This rare Order of Chivalry is one of the world's oldest Orders, it was first awarded in the year 1099 to the Knights protecting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre The Tomb of Jesus Christ.
The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem can trace its origins to Godfrey de Bouillon of the first Crusade, who gathered around him a group of knights who were entrusted with the protection of the religious Chapter of Canons who were present at the Holy Sepulchre of Christ. For twenty years, these knights, and those who came to join their number, protected the Christian presence at the Holy Sepulchre, taking as their banner the red Jerusalem cross popularized by the crusading knights. By 1113, Pope Paschal II officially recognized their existence and purpose. It was not until 1122 that Pope Callistus II issued a bulla establishing them as a lay religious community with specific responsibilities of guarding the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and the city of Jerusalem in defense of Christianity against Muslim attack.
The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was established, and the knights of the Holy Sepulchre played an integral role in advancing peace in the territory. The Muslim attacks, however, did not cease, and defense of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre which was built by the earliest knights of the Order and still stands today, covering both the site of the crucifixion of Christ and His burial place became impossible.
The earliest band of knights fled to the city of Acre, to the fortress of St. John, where they were received by other groups of besieged crusaders. They remained there from 1245 until the great fortress fell to the Muslims in 1291, ending the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. A diaspora then took place among the Christians in Palestine. Many of the knights of the Holy Sepulchre remained in the Mediterranean basin; others fled as far as France and Spain. The works of the Order continued as far away as Poland, where knights had settled and later their descendants continued in the spirit of the defense of Christianity.
The activity of the Order, indeed its identity, in Palestine shifted from the knights, who returned to their own countries, to the religious Order of St. Francis, which had custody of the monastery of Mt. Zion. This group of Franciscans preserved the mission of the crusading knights of the Holy Sepulchre for centuries, mindful of the original bulla of appointment that entrusted the basilica, as well as the faithful, to the order's protection.
In 1330, Pope John XXII named the prior of the Franciscan house Custodian of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The custodian served as deputy to the pontiff, who reserved unto himself the governing authority of the Order, and yet, the custodians, in all effect, were responsible for all aspects of the Order's growth and governance, including the calling of new knights.
Pilgrimages to the Holy Land were a common if dangerous practice from shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus to throughout the Middle Ages. Numerous detailed commentaries have survived as evidence of this early Christian devotional. While there were many places the pious visited during their travels, the one most cherished was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, first constructed by Constantine the Great in the fourth century AD. A local tradition, begun long before the Crusades, provided for the bestowing of knighthood upon qualified men whose presence, character and devotion were deemed worthy of enoblement by those entrusted to the care of the church. Later, this duty was assumed by the Kings of Jerusalem, then the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, and today it falls upon the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
By the eleventh century, however, political and military events had led to a suppression of this activity by Muslim rulers, in addition to persecution of local Christians and destruction of some of the sites themselves.
As it was for the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre that the First Crusade was organized, so for its defence were certain military orders instituted. While not one of the original surviving Orders given a charter by Papal decree, the practice of bestowing knighthood at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre nevertheless became part of this mediaeval military movement toward reinstating a Christian presence in the Holy Land.
In 1099, Godfrey of Bouillon took no other title than that of "Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre", and other Latin princes, Bohemond I of Antioch and Tancred, Prince of Galilee, bound themselves as vassals of the Holy Sepulchre as they would to a king. The ultimate fall of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1291 did not suspend pilgrimages to the Tomb of Christ, or the custom of receiving knighthood there, and when the custody of the Holy Land was entrusted to the Franciscan Order, they continued this pious custom and gave the order its first Grand Master after the death of the last King of Jerusalem. The kings had reserved that dignity to themselves previously.