Caravaggio • Knight of Malta

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) Portrait of a Knight of Malta,
Fra Antonio Martelli, 1607-8 Oil on canvas Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence






The Orders of Knights replicate long traditions; especially from the most ancient and remarkable institution, the Order of The Hospital of Jerusalem, of Acre, of Rhodes and of Malta – which itself was the most senior and successful of the original crusading orders of knights and remained in existence right on up to the French Revolution.

The Prince Grand Master von Hompesch of Malta finally dissolved the Order’s sovereign government by surrendering Malta to Napoleon in 1798, after a possession of 267 years.

Since its demise two hundred years ago, the extraordinary story of The Hospital has inspired many groups around the world to inaugurate their own Order of Chivalry and to try to replicate, in some way, the great tradition of the original Order of The Hospital and to pass on its meme, its cultural idea, the meme of chivalry

To Serve, as our Lords, the Sick and the Poor.





In 2005 British knight bachelor, Sir Ridley Scott, released his epic film Kingdom of Heaven about a knight returning from the Crusades and looking for the son he never knew. The knight is Godfrey (Liam Neeson) and his son is Balian (Orlando Bloom) who just lost his wife. Godfrey and his trusted companion, the Master of the Hospital, persuade Balian to return with them to Jerusalem to join in the Crusades. This film chronicles his journey to the Middle East his rise to power and his knightly mission to protect those unable to protect themselves.

Historically, one of the things the knights actually encountered in the desert was a chivalry even greater than their own even as they fought against the great Islamic leader, Saladin, who had shown his excellent wit and mercy to the crusaders on many occasions.

Among the Crusaders there is an ongoing power struggle. Godfrey, Balian and the Knights Hospitaller wanted to establish a kingdom of conscience, treating Christian, Muslim and Jew as equals in a free city. Their rivals, the Knights Templar (Brendan Gleeson), simply want every Christian knight to cut the throat of every Muslim. There is an eerie voice-only performance from Edward Norton as the visionary leper King of Jerusalem. This film is a Ridley Scott classic with his striking visual style, his authentic approach to production design and innovative, atmospheric lighting, which has been influential on a generation of filmmakers many of whom simply copied him outright.

Knights of legend capture our imagination with their romance of faith, their spirit of adventure their rigorous training and prowess in battle. From Sir Galahad to Luke Skywalker the knights and their orders of chivalry have enjoyed a peculiar quality which has lasted for 900 years.

But how did it all begin? …


The Crusades

Western chivalric orders rose to prominence in 1099, during the Crusades, which were started by Godfrey de Bouillon. Born around 1060 AD, Godfrey was a French nobleman, the second son of Count Eustace of Boulogne.

As Duke of Lower Lorraine and leader of the First Crusade it was Godfrey who captured Christian Europe’s imagination with his daring chivalric enterprise of rescuing Jerusalem. Godfrey and his army of Christian knights entered Jerusalem, in victory, in 1099. Such a feat would not be equalled by a Christian general for eight centuries, until 1917, when General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem with his army of British troops. Knights of Jerusalem

Duke Godfrey was a courageous and astute nobleman, a born leader and a master of strategy. One of his strengths on crusade, and as ruler of Jerusalem, lay in the loyalty of his sizeable military household. By 1120, he had inaugurated a number of highly specialized military leadership groups

These groups were called Orders of Chivalry, two of which survived to become independent world powers in their own right:

•  The Hospital (The Order of Knights Hospitaller)

•  The Temple (The Order of Knights Templar)

The most famous of these Christian Knights of Jerusalem was the Order of The Hospital, which became the oldest and most illustrious order of chivalry the world has ever known, surviving to 1798.

The knights chose as their patron a person considered by many people to be one of the greatest leaders in history. They chose Jesus of Nazareth’s older cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus himself was one of those people who so much admired John.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus is very specific on the subject. Jesus is quoted as saying, “I’m telling you, no one born of a woman is greater than John” (Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28). Biblical scholar, Professor David Catchpole is Head of the Department of Theology at the University of Exeter.

He says of this amazing quote from the Christian gospels, “(it is) truly astonishing. Jesus surveys the whole of human history and declares that at no time has anyone been appointed by God to a more significant mission than that of John!”

Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ by John

The Hospital

The members of the Hospital then divided themselves into three classes – knights and their esquires, chaplains, and serving brothers and sisters. The knights and esquires (trainee knights) were all Christian soldiers who were usually nobles from the greatest European families. The chaplains were clergy who were assigned to religious duties. The brothers and sisters were volunteers of honourable origin and could either be soldiers or nurses in the hospitals of the Order. Candidates for knighthood had to produce ‘proof of nobility’. That is, to be of noble name and lineage.

The School

5272-013-300x170Today, the Order of the School of Joseph is the world’s newest order of chivalry. The members of the School’s highest grades – Knights and Dames of Justice – must still produce heraldic evidence of their ‘right to bear arms’.

Others who can produce sufficient evidence of meritorious conduct, chivalric training or service to others may be created Knights and Dames of Honour and Merit.

Although the Order of the Hospital was one of the world’s oldest arbiters of nobility it maintained that to be noble implied not merely a demeanour of hauteur but rather the style of noblesse oblige.

The meme of the Hospital was known as the Rule of the Order: ‘To Serve, as Our Lords, the Sick and Poor’. It was this meme, a spirit of service and humility, that suffused the Order and was the quintessential contribution that its aristocratic members passed on down through the ages.


Amongst the modern replicant chivalric orders only those groups that have replicated the original Rule of the Hospital (‘To Serve, as Our Lords, the Sick and Poor’) can credibly claim to follow in the traditions of the original Order.

An authentic example of a replicant order is the Venerable Order (Royal British order) which is open to all British subjects regardless of sex, race or religion by invitation from the British Sovereign.

Membership in the Papal Order (SMOM) based in Rome is for Roman Catholics of noble birth or those Catholics of great wealth and power who can make significant financial contributions to the church. Both these replicant orders are well-renowned for their charitable works and, notwithstanding their political and religious affiliations, both remain authentic examples of replicant orders which try to follow the tradition of the original Order of the Hospital.


Fra Mathew Festing

Rome, 11 March 2008: Fra’ Matthew Festing, 58, an Englishman, becomes the 79th Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, elected this morning by the Council Complete of State (the Order’s electoral body). In accepting the role, the new Grand Master swore his Oath before the Cardinal Patronus of the Order, Cardinal Pio Laghi, and the electoral body. He succeeds Fra’ Andrew Bertie, 78th Grand Master (1988-2008), who died on 7 February.



Grand Master Festing with Pope Francis


It is, of course, a well-known fact of history that the sale of titles is an age old fund-raising practise that has been used by popes and kings and pretenders since the inception of the original order in 1099. Indeed, most of the original crusading knights paid ‘passage fees’ to become members of the order.

Whether a title is acquired as a gift or for a fee is irrelevant. What is important is the effect that the title has on the person who wears it. A title’s legitimacy, regardless of its acquisition, rests on the owner’s personal code of conduct. If its owner follows the Rule of the Order, then that person bestows legitimacy on their title. If they do not follow the Rule of the Order, their title is worthless. Parchment titles aside, true nobility can only be bestowed on the individual by himself or herself.

From Warrior to Gentleman

Over the past 400 years we have seen the gradual transformation of chivalry evolve from the aristocratic warrior to the philanthropic gentleman—from Deus vult! to noblesse oblige.

Over this historical period we have seen that the changing educational habits and social conditions, the requirements of state and the conduct of war have left many of the original chivalric impulses redundant. Just as the full plate of armour became increasingly extinct so did the paraphernalia of crusading. Popes today do not summon crusades against Islam.

So what do we have left from this remarkable period of our cultural evolution that is still of value? What we have left is the meme of chivalry; a tradition of service to others and, in the case of the Hospitallers, the 900-year tradition of service to the sick and poor.

G110513CQVIP-W081Knights and Dames Scholar are men and women of all religions, races and creeds.

There are no fees. Membership is a gift of the Order and is by invitation.

Today, the Knights Scholar is a supra-national teaching, training and charitable order of chivalry with no exclusive religious or political connections whatsoever.

The New Rule of the Order is derived from the original Order of the Hospital and is: To Teach, as Our Lords, the Sick and Poor.


In Jerusalem, at that time, the Hospital was taken under the personal protection of Godfrey’s younger brother, Baldwin, the first King of Jerusalem, who appointed one of his closest companions to lead the Order and establish it as a specialized military leadership order. And so, in 1118, Raymond du Puy, a French nobleman of the Languedoc, who served with King Baldwin as a member of his war council, became the first Master of the Hospital.

