Author of this article as a Crusader Knight (Hospitaller Order) heeding the call of the imperial and royal majestic dynasties of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. C.1190 AD. Picture taken at the Headquarters of the Hospitaller Order in London, at the Priory of St John at Clerkenwell. This is the place where the only Byzantine Emperor to ever visit England stayed, Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, when he toured Europe for reinforcements against the Ottoman Turks. As emperor himself he was also the father of the penultimate and last emperors of Constantinople, John VIIII Palaeologus and Constantine XI Palaeologus (the famous Marble King) respectively. He rode here accompanied by the Knights of the Order
Author: Raymond Mansour Pelekanos (BA (Hons), LLB (Hons). UCL Faculty of Laws), member of the Academy of Historical European Martial Arts “Leontes”
Academic literature between the Greeks and the Knights have revolved around their specific presence in Rhodes and not their affiliation to the Greek people more generally. They are seen by them as a foreign element, rather than embraced as closely linked to themselves. This thesis is a reconciliation. Its purpose is not to claim that the Knights were Greek but rather that the Greeks were an seminal dimension to the Knights and were a key component to their existence. It also does not seek to glorify violence in the name of God which is contrary to the tenants of the faith. Its sanctioned only in self-defence, but the Crusader Knights- Hospitaller Order left a legacy that is an important part of Greek heritage and contrariwise.
The Hospitaller Order was one of the main crusader orders founded initially to protect pilgrims and the poor, and predominantly provide healthcare to the ill, but then took on a military role to defend the faith. It is one of the most famous and formidable of the orders along with the Templars and the Teutonics. The Hospitallers’s origins were informal, before officially being recognized by papal bull Pie postulatio voluntatis issued by Pope Paschal II in 1113. It is the oldest of all of them and still exists in the form of various organizations, notably that of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. They were named Hospitallers because, with no surprise, they had Hospitals which they still operate to this day.
The very legends of their origins is Greek. The Hospitallers claimed direct continuation from the very first hospital built in Jerusalem by King Antiochus V Eupator, an ancient Greek Seleucid, who was one of the successors of Alexander the Great’s Hellenic Macedonian empire. (see “The Knights Hospitaller in the Holy Land”, pg 4, 1931, Sir Edwin James King)· Alternatively to this legend is that the Hospital was founded when the Byzantine Empire’s Ravenna Exarchate sent one of its prelates, Abbot Probus, in 602 to establish a hospital in Jerusalem on the mandate of Pope Gregory I The Great. This was during the Byzantine papacy and Gregory I himself had been appointed by (and his pontificate spanned) the reign of the first Greek roman emperor, Maurice. (Boas, Adrian J. “ Jerusalem in the Time of the Crusades: Society, Landscape and Art in the Holy City under Frankish Rule. Routledge. (2001) p. 26).
The Hospitallers were originally based in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem (the “Muristan”) where the first Greek Hospital was built and operated all over the Levant Littoral. When Jerusalem was taken in 1187 by Saladin and the crusader states destroyed with the fall of Acre 1291 (inland) and Rouad in 1302 (offshore), they relocated briefly to the Greek Island of Cyprus. This was held at the time by the Luisignan house that had ruled over Jerusalem until its surrender, before deciding during that interim period to permanently settle on the Greek Island of Rhodes and its surrounding islands in the Dodecanese (building castles from Kalymnos-Leros to Kastelorizo). They remained there for over 200 years before being expelled by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman in 1523, whereby they moved to Malta where they headquartered to this day. They have permanent observer status in the UN General Assembly.
The Order attempted to aid the Greek War of Independence in 1821 by raising money for the Greek rebels so that it could return to Rhodes once successful against the Ottoman Empire (see “The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam”, Riley-Smith, Jonathan Simon Christopher (2013) pg 55 and “The Knights of Malta”, Sire, H. J. A. (1996). p. 249.) Whilst the revolution was successful in the mainland, the Dodecanese insular cluster, remained in Turkish hands until 1912 when the Italians took over, where it was only returned to become part of Greece proper in 1947. By this time the Hospitallers gave up their attempt to return to it. Yet they still proudly refer to themselves as Knights Of Malta, Rhodes and Jerusalem.
