In the summer of 1356 AD two ambassadors of the Byzantine emperor John V Palaeologos – the Latin archbishop of Smyrna Paulus and the great hetheriarchos Nicolay Sigeros delivered in Avignon one of the most famous documents in the XIVth C. European history – the chrisoboul with which the emperor desperately pleaded the Catholic West for help against the Turks. This appeal coincided with the aftermath of the so called Great Plague, the ending of the bitter struggle between the Western Turkish Emirates and the crusaders in the Aegean region during most of the 40’s of XIVth C. and, finally, with a crisis in the development of the military catholic order of St. John of Jerusalem, which had established its headquarters at the Aegean isle of Rhodes a half century ago. The promises of the emperor for conclusion of an union with the Papacy at Avignon and therefore for bringing to an end of the Eastern Schism, dated back to 1054 AD, served – in my opinion – as a stimulus for the Order and the Papacy to connect their activities with the declining under the Turkish blows Byzantine empire and for the emerging of the so called by me “Greek” project of the Order of St. John.
The first reason for this project were the papal critics against the Hospitallers’ inactivity at Rhodes. As the only sovereign whom the Knights obeyed, in 1355 AD the then pope Innocent VI intended to move the headquarters of the Order in “Turchia” – in that age this meant Asia Minor, where it would be more active in the war against the - so called -infidels. But symptomatically after the receiving of the message of John V Palaeologos the project for Asia Minor was abandoned, and instead the direction of the holy war of the Hospital had been pointed to Continental Greece. It was an event that largely determined the politics of the Order of St. John for the next half a century and the fulfilling of this project dominated the eastern political aims and activities of the Knights in big part of that time.
At short, the main goal of this project was the establishing of a strong Hospitaller possession somewhere in Continental Greece or Continental Balkans and its use as a crusader shield or a base for a struggle with the invading infidels – i.e. the Turks and in this case particularly the Ottoman Turks.
The first trial for the realization of this project was carried out in the second half of the 50’s. The Knights’ representatives, supported by Avignon, tried to buy out the rights over the Frankish Principality of Achaea from one of his heirs – Giacomo di Savoya-Acaia. Since the beginning of XIVth C. the once flourishing principality had been in internal crisis and the chances for buying the rights over it seemed good. But the Angevin rulers of Southern Italy spoiled the deal as the real power in Achaia belonged to them and not to the distant Piedmontese noble Giacomo di Acaia. The Angevins were reluctant to sale the principality to the Hospital rather preferring to give parts of it to some of their strongest vassals as the Florentine Nicollo Aciaiuolli.
As the negotiations between the Papacy and the Byzantines in the end of 50’s also led to nothing, the “Greek” project of the Order of St. John had been temporarily abandoned even if the military force of the Hospital under the papal legate fr. Pierre Thomas fought some battles with the Ottoman Turks in Byzantine Thracia and the Straits. The project was revived in the beginning of the 70’s with the end of the crusader’s war fought between the Knights of Rhodes, the Kingdom of Cyprus and the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt, the renewed appeals for help against the Turks from John V Palaeologos and the ascension of the last Avignonese pope – Gregory XI. The event which attracted the attention of the Papacy to the Balkan affairs was the great Christian defeat at Cernomen in 1371 AD. Afterwards Gregory XIth directed his politics towards the organizing of a crusade against the victorious Ottoman Turks. The main supporter of this effort in the region was the Order of St. John at Rhodes. Between September and November 1373 in Avignon was carried on a council of the Hospital at which the decision was taken about launching of a crusade and starting of the collection of the funds necessary for it. In 1375 two Hospitaller knights, serving as papal ambassadors in Constantinople, brought to Avignon the news that the emperor John V had promised to give the Order two of his most important cities – Gallipoli and, presumably, Thessalonika, to defend them against the Turks. That forced the preparations for the crusade in the West and some 400 Knights Hospitaller were called from most of the European priories to set out to the Balkans on 8th of December 1375. But the civil strife in Byzantium between John V and his son Andronikos IV literally closed the Straits for the crusaders in 1376 AD.
Out of that in the same year Gregory XI had been involved in a war in Italy, while preparing his return in Rome. The Hospitallers supported actively his actions on the Appenines. Simultaneously with the closing of the Straits the “Greek” project’s variant with Achaea again became actual – this time the principality could be used as a bridgehead for the prepared crusade. In the second half of 1376 AD the Angevin queen Jean I gave the Order of St. John Achaea for rent for 5 years period. One year later a new Grand Master of the Hospital was chosen – it was fr. John Fernandes de Heredia, a favourite of Gregory XI. He already was the most influential hospitaller brother in the West and had commanded the fleet of Gregory during the return of Holy See from Avignon to Rome. With his appointment the pope probably aimed at forcing the launching of the long planned crusade. In the spring of 1378 AD the crusade, led personally by Heredia, finally set out from Italy to the lands of Continental Greece.
But the direction of the crusade forces was not against the Ottoman Turks, but towards Western Greece and the possessions of the Albanian despot Gjin Bua Shpata. In my opinion this historical fact is connected exactly with the “Greek” project of the Order of Saint John i.e. the establishing of a stronger continental base of the Order on Balkan soil. The crusade ended at the beginning of the second half of 1378 AD at the walls of Shpata’s capital Arta in Epirus with disastrous defeat. The Grand Master Heredia had been captured in ambush by the Albanians and maybe some Turkish mercenaries of Shpata and was ransomed later by the Order’s officials in Achaea for a large sum of money.
