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The Military Orders

The Military Orders

Including under this term every kind of brotherhood of knights, secular as well as religious, historians of the military orders have enumerated as many as a hundred, even after eliminating the apocryphal and stillborn. This great number is explained by the eagerness with which the Middle Ages welcomed an institution so thoroughly corresponding to the two occupations of that period, war and religion. Royalty afterwards utilized this new idea to strengthen its own position or to reward faithful nobles, creating secular orders of knighthood until there was no country without its royal or princely order.


Even private individuals entered into the business; adventurers attempted to exploit the vanity of the noblesse by sham insignia of knighthood with which they decked themselves, and which they distributed among their dupes lavishly -- though not gratuitously. Hence came a whole category of orders justly considered apocryphal.

In the seventeenth century Marino Caraccioli (1624), a Neapolitan nobleman, succeeded in passing himself off as Grand Master of the Order of Knights of St. George, which he pretended to trace to Constantine the Great.

In 1632, Balthasar Giron, who called himself an Abyssinian, brought to Europe an order no less ancient, that of St. Anthony of Ethiopia, an imposture almost immediately unmasked by another Oriental, the learned Abraham Echelensis (1646).

At the court of Louis XIV, a negro -- brought to France from the Gold Coast -- posed as a prince, even securing the honour of being baptised by Bossuet (1686), and instituted the Order of the Star of Our Lady before returning to his alleged dominions.


A regular order of knighthood means a brotherhood or confraternity which combines with the insignia of knighthood the privileges of monks. This supposes recognition on the part of both Church and State; to belong to the regular clergy, they needed the pope's confirmation; they could not wear the sword of knighthood without the authorization of the prince. Orders of knighthood lacking this official recognition should be expunged from history, even though they figure in the pages of all the old historians of the military orders. As a matter of fact, more than one rule of this kind, scarcely passing beyond the initial stages, has existed, and such are the orders which may be designated stillborn.

No trace is to be found in the "Bullarium romanum" of the order called the Wing of St. Michael, attributed to King Alfonso I of Portugal (1176), nor of the Order of the Ship, which St. Louis was supposed to have founded on the eve of the crusade to Tunis where he died (1270), nor of that of the Argonauts of St. Nicholas, attributed to Charles III, King of Naples, 1382.

Philippe de Mezières, chancellor of the King of Cyprus, drew up the statutes of an Order of the Passion of Christ (1360) the text of which has recently been published, but which were never enforced.

After the conquest of Lemnos from the Turks, Pope Pius II founded an order of Our Lady of Bethlehem, intending to transfer to it the possessions of older orders which no longer fulfilled their purpose (1459), but the loss of the island prevented its institution. The same fate befell the German Order of the Christian Militia, projected (1615) under Paul V; the Order of the French order of The Magdalen for the suppression of duelling (1614); and the Order of the Conception of Our Lady, the statutes of which, drawn up by the Duke of Mantua and approved by Urban VIII (1623) have remained a dead letter.


The age of the crusades had passed. The orders of any historical existence may be reduced to three categories: (a) The Greater Regular Orders; (b) The Lesser Regular Orders; (c) The Secular Orders.

The Greater Regular Orders


The great military orders had their origin in the crusades, from which they retain the common badge of every order of knighthood -- the cross worn on the breast.

Military Orders

The oldest of these, the Knights Templars, has served as a model for all the others. After barely a century of existence, they were suppressed by Clement V; but two remnants remained after the fourteenth century, the Order of Christ in Portugal, and the Order of Montesa in Spain. In the twelfth century Portugal had borrowed their rule from the Templars and founded the Portuguese Order of Aviz. Almost at the same time there arose in Castile the Order of Calatrava and in Leon the Order of Alcantara.

Military/Hospitaller Orders

Contemporary with these purely military orders, others were founded at once military and hospitaller, the most famous of which were the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights of Malta) and the Teutonic Knights (modelled on the former), both still in existence. In the same category should be included the Order of Santiago which spread throughout Castile, Leon, and Portugal.

Hospitaller Orders

Lastly, there are the purely hospitaller orders whose commanders, however, claimed the rank of knights though they had never been in battle, such as the Orders of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem and of the Holy Spirit of Montpellier. With these may be connected the Order of Our Lady of Ransom (Nuestra Señora de Merced, also called Mercedarians), founded (1218) in Aragon by St. Peter Nolasco for the redemption of captives. Including religious knights as well as religious clerics, it was originally considered a military order, but dissensions arose and each rank chose its own grand master. John XXII (1317) reserved the grand-mastership to clerics, with the result of a general exodus of knights into the newly founded military Order of Montesa.

The Lesser Regular Orders

There is mention in the twelfth century, in Castile, of an Order of Montjoie, confirmed by Alexander III (1180), but difficult to distinguish from the Order of Calatrava, with which it was soon amalgamated.

