Legitimacy and Orders of Knighthood

This essay was first published in December 1996.


I am not, have never been, and have no desire to be a member of any order of knighthood or chivalry or any nobiliary association, nor am I involved or associated with any. I have no particular axe to grind, this is not a pro domo plea.

My interest in such orders derives from my general interest in heraldry and nobiliary matters, and the interesting mix of historical and legal questions that orders raise. I offer my thoughts here, not as authoritative word or expert opinion, but in the hope that they might provide food for thought to others who are perplexed by this question, as I am.


  1. Historical Definition of Orders of Knighthood
    1. what were orders of knighthood
      1. military-monastic orders (c.1100-c.1300)
      2. monarchical orders (c.1300-c.1580)
      3. honorific orders (c.1580-present)
    2. what is an order of knighthood today
      1. historical continuity
      2. identity and revival
    3. Conclusion
  2. Is There an Accepted Standard?
  3. Legal Definitions of Orders of Knighthood


The following contains some thoughts on the question of legitimacy and orders of knighthood. In other words, what is a legitimate order of knighthood (or chivalry, I will not distinguish the two here)? When one encounters an association which calls itself an order of knighthood, how can one tell if it is legitimate or not?

Answering the question requires proper definitions for its two terms: What is an order of knighthood? What is legitimacy? A proper definition of legitimacy in fact necessitate a proper definition of orders of knighthood.

I will argue the following. Starting from the dictionary definition of "legitimate", I conclude that an order of knighthood can be "legitimate" in two ways:

    1. it is what it claims to be, either:
      1. a specific, historical order of knighthood: this means that it satisfies some notion of identity with or continuity with some well-defined, commonly recognized historical institution. Few organizations can make such a claims (e.g., Malta)
      2. an order of knighthood, in the historical but generic sense. Few can make such a claim because orders of knighthood have occurred in specific historical contexts, a
        1. as medieval military-monastic orders: but the context has completely disappeared
        2. as knightly/nobiliary associations: but knighthood as a social class has disappeared
        3. as monarchical or princely associations: but they must then have been created by a monarch or prince.
    2. it is legally defined to be an order of knighthood. In this case, the legitimacy of an order is strictly a matter of national law, and various countries have, or do not have, laws regulating orders (most do not). The best one can say in such a case is that an order is recognized by a legal government.

Definitions of Legitimacy

The word legitimate has three possible meanings relevant to the question (according to Merriam-Webster's 9th Collegiate):

  1. being exactly as purposed: neither spurious nor false;
  2. conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards;
  3. accordant with law or with established legal forms and requirements.

Thus, an association might be a "legitimate" order of knighthood in three ways:

  1. it is exactly what it claims to be;
  2. it conforms to some accepted standard;
  3. it is legal.

Each meaning requires a different pre-existing criterion:

  1. if the association is "exactly what it claims to be", then we must be able to assess those claims:
    • we need to consider each characteristic the association claims to have ("order", "sovereign", "noble", "ancient", "dynastic", "knighthood", "hospitaller", etc); in particular, we need a definition of "order of knighthood".
    • if the association claims to be a specific, historically defined order, we need a definition of identity or continuity through time.
  2. if the association "conforms to some accepted standard", we need such a recognized and accepted standard of what an order of knighthood is.
  3. if the association is "legal" as order of knighthood, we need a legal definition of, or a legally defined procedure for establishing, an order of knighthood.

The first criterion would involve historical and semantical arguments; the second criterion may already exist, as a matter of convention; the third criterion is purely legal, and may or may not exist depending on the jurisdiction. It should be clear that a given association might satisfy one criterion but not the others. Accordingly, I will distinguish these questions:

  1. the substantive questions: what is an order of knighthood? what does it mean to be "the same as" a historical order of knighthood?
  2. the legalistic questions: is there an accepted standard of orders of knighthood? If not, are there (country-specific) legal definitions of orders of knighthood?

