On a Crusade

What’s the difference between the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller? A new EC1-published book by TV historian Dan Jones prompts us to ask… Local expert Tom Foakes explains.

While cameos in films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and video games such as Assassin’s Creed lend an element of contemporary drama to the narrative of the Knights Templar, even in their own time, their antics were the stuff of a modern thriller. Their story involves exotic locations, high finance, plotting royals and bloodthirsty battle, and that is why they have held an enduring position in history.

It all began in the Holy Land 900 years ago. Jerusalem has long been a city of religious importance for many faiths, with sites of significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims. As a place of pilgrimage, it attracted travellers from across the medieval world. However, towards the end of the 11th century, religious tensions made such journeys increasingly difficult, leading to the declaration of the first Crusade by Pope Urban II, the intention of which was to claim Jerusalem as a Christian stronghold.

Against this backdrop of conflict, two organisations came to prominence in the defence of Christendom: the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. Both were monastic brotherhoods and both had a military role in defending Christian interests against Islam. That said, there were distinct differences between them – not least in their clothing. The Templars wore white habits bearing red crosses, while the Hospitallers wore black with white crosses.

The Knights Hospitaller, or the Order of St John as they were also known, was established in around 1080 and its members had a primary mission to care for sick pilgrims, regardless of their faith. As their name suggests, the Knights founded a hospital in Jerusalem, known for its exemplary medical care. The arduous journey that many pilgrims completed before reaching Jerusalem meant that this caring role addressed a vital social need. When their military role declined with the end of the Crusades, their humanitarian mission endured; the Order still exists and has a role as the governing body of St John Ambulance.

Today, the Order’s headquarters are in Clerkenwell where St John’s Gate, now home to the Museum of the Order of St John, marks the historic entrance to the original London home of the Knights Hospitaller. Laid out in cobbles in the paving slabs of St John’s Square is a large circle that shows the original footprint of the Knights’ first Church and beneath the street remains its 12th Century crypt, consecrated in 1185.

In contrast to the Hospitallers, the Templars, established a little later in around 1119 as the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple, fulfilled a financial role alongside their religious and military ones. Although they lasted only 200 years, they amassed great wealth and forged a pan- European network of property (somewhat belying their founding name). In 1312, following various charges that included heresy and blasphemy, the Knights Templar were dissolved as a religious order by the Pope and pursued by Philip IV of France, who held grievances against them and most likely considered them a threat to his power. And so they fell, with a reputation for greed, secrecy and wrongdoing.

Following the demise of the Knights Templar, many of its properties passed to the Knights Hospitaller, forging a further link between the two monastic orders and adding significantly to the Hospitallers’ wealth. Pushed out of the Middle East in combat, the Hospitallers moved to Cyprus, then eventually to Rhodes and Malta. The eight- pointed cross, now often referred to as the “Maltese Cross”, was taken as their symbol wherever they travelled. Today, it is the logo of St John Ambulance and known throughout the world as a symbol of first aid. Such is the legacy of Clerkenwell’s crusaders.

Tom Foakes is director of the Museum of the Order of St John at St John’s Gate. Visit it to find out more about the knights. www.museumstjohn.org.uk

“The Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors” by Dan Jones is published by Head of Zeus. Also, look out for the new 10-part TV series “Knightfall” on the History Channel