The Military Order of Alcántara
© Guy Stair Sainty
The precursor of the Order of Alcántara was a small religious-military fraternity formed, in either 1156 or 1176, by two brothers from Salamanca, Suero and Gómez Fernández. Based at the small town of San Julian del Perál (or Pereiro), near Ciudad Real, from which it took its name, it received Papal approval by Bull of Alexander III of 29 December 1177. This, while granting Gómez the title of Prior, did not define either the rule by which the brothers must live or their spiritual obligations although (according to Helyot ), they were given permission to receive Chaplains. In 1183 their superior was given the title of "Master" and they were bound to a moderated rule of Saint Benedict,  to enable them to fulfill their martial duties. 
Gómez died in 1200 and was succeeded by Benedict Suárez, by which time the new Order had acquired several more small towns and fortresses in the south of the Kingdom of León. The fortress-town of Alcántara had been captured by the King of León in 1213, who had granted it to the Order of Calatrava provided the knights established a Convent there. Too far from Calatrava, it was proposed that the Order of Saint Julian should be granted the town, with the Master of Saint Julian having a right to participate in the election of the Master of Calatrava to whom he would be subordinate. It appears that it was at this time that the knights formally adopted the Cistercian rule, although not receiving papal license to abandon their original Bendictine rule. The knights of San Julian duly took over Alcántara, but not being invited to the subsequent election for the Master of Calatrava, repudiated the agreement, declaring themselves autonomous. Agreement was eventually reached with the revived Alcántara acquiring several of the Calatrava estates and the latter becoming its superior in disciplinary and ecclesiastical matters.
Unfortunately, like the other military orders, the knights of Alcántara were inevitably drawn into the civil wars between the Kings of Aragón, Castille, León and Navarre, despite the fact that they were in breach of their vows only to take up arms against the infidel. At the same time there were quarrels within the Order itself and, in 1318, a group of knights petitioned the Master of Calatrava, as "Father" and "Reformer" of their Order, to intervene on their behalf. The Master of Alcántara, Ruiz Velázquez, refused to accept the superior jurisdiction of the Master of Calatrava and prepared his defenses against attack - after a bitter struggle in which many were killed on both sides a truce was declared and each took their complaints to the Chapter-General of the Cistercian Order. The result was the deposition of the Master, Grand Commander and Clavero (who refused to accept this decision), the election of Suer Pérez de Maldonado as Master and a further schism in the Order. With the death of Suer Pérez, his brother Ruiz succeeded him but then resigned, leading to the election of one Master sponsored by Alfonso VII of Castille and León, another elected by the knights at Alcántara (Grand Commander López), while Ruiz Pérez was persuaded by the Superior of the Cistercians (the Abbot of Morimond) to reclaim the Mastership. López died six months later and was succeeded by his nephew, but Ruiz Pérez, with the assistance of some knights of Santiago, laid siege to Alcántara, leading to the submission of the knights led by López to his authority. The King's candidate, Gonzalo Núñez, still claimed the title of Master so the King persuaded Master Pérez to accept a visitation of the Superior of the Cistercians and the Master of Caltrava, who recommended Pérez's resignation and Núñez succession, which duly followed.
Núñez proved to be a brave and capable leader of the Order, distinguishing himself and the Order against the Moors until he fell foul of the King's mistress. Alfonso, wishing to arrest Núñez, ordered him to Madrid but the Master refused and fortified the various castles of the Order. Although the King imposed another Master in the person of Nuño Chamizio, Núñez continued to sustain the support of the majority of the knights at first and allied himself with the King of Portugal (who proved to be an unreliable ally). Unfortunately for him the knights were unwilling to continue to resist the royal authority and when he was declared a traitor by King Alfonso, they abandoned him to his fate; in 1338 he was beheaded and his body burned. Despite a temporary union under one Master, the Order continued to be divided by internal squabbles and once more found itself in conflict with the Crown during the reign of Pedro the Cruel. These divisions continued through the fifteenth century until 1473, when the Duchess of Plasencia obtained a papal brief appointing her son, Juan de Zuniga, Master of the Order, using the pretense that the post was vacant. The knights and two other rival Masters refused to accept this act although eventually King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel forced them to do so. Zuniga became the sole Master from 1473 until 1494, when he resigned in favor of King Ferdinand (who had two years earlier obtained a papal bull granting him the administration of the Order). 
At the time of its submission to the Crown the Order had thirty-seven commanderies, these being reduced to a total of twenty-eight by the end of the eighteenth-century, with annual revenues of 120,000 scudi.  The administration having been united under the Spanish Crown since 1523, Alcántara shares a common history with the Santiago and Calatrava. With the fall of the Monarchy in 1931 there were less than twenty knights, headed by the Grand Commander, Prince Carlo de Borbón-Dos Sicilias, Infant of Spain (who died in 1949 when he was succeeded by the Marquess of Velada). Among the knights were Princes Philip, Januarius, Rainier and Gabriel de Borbón-Dos Sicilias and also Prince Alfonso de Borbón-Dos Sicilias, Infant of Spain and future (1964) Duke of Calabria, the son of the Grand Commander.
By the time of the recent revival of the Order there was only one survivor of the pre-1931 Order, D. Gonzalo García de Blanes y Pacheco, admitted as a novice in 1925, who on 15 March 1982 was appointed Grand Commander. With his death his successor was Prince D. Carlos de Borbón-Dos Sicilias y Borbón-Parma, Duke of Calabria, the grand-son of the late Grand Commander, who had been appointed Clavero (keeper of the keys) on 8 June 1983 and was appointed Grand Commander on 13 October 1986. The Duke of Calabria was appointed President and Dean of the Council in succession to the Count of Barcelona on 6 July 1993 and was created an Infant of Spain on 16 December 1994. The Clavero (Keeper of the Keys) is the Duke of Santa Cristina, the Alférez (Standard-Bearer) and Commander of Castilnovo is the Count of Cardona, Grandee of Spain, and today there are thirty-one professed and seventeen novice knights (including three Grandees, and also the Duke of Calabria's heir, Prince D. Pedro de Borbón-Dos Sicilias, Duke of Noto).
In 1411 the knights obtained permission from the anti-pope Benedict XIII to adopt an identical badge to that of the Order of Caltrava but in dark green; this has remained the badge of the Order; the cross may be suspended from a ribbon or sewn on the left breast. The requirements for membership of Alcántara are stiffer than Santiago or Calatrava, requiring not only proof of four noble quarters but that all four families were possessed originally of a casa solar.
Volume VI, p.53
See Zeininger de Borja, op.cit., p.209.
The claim that they adopted the Cistercian rule appears to have been made because of some confusion over their precise relationship with the Order of Calatrava.
See Helyot, op.cit., Volume VI, pp.53-65.
See Zeininger de Borja, op.cit., p.211.