Cracroft's Peerage
The Complete Guide to the British Peerage & Baronetage


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Orders of Chivalry and Merit


The British Orders of Chivalry and Merit

Orders of Chivalry and Merit in Other Countries

False Orders of Chivalry and Merit

Comparison between grades in British and Foreign Orders


Religious Orders of Chivalry

 The origins of Orders of Chivalry must be sought in the mediaeval organisations of the Catholic Church, whose religious orders, the monastic communities, formed the basis. The word "Order" comes from the Latin "ordo", which referred at that time to an association of a limited circle of persons who took upon themselves certain obligations and who subjected themselves to certain rules. At the time of the Crusades we see the rise of religious Orders amongst the crusading knights in the Holy Land, the main objects of which were to fight for the Christian Faith and to care for pilgrims and the sick. The best known of these are the Order of the Knights Templar, the Order of Malta and the Teutonic Knights, which all exercised considerable power and at times achieved great political influence.


These religious Orders of Chivalry were confirmed by the Pope and were directly subordinated to the Holy See, but otherwise they acted independently under the leadership of a Grand Master, elected for life by the knights and assisted by a chapter composed by the holders of the highest offices of the Order.


From Religious to Temporal Orders of Chivalry

Other Orders were founded apart from the three leading religious Orders of Chivalry referred to above. Some of these were founded in Spain, were the centuries' old battle against the Moors inspired the foundation of Orders which had the fight against the infidel as their main object. Among these were the Order of Alcantra (1156), the Order of Calatrava (1158), the Order of Aviz (1162), the Order of Sant' Iago (1170) and the Order of Monteza (1316), all of which still exist today. As the fight against the Moors was carried on by the rulers of the various kingdoms, these rulers became the natural focal point for the foundation of the Orders. It is true that the Orders were directly subordinated to the Holy See, but over the years, as the the various rulers gradually took over the offices of Grand Master and made them hereditary in their own families, the Orders became more dynastically dependent, although they maintained their religious character.


These Orders formed the link to the next large group, the Royal Knighthoods, also called the dynastic or temporal Orders of Chivalry.


Royal Knighthoods

With the change in the structure of society from Church power to royal power during the fourteenth century, a number of temporal Orders of Chivalry were founded all over Europe. Their object was no longer the fight against the infidel, but to strengthen the power and prestige of the kings. The kings themselves occupied the offices of Grand Master, but the meetings, the so-called Chapters, were still held in special chapels of the Orders in churches. Similarly the Orders, like the religious Orders of Chivalry, generally had a patron saint and sought papal confirmation.


The number of members in these temporal Orders of Chivalry was limited, and all were equal in one class. Admission was conditional upon noble birth, and initiation was conducted at a solemn ceremony including a vow of fidelity and the receiving of the accolade. The members wore a habit, and the insignia of the Order was often a jewel with a picture of the patron saint of the Order, worn on a chain or ribbon around the neck. Members who enjoyed these privileges were required to lead a blameless life, to support charity by giving large sums of money, to promote the prestige and power of the king, and always to bear the insignia of the Order. Originally membership of one Order excluded membership of another, at least as regards the Order against whose king one went to war.


Several of these temporal Orders of Chivalry still exist today, for example the British Order of the Garter (1348), the Danish Order of the Elephant (1462) and the Swedish Order of the Seraphim (1748), although in many cases their original significance of membership of a society of chivalry with a strong religious basis has now changed to merely bearing the insignia of membership, the token of royal favour. The development of history has thus made these temporal Orders of Chivalry dating from the fourteenth century into a form of Order of Merit, although still highly exclusive, as opposed to those emerging around the year 1800 which were specifically founded as Orders of Merit.


Orders of Merit

Once more a change in the structure of society affected the development of the Orders. The commune, which was consolidated by the French Revolution, wished initially to reward the citizen from a military point of view for his services in the fight for freedom, and later from a civilian point of view for his services for the benefit of the new society. Thus arose the Order purely for services or merit, of which the French Legion of Honour (1802), with its division in 1805 into five classes, became the prototype.


In the Legion of Honour, democracy made its entry into the world of chivalry. No longer was it a limited number of men of the most noble birth in the land who could receive honours from their king. The Orders of Merit became society's recognition of "acknowledged worthiness of citizenship", which the Head of State personifying society, be he King or President, could bestow on any citizen.


