Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Crusades: The Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem—The Founding of the Great Orders of Knighthood

It was not until the autumn of 1096 that the first great Crusading army set out, and it did not reach Jerusalem until June 1099, nearly three years later. It had indeed been preceded by an unarmed and motley crowd under Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless. But these nearly all died of hunger and disease, or by the swords of the enemy, long before they reached Palestine.

Jerusalem yielded quickly to the Crusaders, and a terrible slaughter of the unbelievers took place. The streets ran red with blood, and were piled high with dead. Then, their vengeance satisfied, the Christian knights put off their blood-stained armour, and dressed in white robes, carrying palm branches in their hands, marched to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to give thanks to God for their great victory.

Kingdom of Jerusalem

A Christian monarchy was then established in Jerusalem, and Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the bravest and wisest of the Crusaders, was chosen king. But he refused to take the regal title, or to wear a crown of gold in the city where the Saviour of the world had worn a crown of thorns. He called himself merely baron and defender of the Holy Sepulchre. Having enthroned their king, and leaving with him a few hundred knights to keep his kingdom from again falling into the hands of the Turks, most of the Crusaders took their way home again.

The new kingdom of Jerusalem was modeled upon the feudal states of western Europe. To set up such a kingdom in the midst of enemies, and so far away from Christian aid that months must elapse before a cry for help could be answered, was a wonderful act of faith. Yet as long as the Crusades lasted the Christian kingdom continued, although at times it was little more than a name. It was perpetually in a state of siege. For although the Crusaders might, from time to time, come in numbers large enough to defeat the Turks, they never remained in numbers large enough to hold the country securely. The Christian kingdom, therefore, depended for its existence chiefly on two powerful orders of knighthood to which the Crusades gave rise, the orders of the Knights of St. John and the Knights Templars.

Knights of St. John or Hospitallers

The Crusades offered many opportunities for the development of chivalry, and of the spirit of devotion. This devotion showed itself in a new way, and brought still another element into war. This new element was chivalry to the wounded. Hitherto men had thought little of the sufferings of those who fell in battle. No knight, at least, would have thought of giving his life to tend the sick. The knight's business was to fight. Yet now there arose an order of knighthood the members of which gave their lives to the nursing of the sick and wounded.

Already some years before the Crusaders took Jerusalem an Italian merchant had founded a hospital there for the benefit of poor and sick pilgrims. It was not indeed a hospital in the modern sense of the word, but rather a guest-house and place of rest for pilgrims. The word comes from the Latin hospitium, the place where in a Roman house the guests were received.

In this hospital many wounded Crusaders found a refuge, and one of Godfrey's first actions after he became king was to visit the hospital. He was so touched by what he saw there that he presented his estates in Brabant to the hospital. Many of his knights following his example gave money and lands to it, and even joined the ranks of its servers. Very soon the abbot of the house proposed that they should form a community, and thus the order of the Knights of St. John was founded.

The members of this order took a threefold vow of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. They were both monks and knights. Their life was henceforth to be spent not in the causing but in the binding up of wounds, and they took as a habit a plain black robe marked with a white cross of eight points.

Before long, however, this peaceful order changed into a military one. For it was hard for men who had been fighters all their lives suddenly to transform into careful nurses. So the knights took a new oath binding themselves to shed the last drop of their blood in the defence of their faith, but never under any circumstances to draw sword in any other cause. They were also now divided into three classes, nobility, clergy, and serving brothers.

Into the first class only he could enter who could show that his family had for two generations at least been noble, and the highest of every land became eager to send their sons to the Hospital of St. John to receive their knightly training. But although the order became a military one, the motive which had originally inspired it was not forgotten. The care of the wounded was still their first duty, and all over the world they became known as the Hospitallers.

The order quickly became wealthy. For every noble who joined its ranks, unable because of his vow of poverty to possess wealth himself, gave all he had to the order. Many others, in gratitude for restored health, bestowed riches upon it, others again, in penance for their sins, bequeathed to it lands and manor houses.

With this wealth the order built hospitals in every part frequented by pilgrims or Crusaders. They bought fleets of ships, and owned whole towns, and at length became so powerful that even kings began to fear them, and be jealous of their wealth and power.

Knights Templars

A little later than the order of St. John another order of monkish knights, the order of the Knights Templars, was founded. They devoted themselves not to the tending of the sick but to protecting unarmed pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land, and were first known as the Poor Soldiers of Christ. But after they were given a house near the Temple of Solomon, they became known as the Knights of the Temple. They took the same monkish vows as the Hospitallers, and wore a white robe marked with a red cross. From this they were also given the name of Red Cross Knights. They were, it was said, "Lions in war, lambs in the house, fierce and unforgiving to the foes of Christ, but kind and gracious to all Christians."

Like the Hospitallers the Knights Templars soon became rich. Soon, indeed, they far surpassed the earlier order in wealth, and forgetting that their first duty was to serve they became the most insolent and proud of all the orders of knighthood, and also the most avaricious. The name of Templar, indeed, almost became a synonym for greed and pride.

Long after the Crusades were over both these orders of knighthood continued to exist. But early in the fourteenth century the Templars were accused of heresy and all manner of evil living, and were crushed out of existence with great cruelty by Philip IV of France. The history of the Hospitallers was much longer than that of the Templars, continuing until disbanded by Napoleon on his way to Egypt in 1798. With that the history of the order really ends, but many attempts were made to reconstitute it. Out of one of these attempts has grown the St. John Ambulance Association, whose special care is for the wounded in war, thus carrying on the first ideals of the parent society, founded more than eight hundred years ago.

The Teutonic Order

In the time of the third Crusade another similar order was founded, and as the members were chiefly German it became known as the Teutonic Order. They took as their habit a white robe with a black cross, and like the order of St. John, this order had its beginnings in a hospital founded by some German merchants. Like the other similar orders, it soon became a great military and trading organization, with fleets and lands, and almost regal power. But the Teutonic Knights played a much greater part in the expansion of Germany than in the conquest of Palestine. Their presence had little influence on the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, whereas without the support of the Hospitallers and the Templars it could not have continued to exist.