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Can Chivalry Return?

There is a dire need for the eternal spirit of chivalry.

Chivalry! Knighthood! These are words that stir up an enormous number of images in the mind: St. George and the Dragon; the Quest for the Holy Grail; King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table; Charlemagne and his Twelve Paladins; the Crusades; Courtly Love; jousting at a tournament; and Richard the Lionheart. These and many others have come down to us via history, literature, art, and most recently, movies and television. For enthusiasts of vexillogy, heraldry, genealogy, and phaleristics, these things are even more real than to the rest of us. But even minds unused to those arcane disciplines will react to such once-common phrases as “when knights were bold;” “when knighthood was in flower;” or the mournful “Chivalry is dead.”

Chivalry is the Christian form of the military profession: the knight is the Christian soldier.

Just what do those two words mean? Knighthood was the state of being an armored warrior on horseback, in the days when cannon and rifles had not yet banished those worthies from the battlefield. Chivalry was the code by which they attempted to live. Both were the result of marrying the Catholic Faith to Roman civilisation and the Germanic martial ardour that conquered that civilisation. To put it another way, it was the Christianisation of war. As Leon Gautier put it in his masterful work, Chivalry: “Chivalry is the Christian form of the military profession: the knight is the Christian soldier.” The Crusades had the effect of crystallising the chivalric institution, as did such practices as the Truce and the Peace of God, the knighting ceremony (a version of which found its way into the Roman Pontificale), and membership in the military orders. These latter — the Templars (later dissolved, but whose Portuguese and Aragonese branches survived), Knights Hospitaller (later of Malta), and Teutonic Order, to name a few — were regular religious orders whose vocation was to the battlefield, as others are to contemplation, teaching, or missionary work. Impressed by their work and loyalty to the Faith, late medieval kings gathered their own royal orders of knights around their persons. Moreover, as the centuries wound on, knighthood — which had been open to any proficient in arms and willing to observe the code of chivalry, and which could be conferred by any other knight, bishop, or sovereign — became ever more exclusive. More and ever more, it was conferred solely on those of noble or gentle birth by a monarch. The latter came to be sole fons honorum for his country, and many coronation rites symbolised this role by the conferring of spurs upon the new King. This was of course one of the many symptoms of the transformation of feudal Europe intonation-states. A parallel development was the arrival of gunpowder that drove the knight off the battlefield.

All of this was gradual; Agincourt might have meant the end of the knight on horseback charging the foe in battle; but it did not mean the end of the chivalric ideal. For all that the last of the crusaders’ holdings in Palestine had fallen in 1291, the Order of Malta continued its never-ending war against the Ottomans and their Barbary pirate dependents on the sea. Although losing the state they had carved out for themselves on the Baltic to the Reformation, the remaining Teutonic Knights in southern Germany and Austria continued to serve as staff officers in the latter country’s ongoing land wars against the Ottomans; they outfitted for Austria a regiment whose band and traditions survive until today.

The Royal Orders of Chivalry went on from strength to strength as Sovereigns (and in later constitutional monarchies) used them to reward both outstanding talent and support. Developing an “honours system” using these orders for rewards became a sign of modernity: not only did monarchies in areas that had never known knights develop them, after the French Revolution, so did the new republics — while deposed rulers and their descendants continued (and still continue) to award their own. All of these bodies came complete with beautiful insignia and often uniforms. In time, for many experts on these things members of such orders (and those of Malta and the like) became the only “true” knights. The task of such experts was made much more difficult by the proliferation of phoney orders, catering to the needs of those who craved the exotic apparel and medals.

But Chivalry affected far more than the continuance of the august bodies named. The memories of the heroes — historical and legendary — earlier mentioned, together with such as Godefroi de Bouillon, William Marshal, Bayard, Bertrand du Guesclin, and many others contributed to the ideal of the knight — as did many of the military and royal saints. If battle on horseback in armour was no longer the “done thing,” every aspect of life in which the knights of old had participated was affected by their legacy. Army officers — especially of Guards and Cavalry units — were expected to live up to the “military virtues,” directly derived from the code of Chivalry; this continues today. Equestrian sports certainly bear the impress of the knight, as does hunting — especially with horse and hounds. The notion of “fair play” or “sportsmanship” in the hunt (or any other athletic activity), as well as such traditions as devotion to St. Hubert or St. Eustace, stem from knightly ardour. In the realm of everyday life, etiquette and courtesy — especially towards women — was a direct gift to their descendants from the heroes of the past.

