Saturday, 17 January 2009

How do European honours systems compare?

The award of honours has its origins in classical Greece and Rome, with the grant of special privileges; then later, with the emergence of nation states, sovereigns saw the institution of Orders as a useful and economical means of rewarding citizens for military or civil service. Every European Union state, except Ireland, has a system of national honours, based on the award of an Order of Knighthood, sometimes described as an Order of Merit, in a number of different ranks or grades. In most countries the names of these Orders are based on historical links to the past even if the organization and the basis for the award has changed substantially. In the past, for example, some Orders required “proof of nobility”, others conferred nobility.

All the European Monarchies have one or more Orders, in the case of the more ancient states dating back in origin to the 17th century or earlier. With the exception of Sweden, all are given both to their own citizens and to foreigners; Sweden suspended in 1976 the award to its own citizens in the belief that such honours were anti-egalitarian.

The Republics also have one or more Orders of Merit to reward their citizens and also foreigners, also in various grades or degrees. Some are completely new foundations, while some are continuations of more ancient Orders often founded when these states were monarchies.

In both monarchies and republics these usually carry the designation of knight grand cross, knight grand officer, knight commander, knight officer or knight, if the Order has five classes; a three class Order has the ranks of knight grand cross, knight commander and knight. Only in Great Britain is a separate title accorded along with a knighthood, that of “Sir” for gentlemen and “Dame” for ladies who receive either the first or second class of the three principal Orders. In the British system the highest rank, knight or dame grand cross, also includes the award of a collar worn on special occasions; both this and the next rank, of knight or dame commander, carry the designation of “Sir” or Dame” before the recipient’s first name (the recipients of honorary knighthoods, who are not subjects of the sovereign, are not entitled to these designations).

The system of honours in other European states varies considerably; the following brief survey explains some of the differences and characteristics:

Denmark maintains the Order of the Elephant (the equivalent of the Garter,, but with a larger membership) and the Order of the Dannebrog, which was founded in 1671 (a revival of a more ancient institution). These not only provide for the recipients a direct link with the past glories of Danish history, but confer even today special privileges of precedence.

In France the Legion of Honour is held in the highest esteem by French citizens. It was originally founded by Napoleon in 1802 as the system of royal Orders had been abolished in the revolution, and has been maintained by every successive regime, thus considerably enhancing its prestige in comparison with lesser awards such as the 1960s foundation of the French National Order of Merit (which combined a series of colonial and lesser national Orders). The historic origins of the Legion of Honour, its continuity, and the limitations on its grant contribute to this; nonetheless there are more annual awards of the Legion of Honour than in all British awards added together. The Legion of Honour is awarded in the ranks of Grand Cross (limited to a total of 75 French citizens but an unlimited number of foreigners), Grand Officer (limited to a total of 125 French citizens but an unlimited number of foreigners) Commander, Officer and Knight (Chevalier, the same designation used for Lady recipients). It has a statutory limit of 125,000 living members, presently standing at approximately 113,000. The largest proportion of recipients of the Legion of Honour have received the decoration for military service, but it is considered the most prestigious of French awards and is therefore given for outstanding civilian service. A lesser, but still notable service, might be considered more appropriately rewarded by the National Order of Merit. France also has seven further awards for civilians given for services to culture, the arts, agriculture, the merchant marine and academia. France makes approximately four times as many awards as Great Britain in any one year.

In complete contrast, when Italy abolished its Monarchy in 1946, it suspended or abolished all the royal Orders except the former Order of Military Merit, which became a republican order. In 1951 a new system was established with the foundation of the Order of Merit of the Republic, now the principal award, The Order of Lavoro (Work) (founded by King Victor Emmanuel III in 1901) was retained as a single class Order with a limited number of knights. The ability to award only one multi-class Order, however, has proved injurious to the reputation of the Italian honours system; there are approximately 850,000 living members of the Order, with 7700 grand crosses given between 1951 and 2004 of whom at least 4000 are living – the number of annual awards exceeds 20,000. In addition the Italian state authorizes the use of the Orders given by the former reigning houses, and there is an epidemic of completely spurious awards and many lesser quasi-private civilian awards.

