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The Hospitallers

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue.

The pair of Hospitallers, somber in combat armor in black with white pectoral crosses, swords, and well-travelled gauss rifles over their shoulders, is a rare sight in the highports of the Marches, but so remarkable as to be famous, almost as some mythical creatures. These warrior monks are very real, however, though the glamour stems from the trivids, not their reality. Their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience supplement the lives of soldiers always in the meanest of environments, constantly campaigning in a war that never ends.

The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (the Hospitallers) are a military ecclesiastical order, with roots in the Terran medieval period, specifically the Crusades. The decentralized, semi-feudal nature of the Third Imperium, and the numerous starfaring forms of states both under it and coming before it, have made the Hospitallers as relevant now as in the turbulent, violent times of their genesis. The Grand Priory of the Spinward Marches, for instance, is an essentially independent body with control nominally exercised by the Grand Master on Terra. While the Grand Master, on Terra, approves the Prior General that the electors of the Grand Priory choose in the Marches, who serves pending this approval, the fact that the message round-trip is essentially close to a decade makes such “controls” illusory. It has been relatively rare in recent decades for a replacement Prior General to be sent out to any of the fourteen Grand Priories in the Imperium by the Grand Master. There are, however, Priors Auxiliary, who spend often decades visiting throughout Order’s far-flung Priories to make reports to Priors General and the Grand Master.

The Order is unapologetically Roman Catholic, though not evangelical in the proselytizing sense. In every environment, the Order will rather seek to ease suffering and protect the most vulnerable, by a combination of force of arms, the healing arts, and such other direct aids to health and safety that they find most urgent in a given situation. Usually, this involves choosing worlds whose populations are most at risk from disorder and banditry where the most impact can be made by a small, highly disciplined, high-tech, lightly-armed force, allowing health-care, and other essential services to be organized and provided sanctuary.

While harking back to the chivalric orders of old, there are very specific differences. The Hospitallers never hold anything really worth taking, as far as lands, wealth, or secular power. While they, with the help or volunteers and retainers, may run dozens of hospitals and clinics in a given commandery, none of these will be owned by them, however well they may be under the Order’s protection. The Knights of the Order always provide their services for free, surviving on donations, though local activities that they set up, like hospitals, schools, farms and even transportation links will often charge for goods and services. It is the practice, however, that funds in the Order flow down, sideways, but never up: the arms of the order are provided by high level donations, which also fund local projects, while local projects may help fund themselves, and other similar projects in the same system. The Order owns dozens of small craft, but no starships, and as such has no expeditionary self-sufficiency: by design they rely upon the transport of others to move from system to system. As such, they are in an interstellar society, a potential asset but never a threat to those in power.

While the Order is strictly apolitical, they have historically recognized that to help they must work in tacit cooperation with the ruling parties, while observing neutrality in strictly military matters or any rivalry between governments. Thus, while the Order may fight pirates, they will not fight a foreign invader that leaves them to tend the poor and wounded. The Grand Priories and Priories will therefore generally follow political divisions, usually sectors and subsectors in Imperial space, and there is a small but highly skilled diplomatic corps which tries to spot feudal rivalries of which the Order may run afoul. This leaves the Order an invaluable asset to the average Subsector Duke with worlds that need development, populations that need relief, and corners where piracy may lurk. Rarely will such a noble, whatever his views on their faith, spurn the help of the Hospitallers.

Their uniforms are universally combat armor, which has a finish that is set for either matte black or chameleon. In normal conditions, the Order keeps their armor black, with a white cross of Malta centered on the chest of brothers, or reduced in size and centered on the left breast for adepts. In combat, the chameleon finish is programmed to display the appropriately placed cross in black outline, visible only from well inside pistol shot. The arms are worn at all times, except when at worship. Each chaplain’s vestments are made to fit over his armor, and his sword fits inside his own processional cross. The combat armor, while natural in the field, on campaign, is worn even in incongruous settings, like the dinner party of a noble or in the office of a wealthy patron. Only in death is a Knight separated from his armor: He is buried in a black robe with the white pectoral cross, his sword upon his breast, and his other arms and armor in the armory, to be passed on to another adept.

