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).
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: orderofleopold.be).
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: wikipedia.com).
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)
KONINKLIJKE EN MENSLIEVENDE VERENIGING DER DRAGERS VAN ERETEKENS EN MEDAILLES VAN BELGIE VOOR DADEN VAN MOED, VAN ZELFOPOFFERING EN VAN MENSLIEVENDHEID.
Vereniging zonder winstoogmerk – Identificatienummer: 515/53. – 1190 Brussel. – Nationaal Nummer: 408696434