Order of Christ (Portugal)

Order of Christ (Portugal)
Order of Christ (Portugal)
Military Order of the Knights of Christ
Real Ordem dos Cavaleiros de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo
A Cross of the Order of Christ
Active 1318–present
Allegiance Papacy
Type Western Christian military order
Nickname Order of Christ
Attire White mantle with a red cross
Battle honours Crusades

The Military Order of Christ (Ordem Militar de Cristo) previously the Royal Order of the Knights of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Real Ordem dos Cavaleiros de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo) was the heritage of the Knights Templar in Portugal, after the suppression of the Templars in 1312. It was founded in 1319.

Under heavy influence from Philip IV of France, Pope Clement V had the order annihilated throughout France and most of Europe on charges of heresy, but King Denis of Portugal, forced by the Pope who found that the Order's assets should for their nature stay in any given Order instead of being taken by the King, re-instituted the Templars of Tomar as the Order of Christ, largely for their aid during the Reconquista and in the reconstruction of Portugal after the wars. King Denis negotiated with Pope Clement's successor John XXII for the new order's recognition and right to inherit the Templar assets and property.


The precursors of the order – the foundation of Tomar

The "Convento de Cristo" in Tomar, central Portugal.

The Templars were founded around 1118 and soon formed commanderies around Europe to support their efforts in the Holy Land, settling in Portugal in 1128, the first country in Europe where they settled.[1]

Dom Gualdim Pais, provincial Master of the Order of the Temple in Portugal, constructed the Convento de Cristo in 1160. According to folklore, he chose the location after drawing lots and receiving a sign to build a new Templar fortress on a hill between the river Fria and Saint Gregory's creek. The Convento de Cristo is a testament to the Templars' architectural abilities.[2]

Floor Plan of the Church, Chapter House and Charola

The octagonal church was inspired by the Islamic Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem, used by the Templars as their base of operations. The Dome of the Rock is located on the Temple Mount, where the Temple of Jerusalem stood prior to its destruction in 70 A.D., and the Templars believed the Dome of the Rock was a remnant of the ancient Temple from which their name derives. The order incorporated features of the shrine into their imagery and architecture, including the seals of Grand-Masters. The architecture of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre may have also served as a model. The sepulchre itself stands in an elaborate structure within the rotunda (rotunda – 35 m diameter), surrounded by a group of three columns between four pairs of square piers columns supporting an ornamented, domed roof. It is possible that the 4th-century rotunda's columns were removed from their original location on the façade of the Roman temple. Renovation of the piers exposed evidence that the columns had originally been much higher and that the Crusaders cut them in half for use in the 12th-century rotunda.

On 13 July 1190, the King of Morocco laid siege to the Templars in Tomar. This test of strength confirmed the Templars' military power and established them as an indispensable presence in the defense of northern Portugal. Pais died in 1195 after ruling for 50 years.

Suppression of the Templars – birth of the Order of Christ

The floor plan of the Dome of the Rock and some lines depicting some symbolic associations.

After the Templar order's suppression by Pope Clement in 1312, King Denis set about creating a new order for the displaced knights in his realm. He instituted the "Christi Militia" under the patronage of Saint Benedict in 1317 (some sources say August 14, 1318), and Pope John XXII approved this order by a Papal bull on 14 March 1319 "AD EA EX QVIBVIS".[3]

After four years of negotiations, Pope John XXII passed another bull authorizing Denis to grant the Templar's property to the Order of the Christ in 1323. The knights of the order were committed to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the king. It is unclear how many Templars continued in the new order; some historians would claim the Order of Christ was essentially the Templars under a new name; while others see it as a mostly original formation. The first Grand Master, Dom Gil Martínez, had been a knight of Saint Benedict in the Order of Aviz.

The Order of Christ was first seated at Castro Marim, in the Algarve (in the Diocese of Faro). In 1357, the order was moved to the town of Tomar, near Santarém, former seat of the Order of the Knights Templars in Portugal. (Other sources give the movement date 1366 under the sixth Grand Master, Dom Nuno Rodrigues.)

The Order of Christ under Henry the Navigator

The Seal of the Grand-Masters Evrard de Barres and Regnaud de Vichier depicts the Dome of the Rock.

After 1417, by King John I of Portugal's request to the Pope, Prince Henry the Navigator (1417–1460) became the order's Grand Master. Prince Henry the Navigator was born in 1394, the third son of King João of Portugal. During that time, Duarte I and Afonso V were Kings of Portugal. In 1433, King Duarte I gave the Order "Sovereign" status not over these territories which already held, but over any future conquests.

