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Military Order of Calatrava

Founded in Castile, in the twelfth century, as a military branch of the great Cistercian family

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Calatrava, MILITARY ORDER OF, founded in Castile, in the twelfth century, as a military branch of the great Cistercian family.

In the Cistercian Order, then only recently formed (1098), there had been a large number of knights or sons of knights. In Calatrava, on the contrary, those who had been monks became knights. Monastic life has been called “a warfare”, and it would be a mistake to suppose that those rough medieval warriors sought in the cloister only a comfortable asylum after a troublous career. In both lives’ there was an heroic struggle to sustain, whether against one’s passions or against the Moslems; and the austerities of an ascetic life could not have been more dreadful to them than the privations of camp life and the wounds of battle. These impetuous natures, who did nothing by halves, were eager to take Heaven, as they took earthly strongholds, by storm (Matt., xi, 12). However, the Order of Calatrava owes its origin not to any deliberately prepared plan, but to fortuitous circumstances, the recital of which would seem to be mere romance if the teller, Rodrigo of Toledo, did not add that he himself had known in his youth the hero of the story. It runs as follows:—Calatrava is the Arabic name of a castle recovered from the Moslems, in 1147, by the King of Castile, Alfonso VII, called el Emperador. Situated on the extreme southern borders of Castile, this conquest was more difficult to keep than to make, at a time when neither standing armies nor garrisons were known. It was this deficiency that the military orders, and first of all the Knights Templars, intended to supply by fulfilling their vow of perpetual war against the Moslem. To the Templars the king had recourse, but after a vain attempt to defend Calatrava they abandoned it, and the king was looking in vain for another defender when Raymond, Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Fitero, offered himself. This step is said to have been suggested to the abbot by Diego Velasquez, a simple monk, but one who had been a knight, was well acquainted with military matters, and was inspired with the idea of employing the lay brothers of the abbey to defend Calatrava. These Cistercian lay brothers—at that time a recent innovation in religious life—not being in Holy orders, were variously employed as herdsmen, as laborers, as husbandmen, and so on; Diego employed them as soldiers of the Cross. They laid down the hammer and the shepherd’s crook, and took up the sword. Thus a new order was created, which received the name of Calatrava from the castle given up by the king (1157).

Once provided with arms, these brethren, filled with warlike enthusiasm, were eager to take the offensive against the Moors. With this end in view, they chose, when the Abbot Raymond died (1163), a certain Don Garcia to lead them in battle as their first grand master. At the same time, the choir monks, not without protest, left Calatrava to live under an abbot whom they had chosen, in the monastery of Cirvelos. Only Velasquez and a few other clerics, to act as chaplains, remained in Calatrava with the knights, Velasquez becoming prior of the whole community. This somewhat revolutionary arrangement was approved by the general chapter at Meaux, and by Pope Alexander III (1164). A general chapter held at Meaux in 1187 gave to the Knights of Calatrava their definitive rule, which was approved in the same year by Pope Gregory VIII. This rule, modeled upon the Cistercian customs for lay brothers, imposed upon the knights, besides the obligations of the three religious vows, the rules of silence in the refectory, dormitory, and oratory; of abstinence on four days a week, besides several fast-days during the year; they were also obliged to recite a fixed number of paternosters for each day Hour of the Office; to sleep in their armor; to wear, as their full dress, the Cistercian white mantle with the scarlet cross fleurdelisee. Calatrava was subject not to Meaux, but to Morimond in Burgundy, the mother-house of Fitero, from which Calatrava had sprung. Consequently, the Abbot of Morimond possessed the right of visiting the houses and of reforming the statutes of Calatrava, while the highest ecclesiastical dignity of the order, that of grand prior, could be held only by a monk of Morimond.

