In 638 Jerusalem had fallen to the Muslims and was closed to the Christian world until 1023 when Christians were allowed back. Later merchants from Amalphi traded with the city and in 1058 were permitted to erect two abbeys close to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, one being a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Sta Maria Latina in which male pilgrims were catered for and the other dedicated to St Mary Magdalen reserved for female pilgrims. In due course a hostel dedicated either to St John the Almsgiver or St John the Baptist was founded possibly in an area close to the Abbey of Sta Maria.1 It is uncertain whether this was a new foundation but, as it observed the rule of St Benedict, it is more likely that it developed from the abbey of Sta Maria Latina.
At the call of the first Crusade, the Rector or Master of the Hostel was Brother Gerard. It appears that he was either banished or imprisoned by the Fatimid Caliphate on the arrival of the Crusaders in Palestine but in 1099, Godfrey of Bouillon conquered Jerusalem and immediately restored the Hostel to Gerard. Godfrey moreover endowed land and money to enable the construction of a new and larger hospital and through the Crusaders the Hospital of St John became known in Europe. As their fame spread, kings and princes throughout Europe emulated Godfrey’s generosity and very soon the Hospital had acquired a rich heritage of possessions which enabled Gerard to expand the hospital into a network of hostels mostly placed at strategic points in Italy from whence most pilgrims set sail to the Holy Land.1
15.2.1113 Papal Bull of Pope Paschal II
This rapid expansion led to the organisation of a structured foundation which became the Order of the Hospital of St John with the blessing of Pope Paschal II who in 1113 issued the now famous bull Pie postulatio voluntatis.
Its growth in Palestine came to a peak under Grandmaster Gilbert d’Assailly with the building of several castles. This relatively peaceful period was sustained by the division within the ranks of the Saracen forces which rendered themselves powerless against the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. A blunder committed by d’Assailly in 11682 however completely transformed the situation. His ill-conceived attack on the Caliphate of Egypt which at that juncture was at odds with the Emirate of Damascus had the consequence of uniting the two old enemies in a successful effort to drive the Christians out of Jerusalem. Rivalries within the Christian camp and jockeying for the crown of Jerusalem led to further military disasters which culminated in the defeat of Guy de Lusignan, the last king of Jerusalem by Saladin at Hattin on the 2/3 October 1187. The Knights Hospitaller, Templar and Latin Christians who had not been massacred were expelled, the Hospitallers having ransomed 1000 of those Christians. All the temples of the city were defiled and profaned, except for the Church of the Resurrection, which was redeemed by the Eastern Christians at an extortionate price.
With the loss of Jerusalem, the knights moved first to the coastal castle of Margat where they stayed until the recapture of Acre in which city they established their Headquarters.