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The Military Orders of the Crusades

The Crusades: New Wave Armies

The First Crusade took its inspiration from a passionate speech on a cold winter’s day outside Clermont cathedral in France on the 27th November 1095. Pope Urban II (1035 – 99) a religious and patriotic Frenchman addressed the largely illiterate crowd enthused by Urban’s promise of spiritual rewards in heaven. Just a year before, the Byzantine emperor Alexius I had petitioned Urban for help in his wars against the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuks had begun to invade parts of the Christian empire and disrupted pilgrimage routes to the Holy Land.

Urban’s call for a crusade fired up not just trained and experienced knights but also lay people to believe they had a duty before God to liberate fellow Christians in the East from the brutal subjugation of the Turks.

Hundreds of preachers then went across Europe spreading the message. In return for taking up arms on the crusade, the Church offered plenary indulgences (reductions in afterlife punishment for their sins). However, for many, the reason for taking the cross to the East was for glory and wealth and very little to do with rewards in the afterlife. Over a hundred thousand men and women were persuaded to leave the safety of their homes for a journey into the unknown.

The People’s Crusade

In the second half of 1096 religious fervour spurred Europe’s men, women and whole families to set out for the East. This ramshackle group of mostly agricultural labourers was part of a second crusading movement, distinct from the foot soldiers and knights of nobility that the likes of Greek emperor Alexius Comnenus (1081- 1118) was expecting and hoping to conquer the Turk enemy threatening the Christian city of Constantinople.

In what historians have described as the First Holocaust, the People’s Crusade attacked Jewish communities in France and Germany

The People’s movement, a huge gathering of around forty thousand, including knights and non-combatants from all social classes soon moved outside the Pope’s control as local preachers such as Peter the Hermit inspired its members with an apocalyptic vision of victory. However, their progress through Asia Minor’s stifling hot middle-eastern lands was to prove as violent and inhumanely merciless as they meted out the kind of savage butchery associated more infamously with the feudal armies of Europe and the Knights Templar. What the People’s movement lacked in weapons, armoury and military skill it made up with primal ferocity, as its unruly mob spared few from violent attacks as it took to pillaging villages like feral rats outside the city in search of supplies and food.

Perhaps more shockingly in what historians have described as the First Holocaust, the People’s Crusade attacked Jewish communities in France and Germany, months before its official crusade and march on Constantinople. Its barbaric effects on the Jewish communities resulted in some Jewish citizens killing their own children and committing suicide, rather than witness them being brutalised by the invading crusaders. Finally, travelling thousands of miles on foot and after having carried out brutal sackings of towns in the name of Christ, the People’s mob was eventually ambushed by the Seljuk Turks in western Anatolia and mostly massacred or enslaved.

The New Orders

To continue to defend the conquests in the Holy Land, several military orders were created. The most powerful was the Knights Templar, founded in 1119. After receiving papal endorsement, they rapidly rose in power, peaking at around twenty thousand members. They were also exempted from local laws, so did not have to pay taxes. Perhaps not so well known in popular culture as the feudal army of Crusaders were the Hospitallers and Teutonic Orders.

In the case of the Hospitallers, the order actually existed before the commencement of the First Crusade and was initially created as a charitable organization with its purpose focused on providing care for the sick and to aid pilgrims travelling through the Holy Land. As a result of the three Orders’ increasing military, political and economic power the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights became the essential bedrocks of the Latin East. They were granted papal support, as well as attracting charitable donations from the nobles of Christian Europe which allowed the monastic and military trio to acquire large swathes of land in the West.

Knights Hospitaller

The Knights Hospitaller (Sovereign Military Order of Malta & Order of St John) also known as the Knights of St John, had been founded as an order to care for the sick and poor. But at some time before 1150, they assumed military duties as well, giving rise to a change from an image of religious brothers caring for the sick to the more muscular mantle of ‘warrior monks’.

Like the Templar Knights, the Hospitaller Knights had their headquarters in Jerusalem. The former wore white cloaks with red crosses while the Hospitallers (Knights of St John) wore black cloaks with white crosses. They were full-time professional soldiers, trained to obey orders, unlike lay Knights who were amateurs, often unruly and difficult to discipline. Between the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, the orders made up around 600 Knights.

Knights of Christ

The typical Hospitaller Knight or ‘warrior monk’ was a young physically fit man and usually, but not always, from noble birth. Although the Hospitaller Order recruited soldiers from the regions of Bohemia and Hungary, the majority hailed from France and England. Social and class divisions existed within the ranks as many of the ordinary brethren making up the Order tended to be composed of men from East European countries such as Hungary and Bosnia, while recruits from France and Italy held leadership positions.


There are numerous reasons why free men would join the Hospitallers and it wasn’t always for the spoils of war, as was often the case with the Templars. Many recruits to the Hospitaller cause were illiterate and came from impoverished backgrounds seeing the Order as a means to provide support and sustenance. Others such as nobles may have joined with hopes of career opportunities and achieving greater status. More sinister and something reflecting today’s culture of radicalisation, were the misguided recruits who sought to become ‘martyrs’, believing they had a spiritual duty to fight ‘infidels’ which would reward them in the afterlife.

This heinous and miserable trade in humans wasn’t limited to enemy soldiers but also included mass abductions of women

In many ways, young men joining the likes of the Hospitallers in the middle-ages has parallels to that of males joining the military today. Be it for personal reasons such as broken relationships and marriages, bereavement or simply to escape their present-day lives in the hope for something better in life. Motivations were equally varied and complex in the middle ages. The most unique reason being back in the 11th century and rarely now, was to join a military order as a means of showing penance and being absolved of perceived sins. For others, it may have simply been the sense of adventure in foreign lands that appealed.

