Order of the Holy Sepulchre

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This article is about the Roman Catholic chivalric order. For the religious order of the Holy Sepulchre, see Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre.
Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
GA Ordre du Saint-Sépulcre.svg
Coat of arms of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Active c.1099 – present
Allegiance Emblem of the Papacy SE.svg
Holy See
Type Papal order of knighthood
Headquarters Palazzo Della Rovere, Rome
Nickname(s) Order of the Holy Sepulchre
Patron Godfrey of Bouillon
Motto Deus Lo Vult
Attire White cape with a red Jerusalem cross (knights)
Black cape with a red Jerusalem cross bordered with gold (dames)
Grand Master Edwin Frederick Cardinal O'Brien
Grand Prior Fouad Twal

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (Latin: Ordo Equestris Sancti Sepulcri Hierosolymitani, OESSH), also known as the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, is a Roman Catholic papal order of knighthood, which was founded as the Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre. It traces its roots to Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, "Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre", leader of the First Crusade and first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.[1] It was recognised in 1113 by a Papal Bull by Pope Paschal II.[2]

The order’s early members included not only the Regular Canons (Fratres) but also the Secular Canons (Confratres) and the Sergentes. The latter were armed knights chosen from the crusader troops for their qualities of valour and dedication; they vowed to obey Augustinian Rule of poverty and obedience and undertook specifically to defend the Holy Sepulchre and the holy places, under the command of the King of Jerusalem.

After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the right to create new Knights was the prerogative of the representative of the highest Catholic authority in the Holy Land: the Fransiscan Custos of the Holy Land.

In 1496, Pope Alexander VI ordained that the office of Grand Master would be vested in the papacy. In 1847, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was re-established by Pope Pius IX and the order was reorginised. From 1949, Cardinals have been Grand Masters and the Pope remains Sovereign of the order, which thus enjoys the protection of the Holy See. Its headquarters is at Palazzo Della Rovere in Rome, close to the Vatican City.[3]



Pilgrimages to the Holy Land were a common if dangerous practice from shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus to throughout the Middle Ages. Numerous detailed commentaries have survived as evidence of this early Christian devotion. While there were many places the pious visited during their travels, the one most cherished was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, first constructed by Constantine the Great in the 4th century AD.

Tradition maintains that long before the Crusades, a form of knighthood was bestowed upon worthy men at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The history of the chivalric Order of the Holy Sepulchre runs common and parallel to that of the religious Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre, the Order continuing after the Canons Regular ceased to exist at the end of the 15th century.

Foundation, Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291)[edit]

Five major chivalric orders were formed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem between the late 11th century and the early 12th century: the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Saint John) (circa 1099), the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre (circa 1099), the Knights Templar (circa 1118), the Knights of the Hospital of Saint Mary of Jerusalem (Teutonic Knights) (1190) and the Knights of Saint Lazarus (1123).

Following the capture of Jerusalem at the end of the First Crusade in 1099, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre was first formally constituted as an order of canons, part of the structure of which evolved into the modern Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. With recognition by Papal Bull of Pope Paschal II in 1113, it is considered among the oldest of the orders of knighthood.[4][5][6]

The ultimate fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1291 did not suspend pilgrimages to the tomb of Christ or the custom of receiving knighthood there, and when the Custody of the Holy Land was entrusted to the Franciscan Order, they continued this pious custom and gave the order its first Grand Master after the death of the last King of Jerusalem.

The official arrival of the Franciscan Friars Minor in Syria dates from the papal bull addressed by Pope Gregory IX to the clergy of the Holy Land in 1230, charging them to welcome the Friars Minor, and to allow them to preach to the faithful and hold oratories and cemeteries of their own. In the ten years' truce of 1229 concluded between Frederick II of Sicily and the Sultan Al-Kamil, the Franciscans were permitted to enter Jerusalem, but they were also the first victims of the violent invasion of the Khwarezmians in 1244. Nevertheless, the Franciscan province of Syria continued to exist, with Acre as its seat. In the territory of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, reinstituted in 1847, the Franciscans still have 24 convents, and 15 parishes.[7]

The friars quickly resumed possession of their convent of Mount Sion at Jerusalem. The Turks tolerated the veneration paid to the tomb of Christ and derived revenue from the taxes levied upon pilgrims. In 1342, in his Bull Gratiam agimus, Pope Clement VI officially committed the care of the Holy Land to the Franciscans; only the restoration of a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem by Pius IX in 1847 superseded the Franciscans.

Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land (1291-1489)[edit]

Church of the Holy Sepulchre floor plan

From the period 1291 to 1847, the Franciscan Custodian of Mount Sion was the only authority representing the Holy See in the Holy Land,[8] and from 1336, the Franciscans were enrolling applicants among the lay Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, in ceremonies frequently mentioned in the itineraries of pilgrims. Those pilgrims deemed worthy of the honour were received into the Order with an elaborate ceremonial of ancient chivalry. In the ceremonial of reception, the role of the clergy was limited to the benedictio militis, the dubbing with the sword being reserved to a professional knight, since the carrying of the sword was incompatible with the sacerdotal character. This dubbing of knights was confirmed by Pope Leo X in 1516, and by Pope Clement VII in 1527.

In 1346 King Valdemar IV of Denmark went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was made a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre — an act that increased the prestige of this King, who had considerable difficulty in establishing an effective rule over his Kingdom.[9]

From 1480 to 1495 there was in Jerusalem a German knight of the Holy Sepulchre, John of Prussia, who acted as steward for the convent and regularly discharged this act reserved to knighthood. It was also of frequent occurrence that a foreign knight, present among the crowds of pilgrims, would assist at this ceremony. However, in default of other assistance, it was the superior who had to act instead of a knight, although such a course was deemed irregular. It was since then also that the superior of the convent assumed the title of Grand Master, a title which has been acknowledged by various pontifical diplomas, and finally by a Bull of Benedict XIV dated 1746.

In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII ordered that the Order be suppressed and merge with the Knights Hospitaller. This, however, was a failure.

Papal Grand Magistry (1496-1847)[edit]

In 1496, Pope Alexander VI restored the Order of Holy Sepulchre to independent status; he decreed that the order would no longer be governed by the office of custodian and but that the senior post of the order would henceforth be raised to the rank of Grand Master, reserving this title for himself and his successors.[10]

The Privileges of the Order,[8] recorded by the Guardian of the Order in 1553 and approved by successive Popes, included powers:

  • to legitimise bastards
  • to change a name given in baptism
  • to pardon prisoners they might meet on the way to the scaffold
  • to possess goods belonging to the Church even though they were laymen
  • to be exempt from taxes
  • to cut a man down from the gallows and to order him to be given a Christian burial
  • to wear brocaded silk garments
  • to enter a Church on horseback
  • to fight against the Infidel

As late as the 18th century, all but the last were approved by Pope Benedict XIV who also stated that the Order should enjoy precedence over all Orders except over the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Restoration of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (1847)[edit]

Flag of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre over the Palazzo della Rovere, the Order's international headquarters
Arms of His Beatitude, Fouad Twal, Patriarch Grand Prior of the Order (The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem)

Pius IX re-established the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1847, and re-organized the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, whereby the Grand Master of the order was to be the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the order ceased to be a Pontifical order for a period. Pope Pius X assumed the title of Grand Master again for the papacy in 1907, but in 1928 this was again relinquished by Pope Pius XI in favour of the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Protection of the Holy See (from 1945)[edit]

Main article: Holy See

In 1945, Pope Pius XII placed the order under the patronage and protection of the Holy See, and in 1949, Pius XII approved new statutes, which included that the Grand Master be a Cardinal of the Roman Curia, and that the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem be the Grand Prior of the order. The order's status was further enhanced by Pope John Paul II in 1996.[11]


