Knights of the Cross (ORDO MILITARIB CRUCIGERORUM CUM RUBEA STELLA), a religious order famous in the history of Bohemia, and accustomed from the beginning to the use of arms, a custom which was confirmed in 1292 by an ambassador of Pope Nicholas IV. The grand master is still invested with a sword at his induction into office, and the congregation has been recognized as a military order by Popes Clement X and Innocent XII, as well as by several emperors.
There is much discussion as to the real beginnings of this order, some authorities, among others the Bollandists, tracing it back to Palestine, where the first members were supposed to have borne arms against the Saracens. On the other hand, however, is the contemporary custom of establishing a religious congregation at the time of the foundation of a hospital, as well as the fact that in no document is there any trace of the Palestinian Cruciferi having gone to Bohemia. Moreover, in a parchment Breviary of the order dated 1356 the account of foundation contains no allusion to such a lineage. The order is first found in Bohemia as a fraternity attached to a hospital at Prague under a community of Clarisses, established by Princess Agnes, daughter of Przemysl Ottocar I and Queen Constantia, in 1233. In 1235 the hospital was richly endowed by the queen with property formerly belonging to the German order, a gift confirmed by Pope Gregory IX (May 18, 1236), who stipulated that the revenues should be divided with the Clarisse monastery. After three years, during which the head of the congregation had gone to Rome as the accredited representative of Abbess Agnes, and the congregation had been formally constituted an order under the Rule of St. Augustine by Gregory IX (1238), the abbess (1239) resigned all jurisdiction over the hospital and its possessions into the hands of the Holy See. Twelve days later the pope formally assigned these to the recently confirmed Knights of the Cross, who were to hold them forever in fief to the Holy See, on condition of the yearly payment of a nominal sum. Blessed Agnes built for the order a new hospital at the Prague Bridge, which was taken as the motherhouse, and to the title of the order was added in latere (pede) pontis (Pragensis) (at the foot of the (Prague) bridge]. She also petitioned the Holy See for some mark to distinguish these knights from other Cruciferi, with whom they bore in common the red cross of the crusader. To this was added by Bishop Nicholas of Prague, on the authorization of the pope, a red six-pointed star (October 10, 1250), probably from the arms of the first general, Albrecht von Sternberg.
The order, which by 1253 had extensive possessions in Bohemia, soon spread to neighboring lands. The Breslau house in particular was the center of many other foundations. It is Bohemia, in an especial manner, to which the knights have rendered incalculable services. Their success in hospital work is evidenced by the rapidity with which their houses multiplied, and the frequent testimony borne to it in documents of kings and emperors. Within two decades after their foundation the care of souls had become as important as their hospital work, so quickly had the majority of lay brothers been replaced by priests. Numberless churches were entrusted to them in all parts of Bohemia, particularly the West, where they formed a bulwark of the Faith during the ravages of heresy in that region; the Taborites murdered the pastor of St. Stephen’s at Prague, and the Hiinsites destroyed the motherhouse and brought the order almost to the point of dissolution, but it recovered sufficiently to offer strenuous resistance to the advance of the Reformed teachings. In the war with Sweden the members of the order justified their claim to the title of knights during the siege of Eger, fighting side by side with the townspeople, and sharing with them their last crust. Their hospital at Prague was also the first refuge of other orders who came to work for souls in Bohemia, among others the Jesuits (1555) and Capuchins (1599). For almost a hundred and fifty years the archbishops of Prague held the post of grand master and were supported almost entirely by the revenues of the order. Only on the restoration of the possessions of the archdiocese at the end of the seventeenth century was the grand master again elected from among the members, and a general reform instituted. George Ignatius Paspichal (1694-99), the first grand master under the new regime, showed great zeal for the restoration of the primitive ideals, especially that of charity. Even to the present day the Prague monastery supports twelve pensioners and distributes the so-called “hospital portion” to forty poor. Many knights have won enviable reputations in the world of learning, among others Nicholas Kozarz Kozarisowa (d. 1592), celebrated mathematician and astronomer: John Francis Beckowsky (d. 1725), who established at Prague an herbarium which is still in existence, and Zimmermann, the historian.
At the present time, besides the motherhouse at Prague, there are about 26 incorporated parishes, and 85 professed members, several of whom are engaged in gymnasia and the University of Prague. There are benefices at Hadrisk, Vienna, where the order has been established since the thirteenth century, Eger, Briix, and Schaab.