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The Order of St Thomas of Acre


Dr. Alan Forey

University of Durham, emeritus

Although the date of the foundation of St. Thomas of Acre and the identify of its founder have in the past been disputed, there is little doubt that it was created in the Holy Land at the time of the Third Crusade, and the members of the Order came to regard the English king Richard I as their founder. Its dedication reflects the growing cult of Becket at the end of the twelfth century.

Up to the 1220s, St Thomas housed a group of regular canons, who according to contemporary sources devoted themselves to the care of the poor, the burial of the dead and the ransoming of captives in the East. Although the foundation received some patronage in the early thirteenth century, especially in England, it did not flourish, and its poor state persuaded Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, to effect a reform when he was in the Holy Land in the later 1220s. After the canons had been removed, he transformed it into a military order, which adopted the rule and customs of the Teutonic Knights. This was done with the counsel of the patriarch of Jerusalem and magnates in the East, who would no doubt have stressed the military needs of the crusader states. The bishop of Winchester also transferred the house in Acre to a new site in the northern quarter of the city.

The order's military activities during the rest of the thirteenth century have left little trace, but it did seek to imitate the larger military orders in the terminology used to describe officials, and in structure. As it acquired more property and privileges, it began to create a provincial organisation at least in the British Isles, with the master of its subsidiary London house having charge of the Order's properties throughout England and Ireland and with subordinate preceptors administering more distant properties in these countries.

As Alexander IV noted in 1257, however, the foundation still lacked adequate resources. In 1279 it was appealing for aid to Edward I, and a number of sources refer to debts. It was apparently this situation which occasioned proposals in the second half of the thirteenth century for an amalgamation with the Templars.

Many details of the Order's history in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries are obscure, but an agreement was finally reached, on the basis of which the Templars sought to take over the Order's house in London. But St Thomas continued to maintain an independent existence in the East; presumably some of its members there opposed union. Opposition was definitely present in England, where members of the London house appealed to Edward I against the Templars' action, and they further protested against an attempt by Edward II to subject them to the convent of Bonhommes at Ashridge, gaining a decision in their favour in the king's council in 1315.

In the meantime, those in the East had migrated to Cyprus after the fall of Acre in 1291, and in the early fourteenth century there was schism, with both the master in Cyprus and the master of the London house claiming authority over the whole Order. The situation of those in Cyprus was, however, precarious, and they took steps to transfer the Order's headquarters to London. The master in the East, Henry of Bedford, came to England shortly before 1320 and ousted the head of the London house; he also nominated a deputy to exercise authority in Cyprus.

The brothers who had remained in Cyprus soon rejected Henry's authority, but this action seems to have been occasioned by personal animosity; the brothers appear at that stage to have accepted that London should be the Order's headquarters. Yet in the second quarter of the fourteenth century there was again a mast in Cyprus claiming jurisdiction over the whole Order, and attempts were being made to maintain St Thomas' status as a military order in the East.

Its financial situation had, however, declined further in the fourteenth century--the London house was said to be in ruins in 1330--and it was not long before any military pretensions were abandoned and the Order's headquarters were established permanently in London. Nothing is heard of a master in Cyprus after the 1360s.

In the later Middle Ages the brethren of St Thomas based in London no longer followed the rule of the Teutonic Knights, but instead adopted that of St Augustine. Some charitable work appears to have been maintained, and a grammar school was established at St Thomas in London, possibly in the mid-fifteenth century. The London house also established links with the Mercers' Company, which was holding its meetings and worshipping there from the later fourteenth century. The Mercers later became the patrons of the house, and when St Thomas of Acre was dissolved in Henry VIII's reign, the Mercers' Company bought the Order's property.


Forey, A. J. "The Military Order of St Thomas of Acre," English Historical Review, 92 (1977), pp. 481-503.

Vincent, N. Peter des Roches: an alien in English politics, 1205-1238, Cambridge, 1996.

Watney, J. Some Account of the Hospital of St. Thomas of Acon, in the Cheap, London, and of the Plate of the Mercers' Company, London, 1892.

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