The Hospitallers are one of several monastic orders, along with the Templars, that arose out of the crusades. While the Templars’ mandate was to protect pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem, the Hospitallers, known officially as The Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, charged themselves with caring for sick, ill, or injured pilgrims. The Hospitallers, in fact, were founded first, arising in 1113 as a reform movement within the Benedictine Order, intended to strengthen religious devotion and charity for the poor.
Within a few decades, the Hospitallers added a military component that over time took precedence over their charitable arm. Hospitaller knights played a significant role in the Siege of Ascalon of 1153, for example. By 1291, after the fall of Jerusalem, the Hospitallers moved to Rhodes, and became almost entirely a military order. From Rhodes, they moved to Malta in 1530.
Hospitaller commanderies began to be established throughout Europe almost immediately after the order’s founding, including in England and Wales. Although initially clustered in Norman-held territory and founded by Normans, the Hospitallers had more of a presence in Wales than the Templars. As demonstrated in last week’s video about Ysbyty Cynfyn, we find their commanderies in places where the word ysbyty, which means hospital in Welsh, is attached to a church, particularly one dedicated to St. John. There are indications that the Hospitallers took responsibility for their first churches in Wales as early as 1115 AD.
known Hospitaller commanderies in Wales include Ysbyty Cynfyn, the setting for The Admirable Physician, Ysbyty Ystwyth (where years ago in an early book in my After Cilmeri series I sited the Healing Waters spa), and Slebech, given to the Hospitallers by a Flemish family who had settled in the area. By the dissolution of the monasteries, Slebech was the third wealthiest monastic site in Wales. Finally, Ysbyty Ifan was founded in 1190 on the Conwy River. By 1294, it had been united with Halston and became the administrative center for all Hospitaller estates in north Wales.
In the twelfth century, the Hospitaller order had three classes of members: military brothers, who were responsible for the martial aspects of the order; infirmarians, who cared the sick; and chaplains, who saw to the order’s spiritual needs. While the regular attire for the Hospitallers was a black robe with a white cross, by the mid-thirteenth century, military knights wore red robes with a white cross, the opposite of the Templars in their white robes with a red cross.
When in 1307, Philippe, the King of France, moved against the Templar Order in France, practically wiping it out overnight, the Hospitallers were additional beneficiaries. In 1312, the pope officially dissolved the Templars and handed over much of their property (that the King of France hadn’t already taken) to the Hospitallers. Outside of France, many surviving Templar knights joined the Hospitaller Order as well.
The Hospitallers survive today as a Catholic lay religious order called the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, dedicated to hospital work worldwide.