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Monday, March 6, 2023

Defence of the Realm : The Military Orders

No description of the defensive structures in the crusader states would be complete without mention of the militant orders: the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller, the Teutonic Knights and the Knights of St. Lazarus. John France goes so far as to describe these institutions as ‘the greatest military innovations of the Latins’.[i]









These institutions, all founded in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, were revolutionary in a variety of ways. For example, they were fighting monks, and they offered free professional medical care and pioneered with international financial services.[ii] Their relevance to the defence of the crusader kingdoms was based on just two factors: their professionalism and international character. Some historians have gone so far as to claim they were the only ‘standing armies’ of the period.[iii] Certainly, the fighting men in the military orders — sergeants and turcopoles, no less than the knights — trained intensely, received standardised equipment and wore what were, in effect, uniforms that identified them as members of their organisation. Their discipline was exceptional in this age of individualism and chivalric display. Furthermore, as monks, the knights had taken vows of obedience and were schooled to follow orders unquestioningly, an exceptional attitude in an age where kings and lords always ‘took council’ before making major decisions and no secular knight felt compelled to obey.

From the Second Crusade onwards, the military orders demonstrated the value of these tightly organised, uniformly equipped, disciplined and dedicated fighting men. They were increasingly entrusted with the most challenging tasks and took on the roles we associate today with elite units. They were especially valuable for offensive operations as there were complex limits on feudal obligations and, as a rule, secular knights were not compelled to participate in offensive campaigns.

Equally notable was the international character of the large orders and the financial resources that went with their extensive support infrastructure in the West. Although the three foremost militant orders were founded in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, they drew their wealth and recruits from across Europe. The Templars and Hospitallers had thousands of properties from Scotland to Sicily and from Prussia to Portugal. Sources speak of 9,000 Templar and as many 19,000 Hospitaller houses. These were often little more than a manor or a village, but profits from the various properties were pooled to support their expensive commitments in the Holy Land. Although the Hospital’s function was primarily providing health care and social services, it was also entrusted with castles and maintained about 300 knights capable of contributing to the armies of Jerusalem. The Knights of St. Lazarus and the Teutonic Knights, likewise started as hospitals, but soon branched out into the business of defence. From their inception, the Templars had a strictly military role and a contingent of knights (an estimated 500) stationed in the Holy Land; they also maintained key castles.

The critical feature of these numbers is that they remained stable, regardless of casualties, because the militant orders had vast recruiting networks associated with their properties in the West, ensuring a steady flow of replacements for the men killed, captured or incapacitated in the Holy Land. This made them better able to sustain losses of both men and material. By the mid-thirteenth century, the costs of maintaining and garrisoning large concentric castles far exceeded the means of most secular lords drawing their income from their fiefs alone. In consequence, the barons of Outremer gradually followed the example of Raymond of Tripoli, who already in 1144 transferred castles and territories to the Knights Hospitaller when he found himself financially embarrassed by ransom payments. As the crusader states faced Mongol and Mamluk threats under a monarchy gutted by absenteeism and civil war, the military orders became the only real bulwark against invasion. They collected men, money and supplies from supporters across Europe and funneled it to the Holy Land. What had once been ‘ideal feudal states’ based on secular defensive structures gradually became enclaves of mercantile communities protected by professional armies of fighting monks.

[i] See note 7, France, ‘Warfare in the Mediterranean Region in the Age of the Crusades’, 73.

[ii] There is a wealth of literature available in the public domain describing these institutions, their history, organization, structure, ethos and the like. See more under ‘Recommended Reading’.

[iii] See note 7, France, ‘Warfare in the Mediterranean Region in the Age of the Crusades’, 21.



The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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1 comment:

  1. Nice. So few even bother to mention the Knights of St. Lazarus that they are nearly forgotten.


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