In 1191, after the siege of Acre, Richard I of England founded there in fulfilment of a vow, the Order of St. Thomas of Canterbury, an order of hospitallers for the service of English pilgrims. It seems to have been made dependent on the Hospitallers of St. John, whom it followed to Cyprus after the evacuation of Palestine. Its existence is attested by the Bullarium of Alexander IV and John XXII; beyond this it has left but little trace except a church of remarkable architecture, St. Nicholas, at Nicosia in Cyprus.


Better known is the history of the Schwertzbrüder (Ensiferi, or Swordbearers) of Livonia, founded by Albert, first Bishop of Riga (1197), to propagate the Faith in the Baltic Provinces and to protect the new Christianity there against the pagan nations still numerous in that part of Europe. Against these pagans a crusade had been preached; but, the temporary crusaders having made haste to withdraw, it became necessary, as in Palestine, to supply their place with a permanent order. This order adopted the statutes, the white mantle and the red cross of the Templars, with a red sword as their distinctive badge, whence their name of Ensiferi. The order was approved in 1202 by a Bull of Innocent III. Thrown open to all sorts of persons without distinction of birth, overrun by aimless adventurers whose excesses were calculated rather to exasperate the pagans than to convert them, it endured but a short time, having only two grand masters, the first of whom, Vinnon, was murdered by one of his fellows in 1209, while the second, Volquin, fell on the field of battle in 1236, with four hundred and eighty knights of the order. The survivors petitioned to be allowed to enter the Teutonic Order, of which the Knights of Livonia thenceforward formed one branch under a provincial master of their own (1238). Their possessions, acquired by conquest, formed a principality under Charles V (1525), and the last of their masters, Gottart Kettler, apostatized and converted it into the hereditary Duchy of Courland under the suzerainty of the kings of Poland (1562).

The Gaudenti of Our Lady at Bologna, confirmed by Urban IV in 1262, and suppressed by Sixtus V in 1589, were not so much a military order as an association of gentlemen who undertook to maintain the public peace in those turbulent times.

An order of St. George of Alfama, in Aragon, approved in 1363 by Urban V, was merged in the Order of Montesa in 1399.

The Knights of St. George, in Austria, founded by the Emperor Frederick III, and approved by Paul II in 1468, failing to perpetuate their existence, owing to the lack of territorial possessions, gave place to a purely secular confraternity.

The Order of St. Stephen Pope was founded in Tuscany by the Grand Duke Cosmo I and approved in 1561 by Pius IV, being placed under the Benedictine Rule. It had its principal house at Pisa, and was obliged to equip a certain number of galleys to fight the Turks in the Mediterranean after the manner of, and in concert with, the "caravans" of the Knights of Malta.

The Secular Orders

Dating from the fourteenth century, fraternities of lay knights were formed modelled on the great regular orders; as in the latter, we find in these secular orders a patron, a vow to serve the Church and the sovereign, statutes, a grand master (usually the reigning prince), and the practice of certain devotions. Most of them also asked for the approbation of the Holy See, which, on the other hand, granted them spiritual favours -- indulgences, the privilege of private oratories, dispensation from certain fasts, etc.

The chief of these orders are as follows:


In England, Edward III, in memory of the legendary Knights of the Round Table, established in 1349 brotherhood of twenty-five knights, exclusive of princes of the blood and foreign princes, with St. George as its patron and with its chapel in Windsor Castle for the holding of chapters. This, the Order of the Garter, takes its name from the characteristic badge, won on the left knee. The choice of this badge has given rise to various anecdotes of doubtful authenticity. Nothing is now known of the original object of the Order of the Bath, the creation of which dates from the coronation of Henry IV (1399). A third order, Scottish by origin, is that of the Order of the Thistle, dating from the reign of James V of Scotland (1534). These orders still exist, though they have been protestantized.


In France, the royal orders of the Star, dating from John the Good (1352), of St. Michael, founded by Louis XI (1469), of the Holy Ghost, founded by Henry III (1570), of Our Lady of Carmel, amalgamated by Henry IV with that of St. Lazarus were absolutely suppressed by the Revolution.

Austria and Spain

Austria and Spain now dispute the inheritance from the House of Burgundy of the right to confer the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded by Duke Philip the Good, approved by Eugene IV in 1433, and extended by Leo X in 1516.


In Piedmont, the Order of the Annunziata, under its later form, dates only from Charles III, Duke of Savoy, in 1518, but its first dedication to the Blessed Virgin goes back to Amadeus VIII, first Duke of Savoy, antipope under the name of Felix V (1434). There had, previously to this dedication, existed in Savoy an Order of the Collar, which held its chapters in the Charterhouse (founded in 1892) of Pierre-Châtel in Bugey. Here also the Knights of the Annunziata kept their feast of the Annunciation, so that they have considered themselves as successors of the Order of the Collar. After the cession of Bugey to France, they transferred their chapters to the newly founded Camaldolese monastery on the Mountain of Turin (1627).


In the Duchy of Mantua, Duke Vincent Gonzaga, on the marriage of his son Francis II, instituted, with the approbation of Paul V, the Knights of the Precious Blood, a relic of which is venerated in that capital.

