The Last Crusade: Napoleon and the Knights Hospitaller

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Thomas Lecaque

Knights on horseback, charging beneath a cruciform banner—the red cross on the white background of surcoats, shields and swords at the ready, heading across the hard plains of the Levantine coast. This is the image of the crusades, and when they end, we imagine in our minds Orlando Bloom exiting the fallen Jerusalem, or an animated lion coming home from crusade to marry Robin Hood and Maid Marian, or, even, Harrison Ford riding out of the Canyon of the Moon having found the Holy Grail. These popular conceptions of crusading bear little resemblance to the reality of the last crusades, where the final crusaders fell to muskets and cannon fire. And those muskets were not held by Mamluks, or Ottoman Turks, but by the French. “Here, we might reflect that the end of the crusading movement came not in the Middle Ages—however they are defined—but in 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the island of Malta from the Knights Hospitaller and took what remained of their military order with him on an invasion of Egypt that echoed the last great French crusades.

The Crusades began in 1096, but the Knights of Malta, as the Knights Hospitaller were known for their last three centuries, could claim to predate the crusades themselves. The Knights Hospitaller lasted 685 years, longer than any military order, having relocated after the loss of Acre to the island of Rhodes, then being driven to Malta from 1530 until 1798. By the eighteenth century, the Knights Hospitaller were ailing. Their high point was the successful defense of Malta against the Ottoman Turks during the “Great Siege” of 1565, followed shortly by their role in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. From the sixteenth century, however, though their naval strength was at its peak, their utility slowly diminished. The number of “Holy Leagues” decreased as the French and  Italian kingdoms and city-states slowly made treaties with the Ottomans and focused on trade rather than attempted conquest; by the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the Knights Hospitaller were primarily focused on keeping the pirates of the Barbary Coast in check, crusading in name rather than any major deed. The Order maintained holdings throughout western Europe, primarily in France from which almost half of all knights came, but their peak was centuries earlier.[1]

Screen shot from Age of Revolutions.

All of this would change in the turmoil of the French Revolution. I have talked about the destruction of medieval manuscripts during the Revolution elsewhere, but I can only reemphasize how destructive the Revolution was to the medieval past of France on every level. For the Knights Hospitaller, the Revolution was the beginning of the end. On March 17, 1790, all Church property in France began to be sold, be it buildings, lands, endowments, or moveable goods—a death blow to the commanderies of the Knights Hospitaller.[2] On August 11th, 1790, the National Assembly “decreed that those tithes possessed by secular and religious bodies, including the Maltese and other religious and military orders, were to be abolished;” in a single moment, most of the Knights’ revenue disappeared.[3] The seizure of goods and endowments included the commandery of Manosque, the spiritual heart of the Knights Hospitaller and the burial place of Gerard, founder of the Order, including a lamp that had been maintained for centuries.[4]

The Revolution gutted the Knights’ power base—those Knights who left France for Malta left without wealth or income to bring with them, and those who stayed ceased to be Knights. While financially devastating, the revolutionary disdain for the Knights Hospitaller also removed the protection, support, and training opportunities the French had provided them. The Knights’ best sailors had trained in the French fleet; French aristocratic families had provided the surest source of new knights in addition to some half of their total number; and the French fleet had routinely worked alongside the Knights in their various Mediterranean campaigns.

By 1798, the Directory was looking to expand into the Mediterranean, and Malta, positioned so critically to control the middle of the sea, was a vital step in the broader French strategy that had faced setbacks in the Ionian Sea. The French Republic decided that Malta had been at war with France since it declared neutrality towards the Republic in 1793, and was further aggrieved by its assistance to British ships and reception of French émigrés.[5] When the French fleet settled outside, the Knights attempted to limit their harbor to four vessels at a time, and Napoleon responded with mass landings of troops. Despite stiff resistance at a handful of fortresses scattered across the islands, Malta surrendered quickly.[6] Not all of the knights would fight the French—the Secretary of the Treasury, Bosredon Ransjiat, for example, wrote to the Grand Master during the siege and said that:

In the extreme affliction in which I am placed, owing to the misfortune, amidst many others, which our Order has now to face, and as a war with France would be a calamity certainly greater than all others, I consider it my duty to represent to your Highness, with that frankness which I claim to be characteristic, that when I became by vow a member of our Institution, I did not contract any other military obligation beyond that of warring against the Turks, our constitutional enemies. I could never contemplate fighting against my native country, to which, by duty, as well as by feeling, I am, and ever shall be, as firmly attached as I am to our Order. Finding myself, therefore, in this critical and painful dilemma, for on whichever side I declare myself, I shall be considered at fault by the other, I beg Your Highness will not take it amiss if I observe the strictest neutrality, and hereby beg you will be pleased to appoint a member of our Order to whom I may deliver the keys of the Treasury, and at the same time assign me a place of residence.[7]

The ”neutrality” of even some of the French knights was the end of any hope of resistance. Grand Master von Hompesch surrendered the island to the French and negotiated terms; he would eventually leave the island with precious relics, relocating to Saint Petersburg under Tsar Paul I’s protection. Before going, he ordered the Knights to take off their crosses; the crusading order’s military mission was done. With the fall of Malta, the crusades were, officially, over.

