The History of Papal Knighthoods
OVERVIEW OF THE PONTIFICIAL ORDERS OF KNIGHTHOOD OF THE HOLY SEE
The Papal Equestrian Orders as represented in Great Britain today are not as many believe the direct descendants of medieval Orders of Chivalry but are, in their present form, of comparatively recent origin. They nevertheless represent one of the highest and most prestigious distinctions which the Pope, as Supreme Pontiff and Head of the Roman Catholic Church and as Sovereign of the Vatican City State, can bestow on an individual. Such awards are made to lay men and women of the Catholic faith as well as to those of other Christian denominations and other faiths in recognition of their pre-eminent service offered to their faith, community, or the work of the Holy See on a local, national and international level. The majority of recipients are Roman Catholic although within Great Britain are knights and dames who are Protestants, Muslims and Jews.
Currently, the Pontifical Orders of Knighthood of the Holy See are as follows:
- The Supreme Order of Christ
- The Pontifical Order of the Golden Spur
- The Pontifical Order of Pius IX
- The Pontifical Order of Saint Gregory the Great
- The Pontifical Order of Pope Saint Sylvester
Admission to the Supreme Order of Christ, the Pontifical Order of the Golden Spur and the Collar of the Pontifical Order of Pius IX are reserved solely for reigning Sovereigns and Heads of State. They are very rarely bestowed and only then during significant state and official visits made to the Vatican City by foreign dignitaries or during a state, official or pastoral visit made by the Supreme Pontiff to foreign country.
The Supreme Order of Christ can only be bestowed on Heads of State professing the Roman Catholic faith. Among previous recipients were HE President Charles de Gaulle of the French Republic, HE President Antonio Segni of the Italian Republic, President Eamon de Valera of Ireland and German Federal Chancellor Dr Konrad Adenauer.
The last award of the Supreme Order of Christ was made by His late Holiness Pope John Paul II in 1987 to HMEH Frà Angelo de Mojana, 77th Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. With his death one year later, and the subsequent death of fellow recipient, HM King Baudouin of the Belgians in 1993, there are no living holders of the Order of Christ today.
It is considered by some that the failure to award this decoration since 1993 may well indicate that this Order has been placed in abeyance by the Holy See preferring instead to bestow the Collar of the Order of Pius IX.
The Pontifical Order of the Golden Spur which HSH Prince Rainier III of Monaco, HE President Theodor Heuss of West Germany, HM King Frederick IX of Denmark and HIM Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran were among its past recipients, has also not been bestowed for a number of years. HRH Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg is among those living recipients of this award.
The Pontifical Order of Pius IX is the most senior active Pontifical Order in use today. Its highest grades in general terms are reserved for Sovereigns and Heads of State, its middle ranks to those such as senior diplomats accredited to the Holy See. Previous recipients include the late HM King Olav V of Norway and HM King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden.
Recipients of the higher ranks include HM King Juan Carlos I of Spain (left), HM Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, and the late Frà Andrew Bertie, Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. In Britain, members included the late Lord Hunt of Tanworth and the late Miles, Duke of Norfolk, who held the rank of Knight Grand Cross of the Order.
In Great Britain, much like the rest of the world, the majority of Papal Knights and Dames belong to the Pontifical Order of Saint Gregory the Great although an increasing number have been awarded the Pontifical Order of Pope Saint Sylvester.
Among recipients of the Order of Saint Gregory are the former German Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Past British recipients included British Ambassador Sir Ashley Clarke, leading Catholic layman Sir Harold Hood and Lord Lovat. Current Association members include, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, Baroness Hooper, Lord Mark Fitzalan Howard, General Sir Richard Lawson, interfaith leader Sir Sigmund Sternberg, Lord Nolan, Baroness Masham of Ilton, former Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy MP, Field Marshal The Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank and Lord Alton of Liverpool.
Among recipients of the Order of Pope Saint Sylvester are former Maltese Prime Minister George Borg Olivier, Prince Karl August von Thurn und Taxi, entertainer Bob Hope, KBE, Archduke Otto von Habsburg, MEP, and Italian politician Sergio Berlinguer. In Great Britain, association members include businessman John Studzinski and interfaith campaigners HE Anthony Bailey, Professor David Khalili and Mahmoud Khayami.
Although the Pontifical Orders of Knighthood were founded for, and remained the prerogative of gentlemen, in November 1993, the Papal Secretariat of State issued instructions, that the Orders of Pius IX, Saint Gregory the Great and of Pope Saint Sylvester were now open to ladies, with three ranks: Dame, Dame Commander and Dame Grand Cross.