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Order of chivalry

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Alfonso XIII of Spain (left) with his cousin-in-law, the future King George V (right), during his State Visit to the United Kingdom in 1905. Alfonso is wearing the uniform of a general of the British Army, the Royal Victorian Chain, the sash and star of the Garter, the cross of the Order of Charles III, the neck badge of the Golden Fleece, and the badge of the four Spanish military orders. George, then Prince of Wales, is wearing the neck badge of the Golden Fleece, the sash and grand cross grade of the Order of Charles III, the Royal Victorian Chain, and the stars of the Garter and the Order of St Michael and St George.

An order of chivalry, order of knighthood, chivalric order, or equestrian order is an order of knights,[1] typically founded during or inspired by the original Catholic military orders of the Crusades (c. 1099–1291) and paired with medieval concepts of ideals of chivalry.

Since the 15th century, orders of chivalry, often as dynastic orders, began to be established in a more courtly fashion[clarification needed] that could be created ad hoc. These orders would often retain the notion of being a confraternity, society or other association of members, but some of them were ultimately purely honorific and consisted of a medal decoration. In fact, these decorations themselves often came to be known informally as orders. These institutions in turn gave rise to the modern-day orders of merit of sovereign states.[2]


An order of knights is a community of knights composed by order rules with the main purpose of an ideal or charitable task. The original ideal lay in monachus et miles (monk and knight), who in the order – ordo (Latin for 'order' / 'status') – is dedicated to a Christian purpose. The first orders of knights were religious orders that were founded to protect and guide pilgrims to the Holy Land. The knightly orders were characterized by an order-like community life in poverty, obedience and chastity, which was linked with charitable tasks, armed pilgrimage protection and military action against external and occasionally internal enemies of Christianity. Examples are the Knights Templar, Knights of the Holy Sepulchre officially called The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, founded in 1090, the Order of St. John and the Order of Malta. These communities only became orders in the sense of canon law through papal recognition of their own binding rules of order and through the dissolution of ecclesiastical diocesan organizations.

In addition to the religious orders of knights, courtly orders of knights emerged in many European royal houses from the middle of the 14th century. This enabled the monarchs and princes to create a reliable household power independent of the church and to combine their court life with knightly virtues. During this time, the Burgundian court culture was leading and so the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded there in 1430, was for many a model in the sense of a princely order based on the ideals of Christian chivalry.[3]

In the course of time, many orders of knights have been dissolved due to a lack of people or the field of activity has changed. So in many areas the charitable aspect and nursing came to the fore. There were also dissolutions for political reasons, such as the Knights Templar in 1312 or many orders of knights as opposition by Nazi Germany. While the Knights Templar was not re-established, some orders were reactivated after the end of World War II and the fall of the Iron Curtain.

There are repeated attempts to revive or restore old orders of knights. Often old, old knight orders are used today to honor personalities. For example, the British Queen Elizabeth II regularly appointed new members to the Order of the British Empire in the 21st century.[4] In Central Europe, for example, the Order of St. George, whose roots also go back to the so-called "last knight" Emperor Maximilian I, was reactivated by the House of Habsburg after its dissolution by Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, to this day, deserved personalities in republican France are highlighted by being awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honour.[5] In contrast, the knights of the ecclesiastical orders of knights such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the Order of St. John mainly devote themselves to social tasks, nursing and care.[6]


Holy See[edit]

The Secretariat of the State of the Holy See – medieval pioneer of the original military orders – distinguishes orders in the following manner:[7]


In Dell'origine dei Cavalieri (1566), the Italian scholar Francesco Sansovino (1521–1586) distinguished knights and their respective societies in three main categories:[8]

Over time, the above division became no longer sufficient, and heraldic science distinguished orders into: hereditary, military, religious and fees.


