Calatrava Cross

The Calatrava Cross was the pre-eminent symbol among the Iberian orders of Knighthood in Spain and Portugal. The roots of this particular cross can be traced back to the 12th century Military Order of Calatrava, which was founded in Castile (present day Spain) as a military branch of the great Cistercian family.

By Paul Harding, with
thanks to Sean Wright
for his inspiration.

Calatrava Cross


'Knights Templar' evokes all sorts of romantic images, dramatic movies, and ever fashionable for fantasy novels and conspiracy theories. But in reality, the Templars were originally a modest, nondescript bunch. Formed in 1118, following the end of the First Crusade (1095 - 1099), their role was to ensure the safety of pilgrims from bandits to and from Jerusalem. Initially there were only nine in the Order and they lived frugally, surviving on alms.

In 1128, the French knight Hugues de Payens recognised the potential scope of the Templars and took it upon himself to expand and diversify the group. He went to the Council of Troyes to seek additional members and official church sanction. It was then that the Templars adopted their distinctive habit: a white Cistercian robe with a red cross emblazoned on the front. (See also Military Order of Aviz and Knights Templar Order of Christ)

As their numbers and strength grew they were invited in 1147 by the King of Castile, Alfonso VII, to protect a castle he had taken from the Moors. The castle was called Calatrava, from the Arabic Qal'at Rabah: 'fortress of Rabah'. The Templars established a garrison there and stayed for ten years. They were replaced by a militia of Cistercian laymen, under the supervision of Raymond, Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Fitero. No doubt these local herdsmen and labourers would have had a personal grudge against the Moors, whom they fought with great enthusiasm.

In 1187, a general chapter at Cîteaux gave these Knights of Calatrava their definitive rule, which was approved in the same year by Pope Gregory VIII. This rule retained the Cistercian customs required of laymen, plus the obligation to wear their armour 24/7 and be ready to fight whenever the need arose. (Not very comfortable, but complying with their vows of silence, nobody complained.)

Initially, these Knights of Calatrava were hugely successful and were rewarded by grants of land from the King of Castile. But by 1195, after a surge of new Muslim recruits from Africa, the Knights were overpowered and the Moors retook the castle which they kept for another 17 years. Then the Calatravas retook possession of the stronghold and from there spread to the far corners of Iberia.


As with their predecessors, their livery consisted of the Cistercian white mantle with a scarlet Greek Cross. Each arm of the cross was terminated with a Fleur-de-lis, shown here stylised into a letter 'M'. This reflects the depth of devotion to the Virgin Mary among the peoples of the two kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula. (See also the Marian Cross)

More recently, the Calatrava Cross has been adopted as the corporate logo for a rather expensive Swiss watch company, Patek Philippe, which boasts a clientele list that includes royalty and film stars. The connection between luxury chronographs and the warring 12th century herdsmen of the Military Order of Calatrava, is unclear. But the company's retail outlets can be found in most Islamic countries and many wealthy Muslims are happily walking around with the Calatrava strapped on their wrists.

Does that mean the Knights have succeeded in their mission? Not really. It just means that the original meaning of Calatrava has returned home.


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