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Useful Notes / The Knights Hospitallers

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That lord i' th' black cloak, with the silver cross, is Knight of Rhodes...

Caspar Gutman: What do you know, sir, about the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, later known as the Knights of Rhodes and other things?
Sam Spade: Crusaders or something, weren't they?

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (SMOM), known also as The Knights Hospitallers, the Knights of St. John, the Knights of Rhodes, the Knights of Malta, and about a dozen variations thereon, is a Roman Catholic religious order and the oldest and perhaps most important of the three great orders of crusading knights, the other two being The Knights Templar and The Teutonic Knights.

The birth of the Order dates back to around 1048. Merchants from the ancient Marine Republic of Amalfi obtained from the Caliph of Egypt the authorization to build a church, convent, and hospital in Jerusalem to care for pilgrims. The Order of St. John of Jerusalem — the monastic community that ran the hospital for the pilgrims in the Holy Land — became independent under the guidance of its founder, Blessed Gérard. With the Bull of 15 February 1113, Pope Paschal II approved the foundation of the Hospital and placed it under the ægis of the Holy See, granting it the right to freely elect its superiors without interference from other secular or religious authorities. By virtue of the Papal Bull, the Hospital became an Order exempt from all Church authority except for the pope's, and paid no tithes. All the Knights were religious, bound by the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Early on the habit of the order was red with a white cross, changed later on to the more well-known black cloak and white cross, which by the thirteenth century had assumed the eight-pointed form familiar today as the Maltese Cross.

The constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem regarding The Crusades obliged the Order to take on the military defense of the sick, the pilgrims and the territories that the crusaders had conquered from the Muslims. The Order thus added military operations to its hospitaller mission.

When the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land fell in 1291, the Order settled first in Cyprus and then, in 1310, led by Grand Master Foulques de Villaret, on the island of Rhodes. The military role of the Order shifted from land-based to naval-based operations in the Mediterranean, serving as a sort of Catholic Coast Guard against both Muslim navies and pirates and sometimes engaging in something very similar to piracy against Muslims themselves. They'd cease their operations on Anatolia after being driven out by the Mongol-Turkic warlord Timur the Lame when he besieged their fortress in Smyrna.

In 1523, after six months of siege and fierce combat against the fleet and army of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the Knights were forced to surrender and abandon Rhodes. The Order remained without a territory of its own until 1530, when Grand Master Philippe de Villiers de l'Isle Adam took possession of the island of Malta, granted to the Order by Emperor Charles V with the approval of Pope Clement VII. In 1565 the Knights, led by Grand Master Jean de la Vallette (after whom the capital of Malta, Valletta, was named), defended the island for more than three months during the Great Siege by the Turks. In 1571, the fleet of the Order, then one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean, contributed to the ultimate destruction of the Ottoman naval power in the Battle of Lepanto.

Two hundred years later, in 1798, Napoléon Bonaparte occupied the island for its strategic value during his Egyptian campaign. Because of the Order's Rule prohibiting them from raising weapons against other Christians, the knights were forced to leave Malta (ironically, the very anti-Christian sentiment of the Revolutionary French helped provoke a rebellion among the Maltese only two years afterwards). Although the sovereign rights of the Order in the island of Malta had been reaffirmed by the Treaty of Amiens (1802), the Order has never been able to return. After having temporarily resided in Messina, Catania and Ferrara, in 1834 the Order settled definitively in Rome. In the 20th century the original Hospitaller mission became once again the main activity of the Order and lives on today as the Sovereign Order of Malta.

Curiously, the Order is treated as an nation of its own right with their own monarch (their Grand Master also doubles as a Prince); its passports, currency, diplomats, military and air force are recognized by more than a hundred countries (most of which belong to the Catholic world), and the order has observer status in the United Nations, though the Knights control no country of their own - despite what their name implies, they have no sovereignty over Malta, which is a separate independent republic. Their only possessions are two buildings in Rome which enjoy extraterritorial status and a fort that was temporarily granted by the Republic of Malta in a 2001 agreement which will expire in a century (though the Maltese are allowed to terminate it at any time after 50 years have passed).

