The military order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem originated in a leper hospital founded in the twelfth century by the crusaders of the Latin Kingdom. Without doubt there had been before this date leper hospitals in the East, of which the Knights of Saint Lazarus claimed to be the continuation, in order to have the appearance of remote antiquity and to pass as the oldest of all orders. But this pretension is apocryphal. These Eastern leper hospitals followed the Rule of Saint Basil, while that of Jerusalem adopted the hospital Rule of Saint Augustine in use in the West. The Order of Saint Lazarus was indeed purely an order of hospitallers from the beginning, as was that of Saint John, but without encroaching on the field of the latter. Because of its special aim, it had quite a different organization. The inmates of Saint John were merely visitors, and changed constantly; the lepers of Saint Lazarus on the contrary were condemned to perpetual seclusion. In return they were regarded as brothers or sisters of the house which sheltered them, and they obeyed the common rule which united them with their religious guardians. In some leper hospitals of the Middle Ages even the master had to be chosen from among the lepers. It is not proved, though it has been asserted, that this was the case at Jerusalem.
The Middle Ages surrounded with a touching pity these the greatest of all unfortunates, these miselli, as they were called. From the time of the crusades, with the spread of leprosy, leper hospitals became very numerous throughout Europe, so that at the death of Saint Louis there were eight hundred in France alone.
However, these houses did not form a congregation; each house was autonomous, and supported to a great extent by the lepers themselves, who were obliged when entering to bring with them their implements, and who at their death willed their goods to the institution if they had no children. Many of these houses bore the name of Saint Lazarus, from which, however, no dependence whatever on Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem is to be inferred. The most famous, Saint Lazarus of Paris, depended solely and directly on the bishop of that city, and was a mere priory when it was given by the archbishop to the missionaries of Saint Vincent de Paul, who have retained the name of Lazarists (1632).
The question remains, how and at what time the Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem became a military order. This is not know exactly; and, moreover, the historians of the order have done much to obscure the question by entangling it with gratuitous pretensions and suspicious documents.
The house at Jerusalem owed to the general interest devoted to the holy places in the Middle Ages a rapid and substantial growth in goods and privileges of every kind. It was endowed not only by the sovereigns of the Latin realm, but by all the states of Europe. Louis VII, on his return from the Second Crusade, gave it the Château of Broigny, near Orléans (1154). This example was followed by Henry II of England, and by Emperor Frederick II. This was the origin of the military commanderies whose contributions, called responsions, flowed into Jerusalem, swollen by the collections which the hospital was authorized to make in Europe.
The popes for their part were not sparing of their favours. Alexander IV recognized its existence under the Rule of Saint Augustine (1255). Urban IV assured it the same immunities as were granted to the monastic orders (1262). Clement IV obliged the secular clergy to confine all lepers whatsoever, men or women, clerics or laymen, religious or secular, in the houses of this order (1265).
At the time these favours were granted, Jerusalem had fallen again into the hands of the Mussulmans. Saint Lazarus, although still called “of Jerusalem”, had been transferred to Acre, where it had been ceded territory by the Templars (1240), and where it received the confirmation of its privileges by Urban IV (1264).
It was at this time also that the Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem, following the example of the Order of Saint John, armed combatants for the defence of the remaining possessions of the Christians in Asia. Their presence is mentioned without further detail at the Battle of Gaza against the Khwarizmians in 1244, and at the final siege of Acre in 1291.
As a result of this catastrophe the leper hospital of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem disappeared; however, its commanderies in Europe, together with their revenues, continued to exist, but hospitality was no longer practised. The order ceased to be an order of hospitallers and became purely military. The knights who resided in these commanderies had no tasks, and were veritable parasites on the Christian charitable foundations.
Things remained in this condition until the pontificate of Innocent VIII, who suppressed this useless order and transferred its possessions to the Knights of Saint John (1490), which transfer was renewed by Pope Julius II (1505). But the Order of Saint John never came into possession of this property except in Germany.
In France, Francis I, to whom the Concordat of Leo X (1519) had resigned the nomination to the greater number of ecclesiastical benefices, evaded the Bull of suppression by conferring the commanderies of Saint Lazarus on Knights of the Order of Saint John. The last named vainly claimed the possession of these goods. Their claim was rejected by the Parliament of Paris (1547).
Leo X himself disregarded the value of this Bull by re-establishing in favour of Charles V the priory of Capua, to which were attached the leper hospitallers of Sicily (1517).
Pius IV went further; he annulled the Bulls of his predecessors and restored its possessions to the order that he might give the mastership to a favourite, Giovanni de Castiglione (1565). But the latter did not succeed in securing the devolution of the commanderies in France. Pius V codified the statutes and privileges of the order, but reserved to himself the right to confirm the appointment of the grand master as well as of the beneficiaries (1567). He made an attempt to restore to the order its hospitaller character, by incorporating with it all the leper hospitals and other houses founded under the patronage of St Lazarus of the Lepers. But this tardy reform was rendered useless by the subsequent gradual disappearance of leprosy in Europe.
Finally, the grand mastership of the order having been rendered vacant in 1572 by the death of Castiglione, Pope Gregory XIII united it in perpetuity with the Crown of Savoy. The reigning duke, Philibert III, hastened to fuse it with the recently founded Savoyan Order of Saint Maurice, and thenceforth the title of Grand Master of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus was hereditary in that house. The pope gave him authority over the vacant commanderies everywhere, except in the states of the King of Spain, which included the greater part of Italy. In England and Germany these commanderies had been suppressed by Protestantism. France remained, but it was refractory to the claims of the Duke of Savoy. Some years later King Henry IV, having founded with the approbation of Paul V (1609) the Order of Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel, hastened in turn to unite to it the vacant possessions of Saint Lazarus in France, and such is the origin of the title of “Knight of the Royal, Military, and Hospitaller Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem”, which carried with it the enjoyment of a benefice, and which was conferred by the king for services rendered.
To return to the dukes of Savoy: Clement VIII granted them the right to exact from ecclesiastical benefices pensions to the sum of four hundred crowns for the benefit of knights of the order, dispensing them from celibacy on condition that they should observe the statutes of the order and consecrate their arms to the defence of the Faith. Besides their commanderies the order had two houses where the knights might live in common, one of which, at Turin, was to contribute to combats on land, while the other, at Nice, had to provide galleys to fight the Turks at sea. But when thus reduced to the states of the Duke of Savoy, the order merely vegetated until the French Revolution, which suppressed it. In 1816 the King of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel I, re-established the titles of Knight and Commander of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, as simple decorations, accessible without conditions of birth to both civilians and military men.
- Charles Moeller. “Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 14 November 2013. Web. 26 August 2016. <>