Master Raymond du Puy built the Hospital into one of the most formidable military forces in the Holy Land. In addition to the military protection provided by the Order, the knights established their hospital in Jerusalem and their voluntary care of the pilgrims and the sick added much to their growing fame.

Master Raymond de Puy established the original Rule of the Order:

To Serve, as our Lords, the Sick and the Poor

 For the following two centuries the kings of Jerusalem relied heavily on the services of the Hospital and the Temple. Godfrey and his brother Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, both gave gifts of land and money to the Hospitaller Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem. The Hospital, while acquiring martial functions, never lost its duty of care for the infirm and the sick, mostly pilgrims and visiting crusaders. By 1113, the Hospital was recognized by Pope Paschal II.

The Temple—the Order of the Temple of Solomon—inaugurated in 1120, began as a fraternity whose mission was to guard and protect the pilgrims on their route from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

Returning crusaders and pilgrims told of the deeds of the knights. They spread the word about the debt Christendom owed the Hospitallers for their ministrations to the sick and the destitute. Soon, lavish endowments and bequests began to come their way both in Europe and the Holy Land. This began a tradition of voluntary donations to the Hospital which was to be followed over the years by many rich ecclesiastics, popes, kings and nobility.

Soon the Hospitallers found themselves in possession of estates in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Germany. By 1259, Pope Alexander IV was moved to such superlatives as to flatter the Hospitallers by addressing them as “the immovable pillar of the Church for the defence of the Holy Land, of which you are the renowned and stalwart champions, and the chosen protectors … you are the elect people of God and a princely race”.

Raymond du Puy died in 1160, in his eighties, after having ruled the Order for forty years. He had built the Order into one of the richest, noblest and most powerful institutions in the world. Not the least of his legacies was the Great Hospital of the Order in Jerusalem. It was a vast structure, 70 metres long by 36 metres wide with arches 6 metres high supporting the roof. A huge hospital, by any standards, it contained beds for 2000 patients.

Next to the hospital was the Order’s hospice for female pilgrims run by the Sisters of Saint John. From its earliest days the Order always admitted women to its ranks. The sisters garb was a red habit bearing the eight-pointed white cross, the monks wore a black habit bearing the same cross. For the nuns, as also for the monks, admission to the higher ranks of the Order required proof of nobility.

Today, two of the neutral hospital symbols recognised by the Geneva Convention in time of war are the white eight-pointed Maltese Cross and the Red Cross, both symbols are from the early crusading Orders.

“The practical value of Nobility is illustrated in the fact that the only international association which has ever been a solid political influence for good is the military Hospitalof Jerusalem, wherein, during six centuries, noblemen of all nations united to save Europe. To this aim they voluntarily devoted their wealth, their liberty and their lives.”

The Patriot, London, 1931

When the Muslims recaptured Jerusalem in 1187, the two principal crusading orders – the Hospital and the Temple – withdrew. The Hospitallers removed their headquarters from Jerusalem, first to Margat, then in 1197 to their great hospital fortress in Acre (which still stands today and is a major tourist attraction in Israel). When the crusader principalities came to an end after the bloody fall of Acre in 1291, the Hospitallers made their exit from the Holy Land and withdrew to their commandery in Cyprus.

The Order’s base at the port of Limassol in Cyprus was called the Commandery of Kolossi Castle and had been established for many years. The Hospitallers at Kolossi Castle had long been famous for a delicious fortified wine called “Commanderia St John” which they made from the vines at Kolossi Castle and exported to Europe. Today this wine is still exported from Cyprus to wine cellars around the world.$_35.JPG

Australian historian of the Venerable Order, Ian Howie-Willis, described the knights’ final departure from the Holy Land in his book A Century for Australia: St. John in Australia 1883 – 1983:

“When the Master, John de Villiers, and his six remaining knights sailed away from Acre, leaving behind them the numerous corpses of their brethren and the total annihilation of all they had lived and died for, they headed for Cyprus, about 260 kilometres to the north-west. Their Order, of course, had not lost everything, for in the nations of Europe it was now a major feudal landholder; its Priors and senior knights often held high state offices in addition to their duties within the Order; they were at once ecclesiastical and secular princes. having both spiritual and territorial domains to superintend. In short the Order had become and would continue to be an institution comprising one of the major bulwarks of the feudal system. Although it might have lost its original raison d’etre through being expelled from the Holy Land, it had in the meantime found other preoccupations to sustain it elsewhere. The fugitive Master did not therefore flee to Cyprus as a mere refugee; rather, he was more like a chairman of directors of a multi-national corporation in search of a new head office.”

