History of the Order
“In the year 1070 Jerusalem was conquered by the Seljuk Turks who immediately suppressed Christianity and frequently captured, murdered, or sold into slavery Christian pilgrims on their journey to the Holy Sepulchre. Pope Urban II answered by preaching the first Crusade. Its success, in part, resulted from the great battle cry first uttered by him at Clermont in A.D. 1095—Deus Lo Vult, ‘God wills it.’ Though of ancient origin, the motto is ever alive and vibrant, for it inspires the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre to crusade for equality of men, justice for all, and peace in the Holy Land so that Christian, Jew, and Muslim may live side by side in love of God and each other—’God wills it.’ ”
The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem can trace its origins to Godfrey de Bouillon of the first Crusade, who gathered around him a group of knights who were entrusted with the protection of the religious Chapter of Canons who were present at the Holy Sepulchre of Christ. For twenty years, these knights, and those who came to join their number, protected the Christian presence at the Holy Sepulchre, taking as their banner the red Jerusalem cross popularized by the crusading knights. By 1113, Pope Paschal II officially recognized their existence and purpose. It was not until 1122 that Pope Callistus II issued a bulla establishing them as a lay religious community with specific responsibilities of guarding the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and the city of Jerusalem in defence of Christianity against Muslim attack.
The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was established, and the knights of the Holy Sepulchre played an integral role in advancing peace in the territory. The Muslim attacks, however, did not cease, and defence of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre—which was built by the earliest knights of the Order and still stands today, covering both the site of the crucifixion of Christ and His burial place—became impossible.
The earliest band of knights fled to the city of Acre, to the fortress of St. John, where they were received by other groups of besieged crusaders. They remained there from 1245 until the great fortress fell to the Muslims in 1291, ending the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. A diaspora then took place among the Christians in Palestine. Many of the knights of the Holy Sepulchre remained in the Mediterranean basin; others fled as far as France and Spain. The works of the Order continued as far away as Poland, where knights had settled and later their descendants continued in the spirit of the defence of Christianity.
The activity of the Order, indeed its identity, in Palestine shifted from the knights, who returned to their own countries, to the religious Order of Friars Minor, which had custody of the monastery of Mt. Zion. This group of Franciscans preserved the mission of the crusading knights of the Holy Sepulchre, mindful of the original bulla of appointment that entrusted the basilica, as well as the faithful, to the Order’s protection.
In 1330, Pope John XXII named the prior of the Franciscan house Custodian of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The custodian served as deputy to the pontiff, who reserved unto himself the governing authority of the Order, and yet, the custodians, in all effect, were responsible for all aspects of the Order’s growth and governance, including the calling, of new knights.
In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII desired to suppress the Order and decreed that it was to be merged with the Order of St. John (Malta). For seven years, the two lived all uneasy, yet peaceful, union. In 1496, Innocent’s successor, Pope Alexander VI, recognized the folly of this uneasy merger and restored the Holy Sepulchre to independent status. Alexander VI decreed that the Order of the Holy Sepulchre would no longer be governed by the office of custodian and further decreed 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 of the See of Peter.
The darkest period of the Order’s history began shortly after the pontificate of Alexander VI, when little is recorded of its work or activity. Throughout this prolonged era, with the blessing of the Holy See, the Franciscans of the Holy Land continued to welcome into the Order, under the emblem of the red Jerusalem cross, men of great faith and strength of character always willing to defend the faith, even to the shedding of their blood, and to death when necessary.
It was not until 1847, after four hundred years of vacancy, that the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was restored and, with it, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre rose from its dormancy, from a period of occasional growth to its revitalization under the pontificate of Pope Pius IX. The ecclesiastical superior of the Order was then vested in the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who eventually assumed the title Grand Prior. The office of Grand Master still remained vested in the papacy.
In keeping with the customs of the royal houses of Europe prevalent at that time, Plus IX undertook a restructuring of all papal honours, which included the restructuring of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre so that it was more closely linked to the papacy and more formalized and uniform in structure. For twenty years, from 1847 to 1867, Pius IX fostered the growth of the Order throughout Europe. He removed the requirement that a knight be invested in Jerusalem. He also encouraged a structure to form, with both an ecclesiastical and jurisdictional hierarchy, so that investiture and other works of the Order could take place throughout the world.
Continuing to care for the rebirth of the Order, Pius IX, in 1868, redefined the new classes or ranks of membership in the Order, that of Grand Cross, Commander, and Knight. In 1888, Leo XIII permitted the Holy Sepulchre to confer membership upon ladies of “society and noble birth,” the first international order so to do. Ladies were welcome in each of the classes of membership without prejudice. Actually, the first female member was the Contessa Maria Francesca di Tomas, who received the rank of Grand Cross in 1871, predating the “official” welcome of female members by seventeen years.
