THE ORDER
OF THE KNIGHTS
HOSPITALLER IN RHODES
AS A FACTOR
IN BALCAN POLITICS

1300 - 1421

   

  Nearly 1000 years΄ history of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller or, as its official name is, The Souvereign Catholic Order of St. John of Jerusalem, has been a subject of interest of many authors and during the centuries has given birth of a vast quantity of literature. Most of this literature could be characterised more as popular than as scientific, including this part which is devoted to the Rhodian period of the history of the Order (between 1306-1523).

 

     After the works of the historiographs linked with the Order of St. John as its chancellour fra Guillame Caoursin (at the end of XVth C.) and, most of all, the massive work of the italian humanist and member of the order Giacomo Bosio (who wrote at the end of XVIth and the beginning of XVIIt C.) the modern historical researches devoted especially on Hospitaller Rhodes began to emerge in XIXth C.

 

     The first big name of the ranks of schollars who deal with the historical problems about the stay of the Knights Hospitaller on Rhodes is the name of the French J. Dellavile le Roulx (the 2nd half of XIXth C.). Afterwards up to our days some monographies and plenty of articles on the same subject were written by famous all over the world medievalists such as William Miller, Ettore Rossi, Keneth Setton, Raymond-Jozeph Loenertz, Helen Nicholson, Anthony Luttrell, Nicolas Vatin, Elizabeth Zachariadou, Norman Housley etc. One of the main reasons for the continuing active research work on the Rhodian period of the history of the Order of the Hospital is the multitude of documents in his Archives, the biggest part of which nowadays is being preserved in the National Library of Malta – in the same building where the official archive of the Order of St. John was.

     
 

    In the devoted until that moment monographies and scientifical studies the history of the Knights Hospitaller between 1306 and 1523 has been presented in few different aspects and contexts. It has been observed as a part of the history of the crusade movement for a reason and therefore has been subject of intensified attention of the researchers of the Late Crusades. Not less interest for the medievalists has had the development of the Order of St. John in that period as an organical part of West European medieval history and the history of the medieval latin states in the East. But it seems that up to now the world medievistics lacks scientifical monogrpahy devoted to the presence of the Order of St. John in Rhodes laid in the context of the Balkan medieval history.

 
 


 

     According to us it is also necessary to be presented in fully this point of view towards the history of the Knights of Rhodes which up to now has seldom found place in the devoted to them works. It was the position of the centre of the Knights Hospitallerʼs estates itself, their “headquarters” that approved their own existence, that involved them in the partcicipation in the Balkan politics during the XIVth-XVIth C. During that fateful period the Balkans turned into a borderland or a frontier area between the civilizations – a zone of extremely intensified contacts between the East and the West, the Islam and the Christianity.

       
 

    Undoubtedly the main factors wielding influence over the politics of the most south-eastern European peninsula then, were the relations with the Muslim East and – more precisely – with Asia Minor from where the future conquerors and rulers of the Balkans came – the Ottoman Turks. The problem of the complicated political links and relationships in the Balkans in this age and the role which the Order of the Knights of Rhodes played in that, is our main interest in our research work with which I want to bear upon its clarification.

 

 

     The period between 1300 and 1421 is among the most interesting moments in the history of the Order of St. John. Emerged initially as a charitable organisation in the second half of XIth C., the Order subsequently gained military functions and significant political positions in the established during the time of the Crusades so called Frankish (or Latin) states in the Outremer – the Overseas. In the beginning of XIVth C. the situation had changed both for the Latins in the Orient and for the Knights Hospitaller. In 1291 the Egyptian Mameluke sultan Al Ashraf captured the last crusaders΄ capital in Siria – Acre (some say Saint Jean dʼAcre) and banished the Franks from the Holy Land. The Knights of St. John which are amongst the last who abandoned the besieged towns, found asylum on the nearby island of Cyprus, where they temporarily established the Order΄s headquarteres. In that time they didn΄t stop making plans for their return in Jerusalem. Together with the other big military order – the Knights Templar, they started to prepare a large fleet for the continuation of their crusading activity from Cyprus.

 

     Meanwhile the critics of the military orders in the West blamed them for the fall of Jerusalem. Until this criticism influenced the succesful process against the Knights Templar and the disbanding of their order, in the same time in the first decade of XIVth C., the Knights Hospitaller managed not only to escape this fate but to make one really significant conquest. After the failure of the crusading plans against the conquerors of Siria and Palestine – the Mamelukes which relied mainly on the help of the Mongol lords of Persia – the Ilkhans and the involving of the Pro-Latin eastern kingdoms of Cilician Armenia and Cyprus in dynastic struggles – the Hospital found it more useful to direct its forces to the conquest of the big Aegean isle of Rhodes.

 


 

     The Order had had some estates in the Balkan peninsula, donated by various Latin rulers after the IVth Crusade and the establisment of Latin rule over the most  of Greece and Thracia, but the interest to that lands wasnʼt big. The main interest of the Order was in The Holy Land where it owned larger estates, more important fortresses and very big political influence – especially after the fall of Jerusalem under the famous sultan Saladin (or Salah-ud-Din). Actually, it was the political situation that enforced the re-direction of the interest of the Hospital to the Balkans and in particular to the isle of Rhodes – that is geographically closer to the Asia Minor, but in my opinion somehow culturally and politically linked more with the Balkan peninsula during that age as the Turks had already conquered much of the Byzantine Asia Minor.