I) Historical Definition of Orders of Knighthood

Orders of knighthood are primarily historical objects: that is, their period of greatest importance belongs clearly to the past. We cna turn to history, ascertain what were orders of knighthood, and then determine if present-day organizations can be seen to belong to that class.

A. What Were Orders of Knighthood?

I have discussed this question at length elsewhere. The main conclusions to be drawn from the history of orders of knighthood are the following.

The term has been used for institutions which arose in three distinct periods.

1. Military-Monastic Orders (1100-1300)

The military-monastic orders (e.g., Saint John a.k.a. Malta, Teutonic Knights, Calatrava, Saint Lazarus to name a few) emerged to serve a specific purpose, namely aid in the colonization of areas outside of, or on the edges of, Western Christendom (Muslim Middle East and Spain, pagan Eastern Europe). They combined elements of monastic orders and the professional class of knights, were bound by a rule, sustained by real estate from donations, recruiting largely from knights and later from the nobility, and subject to papal and/or royal authority. These literally deserve the name of order of knighthood, because they were orders (governed by a rule and sanctioned by papal authority) composed of knights (in the original, professional and later social sense).

2. monarchical orders and lay fraternities (1300-1580)

These were patterned on the military-monastic orders because of the latter's prestige, but were very different in structure and purpose. They usually had a badge or insignia, recruited among knights or nobles, and many had some form of rule or statute with some titles (Grand Master) and even functions copied from the military-monastic orders, and some even stated similar goals (a crusade). But rarely did they require the total commitment of the members. Monarchical orders were created by sovereigns as a way to bind the nobility by personal alliegance: only a handful survived beyond 1525. Those that did survive were transformed into the third class anyway (see below).

Lay fraternities were either military, nobiliary or devotional in purpose, almost none lasting for more than a generation. There was a wide spectrum of such fraternities, some very loose and purely occasional, but only careless writing by subsequent historians has led to their inclusion in the class of "orders of knighthood".

3. honorific orders (c.1580-present)

These "orders" created in increasing numbers by modern monarchies and, later, republics. They were patterned after the monarchical orders, which themselves became, over time, honorific orders (Garter, Spanish Golden Fleece, Santa Annunziata) or were abolished (Saint Michel). The Portuguese order of Avis, which started out as a military-monastic order, ultimately became an honorific order of the Republic of Portugal.

These organizations, patterned after the monarchical orders, themselves patterned after the military-monastic orders, inherited the denomination "order of knighthood". But they are neither orders (in the sense of a community bound by rules acting for a common purpose) or "of knighthood" (since knighthood had disappeared as a social class and become either equivalent to nobility, on the Continent, or an honorific award, as in Britain). Only those that maintained nobiliary requirements could perhaps be construed as being "of knighthood". In any event, their main function is to serve as a mark of personal favor, or a reward for past actions and services to the state, rather than as a request for future commitment. They are always sponsored or controled by a monarch or a state.

As a result, the term "order of knighthood" is applied to institutions widely ranging in their historical context, organization, and purpose. The fact that successive orders adopted the trappings of the earlier ones is the main reason for this confusion, which is augmented by the fact that examples of each period has survived to the present, providing us today with the coexistence of identically termed, but substantially different organizations.

B. What is an Order of Knighthood today?

Today, what institution could be legitimately be called an order of knighthood?

  1. either the present-day continuation of a widely accepted historical order of knighthood. For example, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is an order of knighthood because it has always been one, since the 12th century (or so it is claimed).
  2. or the modern-day creation or revival of an institution patterned after historical orders of knighthood, whether in general (creation) or after a specific instance (revival).

I examine these two possibilities in turn.

1. Historical Continuity

What does it mean for an order of knighthood to survive or still exist? Under what circumstances can an institution be said to be "the same" as another, earlier institution? This is, of course, a variant of an old problem. Suppose a ship has been repaired over time, to the point that not a single piece of wood in it is original: can it be said to be the same ship?

