History of Orders of Chivalry: a Survey
See also Guy Sainty's Chivalric Orders; this page benefited from his comments, although I remain responsible for the opinions expressed here.
Orders of Chivalry are, primarily, a historical phenomenon peculiar to Western European Christendom of the Middle Ages. It is in that context that they are most easily defined and understood.
An Order of Chivalry is a certain type of institution. In the category of orders of chivalry, a number of institutions have been placed over time. One can distinguish several phases in the history of that type of institution. The original form, during the Crusades, deserved its name of order, since it consisted of individuals bound together by a permanent religious rule of behavior. After the Crusades were over, in the 14th c., monarchs used the trappings of these orders to create a new institution to serve their purpose of binding vassals to their person. After the Renaissance, the old monarchical orders (and some monastic orders) became purely honorific orders, and other honorific orders were created, once more using the trappings of orders of chivalry.
As a result, we have today such disparate institutions as the Order of Malta, The Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garter, the Golden Fleece (one of the two, at any rate), Bath, Calatrava, all using the name "order of chivalry" or "order of knighthood" even though they are all very different organizations in history, form and purpose.
1100 to 1350: The Military-Monastic Orders
Orders of chivalry first appear in the context of Western Europe's military activities against non-Christian populations and states. Starting in the 11th century, Western Europe went into an aggressive expansionary phase, leading it into conflict with non-Christian populations on two fronts: in Spain and in the Middle East. These wars were engaged in for a variety of motives, but they were, at least in some respects, religious wars. The first orders of chivalry inherit this dual aspect, religious and military.
The first orders of chivalry were associations of individuals, committing themselves to certain goals and regulated activities. The commitment typically took the form of vows, and the regulation of activities took the form of a Rule and an institutional structure defined by statutes and managed by officers. Thus, orders of chivalry were religious orders, in the same sense that purely religious or monastic orders were created at the same time (Carthusians, Cistercians, Franciscans, Dominicans, etc). The goals were both the sanctification of their members through their devotional and charitable activities, as well as participation in the fight against the "Infidels", either by protecting pilgrims or actively taking part in defensive or offensive military operations.
A lot has been written about the origins of this new institution. As with heraldry, it seems difficult for some to accept that Western Europe could invent anything on its own; but, as in the case of heraldry, no convincing evidence has ever been adduced to show that orders of chivalry were an imported concept. Rather, this institution must be seen in the context of the 11th century, when monks and clerics were trying to establish a code of conduct for the new professional class of knights by turning them into "soldiers of Christ." During the Crusades, where religious fervor was at its peak and military skills at a premium, it was natural that these religious and military components fused into the military-monastic orders.
The first orders of chivalry in the Middle East (Templars founded as a military order ca. 1119, Saint-John ca. 1080, militarized ca. Saint Lazarus ca. 1100, Teutonic Knights founded ca. 1190) were all created by private initiatives, as were the Orders in the Iberic peninsula (Avis in 1143, Alcantara in 1156, Calatrava in 1158, Santiago in 1164) created in imitation of the orders in the Holy Land. They typically saw their statutes confirmed or recognized by the Pope after a few years.
Orders of chivalry, like the Church in general, were recipients of many donations, often in the form of land (e.g., a lord would become a knight and give his possessions to his order). Quickly, the orders became large landowners throughout Western Europe, far from their center of activity. As a result, structures were created to manage these estates which had been entrusted to them: these estates became known as commendatoriae (cf. the English verb "to commend") and their managers commendatores. Only later was the word corrupted into commander, which gives it a semblance of military rank which it never was.
