Rhodes c.1490       Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris


Events in Cyprus and Europe in the early 1300s decided the Order to take steps to seek a permanent home wherein it would be in a position to exercise sovereign power. On the one hand, the King of Cyprus had turned down their request to expand their Convent; on the other the sister Order of Knights Templar had been suppressed and its members decimated in the most horrendous bloodbath.

Fearful of suffering a similar fate, the Hospitallers began to look around for a place where they would not have to bow to a superior authority and their eyes fell on the island of Rhodes, which although nominally under the hands of the Byzantine Emperor at the time, was more a refuge for pirates and buccaneers. Ostensibly to remove the malefactors from the island, the Hospitallers started a campaign of conquest with Papal approval which culminated with the capture of the city of Rhodes in August 1309 when the Seat was transferred from Cyprus.

Rhodes as enlarged by the Order

The city of Rhodes was extended and largely rebuilt. It was surrounded by impressive bastions with crenellated ramparts and strategically placed towers. One side of the city was protected by its sheltered harbour and a deep ditch was dug to secure the flanks on land. The small old walled Byzantine city was turned into a citadel or collachio enclosing the entire Convent of the Order. A Hospital was built together with a new Palace for the Grandmaster and Auberges for the Langues constructed along the road linking the two.

Once their position in Rhodes was consolidated, the knights very soon established themselves as a maritime power to contend with. They made good use of their fleet to extend their sphere of influence by recapturing a number of islands and even such towns as Smyrna, Castelrosso and the fortress of St Peter on the mainland. This new flourishing in Rhodes reawakened interest in the Order. Now fully established as a Sovereign Order, it once again began to attract the flower of European youth.

Involved in two futile Crusades against the Muslims, one in 1365 which resulted in the shameful sack of Alexandria and the second, and also last ever, Crusade of 1396, ending with the rout of the Christian forces in Bulgaria, the Order then made peace with Egypt and by the pact of 1403, not only were they given preferential trading rights but were also allowed to rebuild the Hospital in Jerusalem and assist pilgrims to return to the Holy Land.

With the break down of the treaty in 1441, the Order successfully conducted a naval battle against Egypt and repulsed a siege in 1444.

However the Order soon had an even more powerful foe to face. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans opened the way to Europe and the Sultan, Mohamed II spent the next two decades consolidating his position in the Balkans. By 1980 the Ottomans were well on the way to creating one of the world's most powerful empires. They would later become undisputed masters of the Muslim world and began to look towards Egypt, but first they tried to get rid of the most potent enemy on their doorstep and turned their almost undivided attention on Rhodes.

The first attempt was made in 1480 but the knights succeeded in holding out with such devastation on the invading Turkish forces, that the Ottomans decided to deal with Egyptian Caliphate first. By 1517 they had secured the whole of Asia Minor and Egypt, and the tiny island of Rhodes became the only part of the eastern Mediterranean which was not under Ottoman control. Appeals by the Grandmaster to the European kingdoms only found a small response in France and Rome in the form of some military equipment. Aware of the isolation of Rhodes even from its Christian allies, the new Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent decided to strike in the second siege of 1522. It was not an easy task. The knights resisted as they had never done before and for over 6 months held out against a continuous bombardment and mining of the city walls. As the walls began to crumble and the spirits of the Greek population brought low by fear, privations and hunger through the prolonged siege, Suleiman tried to induce them to surrender with the promise of concessions if they did and terrible consequences if they did not. These were at first rejected but, on 22 December, he proposed the terms of a peace settlement under which the Knights of St John would be given 12 days to leave the island with honour, taking all their weapons and possessions with them; the people of Rhodes would be allowed freedom of worship and there would be no desecration of the churches; and they would be exempt from taxation for five years.

Under these terms, the Order formally surrendered Rhodes to the Sultan and on 1 January 1523 set sail with some 5000 Rhodians, ending 213 years of a turbulent but glorious occupation.

more illustrations

Further reading:
Foster, Michael J.: The Order of St John of Jerusalem Research Website  on http://www.knights-of-st-john.co.uk