Military-Monastic Orders

In the case of military-monastic orders, the question is thus relatively simple (in theory). Orders of knighthood, whatever they may be, are institutions composed of members selected according to certain rules, and (usually) governed by certain rules. The institution may be said to continue to exist as long as its current membership has been formed following the original set of rules, or a set of rules modified following certain prescribed procedures. Thus, the United States Congress is not composed of the same members as in 1800 or 1900, nor were the present members chosen by the exact same rules, but by rules determined by the US Constitution and modified according to the procedures for amendments set forth in that document.

Typically, these rules will of themselves define the sense in which historical continuity must exist. For example, if the members are chosen by the Grand-Master with approval of the existing members, and the Grand-Master elected by the existing members, then there must have been at all times a certain number of members duly chosen; otherwise, the rules were breached at some point. If there exists a time gap in the series of members and Grand-Masters, it would constitute prima facie evidence for discontinuity, and hence a difference between the original and the present institution.

Monarchical and Merit Orders

The question is more difficult here. These orders' constitutions are usually slender: they are essentially creations of a sovereign, who may have laid down precise rules for their functioning, but whose disregard for such rules would not be considered as a breach of continuity. When Philip II of Spain ceased to call chapters of the Golden Fleece after 1559, contrary to the statutes, the order did not cease to exist. Likewise, when Ferdinand VII confered the Golden Fleece on various non-Catholic foreigners, again breaching the statutes, the order was transformed, but did not cease to exist (Ferdinand VII was faced with the award made by the Cortes in 1812 to the duke of Wellington; he did in fact consult the Pope, who advised him that non-Catholics could be accepted as extra-numeraries; this letter, however, was not made public, and no distinction ever made between Catholic recipients and non-Catholic recipients; see Guy Sainty's site for details). Similarly, Louis XVIII confered the Saint Esprit even though he was never consecrated king (a requirement to be grand-master), and also confered it on non-Catholic foreigners (Alexander I of Russia, the duke of Wellington; again in violation of the statutes). In both cases, an old monarchical order was being converted into a pure honorific order. At the end of the line, in the case of the Spanish Golden Fleece, it has become a pure honorific award of the Spanish state confered on foreign heads of state (emperor of Japan, king of Jordan), without regard to religion or nobility.

This opens up another difficult problem: since many monarchical orders have become honorific orders, is any honorific order an order of knighthood?  The French Legion of Honor calls its members knights, commanders and grand-cross, they wear badges hanging from ribbons. But even in France it is not called an order of knighthood (mainly because that phrase remains associated with the monarchy, and the Legion of Honor has transcended all political regimes). The Order of the British Empire calls itself an order, but only calls some of its members "knights". And then, Britain has many people called "knights" who are not part of any order. There is a sense in which only the older (say, pre-1800) and rather exclusive orders (say, few hundred members at most) are called orders of knighthood, but this is of course perfectly arbitrary.

New Wine in Old Casks

The transformation from the dukes of Burgundy's order of knights to modern Spain's decoration is seamless. Does it mean that the (Spanish) Golden Fleece is what it was, and is still an order of knighthood?  The name has remained, and the badge, but the purpose and function is clearly very different. In a literal sense, ITT (International Telegraph and Telephone) is still the same US company it was 30 years ago, but today it doesn't sell phone services, it runs hotels, until recently still under the name (ITT-Sheraton). Likewise, Westinghouse used to make nuclear plants, now it makes prime-time broadcasts (CBS). Is it the same company? If Coca-Cola moved to Taiwan and became a car manufacturer, would we think of it has being the same company?

The case of the Golden Fleece is particularly interesting because there are in fact two Orders by that name. In 1700, the throne of Spain passed to a French prince, but the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs claimed the Mastership of the order; since then, there has been an Austrian and a Spanish Golden Fleece. The Austrian order has retained, to this day, its exclusive Catholic and nobiliary requirements, and is awarded at the sole discretion of the head of the Habsburg-Lothringen family, heir to the Austrian Habsburgs. If the Spanish Golden Fleece claims to be an order of knighthood, it can do so only because it claims to be the same as the historical order by that name: otherwise, it is not much of an order of knighthood. But the order cannot be in two places at once. Which is the "legitimate", which is the "bogus"?

