Order of Malta Studies

Knighthood and the Knightly Orders Today
A Concise Survey

©2002, 2006 L. Mendola

Broadly speaking, there are two forms of knighthood bestowed today, either for merit (in such orders as the Order of the British Empire or France's Legion of Honour or, less often, outside an order in the rank of knight bachelor) or for service, as a kind of social vocation, in a military-religious order of chivalry (such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Britain's Venerable Order of Saint John or the Order of the Holy Sepulchre). Here the phrases "order of chivalry" and "order of knighthood" shall be used interchangeably; in common parlance the term "order" refers not only to an institution but to its insignia (decoration). In simplest terms, the first orders of chivalry were founded in the twelfth century as corporate bodies of knights united for a common purpose, both military and humanitarian, and today's military-religious orders (which engage in much-needed charitable work) preserve much of that tradition today.

This concise overview casts a glance over knighthood and the orders of chivalry, their evolution and practice, and several allied subjects, such as heraldry, but not phaleristics (the history and design of all orders, decorations and medals) generally. This obviously cannot be more than an introduction to any of these fields. A list of books for further reading is indicated at the end of this page.

Court Orders - Old Dynastic Orders - Hereditary Knights & Knights Bachelor - Feudal Knights - Military-Religious Orders - Founts of Honour - Similarity of Orders - Rites of Investiture - Evolution of Honorific Knighthood - Candidature to Honours - Code of Chivalry - Heraldry - Forms of Address - False & Contested Orders - Noble Companies - "Secret" Orders

Court and 'Collar' Orders

Within the institutions described above (i.e. orders of merit and military-religious orders) there are specific historical and legal distinctions. We find, for example (again speaking very generally), certain "court orders" founded quite late in the Middle Ages principally to honour a limited number of the great and the noble. These were, in effect, the first orders of chivalry founded primarily for merit or social recognition rather than to foster actual military service. Of course, most of the men decorated with these early orders were already landed nobles (and knights) who took up the sword when necessary, and participated in tournaments, so the first court orders (or "collar orders") cannot be said to have been purely honorary in the way that the merit orders of the twentieth century are. Among these the Order of the Garter (England), the Order of the AnnunciationDecorations. (Savoy) and the Order of the Golden Fleece (Spain and Austria) were the first, but to this list could later be added the Order of Christ (Pontifical), the Order of Saint Januarius (Naples), the Order of the Elephant (Denmark), the Order of Saint Hubert (Bavaria) and others. The Order of the Annunciation was founded in 1362 as the Order of the Collar. In all of these orders the decoration was suspended by an ornate gold chain worn around the neck, just as the Savoys' Order of the Collar itself, and so they came to be known as collar orders (by around 1600 the bestowal was thus known as the accolade); grosgrain ribbons were introduced later, with the wide use of military uniforms and a ranking system within the orders of merit. Unlike the court orders, which usually have only one rank (knight or dame), the later orders of merit were (and are) bestowed in numerous ranks, from (depending on the order's particular system) knight or dame grand cross to knight commander to knight. Within each realm's honours system was a rigid hierarchy established by decree and still employed in some nations. Britain's Garter knights take precedence over knights and dames of the Order of the British Empire, and in the Kingdom of Italy the knights of the Annunciation took precedence over the knights of the Order of the Crown of Italy. (Of the latter King Victor Emmanuel II once said, "I can refuse no gentleman a cigar or the Order of the Crown." It is less likely that he would have said the same of the Order of the Annunciation.)

Old Dynastic Orders

Several orders bestowed today by non-regnant dynasties, though regarded as "dynastic," have military-religious origins. The Savoys' Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus is the union of a twelfth-century order (Saint Lazarus) founded by lepers and a later order of a quasi-monastic nature (Saint Maurice), which in their new unified form fought marauding pirates menacing Piedmontese commerce in the Mediterranean. The Order of Saint Stephen (Tuscany) served a similar purpose. The Constantinian Order of Saint George (Naples and Parma) was founded by some Byzantine exiles in Venice to combat Turkish expansion into the Balkans and especially Albania. These three orders were eventually enlisted in the ideological struggle later called the Counter Reformation. In Spain the older "monastic-military" orders are in a similar category; the orders of Alcantara, Calatrava and Montesa were founded as military forces to fight the Moors, and the Order of Saint James (Santiago) was established to protect pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James from attacks by the Moors.

