Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

periors; to defend Christians against Pagans; to renounce all property independent of the common stock; to relieve the needy and to administer to the sick. They were especially enjoined, as the champions of the Cross, to fight for it to the last gasp of their lives. When a new Knight was admitted into the Order, the Principal thus solemnly adjured him; “ We place this cross upon your breast, my brother, that you may love it with all your heart; and may your right hand ever fight in its defence, and for its preservation. Should it ever happen that, in combating against the enemies of our faith, you should retreat, desert the standard of the Cross, and take to flight, you will be stript of this truly holy sign, according to the statutes and customs of the Order, as having broken the vows you have just taken, and you will be cut off from our body as an unsound and corrupt member.”

Like the Knights Templars, the Order of St. John, in the first years of its existence, was distinguished by the austerities, the chastity, and the self-denial practised by its members. “Receive the yoke of the Lord,” were the words of the Principal to a proselyte Knight; “it is easy and light, and you shall find rest for

soul. We promise you nothing but bread and water, a simple habit and of little worth.” By degrees, however, as the reputation of their heroic exploits spread over Europe, nobles and princes enrolled themselves members of the Order, and threw their wealth into the common stock; luxury and pride crept in among them; and of the virtues which had distinguished the Order at its foundation, little remained but their valour and their fame. Within little more than the space of a century, the Order is computed to have possessed no fewer than 19,000 manors, in different countries in Christendom.

your

To enumerate the heroic exploits performed by the Knights of St. John, would occupy more space than we can devote to the subject. Even when the cause for which they fought had become a desperate one,- when it was evident, even to the bravest and most sanguine, that they could no longer hope to retain possession of the Holy Land, which had been conquered at the expense of so much suffering and blood,—they still continued to defend the sacred territory, almost inch by inch, notwithstanding the immense masses of Infidels who were arrayed against them ; displaying, in their famous defence of the fortress of Azotus, the same heroic gallantry which had distinguished them, in the early period of their history, at the sieges of Ascalon and Gaza. Of the ninety Knights who defended Azotus, when that fortress was at length taken by assault, not one was found alive. The dead body of the last served as a stepping-stone to the advancing Infidels. The capture of Nazareth, Cæsarea, Jaffa, Tyre, and Antioch, speedily followed ; and though the arrival of the chivalrous Edward the First, with a large body of Knights, for a time checked the victorious career of the Mahometans, fresh reverses succeeded, till at last the Crusaders were compelled to shut them

selves up in their last remaining stronghold, the fortress of St. Jean d'Acre. On the story of that famous siege, which took place in 1291, it is unnecessary to dwell.

The Knights Templars and Knights of St. John vied with each other in performing acts of heroic valour, and when at length the Crescent glittered on the citadel of Acre, there survived but a small remnant of that chivalrous band to recount the gallantry and mourn the fate of their brethren. In the last act of the drama, when the Mahomedans were rushing in vast masses to the breaches, the surviving Knights of St. John made a sudden sally from another part of the fortress, in hopes, by surprising and attacking their enemies in the rear, to turn the tide of victory. Unfortunately, however, their design had been anticipated by the Mahomedans, who were prepared to receive them. Moreover, disheartened by the death of their Grand Master, who had been killed in the first onset, they had no choice but to fight their way to the seabeach, where a small boat received the survivors.

In 1310, after a long and bloody contest with its desperate piratical inhabitants, we find the Knights of St. John investing themselves with the sovereignty of the Island of Rhodes. Here they remained,—carrying on a continual warfare with the Mahomedans, and enriching themselves by commerce,-till 1522, when the Sultan, Solyman the Fourth, appeared before the island with an overwhelming armament. The details of the protracted

VOL. I.

E E

and bloody siege which followed, in which the Knights fully sustained their ancient reputation for valour, and in which the Turks lost 100,000 men,are well known. The last bulwark which was blown up was that of the English Knights, who, on four different occasions, drove back the Turks from the breach, and tore down the Mussulman flag which had been planted on the walls. The last who consented to capitulate was the Grand Master, the venerable L'Isle Adam. When the Sultan Solyman subsequently entered Rhodes as a conqueror, he paid a visit to the heroic old man, with whose misfortunes he is said to have deeply sympathized. “It is not without pain,” he said, "that I force this Christian, at his time of life, to leave his dwelling." By the terms of the capitulation, the surviving Knights were allowed to quit Rhodes unmolested, and to retire whithersoever they chose. Accordingly, in 1530, they took possession of Malta, which had been conceded to them by the Emperor Charles the Fifth, and where they continued till the extinction of their Order.

One of the most remarkable features in the history of the Knights of St. John, was the long and bitter rivalship which existed between them and the Knights Templars. So intense, indeed, was their mutual hatred, that, forgetful of the common cause which enjoined them to fight side by side against the Infidel, they more than once pointed the lance against each other, on the sandy plains of Palestine. The last and most sanguinary of these combats took place in 1259, when the Knights of St. John obtained a complete victory over their rivals, leaving scarcely a Templar alive on the field of battle. Half a century afterwards, the Knights Templars bad ceased to exist as an Order; the greater portion of their possessions being conferred by the Pope and the other European sovereigns, on the Knights of St. John. Among the property thus transferred to them was the Temple in Fleet Street, which subsequently, in the reign of Edward the Third, was leased by the Knights of St. Jolin to the students of law. The Prior at this period ranked as first Baron of England.

As their riches increased, so also did luxury and licentiousness take root among this once ascetic and self-denying Order. To the lower classes, the notorious vices of many of the Knights, and their arrogant display of wealth, rendered them especially obnoxious. When, in the reign of Richard the Second, the celebrated riots broke out under the direction of Wat Tyler, the property of the Knights of St. John was among the first which fell a sacrifice to the fury of the rebels. On the morning after they reached London, the latter completely laid waste the manor of Highbury, about two miles from London, then in the possession of the Knights; they next proceeded to the Temple, where they destroyed the records and other documents, and pillaged and set fire to the buildings; but their most terrible act of

vengeance was the destruction of the magnificent hospital of St. John, to which they set fire in several

« VorigeDoorgaan »