Hospitaller Discipline

Because of the relatively small number of trained fighting soldiers in the Hospitaller Order, compared to the non-combatants, leaving the order was not an option. Although some knights did buy their way of their positions. This was a highly disciplined order, buffeted by religious and mythical ideals and often driven by fanaticism.

Renowned for their uncompromising ideals their physical bravery, often matched with ferocious brutality was emphasised by their satanic looking apparel consisting of a heavy shirt of mail (hauberk) together with impenetrable looking protective extensions for the arms, hands and head and covered by a black cloak bearing a white cross insignia. The Hospitallers’ visual look was designed to be as psychologically terrifying as their actual legendary fighting tactics and strategies would prove on the battlefield.

Teutonic Knights

The Order was founded in the Third Crusade (1189-1192) when German crusaders set up a field hospital outside Acre in Israel around 1190. Pope Innocent III confirmed their status as a new knightly order in 1199 after which the order embraced an increased military role.

With its headquarters in Austria, the Order of Brothers of the German house of Saint Mary became known as the Teutonic Knights. Originally they were called the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint Mary of the Teutons in Jerusalem. Like the Knights Templar, the German orientated Order, made up of voluntary and mercenary soldiers, was formed to aid, escort and protect Christian pilgrims to the Baltics and Holy Land.

At the same time as the Hospitaller Order, the Teutonic Knights set up their primary base in Rhodes' citadel, as well as locating to Marienburg in Prussia, but they made their military mark largely in north-eastern Europe.

Aims & Armour

It became customary for the Teutonic Knights to wear a white mantle with a black cross as their insignia along with apparel which included fearful looking wings and bull horns in their helmets, making them appear menacing to the enemy. As part of its military and monastic goals, the Teutonic Order had a papal licence to wage perpetual war against the pagans and used this licence to launch annual crusades against Lithuania. These expeditions were very popular with the nobility of Northern Europe allowing knights who enjoyed fighting to lay waste large parts of Lithuania in the name of Christ.

Military Pecking Orders

The Teutonic Knights displayed an uncharacteristically democratic system for electing members as part of its hierarchal structure. The election of the Hochmeister (High Master) took a democratic route unique for medieval times, which would begin with the nomination of a brother-knight as the elected leader. He would then proceed to elect his companion and then these two knights would elect a third member. The process would continue so on until 13 knights were picked for the electoral college, who were finally responsible for electing the Grand Master. Full members of the Order were also accompanied by half-brothers Halb-bruders, who wore grey mantles instead of white and often employed as heavy infantry. Due to not taking monastic vows the half brothers, who mainly carried out agricultural tasks, were allowed to marry and enjoy conjugal rights.

Commerce & Meritocracy

Capitalising their revenues from trade was one area of expertise of the Teutonic Order as they developed such a secure international system of financial administration, that they effectively became the bankers of Europe. They produced the first use of a cheque that allowed monies to be deposited in the West with a credit note that could be cashed in the Holy Land.

One major difference between the Teutonic Knights and their contemporaries was the fact that a sizeable percentage of knights came from ‘peasant’ backgrounds as opposed to the Templars and Hospitallers’ recruitment of soldiers from the nobility. This was largely to do with medieval German society at the time and its policy of ‘ministerial’ a unique social strata where people were raised from serfdom and placed in positions of power within the country. But despite the Teutonic Knights’ penchant for commercial endeavours, the Order’s laws, intrinsically linked to ideals of communal ‘poverty’, meant that brothers were not allowed to keep personal items and clothes, nor even keep individual chests to store private possessions.

Slaughter & Slavery

Brutal measures carried out by the Teutonic Knights on the battlefield such as killing wounded soldiers and slaughtering a fleeing enemy were not necessarily due to unbridled sadism but more about ensuring a favourable outcome during battle. However, the Teutonic Knights recognised currency in slavery and the capturing of enemy soldiers became an important source of booty. This heinous and miserable trade in humans wasn’t limited to enemy soldiers but also included mass abductions of women and children from their homelands to be used as forced labour.

The Decline of the Crusades

The Teutonic Order’s rule in Prussia came to an end in 1525, when the grand master Albert, first duke of Prussia, under Protestant influence, dissolved the order there and accepted its territory as a secular duchy for himself under Polish ‘Suzerainty’ – the right of a country to partly own another.

With Papal authority declining in Central and northern Europe and the expansion of Protestantism due to the Reformation, the continuation of Crusades defending Christian pilgrims and the existence of the Orders themselves became less relevant.

Despite a changing world of political alliances between once-warring countries, the Crusades continued to be fought against the Muslims of North Africa, such as in 1390 when an international crusade was launched against Mahdia in Tunisia, a notorious centre of piracy.

Revival & Resurgence

The Templars were dissolved as an order in 1312, but other Military Orders survived the Middle Ages. The Hospitallers established new headquarters, first on Cyprus and then Rhodes and later Malta, while the Teutonic Order carved out its own independent state in the Baltic. Yet despite all this re-evaluation of the Orders, no crusade ever reclaimed the Holy City again.

To date, the Teutonic Order still has its headquarters in Vienna although since 1923 it has been an Order of priests. Likewise the Hospitaller traditions of charity and helping the sick are maintained through the St John Ambulance service. The five Orders of St John now dedicate themselves to carrying out the original Hospitaller functions of the order.

In researching this piece, the author referred to The Byzantine World War a new book by Nick Holmes .