Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Maintenance of nobiliary traditions of SMOM


© Guy Stair Sainty

The greatest problem confronting the Order in the maintenance of the existing system of noble proofs is the accelerating decline of the ancient nobility as a percentage of the population as a whole. The date at which social prominence and public achievement ceased to be recognized by the conferment of hereditary nobility varies in different states; the end of the First World War marked the cut-off date in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Russia and Poland, 1870 in France, 1910 in Portugal, 1931 in Spain (although the present Monarch has conferred a few titles) and 1964 [1] in Great Britain (although recognition of gentility continues through the grant of arms). [2]

The SMHOM has always recognized nobility conferred by the Vatican and the Republic of San Marino, and (with ample historical precedent, notably the recognition by the Catholic powers of conferrals and confirmations of nobility by the exiled Stuart kings) by the late King Umberto II of Italy after 1946. The creation of such nobles did not reflect the social progress of new leading citizens, however, but rather the more arbitrary contributions made to the Holy See, the Republic of San Marino or individual services to King Umberto personally. The prominence and social position of those Italians whose comparable predecessors from 1870 to 1946 would have been ennobled has not been recognized by a conferral of nobility, while a small group that is not necessarily representative of this group has been ennobled, giving any future descendants the right to enter the rank of Grace and Devotion.

Although titles were conferred in France from 1808 to 1848 and from 1852 to 1870, and the descendants of the recipients of such titles may be considered to have been ennobled, the French nobility as a privileged class ceased to exist in law after 1790. The rank of untitled (and unprivileged) noble was also conferred between 1814/15 and 1830, and the right to the nobleparticule continued to be confirmed on presentation of the proper proofs but the latter did not actually enlarge the nobility. By a coincidence of dates, the French proofs have effectively limited Honor and Devotion to families ennobled under the ancien regime, while families ennobled after the revolution are only eligible for Grace and Devotion unless the postulant can prove eight quarterings. Other families sometimes landed for generations, such as the Carnot family from Nolay, Morvan, which were prominent in the region from the late fourteenth century and gave a President to France a century ago, can never enter the nobiliary ranks under the present rules although clearly "gentry" by the English standard. Within little more than a decade the heirs of titles conferred by Napoleon will be eligible for membership in the noble grades, although many Napoleonic titles were given for distinguished military service and did not recognize entry into the social elite. 

After 1830 first Louis-Philippe and then Napoleon III only conferred a relatively small number of titles; thus those seeking ennoblement could only look to the generosity of the Holy See. The Papal practice of conferring noble titles on non-citizens of the Papal States accelerated considerably after 1870. Since Vatican titles were conferred on the basis of service to the Church or a particular bishop and often in return for substantial financial generosity, these conferrals seldom reflected the actual social standing of the recipient of the title and they were generally unrecognized by the government of France, [3] although some of the recipients were highly distinguished and some were members of existing noble families. Between 1870 and 1914 the Vatican created four French princes (one was canceled because the recipient, a M. Laforge, failed to pay his fee and was subsequently jailed for fraud), nine dukes, twenty-one marquesses, approximately two hundred counts (many of very modest standing and created for the life of the recipient) and seven barons; among them was a Nice shopkeeper who had obtained the post of Dominican ambassador to the Vatican and a San Marino barony, who was created "Duke Astraudo" (he was a donat of the SMHOM), and the American born son of the tramway concessionaire of Paris created "Duke Loubat". The last princely title to be granted by the Vatican was actually conferred in 1951 on a Frenchman, Gérard de La Salle, but the reason for this gentleman receiving the highest rank in the Papal nobility was not disclosed by either the Vatican or the recipient. [4]

Unlike Great Britain, where distinguished citizens have not only continued to be recognized as nobles by grants of arms but have also received hereditary titles, Frenchmen of comparable standing have not been so honored. Thus while British Field Marshals and Admirals of the Fleet who distinguished themselves in the First and Second World Wars received hereditary titles, the descendants of French Marshals remained members of the bourgeoisie. At the time of the French Revolution, one third of all existing French noble families had been ennobled during the previous century; reflecting the social changes following the Revolution, Napoleon added some two thousand five hundred and forty-five families to the nobility (mostly from the bourgeoisie), the Restoration Monarchy another twelve hundred (also from the new middle class), and the July monarchy and second Empire a further one hundred and twenty-five (of which perhaps half of the total of three thousand eight hundred and seventy families are now extinct in the male line).

