Order of Malta Studies

The Case for Personal Heraldry in the Knightly Orders

©2009 L. Mendola

Today many knights and dames of the orders of knighthood, from the French Legion of Honour to the Order of Malta, are not armigerous, but this anomalous situation, in which traditional symbols associated with chivalry are overlooked, need not persist.

Historical Association of Heraldic Insignia with the Knight

By 1200, most knights of the earliest military-religious orders, the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (now the Sovereign Military Order of Malta) and the Order of Saint Lazarus (now the Savoys' Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus) were armigerous; that is to say, they made use of hereditary coats of arms. This was to be expected as most knights on crusade or resident in the Kingdom of Jerusalem were drawn from the European landed aristocracy, and by 1200 armorial heraldry was in nearly universal use among this social class.

In later centuries heraldic insignia came to be regulated in many realms, but with a few exceptions, such as England's Scrope versus Grosvenor case of 1390, in medieval times strict regulation was unnecessary because nobody outside the armigerous (aristocratic) class could readily impersonate a knight or feudatory. Burgher, esquire and mercantile arms came into widespread use somewhat later; even in England, where there was fairly strict and consistent regulation, the first commission leading to a heraldic Visitation is dated 1528.

Not surprisingly, the use of armorial bearings was regarded as a sign of aristocracy and in many ways still is; when an Italian journalist uses the term blasonati there is little doubt that aristocrats are being referred to. Into the time of the long reign of Queen Victoria, it used to be that heraldry, like Latin, formed part of the education of the European gentleman, who was privileged compared to most of his fellow citizens. As the knights in the military-religious orders were drawn from the aristocracy (be it the titled nobility or landed gentry), it was presumed that, being reasonably well-educated, they knew something of heraldry, or at least their own coat of arms and crest. These studies, even when not very profound, were actually part of family tradition. Among today's great meritocracy, which is to be lauded, even many trained historians are ignorant of the basic principles of heraldry or the closely-related field of nobiliary history; few can explain what the heraldic tinctures are, or describe the difference between a marquis and a baron.

In Europe the nineteenth century witnessed the trend toward orders of merit - knighthood bestowed outside the historical military-religious orders (Order of Malta, Teutonic Order,etc.) and court orders (Order of the Garter, Order of the Golden Fleece, Order of the Annunciation, etc.). By the twentieth century there was a vast array of such orders in Europe and Asia, and even the Legion of Merit awarded in the United States, though it does not confer knighthood, has ranks based on those of the European orders of merit, and specifically the French Legion of Honour.

Closer to our own times, certain military-religious orders began to more frequently bestow honours upon individuals outside the aristocracy; the Order of Malta, removed from Malta in 1798 and subsequently (and still) based in Italy, instituted the category of "magistral grace" for non-aristocrats and its own "order of merit" along the lines of such orders (bestowed for merit) as were in existence by 1920. While it is quite possible that a knight of magistral grace or the order of merit may be armigerous, it is not an actual requirement. On the other hand, it is presumed that knights and dames in the nobiliary grades are descended from armigerous ancestors of the titled or untitled nobility - defined variously from one country to the next.

"Aristocracy" usually implies descent from the "recognised" nobility or landed gentry over several generations, while personal "nobility" might refer to nothing more than a British "life peerage" or the recent grant of a coat of arms in Scotland; in Russia, France and even Sicily there were, during the eighteenth century, men ennobled by virtue of holding certain public offices who did not apply for the use of coats of arms but could have, hence the modern anomaly of non-armigerous nobles.

Granting of Arms

Few nations grant new coats of arms today and most that do are monarchies, but in some places it is lawful to "assume" new, originally-designed coats of arms for personal use. Such is the case in the United States and Italy, though even in such nations it is not considered ethical to usurp the coat of arms of an unrelated armigerous family with which one happens, by coincidence, to share the same surname, viz. Smith or Ferraro. In practice (in both republics mentioned), somebody making inappropriate use of armorial bearings would not be committing an illegal act unless financial fraud or criminal impersonation were involved - that is to say, obtaining monies based on such misrepresentation. Copyright protects only a specific artistic rendition of a coat of arms.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta could grant coats of arms if it wished and, in theory, so could the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. This is not so radical a suggestion as it might at first seem; the Roman Catholic Church requires bishops to make use of coats of arms (though it rarely grants armorial insignia formally) and as few bishops are already armigerous before consecration these are usually new designs.