Democratization rapidly swept through all countries, either in the form of dividing existing Orders or one class into several classes - as was the case in 1808 in the Danish Order of the Dannebrog (1671) - or by founding new Orders of several classes. An actual division into classes, however, already existed before the French Revolution in the French Military Order of St Louis (1693), whose three classes were referred to as the Grand Cross, Commander and Knight. This became the pattern of the democratic Orders, which took over the division into classes as well as designations.


Orders of Merit can be either purely military Orders or purely civil Orders or mixed Orders which have both military and civil divisions.


Among purely military Orders of Merit which still exist are the Swedish Order of the Sword (1522), the Dutch Military Order of William (1815) and the Finnish Order of the Liberty Cross (1918). The latter is peculiar in that, as with the German Iron Cross (1813), it can only be awarded in time of war, and in that it distinguishes between combatants and non-combatants. This was also the case with the Iron Cross before 1939. The greater number of the new Orders founded after the Second World War in communist countries are solely military Orders.


In countries having purely civil Orders of Merit, the civil field is often divided into several categories with a separate Order for each. For example, in Sweden the Order of the Northern Star (1748) is awarded for the humanities and for official services, and the Order of Vasa (1772) for commercial services. In the years just before and after the Second World War a marked division took place in France, in that individual Ministries each awarded its own Order. These Ministerial Orders, however, were, with one exception, later absorbed into the new National Order of Merit (1964).


In countries having several civil Orders of Merit which may be awarded for the same category of services, it is the qualitative side of the question which decides the Order to be awarded. For example, the Legion of Honour (1802) is awarded in France for eminent services, and the National Order of Merit (1964) for distinguished services. In Finland, a similar distinction is made between the Order of the White Rose of Finland (1919) and the Order of the Lion of Finland (1942).


Among the mixed Orders of Merit are the Belgian Order of Leopold (1832) which in addition to a civil and a military division also has a naval division, the Norwegian Order of St Olaf (1847), the British Order of Merit (1902) and the former Czechoslovak Order of the White Lion (1922). The military divisions of the mixed Orders of Merit are characteristic in that the otherwise common insignia are provided with crossed swords. The papal Order of St Gregory the Great (1831), however, uses a trophy instead of the crossed swords, and in the Order of the British Empire (1917) an extra band in the otherwise common riband indicates the military division. The British Order of the Bath (1725) is exceptional in that its divisions each have their own insignia.


Orders for Science and Art

Several civil Orders of Merit are also awarded for deserving services to science and art. Special decorations for service in this field were, however, founded quite early on, for example the French Palms in Gold and Silver (1808) which was extended in 1945 into an Order of three classes. Similar decorations are found in Germany, such as the Order "Pour le Mérite" for Science and Art (1842) and in Austria the Insignia of Honour and the Cross of Honour for Science and Art (1955). When in 1964 the award of Ministerial Orders ceased in France, the Order of "Arts et Lettres" (1957) was retained as the exception. Apart from scientific and artistic services, this may also be awarded for literary services.


Personal Orders

Where the Royal Knighthoods, because of the influence of the State in the choice of those to be honoured, gradually took on the character of State Orders, the Royal Houses often founded special Family Orders, partly as a reward for services rendered to the King personally or to his family, and partly as a sign of mutual alliance when they were conferred on other Sovereigns and their families. Such Family Orders still existing include the British Royal Victorian Order (1896), the Dutch Order of the Family of Orange (1905) and the Greek Order of St George and St Constantine (1936). One and the same Family Order is sometimes conferred by several Sovereign whose Houses are related, for example, the Luxemburg Order of the Golden Lion of the House of Nassau (1859), which can be conferred by the House of Orange in the Netherlands.


Socialist Orders of State

In about the year 1900, another change in the structure of society affected the development of the system of Orders. First, the Soviet Union, and after the Second World War the new so-called Democratic People's Republics, abolished the existing system of Orders which had been built up on the original chivalrous concept. In their place, a number of new State Orders were founded. It is true that the designation "Order" was maintained, but the division into classes was now designated by a simple number rather than the old Grand Cross, Commander or Knight. These include, in the Soviet Union the Order of Lenin (19300 and the Order of Honour (1943), in Roumania the Order of the Star of the Roumanian People's Republic (1948), in Bulgaria the Order of "Georgi Dimitrov" (1950) and in Hungary the Order of Merit of the People's Republic of Hungary (1953).


Only in Poland and Czechoslovakia have or had a few of the old Orders been maintained in a different form: for example, the Order "Virtuti Militari" (1792) in Poland, and in Czechoslovakia the Order of the White Lion (1922).


Last updated 3 Jul 2012



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