When the children of Israel in Egypt realized the necessity of having a man to lead them, God provided them Moses. It is always the same: when the necessity is realized the man is invariably at hand; and it was so in the case we are considering. Peter Gerard was the man provided, but we must remember we are here dealing with Christians of the Latin, or Western Church, and that this Church was under the control of the Pope. It was therefore necessary to obtain the permission of the Pope before founding a religious Order. This was duly applied for, and permission was granted for the formation and founding of a Knighthood, to be known as the Knights Hospitallers of St. John (The Almoner) of Jerusalem. They were placed under the control of the Abbe of St. Mary de Latgina (1048). Their Patron, St. John, Eleemon (The Almoner) was the son of the King of Cyprus. He flourished in the sixth century, and was elected Patriarch of Alexandria. He founded a fraternity at Jerusalem whose principal object was to nurse the sick and wounded among the Christian pilgrims who visited the Holy Land. Both the Greek and Latin Churches have canonized him as St. John of Jerusalem. Hence the name Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem.
When Abraham entered the land of Caanan, and there lost Sarah his wife, he bought of the sons of Heth a burying place where he buried Sarah, and in which he was afterwards buried himself, as was also Jacob; and to this same piece of ground the sons of Jacob journeyed, carrying with them the bones of their brother Joseph. In like manner Peter Gerard's first action was to buy a piece of ground from the Caliph Monstrasser-billah, whereon he built an Hospital wherein to tend the sick and wounded, and where the remains of such as died under their care might receive Christian burial. The fact of the existence at Jerusalem of the Hospitallers increased the number of pilgrims, and as a natural consequence the number of sick and wounded increased to such an extent that it was found necessary to build a second hospital and a church, which like the Knighthood was dedicated to St. John of Jerusalem.
When the army of the Crusaders appeared before the walls of Jerusalem, the hospitals were still presided over by Peter Gerard, and when the city of was taken (15th July, 1099), many of the wounded Crusaders were carefully tended in these hospitals. Some days after the battle Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, visited his wounded comrades from whom he heard nothing but praise of the good Gerard and his monks. Godfrey became the first king of the knew kingdom but he refused to wear a crown of gold where his Lord had worn a crown of thorns. The new kingdom embraced the whole of Palestine together with the Principalities of Antioch and Edessa. One writer says--"The new monarch immediately visited the House of St. John, which was then filled with wounded soldiers, to whom he personally administered aid and consolation, and to mark his sense of humane services rendered by the brethren, Godfrey encowed the Hospital with his own Lordship of Montboire, in Brabant, and all its dependencies."
The fame of the Hospitallers had gone abroad, wealth flowed in upon them, kings and princes gave of their substance. At the hands of Baldwin I. They received a large share of the booty taken from the infidels. In the space of a few years they became rich. Hitherto they were very poor, denying themselves to give to others. Now being rich, they presume to be independent. They drew up a code of rules for their future guidance in which they prescribed a vow of obedience (the vow being made in the presence of the Patriarch), and assumed as their dress a black mantle with a white cross on the breast. Hence the name "Black Knights," and also the name by which the Hospitallers' degree is now known, "The Black." There was, of course, a reason for their assuming black as their distinctive colour, but we need not mention it here. All Black Knights know it, and those who are not Black Knights may know it, by joining our Order, providing they be found worthy to do so.
The aspirations of the Knights towards independence mete with no opposition, and on 15th July, 1113, Pope Pascal II. Confirmed the rules they had drawn up, and granted them permission on the death of Gerard to elect his successor as Grand Master, by their own votes, without the interference of any temporal or spiritual power whatever. He further granted them exemption from the obligation of paying tithes to the Patriarch, and confirmed all the donations made, or to be made to them. Here ended the authority of the Pope over the Order. From this time till the present hour the Order has been free from all authority, spiritual or temporal. They here became a law unto themselves, and they acknowledged no other, in so far as the Order was concerned. As citizens of the several countries, they were of course amenable to their country's laws.
Having gained freedom from outside control their numbers increased rapidly, and many a gallant knight divested himself of his armour to perform the humble task of tending the sick and wounded. So great was the influx of new members that it was found necessary to sub-divide the Order into seven countries, kingdoms, or languages, as follows:--
The 8th. --Castile, being subsequently added --
England included Scotland and Ireland, while Castile included Portugal and Leon. The governing body of each division was called a Grand Priory, and the chief officer the Grand Prior. The supreme council being called the Chapter General, and the supreme ruler the Grand Master. As already stated the Knights of St. John wore a white eight-pointed cross upon the breast. The Knight Templars wore the same cross upon the right shoulder, while the Crusaders were distinguished by having the cross in different colours. Thus--the English wore white, the French red, the Flemings green, the Germans black, and the Italians yellow; the cross in each case being the same in shape, that eight-pointed cross, now generally known as the Maltese cross.
