This cross was dedicated to St. John the Almoner, a Greek patriarch of Alexandria. The order bearing the above title was organized in the year of our Lord 1058, and existed for nearly seven hundred years,
until extinguished by Napoleon in 1798, when he seized the Island of Malta while on his way to Egypt. They were called Hospitallers on account of their vow, in which they promised to devote their lives to charity, obedience, and poverty.
Their dress was a plain black robe, having an eight-pointed white cross on the left breast.
Of all the orders that have flourished in the past, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem must hold the highest place upon the walls of fame. This order had its beginning in a small chapel and two hospitals, near the Holy Sepulchre.
A number of sojourning pilgrims entered these hospitals and devoted themselves to this service. At the time of the first Crusade, Peter Gerard was rector of the hospital. After the conquest of Palestine the Hospitallers experienced high favor with the Crusaders, many of whom, following that illustrious example of the illustrious Knight Godfrey de Bullion, bestowed landed property in Europe upon them. In 1113 Pope Pascal II sanctioned this order by a bull, conferring special privileges upon it. Gerard, now First Superior, established branch hospitals in different parts of Europe. Upon the death of Gerard, in 1118, Raymond de Puy became his successor. He was a man of strong martial instincts and tastes, and he proposed to his brethren that while they should still maintain their vows previously taken they should add to them that of bearing arms in defense of religion. A proposition so strictly in accordance with the spirit of the age was promptly acceded to, and the order became a military fraternity and was organized as such by De Puy, who became its first Grand Master and impressed his character upon it.
Passing rapidly to fame as a military fraternal body, and to opulence from the gifts of pious persons, the followers of the White Cross struck terror to the hearts of its enemies in the East. Their deeds of conspicuous valor are recorded in history from their earliest formation until the close of the eighteenth century. Their campaign against the Saracens was one of signal brilliancy and one of their most notable achievements on land.
About this time we find a new cross making its appearance:
The Union Cross of the Knights of St. John and St. Mary of Jerusalem, Rhodes, and Malta, known as the Maltese Cross.
The history of this cross is so closely interwoven with the other that its origin must be traced as a contingent of the other which has just been described.
It is a compound cross, made by joining four triangles at their apexes. When the fortress of Acre fell into the hands of the Saracens, in 1291, the Hospitallers were established at Limmoesa in Cypress, where they were recruited by drafts on all the commanderies in Europe. In this Insular residence they became sailors and navigators, and this was probably the time that they assumed their naval character, as their vessels were continually in service conveying pilgrims to the Holy Land. This led to sea fights in which the brethren became as distinguished for skill and valor as they had been on land. In 1309, the combined forces of Knights of St. John, St. Mary, and the Templars seized the Island of Rhodes, which had been the home and headquarters of Mohammedan corsairs and pirates, and soon converted that island into so strong a Christian fortress that it gave its name to the fraternity. They held that island for more than two hundred years, though assailed many times by the Mohammedans. They took Smyrna and retained possession of that place until it was taken by Tamerlane. The first siege of Rhodes took place in 1480 and was successfully defended by the knights under the command of Sir Peter de Aubusson, their Grand Master. A second siege took place in 1522, and the knights under the then commanding Grand Master, Philip Villiers de Lislle Adam, after holding the Turks at bay for six months, made an honorable capitulation to the Sultan Solyman, the Magnificent.
The remnants of the order proceeded first to Candia, then to Messina, and then to the mainland of Italy.
Charles the Fifth ceded to them the islands of Malta and Gozzo and the City of Tripoli, March twentyfourth, 1530. Malta was then a barren rock, but the knights made it one of the strongest fortresses in the world; and they carried on the war with the Turks, then the dread of Christendom, with so much energy that their new abode furnished them with a new name, and a new triangle was added to the triple triangle, forming the Cross of St. John, St. Mary, Rhodes, and Malta.
For two and one-half centuries the Knights of Malta wielded a powerful influence in European affairs. Piracy, that dread scourge of the eastern seas, was destroyed by their valor; but in the later years of their existence, forgetting their former vows, it seems that a fitting climax ended their career when that wonderful soldier and man of destiny, Napoleon, the Emperor of the French, closed it in 1798.
The last cross which we shall consider will be the signal cross of the Crusaders, or the rallying cross. Borne by the Crusaders it appeared upon the banners of the military expeditions undertaken by the Christians of Europe for the deliverance of the Holy Land from the domination of Saracens and Turks.
About seventy years after the death of Christ, Jerusalem was taken and destroyed by Titus; but sixty years afterward the city was rebuilt by Hadrian, and the Christians were permitted to return. Their occupancy only existed by precarious tolerance until Constantine embraced the Christian religion and proclaimed it to be the religion of the Empire.