Time Gaps

Many rulers founding honorific orders in the 17th and 18th centuries made the claim that they were merely reviving an ancient medieval order, so as to give their creature the prestige of antiquity. This practice is widespread to this day, and many inventors of orders will claim that theirs is really the continuation/revival/true descendant of some historical order. But can historical continuity be compatible with such time gaps? Clearly not for orders in the canonical sense of the word, but what of monarchical orders?

If the sole nature of an order is that it belongs to some dynast and uses a specific badge, nothing prevents in principle some later dynast to use again the same badge and claim to have the "same" order. In other words, if the institution is only defined by the fact that the heir to some specific dynasty appoints the members, it does not matter whether 10 or 300 years elapse between successive appointments, as long as the heir is the right one. But there are cases where the gap extends for hundreds of years, and is many times greater than the order ever existed in either original or present incarnation. It then becomes difficult to think of the institution as being identical. This is particularly true when the context in which the institution operates has completely changed.

In the case where some present-day individual or individuals appoint members of an order in legitimate fashion, i.e., in accordance with the statutes of the order, even though a substantial time-gap exists, one might want to use the term "revival". In other words, there is a category in between a) being the same order, and b) being a different order, namely: c) being a revival of the same order. This seems possible only where the statutes appear to allow such a time-gap without resulting in an extinction of the order. This would be the case, when the Grand-Mastership is purely and simply a hereditary prerogative in some given family. Note that orders in the strict sense of the term (subject to canon law) disappear if they have lapsed more than a certain length of time (101 years) and thus cannot be revived, unless under special provision.

2. Identity and Revival

There is a deep sense in which orders of knighthood, which almost all disappeared in the Middle Ages, cannot ever be revived. Associations which had a meaning within a certain context (Western medieval society, for example) cannot have the same meaning in today's context.

This applies in the case of lay fraternities and nobiliary associations of the Middle Ages, none of which survived to the present day. In any case, these fraternities did not call themselves orders, and their members did not call themselves knights even if they were, but rather companions (the term "order of knighthood" is usually a misnomer). But one does find many examples of such associations, and they ranged widely in terms of membership requirements, strictness of statutes, religious or profane vocation, badges and paraphernalia. Be that as it may, could someone today revive or create such an association?

Suppose a group of people got together and recreated medieval jousts, complete with armour, horses, tilting lances, etc. At a basic level we might call such events "jousts"; but, in a deeper sense, they ought to be really called "recreations of medieval jousts", because the participants are really playing parts, and, once the event is over, they return to their daily, 20th century lives. Jousts were training exercices for the medieval fighting class: our modern actors are not, or cannot ever be, knights or noblemen whose occupation is medieval warfare, and they are not training for their day jobs, they are engaging in a total diversion. The modern equivalent of medieval jousts would be precision-shooting tournaments between career officers of a modern army: but no one would call those "jousts".

Thus modern revivals of orders of knighthood can either replicate the trappings and outward appearance of their medieval models, in which case they are essentially role-playing activities, or replicate (where feasible) the purpose and meaningful activities of their models, in which case they would be called by another name. And the recreation of those purposes would be limited to a large extent by the absence, in the modern world, of crusades, nobility as a social class.

Of course, one can well imagine a modern-day nobiliary association committed to some pious or charitable activity, perhaps placed under the invocation of some saint, using badges, mantles, holding ceremonies, and so forth. As I have argued, it would be anachronistic to call them orders of knighthood (and they would not have been called so in medieval times either), but otherwise there seems to be nothing to dipsute about their nature. They are what they are. Some may also be revivals of historical institutions, and as long as they do not claim to be more than revivals, there is no sense in which they are not legitimate associations. Whether they are "the same" in some substantial (as opposed to historical) sense depends on how one views the importance of the context in defining the substance of such associations. In my mind, the context is paramount, but it is a matter of judgment.

