The Great Battles: Crusading for the Church Against All Odds

The Knights of Malta have a military history that dates to the early years of the Christian Crusades. Set in an era marked by the Cluniac revival of Benedictine monasticism, the Gregorian Reform of the eleventh-century Church and the ever persistent threat of Moorish invasion into Spain, the Crusades are responsible for some of the richest imagery of Christian piety and heroism. The Knights’ contribution to the history surrounding these events was no less great than the literature of heroism that they inspired.

In the same year that Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome (800), he was also recognized as protector of the Holy Sepulcher by the Patriarch of Jerusalem — a title confirmed by the Caliph Harum Al-Rashid. By the middle of the eleventh century, however, all of this was to change. In 1054, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, papal legate to Constantinople, placed a decree of excommunication upon the altar of Saint Sophia against the Ecumenical Patriarch, Michael Cerularius. Following soon after the Great Schism that since then has divided the Christian Churches for 940 years, the army of the Byzantine emperor was destroyed in 1071 by the Seljuk Turks who captured Constantinople and conquered all of Asia Minor to the Sea of Mamora. Unlike the Arabs of Spain who earlier lived among Christians to the great benefit of European culture, the Seljuks were converts to Islam from Central Asia who seized Jerusalem for their own purposes and, although not entirely intolerant of Christians, made pilgrimage to the Holy Places even more difficult than when they were under Byzantine rule. For the papacy it seemed possible that, given the decline of Byzantium, the whole of Christendom could be united under Rome if western Christians could establish themselves in the East.

Having traveled to the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II proclaimed on November 26, 1095 that God willed a movement to regain Christian use of the Holy Places. Responding immediately, Crusader armies passed through the Balkans to Constantinople and fought the Seljuks in Asia Minor on their way to Syria. Passing through Lesser Armenia in southeastern Asia Minor, the Crusaders entered Syria and, after a month’s warring, besieged Nicea, Tarsus and finally Antioch. Aided by the supplies of Genovese ships, the Crusaders moved down the coast of Syria until finally on July 15, 1099, again after a month-long siege, Jerusalem was captured and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was established.

According to legend, the Christians who fought to regain Jerusalem were nourished by bread that was thrown to them over the walls by one Brother Gerard. In turn, after the capture of Jerusalem, these grateful Christian knights benefited Brother Gerard’s hospital that was said to have been founded around 1080 by merchants from the southern Italian port of Amalfi, near Naples. Now committed to the work of their patron, these knights operated their hospital according to the Rule of St. Benedict.

By the time of Brother Gerard’s death in 1120, the monks of the hospital of St. John of Jerusalem had already received Papal approbation by a bull of Pope Pascal II in 1113. In addition to the care of the sick and the poor, however, under their second master, Raymond de Puy, the monks took on the further task of guarding pilgrims on their way to the Holy Places in Jerusalem. It was in this manner that the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem assumed the work already being performed by The Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, or the Knights Templars. It was in this way that the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem became a central part of the military defense both within the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and within the other Latin principalities established in the Levant.

Taking the vows of the regular clergy, these knights performed the daily religious obligations of monks while they trained and organized themselves as a military order. So established, these knight-monks filled a conspicuous void within the Latin population that was otherwise insufficient to provide for the long-term defense of the Crusader principalities. Local oriental Christians and native non-Christians served in the armies as infantry and light cavalry, while the Knights positioned themselves as the leaders of the oriental Christian forces. Combining this savvy in war craft with an impressive array of castles throughout Syria, the military vigor of the Knights’ mission soon became indisputable. One of their fortifications, the former Krak des Chevaliers, for example, was said to be so formidable that a Moslem at the time would liken it to “a bone stuck in the throat of the Saracens.”

These many developments in the Order aside, the Latin armies were nonetheless greatly outnumbered. Eventually, united under the leadership of Saladin, the first Ayyubite Sultan of Egypt, the Latin kingdom was completely surrounded by eastern forces and, in the summer of 1187, fell to their superior strength. Both at Tiberias and at the Horns of Hattin, anyone who bore the Cross of the Knights Hospitallers was systematically executed. In October 1187, as the ultimate consequence of Saladin’s victory at Hattin, the city of Jerusalem fell once again, thus inaugurating the Third Crusade led by Richard the Lion-Hearted.

After more than a century of chaotic history and the loSs of several important fortifications in northern Syria, the avenging sword of Islam again swept out of Egypt to take the coastal city of Acre in 1291. For some time the siege was withstood by the Hospitallers, but overcome by vastly superior numbers, they were driven into the Meditarranean Sea onto the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus.

