History of the Knights of St. John

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Knights of St. John at Rhodes - 1307


Early History of the Knights of Malta

The Knights of St. John began as a Benedictine nursing order founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century. The order eventually gained a far more militaristic character as repeated Muslim attacks on the Holy Land forced the Knights to provide protection to Christian pilgrims. 

The initial hostel in Jerusalem was built in 660 A.D. by the Abbot Probus through a commission from Pope Gregory the Great.  Charlemagne added to the hostel, adding a library to it. In 1005, Caliph El Hakim destroyed the hostel along with 3000 other buildings. In 1023, Italian Merchants were given permission to rebuild the hospice in Jerusalem.  This hospice was built on the site of the monastery of St. John the Baptist and took in Christian pilgrims on their way to Bethlehem. The Blessed Gérard founded the monastic order during the First Crusade and was confirmed as founder by Pope Paschal II in the papal bull "Piae postulatio voluntatis" of February 15, 1113. 

As their military obligations increased, the Knights of St. John along with the Knights Templar became one of the most significant Christian forces in the Mediterranean region, battling Muslims in the region. By the 12th century, the order was divided among brothers who cared for the sick and brothers who fought the Muslims.  The order was still monastic, although it enjoyed special privileges:  it paid no tithes, it had its own religious buildings and it answered only to the Pope. Most of the substantial fortifications in the area were built either by the Knights Templar or the Knights of St. John.  At their height, the Knights of St. John held seven forts and 140 estates in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

As Islam continued to gain strength, the Knights were pushed out of Jerusalem. The eventually fled to Cyprus, where they organized a fleet and captured the island of Rhodes. Now known as the Knights of Rhodes, they had to fight the Barbary Pirates as well as withstanding two invasions:  one in 1444 by the Sultan of Egypt and one in 1480 by Mehmed II, who considered the Knights a priority target after the fall of Constantinople. It was Suleiman the Magnificent who ended the Knights reign on Rhodes.  In 1522 he arrived with a force of over 400 ships and 200,000 men versus the Knights 7,000.  Following the six month siege, the remaining Knights were allowed to leave for the Kingdom of Sicily. 

Pope Clement VIII and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V reestablished the Knights on Malta.  Now renamed the Knights of Malta, then continued their military actions against the Barbary Pirates.  The Knights withstood more attacks in the 16th century from the Ottomans.  The help of the Spanish fleet was instrumental in preserving the Knights on Malta.  The Knights continued to attack the Barbary Pirates and their base became a slave-trading center in the Mediterranean, dealing in Africans and Turks as well as freeing Christian slaves.

The rise of Protestantism in Europe gradually stripped the Knights of any holdings they had on the continent, but it wasn't until Napoleon launched his expedition to Egypt in 1798 that the Knights were completely defeated.  The order did continue to officially exist and negotiated with various European governments for a return to power, but the Knights never regained any territorial sovereignty.  In 1834 the order established a headquarters in Rome at the Via Condotti, and when Pope Leo XIII appointed a Grand Master in 1879, the orders fortunes were revived as a humanitarian and ceremonial organization.  This organization is today known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a Catholic lay order which claims to be a sovereign entity with a permanent observer status at the United Nations.  Top

Information for the above article was obtained from the Wikipedia article on the Knights Hospitaller.


Knights of St. John International

Following the Civil War, there arose a number of uniformed organizations all across the United States.  It included the Knights of St. Paul, Knights of St. George, Knights of St. Louis, and many others.  In 1886, some American Roman Catholics in New York City met and decided that a living tribute should be created to commemorate the gallant Knights who had so courageously defended the Church in the medieval era. They founded an Order in the tradition of the Hospitallers by forming the "Roman Catholic Union of St. John". On May 6, 1886, the Ancient and Noble Order of the Knights of St. John was established in the United States. The Order is incorporated in the State of New York.  The much older Order of the Knights of St. John of Malta (Sovereign Military Order of Malta) is still very much in existence. The Order of the Knights of Saint John International is in no way associated with that group but are often mistaken to be.

The aims and purposes of the Knights of St. John are as follows:
(a) to create and foster a feeling of fraternity and fellowship among the various commanderies
(b) to improve their moral, mental and social condition
(c) to aid, assist and support members and their families in case of want, sickness and death and
(d) to promote a more generous and filial respect for the spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Order of the Knights of St. John was introduced into the Gold Coast, now Ghana, in 1933.  Through the influence of his son (Anthony Quansah of Saltpond who had met a member of the Order) Emmanuel Raphael Quansah of Saltpond applied to the supreme Commandery in the United States Of America for permission to form a Commandery in Saltpond in the Central Region of Ghana. He also approached the then Archbishop of Cape Coast, Archbishop Thomas William Porter. His Grace stipulated that they were to conduct meetings with prospective members for a period of five years while the application was being considered. At the end of the fifth year i.e. 1937, His Grace gave approval for the establishment of the Order in Saltpond. Soon the Order of the Knights of the St. John was flourishing in many parishes in the country. The universality of the Roman Catholic Church coupled with cross border trade and movements of goods and persons facilitated the rapid expansion of the Noble Order in the West Afircan sub-region. Over a span of a short time the Order was inaugurated in Lome, Togo; Monrovia, Liberia; Enugu, Nigeria; and Freetown, Sierra Leone.  Top

Information on the Knights of St. John International was obtained from the History of the Order of St. John webpage.


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This page last modified:  Thursday August 02, 2007 10:03 PM