Malta as the New Model for Orders

Lacking historical continuity, some modern revivals such as the Order of Saint Lazarus (to name names) argue of their charitable activities as being testimony to their identity of purpose, and therefore identity, with their medieval models. This, obviously, neglects the fact that the main activities of the military-monastic orders were care for the Christian sick and destruction of the Infidel healthy, a notion of charity which Arabs at the time, and we today, find bizarre. In any case, it is only the outward (and anachronistic) trappings such as ranks, titles, insignia, which distinguish them from, say, the Red Cross. Should the Red Cross call its executive president "Grand-Master" and have its employees wear badges around their necks, would that make it ipso facto an "order of knighthood"?

Anyone who knows some heraldry and glances at the arms of the present-day order of Saint Lazarus will not fail to recognize the real model: it is not the historic order of Saint Lazarus, but rather the modern Sovereign Military Order of Malta (the cross on a field argent, the Maltese cross behind the shield, the pavilion, the closed crown of sovereignty! Note, however, that the Maltese cross behind the shield was already used by French knights of St Lazare in the 18th c., in imitation of the Malta knights.)

Of the medieval military-monastic orders of knighthood, few have survived unscathed. The historic order of Saint Lazarus was split in the 16th century and its two branches became honorific orders of the king of France and duke of Savoy. The Spanish and Portuguese orders were secularized in the 16th century and became honorific orders of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns as well (the Portuguese orders were briefly abolished; the Spanish orders, abolished in the 20th century, have been revived in 1984 as private organizations under the personal patronage of the king of Spain). The Teutonic order was secularized and dissolved in Brandenburg, and elsewhere avoided the same fate mainly because of the absence of a strong monarchical power in the German Empire; in the 20th century it became a purely monastic order, which it remains.

The Order of Malta is the only one to have retained its relative independence (although, as an order, it was still under the authority of the Pope until 1996; at present, the Pope's authority is limited to approving knights of Justice) and never became a pure honorific order (though it created its own!). Branches of the original order in countries which turned Protestant at the Reformation have continued to this day outside of the pope's jurisdiction, and let us set aside the question of which order is the present descendant of the medieval order (the answer may depend on parochial biases). The Catholic order also continued, but in 1798 lost its territoriality, and along with it all remaining military objectives and means. After a few decades of precarious existence and identity crisis, it reinvented itself in the late 19th century as a charitable association, while retaining both nobiliary requirements and religious vows for its Knights of Justice; to sustain itself, however, it has had to open other classes of membership, and at presents the several thousand members, most of whom take no vows and are not noble, vastly outnumber the handful of Knights of Justice.

The Order of Malta has therefore lost a lot of its characteristics over time, and its purpose changed considerably (note, however, that the modern charitable activities are well in line with the hospitaller work which was always a fundamental part of the Order's medieval and early modern history; if not as prominent as slaying Turks). It has even experienced gaps in its institutional existence, with a very murky episode in 1798-1801, and no Grand Master between 1805 and 1879.

Thus, revivals can turn to the Order of Malta as an example of the meaning, in a 20th century context, of the phrase "order of knighthood". In essence, they argue, the present-day Order of Malta, by its fame alone, shows that historical continuity need not be observed exactly, and its activities define what an order of knighthood is. Anything that resembles it is an order of knighthood. It should be clear why I find this logic rather backwards. The Order of Malta is a legitimate order of knighthood to the extent that it is the same as a well-defined, specific historic order. The changes in its vocation and constitution, although important, do not outweigh that historical continuity (evidenced in part in the class of Knights of Justice, whose rigorous criteria the revivals do not even try to emulate). But to take those changes as defining it as an order allows one to dispense with the criterion of historical continuity, which is of course the aim of those revivals.

