A “medieval order” could mean a number of rather different things. With this term one could describe organisations of monks living a contemplative life in cloistered monasteries; or it could apply to societies of mendicant friars who travelled and preached among lay folks. Another variation of pious communities called by that name were the religious military orders such as the renowned Templars and Knights Hospitaller. In the last centuries of the Middle Ages, however, the term was – perhaps somewhat surprisingly – also adopted by secular fraternities: the chivalric orders of knighthood founded by European kings and other princes.

It has been emphasised that the noble fraternities of the Late Middle Ages, such as the Order of the Garter and the Order of the Golden Fleece, were for the most part not based on religious military orders. Rather, they were inspired by popular legends about valorous knights, like the men who sat as equals with King Arthur behind the Round Table, or the devout paladins who championed the cause of Emperor Charlemagne.

King Arthur’s knights, gathered at the Round Table to celebrate the Pentecost, see a vision of the Holy Grail.

Miniature by Evrard d’Espinques, ca 1475.

Monarchs who founded secular orders of chivalry drew upon mostly secular traditions, such as those of knightly teams who competed at tournaments. They also adopted several practices of various lay confraternities (such as guilds), and utilised methods that princes and noblemen of the Late Middle Ages commonly employed to attract loyal retainers.

Nevertheless, the influence that religious military orders had on secular orders of knighthood can not be neglected. After all, the most obvious reflection of their impact was the adaption of the word “order” itself, as a term for noble lay fraternities. On one hand, the secular orders of knighthood were a sort of a parody of their religious cousins: they had their own scriptures such as “The Death of King Arthur” and “Song of Roland”; they possessed their own creed and liturgy of chivalry; and even included something akin to a priesthood – the educated heralds or kings of arms. But on the other hand, lay orders also lent a great deal of their prestige and credibility from religious military orders who were (despite certain criticism) widely admired as devout defenders of Christendom.

The events out of which the religious military orders had been born in the 12th century were the crusades, and many late medieval secular orders of chivalry also included in their statutes the promise of crusading. Military pilgrimages – extremely honourable and virtous endeavours – had been a vital element of the ethos of Christian warriors since late 11th century, and hence their inclusion in the rules of secular chivalrous fraternities is not surprising. But this emphasis on crusading was also meant to demonstrate the similarities these new lay fraternities had with the acclaimed religious military orders whose main task was the struggle against pagans and infidels.

Although this disposition for crusading was seldom realised as actual warfare carried out by the secular orders of knighthood, many more casual observances made their link to the religious orders quite explicit. The principal everyday aspects of this were the robes and badges of the members of the lay organisations. Although lay orders’ insignia had certain secular precursors in the livery badges worn by retainers of princes or nobles, their more obvious symbolism was tied to the robes of the religious organisations. A mantle opening down the front and bearing the symbol of the cross was a distinctive mark of knightly status in religious military orders, and the adoption of such attire with similar badges was an apparent sign that the founders of the chivalric orders identified with the traditions of crusading and the defence of Christendom.

Earl of Warwick and Lord Stafford, depicted as Knights of the Garter, in the Garter Book by William Bruges, the Garter King of Arms, 1430.

The influence religious orders had on the secular can therefore be reasonably obversed, but what impact could be felt the other way around? Religious military orders had never been separated from worldly politics: many Hospitaller brothers served secular monarchs in different parts of Europe and often resided in royal courts, for example. Since religious orders were by no means isolated from developments in constitutional and social ideology or the exercise of governmental authority they also came into contact with the new chivalrous societies which kings and other princes founded to consolidate their power.

One of the main tendencies inside the religious military orders of the Late Middle Ages was the emergence of Knight Brothers as not only the ruling but increasingly aristocratic strata of members. Poverty and modesty had been essential principles in the founding dogmas of the religious military orders, and (at least formally) they did not orignially emphasise aristocratic heritage as an imporatant criteria for joining the organisation. In the Late Middle Ages, however, noble ancestry became a precondition for joining as a Knight Brother.

