Medieval Rhodes

The Knights of St John


' Rejoice, brave warrior, if you live and conquer in the Lord,

but rejoice still more and give thanks if you die and go to join the Lord'

St Bernard of Clairvaux


The Island of Rhodes has always been an important strategic stronghold and its position on the vital trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean has greatly influenced the course of its history. The first occupation of the Island begins soon after the first permanent civilisations moved into the area and there are several locations found on the Island with evidence of Neolithic settlement. The first writings of the Island emerge from the ancient myths and legends and Pindar relates that when the world was divided among the gods, Helios chose the beautiful Island of Rhodes as his own domain.

The reason for its early occupation is quite easy to understand, it has a perfect mild climate, fertile land and an almost inexhaustible supply of water from its underground streams and reservoirs. The ancient town of Lindos, on the east side of the Island, was the first to experience economic development and soon paralleled that of the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. With its natural harbour and rocky defences, Lindos soon developed into a major naval and mercantile centre between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. Its decline came in the early years of the 5th century BC, when it came into conflict with Persian Imperialism and their expansion policies in the southern Aegean.


View of Lindos, the ancient capital of Rhodes - Lindos Castle entrance

Around the middle of the 5th century BC, Rhodes became a member of the Athenian League and in the final years of that century, a man named Dorieus, an Olympic victor, persuaded the Rhodians to build a large modern city on the Island and populate it with citizens of the three major towns of the Island, Ialysos, Lindos and Kamiros.

The charter was drawn up for the new city in 411 BC and building commenced on the new town of Rodos (Rhodes) in 408 BC. Since that date, the citizens of Rhodes have usually prospered, with merchant vessels stopping here from all corners of the then known world, but they also suffered the inevitable invasions due to its strategic position and wealth.

Rhodes was now riding the crest of a wave and growing in importance as a maritime power and a centre of trade and finance. Initially, the island supported the Athenian league and then Persia against Macedonia, but as soon as Alexander the Great started to sweep away all before him, Rhodes joined his side and benefited substantially from trading concessions with Egypt, Alexander's next conquest.

View of Lindos Harbour from the castle on the Acropolis

After Alexander's death, Rhodes was unsuccessfully besieged by Ptolemy I, a Macedonian general in 305-4 BC. This was the time of the famous Colossus of Rhodes, which was finished around 290 BC and was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Colossus was said to stand at over 100 feet tall and took 12 years to cast in bronze. It was a masterpiece of technical and artistic achievement by its Sculptor, Chares of Lindos, and traditional belief is that it straddled the entrance to Mandraki harbour, permitting ships to pass between its legs. It was also said to have held a torch above its head that shone far out over the Aegean sea.

This theory has been discounted in more modern times as its construction would have needed a firm foundation of solid land. Recent research and theories place it near the Grand Master's Palace but nobody is really certain. The giant statue wasn't to last for long and is believed to have fallen when a huge earthquake hit the Island around 227 BC.

Throughout the whole of the 3rd century BC, the Island found itself in the middle of the quarrels between the Macedonian kings and the Romans. The future wealth of the Island was to depend very much on the negotiating skills and diplomacy of its leaders.

Things didn't improve for the Island during the Roman civil war. In 42BC Cassius landed and captured Rhodes, stripping the Island of its treasures, fleet, works of art, putting to death many of the leading Rhodian citizens. By early Christian times the whole Island was a shadow of its former self, but it still managed to maintain its vital link on the major trade routes to and from the Middle East. Little is known about the Island between the 7th and 14th centuries, and most of the information we have available is through the writings handed down by Byzantine chroniclers and western Europeans who passed through on their way or returning from the Crusades.

The mountainous interior of Rhodes

We are told that in 718 Byzantine ships were launched from Rhodes to attack a Saracen fleet which was to pass nearby. In 807, the fleet of Caliph Rashid attacked and sacked Rhodes. In 1190, two of the Islands more famous visitors, King Richard I of England and Philip Augustus of France, stopped off in Rhodes to pick up some mercenaries on their way to the Holy Land.