Hereditary Knights and Knights Bachelor

In certain countries there are hereditary knights and knights bachelor. The former inherit their title much as if it were a barony or other noble title; the latter receive their honour outside an order of chivalry and do not transmit it to heirs. Contrary to popular belief, neither tradition is a direct outgrowth of the institution of medieval feudal (enfeoffed) knighthood --except perhaps for some late-medieval hereditary knights in parts of eastern Europe-- but came later. In some of the military-religious orders knights commander of "giuspatronato" were those who ceded parts of their landed estates to the order, and whose heirs by male primogeniture could succeed to these commanderies. Some scholars compare the English rank of baronet to a hereditary knighthood, even though there are a few hereditary knights in the British Isles and Ireland (such as the Knight of Glin), but baronetcies are actually a special rank established by James I in 1611, and as "commoners" they are not peers though in precedence they rank immediately below the peerage.

Feudal Knights

The modern lineal heirs of the enfeoffed knights of the European Middle Ages (when their descents can be identified) are titled nobles (barons, etc.) or, in some countries, the principal branches of families of the oldest landed gentry or untitled nobility. One may well inherit the state of nobility from an ancestor along a direct, legitimate male line, but in countries which no longer have monarchies the official (legal) recognition of such nobility is often a nebulous affair. There are many thousands of ridiculous claimants, and Italy alone has a flourishing caste of social climbers whose imagined ancestral aristocracy (typically based on genealogical or "heraldic" research of dubious authenticity) was actually inexistent in their families just a century ago. These pretensions to imagined nobility usually extend to claims to historical coats of arms too.

Military-Religious Orders

Today the principal military-religious orders surviving from the Middle Ages or based on medieval tradition are the Orders of Saint John (particularly the Order of Malta but also the Venerable Order of Saint John and the Johanniterorden of Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands), the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and the Order of Saint Mary of Jerusalem (Teutonic Order). The Spanish monastic-military orders (Alcantara, Montesa, Santiago, Calatrava) form an important adjunct to this list. Some of these orders bestow the rank of dame on ladies. The Order of the Temple, suppressed in 1312, survives only in that it was succeeded by the rarely-bestowed Order of Christ and Spain's Order of Montesa. Several military "orders" of knights existed in the eleventh century before the founding of the Templars and Hospitallers, mostly in the service of particular kings, but they were not "military-religious orders" as we understand that term's social role.

Fons Honorum (Fount of Honour)

In recent decades a degree of confusion seems to have developed over who may bestow honours; this is at least partly due to the emergence of hundreds of false orders.

Today the legitimate founts of honour who may bestow knighthood are the lawful heads of existing states, heads of non-reigning royal (sovereign) dynasties recognised at the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1814 (hence the numerous German dynasties but not the many soi-disant "pretenders" to the long-vacant Throne of Constantinople), the Holy See (the Papacy), certain de jure governments in exile, a few Orthodox Christian patriarchs and bishops, and the grand masters of a few historical military-religious orders of chivalry mentioned here (the Order of Malta most notably).

Until some time in the thirteenth century there were parts of Europe where a baron, lord or enfeoffed knight might dub an esquire, the parrain thus raising the young man to knighthood. In most of western Europe this practice was abolished by 1250. When Frederick II, who ruled a wide swathe of Europe from Saxony to Sicily, plus pieces of Palestine and Tunisia, declared that only the son or grandson of a knight could become a knight except by his royal license, he was putting an end to the most recent usurpations of what was by then a hallmark of the sovereign's authority, namely the exclusive ability to ennoble other men. He was also protecting the social status of the knightage. Elsewhere, contemporaneous policies (such as that of Henry III in England) were probably based on Frederick's.

This coincided with the emergence of knights as a truly social (and hereditary) class rather than an exclusively military one, and for over a century the code of honour and values known as chivalry had distinguished the knight. Something virtually unknown when the Norman knights stormed Messina (1061) and then Hastings (1066) had become formalised. Before 1100 dubbing ceremonies (described below) were simple, when they existed at all. Henceforth investiture entailed such features as a symbolic bath and vigil followed by a religious ceremony and tapping of each shoulder with the blade of a sword.