The first military services of the Knights of Calatrava had been brilliant, and in return for the great services they had rendered they received from the King of Castile new grants of land, which formed their first commanderies. They had already been called into the neighboring Kingdom of Aragon, and been rewarded by a new encomienda (landed estate), that of Alcaniz (1179). But these successes were followed by a series of misfortunes, due in the first instance to the unfortunate partition which Alfonso had made of his possessions, and the consequent rivalry which ensued between the Castilian and Leonese branches of his dynasty. On the other hand, the Moors of Spain, wishing to recover their lost dominions, called to their aid the Moors of Africa, thus bringing on the new and formidable invasion of the Almohades. The first encounter resulted in a defeat for Spain. In the disastrous battle of Alarcos, the knights were overpowered and, in spite of splendid heroism, were obliged to leave their bulwark of Calatrava in the power of the Moslem (1195). Velasquez lived just long enough to be the sorrowful witness of the failure of his daring scheme. He died next year in the monastery of Gumiel (1196). It seemed as if the order was ruined in Castile, and this opinion so far prevailed that the branch of Aragon regarded itself as having succeeded the other. The Knights of Alcaniz actually proceeded to elect a new grand master, but the grand master still living in Castile claimed his right. Finally, by a compromise, the master of Alcaniz was recognized as second in dignity, with the title of Grand Commander for Aragon.

The scattered remains of Calatrava had meanwhile found a common shelter in the Cistercian monastery of Cirvelos, and there they began to repair their losses by a large accession of new knights. They soon felt themselves strong enough to erect a new bulwark against the Moslems at Salvatierra, where they took the name, which they kept for fourteen years, of Knights of Salvatierra (1198). But in the course of a fresh invasion of the Almohades, Salvatierra, in spite of a desperate defense, shared the fate of Calatrava (1209). Upon the fall of this Castilian stronghold dismay spread from Spain throughout Western Europe. Summoned by the voice of the great Pope Innocent III, foreign crusaders hastened from all sides to help the Spanish Christians. The first event in this holy war, now a European one, was the reconquest of Calatrava (1212), which was given back to its former masters. In the same year the famous victory of Las Navas de Tolosa marked the incipient decline of Moslem domination in Western Europe. Having thus recovered possession of the stronghold, and resumed the title of Calatrava (1216), the order nevertheless removed to more secure quarters at Calatrava la Nueva, eight miles from old Calatrava (1218). From this center their influence spread to the remotest parts of the Peninsula; new orders sprang up— Alcantara in the Kingdom of Leon, Aviz (q.v.) in Portugal, both begun under Calatrava’s protection and the visitation of its grand master. This spirit of generous emulation, spreading among all classes of society, marks the climax of Spanish chivalry: it was then that King Ferdinand the Saint, after the definitive coalition of Castile and Leon (1229) dealt a mortal blow to the Moslem power in the conquest (1235) of their capital city, Cordova, soon followed by the surrender of Murcia, Jaen, and Seville. The European crusade seemed at an end. Encouraged by these victories, Ferdinand’s successor, Alfonso X, the Wise, planned a crusade in the East and contemplated marching, with his Spanish chivalry, to restore the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1272). But the Moors still held out in their little Kingdom of Granada, which was to remain for two centuries longer an open door, exposing Western Europe to the constant danger of African invasion. For the perpetuation of this menace, Christendom had to thank its own dissensions—not only international, but personal and dynastic. Into these factious quarrels the Knights of Calatrava, like other knights of the Cross, were unhappily drawn.