In a more generous distribution proposed in The Knights in the Crown: The Monarchical Orders of Knighthood in Late Medieval Europe (1987), the Canadian heraldist D'Arcy Boulton classifies chivalric orders as follows:

Based on Boulton, this article distinguishes:

  • Chivalric orders by time of foundation:
    • Medieval chivalric orders: foundation of the order during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance
    • Modern chivalric orders: foundation after 1789
  • Chivalric orders by religion:
  • Chivalric orders by purpose:
    • Monarchical chivalric orders: foundation by a monarch who is a fount of honour; either ruling or not
    • Confraternal chivalric orders: foundation by a nobleman, either high nobility or low nobility
    • Fraternal chivalric orders: founded for a specific purpose only
    • Votive chivalric orders: founded for a limited period of time only by members who take a vow
    • Honorific chivalric orders: consist only of honorific insignia bestowed on knights on festive occasions, consisting of nothing but the badge
    • Self-styled orders: self-proclaimed imitation-orders without statutes or restricted memberships

Military orders by time[edit]

Another occurrent chronological categorisation is into:[citation needed]

Medieval orders[edit]

Monarchical orders[edit]

Investiture of three new members of the Order of the Knot (miniature from the order's statutes, 1352/4).
  • Late medieval monarchical orders (14th and 15th centuries) are orders of chivalry with the presidency attached to a monarch:
Order of Montesa founded by James II of Aragon (Spain) in 1317.
Order of Saint George, founded by Charles I of Hungary in 1325
Order of the Band, founded by Alfonso XI of Castile in c. 1330
Order of the Sword (Cyprus), founded by Peter I of Cyprus in 1347 (allegedly)
Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III of England in 1348[10]
Order of the Star, founded by John II of France in 1351
Order of the Knot, founded by Louis I of Naples in 1352.
Supreme Order of the Most Holy Annunciation, founded by Amadeus VI, Count of Savoy in 1362.
Order of the Ermine, founded by John V, Duke of Brittany in 1381: First order to accept Women.
Order of the Ship, founded by Charles III of Naples on 1 December 1381
Order of the Dragon, founded by Sigismund, as king of Hungary in 1408.
Order of the Golden Fleece, founded by Philip III, Duke of Burgundy in 1430
Order of the Tower and Sword, founded by Afonso V of Portugal in 1459
Order of Saint Michael, founded by Louis XI of France in 1469[11]
  • Post-medieval foundations of chivalric orders:
Order of Saint Stephen (1561)
Order of the Holy Spirit (1578)
Blood of Jesus Christ (military order) (1608)
Order of the Thistle (1687)[12]
Order of the Elephant (1693)
Order of Saint Louis (1694)
Order of the Seraphim (1748)
Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary (1764)
Order of St. Patrick (1783)[13]
Order of Saint Joseph (1807)
Order of Guadalupe (1821)
Order of the Mexican Eagle (1865)
Order of Saint Charles (1866)
  • Monarchical orders whose monarch no longer reigns but continues to bestow the order:
Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (Italian House of Savoy)
Order of Merit of Savoy (Italian House of Savoy)
Order of the Golden Fleece (Austrian branch)
Order of St. George (Habsburg-Lorraine)
Order of the Holy Spirit
Order of Prince Danilo I of Montenegro
Order of Saint Peter of Cetinje
Order of Skanderbeg
Royal Order of Saint George for the Defense of the Immaculate Conception (Bavaria)
Order of the Crown (Romania)
Order of Carol I (Romania)
Order of the Immaculate Conception of Vila Viçosa (Portugal)
Order of Saint Michael of the Wing (Portugal)
Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George (Two Sicilies)
Order of the Eagle of Georgia (Georgia)
Order of Queen Tamara (Georgia)
Order of the Crown of Georgia (Georgia)
Royal Order of the Crown of Hawai'i (Hawai'i)

Confraternal orders[edit]

Confraternal orders are orders of chivalry with the presidency attached to a nobleman:

  • Princely orders were founded by noblemen of higher rank. Most of these were founded in imitation of the Order of the Golden Fleece, after 1430:
Order of Saint Catherine, founded by Humbert II, Dauphin du Viennois around 1335
Order of Saint Anthony, founded by Albrecht I of Bavaria in 1384
Order of the Rüdenband, founded in Silesia, Upper Lusatia and Boehmia before 1389
Society of the Eagle, founded by Albrecht II von Habsburg in 1433
Society of Our Lady (Order of the Swan), founded by Frederick II, Elector of Brandenburg in 1440
Order of Saint Hubert, founded by Gerhard V of Jülich and Berg in 1444
Order of the Crescent, founded by René d'Anjou in 1448
Society of Saint Jerome, founded by Friedrich II of Wettin in 1450
Order of Saint Joachim, founded by fourteen nobles in 1755
  • Baronial orders, founded by noblemen of lower rank:
Order of Saint Hubert (Barrois, 1422)
Noble Order of Saint George of Rougemont, also called Confraternity of Saint-Georges of Burgundy (Franche-Comté, 1440)