The Hospitaller order are also called the Knights of St John. This because of a Greek Orthodox Church dedicated to St John in the Christian Muristan sector of Jerusalem, where the Greek hospital was nearby situated. It was destroyed in 1005 along with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1009, by the Islamic Caliph holding Jerusalem. It was refounded in 1023, by some merchants from Amalfi, many of these being also Greek, notably an individual called Mauros (a “Griko”) (Riley-Smith, Jonathan “The Knights Hospitaller in Jerusalem and Cyprus c. 1050-1310” (1967). pg 32–43 and Health and medicine in early medieval Southern Italy, Patricia Skinner, Brill Publishers, Leiden 1997). This makes sense as Amalfi was closely tied with the Greeks not only because it was within the ancient Greek sphere of influence called Magna Grecia, but also the byzantine empire’s Catapenate of Italy (the Ravenna Exarchate’s successor).
The Order, whilst officially and currently mostly catholic, is no longer exclusively Catholic, and incorporated peoples of different Christian denominations. Its beginnings predate the distinction between Catholic and Orthodox arising with the Great Schism of 1054. Later, many Knights became Protestant after the Reformation, leading rise to a number of associated Johanniter Orders from the North which are mutually recognized along with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to be the legitimate evolution of the Hospitaller order. Indeed at one point, the head of the order was an Orthodox Christian, Tsar Paul I and the Order’s base in St Petersburg after Napoleon Bonaparte had captured Valetta. As a consequence, many Knights were also Orthodox Christian and this state of affairs had even been accepted as valid by the Roman Catholic See. The Order was and is therefore not confined to any denomination, only to the overall Christian faith. This is so, because despite being a notionally Roman Catholic Order, they do not take commands from the Papacy and quite interesting, they venerate a Greek Orthodox Christian Icon, our Lady of Philermos, which they hold as the patroness of the Order along with St John. This is an clear example of “Iconolatria” and is characteristic of official Orthodox dogma since 843 AD.
The Hospitallers are of course known for being crusaders. The First Crusade 1096-1099 was also direct consequence of the Greeks and was not, contrary to popular misconception, against either Arabs or Muslims specifically. Arab Muslims had already fought against Christendom for over 400 years before the First Crusade, since the beginning, from at least 622 AD. This too make sense, as of course the first Christian-Muslim confrontation was at the fringes, notably in the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 AD with the First Rashidun Caliphate in the East and in the west, the Berber Moorish invasion of Iberia 711.
The reason for the crusades was not therefore against arab muslim per se but, because the Byzantine Empire and its then Emperor, Alexios Komnenos requested defensive help from Europe to repel the Turks, who had invaded their territory as Seljuks from Central Asia (Jankent, Aral sea in modern Kazakstan) after the battle of Manzikert in 1071 near Lake Van. That the Turks were the reason for the Greek appeal that became the Crusades is shown in the contemporary account of the Chronicler Fulcher of Charters in the Historia Hierosolymitana where he archives Pope Urban II speech at the Council of Clermount in 1095 were it was inaugurated. In the same year as the first Turkish attack against the Greeks, the Normans had been invading Byzantine territories of the Catapanate , and took its last stronghold, Bari. The Crusades, characteristic of byzantine diplomacy to use its enemies one against another, repeated it again by diverting the Normans against the Turks , killing two birds with one stove. Once underway, the Latin Crusaders swore feudal allegiance (fealty ) to the Greek Emperor, and then set out into Asia Minor which is now Modern day Turkey, returning demesne that had been taken by the Turks back to the Greeks. That the crusaders had paid homage to the Emperor is well documented in the contemporary account made by Princess Anna Komnena in the Alexiad, the first female historian, who writes of the exploits of her father, Emperor Alexios Komnenos. After succeeding in reclaiming some territories for the Empire as allied auxiliaries, the Crusaders created their own frankish polities, namely the Kingdom of Jerusalem, County of Tripoli, Edessa and the Principality of Antioch (collectively comprising the Outremer Crusader States). In this flux, the Hospitallers , who at the time were merely medical monks, were militarized and made into a Knightly Crusader order by Raymond du Puy, the first Grand Master, who had acceded the leadership from the amalfitan head, Gerard Thom, a Benedictine priest serving the increasingly now more Latinised Greek Hospital (fully Latinized when retrospectively authorized by the Papacy in 1113 as stated above in light of Frankish dominance). The Crusades where therefore instigated by the Greeks and the Hospitallers would not have been crusaders had it not been for Byzantine foreign policy.
