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The Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Hospitallers or Order of Hospitallers, and the Knights of St John or Order of St John, were among the most famous of the Western Christian military orders during the Middle Ages.
The Hospitallers arose as a group of individuals associated with an Amalfitan hospital in the Muristan district of Jerusalem, which was dedicated to St John the Baptist and was founded around 1023 by Blessed Gerard to provide care for poor, sick or injured pilgrims to the Holy Land. Note that other sources claim the Amalfitan order and Amalfitan hospital were different from the order of Gerard Thom and their hospital
The monastic hospitaller order was founded following the First Crusade by the Blessed Gerard, whose role as founder was confirmed by a Papal bull of Pope Paschal II in 1113. Gerard acquired territory and revenues for his order throughout the Kingdom of Jerusalem and beyond. His successor, Raymond du Puy de Provence, established the first significant Hospitaller infirmary near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Initially the group cared for pilgrims in Jerusalem, but the order soon extended to providing pilgrims with an armed escort, which soon grew into a substantial force.
The rising power of Islam eventually expelled the Knights from Jerusalem. After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291 (Jerusalem itself fell in 1187), the Knights were confined to the County of Tripoli and, when Acre was captured in 1291, the order sought refuge in the Kingdom of Cyprus. Finding themselves becoming enmeshed in Cypriot politics, their Grand Master, Guillaume de Villaret, created a plan of acquiring their own temporal domain, selecting Rhodes to be their new home, part of the Byzantine empire. His successor, Fulkes de Villaret, executed the plan, and on 15 August 1309, after over two years of campaigning, the island of Rhodes surrendered to the knights. They also gained control of a number of neighboring islands and the Anatolian port of Bodrum and Kastelorizo.
Pope Clement V dissolved the Hospitallers' rival order, the Knights Templar, in 1312 with a series of papal bulls, including the Ad providam bull, which turned over much of their property to the Hospitallers. The holdings were organised into eight "tongues" (one each in Crown of Aragon, Auvergne, Castile, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Provence). Each was administered by a Prior or, if there was more than one priory in the tongue, by a Grand Prior. At Rhodes and later Malta, the resident knights of each tongue were headed by a Bailli. The English Grand Prior at the time was Philip De Thame, who acquired the estates allocated to the English tongue from 1330 to 1358.
On Rhodes the Hospitallers, by then also referred to as the Knights of Rhodes, were forced to become a more militarised force, fighting especially with the Barbary pirates. They withstood two invasions in the 15th century, one by the Sultan of Egypt in 1444 and another by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1480 who, after capturing Constantinople and defeating the Byzantine Empire in 1453, made the Knights a priority target.
At the time of the Crusades in Palestine many princes, lords, and citizens associated themselves, and vowed to restore the Temple of the Christians in the Holy Land, and to employ themselves in bringing back their architecture to its first institution. They agreed upon several ancient signs and symbolic words drawn from the well of religion in order to recognise themselves amongst the heathen and Saracens. These signs and words were only communicated to those who promised solemnly, and even sometimes at the foot of the altar, never to reveal them. This sacred promise was therefore not an execrable oath, as it has been called, but a respectable bond to unite Christians of all nationalities in one confraternity. Some time afterwards our Order formed an intimate union with the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. From that time our Lodges took the name of Lodges of St John. This union was made after the example set by the Israelites when they erected the second Temple, who whilst they handled the trowel and mortar with one hand, in the other held the sword and buckler. Our Order therefore must not be considered a revival of the Bacchanals, but as an order founded in remote antiquity, and renewed in the Holy Land by our ancestors in order to recall the memory of the most sublime truths amidst the pleasures of society.