Order (distinction)

Last updated

An order is a visible honour awarded by a sovereign state, monarch, dynastic house or organisation to a person, typically in recognition of individual merit, that often comes with distinctive insignia such as collars, medals, badges, and sashes worn by recipients.


Modern honour systems of state orders and dynastic orders emerged from the culture of orders of chivalry of the Middle Ages, which in turn emerged from the Catholic religious orders.


The word order (Latin : ordo), in the case referred to in this article, can be traced back to the chivalric orders, including the military orders, which in turn trace the name of their organisation back to that of the Catholic religious orders. [1]

Orders began to be created ad hoc and in a more courtly nature. Some were merely honorary and gradually the badges of these orders (i.e. the association) began to be known informally as orders. As a result, the modern distinction between orders and decorations or insignia has become somewhat blurred. While some orders today retain the original notion of being an association or society of individuals, others make no distinction, and an "order" may even be the name of a decoration.

Most historic chivalric orders imply a membership in a group, typically a confraternity. In a few exclusive European orders, membership is or was also limited in number. Decorations seldom have such limitations. Orders often come in multiple classes, including knights and dames in imitation of the original chivalric orders. [2]


Modern national orders, orders of merit, and decorations, emerged from the culture of chivalric orders established in the Middle Ages, originally the military orders of the Middle Ages and the Crusades, who in turn grew out of the original Catholic religious orders. [1]

While these chivalric orders were "societies, fellowships and colleges of knights", [3] founded by the Holy See or European monarchs in imitation of the military orders of the Crusades, granting membership in such societies gradually developed into an honour that could be bestowed in recognition of service or to ensure the loyalty of a certain clientele. Some of modern Europe's highest honours, such as the Order of the Golden Fleece, England's Order of the Garter, Denmark's Order of the Elephant and Scotland's Order of the Thistle, were created during that era. They were essentially courtly in nature, characterised by close personal relations between the orders' members and the orders' sovereign.

Orders by fount of honour

State orders

Dynastic orders

By the time of the Renaissance, most European monarchs had either acquired an existing order of chivalry, or created new ones of their own, to reward loyal civilian and especially military officials. Such orders remained out of reach to the general public, however, as being of noble rank or birth was usually a prerequisite to being admitted.

In the 18th century, these ideas gradually changed and the orders developed from "honourable societies" to visible honours. An example of this gradual development can be seen in two orders founded by Maria Theresa of Austria. While the Military Order of Maria Theresa (1757) was open to any deserving military officer regardless of social origin, and would grant titles of nobility to those who did not already have them, the Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary (1764) still required that one had to have at least four generations of noble ancestors.

Still today, many dynastic orders are granted by royal families to worthy individuals for service and achievements. [4]

Orders by type

Orders of chivalry

Military orders

Orders of merit

In 1802 Napoleon created the Legion of Honour (Légion d'honneur), [5] which could be awarded to any person, regardless of status, [6] for bravery in combat or for 20 years of distinguished service. While still retaining many trappings of an order of chivalry, it was the first modern national order of merit and is still France's highest award today. The French Legion of Honour served as the model for numerous modern orders of merit in the Western world, such as the Order of Leopold in Belgium (1832) and the Order of the British Empire in the United Kingdom (1917). Orders of merit based on the French Legion of Honour typically retain five classes in accordance with habits of chivalric orders.

In communist countries, orders of merit usually come in one to three grades, with only a badge worn with or without a ribbon on the chest. An example of a communist order of merit was the one-class Order of Lenin of the Soviet Union (1930). Unlike Western orders, however, communist orders could be awarded more than once to an individual. After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1990s, most Eastern European countries reverted to the Western-style orders originally established before the rise of communism.

Today, many countries have some form of order of merit or national decorations. Both Thailand's Order of the White Elephant and Japan's Order of the Rising Sun are over 100 years old. In Canada and some Commonwealth Realms, the Order of Merit is the highest civilian honour. Canada has the Order of Canada and provincial orders such as the Order of Nova Scotia. Australia has the Order of Australia, and New Zealand awards the Order of New Zealand and the New Zealand Order of Merit. The Order of Mapungubwe is the highest honour in South Africa, while the Orders of Luthuli, and the Baobab exist alongside other decorations. The United States awards the Medal of Honor to members of its military for acts of valour, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal to civilians. The Legion of Merit is the only United States decoration which may be issued in award degrees (much like an order of chivalry or certain orders of merit), but award degrees are only made to foreign nationals, typically senior military officers or government officials.

Switzerland does not award any orders. Article 12 of the 1848 Swiss Constitution prohibited the acceptance of honours and titles by Swiss citizens. [7] The current Constitution of 1999 has no specific prohibition, but a federal statute effectively continues the prohibition by barring holders of foreign orders from holding public office.

In 1974 the Cabinet of Sweden passed a regulation forbidding the monarch of Sweden from awarding membership in orders to Swedish citizens. The orders themselves were not abolished, but only the Royal Orders of the Seraphim and the Polar Star (both established in 1748) continue to be awarded, and only to foreign citizens and stateless individuals. In 1995 the regulation was altered, allowing the monarch to bestow the two remaining active orders to members of the Swedish royal family. [8]

Modern orders are usually open to all citizens of a particular country, regardless of status, sex, race or creed; there may be a minimum age for eligibility. Nominations are made either by private citizens or by government officials, depending on the country. An order may be revoked if the holder is convicted of a crime or renounces citizenship. Some people nominated for an award refuse it.


