In this new series about the Knights of St. John, Ms. Carole Prietrzak talks about the origins of the Order.
The order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John the Baptist dates its origin from that heroic period of Christian chivalry when Jerusalem opened her gates to the arms of Godfrey de Bouillon. Born in 1050 in a place that is now located in Belgium, he was one of the four leaders of the first crusade and in charge of the one leaving from Francie du nord and basse Lotharingie en route to Jerusalem in 1096. He led his army through Germany, Hungaria and Constantinople where he was supposed to join the three other groups of crusaders to pursue the road to Constantinople together. Entering Asia in 1097, the crusaders were estimated 200,000 but only 50,000 reached Jerusalem due to fights with the Turks, lack of water and food and oppressive heat. A Muslim garrison was defending Jerusalem and Godfrey de Bouillon took the initiative to build a defensive tower and with the help of his brother Eustache was in charge of conducting the attack against the Turks. After a bloody attack, they took over Jerusalem and on July 15th, 1099 and saved the Lost Tomb of Jesus. The Crusaders founded the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem and Godfrey was offered to become its king in recognition for his bravery and wisdom but he only accepted to be the professed advocate of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in respect for the Church for which there was only one possible sovereignty on the Holy Land: the Pope’s. The Kingdom set up and was organized according to the laws and rules known as “Assizes of Jerusalem”. Godfrey died in Jerusalem on July, 18th, 1100. The Kingdom lasted till 1287 when it was recaptured by the Turks.
A chronicler writing in the year 1150, and describing what he had himself seen in his youth, says that the lands and revenues of the Knights were not held at furnishing the means of luxury to themselves, but were the funds ungrudgingly contributed by Christendom for the support of her pilgrims, and the defence of the sepulchre of her Lord; and thus the Knights were made the holders and administrators of a mighty trust of charity. Hospitals were founded in all the principal maritime states of Europe, where pilgrims were received and helped forward on their journey, and furnished with escorts and protection in times of danger. The knights led a strict community life, much of their time being given to active work of charity. Their Order was divided into three classes: the knights, always of noble birth, in whom the government of the order was vested; the clergy, or chaplains of St John, whose duties were purely ecclesiastic and who also acted as almoners; and the brothers servants-at-arms, a large and very important class, who assisted the knights both in war and in the hospitals, and may be considered as something between squires and lay brothers- though never eligible to the rank of knights they were treated almost on an equality, and had votes for the election of master. All these classes were bound by the three essential vows of religion, but although religious, the knights never bore the priestly character, as has been sometimes represented.
In 1191 the forces of France and England were united before the wells of Acre in Israel, which capitulated and fell into the hands of Richard Coeur de Lion. The knights gave their name to the city, which ever since has been known as St. Jean d’Acre. Seven centuries ago it was the Christian capital of the East. It was the gayest, gallantest city in existence. The emperor of Germany, the kings of England, France, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Jerusalem had each their residence there. The fall of Acre was quickly followed by that of Tyre, and all the smaller towns along the Syrian coast.
In the next blog in this series Ms. Priertrzak will cover the history of the Knights during the 13thand 14thCenturies.