In my mind, of course, the Order of Malta could become a hollow shell, like the Spanish Golden Fleece or ITT-Sheraton. Although it is called the Sovereign Military Order of Saint John, it is neither sovereign nor military, though still an order. Should it further weaken the nobiliary requirement and religious vows (something which is likely to happen because the number of Catholic males who can prove 16 quarters and are willing to make solemn vows is fast shrinking), it would have little left of its nature as an order of knighthood.

C. Conclusion

1. Specific Orders

There is a sense in which, by historical continuity, a present-day institution can be called an order of knighthood, even if this inevitably glosses over some fundamental changes in purpose and nature over time, which leads one to call something an order of knighthood even if it bears little resemblance to its medieval antecedent, and leads to paradoxes such as the two Golden Fleeces, and the non-Sovereign non-Military Order of not-Malta.

There is also a sense in which an order of knighthood can be revived, although this seems impossible for canonical orders (such revivals would really be creations), and only truly possible for monarchical orders. But, since the phrase "order of knighthood" seems reserved for ancient or seemingly ancient institutions, it seems implausible that a sovereign could now create ex-nihilo something which would be seriously called so.

In any event, only monarchs, or perhaps heirs of dynasties, would be able to revive or create monarchical orders. Whether non-reigning heirs could do so depends on how strictly one views the concept of monarchical order, and what opinion one has of the prerogatives of someone who is nothing but a private individual. It makes little sense to me outside of the context of a monarchy, and there are no precedents before this century. I would view these as private revivals, as distinct from official revivals (the British Order of Saint John is a 19th c. example of a private revival turned official in Britain in 1888; at first resented by the Catholic Order of Saint John, it is now accepted as an "alliance order").

2. Generic Orders

In the absence of historical continuity, I do not personally think that private revivals, whether patterned after a specific extinct order or just orders in general, really deserve the term "order of knighthood", because, outside of the medieval or early modern context, and without a definite link to that context, such designation is meaningless. It is something one either has inherited, or can never have. The charitable activities of some private revivals are worthy of praise, but they in no way compensate for the lack of historical continuity they so crave. The urge to use the term "order of knighthood" and to imitate the cermonies, costumes, coats of arms and sonorous titles of the Order of Malta seem to me motivated much less by adherence to ideals of chivalry, than by misguided snobbery.

This appreciation, however, hinges on semantics, and how one interprets the generic category "orders of knighthood". It is far easier to decide whether the Golden Fleece is the same as the Order of Malta (it is not), than it is to decide whether, independently of the historical continuity they claim, both are meaningfully called orders of knighthood.

II) Is there an Accepted Standard on Orders of Knighthood?

As you may guess from the foregoing discussion, there isn't; otherwise, it would be rather straightforward to decide whether a given order is legitimate or not.

There has been a recent attempt at devising such a standard, and the history of it is instructive.

The International Commission on Orders of Chivalry (ICOC)

Note: this section concerning the ICOC was written, as the rest of this essay, in 1996. See the update (1997-2003).

I may safely assert that the second criterion, a recognized and accepted standard of what an order of knighthood is, does not exist. An attempt was made in the 1960s to establish such a standard.

Every other year, roughly since the early 1950s, is held an International Congress of Heraldic and Genealogical Sciences, the most important international venue for specialists in heraldry, genealogy and related fields of study. The acts of each congress are published, containing the minutes of the sessions and the texts of the scientific presentations. The Congress is managed by a permanent bureau, and the various sessions at each congress are organized by specific commissions (commission on heraldry, on genealogy, on iconography). At the Madrid congress in 1955, there was a commission on Orders of Chivalry, chaired by Carl Zeininger. At the plenary session, the commission presented strongly worded statements against illegitimate orders of chivalry, offered a list of individuals and organizations which should be boycotted by serious heraldists, and proposed that a more extensive list be presented at the 1957 congress.