The order is today primarily honorific, represented by 52 lieutenancies around the world. It is a public association of faithful with a legal canonical and public personality, constituted by the Holy See under Canon Law 312, paragraph 1:1.[11] Its principal mission is to reinforce the practice of Christian life by its members in absolute fidelity to the Pope; to sustain and assist the religious, spiritual, charitable and social works of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land; and to conserve and propagate the faith in the Holy Land and the rights of the Catholic Church there. As it is a papal honour, aspirant members must be practicing Catholics of good character, recommended by their local bishop with the support of several members of the order, and are required to make a generous donation as a "passage fee", echoing the ancient practice of crusaders paying their passage to the Holy Land, as well as an annual financial offering for works undertaken in the Holy Land. There is a provision for the Grand Master to admit members by motu proprio in exceptional circumstances and also for the officers of the Grand Magistery to occasionally recommend candidates to the Grand Master.[12]


Pope Pius XII gave to the order the church and monastery of Saint Onofrio in Rome as its international headquarters. The grand magisterium and administration is based at the Palazzo Della Rovere, the 15th-century palace of Pope Julius II, immediately adjacent to the Vatican on the Via della Conciliazione, which was also given to the order by Pope Pius XII in 1949.

Grand Masters[edit]

In 1496, Pope Alexander VI vested the office of Grand Master in the Papacy where it remained until 1949.[3]
From 1949, the following cardinals have held the office:

Cardinal Grand Masters of the Order
Dates Arms Holder
1949-1960 Coat of arms of Nicolas Canali OESSJ.svg Nicola Canali
1960-1972 Coat of arms of Eugène Tisserant OESSJ.svg Eugène Tisserant
1972-1988 Coat of arms of Maximilien de Furstenberg OESSJ.svg Maximilien de Furstenberg
1988-1995 Coat of arms of Guiseppe Caprio OESSJ.svg Giuseppe Caprio
1995-2007 Coat of arms of Carlo Furno OESSJ.svg Carlo Furno
2007-2011 Coat of arms of John Patrick Foley OESSJ.svg John Patrick Foley
2011- Coat of arms of Edwin Frederick O'Brien OESSJ.svg Edwin O'Brien

Grand magisterium[edit]

The officers of the grand magisterium are based in Rome.[13]

Officials in the United States[edit]



Armorial bearings of the order.
Arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

By ancient tradition, the order uses the arms attributed to the Kingdom of Jerusalem - which is a gold Jerusalem Cross on a silver/white background - but enamelled with red, the colour of blood, to signify the five wounds of Christ.[15] The Jerusalem (or quintuple) Cross, or Cross of Godfrey of Bouillon, is a Cross Potent (each cross-piece having at the extremity a 'crutch-like' cross-bar) with four small crosses in the four angles. This prior use of this symbol was clearly documented in the 1573 Constitution of the Order.

Above the shield of the Armorial Bearings is a sovereign's gold helmet upon which are a crown of thorns and a terrestrial globe surmounted by a cross, flanked by two white standards bearing a red Jerusalem Cross. The supporters are two angels wearing dalmatic tunics of red, the one on the dexter bearing a Crusader flag, and the one on the sinister bearing a pilgrim's staff and shell. The motto is "Deus lo Vult" (God Wishes It).

The Seal of the Order is in the shape of an almond and portrays, within a frame of a crown of thorns, a representation of Christ Rising from the Sepulchre.

Heraldic privileges of members[edit]

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta are the only two institutions whose insignia may be displayed in a clerical coat of arms. Laypersons have no such restrictions.