Fraternal orders[edit]

Fraternal orders are orders of chivalry that were formed off a vow & for a certain enterprise:

Compagnie of the Black Swan, founded by 3 princes and 11 knights in Savoy (1350)
Corps et Ordre du Tiercelet, founded by the vicomte de Thouars and 17 barons in Poitou (1377–1385)
Ordre de la Pomme d'Or, founded by 14 knights in Auvergne (1394)
Alliance et Compagnie du Levrier, founded by 44 knights in the Barrois (1416–1422), subsequently converted into the Confraternal order of Saint Hubert (see above)

Votive orders[edit]

Votive orders are orders of chivalry, temporarily formed on the basis of a vow. These were courtly chivalric games rather than actual pledges as in the case of the fraternal orders. Three are known from their statutes:

Emprise de l'Escu vert à la Dame Blanche (Enterprise of the green shield with the white lady), founded by Jean Le Maingre dit Boucicaut and 12 knights in 1399 for the duration of 5 years
Emprise du Fer de Prisonnier (Enterprise of the Prisoner's Iron), founded by Jean de Bourbon and 16 knights in 1415 for the duration of 2 years
Emprise de la gueule de dragon (Enterprise of the Dragon's Mouth), founded by Jean comte de Foix in 1446 for 1 year.

Cliental pseudo-orders[edit]

Cliental pseudo-orders are not orders of chivalry and were princes' retinues fashionably termed orders. They are without statutes or restricted memberships:

Ordre de la Cosse de Genêt (Order of the Broom-Pod), founded by Charles VI of France c. 1388
Order of the camail or Porcupine, created by Louis d'Orléans in 1394
Order of the Dove, Castile, 1390
Order of the Scale of Castile, c. 1430

Honorific orders[edit]

Honorific orders were honorific insignia consisting of nothing but the badge:

Order of the Stoat and the Ear, founded by Francis I, Duke of Brittany in 1448
Order of the Golden Spur, a papal order (since the 14th century, flourishes in the 16th century)

Together with the monarchical chivalric orders (see above) these honorific orders are the prime ancestors of the modern-day orders of knighthood (see below) which are orders of merit in character.

The distinction between these orders and decorations is somewhat vague, except that these honorific orders still implied membership in a group. Decorations have no such limitations and are awarded purely to recognize the merit or accomplishments of the recipient. Both orders and decorations often come in multiple classes.[14]


The orders have influenced organizations which are completely separate and distinct from them. Since at least the 18th century, Freemasonry has incorporated symbols and rituals of several medieval military orders in a number of Masonic bodies, most notably, in the "Red Cross of Constantine" (derived from the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George), the "Order of Malta" (derived from the Sovereign Military Order of Malta), and the "Order of the Temple" (derived from the historical Knights Templar), the latter two featuring prominently in the York Rite.

Modern orders[edit]

Most orders created since the late 17th century were no longer societies and fellowships of knights[1] who followed a common mission but were established by monarchs or governments with the specific purpose of bestowing honours on deserving individuals. In most European monarchies, these new orders retained some outward forms from the medieval orders of chivalry (such as rituals and structure) but were in essence orders of merit, mainly distinguished from their republican counterparts by the fact that members were entitled to a title of nobility.[citation needed] While some orders required noble birth (such as the Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary, established in 1764), others would confer a title upon appointment (such as the Military Order of Max Joseph, established in 1806) while in yet other orders only the top classes were considered knights (such as in the Order of St Michael and St George, established in 1818). Orders of merit which still confer privileges of knighthood are sometimes referred to as orders of knighthood. As a consequence of being not an order of chivalry but orders of merit or decorations, some republican honours have thus avoided the traditional structure found in medieval orders of chivalry and created new ones instead, e.g. the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Decoration for Services to the Republic of Austria, or the Legion of Merit of the United States.

