The Knights Hospitaller: A Military History of the Knights of St John
John C Carr
Pen & Sword
218pp, 20 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £19.99

The paradox of Christian warrior-monks, in particular the Knights Templar, the Teutonic Knights, and by no means least, the still highly active Knights Hospitaller of St John, today colloquially known as the Knights of Malta, continues to exert its perennial fascination. The history of 'the Maltesers', their origin in the obscurity of the 11th century, their consolidation in the 12th century, and their continuance in different emphases down to our own day, needs regular and updated recital, particularly perhaps in its military aspect: the story requires a practised military historian of percipience, and of political and graphic skills to undertake it.

This account of the military exploits of the Knights Hospitaller is admirably told by John Carr, who fulfils all these criteria; and it is told through well-referenced and well-sifted sources of good repute. But as the subtitle indicates, the reader should not expect any detailed account of the admirable hospital treatment of 'Our Lords the Sick'; nor anything but incidental biographical details of prominent characters; nor of the Hospitallers' origin in providing hospitality for pilgrims after the Latin Conquest of Jerusalem in 1099; nor of its subsequent defence of pilgrims in the Holy Land, so much of which is so admirably displayed in the museum of the Order in Valletta, and clearly recorded in early accounts of its ministrations.

For this is a well-organised and detailed history focused entirely on the military history of the Order. It is racily told, and related to its often-shifting contemporary political contexts. It is pleasing to learn in this account that our own Richard I 'Coeur de Lion' emerges as a far more calculating and wary war leader of the Third Crusade than the obsessive fighting machine of legend. But of much greater importance is the later role of the Order in its defence of Western Christendom from Muslim invasion, most notably and heroically at the Great Siege of Malta (1565) against the huge naval force of Suleyman I 'the Magnificent', and again at Lepanto (1571).

Intermittent defence continued down the centuries with the Order's powerful 'Navy of the Religion', until the wanton, if temporary, extinction of the Hospitallers by Napoleon's forces in 1798.

This 900-year history of the Order's military dedication and valour brings it up to our own day with the Order's return to patient care, and to its sovereign diplomatic mission throughout the world to achieve that care among the poor and vulnerable. It is a story well-told, vivid, inspiring and well worth its place both in the mind and on the bookshelf.
Robin Price

 

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