The Order of the Holy Sepulchre (Lat. Ordo Equestris Sancti Sepulcri) is a lay association whose organization and objectives have often changed during the course of its history. It originated as a lay order or association of knights, and was thus quite different in character from religious knightly orders such as the Templars or Hospitallers.
The origins of the order go back to the fourteenth century, when it became customary for noble Western pilgrims to be knighted at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or to ask for a renewal of an earlier ceremony of knighting. It was undoubtedly influenced by the revival of pilgrimage and the idea of recovery of the Holy Land after the fall of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) to theMamlûks in 1291. The first attested knighting ceremony dates from 1332/1336. In contrast to the forms of knighting (dubbing) common at this time in western Europe, the ceremony at the Holy Sepulchre distinguished itself through the special holiness of the place where it was carried out. As part of his obligations, the new knight also undertook to take the cross in the case of a future crusade.
In 1312, following the departure of the Franks and the end of the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem, Pope Clement VI entrusted the Franciscans of Mount Zion with the mission of representing the papacy in the Holy Land. But this religious community was only officially recognized by the Turks in 1333, when the king of Naples got the Sultan to agree (upon payment of 32,000 gold ducats) that the Franciscans could remain in Palestine and continue to guard the holy places. The prerogative of dubbing knights before the tomb of Christ, in the past exercised by the canons, was thus transferred to the Franciscan custodian, who had the rank of bishop and who alone upheld the presence of the papacy in the Holy Land until 1847, often under adverse conditions. It was a great privilege to receive the spurs of a knight before the tomb of Christ, this being the reward for an exceptional act of piety.
During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem to be dubbed knights of the Holy Sepulchre, including such important persons as Frederick, duke of Austria (the future Emperor Frederick III) in 1436. Chronicles from this time report that individual dubbing of knights before the Holy Sepulchre continued over the centuries. In 1806, the Vicomte de Châteaubriand described his own investiture at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in his Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe. The knights, whose elevation was registered and recorded in a patent, were received into a community that demanded the fulfillment of the usual chivalric obligations plus compliance with religious rules as they are found in the statutes of those fraternities counseled by the mendicant orders. However, the order had no organizational ties; the knights did not assemble in chapters of the order and were not subject to any leadership. Attempts to unite and organize all knights of the Sepulchre, for which evidence can be found from the sixteenth century onward, were to no avail.
It was only in 1868 that a permanent association of all knights of the Holy Sepulchre was established at the instigation of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem by Pope Pius IX, who gave the association the formal character of a papal order of knights. It was placed under the pope as supreme sovereign, with the Latin patriarch serving as the actual head, and organized in national bailiwicks. The order’s organizational structure was reformed several times during the twentieth century. Its objectives are the promotion of its members’ Christian way of life and the spiritual and material support of the activities and facilities of the Roman Catholic Church in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan. These include the construction and operation of churches, schools, kindergartens, old people’s homes, and hospital wards, and the provision of assistance for the old and infirm. The order is now represented in thirty countries and has about 20,000 members.