Similarity of Orders of Chivalry

Distinctive though these varied institutions are from each other, they share certain things in common. For example, bestowal is, in a very broad sense, a question of the candidate's appropriateness and, to some extent, his or her personal character. A known felon convicted of violent crimes or treason is unlikely to be invested in any of these orders, even though there have been some remarkable exceptions to this principle over time. It is also true that certain orders are bestowed much more lavishly than others. Italy's Order of Merit of the Republic is probably the most extreme example of this among major countries, with over ten thousand conferees in some years.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, apart from bestowals in the Order itself (upon practicing Roman Catholics), also has an Order of Merit ("Pro Merito Melitense"). Orders of merit became popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; dames began to be invested later.

Rites of Investiture

Historically, the ceremonial (and religious) rites of investiture, such as dubbing the knight with a sword in a chapel following a vigil, are rooted in what was essentially a twelfth-century practice. There is little evidence that earlier knights ever participated in a "rite of passage" nearly this formal. They were trained for years as esquires and simply elevated to knighthood at the age of majority. However, this is not to suggest that certain rites marking this change of social role and station did not exist. Practices such as slapping the esquire's face with a gauntlet (so he would remember his becoming a knight) were applied long before the twelfth century, and the first suiting with new armour, accompanied by shield and sword, also marked the esquire's formal elevation to knighthood. In truth, knighthood, like kingship, had long enjoyed a certain esteem because of the power and quasi-religious authority engendered in the mounted warrior, regardless of his own ethos, and to the common man of the Middle Ages the militi accompanying Charlemagne or other conquering leaders represented what in our own times has come to be considered an archetype.

Today investiture ceremonies vary widely. A few of Europe's reigning sovereigns dub with a sword, while in the military-religious orders the postulant is cloaked or decorated (with the insignia placed around his or her neck). In republics a miniature version of a civil order (or a rosette) might simply be attached to the knight's lapel.

Military-to-Honorific Evolution of Knighthood

Today's orders of merit bear little resemblance to medieval knighthood and its military function; nobody expects Sir Roger Moore to A very general (and simplified) chronology of knighthood and allied 
developments.bear a sword unless it is part of a stage costume. Some military-religious orders, on the other hand, retain some of the same functions they were known for in the Middle Ages, though the military role is not one of these. When did knighthood lose the place it enjoyed as the province of mounted, armoured, sword-bearing warriors integral to the feudal system? The increasing use of gunpowder was not the only impetus. Some historians cite the foundation of the court orders, beginning with the Order of the Garter in 1344 or 1348, as the first symbolic move away from the battlefield, but mounted knights (as well as expert archers) played a pivotal role at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. If we seek a particular event and date, perhaps 1453 is appropriate. Many historians use it to mark the end of the Middle Ages. In that year Constantinople fell to the Turks and the Hundred Years War ended. Cavalry units were no longer commanded exclusively by knights, and cannon were already being used in combat by both the French and the Turks. In most places the idea that a feudal landholder would render actual military service, as opposed to a tax (scutage) paid in lieu of it, was anachronistic. This period coincided with the beginning of what became the apex of the Renaissance. By then the Order of Saint John (later known as the Order of Malta) was primarily a maritime power based on Rhodes.

Candidature to Honours

The fundamental functional difference between knighthood for merit and knighthood in a military-religious order is that the former recognises past achievement while the latter presumes future service.

Nomination to the orders of knighthood used to be a very involved procedure, and for certain orders (such as Britain's Order of the Garter and Order of the Bath, and the Pontifical Order of Christ and Order of the Golden Spur) it still is. However, procedures for nominations to orders lower in precedence (and prestige) have been much simplified in recent years. In the late 1990s the Blair government "liberalised" the procedures for nominations to the Order of the British Empire, going so far as to institute use of a standard form ("Nomination for a UK National Honour" issued by the Cabinet Office) which, among other information requested, placed great emphasis on the ethnicity of both proposer and nominee in an attempt to make the honours lists more representative of the nation's increasingly diverse population; the number of honorees was also increased drastically. Meanwhile, in Rome the Holy See greatly expanded the ranks of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great and the Order of Saint Sylvester; in practice a bishop's nomination is usually sufficient for bestowal, the process administered by the Vatican Secretary of State. Among the military-religious orders, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre has grown particularly rapidly, as has (in some countries) the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. However, it should be mentioned that the Order of Malta has instituted a "formative year" for new postulants so that they are actively familiar with the order and its work before being invested, and so that less suitable candidates are not actually invested at the end of twelve months; this highly "participatory" formation is both spiritual and practical (charitable) in nature.

