A Boy’s Life #2: Like many an English schoolboy, I had a fascination with the Ordo Fratrum Hospitalis Sancti Ioannis Hierosolymitani, or The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem.
The Knights Hospitallers, like their rivals, The Knights Templars, defined chivalry in the Middle Ages. In 1023, they started out building and staffing hospitals in Crusader Jerusalem. Only later did they turn out of necessity into the excessively wordy and polite horse-born warriors we Game of Thrones watchers recall today.
Nearly all their incredible victories were defensive. In 1522 on Rhodes, 7,000 Knights under Brother Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam held off an invasion by Suleiman the Magnificent and his 100,000 Ottoman Turks. In 1565 on Malta, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette and 700 Knights defeated another 40,000 invaders sent by Suleiman, still at the height of his powers. It wasn’t until 1798 that Napoleon finally subdued them.
Such was their medieval reputation for both invincibility and charity, that the Knights were given the oddly matched tasks of building hospitals and fending off Barbary Pirates. And they excelled in both until, after six centuries of good works, the Maltese Brothers themselves succumbed to the temptations of piracy.
Other than that odd lapse, legend and reality for once coincided in this Order—these guys were the real deal. And even today, you can see their hands at work all over the beautiful bastions of Rhodes and Malta.