Calatrava, with its abundant resources of men and material wealth, had by this time become a power in the State. It had lands and castles scattered along the borders of Castile. It exercised feudal lordship over thousands of peasants and vassals. Thus, more than once, we see the order bringing to the field, as its individual contributions, 1200 to 2000 knights, a considerable force in the Middle Ages. Moreover, it enjoyed autonomy, being by its constitutions independent in temporal matters and acknowledging only spiritual superiors—the Abbot of Morimond and, in appeal, the pope. These authorities interfered, in consequence of a schism which first broke out in 1296 through the simultaneous election of two grand masters, Garcia Lopez and Gautier Perez. Lopez, dispossessed a first time by a delegate of Morimond, appealed to Pope Boniface VIII, who quashed the sentence and referred the case to the general chapter at Meaux, where Lopez was reestablished in his dignity (1302). Dispossessed a second time, in con= sequence of a quarrel with his lieutenant, Juan Nunez, Lopez voluntarily resigned in favor of Nunez, who had taken his place (1328), on condition that he should keep the commandery of Zurita; as this condition was violated, Lopez again, for the third time, took the title of Grand Master in Aragon, where he died in 1336.—These facts sufficiently prove that after the fourteenth century the rigorous discipline and fervent observance of the order’s earlier times had, under the relaxing influence of prosperity, given place to a spirit of intrigue and ambition.

With the accession of Pedro the Cruel began a conflict between the Crown and the order. That prince caused three grand masters in succession to be put to death, as having incurred his suspicion: the first of these was beheaded (1355) on a charge of having entered into a league with the King of Aragon; the second, Estevafiez, having competed for the grand mastership with the king’s candidate, Garcia de Padilla, was murdered in the royal palace, by the king’s own treacherous hand; lastly, Garcia de Padilla himself, a brother of the royal mistress, fell into disgrace, upon deserting the king’s party for that of his half brother, Henry the Bastard, and died in prison (1369). Amid all these troubles the war against the Moslem, which was the very reason of the order’s existence, was reduced to a mere episode in its history. The greater part of its activities were employed in purely political conflicts, and its arms, consecrated to the defense of the Faith, were turned against Christians. An even more pitiable spectacle was that of the knights divided among themselves into rival and mutually hostile factions. At the same time began the encroachments of royal authority in the election of the grand master, whose power was a check upon that of the king. For instance, in 1404, Henry of Villena was elected 24th grand master merely through the favor of Henry III of Castile, although Villena was married, a stranger to the order, and by papal dispensation entered upon his high functions without even the preliminary of a novitiate. A schism in the order ensued and was healed only after the king’s death, in 1414, when a general chapter, held at Meaux, cancelled the election of Villena and acknowledged his competitor, Luis Guzman, as the only legitimate master. After the death of Guzman, a new encroachment of King John II of Castile gave rise to a new schism. He had succeeded in forcing upon the electors his own candidate, Alfonso, a bastard, of the royal stock of Aragon (1443); but Alfonso having joined a party formed against him, the king sought to have him deposed by the chapter of the order. This time the electors divided, and a double election issued in not fewer than three grand masters: Pedro Giron, who took possession of Calatrava; Ramirez de Guzman, who occupied the castles of Andalusia; and the bastard Alfonso of Aragon, who continued to be recognized by the knights of the Aragonese branch. At last, through the withdrawal of his rivals one after the other, Pedro Giron remained the only grand master (1457). Giron belonged to an eminent Castilian family; an ambitious intriguer, more anxious about his family interests than about those of his order, he played an important part as a leader in the factions which disturbed the wretched reigns of John II and Henry IV, the last two lamentably weak descendants of St. Ferdinand of Castile.

By turns, Giron sustained first Henry IV, in a war against his father, John II, then Alfonso, who pretended to the throne, against Henry IV. Such was Giron’s importance that Henry IV, in order to attach him to his cause, offered him the hand of his own sister, the famous Isabella of Castile. Giron had already had his vow of celibacy annulled by the pope, and was on his way to the court, when he died, thus saving the future Queen of Castile from an unworthy consort (1466). The same pope, Pius II, granted to Pedro Giron the extravagant privilege of resigning his high dignity in favor of his bastard, Rodrigo Telles Giron, a child eight years old. Thus the grand mastership fell into the hands of guardians—an unheard of event. The Abbot of Morimond was called upon to devise a temporary administration, until Telles should reach his majority. The administration was entrusted to four knights elected by the chapter, and from this period date the definitive statutes of the order known as “Rules of Abbot William III” (1467). These statutes recognized in the order seven high dignitaries: the grand master; the clavero (guardian of the castle and lieutenant of the grand master); two grand comendadores, one for Castile and the other for Aragon; the grand prior, representing the Abbot of Morimond in the spiritual government; the sacristy (guardian, of the relics); the obrero (supervisor of buildings).