See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Knight</span> Honorary title awarded for service to a church or state

A knight is a person granted an honorary title of knighthood by a head of state or representative for service to the monarch, the church or the country, especially in a military capacity. Knighthood finds origins in the Greek hippeis and hoplite (ἱππεῖς) and Roman eques and centurion of classical antiquity.

In the United Kingdom and the British Overseas Territories, personal bravery, achievement, or service are rewarded with honours. The honours system consists of three types of award:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Legion of Honour</span> Highest French order of merit

The National Order of the Legion of Honour, formerly the Royal Order of the Legion of Honour, is the highest French order of merit, both military and civil. Established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, it has been retained by all later French governments and regimes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Order of the British Empire</span> British order of chivalry

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is a British order of chivalry, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the civil service. It was established on 4 June 1917 by King George V and comprises five classes across both civil and military divisions, the most senior two of which make the recipient either a knight if male or dame if female. There is also the related British Empire Medal, whose recipients are affiliated with, but not members of, the order.

Awards and decorations of Nazi Germany were military, political and civilian decorations that were bestowed between 1923 and 1945, first by the Nazi Party and later the state of Nazi Germany.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grand Cross</span> Highest class in many orders

Grand Cross is the highest class in many orders, and manifested in its insignia. Exceptionally, the highest class may be referred to as Grand Cordon or equivalent. In other cases, there may exist a rank even higher than Grand Cross, e.g. Grand Collar. In rare cases, the insignia itself is referred to as the "grand cross".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Order of Orange-Nassau</span> Dutch order of chivalry

The Order of Orange-Nassau is a civil and military Dutch order of chivalry founded on 4 April 1892 by the queen regent, Emma of the Netherlands.

The fount of honour is a person, who, by virtue of his or her official position, has the exclusive right of conferring legitimate titles of nobility and orders of chivalry on other persons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Order of the Sword</span> Swedish order of chivalry and military decoration

The Royal Order of the Sword is a Swedish order of chivalry and military decoration created by King Frederick I of Sweden on 23 February 1748, together with the Order of the Seraphim and the Order of the Polar Star. The motto of the order is in Latin: Pro Patria.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Order of St. Olav</span> Norwegian chivalric order

The Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav is a Norwegian order of chivalry instituted by King Oscar I on 21 August 1847. It is named after King Olav II, known to posterity as St. Olav.

Authorized foreign decorations of the United States military are those military decorations which have been approved for wear by members of the United States armed forces but whose awarding authority is the government of a country other than the United States.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Necklet</span>

A necklet is a type of decoration which is designed to be worn and displayed around a person's neck, rather than hung (draped) from the chest as is the standard practice for displaying most decorations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Order of the Seraphim</span> Swedish Order of Chivalry

The Royal Order of the Seraphim is a Swedish order of chivalry created by King Frederick I on 23 February 1748, together with the Order of the Sword and the Order of the Polar Star. The order has only one class with the dignity of Knight, and is the foremost order of Sweden.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Order of chivalry</span> Order, confraternity or society of knights

An order of chivalry, order of knighthood, chivalric order, or equestrian order is an order of knights, typically founded during or inspired by the original Catholic military orders of the Crusades and paired with medieval concepts of ideals of chivalry.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grand master (order)</span> Head of a knighthood

Grand Master a title of the supreme head of various orders, including chivalric orders such as military orders and dynastic orders of knighthood.

Commander, or Knight Commander, is a title of honor prevalent in chivalric orders and fraternal orders.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Order of merit</span> Honorific order that is conferred by a sovereign entity

An order of merit is an honorific order that is conferred by a state, government, royal family, or other sovereign entity to an individual in recognition of military or civil merit. The historical background of the modern honours system of orders of merit may be traced to the emergence of chivalric orders during the Middle Ages.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Collar (order)</span>

A collar also known as collar of an order is an ornate chain, often made of gold and enamel, and set with precious stones, which is worn about the neck as a symbol of membership in various chivalric orders. It is a particular form of the livery collar, the grandest form of the widespread phenomenon of livery in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. Orders which have several grades often reserve the collar for the highest grade. The links of the chain are usually composed of symbols of the order, and the badge of the order normally hangs down in front. Sometimes the badge is referred to by what is depicted on it; for instance, the badge that hangs from the chain of the Order of the Garter is referred to as "the George".

A self-styled order or pseudo-chivalric order is an organisation which claims to be a chivalric order, but is not recognised as legitimate by countries or international bodies. Most self-styled orders arose in or after the mid-18th century, and many have been created recently. Most are short-lived and endure no more than a few decades.

The honours system in the Republic of Austria is a means of rewarding individuals' personal achievement, or service to Austria by state decorations and medals.


  1. 1 2 Hieronymussen & Lundø 1968, p. 7.
  2. Definition adapted from www.turkishmedals.net, accessed 2010-02-20. Archived 2012-05-05 at the Wayback Machine
  3. "St. George's Chapel: History: Order of the Garter". See the definition of the Order of the Garter as "a society, fellowship and college of knights" there. – St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. 2005. Archived from the original on 15 September 2006. Retrieved 6 November 2006.
  4. Hieronymussen & Lundø 1968, pp. 10–11.
  5. Hieronymussen & Lundø 1968, p. 132.
  6. Hieronymussen & Lundø 1968, p. 9.
  7. "Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft (1848)". Verfassungen.de. Archived from the original on 14 Oct 2014. Retrieved 18 November 2013.
  8. The Monarchy and the Royal Court (Kungahuset), The Orders in Sweden.

Works cited