The orders of any historical existence may be reduced to three categories: (a) The Greater Regular Orders; (b) The Lesser Regular Orders; (c) The Secular Orders.
The Greater Regular Orders
The great military orders had their origin in the crusades, from which they retain the common badge of every order of knighthood — the cross worn on the breast.
The oldest of these, the Knights Templars, has served as a model for all the others. After barely a century of existence, they were suppressed by Clement V; but two remnants remained after the fourteenth century, the Order of Christ in Portugal, and the Order of Montesa in Spain. In the twelfth century Portugal had borrowed their rule from the Templars and founded the Portuguese Order of Aviz. Almost at the same time there arose in Castile the Order of Calatrava and in Leon the Order of Alcantara.
Contemporary with these purely military orders, others were founded at once military and hospitaller, the most famous of which were the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights of Malta) and the Teutonic Knights (modelled on the former), both still in existence. In the same category should be included the Order of Santiago which spread throughout Castile, Leon, and Portugal.
Lastly, there are the purely hospitaller orders whose commanders, however, claimed the rank of knights though they had never been in battle, such as the Orders of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem and of the Holy Spirit of Montpellier. With these may be connected the Order of Our Lady of Ransom (Nuestra Señora de Merced, also called Mercedarians), founded (1218) in Aragon by St. Peter Nolasco for the redemption of captives. Including religious knights as well as religious clerics, it was originally considered a military order, but dissensions arose and each rank chose its own grand master. John XXII (1317) reserved the grand-mastership to clerics, with the result of a general exodus of knights into the newly founded military Order of Montesa.
Cross of Saint Lazarus
The Lesser Regular Orders
There is mention in the twelfth century, in Castile, of an Order of Montjoie, confirmed by Alexander III (1180), but difficult to distinguish from the Order of Calatrava, with which it was soon amalgamated.
In 1191, after the siege of Acre, Richard I of England founded there in fulfilment of a vow, the Order of St. Thomas of Canterbury, an order of hospitallers for the service of English pilgrims. It seems to have been made dependent on the Hospitallers of St. John, whom it followed to Cyprus after the evacuation of Palestine. Its existence is attested by the Bullarium of Alexander IV and John XXII; beyond this it has left but little trace except a church of remarkable architecture, St. Nicholas, at Nicosia in Cyprus.
Better known is the history of the Schwertzbrüder (Ensiferi, or Swordbearers) of Livonia, founded by Albert, first Bishop of Riga (1197), to propagate the Faith in the Baltic Provinces and to protect the new Christianity there against the pagan nations still numerous in that part of Europe. Against these pagans a crusade had been preached; but, the temporary crusaders having made haste to withdraw, it became necessary, as in Palestine, to supply their place with a permanent order. This order adopted the statutes, the white mantle and the red cross of the Templars, with a red sword as their distinctive badge, whence their name of Ensiferi. The order was approved in 1202 by a Bull of Innocent III. Thrown open to all sorts of persons without distinction of birth, overrun by aimless adventurers whose excesses were calculated rather to exasperate the pagans than to convert them, it endured but a short time, having only two grand masters, the first of whom, Vinnon, was murdered by one of his fellows in 1209, while the second, Volquin, fell on the field of battle in 1236, with four hundred and eighty knights of the order. The survivors petitioned to be allowed to enter the Teutonic Order, of which the Knights of Livonia thenceforward formed one branch under a provincial master of their own (1238). Their possessions, acquired by conquest, formed a principality under Charles V (1525), and the last of their masters, Gottart Kettler, apostatized and converted it into the hereditary Duchy of Courland under the suzerainty of the kings of Poland (1562).
The Gaudenti of Our Lady at Bologna, confirmed by Urban IV in 1262, and suppressed by Sixtus V in 1589, were not so much a military order as an association of gentlemen who undertook to maintain the public peace in those turbulent times.
An order of St. George of Alfama, in Aragon, approved in 1363 by Urban V, was merged in the Order of Montesa in 1399.