It should be noted that there are various Protestant honorary societies, such as the German and Dutch Johanniterorden and the English Venerable Order of St. John, that claim descent from the original Roman Catholic military order.note  These groups served largely as honors for the nobility of their respective countries, but have also performed important charitable works, such as the well-known St. John Ambulance service.

In popular culture, the Knights Hospitallers are much less used than their brother orders, the Templars and The Teutonic Knights. They tend to be used more as local color, their distinctive habits adding a note of pageantry to an historical setting (as, for example, in John Webster's The White Devil, whence the picture quote). When they do appear, they are apt to appear as gentler, more likable figures than those other knights, perhaps because of the emphasis on their hospitaller function, or possibly because they never alienated powerful secular figures, as the Templars did the King of France and the Teutonic Knights the King of Poland (incidentally, a great many Templars who survived that organization's destruction promptly joined the Hospitallers, because...well, what else is a Warrior Monk with no order of his own going to do?). Interestingly, there are a surprising number of extremely fine paintings of Knights of Malta by distinguished artists such as Titian and Caravaggio (who was himself for a brief time a member of the Order).

Tropes Associated With The Knights Hospitallers:

  • All Monks Know Kung-Fu
  • Badass Preacher
  • Badass Bookworm: All Brethren were well educated and knew philosophy, sciences and arts. During the times when literacy was reserved to the upper layers of the society, the brethren formed both a military and intellectual elite.
  • Black Knight: They favoured blackened armour as it stood better against rust at sea than if it had been polished.
  • Bring My Red Jacket: Their combat uniform was, and is still, a red surcoat with a white Maltese cross. The famous black habit was changed around 1248 due to practical considerations. (Fighting is kind of hard while wearing a bulky monk's robe!)
  • Celibate Hero: The Knights were required to take a vow of celibacy. However, by the end of their time in Malta, they were considered to be neither celibate, nor heroes, with a frequent complaint of the islanders being that they tended to make free with the island's young women.
  • Chest Insignia: Just look at the picture.
  • Church Militant: One of the three Trope Codifiers.
  • Combat Medic: They got their start as a monastic order that cared for the sick and wounded and from then on the order trained its members with the best medical knowledge available at the time. This is actually what saved the order after they lost Malta, and they now fulfill this role within the Italian military.
  • The Crusades: Participated in most of them.
  • Forensic Phlebotinum: By tradition Hospitallers would deed their bodies over to be dissected For Medical Knowledge after their deaths. Just Think of the Potential!.
  • Heroic Vow: The knights take a vow of celibacy, poverty, obedience and a vow to defend Christians.
  • Honor Before Reason: Instead of trying to defend Malta from Napoleon's army, the knights surrendered and left because of a rule that forbid fighting against Christians. This is despite the fact that Napoleon and his government were so anti-Christian that they arguably were more of a threat to Christendom than the Ottomans.
  • Last Stand: During the siege of Malta in 1565, only 6100 Knights and Maltese soldiers defended their island against 48,000 Ottoman soldiers. The knights were able to hold out against insurmountable odds until the Ottomans were forced to give up and return home.
    • Played straight in the Ottoman assault on Fort Saint Elmo, which took place during the siege of Malta. While the defenders were outnumbered and gunned, the Knights Hospitalis and Maltese Militiamen stood their ground. Despite facing Ottoman Janissaries, sharpshooters, and artillery, the sources claim that Militiamen fought with valour and bravery equal to the hardened Knights of the Hospitalis Order. Each day they continued fighting, bought the rest of Malta one more day, and brought don garcia's relief force one day closer. They held that fort for 28 days, but more importantly, during the Ottoman Assault, the legendary Ottoman Corsair Dragut, was fatally wounded by Sniper fire from Fort Saint Angelo.
  • Long-Runners: It's been around since 1099 and its lands outlasted all the other Crusader states until Napoleon's invasion in 1798.
  • The Migration: After being forced from Jerusalem, they took up residence in Rhodes. After being forced from Rhodes, they took up residence in Malta. After being forced from Malta, they were finally able to take up residence in Rome.
  • N.G.O. Superpower: Particularly from the conquest of Rhodes onwards, developing an Empire that at various points included Rhodes, Malta, and several islands in the Caribbean.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: For much of their history, they were essentially crusader knight pirate scholar doctors.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: A religious military order that survived into the 18th century and actually owned several Caribbean islands for a few years in the mid-17th century.
  • Vestigial Empire: Even after having lost control over Malta, the knights are still considered a sovereign state in and of themselves with observer status in the United Nations.
  • Warrior Monk
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The Hospitallers are unique in offering examples of sea-faring knights.