Henry the Navigator

Pope Calixtus III in 1455 confirmed that Afonso V extended his temporal jurisdiction by conceding the royal prerogative over three episcopal nominations in areas ruled by the Order. In 1460, King Afonso V granted the Knights of Christ a 5 percent levy on all merchandise from the new African lands. Using Order of Christ money, Prince Henry organized the Navigator's school in Sagres, preparing the way for Portuguese supremacy; from this village, the first great wave of expeditions of the Period of Discoveries were launched.

After Henry, the grand mastership was held by the royal family. Henry colonised the Azores and Madeira islands — his aim was to go south beyond Cape Bojador, south of the Canary Islands. During Prince Henry's rule, two Gothic cloisters were built in the Convent of Tomar. Henry was the Duke of Viseu and also member of the Knights of the Garter. Henry's impact on history is great, having arguably sparked the European interest in colonial exploration that would so transform the world for the next four centuries.

The Cross of the Order adorned Portuguese sails in their travels to India, Brazil, and Japan.

The Order of Christ after Henry the Navigator's command

Portuguese caravel, adorned with the Cross of the Order. This was the standard model used by the Portuguese in their voyages of exploration. It could accommodate about 20 sailors.

Prince Henry was succeeded in the governorship of the Order by Prince Ferdinand, son of King Edward I, who died in 1470.

In 1484, Emanuel, Duke of Beja, became the 11th Governor of the Order. Due to the fact that the discipline of the order was declining, Pope Alexander VI commuted the vow of celibacy to that of conjugal chastity in 1492; in 1496, the brethren were dispensed from celibacy and in 1505, from poverty, but they still continued their responsions (one third of their revenues) to the Order's treasury. (The condition that they should apply the third part of their revenues to the building and support of the Tomar Cloister) and the priests of which he bound to the whole of the three vows. Also in 1501, Pope Julius II mitigated the vow of poverty into the payment of a tax - the meia-anata; for the Order of Christ this tax was three-quarters of their annual revenues.

Manuel I of Portugal sought and obtained the title of Grand Master by Pope Leo X's Bull Constante fide (June 30, 1516). King Manuel, João's successor, sent Vasco da Gama (a member of the Order of Christ) to sail around the African cape to India. He set sail in 1497 and reached Calicut. By the end of king Manuel's reign, the order possessed 454 commanderies in Portugal, Africa and the Indies. Manuel also made extensive additions to the Order's headquarters in Tomar. Manuel ordered that the church of Tomar be expanded westwards, spreading beyond the castle limits and opening up the Charola to add on to it a magnificent nave which housed the choir and the sacristy, becoming known as the chapter house. The order also began its step-by-step transformation from monastic to secular during Manuel's reign. At the end of this process, the order had taken the form of a royal institution.

The Convento de Cristo's famous Manuel I Chapter window by Diogo de Arruda (around 1510)

The son of Manuel did not automatically obtain the succession right for ruling the order, and got an approval by Bull of Pope Adrian VI: "EXIMIAE DEVOTIONIS" (April 14, 1523). After thirty years, John III obtained "Perpetual Administration" of all the Portuguese Military Orders including the Order of Christ, and of course the Grand Mastership of the Order passed to the Crown by Pope Julius III's Bull, issued in Rome in 1551. For the government of these orders in the king's name, John III instituted a special council named "Mesa das Ordens".

The Reform of John III and fra Antonius

There are some who say that in 1522 the Order was divided into two branches – one religious under the Pope, and one civil under the king, as they remain today – however, there is lack of evidence regarding this. In 1523, John III held a chapter of the order giving brother Antonius of Lisbon the authority and responsibility to reform the Order. The scope of the reform was to bring to the annihilation the religious life among the knights of the order. The new statutes were approved in 1529 by Friars. The Grand Prior was removed from office and all the priests and religious of the Order were required to resume Conventual life at Tomar, and to wear the habit and cross of the Order. Dom António obtained the position of Prior and persuaded pope Pius V to give him the control of all convents of the order in 1567.

The counterreform of Sebastian

King Sebastian tried to reverse the reform of brother Antonius of Lisbon in 1574. When Antonius persuaded the pope Pius V to give him the control of all convents of the order in 1567, King Sebastian protested and obtained confirmation of his post as Grand Master. As a result the religious members of the Order were separated into lay and military membership.

