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Saints with Swords: The Military Order of Calatrava

The year is 1157. Throughout the Iberian Peninsula, battles rage between the Catholic Spaniards and the Moors – Islamic invaders hailing from Northern Africa. For Christendom, this is a time of constant warfare. Hostile heathen armies occupy large swaths of Western and Eastern Europe. Pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land are under threat of death.  This is an era of faith and combat, an age of Crusade.

Among the marshy banks of the Guadania in Spain lies a castle. Originally known as Qalat Rawaah (Castle of War) in the tongue of the Mohammedans, the Catholic Spanish dubbed it Calatrava. The fortress, captured ten years prior under Alfonso VII el Emperador, was essential for the defense of Toledo. The warriors entrusted with arming its walls are none other than the fighting men of the Knights Templar.

Formation of the Order

The Templars, although veterans of conflict against jihadists, feared that their garrison would not hold against the new Almohad threat – a multinational empire much like ISIS today – formed to retake lost Moslem territory. The knights deemed the location indefensible and moved to other battlefronts.

The king, however, issued a plea for help to any who were able: “Defend [Calatrava] against the pagans, the enemies of the cross of Christ... so that the Christian religion may be propagated and the kingdom may be protected.”

Seeing the vacant fortress, a Cistercian abbot named Ramón Sierra – later known as Saint Ramón de Fitero – accompanied by Diego Velasquez, himself a monk, nobleman and acquaintance of the king, approached King Sancho.  Saint Ramón made an offer: Allow his Cistercians to dwell in Calatrava and they would manage its defenses. Influenced by desperation and the potent graces emanating from the saint, the king agreed.

After his monks had taken up residence in the castle, Saint Ramón began preaching the crusade to the people of the region. His fiery words, assisted by the Holy Ghost, moved the hearts of many soldiers and commoners of Navarre to take up arms in defense of the honor of their Crucified Savior and protect their Christian homeland. With the aid of Diego, Saint Ramón organized a rule of community life for the fledgling warriors.

Death of Saint Ramón and Internal Life

In 1163, Saint Ramón, being of advanced age, died of natural causes.  A new abbot was elected according to the customs of the Cistercian Order.  Calatrava’s freiles – knights and lay-brothers – chose their own master, Don Garcia, as a leader of the military wing of the community.

Recognizing the divergence of charisms, the clerical monks left the fortress for the monastery of Cirvelos in order to offer their spiritual support, leaving Diego, Don Garcia and the freiles to develop the internal life of the nascent order. At the insistence of Don Garcia, the freiles chose to live under the Cistercian rule and were later received in “full communion” as brothers by Abbot Gilbert of Cîteaux, who said of them, “[These are] not soldiers of the world, but soldiers of God.”  This, along with the canonical approval of Pope Alexander III, constituted the basic formation of the Order.

Rather than being headed by a priest, the master of the order was generally a brother-knight, although the clerical prior – always a French Cistercian from Morimond who held daily chapters – was one of the Order’s superiors.  Upon the death of the Grand Master, the Grand Commander would summon all available members of the Order to elect a new leader, whereupon the selected knight would be presented the seal, sword and banner of the order as the electors chanted the Te Deum. After this, a High Mass would be celebrated to thank God for the selection of their new master.

The habit donned by these warrior-monks was similar to the white robes worn by their mother order, albeit shortened to the knee so that they could mount a horse. To promote discipline and vigilance, they were required to sleep in their steel armor, which was black as a rule.  Silence was observed in their refectories, dormitories and oratories.  In addition to honing their martial skills, the battle-brothers recited the Cîteaux breviary together with the clerics attached to the order (each knight was required to sing the Psalter a minimum of ten times a year) and in the field they prayed an established series of Pater Nosters and Ave Marias (Our Fathers and Hail Marys).  Abstinence was observed four days per week, excluding feast days. Surely, this life of privation prepared them for the spiritual and physical taxes of war.

