NOTA BENE: This English version of our history was translated from a French text that comes from the Lieutenancy of Belgium. We thank the Lieutenancy for its support. The text was corrected by Me Joseph Di Clementi K.H.S., Serge Ménard K.G.C.H.S, and Robert Boily K.H.S., all from the Lieutenancy of Montreal.
It is not an easy task to summarize the nine hundred year old history of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, and to separate legend from fact. Therefore, the reader must keep this in mind regarding our attempt to do so. A Commission has been established to conduct a study on the origins of the Order; its conclusions will undoubtedly provide more precision to what is stated herein below.
The Seljuk Turks occupied Palestine in 1071, and prohibited pilgrims to enter into the Holy Places. In November 1095, Pope Urban II reacted by calling upon Christians to engage in crusades to liberate the tomb of Christ to the cry of "DEUS LO VULT" (God wills it). Large numbers answered the call and Peter the Hermit, whose tomb is in Huy (Belgium), inspired the population who enthusiastically set out on the road to Constantinople. This first improvised crusade ended in tragic failure.
A second crusade, headed by Godfrey de Bouillon, liberated Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. This major event marked the beginning of the long history of Christians in Palestine, and of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, which, over the centuries, comprised three successive regimes:
Immediately after the conquest of Jerusalem, the Papacy set up the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem to organize its presence in Palestine. Godfrey de Bouillon entrusted the protection, maintenance and guarding of the Holy Sepulchre to about twenty Canons. First a lay group, these Canons were recognized in 1114 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Arnoul de Choques, as a lay religious community subject to the three monastic vows of the rule of Saint Augustine. Thus, the Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre was established. Lay and military personnel gathered around these two ecclesiastical institutions to assist them in maintaining and defending the Holy Places, and to guarantee the safety and health of pilgrims.
These lay people are undeniably the precursors of our Order, but there is little evidence that these Knights assigned to protecting the Holy Sepulcher would have formed a body to which the current Order could officially be linked.
Our Order can nevertheless base its roots from the custom initiated at the beginning of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem to dub as knights, opposite the tomb of Christ, eminent personalities on religious pilgrimages to Palestine.
It was not until 1336 that a document was found, officially reporting the dubbing of Wilhelm von Boldensel as a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. This prerogative of appointing Knights, first exercised by a dubbed Knight, later by the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, and finally by the Franciscan Custodian, has been perpetuated over the centuries without interruption to present times.
Following the fall of Saint John of Acre in 1291, and the end of the Patriarchate, the Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre moved to Italy, Poland and Spain, where it had major centers that enjoyed varied success during these subsequent centuries.
A notable part of the intricate history of this Order in Europe is of interest for the Lieutenancy of Belgium. A woman's branch - the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre - still has very active and esteemed convents in the cities of Turnhout, Bilsen and Male, as well as in the Netherlands, in the city of Maarssen.
Following the departure of the Crusaders and the end of the Patriarchate in 1312, Pope Clement VI entrusted the Franciscan Custody of Mount Zion with the mission of representing the Papacy in the Holy Land. This religious community was only recognized officially by the Turks in 1333, when the King of Naples convinced the Sultan to agree, upon payment of 32 000 gold ducats, that the Franciscans could remain in Palestine and continue the guardianship of the Holy Places.
The prerogative of dubbing Knights before the Tomb of Christ, in the past exercised by the Canons, was then transferred to the Custodian who had the rank of bishop and who, alone, upheld the presence of the Vatican in the Holy Land until 1847, frequently under difficult conditions. It was an extraordinary privilege to receive the spurs of Knight before the tomb of Christ as the reward for an exceptional act of piety. Thus, Albert the Just of Hohenzollern considered that his dubbing in Jerusalem was "the crowning achievement of his Knighthood" (circa 1340). During the 14th and 15th centuries, many pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem to be dubbed Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, including such important persons as Frederick, the Duke of Austria and future Emperor Frederick III (1436).
Chronicles from those times reported that individual dubbing of Knights before the Holy Sepulchre continued over the centuries. In 1806, Châteaubriand described his own investiture at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in the "Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe". It is evident from all the foregoing that the Order of the Holy Sepulchre has a noble tradition that extends nine centuries, during which a large number of Knights were, without interruption, dubbed before the Holy Sepulchre. Yet all these people were individuals belonging, on a personal basis, to the noble tradition of military and spiritual knights, with the most honorable and respected act of this custom being the very special event before the Tomb of Christ.
We must nevertheless recognize two major attempts by the Knights to set up a Military Order recognized by the Holy See. The first took place at Hoogstraten in Belgium, in 1558, and the second in France by the Duke of Nevers in 1615. Both attempts failed because of political pressure on the Vatican and on Louis XIII, King of France.
Year 1847 was an important one from several points of view. A Concordat was concluded between the Vatican and the Sublime Porte, and Pope Pie IX got the Sultan to agree to the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
After an absence of five centuries, once again a foothold was established in the Holy Land. The Vatican initiated important measures to reorganize its presence and work in Palestine. Several of these measures relate to our Order.
In his Brief "Nulla celebrior" of July 23, 1847, the Pope submitted the Franciscan Custodian to the authority of the newly restored Patriarchate and, in December of the same year, he transferred to the latter the power of dubbing Knights. At the same time, the Pontiff organized the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre into a structured Order, which he placed at the disposal of the Patriarchate to assist in its mission in the Holy Land.
Knights of the 19th century were thus assigned by the new Patriarchate to the same tasks as those performed by their predecessors of the 12th century for the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre. After a thrilling and turbulent history, the contemporary Knights were finally brought together in one body which was placed directly under the protection of the Holy See and given legal canonical status.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, the new Patriarch, Mgr Valerga, had himself dubbed Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Franciscan Custodian handed over his powers to the new Patriarch (January 15, 1848). Having become Grand Master, Mgr Valerga began to organize the Order, which was given a new constitution on January 24, 1868.
By the brief "Venerabilis frater" of August 3rd, 1888, Pope Leo XIII authorized the admission in the Order and the concession of the cross to Ladies who have served the Church with particular merit. The Equestrian order of the Holy Sepulchre became the first Order under direct Papal supervision that could be conceded to Ladies.
An additional reform followed on May 3, 1907, when Saint Pius X dispersed all doubt relative to the military spirit of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem when, in his apostolic letter Quam multa te ordinemque, he reserved to himself and his successors the title of Sovereign Head and Grand Master of the Sacred Military Order. He appointed the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem his Lieutenant and administrator of the Grand Magisterium with the renewed power of awarding the knighthood.
His Holiness also disclosed his Pontifical desired to affix on the cross a Military Trophy, namely: "Therefore, in order to manifest our desires clearly to all, and to show our favor and fatherly interest, we decree that those chosen for this Equestrian Order may wear the insignia of the Order, the military trophy to be placed above and suspended from a black ribbon of watered silk, the proper cross of the Order." Furthermore, Pope Saint Pius X added to the costume a white mantle made of whool with the red cross of Jerusalem on the right side.
Our Holy Father, Pope Pius XI, in an audience granted on July 22, 1931, gave this directive: "To the representatives of His Excellency the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Rector and Perpetual Administrator of the Order, the Supreme Pontiff grants in virtue of his sovereign authority, the title of Lieutenants and to these alone the further title of Excellency."