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The Shield and The Sword

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The Shield and The Sword

  The Shield and The Sword

  The Knights of Malta

  Ernle Bradford


  Anyone who undertakes to write the history of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta is at once faced with formidable difficulties: for indeed the history of this illustrious Order is in the large part the history of the Mediterranean covering some 700 years, not to mention the activities of the Order in other parts of Europe and the New World: thus from its earliest beginnings in the eleventh century until the present day—a span of more than 900 years!

  Ernle Bradford has already given evidence of this scholarship in his previous books, The Great Siege and Mediterranean: Portrait of a Sea, and it is not surprising, therefore, that in his latest book The Shield and The Sword he has once again demonstrated his skill as a narrator and his integrity as an historian.

  From the very first pages we sense the thrill and drama of these medieval Knights who were members of a religious order, with their heroic courage, their idealism, their profound Christianity and inevitably their human weaknesses.

  The military progress and prowess of the Knights Hospitaller of St John, as they were then known, is recorded with historical accuracy while in every chapter the golden thread of the Order’s unwavering fidelity to its saintly founder’s injunction: ‘to care for our Lords the sick and our Lords the poor’ is always present. We follow the saga of the great sieges of Rhodes and of Malta, to end, alas, in the cession of the island to Napoleon, the darkest hour in the history of the Knights of St John.

  It seemed at that moment that the Order had reached its conclusion, yet the story continues to relate its survival and then its almost miraculous renewal in the twentieth century.

  Ernle Bradford has written a concise and moving history of the Order of St John and not the least of his achievements is to have included all the essential facts within the narrow space of some 300 pages.

  The Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, to give it its full title, is today, as the final chapter indicates, perhaps more active and certainly more widespread than at any time in its 900 years’ history.

  Its sovereignty dating from the capture of the island of Rhodes in 1310, making it one of the oldest sovereign states in Europe, is now officially recognised by thirty-eight states with which the Order maintains diplomatic relations.

  The work of the Knights of St John remains unchanged since the days of its founder, to care for the sick and the poor regardless of race, language or religion. This work goes on today in the leper settlements of Africa and elsewhere, in the earthquake area of the Andes, in the swamps of Bangladesh, in the riot-torn streets of Londonderry and Belfast, in the fighting zone of Vietnam where volunteers of the German ambulance corps of the Order have already sacrificed their lives, and in the countless hospitals, dispensaries and homes on four continents.

  The Order’s 8,500 members in thirty-nine grand priories, sub-priories and national associations, aided by an unknown number of helpers and generous supporters, still maintain their ancient tradition of voluntary service.

  Ernle Bradford’s The Shield and The Sword appropriately enough appears in the tenth year of the reign of the 77th Grand Master, Frà Angelo de Mojana di Cologna. The ‘Modern Crusade’ is already launched and the Hospitaller’s banner of the eight-pointed cross flies as a symbol of international charity and peace in more than sixty countries throughout the world.


  Grand Chancellor of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller

  Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta


  I should like to express my indebtedness, as always, to the London Library—that institution without which few writers like myself could survive (let alone derive great pleasure). I also owe a great debt to the Order of St John itself, in particular to the Grand Chancellor and to the Order’s official historian, Frà Toumanoff. Both have been kind enough to read this book in manuscript and to amend my faults. Such errors as remain are mine. Finally I would like to express my thanks to many friends in Malta, especially Sir Hannibal Scicluna (who first, as it were, introduced me to this subject many years ago). Without the Royal Malta Library and the Library of the University of Malta this book would not have been possible.


  Kalkara, Malta.

  July 22nd, 1972.

  Chapter 1


  The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, is the oldest Order of Chivalry in existence. It is also the third oldest religious Order in Christendom. It is the only remaining offshoot of that period of history known as the Crusades.

  For nearly two centuries, from 1096 to 1291, successive waves of Europeans swept down upon the Levant, first of all to recover the Holy Land from the Moslems, and then to try to hold it and other surrounding areas as Christian territories. They came in their tens of thousands—pilgrims, individual men-at-arms, small companies following a feudal lord, and whole armies. The Crusades were more than the famous series of campaigns to which the name has become attached. They were a steady and continuous movement of Latin and northern peoples into that region of the Near East which had become sacred to them because the Founder of Christianity had been born and died there. The Crusades, as generally understood, were the seven great gales out of the west and north that thundered over this eastern land. All the time though, like a tide making up against a shore, there was a steady trickle of pilgrims and freebooters, priests and land-hungry nobles, seeping out of Europe into the brilliant and ever-confusing East.

  As an instrument of policy the Crusades were something comparatively new. True, the idea of the Jihad, the Holy War, had long been familiar to Moslems. Had not the Prophet himself enjoined them, ‘Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you… Kill them wherever you find them… It is incumbent upon you to fight even though you may dislike it.’? Christians, on the other hand, whose religion was a religion of peace were, in theory at any rate, taught to regard war as evil. The Eastern Church of Byzantium definitely regarded war as evil, and the very last resort after all attempts at diplomacy or bribery had failed. The soldier was not honoured in Byzantium. Indeed, if he killed upon the field of battle—even in defence of his own country—he was barred from receiving communion for three years. The western position was very different. The aggressive and semi-barbarous peoples of the north could not possibly be contained within the finesse and sophisticated code understood by the Byzantines. Even St Augustine had said that such things as a just war existed, a war against evil at the bidding of God. But this was a little too complicated a thought for Norman barons and their like, whose favourite pastime was laying siege to a neighbour’s castle and seizing his land.