As religious orders, these institutions naturally fell under the authority of the Pope, who typically approved the statutes of the order and thereby gave it a form of official recognition. In practice, the orders managed their own affairs, but in times of crises or uncertainty, the pope could and often did intervene directly, either by abolishing an order, merging it with another order (which usually came down to a transfer of assets to the other order), reforming its statutes, appointing a grand-master, etc. The large degree of autonomy that the orders had enjoyed for long periods of time sometimes led them to resent such outside interference. However, only the Order of Saint-John and the Teutonic Order ever gained enough independence and territorial sovereignty to be thought of as "sovereign orders", and in both cases this only happened after the 14th century. It should be kept in mind that the military-monastic orders were, before all, religious orders. They owned land in various countries, their membership was international, and they managed their own affairs, but so did the Benedictines and the Jesuits, and no one ever calls them "sovereign".
The military aspect of these monastic orders explains why they are called Orders of Chivalry. Fighting was a professional activities, and professionals were called knights. Entrance into the social-professional category of knighthood entailed a number of religious rituals which made the idea of a monk-knight only an extension of the general idea of knight. The orders simply recruited individuals who had attained, or could attain, the status of knight. This connection became even stronger as time passed and knighthood became romanticized even as it was losing its professional aspect.
I call these orders military-monastic, to emphasize their dual nature, which sets them apart from any other organization of the time. While it may appear difficult for modern-day Christians to understand how one could sanctify oneself by killing, this notion did not seem shocking in a time which took the expression milites Christi quite literally. Some orders, however, did separate the tasks, and had fighting knights alongside praying chaplains (e.g., the Order of Saint-John). In fact, these orders reflected in their structure (chaplains, knights, sergeants) the Three Orders of feudal society (clergy, nobility and third estate).
At this point, then, orders of chivalry are an association of individuals, typically members of the knightly class, committing themselves through solemn vows to obey the rules and statutes of a religious order and to engage as professional soldiers in a permanent religious war, but also in religious and charitable activities. As religious orders, these associations usually need the approval of the Pope, and fall to some degree under his authority.
Lesser-known orders in the Middle East, the Iberic peninsula and Eastern Europe include :
After 1291: The Orders look for new missions
A major change occurred in 1291, when Acre, the last Crusader stronghold in Palestine, fell to the Arabs. The remaining orders of chivalry had to find a new raison d'être, since the Holy Land was lost with little hope of regaining it. Some orders managed the transition skillfully: the Teutonic Knights, who had already settled in Eastern Europe and absorbed the native Order of the Sword-Brethren, transferred all of their activities to Eastern Europe, where they engaged in colonization of still-pagan areas in Poland and the Baltic, and later in fighting against Orthodox Russia (and even Catholic Poland). The Order of Saint-John conquered Rhodes in the early 1300s and transformed itself into a naval power, pursuing the fight against Arabs and later Turks. Remnants of other orders found refuge in Rhodes under the protection of the Order of Saint-John.
The Templars, which, by virtue of their vast network of fund-collecting, had become bankers of sorts, resisted attempts at a merger with the Order of Saint-John, a project the Pope and other rulers insisted on to better marshal resources for new crusades. Impatient with this resistance, irritated at the disorder and lack of morality which prevailed in the order, and probably mindful of the Temple's riches, the King of France arrested the Templars, had them tried on trumped-up charges, and coerced the Pope into pronouncing the dissolution of their order (1312). The Order of Saint-John became the recipient of the Templars' estates. Two offshoots of the Templars survived in the form of new Orders: the Order of Christ in Portugal (1318) and the Order of Montesa in Spain (1319). Since the 18th century, many other groups have sprung up claiming a filiation with the Templars.