In the United Kingdom, of course, it is possible for any knight or dame to apply for a grant of arms, and the College of Arms will also make an "honorary" grant to a foreigner who has been knighted by the British Crown or is descended in the male line from a British subject. Canada also has a heraldic authority which grants new arms.

It is generally acknowledged that even in England, despite the "official" legal status of coats of arms as incorporeal property, enforcement of heraldic law is virtually unknown beyond the field of commercial trademarks, though in Scotland enforcement is more applicable. It would also be difficult to enforce certain heraldic principles more widely, in the European Union; in Italy, for example, where numerous unrelated families (bearing different surnames) use the same coat of arms, the English principle that led to the Scrope decision and subsequent law is all but useless, while in Poland it is traditional for unrelated families descended from the same military clan to use the same coat of arms.

Heraldic Traditions in Unexpected Quarters

Oddly enough, the appreciation of personal heraldry and its association with knighthood is sometimes found in what may seem to be unlikely places. These situations fall outside the scope of the actual, legally-based bestowal of knighthood. They may even reflect a certain degree of imagination or fantasy. Yet they do imply a level of understanding absent in the minds of many knights and dames of the Order of Malta, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and similar institutions, and they clearly reflect a certain appreciation of aristocratic tradition. Here three examples will suffice.

1) Establishing Family Traditions
In an effort to assist parents in raising their sons from puberty into adulthood with a sense of responsibility and morality, Robert Lewis, a popular Evangelical pastor and author in the United States, uses the medieval concept of knighthood as a guide. For Lewis the transition from page to esquire to knight is something more than a metaphor. His book, Raising a Modern-Day Knight, offers suggestions, and a Biblical inspiration, for shaping the behaviour and character of young men not entirely unlike that of (for example) the boy scouts. In this context, while his proposal of a formalised "dubbing ceremony" as a rite of passage into adulthood may be unorthodox - and clearly without legal foundation unless the man "knighting" his own son happens to be the head of a royal family enjoying the right of fons honorum - his suggestion of designing a familial coat of arms to be given from father to son (possibly in the form of a signet ring) represents the most traditional European practice. Granted that the young adult European sons of untitled armigers are, at best, esquires rather than knights, the idea advocated by Robert Lewis does at least link the concept of knighthood to that of armorial heraldry, and the idea of creating a personal coat of arms is - in itself - perfectly sound. What is more, he keenly understands the symbolic significance and hereditary nature of armorial heraldry.

2) The Medievalist
The late Rodney Hartwell, an American invested in the Order of Saint Sava, and also as a "hereditary" knight bachelor, in 1964 by King Peter II of Yugoslavia was best-known for founding (in Los Angeles) a historical society whose library boasted one of the most extensive collections of heraldic and nobiliary works in North America. Over the years he had close contact with the Order of Malta (he knew the long-time master of ceremonies Frà Oberto Pallavicini) and Continental royal families (being a close cousin of Archduke Otto von Hapsburg). In the days when transatlantic social links were rarer than they are now, he occasionally proposed Americans for knighthoods. Yet Rodney Hartwell was not without his eccentricities: He supported the extremely dubious claim of a middle-class American to a Polish princely title, and around 1997 he began "knighting" postulants based on the presumption that as a hereditary knight bachelor he had the right of "co-optation" enjoyed by knights until the thirteenth century. (In fact, during the 1200s Emperor Frederick II and his contemporaries issued decrees forbidding knights to elevate their esquires to knighthood except on specific royal authority unless the esquire was himself the son of a knight). Nevertheless, Rodney Hartwell insisted on a night-long vigil in a chapel before the "dubbing" ceremony, and he strongly believed that knights and dames should be armigerous. He encouraged Americans passionate about heraldry to make petition for official grants to the kings of arms in London, Dublin or Madrid (and later Canada) as appropriate. Whatever one thinks of his activities and approach, it is clear that Rodney Hartwell at least understood the connection between heraldry and chivalry.

3) The Depiction of History
A number of historical organisations are involved with demonstrations of medieval arts and crafts or actual re-enactments of medieval life, especially at fairs and conventions. One of the best-known of these is the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose members assume "stage names" and identities (lords, ladies, knights and, yes, heralds). The observer cannot help but be struck by the historical knowledge and attention to detail of many members of such organisations. The costumes and props are sometimes more accurate than what one sees in big-budget motion picture productions. Indeed, members of these "living history" organisations are sometimes recruited to participate in demonstrations and the like by The History Channel and documentary film producers. Among the props and weapons are shields emblazoned (correctly) with colourful coats of arms. At the very least, the participants understand that any knight living after circa 1200 had a coat of arms.

