Post-classical history

St. Thomas of Acre, Order of

A small English military order founded during the Third Crusade (1189-1192) and named after the martyred Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.

Twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources credit the order’s foundation variously to one William, chaplain to Ralph of Diceto; to Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury; or to King Richard I of England; it is possible that all three men were involved. The Order of St. Thomas of Acre originally consisted of a chapel served by Augustinian canons. It performed charitable and devotional duties, including hospital and ransom work, before being militarized by Peter of Roches, bishop of Winchester, probably in 1228. In 1236 Pope Gregory IX instructed it to follow the Rule of the Teutonic Order, with which St. Thomas had been associated since at least 1192, and to carry out both military and hospitaller functions.

The order was never large or powerful enough to play a significant role in the affairs of Outremer; it is mentioned only occasionally by contemporary chroniclers. Despite this, the knights of St. Thomas seem to have acquitted themselves well enough in battle and at times became embroiled in the political squabbles of the Latin East. Although the order had possessions throughout western Europe, most of its holdings were concentrated in England and Ireland, and they were few in number compared to those of the other military orders. It fought a constant but losing battle for resources for much of its existence, partly because Englishmen who wished to join or support a military order usually turned to the Hospitallers or Templars.

After the fall of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) to the Mamlûks in 1291 the Order of St. Thomas retreated to Cyprus and established its headquarters there. In the early fourteenth century tensions apparently arose between the military brethren in the East and the members of the order in England, for whom hospitaller activities were paramount. Ultimately the English chapter appears to have won out. The last mention of a militant officer of St. Thomas in Cyprus occurs in 1367; thereafter its military function seems to have been abandoned entirely, and the order concentrated on charitable and devotional activities in England for most of the next two centuries. The order became increasingly associated with the Mercers’ Company of London, reverted to following the Rule of St. Augustine, and in the early sixteenth century even operated a grammar school in London. In October 1538 it was dissolved on the order of King Henry VIII of England. Its property was confiscated by the Crown, and the Mercers’ Company purchased it for £969. Its archive was ultimately split into three parts, which are now in the Mercers’ Company (London), the British Library, and the Public Record Office.

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