1335 to 1470: The Monarchical Orders of Chivalry
A new generation of orders
As the Crusades became a thing of the past (the last one floundering in 1271), they became romanticized, just as chivalry itself. The aura of orders of chivalry was being actively maintained by the exploits of the Knights of Saint-John ruling their kingdom of Rhodes and fighting the Turks; but most of all by the popularity of the Arthurian novels, international bestsellers of the time, detailing the glorious deeds of the Knights of the Round Table. Indeed, the knights of Saint-John, alone in their kingdom of Cyprus and fighting the nearby Infidels, seemed to many to be the epitome of the Arthurian myth. The emergence of this myth, that of a group of loyal knights devoted to a monarch did not take place in a vacuum of by accident. The 13th and 14th centuries saw the end of feudalism and the emergence of what would become the nation-states of modern Europe, centered on increasingly powerful monarchs. However, the glue of the feudal system, personal fealty to one's immediate superior in the hierarchy, needed a substitute. Until such time as the concept of absolute monarchy became fully developed, monarchs seized on the concept of orders of chivalry. They thus created institutions which recycled some of the trappings of the original orders of chivalry, but with the aim to create a close-knit and devoted circle of noblemen around the person of the sovereign. These were the monarchical orders of chivalry.
These were not the only associations to be called, either at the time or later, "orders of chivalry". The second generation of orders of chivalry, which might be collectively called lay orders of knighthood, included a wide variety of institutions and associations.
It should be noted that, at the time, lay devotional confraternities were quite common: these were lay institutions which grouped members for devotional activities, met regularly, and had some form of statutes. One might think of them as the medieval (and religious) equivalent of clubs. Also, princes and lords made a common use in the 14th century of badges and liveries which they distributed to their servants but also to their followers. The fact that some confraternities, and some orders of knighthood, also began using insignia and outer marks of membership results in a great deal of confusion.
D'Arcy Boulton (1987) has proposed a classification of these associations:
Boulton's classification allows us to concentrate on the most complex, long-lived and influential of these associations, the monarchical orders of chivalry. The first example is perhaps the Order of Saint-George founded in 1325 by Charles I of Hungary. Although its statutes did not define a hereditary presidency, it was clearly intended to function as a monarchical order. another is the Order of the Sash (Banda) founded in Castile by Alfonso XI in 1330. Alfonso XI in 1330, which probably lost its formal character in the 1360s and, by 1416, was merely a device or insignia, persisting until the 1470s. The English king Edward III formed the Order of the Garter, in 1344, the best known of its kind. The French Ordre de l'Étoile (Order of the Star) soon followed in 1351.
Other monarchs or powerful lords followed suit. Here is a partial list of these orders:
In the above list, the character of some orders is difficult to ascertain because of the lack of documentation, and the boundary between monarchical and princely orders is not very sharp.
In fact, Boulton's classification has been criticized as too rigid and detailed. In Germany, in particular, there were dozens of noble associations in the Middle Ages which combined various characteristics which span Boulton's categories (see Kruse, Paravicini, Ranft 1991). ein systematisches Verzeichnis, Frankfurt am Main ; P. Lang 1991). The main lesson to be drawn from such studies include:
New wine in old bottles
These institutions were quite different in nature from the military-monastic orders, yet they have been placed in the same category. The confusion was of course voluntary, so that some of the prestige and fighting spirit of the famous crusading orders might be acquired by these monarchical creations. To this end, various outward elements of the military-monastic orders were adapted. For example, the structure of the institutions were imitated, by copying nomenclature of members and officers. Members were knights, the head of the order (always the sovereign, whereas the military-monastic orders typically elected their head) was the grand-master. Insignia were developed, to be worn by members on their cloaks or in the form of badges, suspended from collars or attached to vestments. This was a direct borrowing from the military-monastic orders, but the insignia were not based on the cross anymore, but on an emblem (garter, golden fleece) or the figure of a patron saint (Saint Michael). Members met regularly in chapters where matters pertaining to the order were discussed. The orders were placed under the protection of a tutelary saint (in imitation of the devotion of the order of Rhodes to Saint-John the Baptist), and regularly held religious offices. The knights swore oaths of allegiance, but to the sovereign rather than to the rule of the order, which was never monastic in nature. The sovereign usually controlled the membership, at least to some degree. Occasionally, a crusading spirit was explicitly invoked, as was the case originally for the Golden Fleece (whose emblem recalled the quest of the Argonauts).
