On January 1, 1523, a fleet of fifty vessels put out from the harbour at Rhodes for an unknown destination in the West. On board were the shattered remnants of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, accompanied by 4,000 Rhodians, who preferred the Knights and destitution to security under the rule of the Sultan Suleyman. The little fleet was in a sad and piteous condition. Many of those on board were wounded; all—Knights and Rhodians alike—were in a state of extreme poverty.
For six months they had resisted the full might of the Ottoman Empire under its greatest Sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent; Europe had looked on in amazed admiration, but had not ventured to move to its rescue. Now they were leaving the home their Order had possessed for 212 years, and were sailing out to beg from Christendom another station from which to attack the infidel once again.
The Knights of Rhodes—as they were called at the time—were the only real survivors of the militant Order of Chivalry. Two centuries earlier their great rivals, the Templars, had been dissolved, and a large part of their endowments handed over to the Hospitallers. The great secret of the long and enduring success of the Order of St. John was their capacity for adapting themselves to the changing needs of the times. The final expulsion of the Christians from Syria had left the Templars idle and helpless, and the loss of the outlets for their energy soon brought corruption and decay with the swift consequence of dissolution.
All through the history of the great Orders we find the Kings of Europe on the lookout for a chance to seize their possessions: any excuse or pretext is used, sometimes most shamelessly. An Order of Knighthood that failed to perform the duties for which it was founded was soon overtaken by disaster.
The Hospitallers had realised, as early as 1300, that their former role of mounted Knights fighting on land was gone for ever. From their seizure of Rhodes, in 1310, they became predominantly seamen, whose flag, with its eight-pointed cross, struck terror into every infidel heart. Nothing but a combination of Christian monarchs could cope with the superiority of the Turk on land: by sea he was still vulnerable. The Knights took up their new part with all their old energy and determination: it is but typical that henceforward we never hear of the “Knights” of Malta fighting as cavalry.
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