The origin of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem dates back to the first Crusade and their motto Deus lo Vult (God Wills it) was borrowed from the great battle cry of Blessed Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095, which called together all the knights of Christendom to kindly go and deliver the Holy Places recently conquered by the Seljuk Turks.
Responsible for the protection of the Holy Sepulchre since the 12th century
After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, Godefrey de Bouillon entrusted to a group of knights the task of protecting the religious Chapter of Canons who were present at Holy Sepulchre of Christ. In 1122 Pope Callistus II issued a bull establishing them as a lay religious community with specific responsibilities of defending the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and the city of Jerusalem in defense of Christianity against Muslim attack.
The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was established, and the knights of the Holy Sepulchre played an integral role in advancing peace in the territory. The Muslim attacks, however, did not cease, and defense of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre--which was built by the earliest knights of the Order and still stands today, covering both the site of the crucifixion of Christ and His burial place--became impossible.
The first band of knights fled to the city of Acre, to the fortress of St John, where they were received by other groups of besieged crusaders. They remained there from 1245 until the great fortress fell to the Muslims in 1291, ending the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The activity of the Order, indeed its identity, in Palestine shifted from the knights, who returned to their own countries, to the religious Order of Friars Minor, which had custody of the monastery of Mt. Zion. This group of Franciscans preserved the mission of the crusading knights of the Holy Sepulchre, mindful of the original bull of appointment that entrusted the basilica, as well as the faithful, to the Order’s protection.
In 1330, Pope John XXII named the prior of the Franciscan house Custodian of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII desired to suppress the Order and decreed that it was to be merged with the Order of St John (Malta). For seven years, the two lived an uneasy, yet peaceful, union.
The darkest period of the Order’s history began shortly after the pontificate of Alexander VI, when little is recorded of its work or activity. Throughout this prolonged era, with the blessing of the Holy See, the Franciscans of the Holy Land continued to welcome into the Order, under the emblem of the red cross of Jerusalem, men of great faith and strength of character always willing to defend the faith, even to the shedding of their blood, and to death when necessary.
A true renaissance of the Order thanks to Pope Pius IX and a vocation relying on the special assistance of the Virgin Mary
The foundation of the Order as an Order of Chivalry of the Holy Roman Church is of more recent date. By a Brief dated July 23, 1847, Pius IX put the custody of the Holy Places under the authority of the newly re-established Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and, in December of the same year, conceded the right to make knights to the Patriarch. By the brief Venerabilis Frater of August 3rd, 1888, Pope Leo XIII authorized the concession of the cross in three classes to ladies who have served the church with particular merit -- this became the first Order under direct Papal supervision which could be conceded to ladies.
Finally, so that the Order could be recognized by governments, as an Order under a foreign head of State, the diplomas of knight must receive the visa and seal of the Chancellor of Briefs (a post abolished in more recent Vatican reforms). On July 16, 1940, Cardinal Nicola Canali was appointed Protector of the Order, and thanks to his influence the Order was given new statutes by the brief Quam Romani Pontifices of September 14, 1949.
Today there are close to 18,000 members of the Order and the membership represents a loyal and devoted Catholic élite, generous in their support of the Holy See and its institutions, particularly in the Holy Land where it gives substantial aid to the humanitarian and religious projects of the Patriarch. By the Constitution of 1977 the members of the Order must promise to “revive in modern form the spirit and ideals of the Crusaders with the weapons of faith, the Apostolate and Christian charity.”
All the Christians of the Holy Land more than ever need our help and assistance, by the Lord’s grace and with the special assistance of Our Lady, Queen of Palestine, whom the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre regularly invoke in their prayers.