Hospital Ships

Hospitaller Galley

A Hospitaller Galley at Malta: Laureys a Castro (1680)

Most people when thinking about the Crusades conjure up images of Knights Templar, mounted on horseback in their signature white surcoat emblazoned with the red cross, thundering over the desert sands.

The monastic knightly orders also managed fleets and fought the crusades at sea.  The senior of the military orders were the Hospitallers.  Originally founded to care for sick pilgrims visiting Jerusalem they became a military order after the success of the first crusade.

A pilgrim hospital existed in Jerusalem from 603 AD, but was destroyed in 1005 by Caliph Al-Hakim.  A new hospital was founded in 1023 with permission from the Caliph Az-Zahir, son of Al-Hakim, 7th Fatimid Caliph.  Funded by Italian merchants from Amalfi and Salerno it was managed by Benedictine monks on the site of the monastery of St. John the Baptist.

In 1113 following the success of the first crusade the Hospitaller order was founded.  By Papal grants it secured lands in Outremer to fund its activities.  It began as a hospice and hospital but then took on duties of escorting pilgrims safely through Muslim lands.  As a result the Hospitallers developed a military arm to rival and counterbalance the Templars.

When Jerusalem was lost to the West the Order founded a base on the island of Rhodes in 1310 and became a naval power in the Mediterranean.  July 23rd is the anniversary of one of their successes, against raiders from the Aydinid Emirate at the Battle of Chios (1319) in the Aegean Sea.

When Rhodes was lost in 1522 the Hospitallers relocated to Malta, granted from the Spanish Empire for the nominal sum of one Maltese Falcon presented each year to the Spanish King’s ambassador.   There they defended the island from Suleiman the Magnificent in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565, one of the three defining battles that curbed the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike Templars the Hospitallers exist to this day as the Order of Malta, the St. Johns Ambulance and other volunteer first aid organisations.  Also the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Most Venerable Order of St John and a plethora of organisations with disputed rights to the linkage.  Founded before the Templars they have long outlasted their close rivals.

From “The Corsair” by Byron

Canto 1:  XVII

Before them burns the lamp, and spreads the chart,
and all that speaks and aids the naval art;
they to the midnight watch protract debate –
to anxious eyes what hour is ever late?
Mean time, the steady breeze serenely blew,
and fast and Falcon-like the vessel flew;⁠
pass’d the high headlands of each clustering isle,
to gain their port – long – long ere morning smile:
and soon the night-glass through the narrow bay
discovers where the Pacha’s galleys lay.
Count they each sail – and mark how there supine
the lights in vain o’er heedless Moslem shine;

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