 

   
 

     During that time the isle of Rhodes was still Byzantine but the Dodecanese and the near islands were under heavy incursions of the Turkish pirates – led by the so called “sea-ghazis”. With the motive of defending Aegean against the Turks and the assuring of stronger Latin military base for the launching of the announced Papal embargo on the European Trade with Mameluke Sultanate, the Knights of St. John succeeded to capture the whole Rhodes between 1306 and 1310 AD. They didnʼt do that only by themselves, but received military help from the West. It was expressed in the so called “passagium particulare” – which means partial crusade, proclaimed by pope Clement V, which was led by the master of the Order fra Fulk de Villaret. During that crusade the crusader troops, besides Rhodes, conquered many islands and castles on the continental shore of Asia Minor - presumably in the territory of the Turkish Emirate of Menteshe, established lately on the former Byzantine territories.

 
 


 

      On the conquered territory  the Knights Hospitaller soon built their own state under the governorship of their Council and of their master and turned into a major factor in the Aegean politics. The initial and most significant part of their political activity during the first 50 years of their presence in Rhodes was the struggle against the advance of the Turkish pirates in the area that culminated in the two crusades during the 30΄s and the 40΄s of the XIVth C., organised by the so-called Holy League of the Papacy and the local Latin Powers. The Order of St. John provided the most constant and well-prepared combat-force that took participation in these crusades. In this age the Turks from the new-established emirates or beyliks along the west coast of Asia Minor – Menteshe, Aidyn, Saruhan and Karasi attacked on vast scale both the Latin and the Orthodox possesions on the islands and the European mainland. The most famous Turkish ruler and leader of the “sea-ghazis” of this period was Umur Beg from Aidyn. Obviously he was the greatest Turkish leader in that moment and maybe some of the subsequent glory of the Ottomans is owed to his defeat by the powers of the Holy League near Smyrna in 1344 – one victory in which the Knights of Rhodes had big share. Later the popes gave the governorship over Smyrna (present Izmir) to the Hospital and the brethren garrisoned this important harboured town until its capture by the great Asiatic conqueror Timur Leng or Tamerlane in 1402 AD.

 

 

    Though the Knights Hospitaller demonstrated some crusading activity especially against the Turks during the first half of the XIVth C. they continued having strong crtitics in the West. Thatʼs why in the 50΄s  in the papal Curia in Avignon emerged a project the Order to be transferred on the other side of the Aegean – in Pelloponessos or as it was famous then – Morea, so as to be more effective in the struggle against the Turks. The project has been adopted by the Hospitallers and in 1356 their representatives even negotiated with the heir of the Latin princess Izabel de Villehardouin for buying out his rights over the principality of Achaia, but his untimely death failed the negotiations. Later during the pontificate of pope Gregory XI (1370-1378) and the master of the Order Juan Fernandes de Heredia (1376-1396) the project was again brought in action.  For that reason the Hospital leased from the queen of Naples Joana the whole Latin princedom of Achaia in Pelloponessos for five years.

 


 

    This act involved the politics of the Order of St. John fully into the Balkan fields and subsequently led to some unexpected changes in the political map of the peninsula. Surprisingly the master Heredia, supported by the Hospitaller and other western forces (not large in number), in 1376 led a crusade against the lands of south Epiros then governed by the albanian warlord Gjin Bua Shpata. Unfortunately he was defeated and captured in ambush by the Albanians during the siege of the Shpata΄s capital Arta and later was ransomed by the Order for a large amount of money. Meanwhile the Hospitaller governor of Achaia did a wrong step hiring in his service the Navaresse company of merecenaries – a large military force for that time. The leaders of the  Navaresse soldiers were to become soon the new masters of Achaia and wrecked havoc and disorder in Central and South Greece.

     
 

    Because of the disobedience of the Navaresse and the defeat of the crusade of Heredia the Knights Hospitaller were forced to leave continental Greece in 1381, but they did not abandon their intention to settle there. They continued to search for opportunity to realize their “Peloponnesian project” which could bring them enlargement of their estates and incomes, popularizing and gaining prestige of the Order in the West, winning better possibility to defend the Catholic cause in Peloponnessos and Aegean and better strategic base for struggle with the Turks.

 

 

 

     Five years after their abandonment of the peninsula - in 1386, the grand master Heredia bought the rights of the Italian Angevins over the principality of Achaia and in 1389 nominated the high-ranking member of the Order fra Dominic de Alamania for its governor there, authorizing him to collect 15 000 ducats taxes. During all that time however, the real power in the principality of Achaia since the beginning of the 80ʼs has been belonging to the leaders of the Navaresse company and there was no force capable tо expell them from there. The political chaos reigning in the area also prevented the Knights Hospitaller to take advantage of his lawful rights over Achaia. But in the summer of 1397 they unexpectedly got a great opportunity to settle down in the other state occupying the Peloponnessos peninsula – the Greek Despotate of Morea.

