Spain Sunday: The Knights of Calatrava

We first mentioned the Knights of Calatrava when we posted about our hike to El Cortijo del Alamillo, and we basically just said that they were a group of knights who were given the area of Martos. And honestly we didn’t know very much about them. They built everything worth a damn in our area, but beyond knowing that, it’s all dark.

To start, what was an order of knights?

Let me start by saying that most of what I am about to say is going to be a dramatic over simplification of a very complicated thing.

So, back in the day there was no such thing as a professional army. When a king went to war, he gathered his fiefs. Fiefs were controlled by glorified landlords who had an obligation to supply fighters in times of conflict. These “fighters” were usually peasants armed with whatever their landlord saw fit to supply them with, and sometimes they were trained and sometimes not. The only real professional warriors were knights. Knights came from two different sources, noblemen or orders.

An order of knights was controlled by a “war lord” type person usually called a grand master. They could enlist wealthy people into their order, as long as that person was willing to commit to living the life of a super pious warrior monk. And they had to be well off because they were expected to supply their own weapons, armor and horses. These knights technically owed their loyalty to the king, and would fight when he called, but sometimes they only answered to the church.

The many orders differ from each other in the same way football teams differ from each other today. Every order has/had their own legends, heroes, and secret traditions.

Spain has 4 orders of knights that were established back in medieval times, and are still around today. These are…

The Order of Santiago

The Order of Calatrava

The Order of Montesa

and The Order of Alcantara

This post will be specifically about the Order of Calatrava, since they are the oldest in Spain, and the most important for our area.

Calatrava Begins

It all started in the earlier years of the reqonquista with a castle called Calatrava. (Calatrava used to be pronounced Qalʿat Rabāḥ. It was an Arabic word that meant Fortress of Rabah. Rabah must have been the original owner.)


The Spanish kept taking Calatrava from the Moors, but could never seem to hold it for very long. The Knights Templar (like the varsity team of knights in Europe who were on tour in Spain to promote their brand) attempted to hold it, but eventually gave up and abandoned it. Then, some local monk decided to recruit as many fighters and monks as possible and to base them all in the empty castle of Calatrava. They formed the “Order of Calatrava”, and the patent bureau (AKA the Vatican) approved their application.


Their symbol is known as the Calatrava Cross. It consists of a Greek cross (looks like the + sign) with fleur de lis at the ends of the arms for style. Also the points form the letter M, which is probably a homage to the Virgin Mary.

They held Calatrava castle longer than the Knights Templar, but they eventually lost Calatrava and, like, 90% of their members after getting surrounded and cut off from escape in the Battle of Alarcos.

Apparently this is a painting of said battle.

They then spent some time bumming around other abandoned castles trying to build themselves back up. Luckily Spain had been flooded with a ton of European knights looking for orders to join (like frat boys on rush night) so they got back up to strength pretty soon. They retook their home castle 17 years after they lost it, and then participated in the most important battle of the Reconquista the same year (1212), the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

Las Navas was like the Gettysburg of the Reconquista. The total number of combatants is unknown, as is the death toll. The only real source of information comes from monks who witnessed the battle, and medieval monks can not be trusted with facts. They reported 90,000 Muslim deaths, and 5,000 Christian deaths (the monks were very specific on the point that they were counting dead soldiers, not wounded soldiers).

But as someone later pointed out, 90,000 people even being present on only one side of the battle, let alone dying, would have been a demographic impossibility. For reference keep in mind that just over 7,000 soldiers died at Gettysburg (with 33,000 injured) on BOTH sides. After this battle the Moors were never able to recover their military strength, and they were never again able to advance northwards.


Every time the order of Calatrava fought, they proved themselves invaluable. They were given tons of land by the kings of Spain, which they used to make tons of money, which they invested into the hundreds (no exaggeration) of castles that dot the area to this day.

Some of them even left the Reconquista to go fight in the crusades, which were happening at more or less the same time.

In 1225 they captured Martos and started transforming it into a serious stronghold. Martos would sit on the border between Christianity and Islam for the next one hundred years, and was fortified accordingly.

The model of medieval Martos that we saw when we visited the tower of Martos.

During the time Martos spent as a border town, it was attacked with so much frequency that medieval scholars (apparently) gave up on keeping records. There are two battles I know about for sure, but that’s information for another post.

At their height, the order governed 64 villages, and ruled over 200,000 people. For large battles it was not uncommon for there to be 1,200 – 2,000 Calatrava knights present. Their prosperity started making the kings of Spain a bit jealous, especially since all this prosperity was being produced and guarded by thousands professional warriors who only answered to the church. The kings feared that the knights of Calatrava were getting a little too powerful. But the pope had issued a decree that all Catholic military orders were not to be messed with, so the kings stayed jealous, but decided to leave them alone for the time being.

All of the purple belonged to the Order of Calatrava.

In 1484 they were stripped of their super pope protection, and the leaders of all orders were replaced by the king of Spain (to this day, the king of Spain is technically the grand master of every order). After the final battle of the Reconquista was fought there was no longer any real reason for the military orders to exist. With no war and no political autonomy they all started withering away.

While the orders of knights were in decline, they never entirely disappeared. They hung on all the way to the late 1800s.

They also stopped dressing like this:


And started dressing like this:


New GUy.jpg

When the days of chivalry came to a close, and religion was taken less seriously, the various orders took on a more ceremonial roll. Politicians and military officers could be awarded membership in a military order, as a way to add to their reputations. Knighthood could also be handed out to people who impressed the king with artistic talent.

In the late 1800s, the orders had their properties taken from them (for the final time) by the government. They were technically disbanded, but some members still clung to the old traditions, and organized low level meetings in an attempt to keep the orders alive even after 1930 when every order in Spain was outlawed. When the Spanish Civil War happened, order members were targeted by communist fighters because of they symbolized (and probably supported) right wing military theocracy.

After the Spanish Civil War, and the victory of the fascist government, the orders were sort of brought back, but in 1985 there were only 19 registered knights in all of Spain from ANY order.

Today the various orders of knights are grouped into a single federation controlled by the current royal family of Spain, AKA the Royal Council of Military Orders (El Real Consejo de las Ordens Militares). They even have a website, but it’s only in Spanish. Even though they are part of a single federation, the orders still maintain independent traditions and rituals. And, while they do indeed still exist, it’s very hard to figure out what they do exactly. They mainly seem to be organizations dedicated to religious piety, and most of what they do is centered around integrating religion into everyday life. They raise money for scholarships (to religious institutions), churches, and religious vocational awareness campaigns. Some orders maintain hospitals, and others run summer camp programs in Peru (I don’t know why). The one thing I do know is that today there are 257 knights in Spain, and 81 of them belong to the order of Calatrava.

You can be knighted in Spain, but it is not near as common as in England. Being knighted in Spain is much more rare, and like the British knighthoods, purely ceremonial. You cannot gain entrance into the military orders of Spain (Calatrava or the others) in this way. I cannot find information on the Order of Calatrava specifically, but for example, to join the Order of Santiago you must be a Christian, have no non-Christian ancestors, be of noble lineage (going back at least 200 years), and be of legitimate birth.

So good luck with that.




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