St. James of Altopascio
The Order was formed in the middle of the XI century, possibly by some members of the Laity in Lucca and is cited in some documents of 1057 & 1086.
According to some authors it was constituted at the suggestion of Bishop Giovanni of Lucca (1023-1056), a cousin of the Margrave of Tuscany (11), and of the Emperor Henry III (1039-1056) of the Franconian Dynasty, as a consequence of Church thinking at that time which was in favour of the clergy ceasing to practice medicine and which thinking culminated in the decisions of the 3rd. Lateran Council of 1179 and the 4th. Lateran Council of 1215 (12).
Certainly about the year 1000 there existed in Lucca a group of physicians who had the title of ‘Clerics’ and who were apart from the general clergy ( Apparently always 12 in number) and who were the body of the ‘Order’ giving both spiritual and medical assistance to pilgrims. There is a little rhyme that translated into English goes something like “In the House and Hospital sings the Duodenal Choir”. Unfortunately in English the words for ‘Duodenal’ and ‘Choir’ do not rhyme whilst they do in Italian. The uniform of the Order was a Sable Habit with a White or Silver Tau cross fitched emblazoned on the left breast (13).
One of the earliest foundations was at Leith in Scotland, near to the Church and Monastery of St. Anthony, whose sign was also a Tau Cross. Later these Knights built a chapel for the Order on Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh. There is a copy of their seal with the Tau Cross and the Egyptian Hermit preserved in the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh.
The first requirement of the Order was to construct its own headquarters and hospital in Altopascio, an important point for pilgrims on their way from France to Rome. Equally pilgrims had to be protected in the forests of Cerbai.
The Order’s duty to protect pilgrims dated from a papal bull of Eugene III (1145-1153) and in a bull dated 25th. June 1154 the Pope Anastacio IV confirmed papal protection for the Hospital of Altopascio and its possessions. Popes Alexander III (1169), Lucian III (1181-1185), Urban III (1185-1187), Clement III (1187) and Celestine III (1191-1197) confirmed this papal recognition. On 26th October 1216, Pope Honorius III recognised the previous papal bulls and granted the Order autonomy and the right to elect their own Grand Master.
On the 5th April 1239, Pope Gregory IX granted the Order a ‘Rule’, namely the same rule as that of St. John of Jerusalem and ordered that, in all its houses, brothers and knights world-wide should obey it, at the same time making clear that this gave the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (Known as the Knights Hospitallers and later the Order of Malta) no rights whatsoever to the Order of St. James of Altopascio.
The Order had also been given Imperial recognition, first by Frederick I (1152-1190) then by Henry VI (1190-1197) and then by Frederick II in a Charter dated 2nd April 1244. Charles IV in a charter dated 10th. February 1369 confirmed the charters of Frederick I and Henry VI and took under Imperial protection the Order and Hospital of St. James of Altopascio and all its goods and possessions. It should be noted that in France and possibly elsewhere ex-members of the Templars quietly joined the Order.
This Charter of 1369 is particularly important as it recognises amongst other things:
The Title of the Order and its possessions.
The legal Rule of the Order and its privileges, in particular the right of the Order to extract subterranean water, the right to mine and specifically the right and duty to construct a bridge over the river ‘Arno Bianco’, “So that all may pass without let or hindrance over the river”.
The right of its members and brothers to pass freely anywhere in the Empire without paying taxes for portage both for themselves and their goods and exempts the Order from all taxes. Ordered that no Archbishop, Duke, Marquis, Count, Viscount or other noble, nor any Nuncio or Imperial Legate, nor any civic authority, nor any person noble, humble, ecclesiastical nor secular should infringe these rights and Imperial Decrees and that they should aid the members of the Order wherever possible, grant them hospitality in whatever place so as not to impede or hinder the “Poor of Christ”.
(14) (Note the use of the same words as applied to the Templars).
In 1463 Pope Pius II ( 1458 – 1464 ) had decided to try and fan the embers of the crusading zeal and make the fight against the Turks the centrepiece of his Pontificate, to recapture Constantinople (Byzantium), to re-establish the Latin Kingdom of Romania, to re-unite the Roman and Byzantine Churches and finally to launch an all out attack to recapture Jerusalem. To do this he needed money and apart from his new Alum Monopoly he looked around for other ways of raising money and found various Orders who were wealthy and could be plundered to fund his crusade.
Amongst them was the Order of St. James of Altopascio and on 8th. August 1463 Pope Pius II attempted to abolish the Order by Papal Bull and demanded that all revenues be sent to the Order of St. Mary of Bethlehem, recently founded by him to be the Bankers for the Crusade ( See the work of Raymond E. Role MA from the documents in the possession of the Library at Altopascio ). The Grand Master of the Order, Giovanni Capponi, of a Florentine family, contested this and asked the Medicis to help and the Grand Commander in France asked Rene d’Anjou for his help, as there was a very powerful French branch in Rene’s domains. The Capponis had on occasions supported the Medicis and on occasion had opposed them, but in this case Cosimo was willing to help in return I suspect for some say in the Order.