Both the orders of merit and the military-religious orders now invest candidates at somewhat younger average ages than previously. Considering various changes in France, Great Britain and elsewhere, knighthood can no longer be said to be nearly as "elitist" as it was as recently as 1970. There are now more knights (and dames) than at any time in the past. It is also true that in most cases at least perfunctory (if not always sufficient) preliminary investigations are undertaken into a candidate's personal background before he or she is invested; this is now even true in Italy, which bestows certain orders upon thousands of individuals each year but in times past decorated all manner of criminals.

Can honours such as knighthoods be purchased? A century ago the case of Arthur Maundy Gregory sparked scandal in Britain because it involved the sale of knighthoods and possibly a few peerages in exchange for substantial contributions to a political party; this practice is rumoured to contine in a subtle way in Great Britain to this day even though it is formally outlawed by statute (with the Honours Act 1925). Worse (because it involved seats in the upper house of Parliament) was the "cash-for-peerages" scandal in which the Blair government allegedly arranged the creation of life peerages in exchange for loans to the Labour party, resulting in several nominees being rejected by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. In most cases of this kind, however, the person being knighted, or created a peer, is distinguished enough that the honour could be justified apart from any behind-the-scenes arrangement, or a monetary contribution is made in such a way as to avoid it appearing to be a quid pro quo. Despite such problems, the British honours system actually functions quite well; the very fact that scandals are exposed proves this. With a few exceptions (i.e. certain countries' governments), the worst abuses are to be found in the orders bestowed by the heads of dynasties which have not reigned for some time, as these usually lack the "due diligence" and controls to be expected of orders of chivalry which are part of a sophisticated modern state or a long-established organisation (i.e. the Catholic Church).

In Knights of Malta (1959), a novelised account of events concerning the Order of Malta in the early 1950s, Roger Peyrefitte makes a number of insinuations regarding collection of "passage fees," but he also explains the custom's historical origin. In fact, the "passage tax" (droit de passage) remitted in some military-religious orders reflects a practice continued since the Middle Ages, when crusading knights had to pay their own sea passage to the Holy Land, and in the event is far less today (perhaps two or three thousand euros or dollars) than what somebody would have paid to "purchase" an honour even in the days of Maundy Gregory. "Oblations," the annual dues made by the knights and dames of the military-religious orders, might be rather loosely compared to the scutage paid by enfeoffed knights in place of military service, but are more simply a modern means of supporting charitable works. The bestowal of Papal honours (as the orders of Saint Gregory and Saint Sylvester) upon Catholics of questionable character in exchange for substantial financial contributions to the Church is not unknown; two American films allude to this practice, namely The Godfather Part III (1990) and True Confessions (1981), but even in these fictional settings the men depicted had not been convicted of any crime when they received their decorations. At all events, it is not inappropriate to publicly recognise a significant financial contribution to a worthy project or charitable cause, acts which should never be confused with actually purchasing an honour.

Code of Chivalry

By the 1100s the crossbow, which was used with success at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, was popular because it could be operated without the extensive training needed to fire the longbow, though the latter eventually reclaimed its place as the preferred weapon of trained archers, who could fire numerous arrows in rapid succession. This spelled the difference between victory and defeat at Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). Longbow archers were a respected part of any army, while crossbowmen were disdained because it seemed unjust that an unskilled man-at-arms could too easily fell the noble knight on the field of battle. The investiture and the codes of chivalry were established, at least in part, to dispell the rising popular perception that knights were readily vulnerable to attack. It was convenient to plant in the public mind the idea that a knight was more than a mounted, armoured fighting machine. Thus was born the mystique of chivalry, bolstered by armorial heraldry because it was presumed that only young men descended from knights (recalling the decree of Frederick II) could themselves become knights by hereditary right to this social rank. Of course, if applied universally this rule quickly would have led to a dearth of eligible aspirants to knighthood because even noble families die out over time; in fact most of the titled aristocratic families flourishing today descend from ancestors ennobled long after the fourteenth century, even if their colourful familial legends say otherwise.

