The best known and most romantic of all the military orders of the Middle Ages were the legendary Knights of the Round Table, from which developed the chivalric ideal expressed in medieval romances and chansons de geste. The initial concept of chivalry included bravery in battle, skill at arms, loyalty to one’s lady, and obedience to God. The later historical medieval military orders emphasized bravery, skill, and obedience to God.
The idea of a military elite grew out of the caste of knighthood itself. The great ones, Hospitalers (also known as the Order of St. John) and the Knights of the Temple of Solomon (Templars), rose originally to serve as charitable orders. The Hospitalers aided the sick and wounded during the Crusades. Templars protected travelers along the main pilgrim road to Jerusalem. Both were large orders of warrior monks, the Hospitalers based on Cistercian rule, and the Templars also living under monastic rule, and taking oaths of poverty, obedience, and chastity.
The Templars, founded in 1128 by Hugh de Payens, made their headquarters first in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, and later in Cyprus, after Richard the Lionheart conquered it and later sold the island to them. Hugh’s original eight companion knights grew to number over two-hundred, whose responsibility was to the Church (the pope), rather than king or nation. Hence, they were an international order, swearing obedience to God and their Grand Master until death.
As a result of the wealth the Templars garnered, this order grew into respected and trusted bankers, and became rich enough to support its own navy (as did the Hospitalers). The jealousy such financial success aroused in the French king Philip the Fair prompted the Templars’ downfall. On Friday, 13 October 1307, Philip accused the Templars in France of heresy, seized their property, imprisoned all but thirteen knights who managed to escape, and burned the remaining fifty-seven at the stake.
Hospitalers escaped this fate for two reasons: (1) they had no headquarters in France at the time, and (2) they weren’t as wealthy as the Templars. Also, as some historians have suggested, the Hospitalers were not as stubborn (some would say pig-headed) as the Templars, who flaunted their allegiance to the pope, not the king
Suppression of the Templars in the 14th century led to creation of new orders: The Knights of Christ in Portugal, and Knights of Montesa in Aragon. Gradually, such smaller orders slid into secularism, sometimes fighting against each other as they pledged themselves to various countries and counties. From 1130 on, both Templars and Hospitalers established a presence in Spain (Aragon and Castile) and aided in the subsequent Christian Reconquista.
In Northeast Europe rose the Order of Teutonic Knights, which began as a hospital corps for the sick and wounded at the siege of Acre in 1190. This order owed allegiance to king and country rather than God and the Catholic church. This was also true of the Brethren of the Sword, founded early in the 13th century in the Baltic area known as Livonia (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania); the Order of St. Catherine, founded in the 1330s in southeast France; and the Order of St. George, founded in Hungary in 1326. Another order, The Order of the Sash, founded in Castile in 1330, survived into the 15th century.
Other smaller orders included the short-lived Order of the Star in France (1353-1356), whose motto, “Never retreat in battle,” quickly decimated their members; and the Order of the Golden Fleece in Burgundy, created by King Philip the Good on the occasion of his marriage to Isabella of Portugal in 1430, which resulted in an organization of twenty-five knights swearing personal loyalty to the king.