The order, having reached its apogee of prosperity, now held sway over fifty-six commanderies and sixteen priories, or cures, distributed between the Diocese of Jaen and the Vicariate of Ciudad Real. Its lord-ships included sixty-four villages, with a population of 200,000 souls, and produced an annual income which may be estimated at 50,000 ducats. The kings whose fortune the mismanagement of the late reins had depleted could not but covet these riches, while such formidable military power filled with distrust the monarchs who were obliged to tolerate the autonomous existence of the order. During the struggle between Alfonso V of Portugal and Ferdinand of Aragon for the right of succession to Henry IV of Castile, the last male of his house (1474), much depended upon the attitude of Calatrava. The knights were divided. While the grand master, Rodrigo Giron, supported Portugal, his lieutenant, Lopez de Padilla, stood by Aragon. The battle of Toro (1479), where the pretensions of Portugal were annihilated, ended this schism, the last in the history of the order.

The grand master, reconciled with Ferdinand of Aragon, fell, during the war against the Moors, at the siege of Loja (1482). His lieutenant, Lopez de Padilla, succeeded him and, as the last of the twenty-seven independent grand masters of Calatrava, revived for a season the heroic virtues of his order’s better days. A mortified monk in his cell, a fearless warrior on the battlefield, the glory of Padilla shed its last rays in the war of the conquest of Granada, which he did not live to see completed. At his death (1487), Ferdinand of Aragon exhibited to the chapter, assembled for the election of a new grand master, a Bull of Innocent VIII which invested him with authority to administer the order, and to this decree he compelled the electors to submit. Thus ended the political autonomy of the Order of Calatrava. The reason of its being—the struggle against the Moors—seemed, indeed, to end with the fall of Granada (1492).

The canonical bond between Calatrava and Morimond had been relaxing more and more. The King of Spain was too jealous of his authority to tolerate any foreign—especially French—intervention in the affairs of his kingdom. The canonical visits of the Abbot of Morimond ceased; difficulties were raised when the grand prior came from Morimond to take possession of his dignity. The last French prior was Nicholas of Avesnes, who died in 1552. After a long contest, a compromise was effected in 1630, leaving to Morimond its right of electing the grand prior, but limiting its choice to Spanish Cistercians. Moreover, the knights of the order were virtually secularized: Pope Paul III commuted their vow of celibacy to one of conjugal fidelity (1540). As members of the order were allowed to found families, and were authorized by Julius III (1551) to make free use of their personal property, the, vow of poverty also passed into virtual desuetude. In 1652, under Philip IV, the three Spanish orders took a new vow: that of defending the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This was the last manifestation of any religious spirit in the orders. The military spirit, too, had long since disappeared. The orders had, in fact, fallen into a state of utter inactivity. The commanderies were but so many pensions at the king’s free disposal, and granted by him rather to the high-born than to the deserving. In 1628 the Order of Calatrava was declared to be inaccessible not only to tradesmen, but even to sons of tradesmen. The last attempt to employ the knights of the three orders for a military purpose was that of Philip IV, in quelling the rebellion of the Catalans (1640-50), but the orders restricted their efforts to the complete equipment of one regiment, which has since been known in the Spanish army as “The Regiment of the Orders”.

When the Bourbon dynasty occupied the throne, Charles III, having founded the personal order of his name, levied upon the old orders a contribution of a million reals to pension 200 knights of the new order (1775). Their revenues being the only remaining raison d’etre of the order, confiscation necessarily led to dissolution. Confiscated by King Joseph (1808), reestablished by Ferdinand VII at the Restoration (1814), the possessions of Calatrava were finally dissipated in the general secularization of 1838. (See Alcantara; Military Orders.)


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