Who were the Hospitallers?


English: One reported version of the flag of t...
English: One reported version of the flag of the Knights Templar, but not the most famous or widely accepted one. That honour is given to the standard red cross on plain white background, which symbolized purity and innocence. Crusades (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At around the same time that the Templars were formed in the Holy Land in the early 12th century – up pops another order of military monks called the Hospitallers.  Unlike the Templars, they were not subsequently persecuted out of existence and still exist as a formal organisation today – though not exactly resembling the medieval order.

So how different were they from the Templars?    Well, as we know I hope, the Templars were formed to protect pilgrims on their way to the holy sites from attacks by bandits and Saracens.  The Hospitallers seem to have been formed to serve the medical hospital, such as it was, in Jerusalem.  Hence the name of the order.

According to Karen Ralls in her excellent ‘Knights Templar Encyclopedia’, there were hospitals in Jerusalem after the First Crusade and possibly even before – but they were not in continuous use.  Then along came the Benedictines who set up a hospital near the Holy Sepulchre around the year 1080.  It was the chap in charge of this place – a man called Gerard – who went on to become the first Grand Master of the Hospitallers.

Pope Paschal II recognised the Hospitallers in 1113, five years before the official founding date of the Templars.  Both Templars and Hospitallers were under the direct protection of the papacy in Rome. Like the Templars, they seem to have evolved quite rapidly from providing services to pilgrims in to becoming a full blown military order with, it’s believed, quite a formidable fleet.  Also like the Templars, they found themselves retreating across the Mediterranean – first to Rhodes and then Malta – as the Saracens gained the upper hand in the Middle East.

Gerard died in 1120 and his skull is still revered as a relic at the Convent of Saint Ursula in Valletta in Malta.  The “Maltese Cross” is the one most associated with the Hospitallers whose black mantles – in contrast to the white of the Templar knights – were emblazoned with a white cross.   I do wonder if the Hospitallers could easily have been confused for Templar serjeants – the more junior rank of Templars who also wore black mantles.

As you can imagine, there was some rivalry between the Hospitallers and Templars and when the Templar order was crushed by the papacy and king of France, it should come as no surprise to find that the Hospitallers made a grab for Templar properties.

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