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Hiring holy orders outside of a great holy war
Holy orders are bands of troops that can be hired with piety to fight religious enemies. Holy orders can also operate as independent rulers, constructing castles and waging their own wars. Most religions only have one holy order; only Catholics have multiple orders.
The size of holy orders is scaled according to the religion's moral authority. If the holy order is currently hired, its size will be updated only when it is dismissed.
They have not been hired by another ruler or raised their own troops to fight a war
During great holy wars, as well as when defending against infidels, holy orders have no wealth upkeep. During offensive wars, however, they have a substantial gold upkeep cost, similar to mercenaries.
Forces hired from holy orders will only fight against enemies of the faith:
Christian holy orders only fight heretics of their religion and infidels. For example, a Catholic holy order will not fight against the Orthodox or Iconoclast Byzantine Empire, but will fight against any Cathar or any Muslim ruler.
Muslim, Pagan, and Indian holy orders are also hostile against other religions within their group.
Holy orders often operate on their own, without the contract of a ruler. They may ask rulers of their religion to allow them to build a castle in the ruler's demesne. The holy order only requires the local count's approval; the permission of the count's liege, if any, is not required. Once they get permission, construction will begin.
Holy Orders will continue to request the rights to build castles as long as they have enough wealth (300g), no county titles, and fewer than 10 controlled settlements. This will eventually put them over their demesne limit, and they will grant extra castles with appointment succession. If you have Imperial Administration or Iqta government, retracting these baron vassals will allow the Holy Order to build more castles. This is an inexpensive, if gamey, way to increase the strength of your realm.
Rulers cannot use the "de jure holdings" CB against holy orders of their religion. However, for 1000 piety, they can expel the holy order and seize all castles. Any debts with the Order will also be cancelled. The Order will no longer request to build castles in the ruler's realm.
Occasionally, an unmarried son or brother who does not stand to inherit may ask to join Holy Order of their religion. They are more likely to request if Zealous , and will be more likely to join a Holy Order with an aligned cause or is more local (for example, a German would be more likely to join the Teutonic Order than the Knights Templar if both are formed).
If allowed, the courtier moves to the holy order and unmarries all spouses. If the allowing ruler shares their religion, the ruler gains 100 piety. Characters cannot marry or inherit as long as they remain in the holy order. Except for CM holy orders (Zun and Ibadi), the character also gains the Celibate trait.
Once in the holy order, it is possible for them to become the successor through Open elective succession, which selects the man with the highest prestige plus age. This can be very useful if your dynasty: each holy order controlled by your dynasty gives you (and all other count+ rulers of your dynasty) +2 monthly prestige and +1 monthly piety. Holy orders controlled by your dynasty are also much cheaper to hire. High dynasty prestige can help your relatives win, as can the skills to obtain a council position within the holy order.
Aside from castle and hiring income, Holy Orders can also gain money from donations. Donating 300 Wealth to a Holy Order will grant you 300 piety and put you in good standing with the Grandmaster of that Order, your religious head, and all temple vassals. Note that you cannot donate to holy orders which you have vassalized.
You can also borrow money from a Holy Order. At any time you can borrow 300 gold from any Holy Order of your religion, so long as they have 300 gold to give. However, while in debt the Grandmaster can make various demands, either demanding a son or brother to join the Order or building a castle in your demesne. If this happens, you may either accept (canceling your debt), refuse (losing 1000 Piety and damaging your relations with your religious head), or pay back the 300 gold debt.
Holy orders are created by events when certain conditions are met. If a heresy becomes mainstream, they always join the new mainstream religion. Similarly they can be formed by a former heresy once it becomes mainstream.
Taoism does not have a holy order.
Most pagan holy orders require reformation of the religion, except the Germanic holy order.
If five of major cities in India (Mahoyadapuram, Cholamandalam, Manyapura, Navasarika, Kataka, Laksmanavati, Magadha, Jaunpur, Manyakheta, Goa, Vijayawada, Mallabhum, Tripuri, Ujjayini, Debul, Ajayameru, Kanyakubja, Lahur, Delhi, Multan) are owned by non-Dharmic rulers, all three holy orders become active.
The major cities of India
Can also be created individually by decision if a ruler has 1000 piety and control of all five of their religion's holy sites. After the year 1100, simply requires 200 piety.