The Military Orders

(Adapted from Helen Nicholson, 'The Military Orders', in The Encyclopedia of the Crusades, ed. Alan V. Murray, 4 vols (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006; ISBN 1-57607-862-0; ebk ISBN 1-57607-863-9), vol. 3, pp. 825–30.)

The Military Orders are religious orders that were first established in the first quarter of the twelfth century in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Their function was to defend Christians as well as observing the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The first military order was the Order of the Temple, formally established in January 1120 at the Council of Nablus, while the Order of the Hospital (or Order of St John of Jerusalem) began in the eleventh century as a hospice for pilgrims in Jerusalem and later on developed military responsibilities, perhaps as early as the mid 1120s. These became supra-national religious orders, whose operations on the frontiers of Christendom were supported by donations of land, money and privileges from across Latin Christendom. Some military orders were far more localised in their landholdings and vocation: for instance, the Order of Monreal del Campo was set up by King Alfonso I of Aragon in 1122 at Belchite, on the southern frontier of his kingdom to defend it against the Moors. Several military orders were set up during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to fight the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula, while in north-eastern Europe in the early thirteenth century missionary bishops set up military orders to defend converts to Christianity in Livonia and Prussia against their pagan neighbours, and in southern France and Italy military orders were founded to fight heretics.


The so-called chronicle of Ernoul and Bernard the Treasurer, and the history of the kingdom of Jerusalem written by Archbishop Williamof Tyre, depict the foundation of the first military order as the initiative of a group of knights in collaboration with the king of Jerusalem or the patriarch of Jerusalem. It is possible that the first military order began as a knightly confraternity: a group of warriors who banded together with some specific purpose, typically religious in type, such as enforcing the Peace of God, defending a monastery, or going on crusade. Such bands could be formed on the initiative of a bishop or abbot, or of the knights themselves. They regulated members’ duties and responsibilities and (for example) the distribution of booty. There were military confraternities in the Iberian Peninsula before the Templars and Hospitallers were established there, and some of the Spanish military orders, such as the Order of Monreal and the Order of Santa María de España, began as confraternities. 

The military confraternity had certain similarities with a regular military-religious order: some of those who played a part in regular military orders were not fully professed members, while some military orders did not expect their members to take all of the three monastic vows when they professed. The members of the ‘Knighthood of Jesus Christ’ established by a Dominican friar at Parma in 1233 to fight heretics did not take the vow of chastity; the Order of St James of Santiago admitted married knights and their wives to full membership, and these did not have to vow chastity. Despite the missing vow, these institutions had papal approval as religious orders. In a sense the military order was a knightly confraternity which was regularised and brought formally into the organisation and under the authority of the Latin Church.

Modern readers might object that as Christianity is a pacifist religion, the concept of the military order – a religious organisation that fights – must have been taken from outside Christianity. But in fact the concept of the military order was already present within Latin Christian society in the early twelfth century. The concept of holy war, prominent in the Old Testament, had been part of Christian thinking from the early days of Christianity. The recent First Crusade (1095-1099), initiated by the pope and preached by the clergy, had allowed lay people to fight and shed blood in God’s name in defence of, and to recover, Christian territory in return for a spiritual reward. Contemporary lay literature – such as the Chanson de Roland – emphasised the role of the Christian warrior and glorified the warrior who died fighting for God. If we must seek outside influence to explain the beginnings of the military order, a more likely influence was the military saints of the Greek Orthodox Churches, such as George, Demetrius and Mercurius.

Organisation and Structure

All military orders shared certain characteristics. Each followed a religious rule, approved by the authorities of the Latin Church, which enabled military activity to be combined with religious activities such as prayer and attending church services. Members were admitted in a formal religious ceremony. They wore a religious habit, but did not follow a fully enclosed lifestyle. Lay members predominated over priests in the early years while the orders were still active in military affairs. 

The military orders were part of a religious trend of the late eleventh and early twelfth century for wider participation in the religious life and more emphasis on action, in contrast to the traditional monastic lifestyle of contemplation. The Cistercian order, founded at the end of the eleventh century, allowed laity from non-noble families to enter their order to perform manual tasks; orders of canons, founded in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, could play an active role in society as priests working in the community, unlike traditional monks who lived enclosed lives in their monasteries. In the same way, the military orders did not follow a fully enclosed lifestyle, followed an active vocation, and were composed largely of laity: non-noble warriors as well as craftsmen and servants, all known as ‘sergeants’ or ‘serving brothers’. The knights, who were of higher status within the orders, were in the minority. The military orders also recruited priests to provide the spiritual needs of the lay members. All the military orders had associate members who did not take full vows but who were attached to the order – for example, making an annual donation – and whom the order supported in some way. The orders also admitted women in various degrees, as sisters or as associates.