Soon after the Knights Hospitallers were given control of the island of Rhodes off the coast of Asia Minor at a crossroads of Western European trade into Egypt and of north-south trade between Constantinople and the Eastern Mediterranean. The prosperity of the port’s commerce, along with a large number of properties in Western Europe which had been donated to support the Knight’s activities both charitable and military, eventually contributed to the complete redevelopment of the Order. Once again organized as defensive combatants, the Knights built secure fortifications for themselves and recovered from the catastrophic loss of their Syrian castles by becoming maritime commanders. For the next five hundred years the Knights not only protected Europe from the organized naval fleets of both Moslem and Turkish rulers, but they also guarded the rest of the Mediterranean world from the Moslem pirates who would profit from the sale of those men and their goods which they could capture at sea.

Although in 1440 and 1444 the Knights were able to defend against two naval attacks on Rhodes by the Caliph of Egypt, the great military strength of the Ottoman Empire later overwhelmed the Knights when, in 1480, Rhodes was besieged by Turks armed with a new and massive artillery. Unbelievably, the 89-day siege ended just as the Ottomans had destroyed the fortification walls. According to one account, the banner of St. John the Baptist, the banner of the Holy Virgin, and the Cross of the Order of St. John were transformed in the eyes of their adversaries into terrifying djinns or devils from the abyss. Sustaining thousands upon thousands of casualties, July the 27th marked not only the end of the Turkish attempt to destroy Rhodes, but their defeat also caused them to withdraw their army and abandon their planned occupation of Italy.

In 1522 the Ottomans undertook another siege with improved artillery that eventually forced the Knights to surrender Rhodes and settle in the Papal States. It was at this time that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, offered the Knights the island of Malta, wherewith they settled in the Aragonese Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Continuing to protect the southern flank of Europe from deeper Ottoman invasion, in 1565 the Knights of Malta withstood another massive naval attack, but this time upon their new fortifications which had been constructed over the course of three decades. Successfully defending these ramparts throughout a four-month-long siege, the Knights soon had reason to believe that they were equipped with impenetrable defenses and that the Turks accepted the limitations of this frontier against Europe. In less than six years, however, the Order was to ready itself for the greatest engagement in its military history.

On October 7, 1571 the Christian West defeated the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Lepanto just off the western coast of Greece. In addition to the major naval contributions that came from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and its sovereign, Philip II, the King of Spain, the European fleet was supplemented with forces provided by Venice, Genoa, the Papal States, and the Knights of Malta. In the words of Miguel Cervantes, who was twenty-four at the time and an enlisted soldier in Don John’s militia, nothing was sparred in the Christian effort to conquer:

Most amazing of all, no sooner does one man fall, never to rise again this side of Doomsday, than another takes his place; and if he, in his turn, falls into the sea, which lies in wait for him like an enemy, another, and yet another, takes his place, without a moment passing between their deaths: the greatest display of valour and daring to be found in all the hazards of war.

The three galleys contributed by the Order of St. John were positioned on the right-wing facing the Turkish commander, El Louck Ali, Viceroy of Algiers. Although the European fleet was able to defeat the Turkish navy, more than two-thirds of the Knights were killed in the process. As one contemporary report reads:

The Knights and their men defended themselves with a valour worthy of their heroic Order. A Zaragozan knight, Geronimo Ramires, although riddled with arrows like another St. Sebastian, fought with such desperation that none of the Algerine boarders cared to approach him until they saw that he was dead. A knight of Burgundy leaped alone into one of the enemy’s galleys, killed four Turks, and defended himself until overpowered by numbers.

Although the Battle of Lepanto takes its place in naval history as the last battle in which the oared galley predominated, it was the subsequent liberation of 15,000 Christians from the oar-benches of the Ottoman fleet while more than 20,000 Turks were killed or taken prisoner that marked the day for centuries as a decisive victory over the further expansion of Islam.

After the Ottoman capture of Vienna in 1683 and its subsequent rescue by the Polish king, John Sobieski, the Ottoman Empire began its slow retreat which lasted into the early twentieth century. In alliance with Poland, the Papal States, Malta and Venice, Austria reconquered Hungary. Throughout this period the Knights maintained continuing vigilance against the Turks, and especially against the Barbary pirates of the Ottoman Empire.

It was the temporary conquest of Malta by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 on his way to Egypt which ended the rule of the Knights. Lord Nelson expelled the French the next year and the Anglo-French Treaty of Amiens (1802) returned the island to the Knights of Malta. In the meantime, Lord Nelson’s conquest had not meant that the English navy assumed the protective services formerly provided by the Knights. In Palermo Nelson was focused on limiting the power of Napolean’s brother, and later his brother-in-law, as client kings of Naples. The Barbary pirates took control of the Mediterranean.

With Nelson’s navy blockading the French forces in Naples, English shipping no longer ventured into the unprotected Mediterranean. In the years of Anglo-French conflict during the French Revolution, American shipping began to gain a worldwide dominance as English shipping was driven from the seas by the demands of war. Yet it was not until the American navy organized to protect the American shipping industry that had expanded into the Mediterranean that once again these waters enjoyed the safety formerly provided by the ships and Knights of Malta.


  • Leonard P. Liggio

    Leonard Liggio (born in 1933) is a classical liberal author, research professor of law at George Mason University, and executive vice president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, USA.

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