It seems likely that a deal was struck whereby Rene would send and finance troops
to fight the Turks in Serbia in return for the Order in France coming under his protection and the revenues in France coming to the Ordre du Lys. Cosimo de Medici probably did a similar deal in Tuscany. At all events, when Pius died on 14th. August 1464, two weeks after the death of Cosimo, the Bull was annulled and in 1472 Pope Sixtus IV, a great friend of Piero de Medici, ceded the administration of the Order of St. James of Altopascio in Tuscany to the Capponi family.
The Medicis became hereditary Dukes of Florence in 1530, at the same time as the second Medici Pope, Clement VII, was sitting on the Papal throne, and in 1552 Cosimo I, the second Medici Duke, took over control of the Order of St. James in Tuscany and appointed his second son, Cardinal Giovanni de Medici to be its Grand Master. In France the Order had adopted a red hood and belt with a gold Tau Cross (Van Duren in his book on the Orders of Chivalry calls them hammers) on the hood and although they continued to elect their own Grand Commander, were by now under the control of the Ordre du Lys and its Grand Master (Ferrante de Gonzaga, a cousin of the Medici Dukes).
The so called “Golden Bull” of the Emperor Charles IV had already eliminated papal interference in the Empire, particularly it excluded the Pope’s right to act as vicar during elections to the Imperial throne and the Pope’s supposed right to examine rival claimants to the Imperial Purple (see Encyclopaedia Britannica – Golden Bull). Now the Roman Emperor, Charles V (1519-1556), confirmed all the previous Imperial Charters and in his own Charter elevated the Knights of the Order to the category of other Knights Hospitallers and at the same time made the branches in each of the other countries autonomous to a large extent. Many monarchs had granted their own Charters to the Order. Thus for example the Order had houses in France, Navarre, Lorraine, the Dauphine, England, Scotland and Corsica as well as in other parts of Italy. Philip IV of France had granted the Order a charter in about 1300, James II of Aragon and Rene d’Anjou in 1465 and his Grandson Rene de Lorraine became Grand Master of the combined Orders of the Lys, the Crescent and St. James in France in 1485. Edward VI confirmed an earlier Charter to the Order in England.
The legal position of the Order had also changed. It was now an independent Order recognised as such by the Holy Roman Empire and subject and owing service only to the Emperor, (Mittelbaren des reichs), with its Knights becoming Knights of the Empire (Reichsritter) (15).
The Order was not however given a seat or vote on the Imperial Council, nor did its Grand Master become a Prince of the Empire as did the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem (Now Knights of Malta), instead its knights became ‘Junior nobility of the Empire’ (‘Petite noblesse’) with its Grand Master being granted the Title ‘Most Noble’ (See ‘Ordnung des Regiment de Augusta’ of 1500). In consequence the Order was now an Independent and Sovereign Order within the Empire and its local Grand Commanders were able to take their own decisions.
In 1569, Cosimo I, Duke of Florence was created Grand Duke of Tuscany by Pope Pius V. He set about creating a powerful Tuscan Navy and a new body of Knights called the Military Order of Santo Stefano, into which he enrolled his two illegitimate sons Cosimo and Lorenzo. On 28th. February 1587, in total contravention of the Imperial Edict, Pope Sixtus issued a Bull annulling the Order of St. James at the request of the Medicis. There was at the same time an attempt to take over the Orders of both the Lys and St. James in France and to bring them all under the control of Santo Stefano. By now however the Lys was no longer in the pay of the Medicis and the Scots, who had regained control of the order of the Lys, did not see eye to eye with the Medicis.
The Order in Lorraine and Scotland had already accepted the head of the Lys as their Grand Master and Robert de St. Clair was easily able to fight off this attempted take-over. It is a moot point as to whether the Pope had any authority whatsoever over an Independent Imperial Order; but if he did, it was only over the ability of the Clergy to join such an order as both the Charters of Frederick II and Charles V specifically forbade any ‘Ecclesiastical infringement of the Order’s rights’. Certainly the Order’s Chapters in France, Scotland and England took not the slightest notice and continued to act according to the Imperial Charters. The French Order gradually merged with the Ordre du Lys and the English Order continuing independently at its headquarters on the outskirts of London at Middlesex until late in the XVII century.
It lost much of its wealth under Cromwell and in the reign of James II & VII eventually joined with the Order of the Lys to become known as the ‘Hospital of St. James of Altopascio and Knights of the Lys’.
Today there exists a ‘Knights of the Tau Cross’ in Altopascio, which is a reconstituted Order and the Order of St. James of Altopascio within the Order of the Fleur de Lys, which is a continuation of the French, Scottish and English branches of the original Order. Its Grand Master ex-Officio is the Sovereign Grand Commander of the Fleur de Lys and since 2000, the Order of St. James is granted as an Order of Merit to members of the Fleur de Lys.