Chaplain History 1200-1649

A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of the chaplain’s duties and responsibilities from AD 1200–AD 1600

            Military leaders, popes, and rulers of the medieval period were all concerned with the spiritual lives of their armies and campaigns. The importance of pastoral care for their troops provided the moral high ground and motivation to succeed in battle. By winning hearts and minds to Christ, their accompanying priests and chaplains exalted the troops in righteousness. The strength of the chaplain’s role was apparent from antiquity.

            Beginning in the thirteenth century, pope Gregory IX conscribed the role of the military chaplain to law, formally establishing and legitimizing pastoral care, often under compulsion.[1] The chaplains now possessed the opportunity to grant penance and forgiveness of sins.[2] In a pattern of duties to follow in the medieval period, chaplains were examples of Christian morals, teaching, and inspiration from sermons. Previously, Bishop Ivo of Chartres had provided extensive canonical responsibilities for pastoral care and emphasized that the chaplain is a non-combative role. Chaplains can provide spiritual care but must abstain from battle and violence.

            The Medieval chaplain’s role was to be one of accomplished knowledge of all Christian rites. A part of pastoral care was to see each individual and assure spiritual cleanliness, and “secure God’s aid in obtaining victory.”[3] The opportunity to provide pastoral care, heal the soul, and sustain a reconciling presence were codified and enforced.[4] Priests and chaplains in their medieval role strengthened their troops corporately and individually, often by individual confession and continuing prayers for victory, keeping the morale high in their efforts.[5] After the reformation, Catholic and Protestant clergy met the chaplain’s role to provide denomination-specific rites and sermons, a trend in diversity that would continue through history.[6]

Did the nature of the enemy make a difference during the wars of the Three Kingdoms (1642-1649)?

            Before the War of the Three Kingdoms, the thirty-year war had set the mood for the Catholic vs. Protestant conflict in Ireland.[7] Brother against brother conflict was therefore made justified in the campaign against Ireland, but for Scotland, there were exceptions. The English parliamentary troops were more reluctant to engage their “spiritual brothers in Scotland, having shared a common spiritual belief.

            The various armies taking part in the Three Kingdoms wars were often of similar Protestant denominations, and the soldiers were often interchangeable depending on if they volunteered or were conscripted. Chaplains often faced moral conflict over encouraging their soldiers to kill in battle and attempting to reconcile the correct religious stance on wars of political origin.[8] Convincing protestant armies to confront their fellow protestants was challenging vs. uniting against English Royalists and Irish Catholics. With protestant vs. protestant, Bergen notes, “in Scotland, chaplains who had been regarded as radical troublemakers in England helped the army command to escape from the difficulties of explaining the need to fight brother-Protestants.”[9]


Bergen, Doris L., ed. The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.

Keith, Steve. “Early Foundations of Chaplaincy 27BC-1600AD.” Lecture in CHPL 500 at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA, Fall 2022. Scorgie, Glen G., Simon Chan, Gordon T. Smith, and James D. Smith III, eds. Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

[1] Doris L. Bergen, ed., The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 69-70.

[2] Ibid., 70.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Glen G. Scorgie et al., eds., Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2011), 334.

[5] Bergen, The Sword of the Lord, 83.

[6] Steve Keith. “Early Foundations of Chaplaincy 27BC-1600AD” (video lecture in CHPL 500 at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA, Fall 2022).

[7] Bergen, The Sword of the Lord, 99.

[8] Ibid., 101.

[9] Ibid.

see also: What Is A Chaplain?