Monastic military orders are inevitably associated with the crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. There were a number of European orders but the two most closely associated with the British isles are the Knights Hospitaller or to give them their full title the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Their original role was to care for pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land.
The Templars or the Knights of the Temple of Solomon were dedicated to a life of poverty protecting the holy places and the pilgrims. Poverty did not last long as they soon acquired rich and powerful benefactors including Bernard of Clairvaux who helped found the Cistercians as well as finding time to advise King Louis VI of France. Many of other wealthy individuals joined their ranks. King David I of Scotland had strong associations with the Templars.
In 1187 Jerusalem fell and shortly after that the Holy Land was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire – leaving the Templars without gainful employment and rather a lot of cash. They spread throughout Europe with headquarters in Paris and also in London. In England, Yorkshire became a centre for the Templars and this can be seen today in the number of places and locations preceded by the name Temple e.g. Temple Newsam. Approximately one hundred years later on October Friday 13th, 1307 King Philip IV of France took the opportunity to accuse the whole order of some deeply nasty activities, had their leaders tortured and then judiciously murdered. The Pope obligingly suppressed the entire order.
In England things were slightly different. Edward II was on the throne. His wife, Isabella who went on to become the ‘she-wolf’ was his wife, so Philip IV was his father-in-law but Edward did not follow Philip’s path. It took many sternly worded notes from Philip and from the Pope before Edward got around to suppressing the order and even then he didn’t arrest many members of the order and the vast majority of their property passed into the hands of the Hospitallers.
In the meantime their history has spawned countless works of fiction – Rosslyn Chapel and Dan Brown springing most immediately to mind. There is also the idea that the superstition regarding Friday the 13th being bad luck stems from the Templars mass arrest in France.
The Hospitallers were so wealthy that they purchased their own island in the fourteenth century- Rhodes- from whence they continued their work until 1522 when the Ottoman Turks kicked them out. They went from there to Malta, they’re sometimes known as the Knights of Malta, where they remained until Napoleon turned up on the scene. Whilst they had their stronghold in the Mediterranean they still retained an interest in the British isles. Given-Wilson records that there were over a thousand Hospitaller properties; the majority of them hospitals caring for the sick and feeding the poor. They were also associated with the isolation hospitals of the period – leper hospitals. As an international order, however, their importance was relatively minor in England.