To be sure, by the time the French Revolution erupted, many of these traditions were somewhat ossified; but for all that, those of elevated birth were still expected to wear swords with their street clothes. While the revolutionaries did all they could to obliterate chivalry as an adjunct of the hated monarchy and aristocracy, they failed. Despite themselves, the rivers of blood they unleashed also released the Romantic Movement; one element of that extremely diverse phenomenon was fascinated with the Middle Ages, and eventually rediscovered Chivalry. Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity, for example, among many other things, cited the Military Orders as proof of the Church’s beauty, goodness, and truth. Not only did Sir Walter Scott praise the glories of Knighthood, so too did Kenelm Digby in his renowned Broad-Stone of Honour (Godefridus, Tancredus, Morus, and Orlandus, volumes I and II). This fascination with days of old brought forth such strange fruit as the Eglinton Tournament; but it also bred the Knights of the Faith, the Oxford Movement, the Catholic Revival, Neo-Gothic architecture, and, on the continent, the revitalization of the Dominicans and Benedictines by such as Fr. Lacordaire and Dom Gueranger. It also led, as Mark Girouard informs us, to the modern idea of the gentleman — and for that matter, the Boy Scout.

As he says, “By the end of the nineteenth century a gentleman had to be chivalrous, brave, straightforward and honourable, loyal to his monarch, country and friends, unfailingly true to his word, ready to take issue with anyone he saw ill-treating a woman, a child or an animal. He was a natural leader of men, and others unhesitatingly followed his lead. He was invariably gentle to the weak; above all he was always tender, respectful and courteous to women.” (p.260). Nor was this ideal restricted to the British Empire; all Europe — especially those classes that produced the men who spearheaded the settling of the colonial world — were expected to strive for it. Alas, many of them fell on both sides in the horror of the First World War. That conflict, the succeeding one, and the unrest in Church and State before, during, and after the 1960s obscured — seemingly beyond recall — the ideals of Chivalry; in many quarters the whole idea of such a masculine religiosity was beyond the pale, when in so many cases the priest himself was the only male among the many denizens of the sanctuary.

But seemingly is the key word here. There are perhaps more knights of one kind or another today than at any other time in the history of the world — for all that few if any wear armour. The Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre flourish, and have expanded their work to countries that never saw them before; in recent years the Teutonic Order — mostly confined to clergy and sisters after 1918 — have beefed up the work of their lay arm in Germany, Rome, and Sicily. Despite its murky history, the Order of St. Lazarus (and its Orleanist spin-off) expands both their numbers and their charitable endeavours.

Save where mentioned before, the Templars were suppressed. But in 1804 an organisation aiming to emulate them was founded, and several splinters from them exist: most are vaguely Christian, such as the one based in Geneva; a number claim to be Catholic, and boast the participation of any number of clergy and nobility. But the sole “Templar” body, as such, that is actually recognised as a religious order by the Church was only founded in 1979, and is based in Italy — though claiming members in various European countries and the United States. Claiming no connection to the original body, it nevertheless follows the medieval rule of the Templars.

Another order, the Mercedarians, were founded in the 13th century to ransom captives; although they included a knightly element, they were asked by Pius XI to suppress that side of their work, which request was complied with. But in recent years, the order has sponsored revivals of its chivalric arm in Italy, Austria, and Germany. It has expanded steadily since. The Knights of the Cross with Red Star, a Czech Order of medieval origins has rebounded nicely since the fall of Communism.

As might be expected from films and TV, Great Britain has more than its share of knights. The Queen presides over an array of knightly orders; in addition to those listed on her website, there are also the Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor, the Venerable Order of St. John (an Anglican spinoff from the Knights of Malta, which has a large American contingent), and the national honours systems of Her Majesty’s realms of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Baronets are a sort of hereditary knighthood.

Spain is a hotbed of chivalric activity. In addition to the four ancient orders founded to combat the Moors, there is the Spanish branch of the Order of the Golden Fleece, headed by King Juan Carlos I (the Austrian branch, headed by Archduke Karl von Habsburg, figured prominently on European TV coverage of his father Otto’s funeral) and the civil and military orders given out by “his” government. In addition, there are the “noble corporations,” uniting the hereditary knighthoods of the various provinces. There are also a large number of newer bodies that call themselves knighthoods. One of the most unusual is the recently formed Knights of St. John of God, founded by the Brothers of that Saint to guard his tomb.