Peter Gerard having ruled the Order till his death in 1118, a period of seventy years, he was succeeded by Raymond du Pays, who ruled for forty-two years. New masters make new laws, and Raymond du Pays transformed the unarmed hospital attendant into an armed knight, ready and willing to meet the foe on any part of the earth's surface. Ambition may possibly have had something to do with the matter, but, as we have already noticed, the number of sick and wounded was increasing, and it was deemed necessary to have an organized means of defence as well as an organized ambulance corps. They considered the best way of preventing an overcrowding of their hospitals was to have an effective means of checkmating their enemies. Defensive measures had become imperative, the martial spirit of the age lent itself to the cause of the Military Knights who in a short time became a powerful army. In a bull addressed to the Archbishops, Bishops, and Clergy of the Church universal in 1130, Pope Innocent II. Informed them that the Hospitallers then retained at their own expense a body of horse and foot soldiers to defend the pilgrims going to and returning from the Holy Places, and he exhorted them to "minister to the necessities of the Order out of their abundant poverty."
The pious Innocent was evidently unwilling to accept the protection afforded by the Hospitallers without making some sort of recompense. The Scriptural adage, "The labourer is worthy of his hire" may have been the motive which prompted such friendly counsel on the part of his (Innocent) holiness, but we rather doubt it, and prefer to assume that it was rather because the Church was for the time being best served by a show of friendship. As we will have occasion to notice by-and-bye, the friendship of the Popes was in proportion to their dependence upon the Order.
The ideal at which the Grand Master aimed was a noble one, consisting in being able to protect his guests while going to and returning from the home of the Brotherhood; to lodge them in a manner becoming their rank; to feed them during their sojourn; to nurse them when sick, and provide all necessary medicine as well as medical and surgical attendance. The Knighthood consisted of three grades--Clergy, Knights, and Servants-at-arms, and they took three vows, Celibacy, Obedience, and Individual Poverty. In the form of attaches there were the Non-professed, who were allowed to have private property, and finally there was a female grade. In time of war the Knights wore over their usual garments a crimson surcoat embellished before and behind with the white cross of the Order. The following stanza shows the spirit by which they were actuated:--
As to their faults;--It is always easy and usually practically safe to find fault with other people, but when viewed in the light of common-sense, and with due regard to circumstances, the necessity for fault finding becomes visibly less, if it does not disappear altogether.
At the period of which we write the Knights of St. John were members of the Church of Rome, and therefore subject to the demoralizing influences of that Church, which for centuries before and after this time went slowly but surely downwards to degradation, shame, and infamy, and if the individual members partook of the degradation of the body politic, who can blame them? Their zeal for spiritual religion decreased while their zeal for the ceremonials of religion increased. They were soldiers in reality, religious in name only. Religion had become little more to them than an outward show; a cloak under which was hid many deeds unworthy of men with such an ideal before them. Sir Walter Scott, in his "Ivanhoe," has so clothed historic facts with fiction, as to present to us a picture of the English Knights in their semi-degenerated state, so realistic that we would fain turn away our eyes from beholding it. Yet it cannot be said that they were wholly irreligious; far from it. There were at all times many pious men amongst them, some of whom we shall have occasion to notice later on. Yet taken as a whole they are not unjustly treated by Sir Walter Scott.
We have already referred to the First Crusade (1096-1099) under Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, which resulted in the formation of the New Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Knights of St. John and the Knight Templars both offered their services to the new monarch, and both were accepted. Thus the two bodies became brethren-in-arms, and continued so for 216 years. A strange coincidence in the formation of these two bodies is worthy of notice; they both became Military Knights in the same year (1118). Practically they formed the army of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, from the time mentioned till the fall of the Kingdom.
The Second Crusade was instigated by the fall of Edessa (1147), and by the fear of Jerusalem sharing its fate. The originator of this Crusade was Pope Eugenius, its apostle St. Bernard of Clairvaux, its leaders Emperor Conrad III. Of Greece, and Louis VII. of France. Like most enterprises blessed by the Pope it was a miserable failure, and that principally through the perfidy of the Greek Emperor. It however delayed the attack on Jerusalem.