Pontifical Secular Orders

Lastly there are a number of pontifical secular orders, the oldest of which is the Order of Christ, contemporary with the institution of the same order in Portugal in 1319. In approving the latter institution, John XXII reserved the right of creating a certain number of knights by patent, and it is now used to reward services rendered by any person whatsoever without distinction of birth.

The same is to be said of the Order of St. Peter, instituted by Leo X in 1520, of the Order of St. Paul, founded by Paul III in 1534, and of Our Lady of Loretto, charged by Sixtus V in 1558, to watch over and preserve that sanctuary. These distinctions were mostly granted to functionaries of the pontifical chancery.

There has been some question as to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, formerly dependent on the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and reorganized by Pope Pius X. The Knights of St. Catherine of Sinai are not an order, either secular or regular.


The respective particular histories of the great military orders have been traced in the various articles devoted to them; it is necessary here only to explain their general organization, religious, military, and economic.

Religious State

The knights of the great orders were regarded in the Church as analogous to monks whose three vows they professed and whose immunities they shared. They were answerable to the pope alone; they had their chapels, their clerics, and their cemeteries, all exempted from the jurisdiction of the secular clergy. Their landed property was free from tithes. They were not subject to the interdicts which the bishops in those days employed so freely. They did not all follow the same monastic rule. The Templars and orders derived from them followed the Cistercian Reform. The Hospitallers followed the Rule of St. Augustine. Nevertheless, in consequence of the relaxation which manifested itself among them after the period of the crusades, the Holy See introduced mitigations in favour of the non-clerical brethren. For these it was difficult to maintain the rule of celibacy in all its rigour; they were permitted, in certain orders, to marry once, and that only with a maiden. Even where second marriages were tolerated, they had to vow conjugal fidelity, so that if they violated this obligation of the natural law they sinned doubly against the law and against their vow. Besides the three vows, the rule bound the brethren to the exercises of the monastic life such as the recitation of the Hours, for which, in the case of illiterates, a fixed number of Paters was substituted. It also prescribed their dress and their food, and their feast, abstinence, and fast days. Lastly, the rule imposed detailed obligations in regard to the election of dignitaries and the admission of members to the two ranks of combatants -- knights and men-at-arms -- and the two of non-combatants -- chaplains, to whom all sacerdotal functions were reserved, and casaliers, or tenants, who were charged with the management of temporal affairs.

Military Organizations

The military organization of the orders was uniform, explained by that law of war which compels the belligerent to maintain his military apparatus on a level with those of his adversary, on pain of defeat. The strength of an army was in its cavalry, and to this type the armament, mounting, and tactics of the military orders conformed. The knights-brethren were the heavy cavalry; the men-at-arms-brethren, the light cavalry. The former were entitled to three horses a piece; the latter had to be content with one. Among the former, only knights of tried prowess were admitted, or, in default of this qualification, sons of knights, because in such families the warlike spirit and military training were hereditary. The consequence was that the knights, properly so-called, were never very numerous; they formed a corps d'élite which carried the great mass of the crusaders. Gathered in convents which were also barracks, combining with the passive obedience of the soldier, the spontaneous submission of the religious, living shoulder to shoulder in brotherly union, commander and subordinate, these orders surpassed, in that cohesiveness which is the ideal of every military organization, the most famous bodies of picked soldiery known to history, from the Macedonian phalanx to the Ottoman Janissaries.

Economic Oganization

The importance acquired by the military orders during the course of the Middle Ages may be measured by the extent of their territorial possessions, scattered throughout Europe. In the thirteenth century nine thousand manors formed the portion of the Templars; thirteen thousand that of the Hospitallers. These temporalities were an integral part of the ecclesiastical domain, and as such had a sacred character which placed them beyond liability to profane uses or to secular imposts. They differed from the temporalities of other monastic institutions only in the centralized system of their administration. While within each of the other religious institutes every abbey was autonomous, all the houses of a military order were bound to contribute their revenues, after deducting expenses, to a central treasury. As a result of this enormous circulation of capital controlled by the orders, their wealth could be applied to financial operations which made them veritable credit and deposit banks. Their perfect good faith earned for them the implicit confidence of the Church and of temporal rulers. The papacy employed them to collect contributions for the crusades; princes did not hesitate to entrust to them their personal property. In this respect, again, the military orders were model institutions.

MIRÆUS, Origine des chevalier et ordres militaires (Antwerp, 1609); FAVYN, Histoire des ordres de chevalerie (2 vols., Paris, 1620); BIELENFELD, Geschichte und Verfassung aller Ritterorden (Weimar, 1841); CAPPELETI, Storia degli ordini cavallereschi (Leghorn, 1904); CLARKE, Concise History of Knighthood, II (London, 1884); DIGBY, The Broad Stone of Honour (London, 1876-77); LAWRENCE-ARCHER, The Orders of Chivalry (London, 1887); see also bibliographies attached to special articles on the several great orders.


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