The arms of the Order are the only vestiges of personal property that the brothers have any real possession of, or that the adepts take temporary possession of. The Knight, once passed from adept to full brother, is entrusted for life with the armor, sword, and rifle he has borne as an adept. Other personal effects are allowed, in only such Spartan character and quantity as befits a warrior monk, but any other personal possessions, including especially any money or other things of value, is entrusted to the Order or otherwise donated, during the initial term as an adept. Before being accepted as a full brother, however, the entrusted goods must become the property of the Order, to be liquidated and to fund their works. Any adept may resign from the Order at any time, leaving his arms at the commandery, and both regain his property and obtain a certificate of good conduct from the Prior of the Priory. Any brother or adept may be expelled from the Order for criminal acts or unrepentant violation of his vows. Such expulsion is accomplished at the Priory level, though the Commander has the power to provisionally do so, giving the expelled Knight recourse to the Prior. Most lesser lapses are dealt with local discipline, or simply sacramental absolution when contrition is genuine and timely.

The Order, however, share the quality of their historical forebears of being a highly effective fighting force, man for man. When other soldiers are at leisure, the Knights are at drill or at exercise. When other soldiers are on leave, or in schools, the Knights remain in their backwater posts. If poverty, privation, and want are the schools of the soldier, they are indeed the chapel in which the Order worships. Likewise, as most military contests at the local level are decided by one side deciding that their position has become too dangerous, having a skilled group who really see death as a sweet release on one side radically alters the balance in most cases. By confining their arms to those whose use depends most on skill and individual moral force, the Order increases its effectiveness on the micro level.

Their size is small, however, and rarely are more than 8 knights ever in a single engagement, though such a small group may employ dozens of armed retainers. Throughout the whole of the Imperial Spinward Marches, there are just over 3,700 Knights, though they employ or organize tens of thousands of auxiliaries, in security, medical, and other services. Tens of thousands also are involved in activities that, while not directly organized or controlled by the Order, have flourished within the enclaves created by their services.

The Knights of the Order are divided into adepts and brothers, most typically, though technically initiates exist in very few numbers. The demands of interstellar travel being what they are, a period of initiation is very short, such that the role of initiate is one of a few weeks, usually awaiting and embarked on transportation to an initial posting on some backwater world the Order serves. The initiates are tested by a brother before being taken to a commandery, based on physical prowess, military experience, faith, and social standing. The latter is a generally minor consideration, but since the Order essentially “gentrifies” its knights, there is at least a consideration that its recruits be amenable to adopting the manners of polite society.

Even when sitting at a rough-hewn table, eating a locally-produced gruel in a leaky log-walled barracks, the Knight is expected to eat with manners fit for court, for it is recognized that in addition to good manners being mostly originated as a manifestation of concern for the other, a given knight may end up sent as an emissary on some local or even a distant mission. Manners are much easier taught than skill at arms, however. Military experience (including naval and IISS) is therefore almost a necessity to join, though some skilled civilians with outstanding traits and skill at arms have been accepted. Medical training is a given as an adept, as is skill with sword, and both laser and gauss rifles. The basic pattern of the Order is that all receive at least a passing skill with each activity, and specific skills are then developed as requirements dictate. A Knight will have as his arms a laser rifle or a gauss rifle, as his skill indicates, but each adept at the end of his term will posses at least Combat Rifleman-1, Laser Weapons-1, Sword-1, Medic-1, and Ship’s Boat-0, and Air/Raft-0.

While more visible, the “naval” Knights are actually a relatively small portion of the Order. Only full brothers can apply for flight duty, either as a crew for a St. George class ship’s boat, or as a gunnery crew. A St. George uses the speed and space of the standard ship’s boat to provide a crew of 2 long-term accommodations, suitable for relatively long patrols, including a full stateroom at double occupancy. The Model/3, triple missile rack, and small craft bridge allows a decent performance as a medium fighter. New, such a rig would, when provisioned with the standard load of 30 missiles as reloads, cost just shy of MCr 39, but they make heavy use of surplus boats and armaments. When deployed in the normal flight of 2, it is a rare pirate who will choose to stand and fight the Hospitaller flight; no booty to be gained, and a likelihood of expensive repairs at best, if not a crippling injury, make immediately jumping out prudent business decision, despite the flight chaplain’s offer of general absolution...

