Castles of the Military Orders

The largest and most important Military Orders of the middle ages were of course the orders of the Knights of the Temple (the Templars) and those of the Hospital of St John (the Hospitallers) both established in the Middle East around the time of the first Crusade in the early 12th century.

photo calatrava viejaIt might be argued that the Christian Military Orders were developed as a response to the long established Muslim precursor the Ribatin ( based in Ribats or fortified monasteries – of which two are known in the Iberian peninsula) – although Muslim Military Orders were voluntary on a short term secondment – the Christian Military Orders were usually for life.

In Spain the ‘reconquest’ by Christain kings and lords against the ‘Moors’ began long before the First Crusade to the Holy Land and may be considered as one of the very first Crusading campaigns. At times the reconquest was officially seen as such by the popes and crusading advantages were conferred upon those who took up arms against the Moors.

photo miravetAs Crusading grew in popularity drawing in more and more of the European aristocracy, the territories and estates that were granted to the Knights Templar and Hospitaller became ever more widespread.

As the reconquest developed a number of territories, castles and even towns were granted to the Knights of the Temple and the Hospital by victorious magnates who needed to hold the won territory from the Moors but were not able to garrison the area with their own troops.

The Templars therefore by the mid 12th century had substantial holdings within Spain, particularly in what were border areas. The castle and town of Ponferrada, on the pilgrim route to Santiago, for example was granted to the Knights Templar in 1178.

The castle of Miravet in Catalunya, south of Tarragona, was taken from the Muslims in 1153 and was handed to the Knights Templar. They largely rebuilt the castle over the next century, much of which remains today.


Knights of Calatrava

The first Hispanic Military Order was founded by King Sancho III of Castille in 1148 to defend the important border castle and town of Calatrava after it was abandoned by the Knights Templar in 1147. The first knights of Calatrava were established as new confraternity who took the vows of the Cistercian rule as well as vows of calatrava neuva

The original castle of Calatrava or Old Calatrava (vieja) was taken by the Moors and the order moved to a new site not vary far away at Salvatierra but after 10 years or so this castle too was taken by the Moors. It was only after the defeat of the Muslims at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 did the Christians regain control of this area. Soon after, in 1216 a new castle was begun in a much more defensible position on the summit of a steep hill and established the new headquarters of the Order – New Calatrava (nueva).

In time the Order grew and obtained much land, castles and property throughout Spain (but mainly in the south, centre and east) to become the dominant Military Order in the peninsula.

Knights of Alcantara

photo calatrava neuva chapelAnother Hispanic Order was created in 1156 although not approved by the pope until 1177, to defend the western marches of Castile (Extremadura) from the Moors and also from the Portuguese. From very modest beginnings as a monastery based order of Cistercian fighting monks, they were granted the town of Alcantara by King Alfonso IX of Leon. From this point the order grew in size and more and more towns and territories were granted – helping substantially in the repopulation of these once hostile border areas.

As the major pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compestella in north west Spain grew in popularity, helped no doubt by the difficulties of making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the increasing numbers of Christians making the journey to Compestella were suffering raids and attacks by Islamic guerrillas.

Knights of Santiago

photo calatrava neuva chancelAround the year 1171 a small number of Spanish Knights were allowed to create a new Military Order attached to the Augustinian monastery at Lugo and follow their monastic rule and became the Order of Knights of Santiago. Their role was to protect the pilgrims making the long trek through northern Spain to worship at the tomb of St James at Compestella.

The Order of Santiago also held a number of hospitals for the care of pilgrims. The order grew very quickly and soon held towns, castles and properties throughout Portugal, Leon, Castile and Aragon. Interestingly this order of knights was the only one of the Hispanic Orders who were allowed to marry – all others taking the vow of chastity.

Amongst a number of lesser orders was the Order of Montesa, established at the dissolution of the Templars and who were granted much of that orders possessions from various parts of Spain. Established in 1317, they were granted Montesa castle and given the primary responsibility for fighting the Muslims on the Valencian frontier, an area of al Andalus covering the extreme southeastern side of Spain and retaining a strong Muslim resistance when more central areas of Spain had given to the Christians.


The castles of the Military Orders of course varied depending on their use. Many were reused from Muslim lords or granted to them by other Christian nobles or international Military Orders.

photo loarreThe Spanish Military Orders were keen to take architectural devices from other cultures and it is not uncommon for example for many castles of the Military Orders to possess external, detached ‘albarrana’ towers either inherited from Muslim precursors or built from scratch in the Muslim style, no doubt due to the influence of Muslim or converted Muslim craftsmen now under Christian lordship.

The castles that were the regional or even national base of an order was built or adapted into a full castle-monastery, complete with large cathedral church, dormitories for knights and lay brothers, chapter house and all the trappings of a religious house – together with the full military requirements of a fighting garrison – including stables, armouries workshops etc.

The most magnificent castle-monastery remaining to be visited in Spain today is the castle of Loarre in northern Spain. Granted by the king to a group of Augustinian Friars in 1071 they became one of the first fighting Religious Orders anywhere, predating the formation of the Knights of the Hospital in 1104. These brothers enlarged the existing (possibly Islamic) castle and created the magnificent Romanesque castle-monastery that remains to this day. One of the earliest and perhaps the most complete castles of any Military Order.



Photos on this page: From top. Calatrava la Vieja; Miravet; Calatrava la Neuva; Calatrava la Neuva - chapel; Calatrava la Neuva - chancel; Loarre.