First advanced as an ideal by the Church, the code of chivalry was made known to the common man through the traveling minstrels in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The true knight had profound Faith which he defended, to the death if need be. He was loyal to his lord the king and protected women and the weak. He was brave and never fled during a battle. The code of chivalry was not a fantasy; it genuinely existed. In practice, however, knights rarely lived up to this ideal, except occasionally in the face of members of their own social class. The lower-born, who might be treated with raw contempt, often feared knights, while the daily violence of medieval life made the code difficult to follow. Some of the most distinguished, and infamous, feudal knights sought conquest and plunder in their own opportunistic interests.

Abuses occurred far less in the military-religious orders, which had a strong ecclesial element based on a religious Rule. This is not to say that they were always perfect; the Templars were infamous for their duplicitous comportment, and in the Baltic region the Teutonic Knights were known to slaughter innocent civilians on the slightest of pretexts.

Its precepts may not have been universally applied, but many modern practices are, in fact, rooted in chivalry and the courtly life associated with it. Our concepts of "courtesy" and "courtship" come to mind. The military salute and the tipping of a hat trace their origin to a knight raising the visor or face plate of his helmet to communicate. The concept of not shooting a man in the back or striking him after he has been knocked to the ground is a knightly one. The courtesy shown by men toward women is a distinctly European characteristic historically absent in many other societies where women were not accorded any particularly gentle treatment. (The bushido code of the samurai shares a few key elements with European knighthood but it reflects very different religious and cultural influences.)


By the 1180s knights had begun to assume and use coats of arms, initially as colourful designs on their shields which were repeated in embroidered surcoats. Like surnames (once the exclusive perquisite of landed aristocrats), these "heraldic" designs soon became hereditary, passed from father to son. The lawful bearer of a coat of arms is Parchment roll of arms showing Italian escutcheons from late 13th century.an armiger. Coats of arms were initially a mark of gentility and nobility, and in time these were regulated by royal authority to prevent abuse and usurpation. In an age of widespread illiteracy, a coat of arms was, in effect, a readily-comprehended ensign of the bearer's social status as well as knighthood past or present. Toward the end of the Middle Ages a certain snobbery was --perhaps understandably-- often attached to the bearing and use of a coat of arms, but this changed when virtually anybody could design his own or usurp (usually with impunity) that of somebody else. In some countries, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, burghers eventually bore coats of arms as familial insignia rather than, strictly speaking, ensigns of nobility.

Despite what you may occasionally read, personal heraldry --historically a monarchical tradition-- is not regulated officially in Italy, France or most countries which are no longer monarchies. Canada (which has a queen) has a heraldic authority that grants coats of arms to individuals; the United States does not. However, Ireland and South Africa have heraldic offices and grant coats of arms, as do the United Kingdom and Spain.

Heraldic records traditionally took two forms. Rolls of arms (such as that shown here) were scrolls of parchment containing the shields of numerous knights. Armouries were written records in which shields were described in a prescribed style called blazon. In England blazon is based on Norman French, so the shield (or escutcheon) showing the red castle on a white (or silver) field is described most simply as "Argent a Castle of one Tower Gules." In Italian it is "D'argento un castello rosso." The artistic style of coats of arms varies from one region to the next. The very pictorial shield with the tree (shown here) is typically southern Italian.

Medieval coats of arms were often "canted" for a surname, representing it in some way. Here the red castle is canted for the Casato (Casati) family, whose surname refers to a castle or, quite literally, a noble's house. Bearing simple geometric designs (known as ordinaries), symbols (called charges) or canting references to surnames, the oldest coats of arms are some of the most beautiful. Twelve of these (from around Europe) are depicted below.

Strictly speaking, armoury is the branch of heraldry pertaining to coats of arms. More generally, "heraldry" relates to all the functions of heralds, who were court officers charged with keeping various nobiliary records. As trusted --and unarmed-- officials outside the military hierarchy, medieval heralds were sometimes pressed into service as diplomats or even royal messengers. In Great Britain and Spain they still have ceremonial court functions.

