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The Teutonic Order

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Teutonic Order

The Teutonic Order is a German Roman Catholic religious order. Its members have commonly been known as the Teutonic Knights, since it was a crusading military order during the Middle Ages and much of the modern era.

Formed at the end of the 12th century in Acre, Palestine, the medieval Order played an important role in Outremer, controlling the port tolls of Acre. After Christian forces were defeated in the Middle East, the Order moved to Transylvania in 1211 to help defend Hungary against the Cumans. They were expelled in 1225 after allegedly attempting to place themselves under Papal instead of Hungarian sovereignty.

Following the Golden Bull of Rimini, Grand Master Hermann von Salza and Duke Konrad I of Masovia made a joint invasion of Prussia in 1230 to Christianise the Baltic Old Prussians in the Northern Crusades. The knights were then accused of cheating Polish rule and creating an independent monastic state. The Order lost its main purpose in Europe, when the neighbouring country of Lithuania accepted Christianity. Once established in Prussia, the Order became involved in campaigns against its Christian neighbours, the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Novgorod Republic (after assimilating the Livonian Order). The Teutonic Knights had a strong urban economy, hired mercenaries from throughout Europe to augment their feudal levies, and became a naval power in the Baltic Sea.

In 1410, a Polish-Lithuanian army decisively defeated the Order and broke its military power at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg). The Order steadily declined until 1525 when Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg resigned and converted to Lutheranism to become Duke of Prussia. The Grand Masters continued to preside over the Order's considerable holdings in Germany and elsewhere until 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte ordered its dissolution and the Order lost its last secular holdings. The Order continued to exist, headed by Habsburgs through World War I, and today operates primarily with charitable aims in Central Europe.

The Knights wore white surcoats with a black cross. A cross pattée was sometimes used as their coat of arms; this image was later used for military decoration and insignia by the Kingdom of Prussia and Germany as the Iron Cross.

The Teutonic Order survived the collapse of the Habsburg Empire by abandoning its "chivalric" character, retaining only its religious identity. Henceforth the only members of the Order have been professed religious brothers or sisters. The last Habsburg Grand Master resigned shortly after the First World War and the admission of knights to membership ceased immediately; today there are no survivors from the Habsburg era and the Order functions as a religious Order of the Church, operating principally in Austria, Germany, north Italy and parts of former Yugoslavia. The familiares, who are decorated with either the Knights Cross or the Marian Cross, are not members of the Order, but are lay associates rewarded for their services. The Marian familiares are sometimes called "Teutonic knights" but this is a misnomer and the only persons entitled to be so styled are the twelve "Knights of Honour" who have been specially distinguished by the award of the knight's Cross by the Hochmeister. Only the protestant Teutonic Order in the Netherlands has maintained its traditional, chivalric character.

The Order's inspiration was the hospital founded by German pilgrims and crusaders between 1120 and 1128 but destroyed following the fall of Jerusalem in 1187. With the coming of the knights of the Third Crusade two years later, including a large proportion of Germans, a new hospital was built outside Acre to succor those wounded in the siege. This was constructed on a plot near the Saint Nicholas gate from the timbers and sails of the ships that had transported them to the Holy Land. Although this foundation had no connection with the earlier hospital, its example may have inspired them and, keen to restore Christian rule in Jerusalem, they adopted the city as part of their name, along with that of the Virgin Mary, the Order's principal Patron. The knights later adopted Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, giving her the status of their second patron after her canonization in 1235 and, like so many chivalric Orders, also honored Saint George, the patron of chivalry and knighthood. [1]

The new institution was confirmed by one of the German leaders, Duke Frederick of Swabia, on November 19, 1190 and, with the capture of Acre, the founders of the hospital were given a permanent site in the city. Pope Clement III confirmed this body as the "fratrum Theutonicorum ecclesiae S. Mariae Hiersolymitanae" by the Bull Quotiens postulatur of February 6, 1191 and, within a few years, the Order had developed as a Religious Military institution comparable to the Hospitallers and Templars, although initially subordinate to the Master of the Hospital. This subordination was confirmed in the Bull Dilecti filii of Pope Gregory IX of January 12, 1240 addressed to the "fratres hospitalis S. Mariae Theutonicorum in Accon". [2] The distinct German character of this new Hospitaller Order and the protection given to it by the Emperor and German rulers, enabled it to gradually assert a de facto independence from the Order of Saint John. The first Imperial grant came from Otto IV who gave the Order his protection on May 10, 1213 and this was followed almost immediately by a further confirmation by Frederick II on September 5, 1214. These Imperial confirmations each treated the Teutonic knights as independent from the Hospitallers. [3] By the middle of the fourteenth century this independence was acknowledged by the Holy See.