  The Code of Chivalry had evolved in feudal societies through the necessity for some style of conduct, and of rules for combat and war. It had been largely promoted in its early stages by the famous chansons de geste, the songs about Charlemagne and Roland and their companions. Warfare and the heroic spirit had long been regarded in the West, whatever the Church might say, as things that distinguished the noble from the serf. What was new about the Crusades was that they were actively sponsored by the Church and by the Pope himself. They were partly attributable to a religious revival that had begun in western Europe in the tenth century, and which had steadily increased throughout the eleventh. The Crusades can also be seen as part of the eternal interaction between the East and the West which has always been a feature of European and Mediterranean history.

  As an instrument of papal foreign policy the Crusades were designed to s
ecure the Holy Places and protect the pilgrim routes. They were also extremely useful in diverting the activities of warring and often lawless nobles into a constructive war outside the confines of Europe. At the root of so much of this activity lay the penitential system of the Church, where a priest might enjoin a man at the confessional to carry out some physical or moral penance before being admitted to the sacrament of the Eucharist. The penitentiary pilgrimage was the most important of these. The pilgrim not only atoned for his sins by the suffering and discomfort of his hard and often extremely dangerous journey, but he then enjoyed the blessing of having visited the Holy Places and stood on sacred ground. The Crusaders’ aim was to secure the pilgrimage routes and protect the pilgrims from their Moslem enemies. This was the seed from which sprang the Knights Templar, the Teutonic Knights and the formidable Order of St John.

  The First or People’s Crusade came about largely on account of the declining powers of the Byzantine Empire and the steady encroachment of the Turks, who were rightly seen as the greatest threat to Christendom. They had seized Jerusalem in 1071 and, although not totally intolerant, they had made the passage of pilgrims even more difficult than it had been when the area had all come under Byzantine rule. The schism between the Church of the East and the Catholic Church was something that had long troubled the papacy. With the decline of Byzantium, if western Christians could establish themselves in the East, there seemed a chance that ultimately the whole of Christendom might be united under Rome. After the terrible defeat of the Byzantine armies by the Turks at Manzikert in 1071 the pilgrim routes through Asia Minor became increasingly hazardous since all the large cities were now in Turkish hands. The Byzantine emperor, Michael VII, appealed to the West to come to the aid of Eastern Christendom against the Turks. At the time Michael’s appeal was unavailing. But that of his successor, Alexius Comnenus, was to be answered.

  In 1095 at the Council of Piacenza in Italy envoys from Alexius begged the Pope, Urban II, to send troops to help them recover Asia Minor for Christendom. This time the situation was more favourable for western intervention. Urban II was a strong Pope, who had firmly established the papal position at home. He now looked hopefully east, dreaming of a united Christendom and the recovery of Christian lands held by the enemies of the Faith. Later in the same year, at the Council of Clermont, he made the famous speech which led to the First Crusade. He called upon his listeners to go to the aid of their brethren in the East. Christendom was in peril, and if the Turks succeeded in overthrowing the Byzantine Empire their next objective would be the rest of Europe. Jerusalem itself, he pointed out, was in the hands of the enemies of Christ; the pilgrims who tried to make their way to the Holy Places were suffering as never before under any other Moslem rulers. He called upon the leaders of western Europe to cease their murderous un-Christian feuds and wars, and to unite against the common enemy. The war to which he summoned them was a just and holy one, sanctified by God. Those who took part in it, were they to die in battle, would have all their sins remitted. Life here on earth was miserable at its best and always afflicted by evil. Heaven awaited them. He called upon them to die for their faith and to take up the sword against the enemies of Christ.

  The response was electric. Urban II had triggered off a thunderstorm that was to roll across the Mediterranean for generations. ‘God wills it! God wills it!’ his listeners cried, It was November when Urban addressed the Council. His intention was that the crusaders should leave in the summer of the following year. They would march to Constantinople, where the Byzantine emperor would have transports ready to take them across to Asia Minor. They would then clear all the Turks out of the area and free the great cities that lay on the pilgrimage route. After that they would win back Jerusalem, the Citadel of the Faith. As a symbol of their determination not to rest until Jerusalem was restored, they ‘took the Cross’—a cross of red material sewn on the back of the surcoats that covered their chain-mail armour.