Meanwhile a large western mercenary force arrived in Continental Greece – namely the Navarrese company. The Navaresse were hired by the Hospitallers in Achaea in 1378 AD, but soon they started to act on their own and became uncontrollable. With the disorder, caused by the Navarrese and the Western (so called Great) Church Schism in the West, which understandably affected the Order of St. John, the Knights of Rhodes decided to give back the rule over the principality to queen Jean of Anjou. But that didn’t mean the end of their efforts to establish his power over Achaea. During the 80’s there were continuous Hospitaller attempts in the West for buying out the rights over the possession of the Frankish principality. But even after the Grand Master Heredia succeeded in buying the rights of the House of Anjou, the opposition for this transfer – out of the Navarrese who held the real power in Achaea – was too strong. Another pretender emerged – he was Amaedeo di Savoya-Acaia, lord of Pinerolo and descendant of Giacomo di Savoya-Acaia. The lack of support both from the Holy Sees in Avignon and Rome, the opposition of the Navarrese and the influential Savoyan nobles finally caused the withdrawal of the Knights from their ambitions towards Achaea in the beginning of 90’s of XIVth C.
This seemed like an inglorious finale of the “Greek” project of the Hospital, but soon an unexpected opportunity for its realization emerged. It surprisingly came from the Orthodox Byzantine empire. The 90’s in Byzantium were marked by the dynastic struggle between the pretender John VII Palaeologos and the ruling emperors Manuel II and John V and the increasing Ottoman dependancy. In 1390 AD Manuel II concluded a military alliance with the Knights of Rhodes in order to take back his throne in Constantinople. After 1394 AD Byzantium was at war with the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I Yildirim. Except Constantinople the other threatened territory was the Byzantine Despotate of Morea, which occupied the eastern half of Peloponnesos peninsula. The Turkish attacks against the Despotate were intensive and followed one after another. In 1397 AD the despote Theodore I Palaleologos with the approval of his brother Manuel II and the empress-mother Helene decided to turn for help to the Knights of Rhodes. He sold them one of his most important fortresses – Corynth, the “key” to Peloponnesos.
The sale was the beginning of the last phase of the “Greek” project of the Order. During the next years the Knights successfully repelled several Turkish attacks against Corynth. Simultaneously they tried to buy out from despote Theodore more fortresses and presumably their final aim was to buy the rights over the whole territory of the Despotate. Around 1401 AD the despote sold them even his capital – the famous Mistra. But there emerged problems with the local Orthodox population which was not inclined to be ruled by a catholic military order. Despite of that and the incessant Turkish incursions the Hospitallers succeeded in keeping a firm hold over the former Byzantine fortresses. But it was a mere, even if a curious historical moment, in the history of Greece. On 20th of July 1402 AD at Ankara the great army of the Mongol conqueror Timur decisively defeated the forces of Ottoman sultan Bayezid I. This event led to the temporarily extinction of the Turkish threat and despote Theodore used the opportunity to take back the control over his lands. To 1404 AD he was in full possession of all the fortresses previously sold to the Knights. “The swan-song” of the “Greek” project was the attempt of the Knights to take the control over the former County of Salona, which had been promised to them by the new Ottoman sultan Suleiman according the conditions of the Treaty of Gallipoli. This undertaking was also unsuccessful.
As a conclusion I can say that during the second half of XIVth C. and the first few years of XVth C. the crusader Order of St. John of Jerusalem tried several times to establish its strong base in the territory of contemporary state of Greece. This prolonged and interesting story has never been studied and presented yet in all its length – since 1356 AD when was the first attempt of the Order to buy the rights over the Frankish Principality of Achaea until 1404 AD when the last Knights of St. John left their recently bought strongholds in the Byzantine Despotate of Morea. I think that this undertaking was similar in many ways to the activity of the Teutonic order in the Eastern Baltic region during the same age, but was launched in very different and somewhat more difficult political conditions. The aims and motives of the Knights Hospitaller were doubtless crusaderly approved and therefore their “Greek” project could be well connected with the advance of the Turks (and especially the Ottomans) against the Christian states in the Balkans since its very beginning. That became obvious at the end of XIVth C. when the Order of St. John actively took participation in the military defense of the gravely threatened by Ottoman’s conquest Byzantine Despotate of Morea. The Knights of Rhodes also launched one crusade – passagium particulare that was against the Albanian chief and warlord Ghjin Bua Shpata (1358-1400), but one should not forget that it had been originally organized in response to the pleads for help against the Turks of the Byzantine emperor John V Palaeologos (1341-1391). Out of the pure crusade’s aims in their attempts for realization of the “Greek” project the Knights very often pursued their own separate goals, connected with the intention to create a strong and vast continental base under the leadership of the Hospital. Almost every time they enjoyed the support of the Papacy – sometimes active, sometimes not so. The political environment in the region of Greece between 1356 and 1404 was extremely complicated – except the Turks there were other invaders – Albanians and the so called Navarrese Company of mercenaries, almost constant war among the different states in the area – the Catalans of Thebes and Athens, the Principality of Achaea, the Despotate of Morea, the colonies of Venice and various other lords and powers. The local rulers were almost without exception connected with stronger lordships as vassal states. This political situation made the task of the Knights Hospitaller even more difficult. My opinion is that if this “Greek” project was eventually finalized, it could have led to the establishment of a strong military barrier against the Turkish advance in Greece and to a change in the course of the history of Order of St. John and Southern Balkans.