States that have abolished the historic system of awards (as did Portugal, for example, with the downfall of the Monarchy in 1910), have in several cases reinstituted the ancient originally royal Orders with near identical decorations and structure, as they found they were an important and valuable way of rewarding both their citizens and foreigners.

Evidence suggests that the public has great respect for those Orders that can demonstrate a historic link with the national saga. Orders can become potent symbols of a nation’s independence and tradition. Newly founded Orders consistently fail to capture the public imagination in a similar way. For example, immediately following the collapse of communism, a newly independent Poland reinstituted its ancient awards system (abolished by the communists), notably the Orders of the White Eagle and Polonia Restituta (this latter a substitution of a more ancient Order that had been taken over by the Imperial Russian regime), which had been given by the government in exile after World War II, and thus provided a direct link to the historic Polish state before Russia absorbed Poland into its Empire at the end of the 18th century. The revival of these ancient Orders helped to re-establish a sense of national pride; one might consider that the abolition of ancient institutions and their replacement with a system with no historic routes is unlikely to inspire much respect.

Although the Second Spanish Republic abolished all the royal Orders and instituted its own republican award, these have all been re-established and their ancient histories and links to the past as in other modern cases are much valued. These Orders include the two highest – Charles III, founded in the 18th century, and Isabella the Catholic, founded in the early 19th, several specific national merit Orders (Civil, Military, Naval and Air Force), and several Orders awarded on the recommendation of certain ministers for services in that field (i.e. Agricultural Merit, given in four classes, on the recommendation of the responsible Minister). All such awards are made in the name of the King. The highest Spanish Order is the Golden Fleece, given by the King almost exclusively to members of the royal family and foreign sovereigns – it is the Spanish equivalent of the Garter.

Certain states have prohibited their own citizens from accepting the national awards, which are limited exclusively to foreigners; Sweden has imposed such a limitation so that Swedish citizens can be awarded Orders by foreign governments but not by their own. The exception to this is the rather unusual Royal Masonic Order of Charles XIV and the Swedish Order of St John, an hospitaller service Order comparable to the British Order of the same name. The ancient Swedish Orders have nonetheless been maintained with the historic structures and are given to members of the royal family and foreigners. An immediate consequence of this restriction has been that there are a plethora of suspect honours given by non-state or unofficial bodies, which are often eagerly sought after, but over which the state has no control. Indeed, it has effectively abdicated the option of rewarding its own citizens with chivalric distinctions to others – one sees senior officers in the Swedish armed forces wearing completely spurious decorations.

One may note the experience of Canada, which first prohibited its citizens from accepting British awards for services to Canada, and instituted the Order of Canada in a single class. Already it has been found necessary to institute a hierarchy of classes of the Order and, in addition to this national Order, now every province has its own provincial Order; Canada now has one of the highest number of Orders (other states with high numbers are Russia, Brazil, and Portugal – Venezuela also has a number of national and then many provincial Orders), but the provincial Orders do not enjoy the prestige of the old imperial system.

The conferral of a title upon a recipient of the higher grades of an Order is often held as a practice peculiar to the United Kingdom, yet several foreign state Orders continue to confer privileges and titles on their recipients; in Italy, for example, recipients of the State Order of Merit are entitled to the style “Cavaliere, Ufficiale, Commendatore, Grande Ufficiale, or Gran Croce” before their names. Recipients of the Spanish Order of Isabella the Catholic are automatically ennobled thereby, although such nobility is not hereditary. The Grand Cross of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog confers certain privileges, as do the lesser ranks. In most European countries the recipients of Orders wear a buttonhole rosette differing according to the Order awarded and the class held; these are outward demonstrations of having received the honour (non-academic post nominals are the exception in Europe). The recent establishment of “emblems” for the British Orders, which may be purchased by the recipients and worn in the buttonhole, has been done imitation of European practice.

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