Other reform movements

Between 1580 and 1640 there was another attempt to reform the order. The new statutes were enacted by the general chapter at Tomar 1619 and were promulgated by Philip IV of Spain in 1627. The conditions for admission to the order were noble birth and either two years' service in Africa or three years with the fleet.

The secularization of the Order

Pope Pius VI (1789) and Queen Mary I made the last attempt to reform the order. This reform made the convent of Tomar once again the headquarters of the whole order. The sovereign still remained Grand Master, but instead of the conventual prior there was a grand prior of the Order. In 1789 the Portuguese Order lost its religious character, being secularised by Queen Mary. Since 1789, the members consisted (besides the Grand Master and Great Commander) of six Knights of the Grand Cross, four hundred and fifty Commanders, and an unlimited number of Knights. Foreigners were exempt from the rules, but, at the same time, were excluded from the participation in the revenues of the Order. Only Catholics of noble descent could be admitted to the Order. The Order of Christ also survived in Brazil until the end of the Monarchic period in 1889.

In 1834 when the civil government of Portugal became anti-Catholic, after the defeat of King Miguel in the Civil War, under the constitutional monarchy the order lost its properties. The ancient Military Orders were transformed by the liberal constitution and subsequent legislation into mere Orders of Merit. The privileges which once had been an essential part of the membership of the old military orders were also ceased.

In 1910, when Portuguese monarchy ended, the Republic of Portugal abolished all the Orders except the Order of the Tower and Sword. However, in 1917, at the end of the Great War, some of these Orders were re-established as mere Orders of Merit to reward outstanding services to the state, the office of Grand Master belonging to the Head of State - the President of the Republic. The Military Order of Christ, together with the other Portuguese Orders of Merit, had its Statutes revised in several occasions, during the First Republic (1910–1926), then in 1962, and again in 1986.

The Military Order of Christ, together with the Military Orders of Aviz and of St. James of the Sword form the group of the "Ancient Military Orders", governed by a Chancellor and a Council of eight members, appointed by the President of the Republic, to assist him as Grand Master in all matters concerning the administration of the Order. The Order, despite its name, can be conferred on civilians and on military, Portuguese and foreigners, for outstanding services to the Republic, in parliament, in the government, in the diplomatic service, in the Courts of Justice, on public authorities or on the Civil Service.


Badge of the Knight of the Order of Christ

The Order of Christ, as awarded by the Portuguese government today, comes in five classes:

  • Grand Cross (GCC), which wears the badge of the Order on a sash on the right shoulder, and the star of the Order in gold on the left chest;
  • Grand Officer (GOC), which wears the badge of the Order on a necklet, and the star of the Order in gold on the left chest;
  • Commander (ComC), which wears the badge of the Order on a necklet, and the star of the Order in silver on the left chest;
  • Officer (OC), which wears the badge of the Order on a ribbon with rosette on the left chest;
  • Knight (CavC) or Dame (DamC), which wears the badge of the Order on a plain ribbon on the left chest.


  • The badge of the Order is a gilt cross with enamel, similar to the Order's emblem illustrated here, but with a longer lower arm. During the monarchy there were separate badges for civil and military knights: civil knights wore a badge similar to the modern version, but with the Sacred Heart of Christ above it; military knights had a completely different insignia, this being a gilt, white enamelled Maltese Cross with enamelled oval shields (each bearing a design similar to the Coat of arms of Portugal minus the red border) between the arms of the cross, the whole surrounded by a wreath of palm; the central disc was in white enamel, with a miniature of the modern badge in it; the badge was topped by a gilt crown.
  • The star of the Order has 22 asymmetrical arms of rays, in gilt for Grand Cross and Grand Officer, and in silver for Commander. The central disc is in white enamel, with a miniature of the modern badge in it. During the monarchy the Sacred Heart of Christ was placed at the top of the star.
  • The ribbon of the Order is plain red.


PRT Order of Christ - Grand Cross BAR.png
Grand Cross
PRT Order of Christ - Grand Officer BAR.png
Grand Officer
PRT Order of Christ - Commander BAR.png
PRT Order of Christ - Officer BAR.png
PRT Order of Christ - Knight BAR.png

People associated with the Order of Christ

Locations associated with the Order of Christ

See also



  • GUIMARÃES, J. Vieira, A Ordem de Cristo, Lisboa, I.N., 1936

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