There are three basic divisions of labor in the Knights: brothers martial, brothers infirmarians, and brothers chaplain. While each Knight can, by training, perform each function at some level, most of the brothers chaplain are specially picked, normally after two terms as a brother, and further trained at seminary before receiving major orders; they will then often taking over either as Commander or Vice-commander of a small Commandery. While each Commandery must have at least one chaplain, a few have several, who will use their calling along with their other talents among the Order and the people. Flight crew are members of the brothers martial, though a flight will often include a brother chaplain as part of the crew.

For working passages, double-bunked on a ship otherwise unarmed, a gunnery crew will bring their pair of turrets, requisite fire control, and tools for installation, and become a part of the crew, albeit a temporary and reserved part. The installation will often be made while underway, to reduce its signature, but may remain for months, or just a few jumps. The Order uses these gunnery crews and its “George boats” to upset local piracy where local government forces are spread too thin on the ground. In return, surplus weaponry is often donated from subsector, sector, or even the Imperial Navy, based on local needs.

While there is no formal retirement in the Order, Knights will be moved to softer postings when they can no longer campaign in the same manner. Often a progression is to flight crews, then to a diplomatic or educational post, as the Knight ages. Such is the ordering of their operations, that many never make it to the softer berths, but lie instead in a rough coffin in some far-flung corner of a troubled world. Yet others will, after a normal military career, serve a term as an adept, and move on to another career with no regrets.

It is very true that the Order wins converts by the edge of the sword, but this is not as it is accused of doing by those in the lower media or even of other persuasions. The Order will, with the assent of whatever government is in power, establish an outpost in some troubled corner of a troubled world, paying locals for labor to build barracks, defenses, clinics, and gardens. A usual force of about ten brothers and a pair of adepts will be given this task. Often, such an outpost must be actively defended against raids by the locals, especially at the beginning. A chapel is established, and it serves the small garrison. Any local banditry is actively put down once defenses are sufficient to warrant such offensive action. Refugees are housed and protected, while being expected to pitch in. Clinics are put up farther afield. Medics are trained and equipped among the locals. A local constabulary is trained, established, and equipped, and local courts established or expanded.

Once there are some competent local security forces in place, the Knights will be thinned out by about half. The chapel is supplemented by a full-fledged church, which is a center for social and educational events. Villages are provided with sanitary facilities by trained retainers. Foundlings are raised in a newly built orphanage. While converts are given the choicer jobs, no one is ever required to convert. All these activities are protected by retainers, who are lead and very significantly supplemented by the hand-full of Knights present. Thus while the eventual widespread conversion in the expanding enclave is voluntary, is enabled by the Knights and their retainers’ arms.

The role of the Order in spreading their faith, while passive, is thus pronounced. Part of this approach is their institutional reaction to other faiths: they will countenance no persecution on the basis of religion by any within their power. They will not pretend to give any other faith parity with their own (indeed, why would one die for something that was most likely false?), but will not allow disrespect to be shown them, as long as the practices do not harm those under the Order’s protection. They will cooperate with local pagan shamans to bring about works of charity, but never participate in any joint worship. To any who suggest their Savior was a great man, the average Knight will snort that either he was a liar, a lunatic, or the son of God, and leave it to the speaker to choose.

Never will the Order seek to establish any sort of Theocracy, however, in even the most lawless province where they are the sole de facto rulers. When no government exists they will encourage the formation of one, to include a provision for freedom of religion, other basic human rights, etc. The lessons of history, where earthly wealth and power allowed the Hospitallers to become tied to ever-smaller territories, and allowed jealousies to foment against them and the Templars, have been well-observed. Thus, in relative humility, the Hospitallers seek ever to be spread thinner on the ground, a ground belonging to others, to serve their fellow men, and thereby spread their faith.

In an empire largely run by atheists and agnostics, home to myriad faiths that are in the aggregate still in the minority, the novelty of the Hospitallers, who forsake all the pleasures of life save that of service, to die far from home for those who still hate them, is indeed a small candle in the vast dark of space. Their influence is far out of proportion to their numbers, but still is quite minor, a quirky sideshow. They have, however, spread their faith into small pockets of devoted followers on primitive worlds, while spreading their reputation and throughout the spacelanes, to the grateful but bemused passengers and crews of the small ships they have kept safe.