Arms Office Description
Blason écclésiastique.svg Clerics Clerics quarter their Arms with those of the Order.
Patriarches grand-prieur et Assesseur.svg Patriarch Grand Prior and Assessor The Arms of the Order are borne in Chief.
Blason Chevalier de Collier et Grand-Magistère.svg Knights of the Collar, Lieutenants, members of the Grand Magisteruim, and Grand Priors The Arms are impaled with the Arms of the Order to the dexter.
Blason Laïcs.svg Other armigerous Lay Members The Arms of lay members are placed on the Cross of the Order, a privilege which is not transmissable.
Hierarchy of the Order
Grand Maitre Saint-Sépulcre.svg Cardinal Grand Master The Cardinal Grand Master's Arms are quartered with those of the Order. The Galero and cross of a Cardinal are used, with the Mantle of the Order surmounted with the helm and crest of the Order, and with the relevant external ornaments.
Blason Patriarche Grand-Prieur.svg Patriarch Grand Prior and the Assessor The Patriarch Grand Prior and the Assessor bear the Arms of the Order in the chief of his Arms, with the relevant external ornaments.
Blason Chevalier de collier.svg Knights of the Collar, Lieutenants, members of the Grand Magisterium, and Grand Priors The Arms are impaled with the Arms of the Order to the dexter. Knights of the Collar surround the Arms with the Collar of the Order.
Blason Grand-Croix.svg Knights/Dames Grand Cross The Arms are surrounded with a black ribbon from which is suspended a trophy and the Cross of the Order.
Blason Grand-Officier.svg Knight/Dame Commanders with Star / Grand Officers The Cross of the Order is suspended from a trophy on a black ribbon coming from the sides of the shield.
Blason Commandeur.svg Knight/Dame Commanders The Cross of the Order is suspended from a black ribbon limited to the base of the shield.
Blason Chevalier.svg Knights and Dames The Cross of the Order is suspended from the shield with a simple black knot.


The order has a predominantly white-coloured levée dress court uniform, and a more modern, military-style uniform, both of which are now only occasionally used in some jurisdictions. Pope Pius X ordained that usual modern choir (i.e. church) dress of knights be the order's cape or mantle: a "white cloak with the cross of Jerusalem in red", as worn by the original knights.[16]


Membership of the Order is by invitation only, and it is a distinction that it is bestowed on both laity and clergy of the Catholic Church. While laity can be promoted to any rank, clergy's ranks are usually: Cardinals are generally Knights Grand Cross, Bishops are Commanders with Star, and priests start with the rank of Knight but may be promoted to Commander.

The honour of knighthood, and any subsequent promotions, are conferred by the Holy See through its Secretariat of State, which approves each in the name of, and by the authority of, the Pope. Each diploma of appointment once approved is sealed and signed in Rome by an official of the Secretariat of State (The Assessor for General Affairs) and the Cardinal Grand Master of the Order. The candidate is subsequently knighted or promoted in an elaborate ceremony with a cardinal or major prelate presiding. Monarchs, Crown Princes and their consorts, and Heads of State from countries such as Spain, Monaco, Belgium, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein currently are, or previously have been, members of the Order.

Members of the order may not join, or attend the events of, any other order that is not recognised by the Holy See or by a sovereign state, and must renounce any membership in such organisations before being appointed a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. Members may be expelled from the Order in circumstances where they breach its rules of conduct.


Wearing of the insignia of OESSJ (gentlemens).svg
OESSG Cavaliere BAR.jpg
OESSG Commendatore BAR.jpg
Knight Commander
OESSG Commendatore con Placca BAR.jpg
Knight Commander
with Star
OESSG Cavaliere di Gran Croce BAR.jpg
Knight Grand Cross
OESSG Cavaliere di Collare BAR.jpg
Knight of the Collar
Awards of Special Distinction
OESSG Distinzione Speciale - Palma di Gerusalemme di Bronzo BAR.jpg
Palm of Jerusalem
(of bronze)
OESSG Distinzione Speciale - Palma di Gerusalemme d'Argento BAR.jpg
Palm of Jerusalem
(of silver)
OESSG Distinzione Speciale - Palma di Gerusalemme d'Oro BAR.jpg
Palm of Jerusalem
(of gold)
OESSG Distinzione Speciale - Conchiglia del Pellegrino BAR.jpg
Pilgrim Shell
Decorations of Merit
OESSG Decorazione di Merito - Croce al Merito del SSG BAR.jpg
Cross of Merit
OESSG Decorazione di Merito - Croce con Placca d'Argento al Merito del SSG BAR.jpg
Cross of Merit
with Silver Star
OESSG Decorazione di Merito - Croce con Placca d'Oro al Merito del SSG BAR.jpg
Cross of Merit
with Gold Star

