Order of Santiago: The Knights of Spain and Their ‘Holy War’
The Order of Santiago is a Christian religious-military order of knights that was founded in Spain during the Middle Ages. Like the Templars and Hospitallers, the order was established to protect pilgrims and to fight against the Muslims. Instead of the Holy Land, however, the Order of Santiago carried out their duties in Spain. The order continues to exist today though as a civil association.
One of Four Spanish Military Orders
The Order of Santiago (known also as the Order of Saint James of the Sword) is one of the four Spanish military orders, the other three being the Orders of Calatrava, Alcántara, and Montesa. According to legend the order was founded by Ramiro I, the king of Asturias, during the 9 th century. The king had won a great victory over the Moors during the Battle of Clavijo in 844 AD. This battle had a great impact on Spain’s national identity. For instance, the triumph of the outnumbered Christians was attributed to the apparition of Saint James, thus contributing to his adoption as the patron saint of Spain. Additionally, the site of Santiago de Compostela developed into an important pilgrimage center and the pilgrims were protected by cavalry.
The Battle of Clavijo. (Corrado Giaquinto / Public Domain)
When Was the Order of Santiago Founded?
The Battle of Clavijo, however, is considered by historians to be fictional and therefore the Order of Santiago is very unlikely to have been founded during the 9 th century. Instead, it is generally accepted that the order was established around the middle of the 12 th century. The exact details surrounding the founding of the order, however, are obscure as there are two rival claimants for the honor.
According to one account, the order had been founded by Ferdinand II, the king of León, in 1171. While on his way back to León from Badajoz, the king took control of the city of Cáceres. It was there that he, the bishop of Salamanca, and 13 knights established the Order of the Fratres of Cáceres. In the same year, the order received its first rule from Cardinal Jacinto, the legate of Pope Alexander III in Spain. Pedro Fernández de Castro served as its first grandmaster. De Castro was a veteran warrior who had gone on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he encountered the Templars and was inspired to establish a similar order in his homeland.
Portrait of Ferdinand II by Isidoro Lozano. (museodelprado.es / Public Domain)
Why Was the Order of Santiago Founded?
In 1173, the Almohads launched an attack on Cáceres to retake the city. Although the city was captured, the knights refused to surrender and continued to fight. After the battle, the knights were decapitated, and their heads displayed as trophies as a warning to the Christians. The remaining members of the order formed an alliance with the regular canons of Saint Augustine (as the knights themselves followed the Rule of Saint Augustine) and were now responsible for protecting the Sepulchre of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela and the pilgrims who journeyed there.
- Pilgrims Flock on an Ancient Road to the Ends of the Earth: Mysteries of the Camino de Santiago – Part I
- The Mysterious Stories of Castle Ponferrada: Knights Templar, the Camino de Santiago and the lost Sword of Jacques de Molay
- Who is Buried in the Famous Shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela?
Knight of The Order of Santiago. (Lunstream / Adobe)
Who Was the Founder of the Order of Santiago?
In the meantime, the knights had lost their patron, as they had been expelled from Cáceres and were not on good terms with Ferdinand II. As a consequence, they began looking for a new patron and found one in Alfonso III, the king of Castille. In 1174 Alfonso III granted the knights the castle and village of Uclés (in Cuenca) which would serve as their new headquarters. Moreover, using his influence, Alfonso III had the pope, Alexander III, issue a bill recognizing the Order of Santiago as a religious order. Therefore, Alfonso III sometimes considered to be the founder of the order, as opposed to Ferdinand II.
The Growth of the Order of Santiago
The Order of Santiago grew rapidly and at its height had more possessions than the two older orders of Calatrava and Alcántara combined. An important turning point in the history of the order occurred in 1499. The Reconquista had been completed by then and Spain was unified under the rule of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. In order to strengthen their own position, the rulers obtained permission from the pope to assign to them the administration of the three major Spanish orders – Santiago, Calatrava, and Alcántara.
King Ferdinand II of Aragón and Queen Isabella of Castile. (Public Domain)
The Continuation of the Order of Santiago
The power of the Spanish military orders came to an end during the reign of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V (who ruled the Spanish Empire as Charles I) when the orders were incorporated into the Spanish Crown. Although the orders were united under one government, they still had the right to hold their possessions, titles, and functions separately. Additionally, a Council of Orders was formed to oversee the administration of the orders. Nevertheless, the orders retained their prestige and many figures involved in the conquest and governance of Spain’s possessions in the New World hailed from these orders.
As the Order of Santiago was part of the Spanish Crown it was suppressed in 1873 when Spain declared itself a republic for the first time. After the fall of this republic, the order was re-established though as a nobiliary institute. The order was once more suppressed following the proclamation of the second republic in 1931, which was followed by the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Democracy was restored in 1976 and with it the monarchy and the Order of Santiago. The order continues to exist till this day.
Apostle Santiago, Monastery of Tentudía in Calera de León, Badajoz, Spain. (Joserpizarro / Adobe)
Top image: Symbol of the Order of Santiago. Source: Jenny ODonnell / CC BY-SA 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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