Thus, although modern French society is not so very dissimilar to British (apart from the religious differences), in Britain between twelve and fifteen thousand families have been added to the armigerous gentry or titled nobility during a period in France when both the number of noble families and their proportion in the population has declined considerably. In the Order of Malta the French have solved this dilemma to some degree by admitting a higher proportion of Magistral Grace knights than the British have done (remembering also that the French proofs are far stricter than the British), but in many of the European Associations the Magistral Grace knights make up only a tiny proportion of the membership and, so far, the officers of these associations have not indicated that they see any need to reflect the social changes of the past seventy-five years.

When considering the social changes that have taken place since the end of the First World War, it is instructive to compare the Order's composition in 1938 and 1986 (two years for which complete rolls were published). In 1938 there were three thousand one hundred and seventy-six members of whom one thousand nine hundred and fifty were knights or dames of Honor and Devotion (sixty-one per cent of the total); these knights and dames of Honor and Devotion would have been required to prove a considerably more demanding standard than is required for the same rank today. In 1986, out of just short of nine thousand five hundred members there were two thousand eight hundred and thirty-six members of the same class (only thirty per cent of the total). In the former year there were six hundred and forty-five Magistral Grace knights (twenty per cent of the Order, many of whom could actually have made the proofs for Grace and Devotion, which did not then exist); in 1986 four thousand one hundred and ten (forty-three per cent) were knights or dames of Magistral Grace, with a further seven hundred and eighty-nine (or eight point three per cent) enrolled in Grace and Devotion. In 1938 there were three hundred and ninety-three donats or twelve per cent of the Order (of whom two hundred and forty-eight or sixty-three per cent were Italian); in 1986 there were one thousand two hundred and thirty five donats or thirteen per cent of the Order (of whom eight hundred and sixty-five or seventy-five per cent were Italian).

Thus, while the proportion of donats, and their national distribution, has remained more or less constant, the number of knights and dames of Honor and Devotion have declined dramatically as a proportion of the memberships with a reciprocal increase in the number of knights and dames of the lesser ranks of the third class. The number of lady members has also changed; in 1938 they were six per cent of the total and (with the exception of the members of the American Association) were all enrolled in Honor and Devotion, but by 1986 they had almost doubled as a proportion of the membership to nearly eleven per cent of the Order (dames cannot be made donats). Meanwhile there has been a decline in the number of members of the first class (professed knights, novice knights of Justice and conventual chaplains), who totaled less than half of their 1938 number of ninety-six (a fall from three per cent of the total to less than half of one per cent). While the total number of members to whom the title of "grand cross" has been accorded has increased - in 1938 there were two hundred and ninety-five, and in 1986 there were four hundred and seventy-six - this actually represents a decline from nine to five per cent of the total membership as the grand cross is rarely given in the rank of Magistral Grace. The number of honorary chaplains, ninety-two in 1938 and three hundred and fifty-two in 1986, has risen modestly from just under three to three point seven per cent.

The changes in the proportion of noble and non-noble members in individual associations is even more dramatic in some cases and it is worth noting that, during this period when the Order trebled in size, the total number of knights and dames of Honor and Devotion has only increased by forty-five per cent and in some national associations barely at all. This is particularly noticeable in Italy, where the number has only increased from seven hundred and eighty-eight to eight hundred and forty-one (a rise of under seven per cent). A similar problem exists in the German Association, where the total number enrolled in Honor and Devotion grew by only twenty-one per cent. Of course a small proportion of these have become knights of Obedience but not enough to alter significantly this relationship (and in any case the number of professed members has fallen). In the now separated Grand Priories of Austria and Bohemia the total number of Honor and Devotion knights and dames has risen from one hundred and seventy-two in 1938 to two hundred and thirty-three, a growth of thirty-five per cent, while the number of knights and dames of Magistral Grace and donats has fallen from one hundred and twenty-one in 1938 to ninety-nine in 1986 - partly a reflection of the composition of the Bohemian Grand Priory since 1945.