The later fall of Constantinople to the Franks led to the local governor, Leon Gavalas, to proclaim himself ruler of the Island. For a few years Rhodes remained an independent state with political authority over all the other Dodecanese islands, even striking its own coinage for several years.

By the end of the 13th century the Island stood very much on the political margins and processes of the Middle Ages, its main claim to fame was as a haven for the many pirate groups which operated in and around the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. For many years these pirates had virtual control of the Island and came and went quite freely without any interference from the Rhodian authorities. Matters were to soon change when the martial monks of St John of Jerusalem arrived and later decided to make Rhodes their new base. Life was to alter dramatically on the island and for the next 213 years building works were done on a scale that had not been seen for nearly 1000 years.

View of Rhodes from the harbour - E Flandin 1853

The exact date for the founding of the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, or Hospitallers, as they were also known, is rather vague. In about 1070, it is believed that some citizens of Amalfi established a hostel for poor pilgrims in Jerusalem after gaining the permission of the Egyptian governor of the city. When the Crusaders arrived at Jerusalem, the Master of the hostel, Pierre Gerard, a Benedictine priest who had been expelled from the city, supplied the Crusaders with vital information. He soon found himself in great favour for his services and was greatly encouraged to continue his work. Little is known about Gerard, neither his homeland, family or education are known and he became a figure swathed in legend. More recent research concludes that he was a Frenchman but little else is known about his early life. At this point the Hospitallers had no military capacity anywhere, but merely cared for the sick and poor.

Pierre Gerard, Founder of the Hospitallers

After Gerard's death, he was succeeded around 1120 by Raymond de Puy who became the new Master of the Order, instigating dramatic changes in the way they operated. The Order's hospital work had already made it rich and popular and its hospitals had spread throughout the kingdom in the Holy Lands. In Raymond du Puy's view, it was not enough for the Order to simply care for the pilgrims, he saw it as their duty to protect and defend them as well, so the order was changed to a full military religious order like the Templars. The rule of the Hospitallers was less strict than the Templars and they were always seen as the more steady and sombre of the two organisations of military monks. The Hospitallers' army was smaller and they never attained the same popularity or wealth. They also often clashed with the Templars over many issues, but whenever the two orders moved together, they performed superbly.

They soon became a major military force and whenever a decision was made by the royal council chamber, the two grand masters of the orders were always present. As the wars continued in the Holy Land against Islam, this was inevitably going to cause problems, with the King and Masters of the two orders all having opinions that were not always in agreement with each other.

In the early fourteenth century, the future did not bode well for the military religious knights. The Hospitallers could do nothing but stand back and watch as their rivals, the Templars, were torn apart by King Phillip IV of France and his puppet, Pope Clement V who wanted the order disbanded. Many saw it as the fault of the religious orders that their hold on the Holy Land had been lost, and this, along with the vast wealth and possessions the Templars had acquired, had made them rather unpopular. The Grand Master of the Order, Jacques de Molay, was set up by King Philip of France and burnt as a heretic at the stake in Paris, with many other Templar Knights suffering similar deaths.

Unlike the Templars, the Hospitallers had responded perfectly to the new challenge and conditions and had already started looking for a new place to settle. After loosing their land and fortifications in the Holy Land, the Order had moved to Cyprus, but soon found their activities severely restricted as official vassals of the Island's Frankish king.

Fulques de Villaret, The First Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes

As mentioned, by the end of the thirteenth century, Rhodes had become an haven for pirates who were disrupting Christian trade throughout the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Initially, this was the reason why the martial monks of St John first occupied the Island of Rhodes. After sending several spies, who reported back favourably, Master Fulques de Villaret, formerly the Order's first Admiral, sailed for Rhodes on 13th June 1306 with two galleys and some transports carrying only 35 knights and 500 infantry. On route he was joined by a Genoese adventurer named de Vignoli who supplied a further two galleys. Their first encounter was not very successful and the great ports defences beat off their assault.