The great supra-national military orders were granted extensive ecclesiastical privileges from the papacy, such as being exempt from the jurisdiction of diocesan bishops and not having to pay tithes. In practice these exemptions led to considerable friction at local level. Secular rulers made extensive use of the military orders’ members in matters not directly connected with their vocation such as diplomacy and finance, and although the military orders were in theory exempt from royal jurisdiction, in practice they were dependent upon and closely tied to the rulers of the regions where they held property. The military orders were never noted for their learning, but individual members could achieve distinction, and the orders did patronise artists and writers. All, like the traditional monastic orders, were involved in economic and commercial activities to support their vocation.

The typical structure of a military order was ‘pyramidal’. Each order was governed by a master, elected by the members of the order and advised by a small group of senior officials. General chapter meetings were called at certain intervals; lesser officials were summoned to attend, and matters concerning the whole order were discussed and decided. At the local level houses were called commanderies (if governed by a lay member of the order) or priories (if governed by a priest). The supra-national orders, with property in the Holy Land and in the West, appointed officials (priors or commanders) to administer their property in each geographical region. A certain proportion of the revenues from each region had to be sent by the regional official to headquarters each year: this was called a ‘responsion’. This organisation, with a central religious house on which other houses were dependent and regular general chapters, was similar to other new religious orders of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, while the regional organisation of the military orders was similar to the organisation of the later orders of friars.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the membership of the military orders was drawn largely from the lesser knightly families and families of just below knightly status. For such families, joining a military order – which did not limit membership to noble families – was a method of rising in social status. During the course of the later middle ages, as knighthood became more prestigious, the military orders became noble orders. By the sixteenth century the knightly members of both the supra-national and the Spanish military orders were drawn from the highest nobility and a higher proportion of members were priests, while the relative number of non-knightly, ‘sergeant’ members had fallen. The Spanish military orders became dominated by the ruling families of the Iberian Peninsula, and in the sixteenth century they became effectively honorary noble institutions.


The heyday of the military order was the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the concept was put to use by many ecclesiastical and secular rulers in need of a standing army for a religious purpose. However, not all military orders were founded as such. Two of the supra-national military orders, the Order of the Hospital and the Teutonic Order, as well as smaller orders such as the English order of St Thomas of Acre, began as hospitals or hospices, caring for poor sick pilgrims to the Holy Land. Military protection for Christians as they travelled was a natural corollary of hospital care for the same Christians. The order of St Lazarus began as a hospice for sufferers from leprosy. As well as maintaining hospices, the military orders were involved in ransoming prisoners from the Muslims, although only the Spanish Orders of Santiago and Mountjoy made this a major part of their activities. On the other hand, conversion of non-Christians was not a primary function of military orders, although some donors envisaged the income from their gifts of land being used for that purpose. There were some exceptions: from the sixteenth century the Portuguese Order of Christ was involved in the spread of Latin Christianity in the New World.

In theory, the military orders were fighting defensive wars – a form of warfare acceptable to Christian thinking. In practice warfare on the frontiers of Christendom, whether in the Holy Land, the Iberian Peninsula or in Prussia and Livonia, typically took the form of raids against the enemy’s land and fortresses, which were as aggressive as they were defensive. The orders also garrisoned and built fortresses. They gave military advice to Christian commanders, and played a significant military role in crusades. The orders’ warfare was initially on land, although the supra-national orders from early in their existence employed ships to carry resources, personnel and pilgrims to the Holy Land. In the 1270s the order of Santa María de España was founded by King Alfonso X of Castile to fight the Moors of Africa at sea, in an attempt to reduce their raids upon his coasts. In the fourteenth century the Order of the Hospital, based on the island of Rhodes from 1309, developed naval operations against the Turks. The order itself owned only a handful of war galleys, but it extended its operations through the corso, a form of licensed piracy against Muslim shipping. Naval warfare against Muslim pirates continued to be an important role of military orders until the late eighteenth century.

Military orders brought discipline and organisation to Latin Christian warfare. Their fighting members were already professional warriors before admission. The statutes of the order of the Temple – and other military orders based on it – and the statutes of the order of the Hospital after 1204 set out (for example) the military organisation and command structure of the orders, weapons and equipment, procedures for drawing up troops and for making a cavalry charge. A brother who charged too early or who fell out of line was disciplined. Within a secular army, the various groups under different commanders could be in competition with each other, and more concerned about winning booty and honour than in obeying the commander-in-chief. The military orders provided a commander-in-chief with a military unit that was ready to muster and would obey orders, not seek booty and glory, and that had extensive experience in the field. However, the military orders’ forces were always relatively small in relation to the overall size of crusader and secular armies.


