The religious Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre (Lat. Ordo Canonicorum regularium Sancti Sepulchri Hierosolymitani) goes back to the cathedral chapter established after the First Crusade (1096-1099) by Godfrey of Bouillon at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Under the direction of a prior, the chapter assisted the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem in the administration of his archdiocese and the performance of the liturgy. In 1114 the patriarch Arnulf of Chocques reformed the chapter, which initially was heavily involved in the disputes concerning the organization of the Latin Church of Jerusalem and the nature of its relationship to the monarchy of Palestine. From this time it followed the Rule of St. Augustine and constitutions modeled on French centers of reform and based its liturgy on usages that, though also corresponding to native Greek Orthodox customs, took local idiosyncrasies into consideration.
The spiritual life of the canons was characterized by their guardianship of Christendom’s most holy sites and the incumbent liturgical duties. The popes gave them the specific duty of placing the Lord’s Passion and the triumph of the Cross at the center of the liturgy and ecclesiastical life. In Jerusalem, the canons provided pastoral care for their parishioners in the city, saying Mass at the parish altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and administering the sacraments there. They are also known to have instructed Jews and Muslims who intended to convert to Christianity. The canons also carried out pastoral duties in their Palestinian and Syrian dependencies, in the episcopal churches of Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), Jaffa (mod. Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel), and Nablus, and in the churches and chapels on their estates, notably at Magna Mahomeria (mod. al-Bira, West Bank) and Parva Mahomeria (mod. al-Qubaiba, West Bank). The chapter also trained its own clergy. In its scriptorium, manuscripts of all kinds were produced, and theological texts like Ambrose’s Hexameron and Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John were copied. It must also be assumed that the canons participated in the architectural modification of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as the establishment of pictorial programs and inscriptions in it.
The chapter had additional responsibilities that were only rarely performed by Western spiritual institutions. These included dealing with non-Christians and Christians of other denominations, looking after a never-ending stream of pilgrims and crusaders, and participation in the country’s defense. The canons were—more or less—capable of coordinating these functions. Even in the first years after the conquest of the Holy City, the canons, in conjunction with the patriarchs, employed knights to carry out the military service owed to the king by the chapter and patriarch, without, however, turning them into a military order comparable with the Templars or Hospitallers. As early as 1112, the chapter combined with other spiritual institutions to form communities in prayer, for example, in Italy, France, Poland, Germany, and Spain.
The status of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the patriarch’s titular church, the burial site of the kings of Jerusalem, the repository of important relics, and (from 1131 to 1186) the coronation venue, all helped the canons to attain a leading position within the church and kingdom of Jerusalem. This facilitated the order’s acquisition of large estates and establishment of numerous branches in Outremer and Europe. The loss of Jerusalem in 1187 and the fall of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) in 1291 led to restrictions concerning the original function of the chapter, which underwent a reorganization under Pope Urban IV.
From 1291, the prior (later known as archprior) and chapter resided in Perugia in Italy. Pope Innocent VIII’s command to disband the order and transfer its property to the Order of St. John in 1489 was only partly successful. The establishment in Perugia and a number of houses in Italy, Spain, France, and parts of Germany were lost, but the congregations in Spain, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Savoy, and Germany continued to exist. The English houses, which had become independent in the late Middle Ages, and the houses in the north of Germany fell prey to the Reformation, but other houses of the order in Europe retained their autonomy, in spite of the attempt of the house at Miechôw in Poland to become the headquarters of the order (Lat. caput ordinis) in the course of the nineteenth century.
Another development in the order went back to the middle of the fifteenth century, when Dutch branches of the cloister of Denkendorf in Württemberg started a profound process of renovatio (renewal). Their most important results of this were the female branches of the order, which still exist in Belgium, England, southwestern Germany, and the Netherlands, conserving the tradition of the cathedral chapter of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from 1099.