The Origins of Religious-Military, Monarchical, and Republican Orders

Europe’s first orders were for religious-military groups of knights who originally went to the Holy Land to care for and protect Christian pilgrims and later fought to expel Muslims from the Holy Land and the Iberian Peninsula. By the end of the Middle Ages, sovereigns of many European countries had created orders for knights fighting on their behalf. At the beginning of the modern period, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) adapted the practice with the creation of the Légion d’Honneur to recognize defenders of the French Republic.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472–1553), Emperor Charles V with the Order of the Golden Fleece, 1533. Collection Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
Religious Military Orders

The Hospitalier Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, along with the Knights Templars and the Teutonic Order, began with service to pilgrims and then unsuccessfully fought to protect Christian rule in the Holy Land. The order was expelled by the Muslims from Jerusalem in 1291 and from the island of Rhodes in 1523. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain, r. 1516–1556) granted the order sovereignty over the island of Malta in 1530 to act as a bulwark against Muslim intrusion into the western Mediterranean.

The Hospitalier Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, Commander (gold), 18th century (RLR)
The Hospitalier Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, Spanish Langue [branch] (RLR)
Monarchical Orders

The powerful religious-military orders operated independently from Europe’s rulers, who gradually created their own monarchical orders to promote loyalty to the crown. Beginning with Charles I, Spain’s rulers used the Order of the Golden Fleece to symbolize their sovereignty over the realm and to promote personal loyalty among Spanish nobles.

Spain, Order of the Golden Fleece (gold), 19th century (RLR)
Spain, Order of the Golden Fleece, Commander, 20th century (RLR)
Charles V, medal by Leone Leoni (1509–1590), c. 1550 (PUNC)
The Four Spanish Royal Orders

The Order of Santiago was founded in the middle of the twelfth century as a religious-military order, similar to the Templars but under royal control. The order was named after Saint James (Santiago), who, according to tradition, descended from heaven on a white stallion to defeat a Moorish army. Charles I gave the order a leading role in governing and opening up his American possessions. Many of Spain’s viceroys in New Spain (colonial Mexico) and Peru (colonial South America) were active knights in the Order of Santiago and in the other royal orders of Calatrava and Alcántara.

Spain, Order of Santiago, Knight, 19th century (RLR)
Spain, Order of Calatrava, Knight, 19th century (RLR)
Spain, Order of Alcántara, Knight, 19th century (RLR)
Spain, Order of Our Lady of Montesa, Knight, 19th century (RLR)
Portuguese Monarchical Orders

The Order of Christ was founded by King Dinis of Portugal in 1317 to take over the assets and organization of the Templar order in Portugal following its disbandment. In 1420 Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) became the grand master of the order, which went on to play a central role in launching Portugal’s age of discoveries and in the settling of Brazil.

Portugal, Order of Christ, Knight, 19th century (RLR)
Portugal, Order of Avis, Grand Cross Star, 19th century (RLR)
Portugal, Order of Santiago of the Sword, Collar, 20th century (RLR)
Republican Orders

The French Legion of Honor, instituted by Napoleon in 1802, set the standard for all subsequent state orders, whether monarchical or republican. Unlike most monarchical orders at the time, the Legion of Honor was awarded for civilian as well as military merit, with the expectation that its bestowal would inspire service to the state by others. The Legion of Honor is divided into six grades—Collar, Grand Cross, Grand Officer, Commander, Officer, and Knight—which have become the standard for orders worldwide.

France, Legion of Honor, Knight, period of Napoleon I (RLR) (RLR)
France, Legion of Honor, Grand Cross, 20th century (RLR)