Orders of Chivalry

The phrase “order of chivalry” harkens back to a time of knights, dragons, fair maidens needing to be saved and magical swords. To some extent, it’s true!

Orders of Chivalry where created at the time of the Crusades to organize the warriors around a specific cause, most famous of all theĀ Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (or Knights Templar). Though these orders originally had an exclusively military character, they later became a form of recognition by a sovereign or the Pope.

Most of those orders created at the time of the crusades have ceased to exist. Others have merged into others and less than a handful have survived. Of the remaining orders, the oldest ones are the Most Noble Order of Garter in England, the Supreme Order of the Most Holy Anunciation of the House of Savoy and, of course, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta founded in the 11th century.

At that time, many orders were formed much like fraternities or organizations are today that had a common goal. However, the type of formation is no longer valid for the acquisition of the term “Order of Chivalry”. The basic requirement for the term is for a “fons honorum” or “fountain of honor”, the right to create such titles or orders by virtue of their office or position; this is typically the sovereign of a nation, when still in power. The fons honorum is held to remain even after the sovereign has lost the throne and stays with the royal house, if the order is considered a dynastic order.

What is a dynastic order you ask? It is an order granted by the head of a royal house to those who the head considers meritorious in some fashion. This ability to confer membership into the order remains with the family, even if the family is no longer in power. Examples of these dynastic orders are the Order of Saint Michael of the Wing and the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.

I won’t be going into all the orders out there and even less get into the various disputes over which orders are “true” and which are “pseudo-chivalric”. Sometimes those discussions are anything but chivalrous. In any case, a great resource is the International Committe for Orders of Chivalry, though be aware that they are in no way an official body and there really isn’t one. Each country decides which orders to accept as valid and which not. Each country has it’s own rules and can be as accepting as Sweden (where they are all accepted as valid) all the way to France where only a handful are. Another great informational source is the website Chivalric Orders maintained by Guy Stair Sainty.

Before ending this post, I would like to make a point that some of the orders though under a monarch have an exclusively religious character such as Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George. Other times, there may be more than one order with the same name but under different monarchs, such as the Order of Golden Fleece which has a Spanish and an Austrian version.

Why mention these organizations on a heraldry & genealogical blog? Because members have a coat of armor that is displayed in the registers of the order and those members, in turn, display their decorations with their heraldic achievements.

Additionally, many of these orders that are also noble corporations have strict requirements for admission that in some cases go so far as to require 4 generations of proven nobility on both sides. Because of this, these orders have extensive documentation on their members that has been kept over the centurie. Therefore, if one can prove descent from someone who was a member of one of these orders, one can go back even more generations by access their records.

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