Papal Orders of Chivalry

Papal Orders of Chivalry
The emblem of the Papacy

Papal Orders of Chivalry are orders of knighthood bestowed by the Pope.

The Holy See, a recognised subject of international law and sovereign entity, has awarded the distinction of knighthood since the early medieval period. Such honours originally conferred nobility, personal or hereditary according to the rank, but today the Papal Orders of Chivalry are chiefly a means by which the Pope distinguishes those who have particularly served the Roman Catholic Church. The crosses of the Papal Orders are visible marks of recognition and correspond to the awards made by most states to their citizens and others for public and private services. Nominations for appointment to the Papal Orders are generally made, at the suggestion of parish priests, by the local ordinary who forwards the recommendation to the Papal Secretariat of State through the country's Apostolic Nunciature.

There is no surviving documentary evidence of a precise foundation date of the earliest Papal Chivalric institution, the Golden Militia, now represented by the second of the Papal Orders, that of the Golden Spur. However, the superior authority of the Holy See as a source of honour was first acknowledged by the Crusader knights who formed the Templar and Hospitaller Orders in the early 12th century.


Papal orders

Supreme Order of Christ

The highest Papal Order, the Order of Christ, was last awarded in 1987 to the late Frà Angelo de Mojana di Cologna, 77th Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, to honour him on the 25th anniversary of his election. Instituted in 1318 by King Denis I of Portugal as a Military Religious Order as a replacement for the recently dissolved Knights Templar, Pope John XXII reserved the right to appoint knights for himself and his successors. By 1522, the Order was effectively divided and, while the Portuguese decoration became increasingly widely distributed, the Papal distinction gradually fell into disuse until being revived as the highest Order of Chivalry of the Catholic Church in 1878. It is awarded exclusively to male Catholic Sovereigns or Heads of State. There are no living members.

Order of the Golden Spur

The second highest Order, that of the Golden Spur, was formed into a high award of Merit in 1841, as the Order of St. Sylvester and the Golden Militia, until the reforms of the Papal Orders in 1905 limited it to one hundred knights, as the Order of the Golden Militia. A further reform of 1966, limiting it to Christian Sovereigns and Heads of State, still described it in the Papal Bull as the Order of the Golden Militia, but the Annuario Pontificio describes it as the Order of the Golden Spur. HRH Jean, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, is at this moment the only living knight.

Order of Pius IX

The third, and more commonly awarded Order (although generally fewer than 70 awards are made annually worldwide), is the Order of Pius IX. An Order of Pian knights was founded by Pius IV in about 1560, but this fell into disuse and the present Order, instituted by Pope Pius IX in 1847, may be regarded as a new foundation. There have been several reforms of the Statutes and today the highest rank is the gold Collar of the Order, the most common award to Heads of State on the occasion of official visits to the Holy See. The Grand Cross, the highest Papal award given to lay men and women, is also given to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See after two years in post, and to leading Catholics in the wider world for particular services, mainly in the international field and particularly for outstanding deeds for Church and society. The next rank is that of Knight (and now Dame) Commander, to whom the Star (the same as worn by the Grand Crosses) may be given as a higher distinction. The lowest rank is that of Knight or Dame. It is awarded to Catholics and non-Catholics and, on occasion, to non-Christians.

Order of St. Gregory the Great

Insignia of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great

The fourth Order but, of those now awarded, effectively the second, is the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great. Founded in 1831, its grades now mirror those of the Pian Order but without the rank of Collar, while since 1834 it has had civil and military divisions. Like all the Papal Orders, it was reformed in 1905, and is given for conspicuous service to the Church and society, regardless of religious allegiance.

Order of St. Sylvester Pope and Martyr

The fifth Order but of those now awarded, effectively the third, is the Order of St. Sylvester Pope and Martyr, separated from that of the Golden Militia in 1905, and established with the same ranks as St. Gregory. It is intended to award laymen who are active in the Apostolate, particularly in the exercise of their professional duties and mastership of the different arts. It is also conferred on non-Catholics, but more rarely than St. Gregory.

