Fount of honour

The fount of honour (Latin: fons honorum) is a person, who, by virtue of his or her official position, has the exclusive right of conferring legitimate titles of nobility and orders of chivalry on other persons.


During the High Middle Ages, European knights were essentially armoured, mounted warriors;[1] by virtue of its defining characteristic of subinfeudation, in feudalism it was common practice for knights commander to confer knighthoods upon their finest soldiers, who in turn had the right to confer knighthood on others upon attaining command.[2] For most of the Middle Ages, it was possible for private individuals to form orders of chivalry.[3] The oldest existing order of chivalry, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta,[4] was formed as a private organization[5] which later received official sanction from church and state.[6]

The 13th century witnessed the trend of monarchs, beginning with Emperor Frederick II (as King of Sicily) in 1231,[7] retaining the right of fons honorum as a royal prerogative, gradually abrogating the right of knights to elevate their esquires to knighthood.[8] After the end of feudalism and the rise of the nation-state, orders and knighthoods, along with titles of nobility (in the case of monarchies), became the domain of the monarchs (heads of state) to reward their loyal subjects (citizens)[9] – in other words, the heads of state became their nations' "fountains of honour".[10]

Many of the old-style military knights resented what they considered to be a royal encroachment on their independence. The late British social anthropologist, Julian A. Pitt-Rivers, noted that "while the sovereign is the 'fount of honour' in one sense, he is also the enemy of honour in another, since he claims to arbitrate in regard to it."[11] By the early thirteenth century, when an unknown author composed L'Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal),[12] (a verse biography of William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, often regarded as the greatest medieval English knight[13]) Richard W. Kaeuper notes that "the author bemoans the fact that, in his day, the spirit of chivalry has been imprisoned; the life of the knight errant, he charges, has been reduced to that of the litigant in courts."[13]

Legality of honours today

The question whether an order is a legitimate chivalric order or a self-styled order coincides with the subject of the fons honorum.[14] A legitimate fount of honour is a person or entity who holds sovereignty when the order is awarded; ultimately, it is the authority of the state, whether exercised by a reigning monarch or the president of a republic, that distinguishes orders of chivalry from private organizations.[15][16] Other persons, whether commoners, knights, or noblemen, no longer have the right to confer titles of nobility, knighthood or orders of chivalry upon others.[17]

The official website of the British monarchy[18] states: "As the 'fountain of honour' in the United Kingdom, The monarch has the sole right of conferring all titles of honour, including life peerages, knighthoods and gallantry awards."[19] Some private societies in the United Kingdom (such as the Royal Humane Society)[20] have permission from the monarch to award medals which may be worn by those in uniform provided the private society's medal is worn on the right-side rather than the usual left.[20][21] In Spain the fount of honour is King Felipe VI as the head of state.[22]

In France, only decorations recognised by the Grand Chancery of the Legion of Honour may be worn publicly, and permission must be sought and granted to wear any foreign awards or decorations. Dynastic orders are prohibited unless the dynasty in question is currently recognised as sovereign.[23] (For example, the Royal Victorian Order is explicitly recognised, whereas the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus is not.)[24] Failure to comply is punishable by law. A non-exhaustive list of collectively authorised orders is published by the government.[24]

"These two dispositions are meant to protect the ensemble of authentic national and foreign distinctions by attempting to prevent the attire of fake decorations. These may stem from territorial entities which have not acceded to sovereignty or even from countries, nations, empires or kingdoms that are the pure and simple products of someone's overactive imagination, a fan of fiction or even a megalomaniac, if not purely mercantile acts or even the patent intention to abuse and swindle others."[25]

The President of the Portuguese Republic has inherited the duties of fount of honour from the Portuguese monarchs, since, unlike titles of nobility, the Portuguese orders of chivalry were not extinguished with the Republican Revolution in 1910. The current Constitution of Portugal alternatively styles the President as the "Grand Master of the Portuguese Honorific Orders" (Portuguese: Grão-Mestre das Ordens Honoríficas Portuguesas);[26] in this capacity, the President can wear as a private insignia the Sash of the Three Orders,[27] which has become a symbol of the Portuguese presidential magistracy.

The Papal Orders of Knighthood comprise five orders awarded directly by the Holy See and two others which it 'recognises and supports': the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. In response to queries regarding the Catholic Church's relationship to a large number of self-proclaimed Roman Catholic chivalric orders, the Holy See issued a statement in 2012 stating that any body other than its own seven approved orders, 'whether of recent origin or mediaeval foundation, are not recognised by the Holy See' and that 'the Holy See does not guarantee their historical or juridical legitimacy, their ends or organisational structures... to prevent the continuation of abuses which may result in harm to people of good faith, the Holy See confirms that it attributes absolutely no value whatsoever to certificates of membership or insignia issued by these groups, and it considers inappropriate the use of churches or chapels for their so-called "ceremonies of investiture".'[28]

