This page gives a quick overview of the history of the Order of Christ, a Portuguese Military Order originating with the Templars which became heavily involved with Prince Henry the Navigator and the Portuguese age of discovery.
I have had an interest in the Order of Christ for some while, and this page (and the more detailed ones referenced) represent my research over the last few years.
I want to thank all those who have contributed to the site. A number of people have given me useful pieces of information or corrections, and some people have had a major influence, notably my friend Pastoria@aol.com, who has consistently shared my interests in the site, and Professor Dutra, who has helped greatly on the historical front. Needless to say, any errors remain mine!
|In the time of the Crusades, two large international military orders were formed to protect Christian interests in the Holy Land - the Templars and the Hospitallers. At the same time, in the Iberian peninsula, military orders were founded to combat the saracen incursions which had begun in the eighth century.||About the Templars|
|The Templars were founded around 1118, and soon formed commanderies around Europe to support their efforts in the Holy Land. By 1190 they had a castle at Tomar in Portugal. They became a very powerful military, financial and political force over the next two hundred years. Their downfall began in 1307, when Philip of France ordered the arrest of all Templars in France.||Templars in Portugal
|King Dinis didn't believe the accusations made against the Templars, and when the Pope dissolved the Templars, he decided to form a new order, to which the Templar holdings would be given. The Order of Christ was founded in 1319. It is unclear whether many Templars continued in the new order. Some writers seem to think that the Templars just continued under a new name, whereas others think that the Order of Christ was a new formation.||Foundation of the Order
The First 100 Years
|The Headquarters of the order was eventually established at Tomar, which had been the Templar centre since the twelfth century. The Convento de Cristo at Tomar was extended throughout the Order's flowering in the age of discovery. It still exists, and is well worth a visit.||About Tomar|
Prince Henry the Navigator was born in 1394, the third son of King João of Portugal.
At the age of nineteen, Henry and his brothers convinced King João to launch a Crusade against Ceuta, a Muslim stronghold on the African side across from Gibraltar. Henry's avowed aim was to extend the Holy Faith of Jesus Christ and bring it to all souls who wish to find salvation. This aim throws some light on his vocation for crusade and exploration.
|About Prince Henry|
Soon after the success of the expedition against Ceuta, Henry was appointed Governor of the Order of Christ, beginning an association whereby the Order became involved in Henry's voyages of discovery around the coast of Africa.
|The Order under Henry|
The Atlantic islands - the Azores and Madeiras had probably been discovered earlier, but Henry colonised them. His main aim was however to explore, and specifically to go south beyond Cape Bojador, just south of the Canaries, whose reefs and difficult currents had presented a psychological stopping point for previous expeditions. For generations, Spanish sea-lore had asserted that the coast of Africa was unnavigable past this point, and it took Henry 15 expeditions between 1424 and 1434 before one passed beyond the Cape. The exploration continued, and in 1441, an expedition brought back 200 slaves, the first tangible commercial success of the exploration. This changed public opinion of the expeditions, which up to that time had been seen as a waste of money.
The trade continued to prosper, and African goods filled Lisbon's markets and swelled the coffers of the Order of Christ. Trading posts were established, defended by the brethren, while the Templar's red cross continued to sail south. In 1460, the year of Henry's death, King Afonso V granted the Knights of Christ a 5% levy on all merchandise from the new African lands.
After a brief hiatus at Henry's death, the discoveries continued. In 1469, King Afonso V granted a five-year monopoly in the West Guinea trade to a wealthy citizen of Lisbon, and then passed this on to his son João, who became King João II.
João continued the explorations, which culminated in Bartolomeu Dias's expedition to the Cape of Africa in 1488. Columbus was present when Dias returned to Lisbon, trying to persuade King João to fund his expedition to the West. Columbus had lived in Portugal from 1476 to 1484, making various sea voyages. Columbus's wife was the daughter of one of Henry's favourite Captains and the first governor of Porto Santo. Columbus spent some time living in Porto Santo, and examining his father-in-law's papers and charts. There are also suggestions that his father-in-law was connected with the Order of Christ. In the end King João was unwilling to support Columbus, and so Columbus went to Spain instead.
In Portugal the discoveries continued. King Manuel, João's successor, sent Vasco da Gama (a member of the Order of Christ) to sail around the Cape of Africa to India. He set sail in 1497 and reached Calicut. By 1509, Portugal had established a Viceroy in India.
|Discoveries After Prince Henry|
The power and riches of the Order seem to have peaked in the reign of King Manuel, in the early 1500's. By the end of his reign the order possessed 454 commanderies, in Portugal, Africa and the Indies. Manuel also made extensive additions to the Order's headquarters in Tomar.
However, the religious vocation of the Order was faltering - in 1496 the brethren were dispensed from celibacy, and in 1505 from poverty. One source claims 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, although the evidence for this is disputed.
In 1530 there was an extreme attempt to reform the order. Fra Antonio of Lisbon attempted to reimpose the original rule, but this failed, and only a few knights remained under this new discipline.
In 1789 the Portuguese Order lost its religious character, being secularised by Queen Mary. The Papal Order became the Supreme Order of Christ, the highest of the five Pontifical Orders now in existence. Membership is reserved for Christian heads of state.
|The Order After Prince Henry|