Current orders[edit]

Spanish orders of chivalry. In the centre, the Order of the Golden Fleece, 1820

Former orders[edit]

Typical insignia and ranks[edit]

Lemuel Francis Abbott's portrait of Admiral Lord Nelson depicting his honours embroidered on his coat jacket
Insignia of the British Order of the Garter.

Following the example set by the French Legion of Honour, founded by Napoleon, most multi-level European orders comprise five ranks or classes. The highest is usually called the Grand Cross, then descending with varying titles. Alternatively, the ranks are referred to by number (for example "1st class" instead of "Grand Cross"). Typical rankings are:

Class Common names
I Grand Cross, Commander Grand Cross, Grand Cordon, Grand Collar
II Grand Officer, Commander 1st Class, Grand Commander, Knight Commander, Knight Companion, Commander with Star
III Commander, Commander 2nd Class, Companion
IV Officer, Knight 1st Class, Member 1st Class
V Knight, Knight 2nd Class, Chevalier, Cavaliere, Member

Each of these ranks wear insignia, usually badge (often enamelled) on a ribbon. Typically these insignia are worn from a sash in the case of the senior ranks, around the neck for the middle ranks (see also neck decorations), and on the left chest for the lower grades. Many orders use insignia in the form of a cross, but there may also be stars, and military awards may have crossed swords added onto the insignias. Ladies may wear the badge on a bow on the left chest. In orders following the example set by the French Legion of Honour, the two highest classes also wear a star (or plaque) on the chest. In special cases the senior class may wear the badge on a collar, which is an elaborate chain around the neck.

In certain countries with feudal heritage the higher ranks (usually at least the Grand Cross) may have vestments proper to them, including a robe or mantle and a hat. An example of such a modern-day order is the Order of the British Empire.

The French Legion of Honour democratised the honour systems of orders of chivalry and merit in the sense of formally omitting both the expectations of nobility on admittees while also no further implying the same status on previously non-noble conferees. Yet some orders may still expect noble ancestry on the part of recipients, such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and those of the Alliance of the Orders of Saint John of Jerusalem. Others may continue to imply conferral of nobility on any admittee, whether hereditary or personal, such as in some of the cases of dynastic orders conferred by the House of Bavaria or the House of Imperial Russia.

Self-styled orders[edit]