Friday the Thirteenth – The Sad End of the Temple

By 1306 the two original crusading Orders, the Templars and the Hospitallers, were seriously considering a strategic amalgamation into a single order to be called ‘the Knights of Jerusalem’ under the leadership of Foulques de Villaret. The purpose was to combine forces and mount another crusade, at the request of Pope Clement V.

What followed has become one of the most infamous acts of treachery ever recorded in military history. On June 6, 1306 Clement wrote to the two Masters of the Temple and the Hospital saying, “We wish to consult you about a crusade with the kings of Cyprus and Armenia.”

So, as they had done for over 200 years at the cost of many thousands of their brethren, the orders responded favourably to any request by the pope to go to war in defence of the church.

After a year of preparations, the Temple Master, Jacques de Molay, arrived at the papal court with sixty knights and 150,000 gold sovereigns to begin plans with Pope Clement for his ‘crusade’. They were never to fight for the church again but instead were ambushed by the pope, their gold confiscated and were thrown into Clement’s dungeons.

That same night, Thursday, October 12, 1307, in a carefully planned campaign all over France, members of the Order were ambushed in their commanderies and arrested. By the morning of Friday, 13 October, over 15,000 members of the Templar order had been incarcerated.

The knights who had fought and died for Christ for 200 years now found themselves being accused of idol worship and spitting on the cross. Accusations of ‘heresy’ had long since been the pope’s standard charge when he wanted to get rid of someone or confiscate their wealth. Few ever dreamt that these would be used against his most faithful servants.

Many books have been written about the destruction of the Templars. Catholic historian of the military orders, Desmond Seward, has written in The Monks of War (Penguin. 1995. UK):

“Denials of Christ, idol worship, spitting on the crucifix and homosexuality and all these accusations were the stock-in-trade of heresy trials. The French Inquisition, staffed by Dominicans, ‘Hounds of the Lord’, was expert at extracting ‘confessions’. The brethren Templars. unlettered soldiers, faced a combination of cross-examining lawyers and torture chambers whose instruments included the thumbscrew, the boot and rack to dislocate limbs. Men were spreadeagled and crushed by lead weights or filled with water through a funnel till they suffocated. There was also ‘burning in the feet’. Probably the most excruciating torments were the simplest – wedges hammered under fingernails, teeth wrenched out and exposed nerves prodded. The Templars would have resisted any torment by Moslems but now, weakened by confinement in damp, filthy cells and systematic starvation, they despaired when the torture was inflicted by fellow Christians. Perhaps the Templars’ worst anguish was spiritual – it must have seemed as if God Himself had died – and probably many brethren went mad.” is hard for the modern mind to comprehend the scale of this betrayal. In March 1312, Pope Clement V finally pronounced the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon to be guilty of all charges laid against them. His Papal Bull Vox in excelsio declared that the order was dissolved.

The pope explained that although canonically the Templars could not be convicted on the evidence, he on the other hand was quite convinced of their guilt and condemned them on his papal prerogative. His breathtaking treachery is enough to mark him as one of the most wicked popes in history.

On the morning of March 15, 1314, the Grand Master of the Temple, Jacques de Molay, and his brother-in-arms Geoffroy de Charnay, Preceptor of Normandy, were roasted alive over a slow charcoal fire on an island in the Seine. Parisians watched in tears as the last of the Templars shouted their innocence through the flames.

A legend grew up that Grand Master Molay, as he died burning, summoned Pope Clement to come before God for judgment. As it turned out, the bad pope was dead within a month.

The Myth of the Templars

The story of the Templars is an enduring one. Many authors are inspired to refer to the Templars and their role in the crusades. The story of the Templars continues to feature in best-sellers like Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh’s Holy Blood Holy Grail and the recent worldwide best-selling phenomenon The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Knights of Rhodes

The events of that October night in 1307 – the pope’s ambush of the Templars – had shaken the Hospitallers to the core. Obviously, they speculated on the chances of their order suffering the same fate as their Templar comrades. So, as a protection against this ever happening to the Hospital, the order immediately set about organising itself into an independent sovereign state.