In stark contrast, the Spanish Association, which in 1938 had one hundred and ninety-seven members in Honor and Devotion, ten per cent of all the members of that class, and no Magistral Grace members or donats, in 1986 had five hundred and thirty-five Honor and Devotion and Obedience (ex-Honor and Devotion) members who represented nearly twenty per cent of the whole class - an increase of one hundred and sixty-seven per cent. The British Association, which had thirty nine Honor and Devotion members in 1938, by 1986 had one hundred and thirty-eight Honor and Devotion (or Obedience, ex-Honor and Devotion) members - an increase of two hundred and fifty-three per cent which makes it the only Association whose increase in numbers in that class exceeded the growth in size of the Order as a whole. These disparities can be explained primarily by the liberality of the British and Spanish proofs and the size of their Nobilities, whereas the Italian, German, Austrian and Bohemian proofs are much more restrictive and make it more difficult to find qualified candidates.

The principal reason for retaining the requirement of nobility for admission into the higher ranks of the third class of the Order of Malta is to maintain the historic composition of the Order as a Catholic élite. This encourages a sense of familial loyalty, gives an incentive to the scions of families long associated with the Order to join by particularly distinguishing them, and instills thereby a real esprit de corps. Many of the members of the European Associations are related and this is particularly so in the British where Catholics have always been a small percentage of the gentry. Limiting the highest offices of the Order to members who have been promoted from the first and third ranks of the third class (the noble grades), ensures continuity, honors the Order's historic traditions of family service and reflects the fact that, although international, the Order was primarily European and that for hundreds of years membership had been restricted almost exclusively to the nobility.

Before the French Revolution the majority of members tended to be drawn from families of ancient lineage who were seldom endowed with great wealth, but there were always a number from great families - such as princes of Lorraine and Rohan - and families such as the Fugger counts who had risen to the pinnacle of society more recently. The modern Order includes among the members in the noble ranks a far greater proportion from the families of great magnates, reflecting the fact that the gulf which formerly existed between the most powerful nobles and the lesser noble families has largely been eradicated. In modern urban society there is little to distinguish the lifestyles of descendants of great noble families from the upper class which has built up its prosperity and social standing within the last century, while only those landed magnates who have retained their estates and castles continue to live in the fashion of their ancestors, with commensurate influence in their local communities.

In those states where it is possible to make a precise definition of nobility, and where the noble class still encompasses a substantial proportion of the most influential citizens and present or future political, social and economic leadership, a definitive standard of proof in respect of the ranks of Honor and Devotion and Grace and Devotion should be maintained, provided the regulations succeed in achieving uniformity within the membership of each rank. If the Order is to maintain successfully its very special and unique identity as a noble Order of Chivalry, then it must indeed include the historic elite who have maintained their rank for generations and whose standing as nobles has not been achieved solely by diligent genealogical research.

The reality also has to be faced that the nobility plays a decreasingly significant leadership role, except accidentally, and that it owns a declining proportion of the nation's land and wealth (and in Eastern Europe none at all). The abolition or democratization of the European Monarchies has meant that representatives of the nobility are more likely to be found actively involved in business or the professions than at court, in government or the military - a complete reversal of the position two hundred years ago when the Order's military duties required the knights to be trained officers.

The original purpose of a strict application of noble proofs was to ensure that the nobility, which historically provided military leadership and whose martial skills were essential to the Order, were not tempted to abandon their military role by the prosperity to be derived from commerce and would instead aspire to promotion in the Order to qualify for the tenure of a lucrative commandery. Membership was not limited exclusively to nobles, since the contribution of non-nobles was important to both its military and its hospitaller function. In the modern world the Order no longer enjoys a military role and raising the necessary funds to continue its hospitaller duties will inevitably prove to be both a higher priority and a greater burden if the Order is to continue its humanitarian mission on a comparable or greater scale. The nobility today owns a rapidly decreasing proportion of every European nation's wealth and it is on the generosity of the wealthy that the Order depends to finance its humanitarian mission. Unless more suitable and qualified representatives of the newer wealth owning and prominent classes are recruited the Order may find it increasingly difficult to finance its charitable activities and to continue to be an influential, international, traditional Catholic force in the modern world. It has thus become apparent that a reform of the nobiliary qualifications is necessary, while it is equally important to preserve the historic character of the Order as an élite, nobiliary institution.