The Order of St. Sylvester is neither monastic nor military but a purely honorary title created by Pope Gregory XVI on 31 October 1841. The idea of placing this title, borrowed from the Middle Ages, under the patronage of a pope in the 4th century is explained by the existence of an order of Constantine the Great claiming the approval of his contemporary, Sylvester I, which enjoyed an usurped authority at Rome from the 17th century. To end this abuse, Gregory XVI created an authentic title of Knights of St. Sylvester, to be conferred in recognition of some service rendered to the Church, the order being limited to 150 commanders and 300 Roman knights, besides foreigners of whom the number is unlimited. The members have no privileges beyond that of wearing a decoration which consists of a gold enamelled Maltese cross with the image of St. Sylvester on one side and the other the inscription: "1841 Gregorius XVI restituit."


Each of these Orders have their own particular decorations. In the three Orders presently awarded, the Pian Order, St. Gregory and St. Sylvester, knights and dames wear the badge suspended from a ribbon on the left breast. Knight Commanders wear the badge on a ribbon around the neck, while Dames wear it from a bow on the left breast; those decorated with the Star wear it on the lower left breast, and Grand Crosses wear the badge suspended from a broad ribbon over the right shoulder across to the left hip along with the breast star.

The ribbon of the Pian Order is a dark blue with two scarlet stripes on each side; that of St. Gregory is a red ribbon with a broad orange stripe at either side; that of St. Sylvester is black with three narrow red stripes, one on each side and one in the centre. The cross of the Pian Order is a gold star with eight blue enameled rays and the words ORDO PIANO on a white enamel and gold medallion ensigned in the centre. The cross of St. Gregory is an eight-pointed "Maltese" cross in gold with red enamel and golden balls on the end of each point, ensigned with a gold medallion bearing the image of St. Gregory and the words Pro Deo et Principe on the reverse; the badge of the civil division is surmounted by a green enamel laurel wreath, the military division by a trophy of arms in gold. The cross of St. Sylvester is similar to St. Gregory but with white enamel, and the image of St. Sylvester on a gold medallion surrounded by golden rays between the arms of the cross.

In ecclesiastical heraldry, individuals awarded a Papal Order may display the insignia of their rank on their coat of arms. High ranks have a ribbon completely encircling the complete achievement of arms, while lower ranks place the ribbon and insignia at the base of the shield.


Knights of all the Pontifical Orders are entitled to wear a uniform corresponding to the Order to which they belong, the design of which was regulated in the 1905 reforms. Dames are able to obtain a cape.

That of the Pian Order is dark blue, with a red collar and cuffs decorated with gold braid; that of St. Gregory is dark green, with silver buttons and braiding; that of St. Sylvester is black, with gold buttons and braiding. The uniform is also accompanied by a cocked hat and a dress sword.


Papal knights and dames do not have any specific obligations by virtue of their having been given the personal honour of membership in these Orders. It is customary, however, for them to be invited to participate in major events of their diocese, such as the consecration of bishops, the ordination of priests, and the introduction of a new bishop into his diocese. On such occasions it is recommended that they wear the uniform of their respective Order.

Orders associated with the Holy See

In addition to these Papal Orders of Chivalry, given by the Pope as temporal sovereign and font of honours (similar to the orders given by other heads of state) there also remain several Military Religious Orders from the time of the Crusades. These combine the Chivalric Order with a Religious Order, and are a type of monk-knight. They are under the protection of the Holy See.

Order of the Holy Sepulchre

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is an order of knighthood that is listed in the Annuario Pontificio as "under the protection of the Holy See". The Order dates to before the First Crusade, when a group was formed by Duke Godfrey de Bouillon to protect the religious Chapter of Canons, the traditional custodians of the tomb of Christ. They fulfilled this role for approximately twenty years. In 1095 de Bouillon recaptured Jerusalem from the Muslims and founded the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Although recognized in 1113 by Paschal II, it was not until 1122 that Pope Callistus II issued a bull establishing the Order as a lay religious community. It did not emerge as a major military force during the Crusader period such as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the Order of the Temple, Knights of St. Lazarus or the Teutonic Order. The first reference to Knights of the Order is found in 1336, years after the fall of Acre, and relates to one Wilhelm von Boldensel, who travelled to Jerusalem and there received knighthood at the Tomb. Whatever its nature, after the fall of Acre in 1291 the Order fragmented and dispersed throughout the Mediterranean region and Europe. It entered a four hundred year period of dormancy from the time of Pope Alexander VI through to the 1860s when Pope Pius IX re-invigorated it and established it in its present form. It is difficult to say whether the order was even properly extant during this period, and any asserted continuity is derived from the practice of Franciscan friars investing pilgrims in the Order as a reward for reaching Jerusalem. This honour did not involve any responsibilities, did not require any noble proofs, and did not involve any form of monastic involvement. The Order at this time had no formal structure as such. It is now an order of practising Catholic lay men and women, and does not have a community of Religious associated with it (such the Sovereign Military Order of Malta) and is not sovereign in nature. Today the knights and dames are active in charitable works, with a particular emphasis on charitable works in the Middle East. The Order was reorganized by Pope Pius IX (1847 and 1868) and Pope Leo XIII (1888). In 1907 Pope Pius X reserved the post of Grand Master for the Pope, thus giving the Order the status of a papal order. However, in 1949, Pope Pius XII decreed that the Grand Master would be a cardinal appointed by the Pope and serving during the Pope's pleasure or until such time as the cardinal may wish to lay down this office. Although this revision no longer made the Order of the Holy Sepulchre a papal order as such, it granted the Order a unique pontifical status, placing it under the direct protection of the reigning Pope. As such, it is part of the Holy See[citation needed]: The conferral of knighthood and promotion in the Order are acts of government[citation needed]; all letters patent bear the signature and seal of the Secretariat of State. Since 2007, the Grand Master is John Patrick Foley. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem is, ex officio, Grand Prior of the Order.