  Urban was determined to keep the whole expedition under papal control, and named Adhemar Bishop of Puy its leader. It is worth noting that Urban himself was of French descent, that the whole enterprise was first projected on French soil, and that the first of the nobles to join the Crusade was a Frenchman, Count Raymond of Toulouse. Over the centuries—although crusaders came from every country in Europe—the dominant influence was that of France, or to be more accurate, Norman France. The Normans were allied by blood and instincts to the Vikings. Hardy, enduring, subject to fits of berserker violence, they were also dourly religious—and wanderers at heart. The appeal of the sun, the sea, and the south, had already taken them into southern Italy and Sicily. They were always land-hungry. It was not only religion that was to drive them in successive waves across the Mediterranean into Greece, Asia Minor, and the Levant.

  After Pope Urban’s speech crusading zeal swept Europe like a bush-fire. It was not only the nobles and potentates who were determined to become pilgrims and to win through to the Holy Land. Inspired by the Pope’s words strange visionaries such as Peter the Hermit and Walter Sans-Avoir began spreading the idea of the Crusade. The result was that, while the Crusade that Urban had called for was gradually taking shape, another completely different one was getting under way. Life in most of Europe was extremely hard for the poor; with little food, and subject always to the domination of their feudal lords, and racked by the warfare that only too often raged between them. The idea of emigrating to some far-off sunny land, and in the process acquiring merit in the eyes of God and a remission of sins, naturally appealed to thousands of the peasantry. As Sir Steven Runciman remarks:

  Medieval man was convinced that the Second Coming was at hand. He must repent while yet there was time and must go out and do good…prophecies declared that the Holy Land must be recovered for the faith before Christ could come again. Further, to ignorant minds the distinction between Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem was not very clearly defined. Many of Peter’s hearers believed that he was promising to lead them out of the present miseries to the land flowing with milk and honey of which the scriptures spoke.

  The First Crusade falls into two parts, that of the princes, and that of the people. The first to leave was the People’s Crusade. It was an abject and tragic failure. A large part of the pilgrims never even got as far as Constantinople, while those who did proved a heavy burden on the Byzantines. Alexius Comnenus had asked for a disciplined army, and all he received was a rabble. They had swarmed across Europe like locusts, sacking and burning Belgrade en route, and now they proceeded to act in the same way on Byzantine territory. Finally, unable to tolerate their behaviour any longer, the Emperor placed his fleet at their disposal and had them transported to Asia Minor. After pillaging the countryside that was still under Byzantine control they extended their activities into areas where the Turks were waiting for them. After a number of minor clashes, the whole body of the People’s Crusade—some 20,000 strong—marched out to give battle. It was a foregone conclusion. The Turkish bowmen and cavalry massacred them. Peter the Hermit, who had gone back to Constantinople to try to get more help from the Emperor, was one of the only leaders to survive. After the battle was over, the Turks overran the crusaders’ camp. They put the men, women and children to the sword, only sparing a few attractive boys and girls destined for their homes and harems.

  It was the end of the People’s Crusade. The only lesson it had served was to remind its successors that faith alone was not enough. The sword in disciplined hands was the only thing that could open the road to Jerusalem. In the meantime, the ‘crusade of the princes’ was under way. It had taken longer to organise than had been expected, and it was not until the spring of 1097 that the bulk of what must be called the first Crusade proper was gathered under the walls of Constantinople. Here, together with their knights and men-at-arms, were such potentates as Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, Hugh, Count of Vermandois, Raymond of Toulouse, Bohemund of Taranto, Robert of Normandy, Count Robert of Flanders, and the Bisho
p Adhemar. Their names read like a roll-call of European nobility.

  Early in May 1097 the first of the crusaders were beginning to cross the Bosporus. Estimates of their numbers vary. Godfrey of Bouillon alone brought an army of 30,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, while Bohemund of Taranto was attended by 7,000 knights. In all, by the time that late-comers and their men-at-arms had arrived and crossed into Asia Minor, it is probable that something like 150,000 were engaged in the invasion. After a month’s siege Nicaea fell to them, then Tarsus, and finally Antioch. It was during their occupation of Antioch—at a time when they themselves were besieged by a large Turkish army and morale was low—that there occurred the discovery of the Holy Lance, said to have been the one that had pierced the side of Jesus. There can be little doubt that the whole episode was carefully organised by some canny cleric bent on raising the crusaders’ morale. If so, he succeeded in his intent. The army marched out of the city and gave battle to the waiting Turks. The result was a complete victory for the crusaders. From now on they felt convinced that Christ Himself was with them, and that He would lead them into Jerusalem.

  It was an age of relics. Men prized and cherished relics of the saints as well as wonderworking images or, for instance, paintings attributed to St Mark. In Constantinople where the greatest collection of relics from the Holy Land and Asia Minor had been collected there was the True Cross on which Christ was crucified, the drops of blood he had shed at Gethsemane, the rod of Moses, and the stone on which Jacob had laid his head to sleep. At a later date, the Hand of St John the Baptist in its jewelled reliquary was to inspire the Knights of the Order named after him to incredible acts of courage. The fact was that superstition, religious belief founded on fear or ignorance, often worked. If one believed in the irrational one could also meet situations that would otherwise have seemed hopeless with irrational bravery. The crusaders, for instance, were even further encouraged in their march down the coast of Judaea by an eclipse of the moon. They took this to mean that the Crescent of their enemies was likewise due for eclipse.

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