The Belgian National Orders and the Royal and Merciful Society of Bearers of Medals and Awards of Belgium

The Belgian Colonial Order of the African Star; Commander – in bronze gilt and enamels, 55 x 90mm. (photo:

There are currently five existing Orders of Chivalry in Belgium. Only three of them are currently awarded. The Order of the African Star and the Royal Order of the Lion have not been disbanded, but ceased to be awarded when the Congo gained its independence in 1960.

To unite persons who have been awarded a Belgium national honour, there exists a society, called: Koninklijke Menslievende Vereniging van Dragers van Eretekens en Medailles van België (Royal and Merciful Society of the Bearers of Medals and Awards of Belgium; hereafter: Society).

Persons who were honoured for their acts of either courage, self-sacrifice or charity by the Belgian state or a state recognized by Belgium, can be admitted as full members (article 9a Statutes). They must have an excellent reputation. In addition to the full membership, there are associate members who support the objectives of the Society (article 9b Statutes), benefactors (article 9c Statutes) and honorary members (article 9d Statutes). Only full members are allowed to vote.

The Society was not formed by the King, but enjoys Royal Protection since 1893 (most recently renewed on 3 October 2014 for a period of five years; source: letter of the Royal House, R/TD/A/0330.022). The mayor of Brussels acts as honorary president.

Belgian Orders of Chivalry

The current National Orders are established by the laws of 11 July 1832 and 28 December 1838 and the Royal Decress of 3 August 1832 and 16 May 1839 (Order of Leopold); Decrees of 15 October 1897 and 25 June 1898 (Crown Order); Decree of 24 August 1900 (Order of Leopold II). Today, the exact material differences among the Orders has disappeared.

  • The Order of Leopold was established in 1832 by King Leopold I and is the most distinguished Order in Belgium. The Order is awarded in three fields – Civil, Maritime, and Military (with each having 5 different classes) for contribution to the military, society or the Belgian State.
  • The Order of the Crown was established by King Leopold II, as ruler of the Free Congo State, in 1897. It was intended to recognize distinguished service in the Congo Free State. In 1908 the Order was made a national order of Belgium. It is currently the second highest order in Belgium, awarded for service to the Belgian state, as well as distinguished achievements. It was awarded in five classes, as well as two palms and three medals.
  • The Order of Leopold II was first established by King Leopold II as King of the Congo Free State. In 1908, when Congo became part of Belgium, the order became a Belgian national order. It is awarded for service to the Sovereign, in five classes and three medals.
  • The Order of the African Star was established in 1888 by King Leopold II as ruler of the Free Congo State. When the Congo was annexed by Belgium in 1908, it became one of the Belgian national orders. The order has not been awarded since Congo’s independence in 1960. It was never discontinued and remains the second highest order in Belgium. The Order was awarded in five classes with three medals.
  • The Royal Order of the Lion was established in 1891 by King Leopold II as ruler of the Congo Free State. Leopold’s reign in the Congo eventually earned infamy on account of the massive mistreatment of the local population. Just like the Order of the African Star, the Royal order of the Lion became a Belgian national order following the annexation of the Congo Free State in 1908 by the Belgium government. In 1960, after Congo’s independence, the Order ceased to be awarded, although it remains in existence. It is the third highest ranking order in Belgium. It was awarded in five classes with three medals.

Order of Leopold

The history of the Order of Leopold is quite interesting. On 8 June 1832 Count Felix de Mérode, Minister of State, proposes the creation of a national order, called “Ordre de l’Union”. After investigation by a commission it is decided to choose the name of “Order of Leopold” with the device “L’Union fait la Force” / ”Eendracht maakt Macht” (United we stand, divided we fall), a free translation of the device of the 1789 Brabantine Revolution “In Unione Salus”. In its early days, the Order was very much military-focussed. The military tradition remains until the current day.  The first knight in the Order of Leopold was the French sapper Ausseil, wounded during the siege of Antwerp (1832).

Air Vice Marshal Sir Charles Laverock Lambe, KCB, CMG, DSO (1875 – 1953), with the medals of Commander of the Order of Leopold, the Knight of the Order of the Crown and the (Belgium) Croix de guerre.

