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The military orders were founded after the First Crusade to serve and shelter Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and to protect the hostile, contested borders of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Their members took an oath that combined the religious vows of the monk with the duties and values of the medieval knight: an unprecedented innovation of the Middle Ages. These Christian military brotherhoods, of which there were over thirty founded between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, undertook sweeping castle-building campaigns in the Middle East and Northern Europe in the continuing struggle to subdue the enemies of the faith. Here are just a few examples of the most influential orders:
- The Order of the Holy Sepulchre: Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, a major First Crusade leader and the first appointed ruler of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, founded this order to protect the Holy City’s most cherished pilgrimage site. Constantine the Great had built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the fourth century on a site believed to be Golgotha, the hill outside Jerusalem’s first century walls upon which Christ was crucified and buried. The oldest of the military orders founded in the Crusader East, it still exists today as an honorific with Catholic cardinals holding the title of Grand Master since 1949.
- The Knights Hospitaller: The Hospitallers began as a fellowship of men dedicated to the service of the poor and sick in an early eleventh-century hospital in Jerusalem; it is not until the end of the First Crusade that they were chartered as a military order. Wearing black tunics emblazoned with white crosses, the Knights Hospitaller played a major role in the last stand of the Christian armies against invading Muslims. The Hospitallers unsuccessfully defended Crac des Chevaliers against Mamluk invaders in 1271, and were driven from the Holy Land when the last Christians were driven from the Holy Land in 1291. Though the order was weakened and dispersed across Europe, the Hospitallers nevertheless survived, reemerging in the nineteenth century as a humanitarian and society.
- The Knights Templar: Founded around 1118, the Templars are the most famous (or infamous, thanks to Dan Brown) of the military orders founded to protect the Crusader states. Their white mantle with red cross distinguished them from the Hospitallers, founded just five years before them. Officially endorsed by the Catholic Church in 1129, the Templars became a favorite charity among Europe’s elites who sought to prove their piety and secure their salvation with donations to Christian causes. They rapidly amassed members, wealth, and influence and gradually developed massive economic structures that spanned Christendom and constituted the earliest forms of banking. Support for the Templar Order waned after the loss of the Holy Land, a process exacerbated by suspicious European kings who feared their wide-ranging power. In 1307, King Philip IV (who happened to be deep in debt to the Order) had the Templars arrested, tortured, and eventually burned at the stake on trumped up charges of conspiracy and heresy.
- The Teutonic Knights: Like the Templars and the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights provided aid to Christian pilgrims, established hospitals, and defended the Crusader states. With the decline of the crusading movement, they moved north to Prussia, where they waged the Baltic Crusades throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and established a monastic state that they defended with their famous, nearly impregnable network of red brick castles.
The Order of St. Lazarus: One of the most interesting and least documented Orders, its roots can be traced back to a leper hospital founded by the Hospitallers to treat Templars and Teutonic knights who contracted the Middle Ages’ most dreaded disease. Residents maintained their vows and occasionally took up arms, contributing to a handful of thirteenth-century efforts to defend Crusader possessions. With the fall of Acre in 1291 and the subsequent suppression of the Templars, the Order of St. Lazarus abandoned their military endeavors.
Forey, Alan John. The Military Orders: From the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1992.
Cathcart King, David James. “The Taking of Le Krak des Chevaliers in 1271.” Antiquity 90 (1949): 83-92.
Nicholson, Helen. The Knights Templar. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001.
Jennifer Lynn Jordan is an author and medieval blogger. She is also a doctoral student in medieval history and teaching fellow at SUNY Stony Brook.