By tradition, a knight may indicate the badge of his order of chivalry in his coat of arms, usually depicted suspended from the shield. It is therefore both traditional and logical that a knight (or dame, using anEarliest heraldry. oval or diamond shape rather than a shield) would have a coat of arms. Nowadays many do not, even though a newly invested citizen of the United Kingdom or Spain lacking a familial coat of arms may petition his nation's heraldic authority for a grant of arms, while somebody resident in a nation where heraldry is unregulated by law could design his own original coat of arms.

In principle, no two coats of arms born by unrelated knights in the same kingdom could be identical (and within families an effort was made to "difference" otherwise identical arms through subtle changes in design), but with the unification of states in modern times this rule necessarily became difficult to apply to armigers whose ancestors had borne certain coats of arms since antiquity. The Kingdom of Sicily, for example, was divided in 1282 (between the island and the Italian peninsula south of Rome) and united much later, so for centuries a few coats of arms of simple design devised in one realm ("Naples") were identical to those in the other (Sicily), and with the further unification of Italy circa 1860 there were instances of Piedmontese, Tuscan and Sicilian families bearing the same coat of arms, while the Consulta Araldica (Italy's College of Arms, abolished in 1948) regulated only those of titled families or a few untitled ones. A similar situation developed with the unification of the German states during the same period.

The phenomenon of "arms mongering" should be explained. Obviously, not everybody bearing the same surname is related by kinship, but some commercial firms prey on the ignorant by implying that everybody named (for example) Williams, von Keppel, Alvarez or Lanza is descended in the male line from historical armigers bearing these surnames and therefore entitled to use their coats of arms. This is deceptive because a historical coat of arms can be claimed only if legitimate descent from the armiger who used it can be proven. This abusive practice flourishes even in nations (such as the United Kingdom) where heraldry is regulated in some way.

Lines can become blurred, as when Scottish clan crests and Polish herby coats of arms are improperly claimed by anybody bearing a particular surname who presumes (perhaps incorrectly) to be associated with a specific clan. In Italy intentional fraud became frequent in the 1960s (and persists to this day) when two well-known genealogical "institutes" in Florence began attaching coats of arms to all the lineal genealogies they completed, implying that every Italian family was an aristocratic one; the genealogies were usually reasonably accurate but the heraldry was not.

In some --but not all-- European countries the bearing of an inherited coat of arms for a certain number of centuries is considered an ipso facto indication of a family's nobility, though this generality must be considered in the context of heraldic regulation in some nations having been much more rigid than in others. In England nowadays all coats of arms emanate from the Crown and are noble, though the only distinction they confer upon the armiger (unless created a knight or peer) is the title "esquire," a word which in common usage has lost its medieval meaning.

Some of the military-religious orders recognise the noble ancestry of knights and dames, established in at least a few nations by a family's lawful use of a coat of arms for several centuries, by investing them in certain "grades." Unfortunately, this holdover from the Middle Ages (when nearly every knight came from a noble family) has spawned a "subculture" of ambitious knights and dames invested in non-nobiliary categories seeking to "prove" their ancestors' aristocracy and thus promotion (in the case of the Order of Malta) to grades other than "magistral grace." Such aspirations (and even the subjective decisions taken by the orders in some cases) do not always correspond to historical reality. This is partly due to the lack of official nobiliary or heraldic authorities in so many European countries. Indeed, we find the Order of Malta particularly sought by the "socially ambitious" specifically because it offers a venue for the recognition of aristocratic ancestry --either real or imagined. That said, the nobiliary decisions taken by the Order of Malta usually reflect at least somewhat greater accuracy than those of the various self-appointed "nobility associations" and "heraldic offices" of nations such as France, Russia and Italy, where even the headship of the former ruling dynasty is contested by rival claimants! One doubts that the knights of old could have imagined what would become of traditions that began with a few simple designs painted on their shields.