Not put off by this, de Villaret persevered, and in November of the same year the key fortress of Philermo was taken by the military monks and they started to seriously besiege the Island. The garrison at Rhodes hung on with the help of some Greek troops, but de Villaret borrowed some money and hired more soldiers to make a final assault. During the early months of 1307, the city of Rhodes was stormed by these fresh troops and its defenders fled into the hills, de Villaret had at long last won his sought-after prize and was later to be installed as the first Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes.

The Tower of the Windmills (France) guarding the Port of Rhodes

From 1299 onwards, an importance was developed within the order towards maritime duties. This was to serve them well in the coming years as they consolidated their power base on their new home at Rhodes. In the first decade after the capture of the Island, things turned out to be more difficult than they had expected. The knights initially had difficulties in adapting to the local Greek element and they were constantly attacked by small raiding parties of Turks, who were not at all happy at the threat posed by the martial monks being so near to their coast.

The sweeping reforms which were also needed within the order were implemented after the fall of the Templars, and the Hospitallers' survival was no less spectacular than their rivals' fall. The threat of Phillip IV gave the order a new impetus for structural reform, and although the order had been divided up into the separate 'langues' in the past (those speaking the same tongue), this was now officially adopted with the new order on Rhodes being divided up into seven 'langues' or 'Tongues'.

Each 'langue' or 'tongue' comprised of several priories under a Grand Priory with its own 'auberge' ( hall of residence) and they were later to become responsible for the defence of their own part of the town and walls. The "tongues" on Rhodes were made from the following countries: France, Auvergne, Provence, England, Italy, Germany and Spain with the later addition of Castile.

The total strength of the knights was usually around 200 and although they suffered to the ravages of the Black Death like everyone else, the numbers soon climbed back again. In 1466 their numbers were to rise to 350 and in 1501 to 400. Finally in 1514 the total number was 550, but English numbers was never to exceed more than a dozen knights. Despite this disparity in numbers between the 'tongues', the system on the whole worked well, apart from the occasional squabble over precedence.

The coats of arms of the 'tongues' of Rhodes

The principal elements in the formation and general organisation of the Order at Rhodes was based on the Hospitallers' rigid social system and hierarchy. They comprised of three classes - knights, chaplains and sergeants and this separation was a parallel of the social structure of western Europe with nobles, clergy and common folk.

The Grand Master was elected for life by the majority of nationalities and 14 of the 19 grand masters were French. Of the remaining five, three were Spanish and two were Italian. The reason for there being so many French grand masters was that the Inns of France, Auvergne and Provence would usually support each other and they usually outnumbered the other nationalities. French was also the spoken language although Latin was used in official documents.

The knights (milites) were always from a noble family and all the authority was placed in their hands. All the major military offices such as the Grand Master and Leader of the 'tongues' etc were always reserved for knights. To attain the rank of Bailiff or become a leader of one of the 'tongues', it was necessary for them to have spent fifteen years at Rhodes. and hey could be distinguished by the larger cross they wore on their tunic which came to be known as the 'bailiff's grand cross'.

The chaplains (cappelani) were not usually noblemen, but neither were they the sons of common folk. They were the priests of the order and their duties were limited to performing religious rights. The class of chaplains itself was again divided into three grades: clerics, chaplains and priors with each 'tongue' having its own group. Most were based at the headquarters on Rhodes, but some would also accompany the Order's navy and army when away on military campaigns.

The sergeants (servientes armourum) were not nobles either, but were the sons of freemen not serfs. They assisted the knights in warfare and administration and were usually responsible for the welfare of the sick and poor. They were also able to hold the lower command positions within the army, much the same as the non-commissioned Officers of our more modern armies.


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