A Kingdom in Rhodes



The three countries have also seen the passing of crusades and crusaders, including the Hospitaller Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights of Rhodes and later as the Knights of Malta. Georg Schilling von Cannstatt was one such Hospitaller making history at the crossroads of history. Born to Swabian nobility in 1490 at Neuffen in Baden-W├╝rttemberg, he was received into the Order at Rhodes in 1504 at the tender age of fourteen. By 1522 and Ottoman Sultan Suleiman’s six-month Siege of Rhodes, Schilling had not only completed his novitiate but was a veteran of two years in the Order’s Hospital, the most advanced hospital in the western world. He was also a veteran of more than two years at sea aboard the Order’s mighty red-hulled and black-prowed war galleys. He would need every bit of his medical and warrior experience for what turned out to be six months of siege by up to 400 vessels and 200,000 Ottoman soldiers and sappers, Rhodes defended by 500 knights and 4,000 men at arms.

As to the Hospitallers, threats were uttered in King Philip’s last years that he was preparing for them the same fate as for the Templars, but already the Order had taken action which put it outside the reach of any European monarch. In 1305 it elected as Master Foulques de Villaret, a genial and somewhat unscrupulous character who had already, as Admiral of the Order’s fleet, taken a prominent part in the emergence of the Hospitallers’ new strategic role. He came to office at a time when the eyes of all those who had interests in the Levant were turning towards the Aegean, a world which in those years appeared to be in the melting-pot. The elements in the situation were various: the beleaguered Empire of Byzantium clutching at the remnants of its dominions; Venice and Genoa scrambling for new markets after the loss of the Syrian ports; Angevin ambitions established in the Peloponnese twenty years before and rumbling with threats of revival; the new aggression of the Catalans striking at the heart of the Empire; and a cluster of Turkish principalities on the mainland taking advantage of Byzantine weakness to prey upon the islands. In the West schemes were being hatched to profit from this vacuum of power; Boniface VIII had originated a project to give King Frederick II of Sicily the island of Rhodes, and in belated pursuance of it the King’s half-brother Sancho of Aragon, who was a Knight of St John, led an unsuccessful expedition to the Greek islands. With Clement V plans took a French direction, and the talk was of a general attack by western countries, led by France, against the Byzantine Empire. Of more immediate impact was the struggle for power between Venice and Genoa; in 1306 the Venetians seized the Genoese islands between Crete and Rhodes and were looking covetously at Rhodes itself.

There was opportunity here for anyone bold enough to see it, and Villaret’s eyes, as he watched from Cyprus, fell naturally on Rhodes. With its excellent harbour and its fertile territory it would make an ideal independent base for the Order. Yet its present state was far from giving promise of its glory under the Knights; tenuously attached to the Byzantine Empire, the island had been for thirty years the fief of a series of Genoese admirals; its condition was lamentable, the city of Rhodes, of ancient fame, reduced to a miserable ruin; the Turks had invaded and partly occupied the island; the Genoese governor, Andrea Moresco, had been captured and imprisoned by the Cypriots for his piratical activities, leaving his brother to exercise the shreds of authority that remained to his office. It was a wretched prelude to one of the most brilliant periods of the country’s history.

The Hospital’s policy had traditionally been one of friendship with Genoa, at least since the War of St Sabas in Acre in 1257. Whether Villaret meant to support Genoa outright against Venice, or whether he merely saw the opportunity to exploit the flux of war, cannot be determined. At any rate it was essential to his plan to widen the Order’s small naval resources. In the spring of 1306 the uncle of the two Moresco brothers, Vignolo de’ Vignoli, who was as great a buccaneer as his nephews, came to Villaret with a plan to intervene in the chaotic situation of Rhodes. He claimed that the Emperor had granted him the island of Lango (as Cos was then known) and other fiefs, including a piece of Rhodes. He was ready to give up a share of his hypothetical realms to the Hospital in return for an agreement to conquer them together. It was a good bargain for Vignolo, who was enabled to give reality to his family’s shadowy claims, and for the Order, which on Vignolo’s death would succeed to his share of the conquests.