Sovereign Military Order of Malta

The Holy See recognises also the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, which traces its history to 1048 when the hospital in Jerusalem was founded by Amalfi merchants. Certainly by 1080 the Hospital was being operated by blessed Gerard (about whom little is now known). By Papal Bull of 15 February 1113, which is still in existence, Pope Paschal II formally founded the Order of St John as a military order of chivalry. By the 1140s the role of the Order had transformed into as much a military role as a medical one. Along with the Order of the Temple (which was solely military in nature) the Order constructed numerous massive fortifications in the Holy Land, the best known of which is the enormous Krak de'Chavellier and was one of the principal crusader fighting units. After the fall of Acre in 1291 the Order settled first in Cyprus and then Rhodes. By necessity the Order evolved into one focused on sea-based warfare and developed a small but very effective galley force. The Order continued its military campaigning against the now victorious Islamic forces, which precipitated the two sieges of Rhodes in 1480 and 1523. The forces of Sulieman the Magnificent were successful in the second of these, however the Order was permitted by him to leave Rhodes with military honours as a gesture of respect for their courageous defense. In 1530 Charles V, with the approval of Pope Clement VII, granted Malta to the Order for the annual rent of one Maltese Falcon. The highlight of the Order's time in Malta was the ferocious siege of 1565, where the Order successfully resisted a second attempt to destroy them by Suleiman. It continued to harass the Mediterranean Islamic powers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but in 1798 was forced from its Maltese stronghold by Napoleon, as the Order's laws prohibited it from taking up arms against fellow Christians. The Order's headquarters are now situated at its Magistral Palace on the via Condotti in Rome and is led by its 79th Grand Master, Fra' Matthew Festing. He enjoys the precedence of a Cardinal and hence is referred to as Eminence. By virtue of the Order's sovereign status he is also a Royal Prince and is internationally recognized as a Chief of State. The Order has full diplomatic relations with 104 countries and official relations with another 6 countries, is a permanent official observer at the UN, issues its own stamps and passports, and is a well-respected international aid organization. It is a Sovereign entity and therefore constitutes a fons honorum. Knights of the Order therefore are created by the Order, not by the Holy See, as is the case with the Order of The Holy Sepulcher. The Order is the fourth oldest continually extant Order of the Catholic Church and consists both of professed religious (those who have taken full religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience) and lay Catholic men and women. The Grand Master, at present His Most Eminent Highness Fra Matthew Festing (who succeeded Fra Andrew Bertie in 2008), is elected by the professed religious members of the Order, and serves for life, or until abdication (only two Grand Masters in history have abdicated). Elections of the Grand Master must be approved by the Supreme Pontiff, who also appoints a Cardinal Patron and a Prelate of the Order.

Teutonic Knights

The Order of the German House of St. Mary in Jerusalem or Teutonic Order is no longer an order of chivalry, though it was founded as such. Since 1928 it is instead a purely religious order of priests, brothers and sisters, with a category of twelve honorary knights and an unlimited number of associates, known as Marianer. Its headquarters are in Vienna, Austria.

Sources and external links

  • Noonan, Jr., James-Charles (1996). The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church. Viking. p. 196. ISBN 0-670-86745-4. 

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