Difference between the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller

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The Knights Templar were not the only military order during the Crusades. There were several including the Knights Hospitaller who actually predated the Templars though with a very different mission initially. They ran hospitals, hence the name, before morphing into an armed crusading body.

There is a shadow over the Hospitallers. Because when the Templars were crushed, the Hospitallers benefited by gaining much of their lands and wealth. That’s always played on my mind a bit because if the objective of crushing the Templars was to be rid of a military order getting too big for its boots, then why enrich a rival order? Doesn’t that just create the same problem all over again with a different name?

Origin of the Hospitallers

The Hospitallers started out running a hospital in Jerusalem with the backing of Italian merchants BEFORE the city had been taken from Saracen control in 1099. They also managed hospitals on the pilgrim routes in modern France and Italy. In the year 1113, they achieved official papal recognition as the Knights Hospitaller.

Once Jerusalem was in crusader hands, the Hospitallers seem to have responded by upping their activity and undergoing something of a transformation.

Maybe in response to the formation of the Knights Templar around 1118, the Hospitallers rapidly militarised. They went from running a medical operation to taking up arms and fighting alongside the crusaders. The order also became more French than Italian influenced.

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Why become a Knight Hospitaller?

One question that intrigues me is why a young Christian warrior would choose the Hospitallers over the Templars? There seems to have been regional variations between the two orders. The Hospitallers, for example, recruited many young men in Bohemia and Hungary. Though it seems the Hospitaller leadership remained overwhelmingly French and Italian while the Hungarians, Croats and Germans formed the lower levels as ordinary brothers.

It’s suggested that the Templars were less popular in German speaking Europe because they were viewed as being too French and too close to the Pope. This was a time when the Holy Roman emperor, who ruled most of German Europe, was in sharp conflict with Rome.

But this didn’t give the Hospitallers a clear run among Germans, many of whom preferred to join their own local order, the Teutonic Knights. That order was engaged in crusades against pagans and orthodox Christians in the Baltics and Russia respectively.

Similar monastic rule for Templars and Hospitallers

Both Hospitallers and Templars were governed by monastic style rules with an insistence on chastity and obedience. The only difference – to my mind – is that the Templars’ military mission was established pretty much at the outset while the Hospitallers had to evolve from medicine to fighting. Under a Grand Master called Raymond du Puy, they made the transformation.

Both orders had castles in the Holy Land to defend and fought in a similarly disciplined manner. But, there does seem to have been a rivalry between them. This sharpened as the crusaders were steadily defeated.

Fighting in the Crusades – winning and losing

Like the Knights Templar, the Hospitallers fought alongside secular knights in the Crusades. The Templars in battle were identifiable by their distinct white mantles with red crosses. The Hospitaller knights wore black mantles with eight-pointed white crosses. They managed about 25 castles including the vast Krak des Chevaliers, which is still standing today in Syria.

As the crusades headed for defeat, both Templars and Hospitallers lost their castles and prestige. The two orders were forced off the mainland to Cyprus – where by all accounts they fell out with each other pretty quickly.

I read one theory that the Hospitallers were appalled by Templar lust for wealth but I find this hard to believe – the Hospitallers were pretty well off and always open to donations. Maybe the Templars had a more efficient network of money making preceptories across Europe, but I don’t buy the notion of Hospitaller shock and horror at Templar venality.

The Hospitallers moved to Rhodes in the early 14th century and then on to Malta where they saw off attempts by the Ottoman Empire to overrun them. In the same time period, the Templars were destroyed by the rulers of Christian Europe and snuffed out entirely. That begs the question – why did the Hospitallers survive while the Templars didn’t?

Cashing in on the end of the Templars

The Knights Templar were crushed by the papacy and the king of France in 1307. Their assets were transferred in many cases to the Hospitallers. These knights continued to thrive in the Mediterranean establishing a strong base on Rhodes and later on Malta until the Turks took the island in the 16th century.

Because of their presence as Christian soldiers seeing off Turkish enemies, the Hospitallers became close allies of the beleaguered Byzantines in Constantinople. They also became very rich and independent of any monarch’s control. And inevitably, they attracted the kind of criticism and hatred that had previously been reserved for the Templars.

Whereas the Templars ended with a bang, the Hospitallers went out with more of a whimper. They continued battling crusades in the Mediterranean and on the Iberian peninsula for two hundred years after the Templars’ demise. But as knighthood and chivalry went out of military fashion, so the order evolved again into a charitable foundation.

In effect, it’s returned back to where it started – doing good deeds and looking after the sick.

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