The Hospitaller Order - from caring to fighting

"The first authentic notice of an intention on the part of the Hospitallers to occupy themselves with military matters, occurs in the bull of Pope Innocent the Second, dated 1130 AD. This bull is addressed to the archbishops, bishops, and clergy of the church universal, and informs them that the Hospitallers then retained, at their own expense, a body of horsemen and foot soldiers, to defend the pilgrims in going to and in returning from the holy places. 

The pope observes that the funds of the hospital were insufficient to enable them effectually to fulfil the pious and holy task, and he exhorts the archbishops, bishops, and clergy, to minister to the necessities of the order out of their abundant property. The Hospitallers consequently at this period had resolved to add the task of protecting to that of tending and relieving pilgrims.

After the accession (1163) of Gilbert d’Assalit -a man described by De Vertot as “bold and enterprising, and of an extravagant genius”- to the "guardianship of the Hospital" (Grand Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, a post he held till 1169, TN) a military spirit was infused into the Hospitallers, which speedily predominated over their pious and charitable zeal in attending upon the poor and the sick.

Gilbert d’Assalit was the friend and confidant of Amalric, king of Jerusalem, and planned with that monarch a wicked invasion of Egypt in defiance of treaties. The Master of the Temple being consulted concerning the expedition, flatly refused to have anything to do with it, or to allow a single brother of the order of the Temple to accompany the king in arms; “For it appeared a hard matter to the Templars,” says William of Tyre, “to wage war without cause, in defiance of treaties, and against all honour and conscience, upon a friendly nation, preserving faith with us, and relying on our own faith.” Gilbert d’Assalit consequently determined to obtain for the king from his own brethren that aid which the Templars denied; and to tempt the Hospitallers to arm themselves generally as a great military society, in imitation of the Templars, and join the expedition to Egypt, Gilbert d’Assalit was authorised to promise them, in the name of the king, the possession of the wealthy and important city of Belbeis, the ancient Pelusium, in perpetual sovereignty.

According to De Vertot, the senior Hospitallers were greatly averse to the military projects of their chief: “They urged,” says he, “that they were a religious order, and that the church had not put arms into their hands to make conquests;” but the younger and more ardent of the brethren, burning to exchange the monotonous life of the cloister for the enterprize and activity of the camp, received the proposals of their superior with enthusiasm, and a majority of the chapter decided in favour of the plans and projects of their Guardian. They authorized him to borrow money of the Florentine and Genoese merchants, to take hired soldiers into the pay of the order, and to organize the Hospitallers as a great military society."

Text source "The History of the Knights Templars, Temple Church and The Temple", by Charles G. Addison Esq (London 1842); illustration source Wikipedia

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