At the 5th congress in Stockholm in 1960, a recommendation was adopted by the plenary session: "pursuant to the decisions of the Madrid congress relative to the legal and historical criteria on independent orders of chivalry, dynastic as well as familial, a list, at least provisional, of such orders be prepared for submission to be examined and approved by the next congress." An International Commission on Orders of Chivalry was formed, and it presented its results at the Edinburgh congress in 1962.

What happened in 1962 at Edinburgh remains a little unclear. The acts of the Congress were never published. An account of the Congress appeared in the Rivista Araldica (1962, pp. 257-267). Two things are known:

  1. the commission reported on its principles to the Congress, and the latter voted to establish the Commission on a permanent basis ("Dopo aver espresso il proprio apprezzamento per il lavoro della Commissione per gli Ordini di Cavalleria e del suo Presidente Barone Monti della Corte, il Congresso ritiene opportuno che pienamente autonoma, la Commissione stessa prosegua in futuro i suoi lavori con carattere permanente, applicando, nella pienezza della propria responsabilità, i principi sviluppati nel rapporto presentato al congresso")
  2. the plenary session unanimously resolved that "the question of legitimacy of orders of chivalry is excluded from the activities of the international congresses of genealogical and heraldic sciences."  This resolution was solemnly renewed in the plenary session of the 7th congress in 1964 (see the acts of that congress).

The two facts are not necessarily incompatible. Whether the Congress established the commission as permanent because it thought it was doing a great job, or whether this was the most tactful way for the Congress to extricate itself from the subject of orders of chivalry, is open to question. The words of the secretary general of the 7th Congress in The Hague in 1964 ("une entité permemanete et autonome et qui accomplit donc ses travaux tout à fait indépendemment et en dehors du Congrès") are quite ambiguous.

Depending on whom one reads, one gets different interpretations. Hervé Pinoteau (see also an article by Vicente y Cadenas in Hidalguia 178-9, 1983) has claimed that the commission, composed of various individuals in large part unqualified for the task, had claimed the patronage of heads of formerly sovereign families, but also of individuals of more doubtful identity and claims. The heads of authentic families, some of whom had not even been consulted, issued a public denial and rejected any link with the ICOC. Furthermore, at the congress, the commission had come up with a list of authentic orders which elicited many protests. It turned out that some members of the ICOC had an agenda of their own, namely to confer legitimacy on associations to which they belonged. This was true in particular of the secretary of the commission, Lt. Col. Gayre and the order of Saint Lazarus, whose members "their suitcases full of mantles and medals" (in the words of H. Pinoteau) were planning to use the congress as a venue for their recruiting and swearing-in activities.

In any event, the commission continued its activities, claiming a mandate from the Congress. The ICOC published a register in 1964, met in 1964, 1966, 1967, and in Munich in 1970. It published another list of legitimate orders in 1970 (which included, of course, Saint Lazarus). In 1984, it decided that its remit extended to "other nobiliary bodies" and, in its report of that year, added that category. Among the "authentic" nobiliary bodies was the Niadh Nask (by pure coincidence, Gayre was made Constable of the Niadh Nask about that time). As members resigned or died, Gayre, who became chairman of the commission in 1978, appointed individuals loyal to him, and the credibility of the commission sank. The ICOC last sat in 1986, and its president died in 1996.

But, in a fashion most reminiscent of the way in which spurious orders appear, a group of people has recently claimed to have inherited the mandate of the commission from its last (deceased) president, who supposedly appointed someone secretary as "heir" shortly before his death. The heir-designate is apparently free to staff the commission as he sees fit. The group, headed by Terence MacCarthy, claims to be the same as the ICOC created in 1960, and has begun issuing reports to certify genuine and bogus orders.

The international character of this group, in its present composition (1996), is rather limited (almost all members being from the British Isles) and the conflict of interests of its members are even more pronounced than before (almost all current members of that group are members of the Order of Saint Lazarus, whose certification in 1962 brought about the scandal, and of the Niadh Nask.