From chivalry to honorific
As time went by, many of these orders simply disappeared precisely because they had been too closely tied to their founder, or because of political changes such as the absorption of the founder's domains in a kingdom. Those orders that did survive (in 1525, only four orders survived: Garter in England, Annunziata in Savoy, Golden Fleece in Spain and Saint-Michel in France) began to change in nature, because they had outlived their purpose. With the 16th century, the monarchs' transition from powerful head of the feudal pyramid to absolute ruler of a modern state was complete, and the need for binding a restless nobility to the sovereign's person became less pressing. In fact, there are no creations of monarchical orders between 1469 and 1578, due also to the fact that, by that time, most countries had at least one such order in existence (and a number of dominions had been united, obviating the need for different orders).
However, the prestige which still surrounded these monarchical orders made them useful for other purposes, namely honoring individuals or rewarding good behavior. As a sign of this changing functions, some of the elements borrowed from military-monastic orders were abandoned; for example, the Order of the Golden Fleece held its last chapter in 1555. Restriction of membership to the knightly class became meaningless as the knightly class itself had already evolved from a professional class to a hereditary caste (on the Continent; interestingly, this did not happen in England, and membership in the knightly class by itself became a reward granted by the sovereign to individuals who had no military training, starting in the 15th century).
For some of the old military-monastic orders, the transition was at times abrupt. The Spanish orders, which had lost their primary purpose with the end of the Reconquista in 1492, were quickly brought under royal control, each time with papal assent (Santiago in 1476, Alcantara in 1474, Calatrava in 1489, Avis in 1550, Christ in 1551, Montesa in 1587). Some orders (Alcantara, Calatrava) were relieved of their vow of chastity. Similarly, the Pope approved the merger of the Order of Saint-Lazarus with Savoie's order of Saint-Maurice in 1572. This merger was effected only in Italy, however, and the remaining estates of the order in France were joined with the newly created Order of Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel in 1608. The Pope accepted the transfer of assets but never recognized the Grand Master of the new order as "Grand Master of Saint Lazarus". The French king never made himself Grand Master of the order, but did keep a close eye on it, making himself "protector" in 1757 and appointing the Grand Master himself.
Thus, when a military-monastic order had estates over several countries, the fate of various parts diverged. The Teutonic Order was all at once secularized by the Elector of Brandenburg in 1525, who, embracing Lutheranism, dispensed with papal assent. In England, Henry VIII simply confiscated the assets of the Order of Saint-John without any pretence of perpetuating the order. Restored by Mary in 1557, it was finally abolished in England in 1560. But in German lands, the Bailiwick of Brandenburg of the Order of Saint-John had already acquired a degree of autonomy, and some of its priories decided of their own movement to follow the local movement and embrace Protestantism. The situation was settled by the Treaty of Augsburg in 1648, and the Evangelical Order of Saint-John or Johanniter Order emerged with Hohenzollerns as Grand Masters, retaining some of its religious nature. It has subsisted to this day (with an interlude from 1812 to 1852).
The transition from monarchical order to honorific orders proved disastrous in some cases: the Order of Saint-Michel in France was quickly devalued by being handed out too generously, and lost all prestige within 100 years of existence. It was replaced in its role as premier French order by the Saint-Esprit in 1578, with a numerus clausus of 100. This order was the first purely political order; only its strict nobiliary requirements distinguished it from the next generation of orders. Its insignia broke with the tradition of monarchical orders, and set a precedent, by borrowing from the Order of Saint-John (now Malta) and using a Maltese cross, albeit with a dove (to represent the Holy Ghost) in the middle. This use of the Maltese cross would be much imitated (Saint-Louis, Bath, etc). Also, the Saint-Esprit used distinctively colored blue ribbons and sashes; again in imitation of the Order of Malta, and again repeated by many later honorific orders.
