct group in the early 13th century and
their numbers were usually lower than the brother-knights. Most brother-sergeants were of peasant
origin or of illegitimate birth but some came from the lower nobility and probably could not afford to
enter the order as full knights. Sergeants were allowed two horses and from 1302 were allowed one
Confraters were often of high noble rank but were not brethren themselves and seldom joined the
Order as full brothers. They were given a simple religious ceremony to confirm their status and were
used to defend Hospitaller convents or houses.
Donats were noblemen who wanted to join the Hospitallers as full brother-knights. They were on a
waiting list as it were after going to Outremer.
Reprinted from The Age of Chivalry