Update (1997-2003)

In late 1997, an attempt was made to enlarge the membership of the ICOC. Following the collapse of Terence MacCarthy's elaborate "MacCarthy Mór" fraud in October 1999 and his resignation as president of the ICOC, the Commission has followed a new direction under the new president, Pier Felice degli Uberti. Since then, the membership of the commission has been considerably enlarged, members of the MacCarthy period have been replaced, and work on a wholly revised register of orders has begun. Notably (and, in my opinion, quite rightly) it has ICOC home page

See also:

III) Legal Definitions of Orders of Knighthood

This is the simplest and shortest chapter. An order of knighthood is legitimate if it is defined as legal, recognized and acknowledged as such by a sovereign authority. Within its borders, a sovereign state does as it pleases. Most, if not all, modern states have honorific orders and decorations of some kind, and those are sometimes called orders of knighthood.

Sometimes, governments have taken measures to protect their official orders by prohibiting imitations. Other measures go further, and try to stamp out what is seen as a form of fraud, that is, organizations which, in the eyes of the government, pass themselves fraudulently as orders of knighthood. This implies that the government has some concept of what a legitimate order is, but it need not (and usually doesn't) explain that concept.

France has fairly detailed measures against self-styled orders of knighthood, detailed elsewhere. Strikingly, the legislation goes beyond the protection of official French orders to strike at anything that looks like an order. Italy has some legislation on orders of knighthood, and in 1953 took the surprising step of publishing a list of orders it considers illegitimate, for whatever reason. The Pope (a sovereign) has also made pronouncements against self-styled orders.

The US obviously protects its own decoration by prohibiting unauthorized manufacture of US decorations (18 USC 704), authorizes the wearing of badges of military societies by its military (10 USC 1122). The U.S. has rules on government employees' acceptance of foreign decorations: in general, they cannot accept them, except when "tendered in recognition of active field service in time of combat operations or awarded for other outstanding or unusually meritorious performance", and with approval of the employing agency (5 USC 7342). Some people use instances where such approval was granted to prove "recognition" of a decoration by the United States, although what meaning the word "recognition" carries here is not clear: the administrative decision of a Pentagon bureaucrat allowing some officer to wear a decoration of uncertain status can hardly be construed, in my opinion, as "official recognition" by the United States government. Finally, the US also prohibits the wearing of decorations or imitations of decorations from friendly nations with intent to deceive or mislead (18 USC 703). Note that Title 18 (crimes and criminal procedure) has a chapter 33 on emblems, insignia and names (which is where the curious protection afforded to the Swiss coat of arms is located). There seems to be nothing in the law about private organizations or non-government sponsored orders. The United States Code is available on-line. The U.S. military has its own rules to allow its members to wear foreign decorations and orders: case-by-case authorizations can be sollicited and granted.

US Civil Courts have been called upon to decide cases of fraud, where individuals tried to obtain money by passing themselves as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (see details). I am not sure whether the Order of Malta would be counted as a "friendly nation" for the purposes of 18 USC 703, in which case the impersonations would have been criminal. The civil procedure itself was probably similar to any case of fraud, and the decisions by US courts are sanctions of fraud, rather than recognition of anything.

The preceding discussion should convince most readers, I trust, that defining legitimate and illegitimate orders is not a straightforward exercise, and one may well wonder how those governments or institutions carried it out, or why they should want to do so, beyond the obvious need to protect their own orders. My own feeling is that a fool and his money are soon parted, and the courts' job is not to protect citizens from their own stupidity, although they should (and usually do) provide recourse in cases of outright fraud.

It should also be clear that, whereas national laws aim to provide clear-cut definitions or criteria, their validity extends only to their own borders. One country may well be indifferent to, or even recognize, what another calls bogus. A case in point is the various orders of Saint John recognized by their national governments (Britain, Germany, Netherlands) but not by others (France) or, until the early 1960s, by the Catholic Order itself.

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François Velde

Last Modified: Feb 25, 2004