The Third and most important Crusade of the seven was brought about by the fall of Acre, Tyre, Beyrout, and Nicopolis (1189), when the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem became a prey to the victorious Saladin. The Emperor Barbarossa took command of the forces for the recovery of Palestine, but at an early stage of the proceedings he lost his life by drowning. Thus Philip Augustus of France, and Richard I. (Coeur de Lion) of England, were left in command; they mustered their armies on the plains of Fezelia in Burgundy (1st July, 1190), and the united armies numbered 100,000 men. At Lyons the Kings parted, to meet at Messina in Sicily. During the winter they passed in Sicily, Richard forced the king--Tancred--to restore 40,000 ounces of gold, the dowry of his sister Joan. Here many petty jealousies arose between Richard and Philip; another delay took place at Cyprus, where Richard was marred to Berengaria of Navarre. He stayed to conquer the Island, and having captured the king--Isaac--cast him into prison loaded with fetters of silver. Nearly twelve months had passed before Richard reached Acre, then the centre of the war. Philip had been for some time in the camp before the walls, but the presence of the Lion-heart alone could strike terror into the defenders. Very soon after his arrival the gates were thrown open. Acre was retaken (1191), but not until 200,000 Christian soldiers had found a grave before its walls. Jealousy caused Philip to retire from the campaign on pretence of ill health, and return to France; before his departure he swore not to invade the dominions of Richard. From Acre Richard led the Crusaders to Jaffa, again inflicting upon Saladin a severe defeat. He also captured Ascalon. At last the walls of the still fair Jerusalem rose before his eyes, but his ranks were so thinned by war, hunger, and disease, and his energies so weakened by national jealousies, and being conspired against by Philip, Richard with the prize for which he had neglected his duty as a king glittering before him, was forced to turn away. He however concluded a long truce with Saladin, which secured for the Christians the right of pilgrimage to the Holy places, without molestation or taxation. The Lion-hearted Richard took leave of the sacred shore (9th Oct., 1192), as with outstretched arms he commended it to the mercy of heaven. From this time forward the headquarters of the Order appear to have been at Acre. Taken at its best a truce is but a temporary expedient, and cannot be expected to last forever; therefore the necessity for continued exertion on the part of the Crusaders.
The Fourth Crusade (1215) did not help matters much. Like the second it was instituted by the Pope (Innocent III.), it aimed at the recovery of the Holy Land; but its leader, Baldwin of Flanders, conducted his army to Constantinople on pretext of enthroning a rightful Imperial claimant. He however seated himself on the throne, and established a Latin Empire, which only lasted for about half-a-century, during which time the Roman See held a nominal supremacy over a portion of the Eastern (or Greek) Church. The Pope, on the one hand, condemned the action of Baldwin, while on the other, he gratefully accepted his homage, and that of such of the Greek clergy as could be prevailed upon to acknowledge his Holiness. An action which places beyond doubt the fact that the Pope was not the innocent mortal his name suggests.
The Fifth (or bloodless) Crusade (1228) was undertaken by an excommunicated leader, and carried on with a comparatively small force; yet it accomplished more than any previous expedition except the first. The Emperor Frederick II. had come under the papal "ban" for tardiness in fulfilling his crusading vow. Without waiting for absolution he led his army to Palestine, and found the Mohammedans there at war with other Moslems and willing to make terms. He secured the cession of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Joppa, and returned home, but not to receive thanks for securing Christian rights by peaceful means; but to be branded by the Pope as an ecclesiastical rebel and a spiritual traitor who had made a dishonourable compromise with infidels.
Notwithstanding these denunciations by the Pope, the advantages gained by Frederick secured peace for twenty years, when Jerusalem fell once more before the Tartars (1248). Hence followed the two unsuccessful Crusades the Sixth and Seventh, led by St. Louis , King of France. In the former he was taken prisoner at Damietta (1249), and in the latter he lost his life through pestilence at Tunis (1270). The genuine although superstitious devotion of this Royal Saint irradiates as with the light of a beautiful sunset the declining cause of the Crusaders. As the bright vision of a recovered Jerusalem faded from his dying gaze, he was heard to cry, as if translating his aspirations from the earthly to the heavenly Zion, "I will enter Thy house, O Lord: I will worship within Thy sanctuary." Voltaire has testified of him thus--"It is not given to man to carry virtue further."
The Grand Master at this period was Hugh de Revel, who was succeeded by Nicholas de Lorgne (1278). After a vain attempt to rally his disheartened forces, De Lorgne died of a broken heart, and was succeeded by John de Villiers (1289). During the following year the remnants of the two once powerful Orders--the Knight Templars and the Knights of St. John--made their escape to Cyprus, where the following circular letter was issued by the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John:
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