Perceptions and Misconceptions

The use of a coat of arms need not imply snobbery or social stratification; George Washington made use of his ancestors' coat of arms even as he entertained reservations about hereditary and lineage societies such as the Society of the Cincinnati. As regards the various knightly (or chivalric) orders, medals and decorations, there is a certain degree of misperception in the public mind. Perhaps owing to press coverage, most people (especially Americans) usually associate knighthood with its better-known incarnation as a reward for merit rather than the military-religious orders. That said, the Venerable Order of Saint John is certainly widely-known in Britain while the Order of Malta is hardly ignored in Italy, where it is far more prestigious than any order bestowed by the Italian state.

With their roots as institutions historically linked to the Church, the military-religious orders do not lack the lustre of tradition. In recent years efforts have been made in (for example) the Order of Malta and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre to instruct postulants in the culture and traditions of these orders before investiture. Unfortunately, in the move to emphasise the importance of Christian principles and works of charity (and perhaps the evolving "democratic" nature of the institutions), personal heraldry has been overlooked.

Yet an arcane theory (perhaps no longer valid) based on past practices holds that investiture into the Order of Malta - in any grade - constitutes a minor form of ennoblement. In Catholic circles much change resulted from the Holy See's efforts at modernisation; during the 1970s emphasis was removed from triumphalist or monarchical symbolism, with the Noble Guard dissolved and the Papal tiara no longer worn, while the creation of Papal titles for Catholics (marquis, count, etc.) effectively ceased. In large measure, what we see in the knightly orders is merely a reflection of these changes.

None of this is intended as reactionary commentary, but rather a recognition that certain traditions should be remembered if these orders are not to come to be regarded as something other than what they were meant to be. It is ridiculous that a trend (involving thousands of families) begun by an Evangelical pastor does more to perpetuate heraldic tradition than the military-religious orders do to bring that same tradition to thousands of knights and dames. One is left with the negative impression that some in the knightly orders, especially many of those educated outside of monarchical influences, are ignorant of the traditions of the institutions of which they are part.

Although the military-religious orders could apply their authority to the granting of heraldic arms, this is not necessarily what the author is suggesting. Nowadays the heraldic-nobiliary determinations for investiture into certain grades of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta are at best uneven and at worst based on incompetence or bias; the "noble" ancestry of some candidates is sometimes recognised inappropriately (based on misinterpretation or even genealogical fraud) while that of others is rejected although it is historically-based and factual. Meanwhile, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and most other orders ignore the question of ancestry altogether (i.e. they lack nobiliary grades).

A Suggestion

Without resorting to the complex bureaucratic process of granting or recognising coats of arms, it is possible to gently encourage their use. A subtle system of differencing (heraldic charges or symbols placed in the design to distinguish it from those used by others) could serve to ensure that the new coats of arms are not identical to those already in use elsewhere. For example, a small cross of the order with which a knight or dame is associated might be placed in a canton of the escutcheon.

This presumes a rudimentary knowledge of heraldry, but the topic need not be presented in all its complexities. A concise treatise on simple armory (with a focus on the escutcheon, tinctures, ordinaries, charges and fundamental principles rather than the full achievement, augmentations, cadency, etc.) would require no more than a few pages of text and graphics, accompanied perhaps by a single lecture. Why should this be an obstacle? Books on designing a coat of arms have even been written for children.

Recording the arms would be simple enough, and an occasional roll could be issued, perhaps including the arms of knights and dames in a specific geographic region. A good, and very simple, example of this type of publication in the New World is the occasional Roll of Arms of the Committee on Heraldry of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Are personal coats of arms "necessary" to the identity of those in the orders of chivalry? What is really under discussion here is the matter of an institution's culture and traditions. The military-religious orders, and to some extent the various orders of merit, have preserved some of this through their continued use of decoration insignia (medals, lapel rosettes, identifying neck ties), ceremonies (investitures) and ranks (knight, knight commander, etc.). Some have uniforms and church capes or robes.

While symbols and ceremonies are not the only characteristics that distinguish one organisation from another, traditions and culture certainly have their place in asserting a corporate or individual identity. There is no reason why a military-religious order should, under superficial observation, appear at all similar to freemasonry, a common fraternity or a community service organisation - all of which, beginning with the freemasons, owe much of their culture, trappings and ceremonies to medieval military orders such as the Templars and Hospitallers.

Coats of arms, like the knightly orders, trace their roots to Europe in the Middle Ages. There is no need to abandon this artistic legacy.

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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