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Detail of a Knight of the Teutonic Order.

The Teutonic Order: How a Hospice for Pilgrims Turned into a Legion of Crusaders

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The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem (commonly known as the Teutonic Order) is a military order that was founded in the Holy Land during the Crusades. The Teutonic Order was originally established as a hospice to provide care from pilgrims. It was not long, however, until the order followed in the footsteps of the Templars and Hospitallers and became militarized. Although not as influential as those orders in the Holy Land, the Teutonic Order succeeded in creating an independent monastic state along the Baltic Sea during the Northern Crusades. The Teutonic Order still exists today, though as a charitable rather than a military organization.

Origins of the Teutonic Order

The origins of the Teutonic Order may be traced back to the middle of the 12th century. In 1143, the Hospitallers were ordered by Pope Celestine II to take over the running of the German Hospital in Jerusalem. This hospital had been set up to cater to the pilgrims and crusaders from Germany who were neither able to speak French (the local language) nor Latin. Although the hospital was to be managed by the Hospitallers, the prior and the brothers of the hospitals themselves should be Germans. This arrangement allowed the tradition of a German-led religious institute to develop in the Holy Land.

Tannhäuser, a German Minnesinger and poet, in the habit of the Teutonic Knights, from the ‘Codex Manesse’. (Public Domain)

Tannhäuser, a German Minnesinger and poet, in the habit of the Teutonic Knights, from the ‘Codex Manesse’. (Public Domain)

Jerusalem fell in 1187, and the first significant counter-attack by the crusaders against the Muslims was the Siege of Acre, which began two years later. It was during this siege that some merchants from Lübeck and Bremen, inspired by the German Hospital, decided to run a field hospital for the duration of the siege. Acre fell to the crusaders in 1191, and in the following year the field hospital, which formed the nucleus of the new Teutonic Order, was recognized by the pope, and the monks received Augustinian Rule. In 1198, the Teutonic Order became a military order.

Influence of the Teutonic Knights

In 1220, the knights purchased Montfort (Starkenberg), a castle to the northeast of Acre, and set up their headquarters there. The castle was held by the Teutonic Order until 1271, when it fell to the Mamluks. The prestige of the Teutonic Knights increased under Hermann von Salza, the fourth Grandmaster of the Teutonic Order, and a close friend of the Holy Roman Empire Frederick II. When the emperor was crowned as King of Jerusalem in 1225, for instance, the Teutonic knights served as his escort to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the grandmaster read the emperor’s proclamation in both French and German. Nevertheless, the Teutonic Knights were not as influential as the Templars and Hospitallers in the Holy Land.

Hermann von Salza, the fourth Grandmaster of the Teutonic Order. (Public Domain)

Hermann von Salza, the fourth Grandmaster of the Teutonic Order. (Public Domain)

Instead, the Teutonic Order had a much greater impact on Europe, specifically in the region along the Baltic Sea, where they established an independent monastic state during the Northern Crusades. In 1211, Andrew II, the King of Hungary, invited a group of Teutonic Knights to defend his Transylvanian borderland from the incursions of nomadic raiders. The knights were given the district of Burzenland to serve as their base. Although they were granted relative autonomy, the Teutonic Knights were prohibited from building stone fortifications, as the Hungarians were afraid that they would grow too strong and interfere in the kingdom’s politics. Andrew’s commands were ignored, but due to the order’s effectiveness, the king decided to tolerate them. Eventually, however, the knights grew so powerful that the Hungarian nobles became disgruntled, resulting in the knights being expelled in 1225.

Under the Sovereignty of the Pope

From Hungary, the Teutonic Knights moved to the Baltic, where a new opportunity presented itself. In 1217, Pope Honorius III had called for a crusade against the pagan Prussians, and one of the rulers who responded was Konrad I, the Duke of Masovia. By 1225, the Prussians had gained the upper hand, and were raiding across the northern border of Masovia. In 1226, Konrad appealed to the Teutonic Knights to come to his aid. von Salza saw Prussia as a perfect training ground for his knights in preparation for further crusades against the Muslims in the Holy Land. But the grandmaster had also learned from his mistake in Hungary and took precaution to prevent its repetition.

‘Frederick II allows the order to invade Prussia’, by P. Janssen. (Public Domain)

‘Frederick II allows the order to invade Prussia’, by P. Janssen. (Public Domain)

As a result, the Golden Bull of Rimini was obtained from the Holy Roman Emperor. Under the bull, the emperor acknowledged the order’s ownership of the lands granted to them by Konrad, as well as territory that they conquered from the Prussians. The order also obtained the Golden Bull of Rieti from the pope, which placed them under the sovereignty of the pope, rather than any secular ruler.

Changes in the Teutonic Order

In about half a century, Prussia was conquered by the knights and became part of the State of the Teutonic Order. This monastic state lasted until 1525, and during its three centuries of existence it played an important role in the politics of the region.

‘Teutonic Knight entering Malbork Castle / Entering of the knights in the Marienburg (study)’ (1884) by Carl Steffeck. (Public Domain)

‘Teutonic Knight entering Malbork Castle / Entering of the knights in the Marienburg (study)’ (1884) by Carl Steffeck. (Public Domain)

The decline of this monastic state began during the 15th century, when they were decisively defeated by a Polish-Lithuanian army at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. The order was further weakened by internal conflicts and the Prussians began to revolt against the order. In 1525, the Order lost all its Prussian lands, marking the end of the State of the Teutonic Order. However, they still possessed land within the Holy Roman Empire.

Battle of Grunwald. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Battle of Grunwald. (CC BY SA 3.0)

The knights continued to play a military role in the Holy Roman Empire until 1809, when the order was dissolved by Napoleon. Nevertheless, the Teutonic Order survived in Austria and became a purely spiritual religious order in 1929. When Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, the order was abolished, though it survived in Italy. After the war, the Teutonic Order was reconstituted in Germany and Austria, and, by the end of the 1990s, it was transformed into a charitable organization.

Top Image: Detail of a Knight of the Teutonic Order. Source: Lord Hayabusa357/Deviant Art

By Wu Mingren


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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Teutonic Order. Available at:

Woodhouse, F. C., 1879. Teutonic Knights: Their Organization And History. Available at:

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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