The Original Military Orders
A military order is a Christian religious society of knights. Initially formed to protect and offer medical care for pilgrims traveling through the Holy Land, the military orders such as the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller and Teutonic Knights soon established themselves as an invaluable military presence in the region.
The Knights Templar, established c. 1119 CE, was a Catholic medieval military order whose members combined martial prowess with a monastic life for the purpose of defending Christian holy sites and pilgrims in the Middle East and elsewhere. Templar knights wore a white surcoat and cloak over their armor, with a red cross on the white background. The red cross was a symbol of martyrdom, and to die in combat was considered a great honor that assured a place in heaven.
The Teutonic Order was founded as a military order c. 1192 to aid Christians on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals. Teutonic knights wore black crosses on a white background or with a white border. These crosses could appear on shields, white surcoats (from 1244 CE), helmets, and pennants. Half-brethren wore grey instead of the full white reserved for knights.
The Knights Hospitaller was a medieval Catholic military order founded in 1113 CE. Their original purpose was also to help Christian pilgrims, but it soon became a military order which acquired extensive territories in Europe and whose knights made significant contributions to the Crusades in Iberia and the Middle East. The Knights Hospitaller could be identified by their distinctive white eight-pointed cross on a black background.
In 1145 CE, knights of the order were granted permission to wear the white hooded-mantle, and they soon adopted their distinctive white cloak and began to use the insignia of a red cross on a white background. The red cross also appeared on the livery of horses and on the order’s pennant.
Recruits came from all over western Europe, especially France. They were motivated by a sense of religious duty to defend Christianity and the Holy Land and its sacred sites, as a penance for sins committed, to guarantee entry into heaven, and other earthlier reasons. Recruits had to be free men of legitimate birth, and if they wished to become knights they had, from the 13th century CE, to be of knightly descent.
There was no impediment to fighting as regards to religious doctrine, provided that the cause was a just one – defense of the Holy Land being one – and so the order received the official support of the Church. Knights took vows on entering the order, much like in monasteries.
The knights were an important and elite element of Crusader armies and came to control both castles and lands in the Levant and across Europe. Accused of heresy, corruption, and performing forbidden practices, the order was attacked in France by King Philip IV on Friday 13 October 1307 CE and then officially disbanded by Pope Clement V in 1312 CE.
The Knights Hospitaller was a medieval Catholic military order with the full name of ‘Knights of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem’. The order was first established c. 1080 CE (or even earlier) by a group of merchants from Amalfi in Italy. The John it was originally dedicated to was the 7th-century CE patriarch John the Almsgiver, but he was later replaced as patron by the more universally known and more popular Saint John the Baptist.
In 1113 CE, the organization was officially recognized as a religious order by Pope Paschal II. The Knights Hospitaller wore a black robe or mantle which had a white eight-pointed cross on it. Coloured clothing and animal skins were forbidden. From the 13th century CE, knights and sergeants wore a scarlet surcoat or tunic when in battle.
In the 12th century CE, most recruits came from France. The Hospitallers were also popular in Bohemia and Hungary where, as elsewhere, any young man keen for a mix of monastic living and military adventure could join. The leader of the order was the Master who was elected by a committee of brother knights and who held the position for life.
From the 13th century CE, recruitment became more selective with a preference for aristocrats who could also provide the order with funds for expensive weapons and armor. Eventually, only a descendant of a knight could become a knight of the order. Recruits were expected to live a life of piety, chastity, obedience, relative poverty, and to eat and sleep communally. Once in the fold and having sworn allegiance to the Master, it was very difficult to get out, although buying one’s freedom was possible, if scandalous.
At Acre, c. 1190 CE, a body of German knights founded a field hospital dedicated to Saint Mary. In March 1198 CE, Pope Innocent III granted its members the status of an independent military order under the name Fratres Domus hospitalis sanctae Mariae Teutonicorum (Brethren of the German Hospital of Saint Mary). The organization would later become much better known as the Teutonic Order and its members as Teutonic Knights.
The first mission of the Teutonic knights was to help retake Jerusalem from the Arabs in the Third Crusade (1187-1192 CE). The Middle East proved to be too difficult to hold onto, but the ambitious order merely switched their focus to converting Christians and grabbing land in central and eastern Europe instead.
Most recruits to the many castle-convents spread across Teutonic territory were Germanic. The knights (ritter) or brothers, typically aristocrats although usually members of its lower echelons, were spread around many commanderies containing anywhere from 10 to 80 members. As in other military orders, recruits took monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
With their famous black cross on a white tunic, the austere Teutonic knights became master traders and diplomats, carving out vast swathes of territory from their base in Prussia and building castles across Europe from Sicily to Lithuania. The Teutonic order enjoyed many successes over the centuries, as well as military failures.