Christian Orders of Chivalry

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The model for these royal adaptations was provided by the secular orders of chivalry, the earliest of which had been established in the fourteenth century, two hundred years after the emergence of the military orders. The most important of them, ‘Monarchical Orders’ such as those of the Garter, the Collar or Annunciation, the Golden Fleece and St Michael, possessed, like the military orders, bodies of laws governing the lives of their members, but they were not subject to the Church and canon law (except insofar as their members were baptized Christians). They were subject to the sovereignty of princely founders and their constitutional or dynastic successors. In other words, they acquired legitimacy not through their recognition as religious orders by the Church, but through the acts of secular founts of honours. The professed brothers of a military order were, and are, knights by virtue of their profession, although there is some evidence that the Templars had played safe by having postulants – even boys as young as 11 years – dubbed immediately before admission. The knights of a secular order of chivalry, on the other hand, were, and are, such by virtue of the action of a sovereign power or its successor, and although it was common for some private devotional obligations to be imposed on them their role was, and is, honorific. As one of their historians has written, ‘The only goal common to all of these societies was the promotion and reward of loyal service’.

The secularization of the Iberian military orders was well under way in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth, de facto royal control gave way to the kings’ assumption of government over them de jure, by means of papal grants, and the brothers were freed from restrictions relating to almost every aspect of the religious life. In some orders, however, the transformation was only partial, because elements from their past were retained for a significant period of time. Their knights – particularly those of Santiago and Christ – continued to serve in North Africa or in Mediterranean galley fleets or in the Portuguese empire. No longer orders of the Church, they had become confraternities legitimized by secular founts of honours, but unlike secular orders of chivalry their membership continued to entail public, as opposed to private, obligations which related to the defence of Christendom or the Faith. These Iberian hybrids, combining within themselves elements from the constitutions both of military orders and of secular orders of chivalry, were the original Christian orders of chivalry.

They must have influenced a number of new creations which mirrored their nature. In 1562 Cosimo I of Medici, duke of Tuscany, founded the Order of St Stephen, which attracted a large body of recruits and ran an effective navy for nearly two centuries, with its galleys serving alongside the Hospitallers of St John in the relief of Malta in 1565, at Lepanto in 1571 and in the defence of Crete from 1645 to 1669. In its turn St Stephen probably provided a model for St Maurice and St Lazarus, created in 1572 out of the union of an order founded by Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy and the Italian branch of the almost moribund Order of St Lazarus, after an attempted merger of the latter with St Stephen had failed. Others followed, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St Lazarus in 1609, incorporating the French brothers of St Lazarus, and the Constantinian Order of St George, an invention of early sixteenth-century Balkan adventurers which was taken over by the Farnese dukes of Parma in 1697.

The active roles of the early Christian orders of chivalry faded away or were renounced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but they seem to have had an indirect influence on the development of others. These were generated by the Reformation, which hit the military orders hard but left in its wake some odd survivals in northern Europe. The bailiwick of Utrecht of the Teutonic Order adopted Calvinism and lived on as a charitable body in the Netherlands. In northern Germany the brothers of the Hospital of St John, who had already been organized into a separate province, the bailiwick of Brandenburg, converted themselves into a Lutheran lay confraternity, which bought its freedom from the headquarters on Malta, although it sought partial reintegration in 1763 with the encouragement of Grand Master Manoel Pinto. After an interlude of 40 years as a secular order, its surviving knights provided the basis for its revival by the crown of Prussia in 1852 and today it is recognized by the Federal Republic of Germany. Two of its foreign commanderies, in Sweden and the Netherlands, transformed themselves into independent orders in 1946 under the patronage of their respective crowns.

Meanwhile, a non-Catholic Order of St John had emerged in England out of the confusion that had followed the fall of Hospitaller Malta to Napoleon in 1798. French Knights of Malta, whose minds had been awash with a half-baked scheme to recover the island of Rhodes, lost three centuries before, entered into an alliance with some of the leaders of the Greek revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule. The French, who agreed to provide the Greeks with troops and funds, tried to raise money on the London market and planned to equip in England a naval expedition for service in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1827 membership of the Order of Malta was offered to all financial subscribers and to all officers commissioned in the mercenary force, whether Roman Catholic or not. The body of English knights which resulted was never recognized as part of the Order of Malta by the grand magistry in Rome, but in 1888 it was converted into an order of the British Crown.

The four non-Catholic Orders of St John and the non-Catholic Order of St Mary of the Germans are Christian confraternities, which stem in a variety of ways from the original military orders and are legitimized by secular authorities. They are, therefore, amalgams on the pattern of those in Iberia, France and Italy. At about the same time as they reached their mature form they were joined by others.

The origins of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre are to be found in the creation of knighthoods from the fourteenth century onwards by the Franciscans, who had custody of the Holy Places and wanted to build up a body of lay support. In the sixteenth century there was an abortive attempt to make something more substantial out of the Holy Sepulchre knights scattered throughout Europe, but it was only in the nineteenth century that an order was created for them by the papacy in its secular persona as a fount of honours. In this case a Christian order of chivalry had come into being which had a powerful religious dimension, a close association with the Holy Land and a cardinal as grand master.

Another example developed within the Sovereign Military Order of Malta itself. The professed brothers, whose numbers were in decline, were supplemented – and were eventually to be outnumbered – by knights (and later dames) of Honour and Devotion. These had occasionally been found before 1800 but had not been numerous. They are not professed, have in religious terms a similar standing to tertiaries, and the grant of knighthoods to them is based on the sovereign authority of the order and the grand master. The order has recently described itself as being at the same time ‘an Order of the Roman Catholic Church’ and ‘a body which by its constitution also declares itself to be an Order of Chivalry’. I interpret this as meaning that it embodies within itself both an order of the Church, which comprises the professed knights and chaplains, together with all the lay confratres and consorores, and a Christian order of chivalry which is confined to the grand master and the same lay knights and dames in confraternity.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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