For centuries, Christians and Muslims were embroiled in one of the most infamous territorial disputes of all time, viciously and relentlessly battling one another for the Holy Land. In the heart of Jerusalem sat one of the shining jewels of the Christian faith, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Legend has it that this was where their Savior had been buried before his fabled resurrection. What was more, it was said to house the very cross Jesus Christ had died upon. It was for precisely these reasons that fearless pilgrims, near and far, risked their lives and made the treacherous trek to Jerusalem.
The Crusades are still a fascinating and controversial topic, so when people think of religious knighthoods, they almost always think of the Knights Templar or the Knights Hospitaller. These orders captured the imagination of medieval authors due to their influence and prestige during the Crusades between the Christian kingdoms and Islamic caliphates of Western Asia and Northern Africa.
They were not, however, the only orders in existence, and the Holy Land was not the only region featuring such religious conflicts. In fact, each region of Europe tended to spawn its own religious knighthoods, adhering to different saints, monastic rules, laws, and obligations, and the Muslim Moors and Christians fought throughout much of the Middle Ages across the Iberian Peninsula. It was there that one of Catholicism’s most famous military orders, the Order of Santiago or Order of St. James of the Sword, left a lasting impact.
The Order of Santiago appeared shortly after the First Crusade and rose to prominence in the early 12th century. While its members did not often travel to Jerusalem like their counterparts, the order did play a massive role in the Reconquista and would influence the development of several Iberian kingdoms, helping to establish modern Spain and Portugal. Given the different location and the unique culture in which it developed, the Order of Santiago obeyed far different rules than the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller, emphasizing the importance of blood purity, nobility, and adherence to a strict system of patronage and independent wealth unheard of in other orders.
How such a system developed can be traced straight back to the Reconquista and the bad blood between Christians and Muslims during the High Middle Ages. In essence, the Order of Santiago stood out from other religious knighthoods of its time because of its lack of participation in the Crusades, the ethnic and religious tensions in Iberia, and the unique code of honor upheld by Iberian nobles.