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The Knights Hospitaller of the English Langue 1460-1565. (review)

From: Renaissance Quarterly
Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2006
pp. 1286-1287 | 10.1353/ren.2008.0463

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Order of St. John of Jerusalem was founded in the eleventh century to provide care for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. From thence it took on its better-known function of providing care for the sick, and after the Crusader strongholds fell in 1291, it became a military order providing an aggressive defense against the Muslim states. When the Templars were dissolved in 1312 and the Teutonic Order shifted its efforts to the Baltic, the Hospitallers remained the main defense of Western Christendom in the eastern Mediterranean. They seized Rhodes from the Greeks in the early fourteenth century and parlayed this into the acquisition of some of the Templars' properties, claiming that since they were Rome's main bulwark against the infidel, they needed the resources to support them. Having established their outpost in the Mediterranean, the order reorganized itself into seven langues: "quasi-national associations" determined, not by language spoken, but by where each knight had been born. The English langue was composed of knights born in Britain and Ireland.

O'Malley rejects the traditional Whig interpretation of the Crusaders as being motivated by barbarian fanaticism, from which the English were mercifully immune. Crusading, he says, was "thoroughly respectable" and was "supported and participated in by wide sections of English society" well into the reign of Henry VIII (87). Moreover, he points out that service against the Muslims was so central to the Hospitallers's mission that each recruit had to travel to Rhodes and present his credentials before his membership was made official. Only after a minimum of three years of service in the Mediterranean, but typically much longer, was the knight permitted to return to his homeland. Their duties in the East were to man assigned sections of Rhodes' defenses, or to serve on one of the caravans of ships which sailed the Mediterranean searching for pirates, sending back intelligence of impending attacks. Events at home under the Yorkist and early Tudor kings absorbed much of the attention of the order: thus they "were more or less compelled to organize their crusading during lulls in the fighting" at home (89). Still, even as late as the reign of Henry VIII, a large contingent of English Hospitallers took part in a Spanish campaign in North Africa and, therefore, O'Malley concludes that the frequent calls for a crusade were not empty rhetoric.

Inevitably the order was drawn into the domestic political sphere, often turning up on the wrong side. For example, they supported the Avignon popes while the crown favored Rome. They favored the Lancastrians over the Yorkists, and later supported the impostors Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, as well as a bizarre plot to assassinate Henry VII. Despite these failings, the Hospitallers managed to adapt to the winning side and became "little more than public servants" of the Tudors (143).

One advantage the Hospitallers had over other orders was that the crown had subjected them to parliamentary taxation since the thirteenth century, they diplomatically offered gifts and loans in times of need, and later acquiesced in the takeover of property, like Hampton Court, when it proved expedient. Yet even these measures could not save them from the onslaught of Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation. When the order was dissolved in 1540, the knights came out rather well: their pensions were much higher than those of the dispossessed monks, and their prior was to receive £1,000 a year. Unfortunately, he expired "of pure grief" (224) before he received a single payment.

O'Malley concludes by refuting the traditional claim that the English Hospitallers heroically resisted Henry VIII's takeover by martyrdom or exile. Their prior supported Henry's marriages, and he willingly took the oath of succession. Only three Hospitallers remained in Malta, and only two were executed for treason. The rest took their pensions; some even became prominent royal servants, serving as diplomats, couriers, and captains in Henry's navy. After a brief restoration under Mary, the same process was repeated after 1558.

This thoroughly-researched study is an expanded version of O'Malley's Cambridge University PhD dissertation. It contains nine useful appendices including lists of the offices, and names of all the...



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