An expedition set out in Vignolo’s ships in June 1306, and by the end of the year it had conquered the capital of the island, Filermo, on its lofty hill. The city of Rhodes probably fell in August 1309 (the month is known, but not the year). In September 1307, only a few weeks before Philip IV’s sudden blow against the Templars, Clement V confirmed the Hospitallers in their possession of the island. He made this grant to Villaret in person, who had travelled to the papal court and remained there for another two years, beguiling the European sovereigns with large talk of a crusade while he tried to raise the forces necessary to complete the conquest. In the confused state of the Aegean, Villaret seems to have walked a tightrope course between Genoa and Venice: now Genoa helped Byzantium to defend their common claims in Rhodes, now Villaret secured Genoa’s support for his expedition of reinforcement; at one moment the Venetians resisted the Hospitallers’ threat to their position in Lango, at the next they were appeased by Villaret’s assurances of friendship. Somehow, out of the diplomatic and military confusion, the Hospitallers emerged the winners, and by the end of 1310 Rhodes was fully under their control. By this adventure Villaret had won for himself the status of an independent sovereign; yet more triumphs were to follow. In Cyprus King Henry, the hero of the Arthurian court of Acre, had been deposed by his brother Amalric and sent into exile, but in 1310 Amalric was assassinated and Villaret was named by Henry to act for him in the kingdom, thus becoming the arbiter of the royal restoration. Two years later the Hospitallers stepped immediately into the Templars’ rich possessions in Cyprus, granted to them in Clement V’s dissolution of the Order: an invaluable accession to their power in the island. In the mean time Villaret had firmly enforced the papal ban on trade in materials of war with the Moslems; since the promoters of that trade in Rhodes were the Order’s Genoese allies, it was a demonstration that the manoeuvres of the past six years were not to be seen as a cynical abandonment of the religious war. The Genoese, never in two minds between God and Mammon, were very ready not merely to sell armaments to the Turks but even to make alliance with them against the chivalry of the Cross. It was a bad move; in 1312 the navy of the Order chased the Turkish fleet to Amorgos and captured almost the entire force, destroying the ships. The Genoese found no choice but to make a Christian peace. Further afield Villaret’s star was no less resplendent; the death of Philip the Fair removed the threat to the Order in France, and above all Clement V’s insistence on transferring the Templar lands to the Hospitallers made them the sole heirs to the greatest of the military orders, an outcome which no-one could have dared to dream of in the grim years of royal terrorism that had gone before.

In a few years Villaret had raised the Order from the dependence and disorientation that followed the loss of the Holy Land to a position of unprecedented power. It was an achievement to turn any man’s head, and sadly Villaret was not immune from hubris. Enthroned in Rhodes, he adopted the state and methods of a despot. In 1317 he fled from his capital when an attempt on his life disclosed the feeling against him; he found himself besieged in Lindos, an object now of hatred to the knights who had acclaimed him as a hero. The rebels elected Maurice de Pagnac to replace him in the mastership. It was a situation which inevitably called for the intervention of the Holy See, and fortunately the Pope handled the crisis with acumen. Villaret was reinstated for form’s sake but induced to abdicate; Pagnac was dispatched to the remote and arduous duty of defending the Hospital’s lands in Armenia; and under papal direction the Order conferred the mastership on Helion de Villeneuve.

The Pope’s choice was as well judged as his diplomacy had been. Villeneuve was faced with formidable problems: the vast debts left by the conquest of Rhodes, the difficulties in making real the nominal transfer of the Templar lands, the disrespect for the crusading brotherhood that the fall of the Templars had taught the princes of Europe. A breakdown of the Order’s government at this moment was the worst temptation that could be offered to royal predators. Villeneuve’s attack on these problems kept him in Western Europe until 1332, while the Order’s position in Rhodes was upheld by an able Grand Commander, Albrecht von Schwarzburg. In 1319 he took Lerro from the Greeks and destroyed a great Turkish force destined for the invasion of Rhodes; his victory removed the threat of Turkish conquest from the sphere of practical politics for over a hundred years. The peace of the next decade and more, during which the Hospitallers consolidated their government and recouped their strength, was founded on these feats of arms, by which the knights made the flag of St John once more the banner of Christian victory in the Eastern war.

The importance of the conquest of Rhodes in establishing a new role for the Order after the loss of the Holy Land can hardly be exaggerated. The Templars succumbed dramatically within a few years of losing their traditional task; two centuries later, the Spanish military orders barely reached the end of the Reconquista before being absorbed by the Crown. The Teutonic knights (whose example must have been part of the inspiration for Villaret’s campaign) made a new vocation for themselves in Christianising and Germanising the Baltic lands, until the resurgence of Polish power and more particularly the stab in the back administered by the German Reformation overturned their achievement. The special virtue of the Hospitallers’ exploit was that it established the Order as a strong outer bastion in the principal area of Latin colonisation, an area in which nearly every Western state either possessed an interest or might contemplate acquiring one. If Villaret fully appreciated what he was doing in making the knights masters of Rhodes he must be reckoned a political genius of the first order. It is due to him that in the age of Francis I and Henry VIII all Europe continued to take it for granted that the Order of St John should be preserved as an independent military and naval force, and that even today the same Order pursues its international hospitaller tasks with the freedom and advantages of a sovereign body.

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