When King Leopold I inspected the front lines he met a stretcher carrying this soldier whose leg had been ripped off by a canon ball. The King told him : “you are badly wounded, my friend” and Ausseil, who did not know his interlocutor answered: “yes general, but it is my watch, for my country and amidst my comrades” and he shouted “Long live France!”.

The King, who knew what real courage was, immediately made him the very first knight of the newly created Order. When he was taken care off at the Antwerp hospital, the sapper was visited by the Queen, who gave him a gold coin (Louis d’or). After Ausseil had recovered, he was also decorated with the Légion d’Honneur.

The first Belgian military to be decorated as knight of the Order of Leopold was Engineer Captain H. Hallart. He was decorated by the King on 7 January 1833. On 30 January and on 5 February ten more Belgian officers were made knight. On 10 March 1833 no less than 304 French and three Belgian military were rewarded because of their conduct at the siege of Antwerp.  The majority of the Belgian servicemen, who had distinguished themselves in the campaigns of 1831 and 1832, had to wait the important nominations of 15 December 1833 before they received a decoration in the Order. No less than 450 crosses were assigned to the army, among those 150 to soldiers and petty officers. The first Belgian military to be decorated as knight of the Order of Leopold was Engineer Captain H. Hallart. He was decorated by the King on 7 January 1833 (source:

At the end of World War I, the Order of Leopold became internationally recognised for its famous members. In 1919 King Albert granted all Lieutenant-Generals of the Belgian Army the Grand Cordon in Brussels. The King bestowed the Major Generals with the Grand Cordon. After the Second World War, the Order of Leopold was bestowed on the several officers of foreign militaries who had helped to liberate Belgium from the occupation of German forces. Most illustrious was the grand Cordons with Palms given by the King to Sir Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945 (source:

Society Medals

Since 1865, the administration of the Society is allowed to design medals of the Society (article 31 Statutes). The Society itself awards four medals: the Honorary Cross for humanitarian merit (Kruis van Eer), the Order of the Belgian Cross (Orde van het Belgisch Kruis), Palms of Mercy (Palmen van Menslievenheid), Medal of the Belgian Crown (Medaille van Gekroond België). These awards are not recognized by the Belgian state and they are not Orders of Chivalry or National Orders. The awards have a purely private character.

Association of the Order of Leopold

The Society differs from the Association of the Order of Leopold. This non-profit association has the following mission: (1) the maintenance of the prestige emanating from the nation’s highest distinction; (2) material and moral assistance between the members, decorated with the Order, who voluntary join the Association. The titular member or patron has to justify that she/he has been awarded the Order of Leopold. In order to become an adherent member, one should prove his/her quality as a not remarried widower or widow, not remarried or new partner living together, or as an orphan under twenty-five, or a deceased member of the Order and be accepted by the board of directors (source: Statutes of the Association). The Association does not issue awards, like the Society. It has strict membership rules and thus remains a distinguished group.


The Society is an important cultural initiative with a solid historical background. In order to adapt the Society to modern standards, I suggest the following:

  • Upgrade the website to a professional level and delete all the regional websites in order to avoid confusion; create a blog on the website to update members.
  • Avoid attracting “medal hunters” and allow only Belgian official awards and the Society awards to be worn during official meetings, in order to avoid jeopardizing renewal of the Royal Protection. Require members to have a genuine link to Belgium and its National Orders. Never use non-Belgian titles of nobility in the diplomas to avoid recognising fake-nobility. Attract members with a proven professional background in order to avoid parvenus.
  • Decrease the number of members of the Regional Boards to three to make it less bureaucratic.
  • Decrease the number of Society medals to one: the Order of the Belgian Cross. It avoids becoming a “medal shop”.


