The Order of Hospitallers Knights of St John of Jerusalem developed out of the largely humanitarian services being rendered by a group of monk knights under the leadership of Gerard Thorn (who was later beatified by the Church), to poor and sick Christian pilgrims who needed care and protection as they visited the Holy Places in Jerusalem at the beginning of the last millennium (1000AD). They were located at the Amalfitan Hospital near Jerusalem, which was dedicated to St John the Baptist.
After the First Crusade succeeded in capturing Jerusalem in 1099, the status of the group was changed to that of Military Order by virtue of a Papal Bull which was issued in 1133 in which the Order was charged with the task of providing not just medical, but also military protection for pilgrims visiting the Holy places. In response to this, Grand Master Raymond dePuy founded a new hospital near the Church of the Holy Sepulture in the city.
During the late 12th century, the order established houses in Europe, England and Ireland where local lords gave them land to establish monasteries and hospitals to service local needs. These were also recruitment centres for young monk knights who saw their futures in military service, which was possibly otherwise denied to them (eg younger sons not in line to inherit estates). Local lords found the Order useful in administration of their territories especially newly acquired lands in places like Ireland after the Norman conquest, which began with their invasion of Ireland in 1169. The European houses also provided retirement homes for wounded and old knights who were not able to endure the hardships of life in the Holy Land.
The Fall of Jerusalem 1187 : After the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 to Saladin, the Order moved its base to Acre on the Mediterranean coast, where they provided the main opposition to the Muslim advance into what was left of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Crusader Kingdom came to an end after the defeat of the Christian forces at the Siege of Acre in 1291. It had endured for a little less than 2 centuries.
After Acre, the Order moved to the island of Cyprus; but after just 18 years they decided to move base to the island of Rhodes where it provided an outpost to defend Southern Europe against attack from both Muslim forces and Barbary pirates from North Africa. They were eventually dislodged from Rhodes by the advancing Ottomans in 1522. They moved to Sicily for some years before they were granted the island of Malta, along with Gozo and the port of Tripoli, in North Africa, by King Charles V of Spain in 1530 to continue their defence of Southern Europe against the Muslims and North African pirates.
In return the Knights were obliged to pay a yearly rental of a single Maltese Falcon each All Souls Day to be paid to the King’s representative, the Viceroy of Sicily. (This became subject of the famous book written by Dashiell Hammett - The Maltese Falcon).
To this day, the Order carries the name Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM).
The Order moves to Malta (1530) : Malta saw the Hospitallers most glorious military exploit, the defeat of the Ottoman siege of their island stronghold at Valetta in 1565, where 700 knights and 8000 soldiers repulsed an attack by over 40,000 Ottoman soldiers sent by Suleiman to dislodge them and thereby establish a base to attack Southern Europe. Only 600 knights survived the siege. In its aftermath, a new city had to be built. This became the capital city of Malta and was named Valetta after the Grand Master who led the fight, Jean Parisot de la Valette.
This victory along with the famous Christian victory at Lepanto in 1571 under the leadership of the iconic Don John of Austria; saved Europe from being overrun by the Ottomans, at a time when the entire Continent was being torn and weakened by religious wars arising from the Reformation.
Post Crusader Hospitallers - The role of the Hospitallers had by then changed dramatically from that of the original Crusader knights of 1133, and this was reflected in the lack of support they received during the 17th and 18th centuries. They became more dependent on what they could take from the Barbary pirates, less on what they could attract from Europe’s rulers. Even the Catholic rulers of Europe were inclined to ignore the Order’s pleas for support as they considered the Order to have grown “soft” and increasingly irrelevant.
Napoleon delivered a decisive blow when he had the Order removed from Malta on his way to occupy Egypt in 1798. The knights were dispersed all over Europe where over the next 30 years, they reconfigured themselves into their founder’s original humanitarian/religious roles as opposed to being providers of military services. In 1834 they established their headquarters in Rome, where they still remain. Several Protestant offshoots were also established in Germany, Holland, Great Britain, Sweden which can trace their origin to the original parent group.
Dissolution of the Templars - The year 1312 saw the dissolving of the Order’s big rivals, the Templars, who were also a Crusading Order who developed in the early years of the Crusades. The Hospitallers benefitted from this, as they were allowed to take over many former Templar establishments, and proceeded to provide the services formerly performed by the Templars. The dissolving of the Templars was motivated mainly by the wish of the French King of the day to take over their considerable wealth and property. To help achieve this, all manner of accusations were made to discredit the Templars. Some of these were fantastic in the extreme and gave rise to all kinds of theories about the Order and its practices, some of which are simply incredible. Most recently, the books of Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code, et al) exploit this rich source of material to create what many regard as highly unlikely fact but excellent fiction.
The Hospitallers in Ireland
The two Crusading Orders of Templars and Hospitallers both had Priories all over the conquered territories in Ireland. The Orders’ houses (also called preceptories), were established after the occupation by the Norman invaders of former Gaelic territories and were another means for holding down and administering the new lands. (The first Norman invasion of Ireland took place under the leadership of Richard deClare, nicknamed Strongbow; in 1169).
While the conquest of the Holy Land was the main objective of the Crusading Orders, they were used in places such as Ireland to provide medical and military services in the newly conquered territories in return for grants of lands and houses from the local lords. These establishments also provided rest and retirement homes for older monk-knights who were not so well able to live in more distant and potentially more challenging locations. The first preceptory for the military orders was founded in 1174 by Strongbow in Kilmainham, which was then on the outskirts of Dublin city.
The Preceptory of St John in Nobber, Co Meath; which is featured in the historic novel ‘Morgallion’; was established by Gilbert deAngulo, a knight from Sir Hugh deLacy’s retinue who had been granted the barony of Morgallion in the Lordship of Meath in 1172. DeAngulo (which was afterwards changed to Nangle), established his caput on the hill overlooking Moynagh Lough, where a crannóg community of native Gaelic people are known to have lived.
The first Norman construction here was a motte and bailey as a base for a permanent garrison. The monks of the Crusading Order of St John of Jerusalem were invited by deAngulo to help establish the caput town which came to be called Nobber; after the Irish “An Obair” = Work. (Note - The native Irish were obliged to provide much of the labour to help the construction and maintenance work, hence the name).
The caput town was built to accommodate the people who followed the invading soldiers, as they settled the new lands. The monk-knights were granted land on which to build their monastery church and hospital. The ruined tower in the old graveyard is all that remains of this. It is thought that the name of the nearby townland of Spiddal derives its name from the lands that were part of the original deAngulo grant to the Order (from the Irish word for Hospital - ‘Ospidéal’).
In the aftermath of the 1312 suppression of the rival Templars military order; any Templar land and houses in England and Ireland that were not taken over by the King, was transferred to the Hospitallers of St John.
A famous Irish Hospitaller Grand Prior : The Grand Prior of the Irish Hospitallers during the Bruce wars (1315-18) was Sir Roger Outlawe, who was based in the chief Priory in Kilmainham, Dublin. This man was the son of the notorious Dame Alice Kyteler from the city of Kilkenny, who was accused (in 1324) of being a witch and was helped by Sir Roger to flee Ireland to avoid suffering the dire fate of being burnt at the stake. This lady had the distinction of marrying and having children by four husbands, the first three of whom died under dubious circumstances.
But that is another long and interesting story.