The Knights of St. George, in Austria, founded by the Emperor Frederick III, and approved by Paul II in 1468, failing to perpetuate their existence, owing to the lack of territorial possessions, gave place to a purely secular confraternity.
The Order of St. Stephen Pope was founded in Tuscany by the Grand Duke Cosimo I and approved in 1561 by Pius IV, being placed under the Benedictine Rule. It had its principal house at Pisa, and was obliged to equip a certain number of galleys to fight the Turks in the Mediterranean after the manner of, and in concert with, the “caravans” of the Knights of Malta.
Order of the Garter, England
The Secular Orders
Dating from the fourteenth century, fraternities of lay knights were formed modelled on the great regular orders; as in the latter, we find in these secular orders a patron, a vow to serve the Church and the sovereign, statutes, a grand master (usually the reigning prince), and the practice of certain devotions. Most of them also asked for the approbation of the Holy See, which, on the other hand, granted them spiritual favours — indulgences, the privilege of private oratories, dispensation from certain fasts, etc.
The chief of these orders are as follows:
In England, Edward III, in memory of the legendary Knights of the Round Table, established in 1349 brotherhood of twenty-five knights, exclusive of princes of the blood and foreign princes, with St. George as its patron and with its chapel in Windsor Castle for the holding of chapters. This, the Order of the Garter, takes its name from the characteristic badge, won on the left knee. The choice of this badge has given rise to various anecdotes of doubtful authenticity. Nothing is now known of the original object of the Order of the Bath, the creation of which dates from the coronation of Henry IV (1399). A third order, Scottish by origin, is that of the Order of the Thistle, dating from the reign of James V of Scotland (1534). These orders still exist, though they have been protestantized.
In France, the royal orders of the Star, dating from John the Good (1352), of St. Michael, founded by Louis XI (1469), of the Holy Ghost, founded by Henry III (1570), of Our Lady of Carmel, amalgamated by Henry IV with that of St. Lazarus were absolutely suppressed by the Revolution.
Austria and Spain
Austria and Spain now dispute the inheritance from the House of Burgundy of the right to confer the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded by Duke Philip the Good, approved by Eugene IV in 1433, and extended by Leo X in 1516.
In Piedmont, the Order of the Annunziata, under its later form, dates only from Charles III, Duke of Savoy, in 1518, but its first dedication to the Blessed Virgin goes back to Amadeus VIII, first Duke of Savoy, antipope under the name of Felix V (1434). There had, previously to this dedication, existed in Savoy an Order of the Collar, which held its chapters in the Charterhouse (founded in 1892) of Pierre-Châtel in Bugey. Here also the Knights of the Annunziata kept their feast of the Annunciation, so that they have considered themselves as successors of the Order of the Collar. After the cession of Bugey to France, they transferred their chapters to the newly founded Camaldolese monastery on the Mountain of Turin (1627).
In the Duchy of Mantua, Duke Vincent Gonzaga, on the marriage of his son Francis II, instituted, with the approbation of Paul V, the Knights of the Precious Blood, a relic of which is venerated in that capital.
Pontifical Secular Orders
Lastly there are a number of pontifical secular orders, the oldest of which is the Order of Christ, contemporary with the institution of the same order in Portugal in 1319. In approving the latter institution, John XXII reserved the right of creating a certain number of knights by patent, and it is now used to reward services rendered by any person whatsoever without distinction of birth.
The same is to be said of the Order of St. Peter, instituted by Leo X in 1520, of the Order of St. Paul, founded by Paul III in 1534, and of Our Lady of Loretto, charged by Sixtus V in 1558, to watch over and preserve that sanctuary. These distinctions were mostly granted to functionaries of the pontifical chancery.
There has been some question as to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, formerly dependent on the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and reorganized by Pope Pius X. The Knights of St. Catherine of Sinai are not an order, either secular or regular.
in Catholic Encyclopedia, by CH Moeller