Even with the official end of the crusades, however, Napoleon had one more trick to play on crusades historiography: he recruited any knights who wanted to join his invasion of Egypt. By the time Napoleon left on June 19th, some fifty now-former-Knights Hospitaller accompanied him, alongside the better parts of several Maltese military units.[8] Their invasion of Egypt recreated the crusading plans that began with the Fourth Crusade in 1204: first secure Egypt, then invade the Levant. By invading Alexandria, Napoleon, the French army and the remnants of the Knights Hospitaller recreated the last successful crusade of the Middle Ages, the Alexandrian Crusade of Peter I of Cyprus in 1365. And like a crusade, Napoleon’s invasion in Egypt provoked a strong religious and military response from Muslim authorities, culminating in the Ottoman sultan Selim III’s declaration of a jihad against the French Republican army.[9]

You do not need to take just my word that it resembled a crusade, however. Niqula al-Turk, a Lebanese eyewitness and chronicler of the occupation, wrote that, “The Egyptians absolutely could not bear the French because of the differences in religion, language and customs, not to mention the old hostility between the French and the Egyptians, which had existed since the time of Sultan al-Zahir Baybars,” one of several references to the conflicts between the Mamluks and crusaders in the thirteenth century.[10] Al-Turk was not alone in this comparison; Captain Joseph-Marie Moiret, one of Napoleon’s officers, similarly wrote about the French army as the successor not only of Alexander the Great but of Saint Louis himself, whose crusade in Egypt would end in disaster after the Battle of Mansurah in 1249.[11] Perhaps the greatest measure of the echoes of crusading in the last military campaign the Knights Hospitaller ever participated in is in the lieux de memoire that came out of it. In 1805, Sophie Cottin published a love story entitled Mathilde, ou Mémoires tires de l’histoire des croisades, set around the Third Crusade, with an introduction by the French historian Joseph François Michaud.[12] The renewed interest in the crusades between Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and Mathilde led him, in 1811, to give rise to modern crusade studies with the publication of the first volume of his Histoire des Croisades.[13] If Napoleon ended the crusades, and went on the last one himself, his reign resulted in the modern study of the centuries long movement he finally put to rest.

Title page of Histoire des Croisades by M. Michaud.

Thomas Lecaque is an Assistant Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. His research focuses on religion and violence in southern France in the 10th through 12th centuries and the early Crusades. He is currently finishing edits on his biography of Raymond of Saint-Gilles, a First Crusade leader who ruled most of southern France by the end of the 11th century, under contract with Routledge. You can find him on Twitter @tlecaque.

Title Image: Léon Cogniet, Bataille du Mont Thabor, 16 avril 1799. Campagne d’Egypte de Bonaparte.

Further Reading:

Al-Jabarti’s History of Egypt. Edited with an introduction by Jane Hathaway. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2009.

Cavaliero, Roderick. The Last of the Crusaders. The Knights of St John and Malta in the Eighteenth Century. London: Hollis & Carter, 1960.

Cole, Juan. Napoleon’s Egypt. Invading the middle East. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

Scicluna, Joe. Malta Surrendered. Valletta, Malta: Allied Publications, 2011.

Testa, Carmel. The French in Malta 1798-1800. Valletta, Malta: Midsea Books, Ltd., 1997.


[1] Roderick Cavaliero, The Last of the Crusaders: The Knights of St John and Malta in the Eighteenth Century (London: Hollis & Carter, 1960), 6 (for the decline in crusading spirit and opportunity) and 11 (for the number of French knights–3 “Tongues” were in France: Provence, Auvergne, and France, with 272 commanderies, equaling roughly half the total number of Knights Hospitaller).

[2] Frederick W. Ryan, ‘The House of the Temple’: A Study of Malta and its Knights in the French Revolution (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne Limited, 1930), 174.

[3] Cavaliero, 184-5.

[4] Ryan, 191.

[5] Cavaliero, 222-3.

[6] Ryan, 279-285, for an account of the defense.

[7] Ryan, 285.

[8] Cavaliero, 235, 244.

[9] Juan Cole, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 156-7.

[10] Evgeniya Prusskaya, “Arab Chronicles as a Source for Studying Bonaparte’s Expedition to Egypt,” Napoleonica. La Revue no. 24 (2015): 56.

[11] Cole, 18.

[12] For the impact of Mathilde, one good example is Magali Briat-Philippe, “Rosalie Caron, peintre de l’historie de Mathilde d’Angleterre et de Malek-Adhel,” La Revue des Musées de France, Revue du Louve 5 (2015): 46-54, who points out that the volume was translated into Spanish and English and would go on to inspire both Sir Walter Scott in The Talisman and Chateaubriand in his Les Aventures du dernier Abencerage, written during Napoleon’s reign though not published until later.

[13] Cole, 225.

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