  • Andre Charles Borne, Distinctions Honorifiques de la Belgique 1830-1985, ISBN 10: 2802200577 ISBN 13: 9782802200574, Publisher: Groep Bruylant, 1985.
  • Federale Overheidsdienst van het Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, Buitenlandse Handel en Ontwikkelingssamenwerking, Dienst Nationale Orden, Karmelietenstraat 15, B-1000 Brussel. Mrs Rita Vander Zwalmen, Tel.: +32 2-501 36 60.
  • Law of 1 May 2006 “betreffende de toekenning van eervolle onderscheidingen in de Nationale Orden”, published in the Belgisch Staatsblad on 24 October 2006.
  • Royal Decree of 13 October 2006 “tot vaststelling van de regels en de procedure tot toekenning van eervolle onderscheidingen in de Nationale Orden”, published in the Belgisch Staatsblad on 24 October 2006.
  • R. Cornet, Recueil des dispositions légales et réglementaires régissant Les Ordres Nationaux Belges et considérations relatives aux décorations en général, Publisher: U.G.A., Brussels 1982.

Appendix: Statutes of the Society 2016 (in Dutch)


Vereniging zonder winstoogmerk – Identificatienummer: 515/53. – 1190 Brussel. – Nationaal Nummer: 408696434


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The legitimacy of modern knightly orders from a theological perspective

An early 14th-century German manuscript depicting a knight and his lady.

An early 14th-century German manuscript depicting a knight and his lady.

Remembering the past is an important theme in both the Old (e.g. Hebrews 13:2-3) and New Testament (e.g. John 14:26). I am working on a research project that will have a historical focus. In particular, I would like to focus on the history of a specific Christian knightly order from a practical theological (therefore empirical) perspective and examine to what extent its Christian traditions have survived the course of time. These religiously-based Catholic societies, originally established during the medieval crusades and mostly made up of confraternities of knights, were formed to protect the Christians against foreign aggression and persecution, especially against the Islamic conquests and Baltic Paganism in Easter Europe. The original features of these societies consisted of a combination of religious and military actions. Some of the Christian knightly order, in particular the Knights Hospitaller, also cared for the sick and poor.

Since 2007, I am working on a study that focuses on the legitimacy of modern Christian knightly orders. Such orders were originally characterized as orders, confraternities or societies of knights, often founded during or in inspiration of the original Roman Catholic military orders of the medieval crusades (circa 1099-1291). They were inspired by medieval notions of chivalry, being an ethos in which martial, aristocratic and Christian elements were fused together (Stair Sainty 2006; Keen: 2005). In modern days similar (mimic) orders have been established by monarchs (or their descendants) and governments with the purpose of bestowing honors on deserving individuals. Examples of ancient knightly orders that survived in modern times are the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George and the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.

The legitimacy of Christian knightly orders is discussed heavily on the internet and in literature (Stair Sainty’s book of about 2000 pages focusses on the issue). The current study is inspired by a PhD thesis of Hoegen Dijkhof (2006), addressing the legitimacy of a number of knightly orders from a historical and legal perspective. In my study I will address the issue of legitimacy from a Christian perspective. A major and often overlooked problem is the definition of both the terms legitimate and knightly order. This aspect of the problem has been raised by Velde (1996).

Activities of modern knightly orders

Modern knightly orders have abandoned their original military mission and focus on spiritual and charity activities. Normally knightly orders demand of its members that the are living their lives as Christians and remain mindful of their obligations to undertake hospitaller assistance, as well as charitable and other good works. The Spanish Constantinian Order for example stresses that it is important for members to lead a life as “perfect” Christians:

Members of the Order are expected to live their lives as perfect Christians and contribute to the increase of religious principles both by action and example. They must be faithful to the traditional teachings of the Church and regularly participate in the solemn celebration of the Liturgy according to the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms and, when appropriate, the particular local forms (notably the Ambrosian, Latin-Byzantine or Mozarabic Rites).

Henri d'Orléans, aujourd'hui comte de Paris, duc de France et actuel chef de la maison royale de France, pose pour le photographe, le 10 juin 2002 au Sénat à Paris, avant un discours officiel qu'il doit donner au Sénat à l'occasion de la présentation de son livre : "La France à bout de bras". AFP PHOTO MEDHI FEDOUACH

The French branch of the Order of Saint Lazarus enjoys its official Temporal Protection from the Royal House of France. AFP PHOTO MEDHI FEDOUACH. Other branches of the Order enjoy the protection of the Duke de Borbon Parma and the Duke of Sevilla.

