The Early Origins
In 70 AD, as Christ predicted, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman Legions under Titus. The Jewish population was scattered to many parts of Europe in the ensuing centuries. In the beginning of the 4th century Jerusalem was still under Roman rule. Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor, discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem while seeking the locations of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Constantine built a magnificent basilica entirely covering these Holy Places on Calvary Hill. The place was well known as it had been continuously venerated by early Christian pilgrims.
As the Roman Empire declined, and with the rapid rise of Islam, Jerusalem passed into Muslim hands. In the beginning, this caused no great problems for Christian pilgrims who were allowed access to the Holy Places. However in 614, Constantine’s basilica was destroyed by invading Persians. Rebuilt by Abbot Modestos, it was again razed by the Caliph of Cairo, Al-Hakim, in 1009. After a brief period of control by the moderate Fatimids, the city then fell under the warlike Seljuk Turks in 1070, who severely oppressed the Christian pilgrims. No longer safe from harm, Christians were not certain of access to Jerusalem, should they survive to reach its walls. Their fate depended on the benevolence of local rulers.
The First Crusade
The reaction of Christian Europe was the formation of the First Crusade, with the battle cry, “God Wills It!” first uttered by Pope Urban II in 1095. The cry in Latin, “Deus Lo Vult,” is the motto on the coat of arms of the Order.
The First Crusade was a long and grueling campaign lasting nearly three years. In 1099, after a month-long siege and a final bloody assault, the combined Crusader army numbering about 12,000, under the command of Godfrey of Bouillon, a Frankish ruler and Duke of Lower Lorraine in what is now northern France and Belgium, conquered the Turks and entered the city of Jerusalem.
The successful Crusader armies asked Godfrey to accept the title of King of Jerusalem. He refused the honor, saying he would never wear a crown of gold where Jesus wore a crown of thorns. Godfrey was elected the Protector of the Holy Sepulchre and began to organize the kingdom.
Establishment of the Order
Almost immediately, Godfrey created or dubbed new knights at the Holy Sepulchre. Receiving knighthood at the Empty Tomb became an important ritual for the Crusaders. The first Knights of the Holy Sepulchre were those men who chose to remain in the Holy Land as protectors of the tomb rather than to return home. They joined with the religious Order under the rule of St. Augustine, the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, who cared for the needs of pilgrims. The Knights of the Order took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, just as the monks did.
Godfrey’s coat-of-arms, originally gold on a silver background, became the red cross of the five wounds of Christ and contained the cross potent, a large cross surrounded by four smaller crosses. The coat of arms became the symbol of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and is sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem Cross and has remained the official insignia of the Order to this day.
Papal Recognition of the Order
In 1113, Pope Paschal II recognized the existence of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher establishing the first clear historical references to the Order. In 1122, Pope Callistus II issued a bulla establishing the Order as a lay religious community with specific responsibilities of guarding the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and the city of Jerusalem in defense of Christianity against Muslim attack. The first constitution of the Order is still in existence, though the exact date of it’s writing is in scholarly dispute among historians.
There are many structures built by the Crusaders still standing in the Holy Land. The most important of these is the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in the center of the city of Jerusalem. This ancient gothic structure was built by Crusaders on the site of Constantine’s original basilica and it covers the ground where Christ was crucified and the tomb from which he rose. This ancient church is the spiritual heart of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and continues to be a special place of pilgrimage for our members.
The Order During the Middle Ages
The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted nearly 200 years, falling in 1291 to the Mameluks of Egypt. With the passing of the Crusades the knights gradually departed. Many remained in the Mediterranean basin while others went to France and Spain. Some went as far away as Poland where works of the Order continued and later their descendants continued in the spirit of the defense of Christianity.
National houses or branches of the Order were established by the knights, which adhered to a Rule of the Order, similar to the rule of a monastic order. Throughout Europe today, many beautiful churches, villas and castles once belonging to the Order, as well as documentary evidence, attest to its continuing presence through the centuries.
The activity of the Order, indeed its identity, in Palestine shifted from the knights 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.
Intrepid Western pilgrims continued to make the perilous journey to the Holy Land. There, in the Church of the Resurrection, many of them were dubbed knights, just as Godfrey had dubbed the first Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.
In 1330, the Holy Father 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, although the custodians, in effect, were responsible for all aspects of the Order’s growth and governance, including the calling of new knights.
Almost immediately after the Franciscan return to the Holy City, in 1336, Wilhelm von Boldensel traveled to Jerusalem as a pilgrim, received the honor of knighthood at the Tomb and, then, himself dubbed two additional knights. Wilhelm did not record who dubbed him, but most of the early investitures were carried out by knights who were themselves pilgrims or who had joined the Franciscans in their life of prayer and service. For example, between 1478 and 1498, Brother John of Prussia, a noble member of the Third Order of St. Francis, regularly conducted ceremonies creating new knights in the sanctuary of the Holy Sepulchre. In the absence of a lay knight, there is evidence that the Franciscan superior dubbed the new knight with a sword.
In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII desired to suppress the Order and decreed that it be merged with the Order of St. John (Malta). For seven years, the two lived an uneasy, yet peaceful, union. In 1496, Innocent’s successor, Pope Alexander VI, recognized the folly of this uneasy merger and restored the Order of 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 the successors of the See of Peter.
The Modern Era of the Order
The modern era of the Order begins with the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem in 1847, a post that had been vacant for 400 years. With the restoration, the Order was placed under the jurisdiction of the new Patriarch, Monsignor Joseph Valerga. In keeping with the customs of the royal houses of Europe prevalent at that time, Pope Pius IX undertook a restructuring of all papal honors, 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.
One of the powers Pius IX gave to the new Patriarch was the ability to dub knights at and of the Holy Sepulchre. At the present time the Patriarch in Jerusalem still has the privilege of personally appointing Knights and Ladies of the Order, but his appointments must also be approved by the Cardinal Grand Master in Rome, and by the Papal Secretary of State, before they are official.
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 the formation of a structure, with both an ecclesiastical and jurisdictional hierarchy, so that investiture and other works of the Order could take place throughout the world.
In 1888 Pope Leo XIII permitted the Holy Sepulchre to confer membership upon ladies of “society and noble birth,” the first international order so to do. They were to be known as Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre. It was not to be a “ladies’ auxiliary,” as women were to be admitted to all degrees of rank on the same basis as men, and to wear the insignia of those ranks. 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 Pope 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 sovereignty. 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 Pope Saint Pius X 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 honors system. The role of Grand Prior, which had supplanted that of Custodian, was vested in the person of the restored Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Pius 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 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.
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, in order to cut a broad boulevard as a ceremonial entrance to the Vatican. Named Via della Conciliazione, 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 Pope Julius II, the Palazzo dei Penitenzieri. Pius XII bestowed this ancient fifteenth-century palace of Giuliano Cardinal della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) as headquarters of the Equestrian Order. The palace 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 were the penitentiaries (or confessors) at St. Peter’s, the palazzo took that name.
Today, the Palazzo della Rovere is best known as the Hotel Columbus, fronting the Via della Conciliazione 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 crusader affirmation, “God Wills It!” is the motto of the Order, but it signifies today a commitment to a Christian way of life very different from that of the medieval knights who took up the cross. 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, 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!”