Friday, 24 August 2012


The great confraternal Orders of Chivalry, most of which began as Religious-Military Orders during or soon after the Crusader period, were founded by those who enjoyed Knightly status. This may be defined initially as the class which enjoyed tenure of land under the feudal system by right of military service. While membership of the Orders in the rank of Knight was not formally limited to those who could prove their membership of that class until the early fourteenth century, it was rare for those of lower status to be admitted as Knights. The fact that this did happen, however, is proven by the later introduction of limitations on which offices the “Serving-Brothers” or “Servants at Arms” could hold; these were members of the Order who could and did make profession as such but who ranked lower than the knights.

The quality of knight was originally synonymous with noble, the nobility belonging to the highest class of society and constituting the European hereditary ruling class which provided the majority of leaders of the military, the church and the civil government. The code of chivalry was the ideal of knightly conduct - to assist the poor, the sick and the persecuted and to humble the evildoer. The restriction of the higher ranks of these Orders to members of the knightly or noble class served to perpetuate this ideal.

Even today the SMHOM represents the elite of the Catholic laity. The first class of the Order, Justice, for those who have made religious profession, is open to non-nobles but only by special grace (or “motu proprio”) of the Grand Master. Membership of the class of Justice required knights to live in the Convent and eventually perhaps enjoy the possession of an income yielding Commandery of the Order. The endowment of the Order and the gift of Commanderies had been made by Knight-members for the maintenance of the professed Knights; the privilege of membership being that of the nobility the members themselves wished to preserve this characteristic - not least because it was essential the Order continued to attract those trained in arms and in command, and whose family connections would insure the protection of the Order’s privileges.

The third class of the Order, membership of which necessitates no special promises, includes two categories of chaplains and three of lay knights and dames - Honor and Devotion, Grace and Devotion and Magistral Grace. Today the majority of members of the first class of Justice were admitted to membership of the Order in either the first or third rank of the third class, the ranks of Honour and Devotion and Grace and Devotion. To enter the Order in either rank members are required to provide evidence of descent from a noble ancestor or, in Great Britain and the former British Empire, from the recipient of a grant of arms. The New World associations generally follow the British rules (in the former Empire and the United States), the Spanish rules (South and Central America and the Philippines) or Portuguese rules (Brazil). The first rank of this class, Honour and Devotion, requires proof of greater antiquity of nobility (or even that all the applicants grandparents, great grandparents or great-great grandparents were noble) than the third, Grace and Devotion. Only the fifth rank, of Magistral Grace, is open to those who are unable to prove descent from a noble or armigerous ancestor. These members are each ennobled personally by their service so all the knights and dames of Malta may be considered noble.

The maintenance of noble proofs emphasizes that the code of Chivalry is as important today as it was in the early days of the Order's existence. Nobility alone does not entitle any person to admission, however, as candidates must still be judged worthy of the honor, be practicing Catholics and be accepted by their National Association before their "dossiers" are forwarded for consideration in Rome. The differing standards of noble proofs required by each European state have been devised by the national Associations, with the approval of the Sovereign Council, to take account of the history, character and composition of the local nobility. The present system of judging noble status is based on the historic precedent set by the ancient Langues, although the exacting standards of the pre-1798 period (continued in some Associations until after the Second World War), have been relaxed in most Associations. Generally the countries in which the nobility made up a relatively large proportion of the population required a higher standard of proof than those countries in which it was smaller. This system made a great deal of sense when each European state had an active nobiliary jurisdiction and the nobility still represented the majority of the nation's military, political and economic leadership. The radical social changes of the post-Second World War era, however, have significantly reduced the role of the nobility and only Great Britain confers special privileges on those who enjoy hereditary titles of peerage rank

Despite the recent reforms in the Papal court which have eliminated the historic role played by the nobility in the lay administration of the Vatican and abolished all but one of the hereditary offices, the continued existence of a European nobility with a long tradition of service in the ranks of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Malta is not something to be lightly disregarded. Social privileges confer parallel obligations and this is reflected in the SMHOM, where the precedence conferred on those who can prove noble descent entails greater responsibilities within the Order. The maintenance of this requirement encourages generations of service and it is possible to identify families among the membership of every European National Association which have provided knights for a century or more. Noble proofs make it possible to identify suitable younger members, essential to the provision of physical service to the poor and sick, who in many cases will provide the future leaders of Catholic society. Despite their loss of influence, the nobility still enjoy more extensive family and social connections than the majority and help extend the Order's influence beyond the membership into wider society.

The non-noble knights and dames of Magistral Grace make up nearly half the membership, although that is largely because the New World Associations, who represent nearly half the total membership, have only a handful of knights or dames in the noble categories. The rising proportion of non-noble members elsewhere, particularly apparent in both the Italian and French Associations, reflects the reality of the social changes of the past seventy years, during which time the nobility has declined dramatically as a proportion of the overall population and by an even greater percentage as the owner of national wealth. Membership of the Sovereign Council, however, is effectively restricted to members of the first or second class and most of the other senior officers are also drawn from the noble grades.