The hospitaller mission is also considered of great importance. The biggest and most effective knightly order (the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta or SMOM) has developed numerous projects in 120 countries of the world. The order organizes medical, social and humanitarian projects. The SMOM has 13,500 members, 80,000 permanent volunteers and qualified staff of 25,000 professionals, mostly medical personnel and paramedics (SMOM website, 2016). The SMOM’s relief organisation in South Africa, the Brotherhood of the Blessed Gerard, focusses on AIDS patients (mostly children) and runs a hospice in KwaZulu-Natal.

The historical foundations of the knightly orders and their current activities show that the Christian inspiration is one of the most important aspects and characteristic of Christian knightly orders. This inspiration is manifested by the hospitaller activities that Christian knightly orders promote. It is unthinkable that a modern Christian knightly order lacks Christ-inspired hospitaller activities.

The case study in my research will focus on the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem, also known as Order of Saint Lazarus. The legitimacy of this Order has been heavily disputed by Stair Sainty (2006). Stair Sainty states:

The Order of Saint Lazarus, although it is to be complimented for its considerable charitable efforts (notably in Germany), need not pretend to an historical continuity to which its claims, at the very least, are unsubstantiated. Were it to assume the character of a private association, founded in 1910, to emulate the traditions of the ancient crusader Order, it could deflect much of the hostility it has attracted from those bodies which can be more properly characterized as Orders of Knighthood, founded by Papal Bull or Sovereign act or charter. Without such authority behind it, it is difficult to find any justification for this body’s claim to be considered an Order of Chivalry. Private individuals do not have the authority to form Orders, at least none that will be generally recognized.

It therefore serves as an interesting case study for the legitimacy of a knightly order from a Christian perspective.

Research questions

  • What is the background of the Order of Saint Lazarus and how did its history develop?
  • Which kind of goals are selected by the most well-known Christian knightly orders to help and support people who are in distress and which goals are specified amd implemented by the Order of Saint Lazarus?
  • Can the goals of the Order of Saint Lazarus and their implementations be considered effective?
  • To what extent is the Order of Saint Lazarus’ smart-strategy and its implementation of this strategy, Bible-based and therefore legitimate from a Christian perspective?

Literature Review

Adams, J.E. (1986). A Theology of Christian Counseling, More Than Redemption, Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Anderson, R.S. (2003). Spiritual Caregiving as Secular Sacrament, A Practical Theology for Professional Caregivers, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Baljon, J.M.S. (1900). Commentaar op het Evangelie van Mattheus. Groningen: J.B. Wolters

Bruggen, J. van (1993), Lucas. Het evangelie als voorgeschiedenis. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.

Bruggen, J. van (2004), Matteüs, Het evangelie voor Israël, Kampen: Kok.

Brotherhood of the Blessed Gerard (2008). Retrieved 15 January 2008 from

Grossheide, F.W. (1954). Het heilig evangelie volgens Mattheus. Kampen:   Uitgeversmaatschappij J.H. Kok

Hampton Keathley III, J. (1996), One Another’ commands of Scripture. Biblical Studies Press. Retrieved from .

Heitink, G. (1993). Praktische theologie, geschiedenis, theorie, handelingsvelden. Kok: Kampen

Hoegen Dijkhof, H.J., The legitimacy of Orders of St. John : a historical and legal analysis and case study of a para-religious phenomenon, 2006 Doctoral thesis, Leiden University.

Keen, M.H., Chivalry, Yale University Press, 2005

Klein, H. (2006), Das Lukasevangelium, übersetzt und erklärt, Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 2006

Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (2016a) website retrieved 10 July 2016

Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (2016b) website retrieved 10 July 2016

Stair Sainty, G., World Orders of Knighthood and Merit, 2006 Burkes Peerage.

Velde. F., Legitimacy and Orders of Knighthood, (retrieved 14 July 2016)

Watke, E. (1992). “Biblical Couseling Seminar Material”. Retreived on 21 July 2008 from

Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, website 2016)

Wierzbicka, A. (2001). What did Jesus Mean? Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.