The Orders

Teutonic Knight, Wilhelm von Ütgenbach, Herr zu Ehrenstein. My 18th great grandfather, and his grandfather, Teutonic Knight, Gerlach von Ütgenbach und Ehrenstein. My 20th great grandfather,

Teutonic Knight, Gottfried III, von und zu der Heess. My 17th great grandfather

They belonged to a crusading military order, officially named the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, founded as a military order c. 1192 in Acre, Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The Teutonic Order was formed to aid Christians on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals. Its members have commonly been known as the Teutonic Knights, having a small voluntary and mercenary military membership, serving as a crusading military order for protection of Christians in the Holy Land and the Baltics during the Middle Ages.

It is also true that there were many other reasons for a noble house to join an order beyond the stated “protecting pilgrims”. While it is important to always be aware of changing motivations, it is also cynical to believe that the founding reasons weren’t sincere. Within a very short time there were more than a dozen military orders that a noble family could pick from in order to assist in their need for piety in action. Basically, there had been two lines for the male children to follow, there were the succession lines, princes that would succeed their fathers, perhaps two or three in number. Then there wer male children that were dedicated to the Church, to become priests or bishops, or perhaps scholars. The creation of military orders was a third option. You could still utilize your military training, but do it in the service of the Church, and the Grandmaster of the order.

The most famous of the Orders is probably the Templar’s, or the Order of the Temple, as they took residence on the Temple Mount after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. Much has been written about the First Crusade, but there is no doubt that the timing was just about right for the Crusaders, the main fighting force they expected was busy somewhere else putting down rebellion.

Actually, the first Crusade is really in two parts, the first part was composed primarily of peasants, women, children, and a few militia that set off for thr a Holy Land under the guidance of Peter the Hermit. They couldn’t wait for the organized military, they would go, and conquer the county because “God wills it”. Along the way they would terrorize local communities, commit atrocities, pogroms against Jews, pillaging villages for food, etc. The Byzantine Empire was between them and the Holy Land and they did not respect the Empire. The Empire was Greek Orthodox, and that was barely a Christian. The city was closed to the horde, so they moved on into Seljuk Muslim countryside. Within weeks they were either slaughtered, or captured, and sold into slavery. Not one of the People’s Crusade made it anywhere near Jerusalem, anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 people went missing.

The official part of the First Crusade is sometimes called the Prince’s Crusade, because it was led by five princes from the noble houses in Europe. This was the premier fighting force of knights trained to do battle. They were also political to the extent that the Byzantine Empire received and supported them. They were intended to win back the lands that the Empire had lost. This was not something that the princes ended up doing, treaty or no treaty.

The reality of fighting in the Holy Land became very evident. There was a need to provide protection for Christian pilgrims. As the numbers of pilgrimages increased the local authorities did not see them as helpful tourists. The Muslims had taken Jerusalem from the Byzantines, and they were not giving it back. A few churches had remained occupied throughout the Muslim takeover, but this increase in pilgrimages was seen as a threat.

The five top military orders in terms of power and influence were: the Templar’s, the Hospitaliers, the Teutonic Order, the Order of Santiago, and the Order of the Sepulcher. Most had centers of operational control, most had established hospitals for pilgrimage and Crusaders, some were also fully trained as medical doctors. All were heavily armored and supported by their families and home countries, some orders became very wealthy with donations in cash and land.

Overtime, the pressure and temptation of wealth and power overwhelmed the primary mission of the orders. And of course, eventually they lost all that they had gained by losing territory. Jerusalem fell, and they retreated to Antioch and Acca. Antioch fell, and they were pushed out of Acca. They went to Cypress in order to reorganize for another attempt at Jerusalem. They were pushed out of Cypress, and the Hospitaliers went to Malta. The Templar’s became advisors to most of the kings in Europe, and abandoned any attempt of protecting pilgrims. They had become financial bankers to royalty, using the wealth that had been donated for a different cause. Eventually, Philip IV of France, with the Pope’s blessing, attacked the leadership throughout his country on one day, trying capture the control and wealth of the order. They mostly succeeded, although there are still rumors of Hidden Templar Treasure. While other counties did not arrest and execute Templar’s, their power was broken.

The Teutonic Knights were the only order that simply moved to a different location, and continued the fight against pagans, they went North, to the Baltic area. The local Christian kings were under constant attack from various groups. The Teutonic Knights came in with their experience in the Holy Land and made a difference. Within two hundred years most had converted to Christianity. The Teutonic Knights had also nearly wiped out the pagan Prussians. When the Prussians had captured a knight they generally threw him, and his horse into a bonfire, armor and all.

After years of conflict, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania were all Christian and the Teutonic Knights lost their mission. The kings withdrew there support and the order reformed to do charitable work. This is true today with almost all of the orders that still remain. Only the Templar’s are missing completely.

My three great grandfathers had taken a vow to be in the service of the Grand Master, and the Order. They had families, they had property, but they also had a religious commitment to serve the Church with their sword.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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