In the public mind the use of armorial heraldry remains largely misunderstood. Though rooted in the feudal system of the twelfth century, modern personal heraldry, with its links to individuals The Purple Heart. Washington's coat of 
arms is represented in the small shield above his profile.and families as an identifying distinction of an artistic and hereditary nature, does not necessarily carry with it the strictly monarchical overtures of the past. For this reason George Washington and other early Americans descended from England's landed gentry continued to use coats of arms long after the United States was established. Washington's coat of arms (upon which the United States flag is thought to have been based), with its two red bars (stripes) and three red mullets (stars) on a white background is even featured on the Purple Heart, the decoration he founded in 1782, revived by a later president in 1932. The United States Constitution prohibits the government's bestowal or recognition of titles of nobility but does not thereby forbid the use of coats of arms, which are a form of expression. However, only very few countries protect coats of arms as a form of incorporeal property.

Forms of Address

In a few countries knights recognised by the state are addressed formally by their style. In the United Kingdom "Sir" is used in addressing baronets and knights (except those of the Venerable Order of Saint John). In Italy the title is cavaliere or (for knight commander) commendatore, in France chevalier, in German-speaking countries ritter or (for knight commander) kommendator, in the Netherlands ridder, in Spain caballero, and so forth.

False and Contested Orders

In considering this topic it is worth bearing in mind that not every decoration or organisation which resembles an order of knighthood is intended to be one. The American Legion of Merit, for example, has ranks similar to those of an order of chivalry (and a decoration which closely resembles the design of France's Legion of Honour, on which it was based), but it is not a knighthood. Members of the Society of the Cincinatti, a private organisation founded in the United States, wear a distinctive medal but do not claim to be knights. Britain's prestigious Order of the Companions of Honour is not an order of knighthood.

False, soi-disant or "self-styled" orders are legion; some are imitations of extinct orders of knighthood (such as the Templars), or even existing ones, created by self-appointed "princes" or "grand masters," often to deceive the ignorant or flatter the vain, and usually to generate income in some way. What the leaders of these self-styled orders lack (apart from good sense) is the legal right of fons honorum. Most of these charlatans are nothing more or less than fantasists, impostors or impersonators. For example, a man claiming to be the son of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (killed in 1917), managed to get his obituary as such in America's Time magazine. Unfortunately for him, he could not be alive to read it, but in life he or his "knights" were able to convince the normally skeptical staff of a leading news magazine of his ridiculous claim. A typological distinction may be made between "historically-based" self-styled orders (inspired by historical but extinct orders) and newly-created "fantasy" orders (created out of whole cloth), even if this is of little importance to those outside these organisations. Self-styled orders existed in the nineteenth century but today there are more of them than ever, and they seem to survive longer.

"Contested" orders, on the other hand, are those bestowed by two or more related claimants (usually cousins) to headship of a genuine if non-reigning royal dynasty; this is a very sad but increasingly frequent situation that tarnishes the public image of many former ruling families after their last reigning head has died. Unfortunately, there are no juridical authorities empowered to settle such disputes because exiled monarchs and their heirs are vested with certain de jure rights. These competing orders of chivalry can seem like "orders of rivalry" as the zealously "competitive" behaviour of some of their knights towards those in the "opposite" order bearing the same name and history can verge on the neurotic or worse --a sad reflection of the fact that nowadays some dynastic and military-religious orders (and many bestowed for merit) include in their rolls some persons who, quite frankly, probably should not be there.

"Order hunger" denotes the relatively recent trend of men seeking and eventually obtaining numerous orders and decorations based on factors other than merit or a sincere charitable "vocation." The Roman Catholic community has more than its fair share of such individuals because most military-religious orders, given their histories and canonical status, are bestowed exclusively on Catholics, and the majority of Papal bestowals (in five merit and "court" orders) are made upon Catholics based on bishops' recommendations. The phrase "order hunger" is not meant to refer to royalty, statesmen, diplomats or military men whose decorations reflect a social position, professional career or specific merits and achievements, but rather those "civilians" who in the normal course of life (but for their own extraordinary efforts to be decorated) would be entitled to far fewer decorations or honours. This phenomenon has become more prevalent since the 1970s, to the point that it is no longer unusual to encounter (at a white-tie event) a gentleman sporting ten or more small enamelled crosses suspended from slender ribbons attached to a "miniature bar " in the manner of a Russian field marshall. (Not surprisingly, such ambitions often coincide with the decoratee's attempt to demonstrate to others his aristocratic ancestry while justifying a claim to an ancestral coat of arms, where neither exists in reality.) The obsession, though (fortunately) not yet an epidemic, has become a full-fledged mania characterised by one-upmanship and schadenfreude. No longer confined to the Old World, the disease has spread to the Americas and elsewhere.