Works associated with the Knights Hospitallers:

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  • David Thewlis plays a nameless but profound Hospitaller in Kingdom of Heaven. At various points he is implied to be an angel. Some extended material calls him Brother John. Which tells us next to nothing, other than that he bears the same name as the Saint upon which the Order is based, fuelling the angelic implication further. In the DVD commentary screenwriter William Monahan outright conforms his nature:
    David Thewlis' character essentially being God, it means a little more than a knight. I think it was kept secret from David that he was playing God, or at least some kind of angel, but I think he figured it out anyway.
  • The Maltese Falcon: They were the original owners of The Black Bird.

  • A sort of appearance in the Belisarius Series. The military religious order founded by Michael of Macedonia on the suggestion of Aide are called the Knights Hospitaller most of the time, though the imagery used (especially the red cross on white) is usually that of the Knights Templar. One edition even slips up and calls them Templars in one instance.
  • Dorothy Dunnett's The Disorderly Knights, third book in the Lymond Chronicles, depicts the 1651 siege of Malta, in which the Turks sack Gozo and take Tripoli. Grand Master Juan de Homedes is portrayed as a greedy incompetent, while the knights are too distracted by in-fighting to focus on their defenses. Many of the individual knights do mean well including Lymond's childhood friend and future sidekick Jerott Blythe, but the blindness of their faith leaves them suceptible to anti-Muslim bigotry as well as to manipulation by charismatic leaders such as Lymond's great antagonist, the falsely-pious knight Gabriel.
  • In Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, the Hospitaller, Ralph de Vipont, is a much less formidable figure than any of the other challengers at Ashby-de-la-Zouche.
  • The Maltese Falcon - the original owners of the Falcon - as in the Film of The Book.
  • In The Shadow of the Vulture, the main protagonist is a disgraced Hospitaller that survived the Battle of Mohács and is being pursued by Suleyman the Magnificent. He gets saved by Red Sonya (yes, the inspiration for the Red Sonja comic book character) several times during the story.
  • In the "Muses' Almanac" of 1799, Friedrich Schiller's "The Fight with the Dragon: A Romance" („Der Kampf mit dem Drachen: Romanze“) appeared, which details the story of Dieudonné de Gozon, a young Hospitaller knight who, against the orders of the Grand Master, slays a dragon that threatens the people of Rhodes, and, as a result of his disobedience, is cast out of the order; however, he receives his punishment with such humility that he is reinstated, and eventually becomes Grand Master himself.

    Live Action TV 

  • The Siege of Rhodes, the first British opera (1658), is about the conflict of the Hospitallers against the Turks for the eponymous island.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Black Templar Space Marines in Warhammer 40,000 wear Hospitaller colors and are organized along the lines of a monastic order, although they are just as much Templars.
    • The Sisters Hospitaller of the Adepta Sororitas are perhaps a more straight example. A non-militant section of the Sisters of Battle, They are excellent fighters by the Imperium's standards, but their main focus is on treating the wounded and easing the pain of the dying. While they have no problems torturing a confession out of heretics using their medical gear, they are still beloved as saints amongst the Imperial citizenry for their tireless and selfless (often self-sacrificing) efforts in the medical field— famous as they are for darting across a battlefield without any sign of fear so that they can treat a wounded soldier, no matter his or her rank.
  • Along with the Templars, The Knights Hospitaller are one of the knightly orders battling the demonic minions of The Unholy on the living planet of Wormwood in Rifts.
  • Dungeons & Dragons has featured various Paladin variants known as Knights Hospitaller; they focus more on the normally secondary casting/healing aspects of the base class than its martial ability.
  • The Knights of Malta are one of the more noteworthy conspiracies in Dark•Matter (1999). Like most conspiracies in the setting, their goals are multifaceted; thus, they can serve as allies (defending the world from extradimensional influence) and enemies (controlling the world to prevent the decay of society).
  • One of the best defense-and-counterattack oriented armies in the DBM and DBMM.
  • In Infinity, the Hospitallers are one of several elite, Church-funded power-armor units that PanOceana can field, specializing in battlefield rescues and medical support.
  • The world of Yrth in Banestorm features a knightly order called the Knights Hospitaller. This is because it was founded by Knights displaced from Earth. Notably, in an inversion from the standard they are significantly more intolerant than their local Knights Templar (also founded by displaced Earthlings).
  • Ironclaw has Knights Hospitaller in the Book of Horn and Ivory supplement, based on an island in the Shallow Sea known as the Honey Isle (a pun on one possibly etymology of Malta).
  • The Knight of Malta is a superhero in the Freedom City world, the spirit of a Knight Hospitaller who possesses a Maltese person of suitable bravery and honour whenever the island is threatened.