The Netherlands is hardly the sort of place one would consider an apt home for chivalry. Nevertheless, its Queen also sits at the apex of an honours system; moreover there are Protestant versions of both Malta and the Teutonic Order. The King of Belgium is in the same position, the Order of Leopold being his most prominent award. Much the same can be said of the Monarchs of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (which in addition has its own Malta-style order). The Holy See has its own set of Knightly orders as well.

But what of the European republics? Well, as with much of Latin America and elsewhere, they have their own orders that would require another article to write about. But in a number of them, claimants to the thrones continue to award orders of knighthood. In France, the Legion of Honour (which boasts a San Francisco palace) was founded by Napoleon and, having been approved by and outlasted several royal, imperial, and republican regimes, is well established as the country’s premier chivalric institution. Even so, the Legitimist heir to the throne continues to award, sparingly, the old royal orders of St. Michael and the Holy Ghost. The Orleanist claimant does not, although he does sponsor his own obedience of the Order of St. Lazarus. In Portugal, as in Spain, homegrown military orders were founded to fight the Moors. Of these, four are currently in the gift of the country’s president; the heir to the throne is grand master of the other two.

The cases of Austria, Germany, and Italy are complex, because the latter two countries had a number of different smaller dynasties ruling, and many of these still award orders of knighthood. The Habsburgs, who ruled most of the area at various times, have in their current head, the Archduke Karl, the Grand Master of the Golden Fleece. But given the restrictions on membership in that order, the dynasty has invented two new ones with which to reward the worthy: St. George and St. Sebastian. The heir to the Prussian throne does not currently administer the traditional orders of his dynasty; but one of his cousins heads the Johanniter (a Protestant version of Malta, who now have a branch in the United States), while another is associated with the Order of Knights of the Swan (a revival rather than survival). A number of heirs to the other German royal, princely, and ducal thrones continue to create knights of their family orders.

Italian Knighthood is quite complex. Apart from the Italian Republic and the Holy See, the House of Savoy not only continues to award its orders, it has spread them to America. So too with the dynasties the Savoy dislodged during the Risorgimento: the Bourbons of Parma, the Habsburgs of Tuscany, and the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies (the latter locked in a succession dispute between the Dukes of Calabria and Castro — both of whom have created American jurisdictions, the former an association and the latter a delegation). Of the remaining republics in Europe, the heirs to the thrones of Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia continue to exercise their chivalric rights.

Obviously, this farrago of orders and decorations is hard to make sense of — let alone keep track of — especially with all the “phoney” orders attempting to link themselves to defunct orders of the past. A private attempt to monitor the scene is the International Commission on Orders of Chivalry. While a strictly private organisation, its ecclesiastical and royal patrons and scholarly members give its recognition a certain cachet — and in lieu of an intergovernmental body to do the same work, it is far better than nothing.

Chivalry may be considered as an eighth sacrament, and this is perhaps the name that suits it best, which describes it most accurately. It is the sacrament; it is the baptism of the warrior. But we must also regard it as a corporation, like a college, of which every member is a responsible individual.

Even so, while knights in all of these orders may well be justly famed for their loyalty, philanthropy, and/or lineage (and their ceremonies and chapels carry on a powerful witness to what knighthood was in public life), the chivalric impulse cannot — and must not — be reserved to such bodies. Gautier describes Chivalry thusly: “Chivalry may be considered as an eighth sacrament, and this is perhaps the name that suits it best, which describes it most accurately. It is the sacrament; it is the baptism of the warrior. But we must also regard it as a corporation, like a college, of which every member is a responsible individual.” He goes on to say “When our knights attended mass one might have seen them, before the reading of the second lesson, draw their swords and hold them unsheathed in their hands until the reading of the lesson was finished. This defiant attitude seemed to imply their readiness to defend the Gospel. ‘If the Word is to be defended, we are ready.’ This is the whole spirit of chivalry.” Although individuals of this calibre are to found scattered throughout the orders mentioned — and the Catholic Templar revival we cited, as well as the reignited Teutonic and Mercedarian lay groups seem especially geared to it — we must look elsewhere to find organisations who actively seek to put the original chivalric ideal — the active defence of the Faith in everyday life and the sanctification of their members thereby. But be forewarned; none of them we look at will have any organic connection to the old orders of chivalry, and if they claim such — beyond inspiration by the ideals thereof — they are certainly suspect.