 

     It was the greek lord of these lands – the brother of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (1391-1425) Theodore I Palaiologos who gave the Hospital this opportunity. In the mid-90΄s the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I Yildirim (1389-1402) began attacking strongly the remains of the Byzantine empire and to lay siege to Constantinople and the Despotate of Morea – the last large territory under Byzantine control. The Knights Hospitaller under command of their new master – fra Phlibert de Naiilac took participation in both cases on the side of the Orthodox Byzantines.

 

         

   Obviously there were strong parties in Rhodes sympathising to the emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. In 1390 during one coup d΄état (куʼдʼeта) in Constantinople the Knights helped  Manuel take back his throne with military help. After the capital of the emperor had been besieged by the Ottoman army in 1394, the hopes of Manuel for deliverance were connected with the Crusade organised by the Hungarian king Sigismund von Luxemburg. The Knights of Rhodes fully supported the Crusade and one strong Hospitaller detachment took participation in it under the master fra Philibert de Naillac. This unlucky crusade finished with the disastrous defeat at the walls of Nicopolis on Danube in 1396. Most of the crusader΄s leaders belonging to the noblest families of the West were captured but the master of the Hospital and king Sigismund managed to escape on a boat down the river. They headed for Constantinople trough Black Sea and arrived just in time to help the defenders of the city against one Turkish attack.

 

     But let΄s get back to Morea. After the defeat at Nicopolis the situation of the despot Theodore Palaeologos became critical as his lands were exposed to severe Turkish blows which followed one after another and he had not sufficient power to oppose them. Then according to the words of the later chronicle of Pseudo-Sphrantzes (which is supposed to have been written in XVIth C.) the despote “headed on a triera to isle of Rhodes and sold Sparta to the brethren of the Profit and the Baptist St. John.”

 


 

    It seems that in this case by Sparta the chronicler meant the capital of the Despotate Mistra or the whole territory of the state. The first fortress that was sold to the Hospital was Corinth. Situating on the Isthmus connecting the Peloponnessos peninsula with the continent it was some kind of a barrier against the Turkish incursions into it. The Knights of Rhodes garrisoned the fortress and succesfully repelled the attacks of the Bayezidʼs forces against it. From 1397 to 1402 there were several Turkish invasions against greek Morea and after every blow despot Theodore became more and more inclined to sell the Hospitallers more of his fortresses. At the end of this period he even sold them his capital Mistra and moved his court in Monemvasia. But again the Knights had some internal problems in Greece which they couldnʼt solve – and maybe that was because their resources in the Balkans were limited and during that time in the West Europe was the so called Great Schism and they lacked the necessary help.

         

     Most of all in the middle of 1402 the forces of Bayezid Yilidirim were crushed at Ankara by the legendary Asiatic military leader – the lord of Samarkand Timur Leng or Tamerlane, who claimed his origin from the descendants of Chingis Khan. Then, the Ottoman advance temporarily stopped and the siege over the Byzantium has been raised. Despot Theodore bought back his lands and castles from the Hospital. One last try for the Knights to build their stronghold in continental Greece was their attempt to use the rights that the treaty with the new Ottoman sultan Suleiman gave them over the County of Salona on the north side of the Corinthian gulf – one evidence for that is the Chronicle of Galaxidi – but this attempt was unsuccessful eventually.

 

     Up until the end of his mastership (1421) fra Philibert de Naillac stayed in the East and was a strong supporter of the crusading policy, so the Knights Hospitaller continued their activity against the advance of the (so called) infidels that were the Turks and the Egyptian Mamelukes in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. After Tamerlane captured Smyrna they built a new strong castle on the Anatolian coast, called St. Peter (pr. Bodrum). They offered the Venetians to re-fortify the abandoned island of Tenedos at the mouth of  Dardanellas but the proposal was rejected because of the still continuing enmity between Genoa and Venice and their unsolved contradictions about this strategic place.

 

 

     The Order of St. John definitely had its place as a factor of Balkan politics during the first half of its stay on Rhodes (1306-1421). In one or another period it has been the ruler of much of the Peloponnessos, the Isthmus and tried to win control over other territories such as parts of Epiros, north Aegean islands etc. Most of all its crusading policy and support of the Christian powers in the region turned the Hospital into one of the significant factors in the fate of the Balkan peninsula. An evidence for that is the famous treaty from Gallipoli in 1403 between the son of Bayezid Suleiman and the local Christian powers. In the text of the treaty the name of Knights Hospitaller was posιtioned at second place – immediately after the Byzantine emperor – which is indicative for the importance that the Ottoman sultan attached to them.

 

    
 


Vladislav Ivanov was born on 28 of November 1979. He finished the High School of Classical Languages and Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1998 and graduated as a Bachelor in Sofia University in 2003 and as a Master in 2007.
He is a PHD-candidate in History in the same university since the beggining of 2008. His main interest is the medieval Balkan history and especially the period between 14th and 16th C.

ΓΡΑΨΤΕ ΤΟ ΜΗΝΥΜΑ ΣΑΣ