The Knights of St John
John the Baptist was a Gnostic who believed in dualism, that is two gods, a heavenly almighty god, and a bad god who had created Earth. Jesus was one of his followers, and was Baptised by him, a custom started by the Zoroastrians many of whose customs the Gnostics followed. Like Jesus he was a radical, opposing the traditional Jewish teachings, and because of his beliefs he was beheaded by Herod, although the christians spice the story up with a scantily clad Salome, or Herodias, asking the king for a favour. John was subsequently martyred, and later deified.
The Hospitallers were founded about 1023 by Benedictine Monks associated with a hospice in Jerusalem, built on the site of the Monastery of John the Baptist, to treat sick and injured pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Following the First Crusade in in1099, the Pope made it a religious and military order. After the foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the role of the Knights was extended to them giving safe escort to pilgrims from Europe on their journey to the Holy Land.
The order was divided into three groups, those who carried out religious duties, Hospitallers who worked in the infirmaries, and the Knights who were assigned to the military forces. The latter wore a surcoat of black with the now famous white cross, whilst the Hospitallers wore a similar red surcoat with white cross. To secure the Middle East the orders built many castles including Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, Karak Castle in Jordan, and the port of Acre in Israel.
When the Kingdom of Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 1291, the order moved to Cyprus, but finding themselves mixed up in the complicated politics of the island their Grand Master Guillaume de Villaret decided to invade Rhodes. Following two years of fighting the island surrendered and the Knights moved in lock stock and barrel.
In 1307 King Philip of France arrested the extremely wealthy Knights Templar, rivals of the Knights of St John, to whom he owed a fortune for financing his crusades. The Templars were charged with heresay, all their wealth was seized, and many of their members were burned at the stake. By comparison the Hospitallers wealth and power increased, as they were donated land in several countries in reward for defending Europe from the Arabs, and Barbary pirates from north Africa.
At this time the Knights of Rhodes were split into eight Langues, or by national language, each being housed in an Auberge, or inn, and designated specific responsibilities. In 1494 they built a castle on the Turkish mainland facing the island of Rhodes at Halicarnassus, now known as Bodrum. In 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent arrived by sea with a massive force, and following a siege of six months the Hospitallers were forced to retreat to Sicily. King Charles of Spain, who ruled Sicily, granted the Knights Malta, Gozo, and the African port of Tripoli and they moved to their new bases in 1530. Henry VIII confiscated all the property of the English Knight Hospitallers in 1540, as part of his Dissolution of Monasteries.
Suleiman was unhappy that he had not finished off the Hospitallers, and in 1565 his Ottoman army attacked Malta. Half of the badly outnumbered Knights were killed and, although most of their fortifications held, most of the towns on the island were destroyed. As the siege continued, the Ottoman troops became short of food and ammunition, many becoming ill and dispirited, and unaware that the Sicilian reinforcements that arrived were few in number, panicked and departed.
A new fortified capital city was built for Malta, and named Valleta after the Grand Master of the hospitallers, Jean Parisot de Valette. The Knights now went from strength to strength, as their navy was employed protecting christian ships from Barbary corsairs involved in slave trading. Although islanders continued to speak Maltese, French replaced Italian as the official language of the Knights. Locals resented the Knights who were given special privileges.
The Roman Catholic Hospitallers faced a time of transition as Protestantism spread across Europe, and some of the Langues now followed the new religion. A religious army was not thought necessary now, and sponsors were not easily found, so they took to robbing and plundering Muslim ships, and acting as mercenaries for foreign navies, including the French who were on good trading terms with the “enemy” Ottomans. Despite their vows of poverty the Knights were becoming rich and this lead to a lack of respect due to their moral decline.
When in 1798 they refused to allow Napoleon’s fleet to use their harbour for re-supplying his ships on their way to Egypt, the Republican Army disembarked and stormed the fortifications. The Grand Master surrendered and when the French took control of the island the Knights were dispersed throughout Europe, the largest contingent going to St Petersburg in Russia. Since this time, although the order does some work such as the St John’s Ambulance Brigade in England, it has never regained its former power.
The Knight's Castle
The Grand Masters Palace, Rhodes
The Cloister, Rhodes
Seating Chapter House, Rhodes
The Castle at Lindos, Rhodes
The Castle at Bodrum, Turkey
Statue of Valette
Palazzo Parisio, Valletta
Fort St Elmo, Valletta
Siege Bell Memorial
and Lower Barrakka Gardens, Valleta
Auberge of the English Knights
Auberges of the Knights
D'Auvergne et Provence
The Moat and Curtain Walls, Mdina