The abolition of all noble privileges everywhere but Great Britain and the prohibition of the use of noble titles in some states (where they are used only socially), along with the permanent establishment of a wealthy upper bourgeoisie whose lifestyle is indistinguishable from that of most of the nobility, has meant that it has become more common for nobles to marry outside the nobility. The invention of the rank of Grace and Devotion has enabled noble postulants who cannot meet the requirements for Honor and Devotion to join in a noble rank, rather than in Magistral Grace, but most European Associations have shown themselves unwilling to allow the Grace and Devotion rank to represent more than a minority of the membership. Those families which have provided Honor and Devotion knights for generations are understandably reluctant to accept demotion merely because of one or two missing quarterings when in other respects the family has maintained its social and economic standing; thus some worthy potential postulants bearing names long associated with the Order's history may be discouraged from applying.

The rules themselves, often being based on a long-distant historic precedent, can distort their original purpose - for example, in France, the two hundred year rule in each of four quarters still includes only ancien régime families, but within nearly twenty years all those families ennobled by Napoleon will become eligible for Honor and Devotion. Since those who can prove eight quarterings need only prove one hundred years in the French Association and in the Spanish and British Associations only four quarterings are necessary, it is possible for candidates who descend from nineteenth century nobles to enter as knights or dames of Honor and Devotion. Whatever the merits of this development, the heirs of nineteenth century nobility are much more likely to be descended from distinguished public servants or the founders of industrial fortunes than from landed, military families. 

The founders of the National Associations in the nineteenth century may not have realized that the rules then in force would permit the descendants of their contemporaries who had been enriched by industry, or obtained advancement from revolutionary regimes, sometimes acquiring titles and estates from ancient families impoverished by revolution, to enter the Order in the rank of Honor and Devotion within a century. The diversity of the rules in the different associations has meant that there is little homogeneity in the composition of the rank of Honor and Devotion between different national groups (and within countries which had several different nobiliary jurisdictions, such as Italy and Spain). The justification for retaining the requirement of proof by quarterings is that the best evidence that a family has maintained its status is that its members have married into other families of comparable rank. If homogeneity is to be maintained then there is an argument to be made for extending the requirement for Honor and Devotion for at least two of the four quarterings to three hundred years.

In the eighteenth century British Catholic exiles rarely joined the Order of Malta (as they would have competed for benefices with members of other Langues, something forbidden in the statutes), and never in the titular English Grand Priory, since the Order could not function in Great Britain and had been wholly deprived of its wealth there; instead such Jacobite exiles who had entered the service of European sovereigns were admitted into the national Military-Religious Orders such as Santiago, Calatrava, and the Constantinian Order, in which they might obtain valuable endowments while serving that particular sovereign. Only when they were assimilated into the local populations were descendants of Jacobite exiles admitted to the localLangue. The deprivation of the nobility's wealth in Eastern Europe has meant that those nobles living in exile are in a similar position to the Jacobites. The vast majority of members of the Eastern European nobility have been divested of their estates and property and have no influence in their countries of origin. Indeed, in many cases, they have become assimilated with their economic peers in the countries in which they have settled and might be unlikely candidates for the Order in their local national associations. [5]

If the Eastern European Associations of the Order are to play an effective part in the work of the Order then it is essential they adjust their rules to take account of the changes of the past half century. These Associations should be recruiting able and talented members in their homelands and it may be necessary to increase the proportion of non-noble members if they ever hope to play the kind of role in contemporary society as the German and Austrian knights and dames. In Eastern Europe the Order can play an important part in assisting the smooth development of democracy and the permanent rejection of totalitarianism - the total inadequacy of existing hospital care and the moral vacuum following the downfall of communism has proved that there is a considerable need for the Orders of Saint John to play their traditional hospitaller and leadership role.

The Polish and Hungarian Associations both have substantial numbers of members living outside Poland and Hungary, particularly in the United States. Some of these members were born in exile and are citizens of the countries in which their parents settled. Nonetheless, they usually join the National Association of their ancestors rather than the Association where they reside. The New World Associations generally oppose those who can prove noble ancestry entering in the rank of Honor or Grace and Devotion. This is because the European noble ancestry of these exiles from Communism is generally irrelevant to their standing in the community where they now reside. Neither they nor their ancestors have made any significant contribution to their adopted country and the members of the local Associations can see no reason why they should be placed in a higher rank than the descendants of families which for generations have played a prominent part in their country's history, who are restricted to Magistral Grace.

