An ancient hospice for Christian pilgrims, was located in Jerusalem, and had been in existence well before the arrival of these Crusaders. The Hospice was founded by Abbot Probus around 600AD. It underwent restoration in 1010 by the Emperor of Charmagne, only to be destroyed by Caliph El-Hamin, and in 1023 restored by the citizens of Amalfi.
In 1048, the Order of St.John was born by Amalfian merchants and its founder Gerard from Martigues in Provence, who also went by the name; Blessed Gerard, the then Benedictine Abbot of St.Maria Latina. First came the construction of a church, convent and hospital in Jerusalem, offering care to pilgrims of any faith.
The Hospice had been dedicated to St.John the Almoner.
What would follow over the coming years would be the creation of a chivalric order, which would evolve into a military machine.
A Papal Bull was issued on the 15th February 1113, by Pope Paschal II, approving the hospital’s foundation, and placing it under the protection of the church.
As such, the Order was ruled by a Grand Master, who was answerable only to the Pope. Knights were chosen from aristocratic families of England, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
The popularity and praise Gerard received from 1st Crusade warriors, led to his separation from the Benedictine Order, and the foundation of the Order of Hospitaller’s, who adopted the Augustinian rule.
Their habit: A long black monastic cloak, with slits on each side for arms, with an eight pointed white cross on the breast, which included the arms of the Republic of Amalfi.
St.John the Baptist became the new patron saint of the order, replacing St.John of Almoner. The Order of Hospitaller undertook three solemn vows: Chastity, Obedience and Poverty, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before their patriarch; Dragobert.
As their fame grew across the land, they received many donations, which allowed the Order to purchase properties in the Holy Land and across Europe.
In 1099, the First Crusading armies, had taken three years, marching across Europe, traversed the sun-scorched waterless plateau of Asia Minor. Thousands of their comrades had perished on the journey, from its hardships, or slain by Turkish warriors.
As they came upon the Holy City of Jerusalem, they fell to their knees in the sand, and wept.
On Friday, the 15th July 1099, at 3.00pm they stormed the Holy City of Jerusalem in their thousands, on the very day and hour their saviour had died. The first knight to enter was Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, who humbled himself in prayer, at the tomb of his saviour. Unlike others, he was devoid of earthly ambitions, and fought for the love of Christ, a true warrior of God.
Godfrey of Bouillon
Eight days after the capture of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon was elected as its first Christian King. He refused to wear a crown or receive the title of King. This humble warrior, in the city where his saviour had died, accepted he be its defender and ruler. Knowing his life was short, created a Christian kingdom.
In the year 1100, Godfrey took his army to Caesarea of Philippi, an enemy held town on the Mediterranean coast. The Muslim leader went out to meet the mighty Godfrey, King and ruler of Jerusalem, on the pretext of making peace.
Godfrey accepted and ate the dishes presented to him, and his military commanders in good faith. What was thought to be a gift of peace, was far from the truth, as Godfrey’s life was taken from him, by a deadly fever, possibly brought on by eating poisoned food. He was buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Gerard from Martigues in Provence, known as Blessed Gerald died in 1120, secure in the fact, that the Order of the Hospital of St.John of Jerusalem had been created.
By 1126, the Order had begun its military defence of pilgrims in the Holy Land.
Raymond du Puy from Provence became the elected successor of Gerard of Martigues, and took the title of Master.
Raymond du Puy laid down the foundation for an order of chivalry, with the introduction of the Knights Hospitaller, to run alongside one of prayer and caring for others. He laid down rules to be observed during military engagements; Swords must not be drawn, unless the standard of the cross was displayed, either in defence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem or in siege against a pagan city. The military body had been founded in 1123, in response to Egypt’s invasion of Palestine.
Events taking place in the Holy Land would change the future of the Hospitaller’s. For it was on the 4th July 1187, Saladin defeated Christian forces and the Kingdom of Jerusalem fell. The Hospitaller’s were forced to relinquish their headquarters in Jerusalem for Tripoli on the east coast of Palestine, where they stayed until 1197, then moving to Acre.
The Knights Hospitaller’s, felt robbed of their role as defenders of the Holy Land in 1291, when Acre fell to the Mamluks, and they had been driven out of the Holy Land and sought refuge in Cyprus. It was here they changed their method of waging war, and became a force to be reckoned with, in naval power.
In 1309, the Hospitaller’s conquered the island of Rhodes, and changed their name; Order of the Knights of Rhodes, which they ran as an independent state, exercising their right of sovereignty.
In the year 1343, the Order conquered Smyrna, and took part in battle in Egypt and Syria. They supported Armenians in their defence against Muslim forces.
When the Knights Templar were disbanded, their goods, their wealth was transferred to the Order of St.John of Jerusalem, under the order of the Pope, which greatly increased the wealth of the Order.
In 1522, a six-month siege by Suleyman the Magnificent, a Turkish warrior, led to their defeat and on the 1st January 1523, they left Rhodes.
In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V gave them the island of Malta, and duly went by the name of; Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights of Malta. In 1565, it resisted a four-month siege by the Ottoman fleet. A Spanish task force came to the assistance of the Grand Master; Jean Parisot de la Valette in his defence of Malta.
In 1571, the Turkish navy was destroyed at the “Battle of Lepanto” by the combined fleets of the Knights of Malta, European forces led by Don Juan of Austria, half brother to King Philip II of Spain.
A new capital of Malta was built, in recognition for his achievements in the defence against the Turks of 1565, they named it after their Grand Master; Valetta.
As the centuries passed by, these knights, gave up their military lifestyle, returning to their roots, by offering medical care, attracting patients from near and far.
The French Revolution of 1789, abolished the Order in France and confiscated its properties. Malta rejected the French Revolution, offering shelter to nobles fleeing France and supporting countries at war with them; England, Spain and Russia.
In 1798 they lost Malta to Napoleon Bonaparte, but regained it in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens.
In 1814, the Treaty of Paris gave Malta to Britain, and the Hospitaller’s left, moving their headquarters to Sicily where they remained until 1826. From there they moved to Ferrara, and in 1834 finally settled in Rome.
From 1834 to 1961 they were known as the Knights Hospitaller of St.John of Jerusalem, and in 1961 to the present time are formally known as the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St.John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, and a closed fraternity of the Roman Catholic Church.
The order no longer governs any territory, yet it is recognised as a sovereign nation by the Vatican, the only authentic Order of Malta by the Pope, and as such does issue its own passports.
In 1966, Pope Paul VI reformed the statues of the Order of Malta, abolishing its militant character, and vowing it would serve the poor and sick.
In times when the Pope’s life is threatened, the Swiss guards that guard the Vatican are dismissed, and the Knights of Malta, become guardians of the Pope.