In an attempt to assert its own unique identity in the world, the membership of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre petitioned the Holy Father (Pius XI) to nullify the terms identifying the Order as military and sacred, seeking a conferred sovereign status. The Holy See was neither prepared nor capable of doing so, as the Order did not enjoy diplomatic sovereign status. Agreeing that the appellation “sacred and military” was commonly used by chivalric societies not closely linked to the Holy See, Pius XI conferred in their place the appellation “equestrian.” At present, the full title of the Order remains The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the senior leadership position of the Order was held by the reigning pontiff. The offices of Grand Master, Protector, and Custodian were used interchangeably, albeit incorrectly, by historians and members alike, when referring to the Latin Patriarch’s role in the governance of the Order. During this period of time Plus IX intended the title Grand Master to be reserved for the papacy, a political move that linked the Order personally to the pope without the Order becoming assimilated into the Holy See’s own honours system. The role of Grand Prior, which had supplanted that of Custodian was vested in the person of the restored Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Pope Plus X, in a post-risorgimento posture, inserted an additional level of administration into the Order’s structure as he was now in a self-imposed Vatican exile. The office of Cardinal-Protector was established to facilitate the Order’s work in and around Rome in lieu of the pontiff, who remained behind the Vatican walls.
In 1949, Eugene Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, restructured the Order once again and relinquished for himself and his successors the title and post of (Grand Master, vesting it in the person of a cardinal of the Church who assumed the title. The post of Cardinal-Protector, no longer necessary in a post-Lateran Concordat world, was placed in abeyance.
Pius XII additionally bestowed the ancient fifteenth-century palace of Giuliano Cardinal della Rovere, later Pope Julius II, as headquarters of the Equestrian Order. Officially known as the dei Penitenzieri it was built by Julius’s ancestor Domenico Cardinal Della Rovere between 1480 and 1490. It was built to resemble the much admired Palazzo Venezia. It took its name from the Jesuits, who, after Julius’ pontificate, occupied it as their Roman headquarters. As they vere the penitentiaries (or confessors) at St. Peter’s the palazzo took that name. After the Lateran pacts were sealed, Mussolini attempted many gestures to warm relations with the new Vatican City State. One such gesture was the demolition of a width of 150 yards of the city of Rome, between the Square of St. Peter’s and the Tiber River, known as the Borghi in order to cut a broad boulevard, à la Parisienne, as a ceremonial entrance into the Vatican. Named via della Concilizatione* this new broad boulevard was created by demolishing hundreds of ancient buildings and palaces. After its completion, the new facade on either side of the new boulevard revealed that which was formerly well hidden: the palaces and shops of Renaissance Rome. One such “hidden” palace was that of Julius II, the Palazzo dei Penitenzieri. Today, it is best known as the Hotel Columbus, fronting the via della Conciliazone on the left as one prepares to enter St. Peter’s Square. The headquarters of the Order are housed in this palace, a part of which was set aside as a hotel to earn income for the Order and to house pilgrim knights. The offices, chancellery, and residence of the Grand Master are housed here. The church of the Order is the very small, ancient Chapel of St. Humphrey (S. Onofrio), under the care of the Franciscans of Mt. Zion, adjacent to the Bambino Gesú Hospital and the Pontifical North American College on the Janiculum Hill above the Vatican.
The new constitution of the Order was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1977, and the Order now enjoys protection under canon law. This constitution clearly sets forth the reasons for its continued existence:
The Order relives in a modern manner the spirit and ideal of the Crusades, with the arms of faith, of the apostolate, and of Christian charity ‘To this end the Order (a) fosters in its members the practice of the Christian life; (b) is zealous for the preservation and spread of the faith in Palestine; (c) champions the defence of the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, the cradle of the Order.
The Equestrian Order has grown tremendously in defence of the Faith during the twentieth century. With a strong allegiance to the papacy, serving it as soldiers of Christ, the members of the Order are linked to the Church in a unique way, carrying with membership in the Order a responsibility of faithful witness, as well as the dignity of being in the service of the papacy.
“The Order now comprises five classes: Knights of the Collar, a rank established by Pius XII in 1949. There are twelve in number; Knights Grand Cross: Commanders with Star, who are also called Grand Officers, an honour given for special merit; Commanders; simply Knights.” Female honourees hold the same ranks or classes but are known as Dame or Lady of (rank), depending on the local custom. It is more correct, from a protocol posture, to refer to female members as Ladies of (rank); however, local practices have established the customs for each jurisdiction.
Finally, unlike some chivalric orders whose membership is open to non-Catholics and even the papal orders of knighthood that admit non-Catholics and, in some cases, non-Christians alike, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre is reserved solely for practicing Catholics in a state of grace and in communion with Rome. It is precisely that faith that bonds them so closely to the Sovereign Pontiff. The investiture ceremony itself requires the pledge of defence of the Faith with a Profession of Faith, which, of course, only the Catholic faithful could undertake.