Some organisations claim to be chivalric orders but are actually private membership organisations that have not been created by a state or a reigning monarch.[21] The answer to the question of whether an order is legitimate or not varies from nation to nation,[22] François Velde wrote 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."[23] Exactly what makes one order legitimate and another self-styled or false is a matter of debate with some arguing that any monarch (reigning or not) or even the descendants of such can create an order while others assert that only a government with actual internationally recognized authority has such power (regardless of whether that government is republican or monarchical in nature).[24][25] Historically, nobility and knights have also formed Orders of Knighthood. The Noble Order of Saint George of Rougemont is a Baronial Order and the Ordre de la Pomme d'Or was founded by 14 knights in Auvergne in 1394.[26][27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "St. George's Chapel: History: Order of the Garter". See the definition of the Order of the Garter as "a society, fellowship and college of knights" there. – St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. 2005. Archived from the original on 15 September 2006. Retrieved 6 November 2006.
  2. ^ Velde, François Velde (25 February 2004). "Legitimacy and Orders of Knighthood". Heraldica. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
  3. ^ See also: Johannes Fried "Das Mittelalter. Geschichte und Kultur." (2011), p 460.
  4. ^ "Order of the British Empire". Archived from the original on 2010-03-27. Retrieved 2021-03-11.
  5. ^ "What is the Legion d'Honneur?". BBC News. 24 May 2004.
  6. ^ Jürgen Sarnowsky "Die geistlichen Ritterorden" (2018), pp 221.
  7. ^ "La Santa Sede e gli Ordini Cavallereschi: doverosi chiarimenti (Prima parte) | ZENIT - Il mondo visto da Roma". www.zenit.org. Archived from the original on 2013-07-26.
  8. ^ Sansovino, Francesco (1570). Della origine de cavalieri (in Italian). Vol. 1. Heredi di Marchio Sessa. p. 14.
  9. ^ "History of Orders of Chivalry". www.heraldica.org. Retrieved 2023-04-14.
  10. ^ "Order of the Garter". Official website of the British Monarchy. Archived from the original on 2009-06-14. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  11. ^ Vachaudez, Christophe; Walgrave, Jan (2008). Diana Scarisbrick (ed.). Royal jewels: from Charlemagne to the Romanovs. New York: Vendôme Press. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-86565-193-7. Louis XI founded the Order of Saint Michael in 1469. Initially, there were thirty-six knights, but their numbers increased to such a point that the order began to lose its prestige. Louis XIV reformed the order on 12 January 1665, reducing the number of knights to one hundred
  12. ^ "Order of the Thistle". Official website of the British Monarchy. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  13. ^ "Monarchy Today: Queen and Public: Honours: Order of St Patrick". Official website of the British Monarchy. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  14. ^ Definition adapted from www.turkishmedals.net, accessed 2010-02-20. Archived 2012-05-05 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Pierredon (de) M.: L'Ordre equestre du Saint Sepulchre de Jerusalem. Paris, 1928.
  16. ^ "Knights of Thistle Bourbon 1370".
  17. ^ Anstis, John (1725). Observations introductory to an historical essay upon the Knighthood of the Bath. London: J. Woodman. p. 4.
  18. ^ The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey (2011). "Order of the Bath". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 11 December 2012. The Most Honourable Order of the Bath was established as a military order by Letters Patent of George I on 18 May 1725, when the Dean of Westminster was made Dean of the Order in perpetuity and King Henry VII's Chapel designated as the Chapel of the Order.
  19. ^ "REGISTERS". International Commission for Orders of Chivalry (in Italian). Retrieved 2022-09-22.
  20. ^ a b Sauer, Werner (1950). Die Orden und Ehrenzeichen des Kurfürstentums Hessen-Kassel (in German). Hamburg: Verlag Kleine Reihe für Freunde der Ordens- und Ehrenzeichenkunde. pp. 19–24.
  21. ^ Barber, Malcom; Mallia-Milanes, Victor, eds. (2008). The Military Orders. Vol. 3, History and Heritage. Aldershot, England: Ashgate. pp. 4–6. ISBN 9780754662907.
  22. ^ Hoegen Dijkhof, Hendrik Johannes (2006). The legitimacy of Orders of St. John: a historical and legal analysis and case study of a para-religious phenomenon (Thesis). Amsterdam: Hoegen Dijkhof Advocaten (van Universiteit Leiden). pp. 35–41.
  23. ^ Velde, François Velde (25 February 2004). "Legal Definitions of Orders of Knighthood". Heraldica. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
  24. ^ Brett-Crowther, Michael Richard (1990). Orders of Chivalry under the Aegis of the Church. London: Lambeth Diploma of Student in Theology Thesis. pp. 80–90.
  25. ^ Kurrild-Klitgaard, Peter (2002). Knights of fantasy: an overview, history, and critique of the self-styled "Orders" called "of Saint John" or "of Malta", in Denmark and other Nordic countries. Turku: Digipaino. ISBN 9512922657.
  26. ^ Thiou, E. (2002). La noble confrérie & les chevaliers de Saint-Georges au Comté de Bourgogne sous l'Ancien régime & la révolution. Mémoire et documents.
  27. ^ Bossuat, A. (1944). Un ordre de chevalerie auvergnat; l'ordre de la Pomme d'or'. Bidle/in bistoriqia it stienti/iqm dt I'Aupergite, Uiv (1944), 83–98; H. Morel,'Unc associa, 523-4.


  • Anstis, John (1752). Observations introductory to an historical essay upon the Knighthood of the Bath. London: James Woodman.
  • Burke, John (1725). Statutes of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath.
  • D'Arcy Jonathan Dacre Boulton (2000) [February 1987]. The knights of the crown: the monarchical orders of knighthood in later medieval Europe. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 1325–1520. ISBN 0-312-45842-8.
  • Kaeuper, Richard W.; Kennedy, Elspeth; De Charny, Geoffroi (December 1996). The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi De Charny: Text, Context, and Translation. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-1579-6.
  • Risk, James C. (1972). The History of the Order of the Bath and its Insignia. London: Spink & Son.

External links[edit]