In 1309, the Hospital acquired the island of Rhodes and began issuing coinage and establishing diplomatic relations with other states. Ruled by its Prince Grand Master who was elected for life (and whose palace is still today the biggest tourist attraction in Rhodes), the order evolved from a military order into a great naval power and for more than two centuries the Knights of Rhodes were to become the scourge of the Muslim fleets and the Barbary corsairs whose pirate galleys preyed on the shipping of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Eventually the Order became a naval power as great as Venice which ruled the Mediterranean at that time. For example, in 1334 ten Hospitaller war galleys destroyed the Turkish fleet in the Aegean. In 1344 the Order captured Smyrna (Izmir) on the central west coast of Turkey and held it until 1402.

Then in 1440 the Hospital’s navy totally crushed the Egyptian fleet sent to destroy them. By the 15th century the Turkish Ottoman Empire was on the rise and had supplanted the Arabs as the protagonists of militant Islam. So, during the Order’s two hundred years on Rhodes there were plenty of opportunities for military glory the most challenging of which were two great sieges by the Ottoman turks.

The first siege was by no less than Mohammed II, conqueror of Constantinople and the Byzantine empire. It began in 1480, lasting for three months, and was withstood by the Order. Mohammed’s grandson, Sulieman the Magnificent, mounted the second siege which was to end the Hospitallers’ sovereignty over Rhodes and send them, once more as fugitives, to wander the Mediterranean in search of a new home.

Peter d’Aubusson, a French knight and 40th Grand Master the Hospital, led the Order during the siege of Mohammed. Sultan Mohammed considered himself to control the Levantine dominions of the Byzantine Empire which he had conquered.

The Order, always independent, would bow to no Muslim overlord and d’Aubusson simply ignored him. On 23 May, 1480, Mohammed’s fleet of 160 ships landed a 70,000-strong army on Rhodes. Grand Master d’Aubusson had only 450 Hospitallers, 4000 mercenaries and about 1000 local Rhodian militia.

In their first two attacks against the knight’s outlying fortress of St Nicholas, the Turks lost more than 3000 killed. These attacks were defended by the Grand Master himself. Then the Turks relentlessly bombarded the capital and finally breached the walls. But Grand Master d’Aubusson, again leading the defence, drove the Turks from the breach. He was knocked from the ramparts five times with serious wounds yet doggedly returned to the fighting each time.,_peinture_edouard_odier).jpgSiege of Rhodes in 1480, painting by Edouard Odier

Repelling the Turks and chasing them into the countryside, d’Aubusson’s Hospitaller knights killed a further 9000 and wounded 30,000. This was at great cost also to the Hospital whose total losses are unknown but at least 231 knights holding portfolios in the Order’s government were killed.

Historian King called d’Aubusson “the greatest hero the Order had produced since Raymond du Puy”. Mohammed died the following year and the Ottomans left the Hospital alone for forty years.

But in 1522, Sulieman the Magnificent, became the second Sultan of Turkey to besiege the Order on Rhodes. The Grand Prior of France, Villiers de L’Isle Adam, had only been elected the year before to rule the Hospital as its 44th Grand Master. Sulieman’s host, twice the size of his grandfather’s dropped anchor at Rhodes on 16 June.

It took two weeks for the army of 140,000 to disembark from the 400 vessels of the Turkish fleet. Grand Master de L’Isle Adam had little more than d’Aubusson to repel this force–600 knights, 4500 mercenaries and perhaps a couple of thousand of the local militia.

Sulieman’s general was his eager young brother-in-law, Mustapha Pasha, and made little headway for the first month of the siege. So, at the end of July, Sulieman himself arrived on the scene with a further 15,000 to accelerate the taking of the city. His artillery pounded the walls of the city throughout August. By the end of September Sulieman was packing Mustapha Pasha off to be Viceroy of Egypt after his general had lost 3000 in one attack, then another 3000 in a second attack, then 15,000 in a third all-out assault on 24 September and still without success.

On Christmas Eve 1522 and after a ferocious war, fought valiantly on both sides for six months, the order capitulated. With characteristic chivalry, the great Sultan spared the knights who survived the siege. On New Year’s Day in 1523 with their Grand Master, Phillipe Villers de L’Isle-Adam, and those of their citizens who chose to follow, the knights sailed out of Rhodes for the last time.

Before they left Sulieman called for an interview with de L’Isle-Adam. One account of their meeting tells that the Sultan had been so struck with his adversary’s valour that he offered him great rewards if he would change from the Cross to the Crescent. When the Grand Master left the room the Sultan turned to his Vizier and said, “I cannot help being concerned that I force this Christian, at his age, to go out of his home”. Sulieman also proved himself to be as chivalrous as any knight and a merciful victor.

Part Two: The Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar