THE crown steeple of St Giles’ Cathedral looms over much of Edinburgh’s Old Town, just as it has cast its shadow over key events in Scotland’s history. St Giles’ was a witness to the turbulent Scottish Reformation, but what is less well-known is the church’s earlier, medieval, history, when it was held by the Leper Knights.

For two centuries, St Giles’ was owned by a crusading order of knights, the Order of St Lazarus. Like the more famous Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller, the Lazarites were a military-religious order, soldier-monks who ran hospices, provided charity to pilgrims and the needy, yet also fought in the crusades. The Lazarites were unique among the military orders. Many of the brethren, and every grandmaster until 1253, were lepers. In the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem any knight afflicted with leprosy had to join the Order of St Lazarus. From 1260, any leprous Templars were obliged to do the same.

Following the First Crusade (1096-99) and the founding of the crusader states in Palestine and Syria, the Christians were desperately short of manpower. Most of the First Crusaders had returned home and those who remained struggled to defend their new lands. The military orders arose to meet this need. The first of these orders were the Knights Templar, founded in 1120. The Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem soon followed their example and the Knights Hospitaller were born. The Order of St Lazarus had begun as a leper hospital in the early 12th century and was militarised by the 1230s. Even the order’s leprous members were deployed on the battlefield, though not with much success. Leprous brethren fought at the Battle of La Forbie in 1244, where the crusader armies were crushed. In 1252, the grandmaster and many leprous knights were killed when raiding the town of Ramleh. Only four survived.

Like all the military orders, the Lazarites’ hospitals and armies in Palestine were funded by lands across Europe, including Scotland, where the order arrived in the reign of David I (1124-53). It was probably David who gave them St Giles’ Cathedral. The Lazarites had the church by at least 1181, when the Pope confirmed their possession of it. The 15th-century chronicler Walter Bower claimed that David I gave St Giles’ Grange, now The Grange in Edinburgh, to the Lazarite house of Harehope in Northumberland. He likely also gave them the church which the grange was supposed to support. David I certainly had a great affection for the military orders and the crusades. He retained Templars at his court and he gave the Hospitallers their preceptory of Torphichen in West Lothian. He even reportedly expressed a desire to go on crusade himself. The order soon acquired other lands in Edinburgh, including Priestfield (modern Prestonfield) and Spitalton. The Lazarites also had land in Fife at Kedlock, near Cupar, a croft in Linlithgow, land in Elgin and rent from land near Coldingham.

Like most religious orders in Scotland, the Lazarites were drawn into the Wars of Independence. The order’s Scottish branch, as well as those of the Templars and Hospitallers, were each subordinate to masters in England. When the First War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328) broke out, the Templars and Hospitallers duly sided with the English. The master of the Templars in Scotland fought and died for Edward I at the battle of Falkirk in 1298, as did the Hospitaller preceptor of Torphichen. The Hospitallers would not make peace with the Scots until 1314, after Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn, while the Templars would be suppressed on charges of heresy in 1312. The Lazarites do not seem to have fought for Edward, but they did throw their lot in with him and saw their lands seized by the Scottish authorities. In 1296, the order petitioned the new English regime in Scotland for the restoration of their property there. By 1308, control of the order’s Scottish lands had passed to their preceptory of Harehope in Northumberland, probably a consequence of their conflict with the Scots. The Lazarites had returned to Scotland by David II’s reign, probably after coming to terms with his father Robert the Bruce in 1314, as the Hospitallers did.

But the Second War of Scottish Independence (1332-57) would reignite suspicions about the Lazarites’ loyalties. Walter Bower wrote that they were expelled by David II soon after his regent, Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray, was supposedly poisoned by an English friar, an event which was quickly followed by an English-backed invasion by Scottish and English nobles disinherited by Robert the Bruce. As David II was only a child at the time and, with the invasion, was little able to expel anyone, the expulsion more likely took place between 1341 and 1346, between his return from exile in France and his capture by the English at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. In 1341, David II was an adult, freshly returned from exile in France and eager to prove himself. Driving out an order of suspected English spies and seizing their lands was an easy and profitable way to demonstrate his opposition to English claims over Scotland. St Giles’, the grange, Priestfield and Spitalton were all seized by the crown. In 1376, Robert II gave the lands to his son John, earl of Carrick, for as long as the Lazarites remained loyal to the English. They were never returned.

We know the name of just one Scottish Lazarite: Robert Haliday, who is first recorded living not in Scotland but in England. From 1349 he resided at the Leper Knights’ English headquarters of Burton Lazars, Leicestershire. Haliday may have been responsible for managing the Lazarite lands in Scotland, but with David II’s expulsion of the order leaving him with no lands there to administer, he moved to England. He appears to have been master in all but name of Burton Lazars, and therefore all of the order’s lands in England, and in 1350 he was formally appointed as master, making him the

only Scot to lead a military order in the British Isles. As well as being a Scot, he had been made master by the order’s grandmaster in France. With England then at war with both nations, Haliday was unlikely to have been popular at Burton. In 1354, an Englishman, Geoffrey de Chaddesden, tried to depose him and take control of Burton for himself. Chaddesden had the support of Edward III, who probably preferred an English master of the Lazarites over a Scot with French backing. Haliday defeated this attempt and remained master until his death shortly after 1358.

St Giles’ has changed much since the Leper Knights held it. It was burnt three times in the 14th century and was restored in the 19th. Little of the original Lazarite church survives. In the north aisle is a 12th-century carving of a lipless face, much like one found in the order’s preceptory at Burton Lazars. It may represent one of the lepers that the Lazarites were founded to care for. Despite all the damage and restorations, St Giles’ is the only standing evidence of a forgotten branch of a distant crusading order: a Scottish outpost for the Leper Knights, far from their foundations in Jerusalem.

Rory MacLellan, of the University of St Andrews, has a PhD in Mediaeval History