A few "historically-based" self-styled orders closely resemble long-established ones. Over the centuries the Order of Saint Lazarus (now bestowed legitimately by the head of the House of Savoy as the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus) occasionally found itself, in one guise or another, under the patronage of the French crown, partly because the neighbouring Savoys only assumed hospitals and preceptories of the Lazarite knights in Italy and the south-eastern corner of France. Today a "re-founded" order of this name (established independently without a valid fons honorum about a century ago) is associated with a branch of the French royal family. It may be inaccurate to denounce such an institution, as it presently exists, as a "self-styled" order on a par with those invented by impostors and charlatans, but neither can it be accurately defined in the same terms of history, continuity and canon law as the Savoyard order. Perhaps it is more appropriate, in the light of history and law, to regard the "Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem" as a kind of quasi-chivalric confraternity dedicated to charitable work.

Noble Companies

Confraternities, companies or societies of knights and nobles have existed for centuries and should not be confused with "self-styled" orders of chivalry. Usually these organisations have the patronage of a royal or princely family or former ruling dynasty, and some kind of decoration (medal) or symbol is connected to them. They are found particularly, but not exclusively, in central Europe; Britain's Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor is one of the best-known examples, though it is actually a fairly large organisation rather than a small company.

In European countries the exclusive gentlemen's club owes much to aristocratic tradition; in Britain that tradition is rooted principally in the customs of the military officer class and exclusive schools (until the twentieth century both the domain of the upper classes). On the Continent many of these clubs were actually established for certain interests of the aristocratic classes: hunting and other sports (such as competitive riding, polo and later golf or even chess), music, art, literature, and so forth. Some were quasi-professional, founded by and for musicians, architects, or even as the successors to specific medieval guilds. Over time a club's original purpose may have become largely symbolic, living on only in its name.

Much has been written about the American upper classes resembling the aristocracies of Europe. From a sociological perspective, it is reasonable that they would imitate these (especially England's) over time. Alexis de Tocqueville observed as much early in the nineteenth century and Thorstein Veblen described some of the effects later in the same century. In our own times, an interesting comparison may be had by contrasting the observations in Jilly Cooper's entertaining book about social class in Britain to those in Paul Fussell's witty book of the same title ("Class") about the same subject in the United States. The European institutions described on this page represent a certain lineal continuity over a thousand years of monarchical influence (even where republics have supplanted monarchies quite recently) and a formally-established, recognised nobility. In some countries this has been preserved in a sense (for Catholics) by the essentially monarchical structure of the Roman Church.

"Secret" Orders?

Are there secret orders of knighthood? While in theory the head of a small state or non-reigning dynasty could bestow an honour without it being made public, or even organise an order along the lines of a secret confraternity (non-reigning heads of formerly sovereign dynasties cannot found new orders), in the wider world there are no secret orders. Outside the pages of imaginative fiction, honours are bestowed in ceremonies which, if not always open to the general public, are not in any way secretive. As it is not appropriate to boast of, or draw attention to, an honour, discretion is sometimes mistaken for secretiveness. Apart from this, some social organisations may seem "arcane" in that they do not make all of their activities public. The irony is that if an order of knighthood (or any organisation) were truly "secret," few outsiders would even know it existed. The "secret orders" one sometimes reads about are, in fact, false or "fantasy" orders.


This page has been a succinct (but hopefully informative) overview of the relationships among various allied institutions. Volumes have been written about knighthood and the knightly orders through the ages unto the present day, and a list of a few on this and some related topics follows here.


Bain, R. The Clans and Tartans of Scotland.

Barber, R. The Knight and Chivalry.

Bishop, M. The Middle Ages.

Cardinale, H. Orders of Knighthood, Awards and the Holy See (3rd edition, 1985).

Funken, L and F. Arms and Uniforms - The Age of Chivalry (3 volumes translated from the French).

Lacey, R. Aristocrats.

Neubecker, O. Heraldry - Sources, Symbols and Meaning.

Seward, D. The Monks of War - The Military-Religious Orders.

von Volborth, CA. Heraldry - Customs, Rules and Styles.

Statements made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Grand Magistry of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

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