Therefore, the late medieval religious military orders were dominated by noble-born Knight Brothers who made even the priests – not to mention the non-noble sergeants – second-class members. In the middle of the 15th century, one author reproached the Hospitallers for opressing their clergy: “The commanders, small or great, they carry the order and the cross but do not sing and read masses; and they disregard the priests of the order and treat them as their servants”.

Meanwhile, the Teutonic Knights had fought against pagans of northeast Europe in the 13th and 14th century crusades. After the Christianisation of the region, however, they essentially became local landlords in the Baltic. Since most members who joined the Teutonic Order were lower nobles of Germany, for whom the organisation offered a living and profession worthy of their station, it was in the Late Middle Ages deemed a “hospital of the German nobility”.

Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson and senior Knights Hospitaller.

Miniature by Maître du Cardinal de Bourbon from Gestorum Rhodie obsidionis commentarii, ca 1483–84.

The transformation of the great religious military orders from warrior monks fighting against the enemies of Christendom to collective territorial princes was of course mostly brought about by the fact that they aqcuired these lands to govern. The Knights Hospitaller claimed the island of Rhodes, and Teutonic Knights conquered Prussia as well as Livonia (the latter being nowadays Estonia and Latvia). Hence, noble-born Knight Brothers governing these lands could more or less live like their lay kin in their respective holdings. But since this was also the era of founding the first royal and princely orders of  knighthood which drew members from among this secular elite, it inspired the high-born members of religious military orders to present their organisation as a similar chivalrous fraternity.

Lands of the Teutonic Order in the Baltic region in the Late Middle Ages.

Although the Teutonic Order had enforced the demand for a proof of nobility for its Knight Brothers only in later centuries, this tradition was projected back to the very beginning of the organisation’s history (late 12th century) in late medieval written works. This historigraphical tradition reflected the fact that the Teutonic Order increasingly percieved and presented itself as an old community of noble knights – very much in the spirit of lay orders of knighthood. In everyday use, the organisation was even called by a new name that was more compatible with secular chivalry. The Order of the Brothers of the Teutonic House of Saint Mary was now often referred to by its members as the Knightly Teutonic Order.

Albrecht von Brandenburg, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order (1510–25) and later Duke of Prussia (1525–68) in the gown of the Teutonic Order, wearing the collar of the Order of the Knights of the Swan.

Anonymous painter, 1522.

This more chivalrous nature of the religious military orders was not only echoed in semantics. In 1518, the Teutonic Grand Master organised a lavish tournament in which members of the order took part, despite the fact that tournaments and other knightly activities were prohibited by the statutes of the order. In 1522, this same Grand Master, Albrecht – member of the House of Hohenzollern, the Electors of Brandenburg – commisioned a painting of himself clad in the gown of a Teutonic Knight, but also wearing the collar of the Order of the Knights of the Swan, a secular order of chivalry tied to his princely family. Hence, Albrecht presented himself as a prestigious knight of both a secular and religious order.

There was also a shift towards the secular traditions in the insignia of the religious military orders themselves. Traditionally, their members were bestowed with a ring and a cloth cross to be worn on their robes, but around 1500 the Teutonic Knights had a collar made for some unknown official of the order. By that time, collars had not only become the main insignia of secular orders, but also important symbols for monarchs who were their sovreigns. A collar of the most important (or only) order of the ruler was worn by them on important occasions, painted into portraits and decorated their personal arms. In short: it had become a part of royal regalia.

The Teutonic Order which saw itself both as a collective prince of a territorial state and a semi-secular corporation of noblemen apparenly decided it needed something like that as well. This, of course, was not an isolated incident. The infulences of lay orders of knighthood made their way into all religious military orders, which led the latter to not only commision collars akin to those of secular princes, but eventually form a phaleristic tradition that is by today difficult to separate from the order’s badges and decorations of monarchs and governments.