The oldest military religious order of Hispanic origin.
The order was founded in 1158 in the fortress of Calatrava in what is now the province of Ciudad Real (Spain) by Abbot Raymond and a group of Cistercian monks from the monastery of Fitero in Navarre, who included one Diego Velazquez, a former knight who had been brought up at the Castilian court. According to the chronicler Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, archbishop of Toledo, Calatrava had been abandoned by the Templars because they considered themselves incapable of defending it against a likely attack from the Almohads. Because of this, the Cistercians of Fitero were able to occupy the fortress after it had been handed over to them by the king of Castile, Sancho III. From this point the monks combined their spiritual vocation with the defense of the enclave, creating a religious militia, or military order, that received the name of the castle. From 1164 the Cistercian general chapter and the papacy both recognized the new institution as part of the Cistercian Order, even though placing the freires (knight brethren) and monks in the same category posed problems for a long time.
The freires were obliged to obey the Cistercian rule, and the Cistercian chapter regularly visited their central convent. From 1186, it was the abbot of Morimond who visited them, and Calatrava came to be considered as an affiliate of his monastery. The responsibility of this abbot was to lay down norms and disciplinary prescriptions, which all members of the Order of Calatrava were obliged to observe. As part of their religious profession, the members had to take solemn monastic vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. Most of them were knights with military functions, and only a few were clerics, whose duty was to administer the sacraments to all of the members. After the death of the founder, Raymond of Fitero (c. 1162), the head of the order was termed a maestre (grand master), who was always a knight brother. The other members came under his authority, even though the clerics were directly responsible to the prior, or prelate. The prior belonged to the clerical branch of the militia and, being lower in rank than the grand master, was nominated by the abbot of Morimond. The freires lived in the central convent at Calatrava, or in other convents of the area; these were known as prioratos (priories) and comendas (com- manderies), and were the territorial divisions into which the estates of the order were divided for administrative purposes. From the first decades of the thirteenth century the order admitted women, who entered as contemplative nuns in the few monasteries belonging to the militia: San Felices de Amaya (Burgos), San Salvador de Pinilla (Guadalajara), and Santa Maria de Jalimena (Jaén).
The territorial estates of the Order of Calatrava were mainly situated in Castile, particularly in a large part of the ancient kingdom of Toledo, the so-called Campo de Cala- trava, in what is now the province of Ciudad Real. There the order received numerous donations from kings, nobles, and other individuals, and managed to control some of the most important communication routes that linked the center of the Iberian Peninsula with al-Andalus. These routes were flanked by numerous castles that also belonged to the order: Malagôn, Benavente, Alarcos, Caracuel, and Piedrabuena, among others. The order also had a considerable presence in the kingdoms of Leôn and Portugal, although from the beginning of the thirteenth century its branches in these kingdoms developed into autonomous orders under the names Alcantara and Avis; in the Cistercian terminology of the time, they were affiliates of Calatrava. In Aragon, the members of the Order of Calatrava established themselves in the strategic fortress of Alcaniz from 1179. They never actually constituted an independent order, but they did establish a major commandery, which was relatively autonomous in relation to the central convent. At the end of the Middle Ages, the estates of the order in Castile alone amounted to approximately 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 sq. mi.), with more than fifty commanderies and almost 100,000 vassals. The wealth accumulated from a patrimony of this size was quite considerable; livestock farming was particularly relevant in the depopulated area between the river Tagus and the Sierra Morena.
The members of the order participated in all the principal battles during the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims. They suffered a severe defeat at Alarcos (1195) against the Almohads, which almost caused their disappearance as an institution. However, they contributed decisively to the Christian victory at Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), and formed a substantial part of the Christian army under Ferdinand III of Castile that, between 1230 and 1248, managed to incorporate the whole of northern Andalusia into Castile. They were also active in the major campaigns against the Marinids in the XIV century, in particular at the battle of Salado (1340), and in the conquest of Granada by the “Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, toward the end of the fifteenth century.
Their presence outside the Iberian Peninsula was of minor importance, although we have knowledge of a convent of Calatrava in the 1230s situated in Tymau in Poland, on the left bank of the river Vistula. In any case, the efficiency of the freires on the battlefield did not depend as much on their number (which probably never amounted to more than 300 knights) as on their quality. They were skilled professionals in warfare, and embodied the purest spirit of the crusade; they were also capable of mobilizing numerous laypeople under their banners, who took advantage of the indulgences and spiritual privileges the papacy bestowed on crusaders. Some of these laypeople may even have been affiliated with the order, that is, linked to it by both spiritual and material ties.
Like the rest of the military orders, Calatrava underwent a fairly obvious transformation process. In its first century of existence, it was a militia with clear monastic connections that acted as a faithful collaborator of the Castilian monarchy in its military and colonizing plans. From the middle of the thirteenth century, an irreversible process of secularization began to occur as a consequence of two circumstances: on the one hand, the freires became increasingly tied to the noble lineages of the kingdom; on the other, the monarchy demonstrated a greater interest in intervening in the control of the institution. Both these factors contributed to a weakening of the original monastic character of the order and converted it into a mere institution of nobles, identified with the interests of the important aristocratic dynasties and, consequently, not always loyal to the king.
Given these developments, the control of the office of grand master became a matter of constant concern, for different reasons, both to the important noble families and to the monarchy. All this contributed to the outbreak of internal crises, which were especially intense throughout the fifteenth century, as was evident during the periods of office of the grand masters Enrique de Villena,Luis Gonzalez de Guzman, and Pedro Girôn. These crises, combined with the intervention of the freires in civil conflicts, were used to justify the acquisition of the office of grand master by the Crown in 1489. At that time, the militia was showing signs of becoming decidedly secular, as demonstrated by the relaxation of the monastic vows of the freires, which was legitimized by the Cistercian general chapter and the papacy. The members of the Order of Calatrava (along with those of the other military orders) were transferred to the responsibility of the Council of Military Orders, a government department integrated into the political structure of the monarchy. Their resources were utilized by the monarchy, and the order finally became an honorific corporation, suppressed by the liberal governments of the nineteenth century. From that time a series of complex vicissitudes permitted the order’s intermittent appearance on the social scene; today it belongs to a restored and honorific Council of Orders presided over by a member of the Spanish royal family.