  • One appears in a walk-on part in John Webster's The White Devil.

    Video Games 
  • Morgan Black, a protagonist in Age of Empires III, is a Hospitaller and embarks on a quest on which one of the objectives is finding a way to rebuild the order. The Knights set up shop in the Caribbean, which as noted above actually happened. Oddly enough it turns out to be the Hospitallers rather than the Templars the ones behind the Ancient Conspiracy this time.
    • The Knights of the Mediterranean Expansion Pack adds Malta as a civilization, and they come with a heavy Hospitaller flavor with their unique units being based on them, complete with increasingly archaic medieval-era armor.
  • Assassin's Creed: With the Templars operating as a mysterious background force, Hospitallers represent a lot of the generic knights to be stabbed-inna-throat in Acre. One of the high-profile targets is their leader, an actual surgeon in an early mental asylum. Of course, prone to massive historical revisionism.
  • In both Medieval: Total War and Medieval II: Total War, Hospitallers appear in the roster of almost all Christian factions (along with Templars, Teutonics and the Knights of Santiago). In Medieval they only appear as part of the free troops granted when a crusade is launched, while Medieval II allows the creation of Hospitaller guilds in any province, although the prerequisites for them quasi-require a Crusade or two. Medieval II's extension campaign centered around the Crusader Kingdoms expands their roster a lot. Finally, in Empire, the Knights of Malta are their own minor faction which usually spends the whole game keeping the Barbary Pirates in check.
  • Europa Universalis III and IV feature the Knights Hospitaller (referred to simply as "The Knights") as a playable country among over 200 others, controlling the island of Rhodes. Thanks to the Ottoman Turks they are quite difficult to play as, but they are moderately popular among players.
  • Both Crusader Kings games feature the Hospitallers as a crusading order alongside their Teutonic and Templar brethren. While they're not directly playable in either game, the second game's expansion Sons of Abraham allows rulers to interact with them (and all Holy Orders) in various unique ways, including giving them lands of their own and sending "spare" sons off to join them.
  • While they don't actually appear and aren't exactly mentioned, the East Coast Brotherhood of Steel as of Fallout 4 are redesigning their organization to draw from them. Most notably, they're a powerful pseudo-feudal knightly order that has expanded to near-superpower status and are actively conquering territory to protect the people "for their own good." They're a decidedly less sympathetic view on an organization like the Soverign Military Order of Malta. The Commonwealth Minutemen are actually probably closer to the Knights Hospitallers, in the grand scheme of things.
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: The Vigilants of Stendarr roam the realm of Skyrim, slaying vampires and daedra worshippers. They also carry potions of Cure Disease, which they offer to wanderers who have recently encountered vampires, or any other disease-ridden predator. Their Templar counterparts can be found in the Dawnguard, whose secrecy and possibly hypocritical leadership led the order to be destroyed. In the Dawnguard DLC, a disillusioned Vigilant refounded the order, restored Castle Dawnguard, and resumed the Order's original charter of destroying vampires.
  • Prophesy of Pendor mod for Mount & Blade: Warband features a Knighthood Order known as Order of The Radiant Cross. Clearly styled after Knights Hospitaller, they are a group of knights and commoners that protect physicians and doctors of The Empire from The Snake Cult in order to find a cure for the plague that has ravaged the land of Pendor.