© Guy Stair Sainty


This rarely given distinction cannot strictly be characterized today as an Order of Knighthood, but more as an award of honor of the highest possible standing. The recent reforms of the Papal Orders by Pope Paul VI, [1] the Order of Christ was reserved to Catholic Heads of State to whom it might be given only to commemorate very special occasions at which the Pope himself was present. [2] This Order was last awarded in 1987 to the late Frà Angelo de Mojana, 77th Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his election to the Grand Magistery; he died the following year. With the recent death of King Baudouin of the Belgians the are no living Knights of the Papal Supreme Order of Christ and there is a considered opinion that the present Pope may have decided to let it fall into abeyance, at least for the present.

The original foundation was actually a religious military Order under the rule of Saint Benedict, constituted in Portugal by King Denis I on 14 August 1318, confirmed and granted statutory regulation by the Bull Ad ea ex quibus of Pope John XXII, given at Avignon 14/15 March 1319.[3] The Order's endowment was established with the surviving estates of the recently dissolved Order of the Temple, just as in Spain most of these estates were used to establish the Order of Montesa. The first Grand Master, Dom Gil Martins or Martinez had been a knight of Saint Benedict of Aviz, originally a branch of the Order of Calatrava. Originally based at Castro Marino, in the Diocese of Faro, they moved their headquarters to Thomar, near Santaren, in 1366 (under the 6th Grand Master, Dom Nuño Rodriguez). Although at first the Order's rules required the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, these were modified by Pope Alexander VI at the end of the 15th century, dispensing with that of poverty and allowing the knights to marry provided Commanders undertook to continue their responsions (one third of their revenues) to the Order's treasury.

The Grand Mastership was elective, like that of the other Military Orders, until 1417 when on the death of Grand Master Lopo Dias de Sousa, the King requested the appointment of his son, the Infante Dom Henrique (the famous Henry the Navigator) as "Governor" of the Order. The Pope agreed to the royal request and Dom Henrique took up his position in 1420, as lay head of the Order- the elected Grand Master's being professed. This gave the Portuguese Crown effective control although the Holy See continued to regard the Order as a Religious Military foundation. Under Dom Henrique the Order became an astonishingly successful military force, establishing autonomous settlements under its rule in North Africa. In 1433 the King, Duarte I, gave the Order "Sovereign" status not over these territories which already held, but over any future conquests. Duarte's successor, Alfonso V extended this temporal jurisdiction by conceding the royal prerogative over 3episcopal nominations in areas ruled by the Order, an important concession confirmed by Pope Calixtus III in 1455.

In 1484 Dom Manuel de Bragança, Duke of Beja, was appointed Governor and eleven years later, after the death of his first cousin and brother-in-law, João II, became King of Portugal as Manuel I thus uniting the administration of the Order with the Crown for the first time. In Spain the King had persuaded the Holy See to confer the "Perpetual Administration" on him and his successors as King; now King Manuel of Portugal sought and obtained the title of Grand Master in the Bull Constante fide of 30 June 1516. His son did not succeed automatically to his father's position, and had to seek Papal approval for his assumption of the Administration in the Bull Eximiae devotionis of 14 April 1522. The Crown had to wait another thirty years until the reign of João III before they obtained the "Perpetual Administration" of all the Portuguese Military Orders, in Bull of Julius III.

By the middle of the 16th century the Order possessed some four hundred and fifty commanderies with revenues of one and half million (livres) per annum and provided a major source of power for the Crown. Although the knights no longer took the monastic vows, the counter-reformation saw a revival of the Order's spiritual life with the appointment of Dom Antonio de Lisboa as Apostolic Visitor. The Grand Prior was removed from office and all the priests and religious of the Order were required to resume Conventual life at Thomar, and to wear the habit and cross of the Order. A new dormitory was built, along g with a large refectory, and novices after a year of probation were required to take the monastic vows. Having obtained the position of Prior, Dom Antonio persuaded Pius V to give him virtual control of all the Convents of the Order in 1567 and then sought the suppression of the Knights. King Sebastian protested and obtained confirmation of his post as Grand Master, but the religious members of the Order were now effectively separated from the lay, military membership. Sebastian died in 1578 and was succeeded by his great-uncle, Henrique I, the penultimate male prince of the legitimate line of the House of Bragança, who had taken Holy Orders and was a Cardinal of the Church. He died in 1580 whereupon the throne was assumed by King Philip II of Spain, by right of his mother Isabel, the eldest daughter of Manuel I and sister of King Henrique.

The Portuguese throne was now claimed by Dom Antonio de Bragança, illegitimate son of Luis, Duke of Beja, second son of King Manuel I, younger brother of João III and elder brother of Henrique I. This claim was disputed by Dom João, Duke of Bragança, who represented another bastard line descended from João I, King of Portugal (d. 1433), and who had married Catherine, the youngest daughter of Duarte, Duke of Guimarães, the youngest son of Manuel I. Unfortunately neither were able to united the Portuguese nobility behind them and they were unable to resist the immense power of their Iberian neighbor. The next sixty years were disastrous for Portugal. The Spanish used her ports as a base to launch the Armada and for attacks on English shipping; inevitably her overseas possessions and trade with the Indies became vulnerable to foreign raiders, the enemies of Spain. Her administration was neglected and the vast revenues from the Americas used to shore up the crumbling perimeter of the Spanish Empire. Finally in 1640 a successful rising expelled the Spanish occupying force and the grandson of the Duke of Bragança was proclaimed King as João IV, re-establishing the dynasty today represented by Duarte, Duke of Bragança. Today the laicised successor of the Portuguese Order is the second highest civil merit Order of the Portuguese Republic and its history is outlined in a later chapter (see also Portuguese Order of Christ).

It has been stated by several historians that by the terms of the Bull Ad ea ex quibus, the Popes reserved to themselves the right to award membership in the Order. However, the text of the Bull does not include any such right and it appears that the later Papal award of the Order led to conflict with the Kings of Portugal. Nonetheless, according to Helyot, knights of Christ were appointed by Papal Bull, without the need to provide noble proofs, from the reign of Pope John XXII onwards. According to Dom Jose-Vicente de Braganza, this practice is not documented before the eighteenth century and was so resented by the Portuguese Kings that, in at least one case, an Italian knight (the architect Giovanni Servandoni) appointed by the Holy See was arrested for wearing the insignia. It is evident that the Holy See, in reorganizing the Papal Orders in 1905, wished logically to place the Order which remembered the name of Our Savior as the Supreme among the distinctions awarded by the Holy See. Hence the Order of Christ was described as being the successor of the Order founded by the Papal Bull Ad ea ex quibus since the Portuguese Order had long lost its religious character. Although the Holy See seems to have decided not to award it for the present, it is to be hoped that this highest Vatican honor will once again be conceded to a worthy Catholic Head of State.



[1]In the Bull Equestres Ordinis of 15 April 1966.

[2]The same Bull restricted the Order of the Golden Spur to Christian, not necessarily Catholic, heads of State.

[3]This began, "Joannes Episcopus, servus servorum Dei. Ad perpetuam rei memoriam. Ad ea, ex quibus cults augeatur divinus, fidelium quies in quiete proficiat, & defensionis murus....".