Originally founded as Milites Sancti Sepulcri attached to the Augustinian Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, recognised in 1113 by Papal bull of Pope Paschal II and of Pope Calistus II in 1122. It traces its roots to circa 1099 under the Frankish Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, "Defender of the Holy Sepulchre", one of the leaders of the First Crusade and first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Besides the Canons Regular (the Fratres), early members included secular canons (Confratres or Sergentes), Milites Sancti Sepulcri, armed knights of valour and dedication chosen from the crusader troops. Together they vowed to obey the Augustinian Rule of poverty and obedience, and undertook specifically to defend the Holy Sepulchre and the holy places under the command of the King of Jerusalem. Still today, the order bestows Canons as well as Knights, with the primary mission to "support the Christian presence in the Holy Land".
With the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem by Jerusalem in 1187 and Acre in 1291, the prerogative to adoube Knights of the Holy Sepulchre was transferred to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the highest Catholic authority in the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. In 1496, Pope Alexander VI vested the Grand Magistry in the Papacy. In 1847, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was restored by Pope Pius IX and the chivalric order was reorganised based on legal and spiritual ties to the Holy See. From 1949, Grand Masters have been Cardinals. It is the only medieval order of chivalry, together with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, that is recognised and protected by the Holy See.