Military order (monastic society)

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14th century seal of the Teutonic Knights

A military order is any one of a variety of Christian societies of knights that were founded from the Middle Ages onwards for the purpose of crusading – propagating or defending the faith (originally Catholic, and after the Reformation sometimes Protestant), either in the Holy Land or against Islam (as, for example, during the Reconquista) or paganism (mainly in the Baltic region) in Europe. Many orders have, since the end of the Crusades and the Ottoman incursions, become secularized, and are usually represented by Roman Catholic ceremonial, missionary and charitable organizations in modern times.


Catholic military orders appeared following the First Crusade in response to the Islamic conquest of the former Byzantine Christian Holy Land.[1] The foundation of the Templars in 1118 provided the first in a series of tightly organized military forces which protected the Christian lands in Outremer, as well as fighting invading Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula as well as Muslim invaders and pagan tribes in Eastern Europe.

The first secularized order was the Order of Saint George founded in 1326 by the King Charles I of Hungary, on which he made all the nobles of the Kingdom to swear loyalty to his persona. The next secular order which is known to appear was the Order of the "Knights of the Band", founded by the King Alfonso XI of Castile in 1332. Both orders existed only for about a century.[2]

Purpose and function[edit]

The principal feature of the military order is the combination of military and religious ways of life. Some of them, like the Knights of St John and the Knights of Saint Thomas, also cared for the sick and poor. However, they were not purely male institutions, as nuns could attach themselves as convents of the orders. One significant feature of the military orders is that clerical brothers could be, and indeed often were, subordinate to non-ordained brethren.

In 1818 Joseph von Hammer compared the Catholic military orders, in particular the Templars, with certain Islamic models such as the Shiite sect of Assassins. In 1820 José Antonio Conde had suggested they were modeled on the ribat, a fortified religious institution which brought together a religious way of life with fighting the enemies of Islam. However popular such views may have become, others have criticized this view suggesting there were no such ribats around the Outremer until after the military orders had been founded. Yet the innovation of the role and function of the military orders has sometimes been obscured by the concentration on their military exploits in Syria, the Holy Land, Prussia, and Livonia. In fact they had extensive holdings and staff throughout Western Europe. The majority were laymen. They provided a conduit for cultural and technical innovation, for example the introduction of fulling into England by the Knights of St John, or the banking facilities of the Templars.

Because of the necessity to have a standing army, the military orders were created, being adopted as the fourth monastic vow.

List of military orders[edit]

This list is intended to be comprehensive. The orders are listed chronologically according to their dates of foundation and extinction (in parentheses), which are sometimes approximate, and may in significance vary from case to case, the foundation of an order, its ecclesiastical approval, and its militarization occurring at times on different dates.

Name of the Order Creation Disappearance Region of Origin Notes
Order of Saint James of Altopascio 1075 1459 Altopascio, Tuscany, Italy
Knights Hospitaller 1099 Jerusalem Today known as Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem 1099 Jerusalem Awarded to prominent pilgrims by the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Sepulchre from the 14th century onwards and refounded by Pope Pius XII when the Latin Patriarchate was restored in the 19th century)[3]
Knights Templar 1118 1312 Jerusalem
Order of Saint Lazarus 1123 Jerusalem Disputed legacy.
Order of Aviz 1128 1789 Portugal Secularized.
Order of Saint Michael of the Wing 1147 1700s Portugal Disappeared early in the 18th century, restored in 1828 (disputed legacy)
Order of Calatrava 1158 Kingdom of Castile, Spain
Order of Aubrac 1162 1700s Aubrac, France Disappeared late in the 18th century.
Order of Santiago 1170 León or Uclés in Castile, Spain
Order of Alcántara 1177 Alcántara, Extremadura, Spain
Order of Mountjoy 1180 1221 Holy Land Merged into the Order of Calatrava.
Teutonic Knights 1190 Acre, Israel Converted to a purely religious order since 1929.
Hospitallers of Saint Thomas of Canterbury at Acre 1191 1538
Order of Monfragüe 1196 1221 Merged into the Order of Calatrava.
Order of Sant Jordi d'Alfama 1201 1400s Early 15th century, merged into the Order of Montesa.
Livonian Brothers of the Sword 1202 1236 Merged into the Teutonic Order as the Order of Livonia, disbanded 1561.
Order of Dobrzyń 1216 1250s Dobrzyń Land, Poland Disappeared mid-13th century.
Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy 1218 Converted to a Clerical Order in 1398 with Knights readmitted in 1926 and reaffirmed in 2002.
Militia of the Faith of Jesus Christ 1221 1285 Merged into the Third Order of Saint Dominic.
Order of the Faith and Peace 1231 1273
Militia of Jesus Christ 1233 1250s Disappeared mid-13th century.
Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary 1261 1556
Order of Santa María de España 1270 1280 Merged into the Order of Santiago.
Order of Montesa 1317
Order of the Knights of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1318 1789 Portugal Secularized 1789.
Order of the Dragon 1408 1475s Disappeared late 15th century.
Order of Saint Maurice 1434 1572 Merged into the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.
Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem 1459 1460
Order of Saint George of Carinthia 1469 1732
Order of Saint George of Parma 1522 Created before 1522.
Order of Saint Stephen Pope and Martyr 1561

Other uses[edit]

The Society of Jesus (1540) shares some military organizational features and zealous militant ideology,[4] but is different from medieval military orders in stricter sense.

It is possible for a non-crusading order to be founded explicitly as a military order. This is the case of the Orden Militar de la Constancia ('the Military Order of Loyalty'), founded on August 18, 1946, by the authorities in the Spanish protectorate within Morocco. Awarded to both Spanish and Moroccan military officers and men, the single-class order was abolished in 1956.

It was in the military orders, where the perfect fusion of the religious and the military spirit was realized, that chivalry reached its apogee. It was at this apogee that the secular brotherhood was created.

The Dutch Military Order of William and the Austrian Military Order of Maria Theresa are not military orders although they use that name. They are Orders of Merit, not societies of knights or warrior-monks like the original military orders.

Some self-styled orders claim to be military orders.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Knights Templar, FAQ, Grand Encampment of Knights Templar.
  2. ^ The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 6: c. 1300 - c. 1415, Michael Jones (ed.) (Cambridge, 1998), p. 209.
  3. ^ "Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem". Retrieved 24 January 2015. 
  4. ^ Harro Höpfl (2004), Jesuit Political Thought: The Society of Jesus and the State, c.1540–1630, Cambridge; p. 25

Further reading[edit]

  • Forey, Alan John. The Military Orders: From the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1992.
  • "Military Orders" in Catholic Encyclopedia
  • Nicholas Edward Morton, The Teutonic Knights in the Holy Land 1190-1291, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009