Early in the 11th cent. the increasing number of pilgrimages to the holy city of Jerusalem led some Italian merchants to obtain from the city's Muslim rulers the right to maintain a Latin-rite church there. In connection with this church a hospital for ill or infirm pilgrims was established. When the Crusaders took Jerusalem, the master of the hospital was Gerard de Martignes, who created a separate order, the Friars of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. In 1113, Pope Paschal II recognized the order.
The object of the order was to aid the pilgrims, and it soon became apparent that military protection was necessary. Gerard's successor, Raymond du Puy, reconstituted the order as a military one. The members were divided into three classes—the knights of justice, who had to be of noble birth and had to be knights already; the chaplains, who served the spiritual needs of the establishment; and the serving brothers, who merely carried out orders given them. Besides these, there were the honorary members called donats, who contributed estates and funds to the order. The Hospitalers obtained a great income through gifts, and the necessity of caring for their estates led to the formation of subsidiary establishments all over Europe, the preceptories.
The knights took part in the major crusading campaigns, notably the capture (1154) of Ascalon. When Jerusalem fell (1187) to the Muslims, the Hospitalers established themselves at Margat and then (1189) at Acre. The subsequent period was marked by rivalry with the Knights Templars and by military failure. Meanwhile, the hospital work of the order went on. In 1291 the knights were driven from the Holy Land by the fall of Acre and established themselves in Cyprus. They continued to combat the Muslims but now by sea rather than by land; the Hospitalers became the principal agents of convoys for pilgrims. Cyprus, however, was not the ideal place for the establishment, and the grand master, William de Villaret, planned the conquest of Rhodes from the Saracens, a conquest achieved by his brother and successor, Fulk (or Foulques) de Villaret in a special crusade (1308–10).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.