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Order of the Knights of Christ

Military order which sprang out of the famous Order of the Temple

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Christ, ORDER OF THE KNIGHTS OF, a military order which sprang out of the famous Order of the Temple (see Knights Templars). As Portugal was the first country in Europe where the Templars settled (in 1128), so it has been the last to preserve any remnant of that order. The Portuguese Templars had contributed to the conquest of Algarve from the Moslems; they were still defending that conquest when their order was suppressed (1312) by Pope Clement V (q.v.). King Diniz, who then ruled Portugal, regretted the loss of these useful auxiliaries all the more because, in the trial to which the order had been submitted everywhere throughout Christendom, the Templars of Portugal had been declared innocent by the ecclesiastical court of the Bishop of Lisbon. To fill their place, the king instituted a new order, under the name of Christi Militia (1317). He then obtained for this order the approbation of Pope John XXII, who, by a Bull (1319), gave these knights the rule of the Knights of Calatrava (see Military Order of Calatrava) and put them under the control of the Cistercian Abbot of Alcobaca. Further, by another Bull (1323), the same pope authorized King Diniz to turn over to the new Order of Christ the Portuguese estates of the suppressed Templars, and. as many of the latter hastened to become Knights of Christ, it may fairly be said that the foundation of Dom Diniz was both in its personnel and in its territorial position a continuation in Portugal of the Order of the Temple. Seated first at Castro Marino, it was later (1357) definitively established in the monastery of Thomar, near Santarem.

By this time, however, Portugal had rid its soil of the Moslem, and it seemed that the Order of Christ must waste its strength in idleness, when Prince Henry, the Navigator, son of King Joao I, opened a new field for its usefulness by carrying the war against Islam into Africa. The conquest of Ceuta (1415) was the first step towards the formation of a great Portuguese empire beyond the seas. It may at present be taken as demonstrated, that the motive of this great enterprise was not mercenary, but religious, its aim being the conquest of Africa for Christ and His Faith. Nothing could have been more in accord with the spirit of the order, which, under Prince Henry himself as its grand master (1417-65), took up the plan with enthusiasm. This explains the extraordinary favors granted by the popes to the order—favors intended to encourage a work of evangelization. Martin V, by a Bull the text of which is lost, granted to Prince Henry, as Grand Master of the Order of Christ, the right of presentation to all ecclesiastical benefices to be founded beyond the seas, together with complete jurisdiction and the disposal of church revenues in those regions. Naturally, the clergy of these early foreign missions were recruited by preference from those priests who were members of the order, and, in 1514, a Bull of Leo X confirmed to it the right of presentation to all bishoprics beyond the seas, from which privilege afterwards arose the custom by which incumbents of such sees wear pectoral crosses of the form peculiar to the Order of Christ. After this campaign King Manoel of Portugal, in order to overcome the repugnance of the knights to remaining in African garrisons, established thirty new commanderies in the conquered territory. Leo X, in order to further increase the number of the order’s establishments, granted an annual income of 20,000 cruzadas to be derived from Portuguese church property, and, as a result of all this material assistance, the total of seventy commanderies of the order at the beginning of Manoel’s reign had become four hundred and fifty-four at its end, in 1521.

While these foreign expeditions kept alive the military spirit of the order, its religious discipline was declining. Pope Alexander VI, in 1492, commuted the vow of celibacy to that of conjugal chastity, alleging the prevalence among the knights of a concubinage to which regular marriage would be far preferable. The order was becoming less monastic and more secular, and was taking on more and more the character of a royal institution. After Prince Henry the Navigator, the grand mastership was always held by a royal prince; under Manoel it became definitively, with those of Aviz and Santiago, a prerogative of the crown; Joao III, Manoel’s successor, instituted a special council (Mesa das Ordens) for the government of these orders in the king’s name. Brother Antonius of Lisbon, in attempting a reform, succeeded in bringing about the complete annihilation of religious life among the knights of the order. The priests of the Order of Christ were compelled to resume conventual life at Thomar, the convent itself becoming a regular cloister with which the knights thenceforward maintained only a remote connection. This unwholesome change the young king, Dom Sebastian, tried to reverse (1574), but the glorious, though useless, death, in Africa, of this last of the crusaders (1578) prevented the accomplishment of his design. During the period of Spanish domination (1580-1640), another attempt to revive the monastic character of the whole order resulted in the statutes enacted by a general chapter, at Thomar, in 1619, and promulgated by Philip IV of Spain, in 1627. The three vows were reestablished, even for knights not living in houses of the order, though with certain mitigations, marriage, for instance, being permitted to those who could obtain a papal dispensation. The conditions of admission were noble birth and either two years’ service in Africa or three years with the fleet, but commanderies could be held only by those who had served three years in Africa or five years with the fleet.

The last attempt at a reform of the order was that of the Queen Donna Maria, made with the approbation of Pius VI (1789). This, the most important of all the schemes of reformation designed for the order’s benefit made the convent of Thomar once more the headquarters of the whole order, and instead of the conventual prior, who, since 1551, had been elected by his brethren for a term of three years, there was a grand prior of the order, acknowledged by all classes and invested with all the privileges and the whole jurisdiction formerly granted by the popes. The sovereign, however, remained grand master, and the last Grand Priors of the Order of Christ, as official subordinates of the Crown, did not fail to enter into the political entanglements of the nineteenth century. The last of all, Furtado de Mendoga, was identified with the Miguelist party in the troubles of 1829-32, and it was in the general confiscation of monastic property following the defeat of Dom Miguel that the convent of Thomar and four hundred and fifty commanderies were lost. The King of Portugal is still officially “Grand Master of the Order of Our Lord Jesus Christ“, and as such confers titular membership in the order, with the decoration of the crimson cross charged with another, smaller, cross of white.

The ORDER OF CHRIST, as a papal decoration, or order of merit, is also a historical survival of the right, anciently reserved to the Holy See, of admitting new members into the Portuguese order. (See Papal Decorations.) For the GERMAN order sometimes called the ORDER OF CHRIST (Fratres Militiae Christi) see Brothers of the Sword.


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