By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
With ever-closer scrutiny being exercised over who could use which coats of arms came the establishment of chivalric orders that would initiate only the choicest of candidates. These grew out of certain specialized military orders founded during the century after the First Crusade, emulating—and weaponizing—the monastic orders of the medieval Church.
The Order of Knights Templar
The earliest order, the Knights Templar, was formed in 1119 to protect Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and housed on the Temple Mount, where Latin Christians had established the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
This order became famous, or rather infamous, for its elaborate and secret initiation rituals and extraordinary wealth. Formally disbanded and pillaged of its property by King Philip IV of France, in 1312, this order nonetheless established the idea that devotion to chivalric ideals could be ennobling in itself, and could also forge close fraternal bonds among men from many different nations.
Knights of the Round Table
In the Arthurian romances that proliferated from the 12th century onward, the fictional exploits of the Knights of the Round Table inspired many real knights to adopt the guises of these heroes during tournaments. King Edward I of England is credited with ordering a replica of the Round Table to be made for a tournament held near the royal capital at Winchester around the year 1290; over 200 years later, the table was refurbished and used by another avid tournament-goer, Henry VIII.
While it’s not clear that Edward I initiated knights into an order of the Round Table, his grandson Edward III started a new royal craze for the creation of chivalric brotherhoods around the year 1348, with the Order of the Garter. This was just a decade after the beginning of the long Hundred Years’ War with France, and at a high point in England’s fortunes during that conflict.
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The Order of the Garter
According to the most popular legend of its foundation, the catalyst was a festival at the English port city of Calais, on the French coast, when a certain ‘duchess’ of Salisbury (there was no such title) was said to have lost the garter that held her stocking in place while engaged in a lively dance. As the company around her snickered and made teasing innuendos, the king himself bent to retrieve the garter and returned it with a courtly bow, rebuking his courtiers with the remark, Honi soit qui mal y pense (shame on he who thinks badly of it).
This became the motto of The Most Noble Order of the Garter, and it is worn embroidered on the left shoulder of an initiate’s blue robe. Edward III’s own son, Edward the Black Prince, was the first knight to be so honored; the second was the king’s cousin, Henry earl of Lancaster, who is shown wearing this motto, with the Cross of St. George, in an illuminated book made by William Bruges. William Bruges, in turn, was the first person to be named to the post of the Garter King of Arms, around 1340.
The Distinguished Order of the Golden Fleece
Thereafter, the establishment of a chivalric order was a way for a ruler to honor chosen favorites and also extend his alliances far beyond his court and kingdom.
The Distinguished Order of the Golden Fleece was created by the powerful and wealthy Burgundian duke Philip the Good in 1430, on the occasion of his marriage to Isabella of Portugal. It is still considered to be the most exclusive chivalric order in history, and the most costly, since the collar (which features an image of the mythical Golden Fleece stolen by the Greek hero Jason from the sorceress Medea of Colchis) is chased in pure gold.
Aristocratic Solidarity and Pride in Ancestry
Down to the present day, European princes and politicians still display their transnational allegiances by wearing the insignia of the orders into which they have been initiated, as a sign of aristocratic solidarity.
In a famous photograph of two well-laden royals in dress uniform, taken in 1905, we see King Alfonso III of Spain with his cousin George (the future King George V of England) during an official visit to the United Kingdom. The Spanish Alfonso wears a British uniform and a number of insignia including The Order of the Garter, The Order of the Golden Fleece, as well as several Spanish military orders. George, returning the compliment, wears the Spanish Order of Charles III, The Order of the Golden Fleece, and The Order of the Garter, among other decorations.
A Symbol to Stay Connected
Today, the legacy of medieval marking practices is ubiquitous; we patent inventions, we trademark, we license, we logo. A successful corporation’s distinctive graphic is legible at a glance; we look for brand names to ensure quality; we have an elaborate legal system that prevents the unfair or illegal use of names or slogan belonging to others.
And even though we strive to live in democratic, egalitarian societies, pride in ancestry—humble or great—and the need to feel connected to places and peoples past is not just a major pastime, it is a profitable business. Even if our sense of self is bound up in the neighborhoods where we were raised, the professions we practice, even the hobbies we pursue, there is still some shared sense that we don’t know who we really are unless we can tap into the sap of a family tree.
Common Questions about Chivalric Orders
The earliest order was the Order of Knights Templar, formed in 1119 to protect Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and housed on the Temple Mount, where Latin Christians had established the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This order became famous, or rather infamous, for its elaborate and secret initiation rituals and extraordinary wealth.
The Distinguished Order of the Golden Fleece was created by the powerful and wealthy Burgundian duke Philip the Good in 1430, on the occasion of his marriage to Isabella of Portugal.
Even in the present time, European princes and politicians display their transnational allegiances by wearing the insignia of the orders into which they have been initiated, as a sign of aristocratic solidarity.