Within Europe itself, the size of the nobility is continually diminishing in proportion to the larger population. This serves to reduce the pool of suitable members for the first and second classes and for the first and third rank of the third class, even while the Order is expanding.  Although the present Spanish King has awarded a handful of noble titles there have been no additions to the untitled nobility. The Netherlands, Swedish and Luxembourg Monarchies have all retained the right to create titles but, apart from one or two family name changes and succession amendments, there have been few accretions to the nobility during this period. Only in Belgium has the Monarch continued to create nobles and grant titles to distinguished citizens. Meanwhile more than two thousand families have received British grants of arms in the last decade alone. Indeed only in Britain does the privileged nobility, or peerage, still retain any significant political influence, limited to those two to three hundred hereditary peers (out of seven hundred and fifty) who play an active role in the House of Lords.

Vertot stated (op.cit.) in the eighteenth century that knights were expected to provide four types of proof to the commissioners appointed for the examination of candidates dossiers. These were firstly testimonial, i.e. attested by four witnesses known for their probity, personal distinction and the purity of their own nobility; secondly literal, i.e. supported by all the necessary documents; thirdly local, i.e. the place of origin of the postulant to be visited by the commissioners to ensure that his family was indeed noble as described; and fourthly secret, i.e. a confidential inquiry into the standing of the postulant, his family and witnesses. Today the system is regulated in a similar fashion and, when submitting proofs, the applicant is normally required to provide thorough documentation showing descent from the original grantee of nobility (with every birth and marriage properly recorded) and clear documentary evidence that the family was noble, while the petitioner’s character is attested to by four witnesses (usually members of the Order).

Most European associations have an officer or committee whose duty it is to supervise the proofs and examine the postulants' dossiers. When there is clear evidence that the necessary documents have been destroyed, then alternative documentation can be accepted and, in the case of Eastern Europe, independent published sources or, in some cases, verbal assurances have been allowed. Once the proofs are ready, one or more senior officers have the responsibility of verifying the evidence, following which the candidate's dossier may be presented to the Association Council and, if approved, sent to Rome with the recommendation of the National President (or Grand Prior).

Most of the nobility of most of Western Europe had a common origin in the feudal system of early medieval society; the noble class being a relatively small group whose land tenure depended on providing services to their superior lord. There were also families who had established their nobiliary status by the possession of landed fiefs and were adjudged of nobiliary status largely because of the power and status this conferred. Those of the latter families who maintained this status and a surviving male line were the first recipients of titles from the Crown, to which great responsibilities of state were attached. The Scottish and Irish Nobilities developed within a tribal structure, descendants of the chiefs being considered noble. In feudal Europe the great magnates held their fiefs directly from the Crown, with lesser knights holding their land from an intermediate lord or minor sovereign. By the fourteenth century proof of descent in the male line from a knight or the possessor of a "knight's fee" came to be considered evidence of nobility, entitling such a person to enjoy the class privileges which had been conferred or confirmed by the Crown (and which varied considerably in different states). While nobles adopted Arms as the outward sign of nobility, distinguishing such Arms with Coronets according to their rank in the nobility, Arms were not a universal indication of nobility and were legally assumed by a much broader class including farmers, traders and shopkeepers. Only in England and Scotland was an effective heraldic jurisdiction established by Crown authority, and not until the beginning of the sixteenth century was this enforced by the appointment of Heraldic Visitations (the first in 1530).

European Sovereigns and Princes soon began to confer or confirm the status of "nobility" as a separate hereditary privilege, while the number of nobles providing personal military service as knights declined with the increasing importance of infantry as an effective weapon against mounted cavalry (the havoc wrought by English long-bowmen at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 being an example of this). Thus a division was established quite early on between those who were noble “by extraction” (i.e. from “time immemorial”) and those created by grant. The rank of knighthood eventually became separated from the provision of mounted military service and was seen as a special personal distinction conferred in recognition of long or distinguished service or valiant conduct in battle. It became unnecessary to have served in the military to receive the honor of knighthood and nobility was conferred on Crown servants exercising both administrative and judicial functions. In most of fifteenth century Europe, the nobility could be loosely divided into two groups - those whose personal service or great wealth brought them to the court of the Sovereign, and those whose services had earned them a landed property, often of modest size and, in some states, privileges such as exemption from certain types of taxation. Nonetheless, the nobility was clearly identifiable, less from the fact of having received any particular distinction than by its lifestyle and role in society.

1 comment:

  1. How exactly do they determine who gets Grace and Devotion and who gets Honour and Devotion?