The smaller military orders whose property was largely restricted to one kingdom or region suffered from over-domination by secular rulers (who liked to regard them as a branch of their own administration), and from a lack of resources in personnel, money and supplies. These problems led to the smaller orders amalgamating with larger ones: in the 1230s the Orders of the Sword (in Livonia) and of Dobrin (in Prussia) amalgamated with the Teutonic Order, while in Spain in the early thirteenth century the Order of Mountjoy was effectively divided between the Order of the Temple and the Order of Calatrava. The Order of Calatrava itself was assimilated to the Cistercian Order, although it maintained a distinct identity. Even the great supra-national orders could not always maintain military activity outside the major area of their operations: so that the Temple and the Hospital reduced their military operations in the Iberian Peninsula in the second half of the twelfth and the second half of the thirteenth century because their resources were needed in the Holy Land. On the other hand, some of the smaller orders did gain land and responsibilities outside their area of operations: the Order of Calatrava briefly held land in Pomerania, while the Order of Mountjoy held land in the kingdom of Jerusalem.

As the function of the orders was to defend Christendom, they initially resisted involvement in wars between Christians, which diverted resources from their proper vocation. However, as secular rulers were protectors of the orders and their leading patrons, it was difficult for the orders in the localities to resist determined pressure from secular rulers who wanted to use their military or financial resources for ‘national’ ends. French Hospitallers were, apparently, involved in the French crusade against Aragon in 1285, and prominent Hospitallers were present in the French army at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. International disputes could lead to conflict between the different nations within a military order. By the mid fifteenth century, however, this problem only significantly affected the Order of the Hospital, as the Order of the Temple had been dissolved in 1312 while the Teutonic Order’s field of operations had shrunk to the Empire, Prussia and Livonia.

Later history

Despite the conflicts inherent in the concept of supra-national religious orders exempt from local authority operating in an increasingly secularised and nationalised Europe, the concept of the military orders continued to be popular with patrons and rulers throughout the later Middle Ages. Even after the loss of the states of Outremer in Syria and Palestine in 1291, crusade planners expected the military orders to play an active role in future crusades. After the dissolution of the Order of the Temple in 1312, Pope Clement V gave its property to the Order of the Hospital to carry on the order’s original purpose; even if the order had been defamed beyond saving, its vocation remained important to Christendom. From the early fourteenth century, the Order of the Hospital carried on naval operations against Muslim powers and their allies from its base on the island of Rhodes in the Eastern Mediterranean, and gave hospitality to pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. In north-eastern Europe, the Teutonic Order continued its war against the pagan Lithuanians; arguably it was the military pressure applied by the order which led to the alliance between Poland and Lithuania and the official conversion of Lithuania to Christianity in 1386. Even after the Hospital had lost its base on Rhodes, at the beginning of 1523, the Emperor Charles V was anxious to make use of the brothers’ military and naval skills elsewhere. The concept remained largely unquestioned, even when the orders failed to carry out their vocation successfully.

Although the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century ended the military role of the Spanish military orders on land, and the Teutonic Order’s military function in Prussia and Livonia ended in the sixteenth century, the military orders continued to play a valuable if reduced military role for the benefit of Latin Christendom until the eighteenth century. From its base on Malta from 1530 the Order of the Hospital, with the new military/chivalric order of St Stephen after 1562, tried to prevent the raids of Barbary pirates on Christian shipping and population centres, although its naval activities sometimes disrupted Christian trade (especially Venetian) and by the late eighteenth century its continued war with the Ottoman Empire was at odds with the Empire’s diplomatic relations with major European powers. The Teutonic Order, meanwhile, took part in campaigns against the Turks in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth century, and when opportunities for active military service in the Empire were lacking, brothers were sent to Malta to obtain the military experience necessary for promotion. However, by the eighteenth century the Teutonic Order’s military operations were mainly against the Christian enemies of the Empire. By the late eighteenth century the military orders’ vocation of holy war seemed outdated and barbarous to Enlightenment thinkers.

While military orders have survived until modern times, no military orders now fight; the Order of the Hospital’s military function ended with the loss of Malta in 1798. The Teutonic Order continued its involvement in military activity until the First World War; after the war the order was reformed as a charitable order, without a knightly branch. Both orders still carry on hospitaller and charitable activities. The military orders in the Iberian Peninsula were abolished and re-founded during the nineteenth century: the Portuguese Orders are now state Orders of Merit, while the Spanish Orders are charitable orders.

Helen Nicholson
Cardiff University
Cardiff, Wales, U.K.


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