It is almost a thousand years since the world's first chivalric communities were established in the Holy Land, and they have been doing important work to defend Christianity from the very beginning.
Over time, the nature of these orders and their role in society became a European value in which faith, courage and humility, provided the essence of the chivalric ethos. Credo, as a substance, was also essential for the advancement of the individual, therefore the statutes of each order had strict requirements, such as the vow to follow the evangelical counsels.
In addition to the ecclesiastical orders of knights, dynastic orders appeared in the 14th century. The first in the world was the Order of St George, founded by King Charles Robert of Hungary in 1326, but the Dragon Society (founded in 1408 by Sigismund of Luxembourg), was also a dynastic order. The Order of Saint Stephen, founded much earlier by Géza II and approved by Pope Orban III, was also of Hungarian origin, with activity until 1439. None of these early Hungarian orders are still in existence, also several ecclesiastical orders have been dissolved, changed or merged with other orders over the centuries.
Regardless of the decline of monarchies, these communities have become one of the most prestigious forms of social organisation in contemporary Europe. For this reason, the interpretation of the law relating to chivalric communities has also become important.
Across Europe, there are currently 99 knightly communities (in addition to the orders led by monarchs) that have been recognised by international noble and knightly organisations. Their number is steadily decreasing, as new orders of chivalry can only be founded by a monarch currently on the throne. The status and recognition of the orders of chivalry can be precisely defined by canon law and legal history, and the main principles are summarised below:
1. FUNDING: A chivalric order may be founded only by a sovereign monarch (pope, emperor, king or prince regnant), a person who at the moment of foundation has sovereign status. A private person cannot found an order, even if he is a member of a former ruling family, and even a dethroned monarch cannot found a new order if he no longer exercises his sovereign status.
2. LEADERSHIP: the knights may be led by the sovereign who founded the Order or by a person appointed and confirmed by him (Grand Master). Depending on the statutes of each Order, the leader may be appointed by hereditary succession, by appointment or by election, but always in accordance with the will of the sovereign power (active or former) which is the source of the law (e.g. the Grand Master of the Order of Malta is elected by the Sovereign Council, but the original source of law is the Pope of Rome, who oversees the Order's activities through a delegated Cardinal).
3. EXTERMINATION: if a knighthood has been dissolved centuries earlier in history (or has not existed for a longer period), even a ruler in power cannot re-establish it. There is no accepted procedure for an order to be "revived from centuries of dormancy" or "to be restored to existence with episcopal permission". An example of this is the many imitation Knights Templar orders, each based on a created narrative.
ICOC - HCOC
The fifth session of the International Congress of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences was held in Stockholm in 1960, under the patronage of Royal Prince Bertil of Sweden. It was decided to set up the International Commission of the Orders of Chivalry (ICOC), whose main task was to draw up criteria for the authenticity of knightly orders. Later this report was accepted by the Congress in Edinburgh in 1962, and was so well appreciated by the scholars that, on the recommendation of the President of the International Academy of Heraldry, it was unanimously decided to grant the ICOC an autonomous and permanent status.
In 2018, the need arose to launch a sub-organisation of the ICOC in Hungary. The founding decision was taken in 2019 at the Monastery of Alcobaca in Portugal, at an international meeting organised by the Royal House of Portugal, attended by high-ranking clerical leaders and members of several European monarchies. The Hungarian Commission for Orders of Chivalry publishes a report in Hungarian and English, listing and describing the authentic orders of knighthood and merit, award systems and noble organisations operating in Hungary. It carries out its activities with the help of experts in the fields of heraldry, genealogy, faleristics, legal history and ecclesiastical law.
Report of the Commission: DOWNLOAD
In the absence of a fons honorum (source of honour), no organisation can be considered a chivalric order. The characteristic of a subjective interpretation of the law is that it claims something that is historically and legally incorrect, in addition to ignoring the rules. The consequence of this trend is the popularity of the so-called imitative orders. They share the common characteristic of starting their activities by referring to created historical facts and legal sources. In their appearance they use the appearance of knightly orders (similar dress and decorations), but in reality they are organisations set up by private individuals and are also registered as associations in the courts.
Imitative orders have a long history, but have generally always been short-lived. This is partly due to the lack of legitimacy and partly to the composition of the people belonging to them. From the sixteenth century onwards, they increased in number, especially in western Europe. In 2021, there are 41 imitative orders in Hungary, which is significant by international standards, but not an exceptionally high number.
There are many examples when prominent people join imitative orders, so I have tried to summarise the most commonly mentioned reference points below.
PAPAL BLESSING: when the leader or members of an imitative order receive papal blessing, they may ask the Pope to bless their humanitarian work or some religious relic, even the Bible. The photo of the event is posted on the Order's website as a "papal recognition", whereas the Holy See has repeatedly stated that this type of meeting does not come with any recognition.
RELIGIOUS ORDERS: the list of the authentic orders of chivalry is published regularly by the International Commission for Orders of Chivalry. Some of the organisations missing from this list claim that they are not included because their organisation is a religious order and is recognised by the Holy See. It is important to note that, apart from its five Orders (Supreme Order of Christ, Order of the Golden Spur, the Order of St Pius IX, the Order of St Gregory the Great and the Order of St Sylvester Pope), the Holy See recognises only two organisations, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. No other organisation, whether medieval or newly founded, is recognised by the Holy See.
ORDER REVIVED FROM DORMANCY: With a few exceptions, dynastic orders were generally short-lived. The reason for this was often that the new ruler did not take over the grand mastery of the order, so without a leader, there were no new members of these communities. The fact that no authority has ever declared the abolition of a non-existent organisation clearly does not compensate for the absence of continuity for centuries. Therefore, these new organisations are using the name and insignia of a long-defunct order of knights without permission. Since they were not founded by a monarch, they are not entitled to use the name of chivalry.
NOBLE RANKS: it is increasingly recognised that all chivalric orders must operate under the patronage of a royal family, so several imitation orders of knighthood are seeking to be lead by princes. However, in many cases, the genealogy cannot verify the origin of these princes, and in some cases the duchy is not known historically or geographically. There was also a case, when the head of an imitative order received a "title of nobility" from a non ruling prince (!) , under a republican form of government.
OTHER BRANCH: Orders of Chivalry are hierarchical organisations. For this reason, if a local group chooses to separate, it loses its right to belong to the Order and cannot be considered as "another branch". Many of these organisations claim international recognition, while most of them are only associated with other, similarly imitative orders. Of course, there have also been breakaways throughout history which have subsequently gained recognition by the Crown, but these are known in a different name. One such authentic community was in Prussia, which become independent from the Order of Malta in 1332, gained recognition in 1382 and is now it is one of the most prestigious Protestant order in the world. However, these cases can only be considered legitimate under the patronage of a crown monarch.
ASSOCIATE REGISTRATION: any order of knights can form an association, but an association cannot form a chivalric order because the law does not allow it. In the USA and Hungary, it has happened that a self-styled order has initiated association registration earlier than the authentic community. This resulted in a court decision recognising the legitimacy of the name of the imitative order. However, this decision does not validate the status of the organisation, as there is not a relevant link between this two.
Authentic knightly orders always operate on the basis of fons honorum, respecting canon law and the rules accepted by European noble communities, preserving the prestige and centuries-old tradition of their order.
Szilárd F. Kökényessy