It is true that the Hospitallers took Rhodes by force from the Greeks in 1309 and held it until 1522, but they had initially offered to be vassals under the suzerainty of the Byzantine Empire and promised to fight against the Turks, providing the best knights they had in service of the Emperor Andronicus in return for making Rhodes their base (As noted by George Pachymeres a contemporary byzantine historian, and in the “The Knights Hospitaller”, Helen Nicholson (2001) pg47 ). Indeed they repeated this later in their own history when they relocated to Malta where they were vassals as a protectorate of the Sicilian Viceroy of Spain. Regrettably, their offer of vassalage to the greek emperor was refused and it was only then that the Hospitallers took Rhodes by force . But even when the Hospitallers did have the dodecanese as own sovereign polity, they still fought for and under the Byzantine Empire, notably at Riva in Black Sea in 1399 against the Ottomans. (see Historical Dictionary of Byzantium , John Hutchins Rosser page 237 (2012)). The Hospitallers even acted as the diplomatic liaison for Emperor Manuel II Paleologus who resided in its Chapters when making his tour of Europe asking for reinforcements ( see The Military Orders Volume III: History and Heritage- Victor Mallia-Milanes) . This last point being the background of my photo.
In fact, close ties between the Byzantine Greeks and the knights continued until the end. The Despot of Morea Theodore I Palaiologos (1382-1407) consensually offered Corinth as an allodial seisen to the Hospitallers to be a buffer against the Turks. This synergy was so successful that the Byzantines also ceded Kalavryta and Mystras, the capital of the Despotate, to them. However due to local disaffection, in 1404 Hospitallers signed a treaty with Theodore to return back these fiefs to byzantine holding and pay the Greeks a fee for having had them. The continued amicable relationship with the byzantines and knights reached an apogee with the alliance against the Ottomans signed in 1406. (“The Hospitallers, Templars, and Teutonic Knights in the Morea After the Fourth Crusade” Erhard P. Opsahl (1994) pg 90). This was natural, because the Hospitallers had always been mortal enemies of the Turks from their inception and fought against their barbary pirate corsairs and in Smyrna and Halicarnassus (then known as Petronium). Indeed the Hospitallers were on the side of Byzantine Empire during the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and some even fought a naval skirmish against the Turks outside its sea walls as recorded by an eye witness Nicolo Barbaro in his diaries.
The Hospitallers were a consociational organization. It was an amalgamation of magnates, prelates ruling over freefolk and serfs from different countries under one banner. The Hospitallers have the Eight Pointed Cross representing the 8 beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. This was also the symbol of the Duchy of Amalfi, which as stated above was said to be the provenance of some of the Greek merchants who had rebuilt the Greek Hospital in Jerusalem after it was destroyed by the ruling Fatimid regime, and which then became the base of the Order in the proximity next to the Greek Church of St John from which they acquired their name. Whilst the eight pointed cross was the official symbol of the Order, each chapter, that is to say, section of it maintained the individual heraldry of their country of origin. In this regard one only needs to see the Road of Knights in the Old Town Rhodes where each “langue” or “tongue” of the Order had its own building to reflect the demographic of that section; on each building there is the cross of the Hospitallers and the coat of arms of each realm they originated from. This was also evident with the personal shields of the Grand Masters, which were quartered with the resident flag of the Order and combined with their own private flags of their domiciles. So the Hospitallers were not a static foreign element but assimilated and integrated with different nationalities. There were many Hospitallers of Greek Origin; the best example would be Giovanni Paolo Lascaris, a Greek who became the 57th Grand Master and was a descendent of the Byzantine Imperial Dynasty of the Lascari. Under him, the Hospitallers colonized the Americas and various Islands in the Caribbean during the age of exploration. His Coat of Arms as Grand Master clearly shows the Flag of the Order quartered with the double-headed eagle (the Anatolian “Haga” which is of Hittite mythological provenance) that was the symbol of the Byzantine Empire to reflect his heritage, in the same colours as that still used today by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, yellow and black. This is also, of course, the emblems of the Christian orthodox faith and he even minted coins with this.(scroll down the following webpages to Lascaris The Pro Fide Knights (The Knights of Malta) – The Grand Masters of the XVIIth century (romeartlover.it) and OrderStJohn (hubert-herald.nl) There is also the true story of Anastasia, a local Greek woman who had married one of the Knights of the Order. When her husband was killed in battle during a siege of the city, she wore his armour and fought pretending to be him, slaying dozens of Turks before succumbing herself. (see De bello Rhodio by Jacobi Fontani, a contemporary historian).
I hope this humble attempt to survey the connections between the Greeks and the Knights has been useful. Thank you