For starters, we can look at the Knights every American Catholic has seen — the Knights of Columbus. Now while we might be forgiven for thinking that they and their brother Catholic fraternal organisations in the International Association of Catholic Knights are purely about insurance and impressive uniforms — and to be sure, many have suffered from the malaise that affected all mainstream Catholic organisations after Vatican II — we would be wrong. In this country and abroad, such Catholic Knights have begun, as have many bishops, to defend the Faith against hostile secular authorities. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson’s producer role on the film For Greater Glory about the Cristero Rebellion in Mexico may be seen as emblematic of the Order’s new activism — which is in keeping with its oldest traditions.

But the same impulse that has driven the Templar, Mercedarian, and Teutonic revivals has long been at work elsewhere. Although initially founded in 1870 by a former Papal Zouave, the Militia Jesu Christi, which takes its inspiration from the order of knights founded by St. Dominic to defend his friars from the Albigenses (and which served as the foundation of the Dominican Third Order) went through a rocky history, only to find its feet and expand to three continents in our own day. By contrast, the Militia Sanctae Mariae was founded in 1945, not in line with the traditions of any former or living order, but to revive the spirit of chivalry in general — they use the rite of making a new knight from the Pontificale. Recent years have seen an explosion of new Catholic chivalric groups, with varying amounts of ecclesiastical endorsement: the Heralds of the Gospel; the Nova Militia Jesu Christi; the Knights of Divine Mercy; the Order of New Knighthood; the Templari di San Bernardo; and the Templari Cavalieri Cattolici, to name a few. Despite their many differences, these groups share a similar goal — to reinject chivalry and — dare it be said — Catholic militancy and masculinity back into the life of the Church.

Nor is this need seen just by these sorts of enthusiasts or by romantics in love with the Middle Ages. In 2010, then-Archbishop of Denver (now of Philadelphia) Chaput gave a speech to the Air Force Academy cadets in which he declared that :

There is no neutral ground. C.S. Lewis once said that Christianity is a “fighting religion.” He meant that Christian discipleship has always been — and remains — a struggle against the evil within and outside ourselves. This is why the early Church Fathers described Christian life as “spiritual combat.” It’s why they called faithful Christians the “Church Militant” and “soldiers of Christ” in the Sacrament of Confirmation.

The Church needs men and women of courage and Godliness today more than at any time in her history. So does this extraordinary country we call home in this world; a nation that still has an immense reservoir of virtue, decency and people of good will.

The Church needs men and women of courage and Godliness today more than at any time in her history. So does this extraordinary country we call home in this world; a nation that still has an immense reservoir of virtue, decency and people of good will. This is why the Catholic ideal of knighthood, with its demands of radical discipleship, is still alive and still needed. The essence of Christian knighthood remains the same: sacrificial service rooted in a living Catholic faith.

A new “spirit of knighthood” is what we need now — unselfish, tireless, devoted disciples willing to face derision and persecution for Jesus Christ. We serve our nation best by serving God first, and by proving our faith with the example of our lives.

Nor is that understanding restricted to His Grace of Philadelphia; Chicago’s Cardinal George famously opined that “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” It is perhaps no coincidence that His Eminence is associated with the local jurisdictions of the Orders of Malta, the Holy Sepulchre, and St. Lazarus.

It seems that a greater awareness is arising among Catholics, clerical and lay, of the need for the eternal spirit of chivalry. One cannot know if the Knightly organisations of today, ancient or modern, will weather the storm. But certainly their proliferation is a good sign that the yearning for the virtue of honour, loyalty, prowess, courtesy, and all the rest — married to a strong and practical Catholicity — is once again stalking the ruins of Christendom, here and abroad. We shall all need it if the evils of our time are to be resisted.

Church rituals are not merely empty words — and specific rites and blessings bring specific graces to those upon whom they are bestowed. Quite apart from the various chivalric bodies, perceptive bishops might consider using the rite from the Pontificale to knight young men who will need those graces — newly-minted military and police officers, or even semi-professional apologists, lawyers, and doctors. This would not be a mark of honour, and there would no need to form an association or order. But it would be an eminently practical way of calling down from heaven the spiritual aid necessary for the battles Catholics will face on every side in the coming years — and make them part of that glowing company of Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godefroi de Bouillon, that each may strive to be, in Chaucer’s words, “a verray parfit gentle knight.” God help all knights of whatever type or degree to be faithful to their vows and resolute, so that each may merit at his death the old standard epitaph:

The Knight is dust
This good sword rust
This soul is with the saints, we trust

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[author name="Charles A. Coulombe"]

Charles A. Coulombe

Charles A. Coulombe is an American Catholic author, historian, and lecturer who is known for his advocacy of monarchism. Mr. Coulombe has a weekly podcast where people ask him all sorts of questions on religion, culture, politics and history.
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