1560 to present: Honorific Orders
New orders soon multiplied throughout Europe, to serve the new purpose devolved on some of the old military-monastic orders or the more recent monarchical orders. In reality, they were honorific orders, designed either as a reward for past services to the sovereign, or as a way to confer prestige and distinction, and entailing no real commitment to any course of action, or any loyalty to the sovereign beyond what was required of any ordinary subject. In this fundamental respect, they were different from earlier orders, whose possibly honorific character derived from their history and activities, but was not the raison d'être. In the case of orders without nobiliary requirements, the distinction between an "order" and a decoration, especially for 20th century creations, becomes almost arbitrary.
Some of the orders maintained nobiliary requirements and limited membership (Saint-Esprit in France, Black Eagle in Prussia, Saint-Andrew in Russia, Passion in Saxony, San Gennaro in Sicily). But many orders followed a pattern set by Louis XIV when he created the Order of Saint-Louis, with a Maltese cross and red ribbon and sashes; he also imitated Maltese nomenclature with three ranks: grand-cross, commander and knight. These ranks would be imitated by many later orders. The Order of Saint-Louis was awarded for military merit; it had no nobiliary requirement, no limited membership, no chapter, no mandatory activities, etc. Although it was considered and called an order of chivalry at the time, it was already a new breed of order.
Many such orders were created in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the following list can only be very partial (an asterisk marks those who were knightly, or more exactly nobiliary orders):
This list covers a wide variety of orders, from pure merit orders like the Order of Saint-Louis to orders which retained more closely the trappings of the monarchical orders of old (Saint-Esprit, San Gennaro, Constantinian Order); but these differences remain small when monarchical orders themselves changed as feudalism gave way to absolutism. Santo Stefano is rather unique, in that it imposed substantial obligations on its members, and engaged in naval activities against piracy in the Mediterranean.
Some of the more exclusive orders often claimed to be (sometimes accurately) merely revivals of older orders: thus the Dannebrog was allegedly founded in 1219, the Polish Eagle in 1325, the Tower and Sword in 1452, the Thistle in 1451, the Elephant in 1462, the Seraphim in 1334, the Bath in 1399. The Constantinian Order of Saint-George claimed to have been founded by Constantine in 312! (see some interesting remarks by James Algrant on the true origin of this order). The aim was again to let some of the prestige of the older monarchical orders rub off on this new generation of honorific orders. In other cases, such as the Piemontese order of Saint-Maurice and Saint-Lazarus, transformed into a 5-rank order in 1814, or the Order of Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel and Saint-Lazare in France, or the old Spanish orders, remnants of military-monastic orders were transformed into modern-style honorific orders, with or without nobiliary requirements. Usually, their estates ceased to support any independent activity of the order, and merely became added revenues for the king's treasury or a source of perks for recipients of the king's favors (although the French order of Saint Lazarus briefly engaged in maritime activities similar to those of Malta and S. Stefano).
It is also interesting to note the trend towards democratizing older orders by opening up their membership: after the 1720s, purely nobiliary orders have become very rare. Another trend is discernible, that of naming orders after the sovereign. The Order of Saint-Louis was a transparent allusion to Louis XIV disguised as a religious dedication, but Maria-Theresa was the first to be explicit; she was followed by Charles III, and in the 19th century by many sovereigns (queens in particular). By now, the religious connotations of the orders have completely disappeared, and the name and profile of the sovereign replaces saints and religious emblems on the insignia.
The 19th century witnessed a lot of political turmoil, and the development of new forms of government, from military dictatures (Napoleon Bonaparte) to constitutional monarchies and democratic republics. Yet all governments felt the need to maintain or imitate honorific orders, and the habit has spread to non-Western countries and, in the 20th century, to Communist countries as well. It was rather ironic to see a regime such as that of the Soviet Union award something called the Order of Lenin, where the link with the military-monastic orders of 12th century Jerusalem is tenuous at best: yet these modern institutions are still called Orders...
The Fate of the Original Military-Monastic Orders
What became of the original military-monastic orders?
There are many, many books on the subject. Here are just a few outstanding works, whose extensive bibliographies should be consulted:
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