The Knights Hospitaller are also known as the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem or the Knights of St John, as the Knights of Rhodes from 1309 to 1522 and as the Knights of Malta since 1530. According to some historians the origin of the Knights Hospitaller dates to about the middle of the 11th century when the merchants from Amalfi helped to restore the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, rebuilt the demolished Benedictine monastery and established a hospital for the Christian pilgrims and merchants which was run by Benedictine monks. However, the majority of scholars consider the foundation date of the Knights Hospitaller in year 1199 when the Benedictine monk Blessed Gerard established a separate and independent religious order, the Friars of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem which was confirmed by a papal bull of Pope Paschal II in 1113.
The chief object of the order was to aid the pilgrims in the Holy Land which resulted in the establishment of a chain of hospices and hospitals throughout the Holy Land. Besides providing care, supply and accommodation to the ill, sick and injured pilgrims their services under Gerard’s successor Raymond du Puy also included an armed escort to the pilgrims on the route to the holy places. Such extension of the order’s duties resulted in major changes of its structure, organization and mission which was both religious and military, while its members came to be known as the Knights Hospitaller.
The members of the Knights Hospitaller consisted of three classes:
- brother knights who were knights of noble birth and served as heavy chivalry
- chaplains who took care for religious matters and spiritual needs of the order’s members
- brothers sergeants who were generally of lower social status and merely carried out orders
In contrary to the brother knights of the Knights Templar who were the only ones allowed to wear a distinctive white mantle, brother knights and brother sergeants of the Knights Hospitaller wore identical habit: black surcoat with a white cross (later known as Maltese cross). Pope Innocent IV allowed all fighting brothers to wear a red surcoat with a white cross on the battlefield in 1248 but his successor Pope Alexander IV decided that only the brother knights should wear red surcoat with white cross, while the sergeants had to wear a black surcoat. Later, this rule was modified. On the battlefield, all warriors wore red surcoat with white cross and a black mantle with white cross in the house.
The distinctive eight-pointed cross which was the identifying symbol of the Knights Hospitaller known as the Maltese cross was originally the symbol of Italian republic of Amalfi. The eight points of the cross symbolized the eight virtues of the Knight Hospitaller: loyalty, piety, frankness, bravery, glory and honor, contempt of death, helpfulness towards the poor and the sick, and respect to the church.
The Knights Hospitaller started to erect a series of fortifications in today’s Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey after they gained the castle of Bayt Jibrin or Bethgibelin as a donation in 1136. The number and mightiness of the fortifications built by the Knights Hospitaller was way ahead of fortifications built by other military orders in the Holy Land. The typical examples of the Knights Hospitaller fortification architecture in the Middle East are the Belvoir Fortress in Israel and Margat (Marqab) castle in Syria which also served as a seat of the Grand Master. However, the most famous and the most impressive fortress is definitely Krac des Chevaliers in Syria which is also the largest and the best preserved of all Crusader fortifications in the Middle East.
The Knights Hospitaller withdrew with other Crusaders to Acre after the Fall of Jerusalem in 1187. One century later, Acre fell into Muslim hands as well and the Knights Hospitaller retreated to Cyprus where they had some possessions and stayed for two decades emerging as a strong military and naval power. The plan to capture Rhodes from the Saracens made by Grand Master William de Villaret was implemented by his brother and successor Fulk de Villaret in 1309.
In Rhodes, the Knights Hospitaller came to be known as the Knights of Rhodes. There they became even more militarized and withstood the attacks of the Ottoman Turks including the Siege of Rhodes in 1480 when about 500 knights and 4000 soldiers under leadership of Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson managed to repulse the attacks of the Ottoman army which numbered about 70,000 men. However, the Ottoman Empire eventually became too strong and the Knights Hospitaller (Knights of Rhodes) were forced to cede Rhodes to the Ottomans by 1522.
The Knights Hospitaller wandered “homeless” until 1530 when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave them the island of Malta. There they reached their zenith and came to be known as the Knights of Malta. In Malta, like earlier in Rhodes, the order continued to fight against the Ottomans and successfully withstood all Ottoman attempts to capture the island. In one of the most famous sieges in history – the Siege of Malta or the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 about 500 knights and 2000 soldiers under leadership of Jean de la Valletta managed to defend the island from the Ottoman forces which numbered about 25,000 men. The Knights of Malta also played an important role at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 when the Holy League decisively defeated the Ottoman fleet.
After the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Knights of Malta ruled the island as a territorial sovereign state until 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte captured Malta and forced the order to leave. The majority found a shelter in St Petersburg and elected the Russian Tsar Paul I as their Grand Master. Paul was after his death in 1801 succeeded by Giovanni Battista Tommasi but the order had no regular head after 1805 and barely retained itself until the establishment of new headquarters in Rome in 1834. In 1879 , Pope Leo XIII restored the institution of grand master to the order which came to be known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta better known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta but the order has been transformed into a Roman Catholic religious order with little connection to the former Knights Hospitaller.