Grace and Devotion is presently limited to those noble or gentry families which are not eligible for Honor and Devotion, but which have maintained nobility or gentility for more than a certain period of years. In countries where conferrals of nobility have ceased, families which attained a certain prominence and with that a status comparable to the British gentry and have maintained that status for one hundred years or more, should arguably be eligible for Grace and Devotion. This would ensure that the same balance is retained between the composition of the Order in Great Britain, Europe and the rest of the Catholic world. Without such a reform time will result in even greater anomalies than are presently apparent in the composition of the different National Associations. The same standard can then be applied in countries with a noble tradition as those without, thus eliminating one of the principle arguments utilized by those who wish to abolish the requirement for proof of nobility altogether. In the countries of the New World there may be very few candidates eligible for the rank of Honor and Devotion, but many which for a century or more have maintained a position of social prominence and leadership in the community who could be eligible for special distinction by admission into the rank of Grace and Devotion. The alternative is to relax the requirements for Honor and Devotion and abolish the rank of Grace and Devotion - there is little historical justification for dividing the noble ranks into higher and lower categories.

It is inevitable that the numbers of Magistral Grace knights and dames, as a proportion of the total membership, will continue to grow. Some consider that it may not be to the Order's benefit if they continue to be disenfranchised from participating in its government by their exclusion from the second class. If there is greater leniency in determining the qualifications for the rank of Grace and Devotion, however, by introducing a subjective standard for adjudicating whether a candidate's three preceding generations are of the required status, then it will be possible to enlarge the number of qualified candidates without diluting the historic noble traditions. It will still be possible to maintain the nobiliary character while the SMHOM can itself establish a body charged with defining whether a candidate who would previously have only been entitled to Magistral Grace, could be entitled to Grace and Devotion.

The Grand Master has always enjoyed the right to waive some or all of the nobiliary requirements by motu proprio, although historically this privilege has rarely been exercised; instead the rules have simply been side-stepped. However, there are valid precedents for those candidates whose social position is self-evidently so prominent (such as a second or third generation British peer whose ennoblement was within less than one hundred years), after directing a petition to the Grand Master indicating the reasons why an exception should be made, to be given the benefit of the Grand Magistral motu proprio. If, however, a candidate is descended from a noble or gentry family but for several generations (or even centuries in some cases) this family has sunk into economic and social obscurity, ceasing to play a role appropriate to the responsibilities of its earlier rank, then one may question whether this candidate should be admitted automatically to a rank which places him ahead of another candidate whose family has been prominent for several generations but did not consider applying for a grant of arms (there is, however, a strong case to be made for giving special consideration to the descendants of the English or Scottish recusants who maintained their Catholic faith through two centuries of persecution, whether or not they were armigers).

In Republican Europe there will in the future be more and more families who will be able to demonstrate such prominence for several generations and who, had the Monarchies survived, would have been ennobled; these too may perhaps be suitable candidates for the reformed class of Grace and Devotion. Since membership of the Order of itself has always been held to confer personal nobility, there is a strong argument for maintaining that the descendant of a Magistral Grace knight admitted more than one hundred years ago or for the fourth generation descended therefrom to be entitled to apply for Grace and Devotion, particularly if the intervening generations were also members of the Order.


[1]There are one thousand and ninety-five surviving hereditary titles created in Great Britain between 1870 and 1964 (55% of all hereditary British titles), of which six hundred and fifty-five were created after 1918, and thousands of grants of arms during the same period. Meanwhile there were no additions to the French nobility after 1870 and none to the German, Austrian, Hungarian or Russian after 1918.

[2] The present Queen, acting on the advice of the government of Mrs (now Baroness) Thatcher, has conferred three hereditary peerages in recent years (and one royal dukedom), but only one of these peers has an heir to the title. No baronetcies were conferred from 1964 until 1990, when Mr Denis Thatcher was created a Baronet following the resignation of his wife as Prime Minister. The title of baronet does not include the right to an hereditary seat in the legislature. 

[3] Some recipients of Papal titles received confirmation of their titles under the Third Republic but only for their lifetime and not as hereditary titles, even though the titles were granted as hereditary titles by the Holy See. 

[4] Since 1958 titles conferred by the Holy See have been conferred in private letters from the Secretary of State and neither the names of the recipients nor the ranks bestowed (usually Count) have been published. 

[5] Of the formerly exiled Associations only the Hungarians and Roumanians continue to hold investitures outside their own country. Eventually non-citizens of those countries may be required to apply to and meet the standards of the National Associations of the countries in which they have settled and of which they are citizens. 








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