There are several grades of knighthood. Except for the highest grade, these are open to both men and women.
The titles of the ranks, in English (Italian, French, German, Spanish),[17] are:

  • Knight of the Collar
    (Cavaliere di Collare, Chevalier de Collier, Kollar-Ritter, Caballero de Collar)
  • (GCHS) Knight / Dame Grand Cross
    (Cavaliere/Dama Gran Croce, Chevalier/Dame de Grand Croix, Großkreuz-Ritter/Dame, Caballero/Dama de Gran Cruz)
  • (KC*HS / DC*HS) Knight / Dame Commander with Star, or Grand Officer
    (Grand'Ufficiale, Grand Officier, Großoffizier, Commendator Grand Oficiale)
    (Dama di Commenda con placca, Dame de Commande avec plaque, Komtur-Dame mit Stern, Dama de Encomenienda con Placa)
  • (KCHS / DCHS) Knight / Dame Commander
    (Commendatore, Commandeur, Komtur, Comendator)
    (Dama di Commenda, Dame de Commande, Komtur-Dame, Dama di Ecomendienda)
  • (KHS / DHS) Knight / Dame
    (Cavaliere/Dama, Chevalier/Dame, Ordensritter/Dame, Caballero/Dama)

In some jurisdictions the term "Lady" is used rather than "Dame," but this is a misnomer since the honorific term of Lady (Donna) refers to the wife of a Knight (Cavaliere). However, a woman upon whom the Order has been conferred is properly termed a "Dame" (Dama).


Titular Canons of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre include all priests ipso facto who have received knighthood in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and they are entitled to the insignia of a Canon (i.e. mozetta for choir dress). Since the order has its origins in the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, priests of the order have the honourary title of "Canon" in preference to the title of "Knight," which is considered more military in nature and less consistent with priestly ministry.[18] The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem may also confer the honourary title of "Canon of the Holy Sepulchre" upon priests and bishops.[19] Both Titular Canons of the Holy Sepulchre (EOHSJ) and Honorary Canons of the Holy Sepulchre (Latin Patriarchate) wear identical choir robes, including the black cassock with magenta piping, magenta fascia, white mozetta with the red Jerusalem cross.[20]

All priests who have been conferred knighthood in the order may use the term "Canon," which is different from the title that is conferred by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. However, the late Grand Master, John Cardinal Foley, said that this would be better applied to those priests who have the rank of Commander.

Medals, awards and dinstinctions[edit]

Members of the order may receive awards of special distinction, the Palm of Jerusalem decorations of merit, and those Knights and Dames making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land receive the Pilgrim's shell. These are generally awarded by the Grand Prior of the order, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Furthermore, there are decorations of merit which may be conferred on those who are meritorious but who cannot be members of the Order (for example, non-Catholics).

See also[edit]



  • Blasco, Alfred J. (1998). The Modern Crusaders. PenRose. ISBN 0-9632687-7-5. 
  • Noonan, Jr., James Charles (1996). The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church. Viking. p. 196. ISBN 0-670-86745-4. 
  • Noonan, Jr., James-Charles (2012). The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church Revised Edition. Sterling-Ethos. p. 139. ISBN 978-1-4027-8730-0. 
  • Bander van Duren, Peter Orders of Knighthood and of Merit
  • Sainty, Guy Stair. Order of the Holy Sepulchre [3]
  • Sainty, G. 2006. Order of the Holy Sepulchre. World Orders of Knighthood & Merit. Guy Stair Sainty (editor) and Rafal Heydel-Mankoo (deputy editor). United Kingdom: Burke's Peerage & Gentry. 2 Vol. (2100 pp).

External links[edit]