For about two hundred years, until Jerusalem was taken by the Saracens in 637, the Christians held sway in the Holy City; but all toleration ceased when the Turks took the city in 1063. That wild fanatical horde, though superior in force and military power, were immeasurably inferior to the people whom they had expelled; and as they made no scruple to plunder, insult, and kill the Christians, pilgrims to Jerusalem began to bring back serious reports concerning their suffering in the Holy Land.
This state of things continued until Peter the Hermit took up the mission and began to preach the redemption of the City of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre from the hands of the infidels. The fame of this mighty and pious design now became universally diffused. The greatest prelates, nobles, and princes attended upon the preachings of Peter and became so infused and inspired at one of his discourses that they arose and exclaimed as with one voice: “God willeth it! God willeth it!”
The first Crusade occurred in the year of our Lord 1096. We quote from the Princess Commena, who expressed herself thus:
“The whole of Europe seems shaken from its foundation and ready to precipitate itself in one united body upon Asia.”
All orders of men now deemed the Crusade the only road to Heaven and became impatient to open the way with their swords to the Holy City. Nobles sold their castles and belongings at any price. The infirm and aged contributed to the expedition by giving money and valuables, and many of them not satisfied with this attended in person, being determined to reach and behold with their dying eyes, if possible, the city where Jesus Christ had died for the human race.
The hosts of the Crusaders increased so fast that their leaders became apprehensive lest the very size of the great host should prove the cause of the failure of the enterprise. For this reason they permitted an undisciplined multitude, computed at more than three hundred thousand, to go on before them under the command of Peter the Hermit and Walter Gaultier. These took the road through Hungary and Bulgaria towards Constantinople, and so sublime was their faith that they trusted that Heaven would supply their necessities and made no provision for their march. The more disciplined moved under their leaders, and having passed the straits of Constantinople they landed and mustered on the plains of Asia over seven hundred thousand men. Every one of these Crusaders bore the emblem of the Cross. Their great desire was to once more place in the ascendency in the Holy Land that precious symbol of their faith. Even women concealed their sex by encasing themselves in the steel armor of a knight and accompanied this vast host as a part of it, in many cases their sex only becoming known after they had been slain. That they were moved by the same impulse to do and dare for the cross was amply proven by their zeal and valor in many a fierce and personal encounter with the infidels. Barret in verse says:
Not she with traitorous kiss the Saviour stung–
Not she denied Him with unholy tongue.
She while apostles shrank could danger brave–
Last at His Cross and earliest at His Grave.
The second Crusade was preached by St. Bernard of the monastic Order of Bernardines, of which he was the founder, and conducted in 1146. It was headed by the Emperor Conrad III and Louis VII of France, with more than three hundred thousand men.
They were defeated by the Turks near Iconium, and with difficulty escaped to Antioch. Louis’ army suffered reverses to such an extent that it was not strong enough to keep the peace in Asia for the Christian principalities, and their destruction soon followed.
It was at this period that the great Soldam of Egypt appeared, and, having crushed both Christian and Turk, entered the Holy City of Jerusalem as a conqueror. He held the city for about forty years.
The third Crusade was undertaken in 1188 by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick, Duke of Seabia, his second son. Frederick defeated the Soldam of Egypt at Iconium, but his son Frederick having joined forces with Guy of Lussignan, King of Jerusalem, in vain endeavored to reduce St. Jean D’Acre.
At this time Richard Coeur D’Lion took command of the united forces of England and France, laid siege to this important fortress and captured it, defeating the mighty Saladin. His success was productive of nothing but glory, for in the end he was obliged to return to Europe without even a remnant of his army.
The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth Crusades were undertaken between the years 1195 and 1270 under leaderships of Henry the Sixth, Louis the Ninth, and other nobles, princes, and knights, and were alike unsuccessful.
But let us now suppose that the Crusades had succeeded to the fullest extent, what in that case would have been the effect? Egypt, Syria, Greece, and even Turkey would have been under the influence of the Cross and the Christian religion with all its attendant elevating influences, and the dread of a mighty struggle that must come at no distant date between the adherents of the Crescent and the followers of the Cross would not cast its dark shadow over the eastern hemisphere.
This glorious emblem, which we here have considered in its various detailed forms, stands for the mighty uplifting of the human races. Its significance is deep as the sea, broad as the earth, and high as the heavens. And as we look upon it let us not forget that it is the symbol of our religion, which is the religion of Jesus Christ Our Lord.
- Source: The Builder – December 1917