The Knights of St Lazarus were an ancient order of fighting lepers, whose rotting flesh and self-belief they couldn’t be killed gave them the reputation as “the undead”. JON KANEKO-JAMES reports.
Everyone knows that London was once home to the Knights Templar, and the Knights of St. John, but many don’t know that some of the Maltese Crosses you see around London represent something quite different. Both the Green Maltese Cross and the symbol of a lion with a scarred face are the emblem of another order of Knights who came to London: the Living Dead.
Let’s imagine a scene: you’re a soldier in the army of Saladin, and things are going pretty well. You’re about to kick the Crusaders (i.e. invaders) out of the Holy Land. You’ve boxed in their King and the genius tactician Saladin (your boss) has managed to execute a series of inspired feints that means you’re about to attack a Christian stronghold and basically get them with their trousers down.
Then it happens: you see a force on horseback. It’s tiny and moving slowly. Some of the riders are slumped over the saddles of their horses, others hold their swords limply. At the head of the army rides a knight, bandaged head to foot in bloody rags, barely able to hold his weapon above his head. Your forces turn and send off a volley of arrows. They hit. They hit dead on.
But the riders keep coming. They get hit. Some of their horses are killed … but the riders just get back up again and keep coming. Wave after wave of arrows and they keep coming, the only ones who stop are literally so hacked to pieces that their bodies don’t function anymore. There are just 500 of them at the start, and your forces outnumber them five to one, but that only matters when you’re facing men who can die.
These are the Living Dead, the Knights of St. Lazarus. They come on with rotting faces and skeletal visages. Some have their swords tied to their hands because all their fingers have fallen off. Some moan with pain as they walk along, others move with inhuman speed, ignoring the weight of arrows because the dead feel no pain.
And they are alive. The Knights of St. Lazarus were leper knights, afflicted with the (at the time) fatal disease of leprosy. They fought without helmets, firstly because they knew their faces scared the enemy, secondly because a fatal head wound was a preferable out compared to a slow death by disease.
The Knights were started somewhere between 1099 and 1220, as a response to the crusaders contracting leprosy in the Holy Land. The problem was that those suffering leprosy were officially dead. They often lost all their money, lands and rights. Back in Europe they were treated as non-humans, monsters.
So, why go back to Europe? Knights who contracted leprosy in the Holy Land increasingly stayed in the Holy Land, and the Order of St. Lazarus was born. Members of the Knights Templar who contracted leprosy were specifically commanded to join the order, and members of the order of Knights of St. John of Jerusalem weren’t forced to join, but they also weren’t allowed to stay with their brethren.
And they saw action: King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the Leper King, led them into battle, breaking through a Muslim blockade at Ascalon and managing to catch up with Saladin’s army in a narrow ravine a few miles away from Jerusalem. Caught unprepared, the Muslim army was defeated and most of Saladin’s personal bodyguard were killed. The Leper Knights were so effective that Saladin himself barely escaped alive.
Their reputation spread through the Holy Land. It had a great effect on both sides: the Muslims were afraid of them, calling them the ‘Living Dead,’ which was what the knights called themselves. Except the knights were referring to the inevitability of their condition, while the locals genuinely believed that they were unstoppable, brain-munching denizens of hell. The Christian troops went into battle with the knights, glad to have them on their side. Despite the massive stigma against leprosy, they were seen as martyrs, a living relic to take into battle.
Saladin respected them so much for their charity (and possibly their shambling unstoppability) that he gave the order his personal protection when he did eventually take Jerusalem, giving all who couldn’t afford to be ransomed the chance to flee to the order. They folded at one point after the crusades because of financial issues, but the order managed to get back to its feet and continue, and its green Maltese Cross is still a symbol of hope to leprosy sufferers to this day.
Some even said that the Knights of St. Lazarus practised the same witchcraft as the Knights Templar had been alleged to, and that their condition was a punishment for their blasphemy. Others said that they used the fact that no-one wanted to get near them to practise terrible acts of black magic. We don’t know, nothing was ever proved. Who knows, perhaps some of them remain to this day, shambling around London, righting wrongs.