The Dutch and Swedish Orders of St John, whose charitable and hospitaller efforts are relatively modest, are exclusively noble and male. In recent years the Crowns of the Netherlands and Sweden, neither of which have maintained their traditional links with their national nobilities, have somewhat distanced themselves from these Orders. Both Orders are considering reforms, including admitting women and/or non nobles. Such a reform would ultimately change the character of these Orders; since the nobility in neither country provides members of the political or financial elites it may make them more dynamic. This would, however, be a gradual process as it will be many years before non nobles could be a majority of the membership if the existing requirements are modified or abandoned. It may be decided that the noble character must remain a priority and so the admission of non-nobles will be to some extent limited.
The Four Spanish Military Orders, whose history is closely tied to that of Spain and whose head is a member of the royal family, require a strict proof of nobility. They are not particularly effective in the charitable and hospitaller field but are small and certainly exclusive – they are more likely to attract members of the higher Spanish nobility than the SMOM. They do have a considerable prestige because of their history and exclusivity and this would certainly be forfeited if they abandoned the requirement for proof of nobility. There have been several attempts by republican and leftist regimes to suppress these Orders and in the 19th century they were deprived of much of their wealth – a process almost completed in the 1930s but still leaving them a handful of important buildings of historic importance. It is their deep roots in Spanish history which has preserved them today and they do not provide a model for chivalric institutions in other countries.
The German Johanniter Order abandoned the nobiliary requirement in the 1950s. It has retained its ties to the Prussian royal house and to leading Protestant German noble families which have retained their allegiance and still provide many members and the majority of the leadership. The proportion of noble members is in continual decline, however, and there remains a question whether ultimately this will diminish the Order’s considerable prestige. The Johanniter has an extremely effective hospitaller mission in Germany and also well organised outreach organisations, considerably assisted by its connections with the German federal health care system.
The British Most Venerable Order. Until 1926 knights of Justice were required to prove four quarterings or be peers, or to be grand crosses of British Orders of Knighthood. Since 1926 paternal arms are all that is necessary and as these can be obtained for payment of a fee to the College of Arms, this does not mean much – except business for the College. The knights and dames, however, only compose 6% of the membership. For a variety of reasons, not only the dropping of the nobiliary requirement, the Order has gradually detached itself from its position in the counties, where it was led primarily by members of the principal landed families. Promotion or the grant of membership in the Order in most priories is much more closely linked to direct participation in the Ambulance Brigade than the past and the award of membership in the higher ranks of the Order to members of country families who have given it their support has almost ceased. Today the senior membership is very different from that of thirty or more years ago. The dropping of the nobiliary requirements may have contributed to this, but there are other factors. The slender connection between the Ambulance brigade and the Order’s Christian heritage has diminished the Order’s Christian character – a process further by the application of statutory changes to comply with Canadian discrimination laws that have been extended to the whole Order.
The Bavarian Order of St George has modified its nobiliary requirements from thirty-two to eight quarterings. It has a de facto maximum of ninety members because of the size of the chapel in Schloss Nymphenburg. But is has been forced to abandon its primary hospitaller activities because of the small size of the Order, the decline in the wealth of the membership and the increasing cost of health care related activities. It has no need to admit non-nobles because it does not have the space in its chapel and there is already a waiting list of candidates.
The Tuscan Order of St Stephen, although never extinguished, was largely dormant until about 20 years ago. The membership is predominately noble; it is small, and largely functions as a historical memorial. The nobiliary requirements have been considerably modified in any case and, for Justice, are generally less demanding than the Order of Malta. While the Order can admit non nobles, these only number a small proportion of the membership, the majority of whom have strong links to the ancient Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Being a small Order it does not maintain a significant hospitaller programme nor an extensive religious or spiritual life.
The Constantinian Order maintains its nobiliary requirements but has substantial proportions of non-nobles. It is probable that the standing of this particular Order, in this respect like that of the SMOM, is dependent on maintaining a strong nobiliary element but the success of its various spiritual programmes requires the support of a wider section of society. The Order (at least the so-called Hispano-Neapolitan branch) has extensive religious activities in Italy in particular, but does not maintain a hospitaller mission. Its leadership is drawn principally from the Italian and Spanish high nobility but it has a substantial membership in the equivalent classes to Grace and Devotion and Magistral Grace.
These latter Orders have not been challenged over the maintenance of their nobiliary requirements because they are not of particular importance in the Catholic world and none of them have significant properties or wealth to sustain them. The Spanish Military Orders and those of St George and St Stephen are constrained by history and circumstance; neither would gain much advantage from abandoning their primarily noble character.