Culture and Chivalry

Culture and Chivalry

At Worship – Guild of St Bride’s (Fleet Street)

English culture is in its customs and traditions coupled with the genteel practices that are its maxim. Despite the dynamic advances of modern society, traditions of the past retain relevant importance. Many institutions are influenced by historic codes of practice that respect a ‘gentle’ behaviour; these can be seen as an example to the world at large.

Historic robes and regalia are worn by institutions such as town councils, historic associations, and ancient orders that demonstrate their position of ‘establishment’. It is clearly a human trait or aspiration, to look back to the long held ‘standards’ of yesteryear. Chivalry implies a ‘genteel’ (knightly) discipline. It is an ideal that harks right back to the Medieval period. King Edward III founded an order of chivalry in the 1320s based upon the fictitious philosophy of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In 1348 this order became known as ‘The Most Noble Order of the Garter’. 

The ‘chivalric code’ is recognised as one of politeness, integrity, and courage. Or in other words, courtesy, and generosity with expectations of gallantry. Such were the expectations of an English ‘gentleman’. Many ‘orders of chivalry’ were inspired by the Catholic military forces of the Crusades and were followed by a range of continental sovereign orders. The numbers of foreign orders are so huge it would serve no purpose to reproduce all their titles here. Most important must be those authorised by our monarchy for the British Empire/Commonwealth. At the head of these would be ‘The Most Noble Order of the Garter’, it being the most senior order of knighthood and is only outranked by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.

The English government annually marks individual actions of distinguished behaviour or bravery by recognition in the ‘New Year Honours List’. These include the Order of St Michael and St George, Order of Bath, the Companions of Honour and Order of the British Empire (OBE, BEM, MBE) for acts of outstanding ability and the Royal Society of St George of whom the Patron is HM Queen Elizabeth.

Insignia of various Chivalric Orders

Initially, a code of chivalry is said to have arisen in the Carolingian Empire from an idealism of the cavalrymen. Continental vows of chivalry were developed by the 11th century and confirmed in 1025 by the Council of Clermont in France. The majority of these awards are for merit, they are honorific and were assigned or confirmed by a state, government or by a royal family.

Various ‘private’ associations were created during the 18th century, influenced by the rise in ‘new monied’ wealthy industrialists. This was in parallel with the increased desire for an exclusive (elite) society, along with membership of coffee houses, gentlemen’s private clubs, and the rising popularity of masonic lodges. Lower level organisations, such as the Oddfellows and Forrester’s emulated masonic orders to support the ambitions of the working classes. These provided companionship along with insurance against sickness, holiday relief and some protection in old age.

The first of the orders of chivalry, formed during the 12th century, was the military Order of Malta along with the Order of St John (Knights Hospitaller). This was followed by the military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem (Knights Templar) then the Order of St Lazarus and the Orders of St Mary’s Hospital in Jerusalem (Teutonic Knights). 

The Most Noble Order of the Garter

Chivalric orders of knights were created by European monarchs to emulate the old military orders and to influence the behaviour of gentlemen during the 16th century Renaissance. Artificial orders of chivalry, including the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1423, were created to promote loyalty. Pseudo-chivalric orders developed in the 14th and 15th centuries were self-proclaimed and without statutes or restricted membership. There are many monarchical dynastic orders, where presidency is attached to a specific monarch. Honorific orders are numerous, and their insignia may simply consist of a badge.

The modern ranks of most European orders are Grand Cross or Grand Corden, Grand Officer, Commander, Officer, Knight, or Chevalier. British honorific ranks (including some members of the Commonwealth) comprise Knight Grand Cross, Knight-Commander, Commander, Officer, and member. The leading order in Britain being that of the Garter, contains the Sovereign and Knights Companions.

Unfortunately, there are so many self-styled orders (since the 18th century) some of which have been short-lived and without sovereign support. There is an International Commission for Orders of Chivalry that can pass judgement over authenticity of questionable orders.

NB – In discussing these ‘honourable societies’ I should make it abundantly clear that the Association of Freemen of England and Wales along with the numerous borough Gilds/Guilds throughout the nation, have no formal connection with these ‘other’ organisations. The FEW applies ‘Courtesy’ as its motto and anticipates that all members are polite and even minded. FEW regalia employ suitably designed robes and badges that have similarities with other ancient civic organisations, all of which have some  historical relevance.

Members of FEW are not disqualified (or deterred) from belonging to various orders but are required to respect the independence of our representations, that are strictly of borough freedom.


The Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, was founded in 1048 as a religious order and an order of chivalry

Interestingly, Shelleys have played a significant part in the history of the Order. Sir John Shelley Kt. was slain while valiantly resisting the Siege of Rhodes 1522, by the huge Ottoman forces of ‘Suleiman the Magnificent’. His nephews subsequently took up the cause of St John. Sir Richard Shelley, Grand Cross was elected Turcopolier (Crusade leader) of the reconstituted ‘Tongue of England and elected Grand Prior in 1561. His brother, Sir James Shelley Kt. Grand Cross, was Commander of Templecombe. In Malta, a house bought by Sir James Shelley in Valletta to serve the English Auberge, was still known in the 1800s as the ‘Maison Anglaise et Shelley’. His brother Sir Richard Shelley, the Grand Prior and ambassador, died in Venice in 1590.

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