See also


  1. Spielvogel, Jackson J. (January 2010). Western civilization : a brief history (7th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning. p. 179. ISBN 9780495571476.
  2. Gautier, Léon, translated from French by Henry Frith (1891). Chivalry. Glasglow: G. Routledge and Sons. p. 223. Every knight has the power to create knights
  3. Wollock, Jennifer G. (2011). Rethinking chivalry and courtly love. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 75. ISBN 9780275984885.
  4. Anna, Luigi G. De, ed. (2003). Milites pacis : Military and peace services in the history of Chivalric orders : proceedings of the Conference: The Monks of War - the Monks of Peace, Military and Peace Services in the History of Chivalric Orders, Turku 15. - 26. 5- 2001. Turku: Univ. p. 82. ISBN 9789512924257.
  5. Ann Ball (2003). Encyclopedia of Catholic devotions and practices. Introduction by Neil Roy. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor. p. 286. ISBN 9780879739102.
  6. Bunson], Matthew Bunson ; foreword by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan ; [interior art by Margaret (2004). OSV's encyclopedia of Catholic history (Rev. [ed.]. ed.). Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division. p. 602. ISBN 9781592760268.
  7. Stevenson, Katie (2006). Chivalry and knighthood in Scotland, 1424-1513. Woodbridge [u.a.]: Boydell Press. p. 8. ISBN 9781843831921.
  8. Mills, Charles (1861). The history of chivalry. Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea. p. 34.
  9. Bush, M.L. (1988). Rich noble, poor noble. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 65. ISBN 9780719023811.
  10. McCreery, Christopher (2005). The Order of Canada : its origins, history, and development (Reprint ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp. 3–16. ISBN 9780802039408.
  11. Pitt-Rivers, Julian, "Honor and Social Status", in Jean G. Peristany, ed., Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, 20-77 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 30.
  12. Paul Meyer, L'Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal (Paris: Société de l'histoire de France, 1891–1901), with partial translation of the original sources into Modern French. Edition, History of William Marshal (3 vols): Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3.
  13. Kaeuper, Richard W. (1999). Chivalry and violence in medieval Europe (Repr. ed.). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. p. 95. ISBN 9780198207306.
  14. Matikkala, Antti (2008). The orders of knighthood and the formation of the British honours system, 1660-1760. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. pp. 211–13. ISBN 9781843834236.
  15. Duren, Peter Bander van (1995). Orders of knighthood and of merit : the pontifical, religious and secularised Catholic-founded Orders and their relationship to the Apostolic See. Gerrards Cross: Smythe. pp. 307–94. ISBN 9780861403714.
  16. Hieronymussen, Paul; Crowley; photographed by Aage Strüwing; (translated into English by Christine) (1970). Orders, medals, and decorations of Britain and Europe in colour (2d ed.). London: Blandford Press. ISBN 0713704454. In practice, it may be found that the Royal Knighthoods still extant and the true Orders of Merit are identical, but they can differ in their external presentation. The Order can be either the prerogative of The Sovereign, which means that the reigning member of the Royal House rules the institution as the Master of the Order, or it can be a State institution, the President of the country, as Grand Master of the State Orders, having the final decision in all question concerning the Order.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. McCreery, Christopher (2008). Maple leaf and the white cross : a history of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in Canada. Toronto, Ont.: Dundurn. p. 26. ISBN 9781550027402. Before the Royal Charter of Incorporation of 1888, the Order of St. John had no official status in Britain or throughout the British Empire as an honour. The situation was not unlike that now experienced by bodies using the name designation The Order of St. Lazarus. The Order of St. John was simply a charitable organization that involved itself in the teaching of first aid ambulance duties that happened to have attached to it an order of chivalry; on that was unrecognized by all relevant authorities--the Order of Malta, Papal officials, and, most important, the government of the United Kingdom...The involvement of the Prince of Wales was central in affording legitimacy to the Order as it evolved from what was little more than a private club to an official British order of chivalry engaged in important charitable works
  18. "The Royal Family".
  19. "Queen and Honours". The Official website of the British Monarchy. London: The Royal Household. 2009. Archived from the original on 16 January 2013. Retrieved 29 November 2012. As the 'fountain of honour' the Queen has the sole right of conferring all titles of honour, including life peerages, knighthoods and gallantry awards.
  20. JSP 761: Honours and Awards in the Armed Forces (PDF) (2nd ed.). London: Joint Service Publication, Ministry of Defense. May 2008. pp. 12B–4. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-06-11. Retrieved 29 November 2012. only the Life Saving Medal of the Order of St John, The Royal Humane Society medals, Stanhope Gold Medal and the medal of The Royal National Lifeboat Institution may be worn on the right side of the chest
  21. The King's regulations and orders for the army. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office. 1908. p. 287.
  22. "The Crown Today: Functions of the Head of State". Official Page of The Royal Household of His Majesty the King. owned by the House of His Majesty the King (Palacio de la Zarzuela, Madrid 28071, Spain). Retrieved 29 November 2012. Pursuant to the Constitution, the King is a symbol of the unity of the State, and as such, it is incumbent upon him to participate in important State acts...It is also incumbent upon the King to...Confer civil and military positions, as well as award honours and distinctions (Article 62 f).
  23. Code de la légion d'honneur et de la médaille militaire, article R160
  24. "Guide - Décorations étrangères - Constitution d'un dossier de demande d'autorisation de port de décorations étrangères" [Guide - Foreign decorations - Creation of an application form for authorization to wear foreign decorations] (in French). Archived from the original (DOC) on 23 February 2014.
  25. "Dispositions pénales relatives aux décorations" [Penal provisions relating to decorations]. Grande Chancellerie de la Légion d'honneur. n.d. Archived from the original on 9 October 2010. Retrieved 4 March 2012. These two dispositions are meant to protect the ensemble of authentic national and foreign distinctions by attempting to prevent the attire of fake decorations. These may stem from territorial entities which have not acceded to sovereignty or even from countries, nations, empires or kingdoms that are the pure and simple products of someone's overactive imagination, a fan of fiction or even a megalomaniac, if not purely mercantile acts or even the patent intention to abuse and swindle others.
  26. "Constituição da República Portuguesa (VII Revisão Constitucional)". Assembleia da República (in Portuguese). Retrieved 2020-07-09.
  27. "Lei das Ordens Honoríficas Portuguesas". Presidência da República (in Portuguese). Retrieved 2020-07-09.
  28. "Note of Clarification from the Secretariat of State (Holy See)" (Press release). December 2012.
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