Neither the name of a founder nor a date of foundation can be assigned to the so-called Order of the Holy Sepulchre if we reject the legendary traditions which trace its origin back to the time of Godfrey of Bouillon, or Charlemagne, or indeed even to the days of St. James the Apostle, first Bishop of Jerusalem. It is in reality a secular confraternity which gradually grew up around the most august of the Holy Places. It was for the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre that the crusades were organized; it was for its defence that military orders were instituted. During the Middle Ages this memorable relic of Christ's life on earth was looked upon as the mystical sovereign of the new Latin state. Godfrey of Bouillon desired no other title than that of Defender of the Holy Sepulchre, and different Latin princes, Bohemond of Antioch, and Tancred, acknowledged themselves its vassals. It was natural that the Holy Sepulchre also had its special knights. In the broad acceptation of the word, every crusader who had taken the sword in its defence might assume the title from the very moment of being dubbed a knight. Those who were not knighted had the ambition of being decorated knights, preferably in this sanctuary, and of being thus enabled to style themselves Knights of the Holy Sepulchre par excellence . The fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem did not suspend pilgrimages to the Tomb of Christ, or the custom of receiving knighthood there, and, when the custody of the Holy Land was entrusted to the Franciscans, they continued this pious custom and gave the order its first grand masters.
The official arrival of the Friars Minor in Syria dates from the Bull addressed by Pope Gregory IX to the clergy of Palestine in 1230, charging them to welcome the Friars Minor, and to allow them to preach to the faithful and hold oratories and cemeteries of their own. Thanks to the ten years' truce concluded during the preceding year between Frederick II of Sicily and the sultan, the Franciscans were enabled to enter Jerusalem, but they were also the first victims of the violent invasion of the Khorasmians in 1244, thus opening the long Franciscan martyrology of the Holy Land. Nevertheless, the Franciscan province of Syria continued to exist with Acco as its seat. The monks quickly resumed possession of their convent of Mount Sion at Jerusalem, to which they have demonstrated their claim with the blood of their martyrs and where they have obstinately retained their foothold in spite of numberless molestations and outrages for five hundred years. The Turks, notwithstanding their fierce fanaticism, tolerated the veneration paid to the Tomb of Christ, because of the revenue they derived from the taxes levied upon pilgrims. In 1342, in his Bull "Gratiam agimus", Pope Clement VI officially committed the care of the Holy Land to the Franciscans, who fulfilled this trust until the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem by Pius IX. Consequently, after 1342, to be enrolled among the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, it was necessary to apply to the Franciscans, and from this period the itineraries of pilgrims mention frequent receptions into this confraternity — improperly called an order, since it had no monastic rule, regular organization, or community of goods. Where mention is made of the possessions of the Holy Sepulchre, the allusion is to the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre , who had convents in various lands, and not to the knights, as some writers believe.
Pilgrims were received into this lay confraternity with all the external ceremonial of ancient chivalry, although the fundamental rules of the institution were not always observed. It was objected that many on whom knighthood was conferred were not of the nobility. The formal question, "if he were of noble birth", was always put to the applicant, but in event of his being a merchant or a plebeian he was not obliged to answer. In point of fact all classes were represented in these pilgrimages, and it is easy to understand why those who had accomplished this trying devotion, then so fraught with danger, should desire to carry away from Jerusalem some such lasting souvenir as the insignia of knighthood, and that refusal was difficult, especially since the sanctuary was practically dependent on the offerings of these merchants, and consequently these contributions were far more deserving of recognition than the platonic vow to exert oneself as far as possible in the defence of the Holy Land. In the ceremonial of reception, the rôle of the clergy was limited to the benedictio militis , the final act of dubbing with the sword being reserved to a professional knight. It has been ascertained that, in the fifteenth century from 1480 to 1495, there was in Jerusalem a German, John of Prussia, who acted as steward for the convent and who, in his character of gentleman and layman, regularly discharged this act reserved to knighthood. It was also of frequent occurrence that a foreign knight, present among the crowds of pilgrims, would assist at this ceremony. However, in default of other assistance, it was the superior who had to act instead of a knight, although such a course was esteemed irregular, since the carrying of the sword was incompatible with the sacerdotal character. It was since then also that the superior of the convent assumed the title of grand master, a title which has been acknowledged by various pontifical diplomas, and finally by a Bull of Benedict XIV dated 1746. When Pius IX re-established the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1847, he transferred to it the office of grand master of the order. At the same time he drew up and in 1868 published the new statutes of the order, which created the three ranks — that of the grand cross, that of commander, and that of simple knight — ordained that the costume be a "white cloak with the cross of Jerusalem in red enamel", and regulated the chancellor's fees. By his Bull of 30 May, 1907, Pius X effected the latest change by reserving to himself the grand-mastership of the order, but delegating his powers to the present Latin patriarch.
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