Peninsular Crusade

Pope Celestine III, seeing the plight of the Spanish, whose ancestral lands had been long occupied by “the enemies of the cross of Christ,” called for peace among the kings of Christendom so that they could focus their efforts on combating the Mohammedan threat. Offering the nobility of Europe spiritual support, the vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth, as was his right, commanded the lords and military orders “to expel [the Moslems] and drive them far from the lands which the Christian people had cultivated for a long time before.” The contrast between the spirit of this holy pope and the pacifist attitude present among many today is noteworthy.

Not formed to be defensive contemplatives, the Order of Calatrava was instrumental in many of the offensive battles of the Reconquista.  Shortly after their formation, the order participated in what was dubbed the “Crusade of Silves,” notable for being one of the most diverse Christian armies outside of the Holy Land, with crusaders from throughout Europe represented. During this action, the Order was part of a joint task force responsible for capturing the suburbs of the Muslim held city of Silves and setting up a preliminary siege force alongside detachments of Templars, Hospitallers and other military orders. They proved themselves to be of formidable skill in this campaign, a trait that marked the order until the end of the Reconquista.

As faithful sons of Christ and the successors of Saint Peter, the Knights of Calatrava participated in almost every campaign in the Reconquista alongside the nobility.  Such was their dedication that nothing dampened their love for Christian Civilization, neither defeat nor casualties or even the loss of their namesake castle.   Indeed, not only did their martial heroism win many lands for Spain, and consequently souls for Christ, but it also inspired a spirit of crusade throughout Christendom, resulting in the formation of several other military orders who drew their inspiration and rule of life from Calatrava.

Decline of Calatrava

According to the eminent Catholic thinker and founder of the first TFP, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, the decline of Christian Civilization began at the end of the Middle Ages with an outburst of pride and sensuality, passions that gave rise to a revolutionary process that destroyed the spirit of Chivalry. This view is vindicated by the history of the downfall of Calatrava.  Men who were once indomitable in the face of death, were defeated by the worldly spirit of the Renaissance.

Around the time of ascension to the throne of France by Philippe le Bel – the king who sent an agent to physically assault the Pope in the XIVth Century, a decline in the moral discipline of the order emerged. The evangelical counsels (the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience taken by the brother-knights) ceased being observed and were ultimately done away with altogether.  Disputes about the leadership of the Order arose, resulting in several schisms as well as the election of grand masters of dubious character. Some of them fathered illegitimate children.  Nepotism and worldliness became rampant. Concerned more with the pleasures of this earth than the interests of God and Our Lady, they turned their back on the original crusading mission that Saint Ramón had called them to.

Eventually, they surrendered their status as a religious order to the secular crown, and became a purely honorary order of the state. Despite the appearance of a few paragons in their latter days, it was not enough to reverse the decadence of the Order.  In the 19th century, the Order was finally dissolved.

God’s Voice in History

The history and outcome of the Order of Calatrava should serve as a solemn example of how God speaks to His Church through history.  The Sacrament of Confirmation confers upon all Catholics the calling to be crusaders, whether their struggle be physical or spiritual, whether they be lay or religious.  When the spirit of Christ-like combativeness and holocaust are forgotten, the doors of concupiscence – the world, the flesh and the devil – spring wide open.

St. Robert of Molesme, pray for us!
St. Ramón de Fitero, pray for us!
Our Lady of the Pillar, pray for us!


Bibliography :

Moeller, CH. "Military Order of Calatrava - the knights who slept in armour." Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites. July 30, 2014. Accessed February 10, 2017. http://www.nobility.org/2013/08/15/calatrava/.

Alan V. Murray, ed. The Crusades. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006, pp. 199-201

O'Callaghan, Joseph F. Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Seward, Desmond. The Monks of War: the Military Orders. London: Folio Society, 2000.

Lacroix, Paul. Military and Religious Life in the Middle Ages: and the Period of the Renaissance. London: Bickers & son, 1874. 

Peers, E. Allison. Spain, the Church and the Orders. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne Ltd., 1945.

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