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Orders of Chivalry in the Netherlands: from crusades to charity

Insider throws light on 'secret' societies
28 November 2017
The symbol of the Order of St John

Orders of chivalry have fascinated people for centuries. These once powerful organizations, which fought to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule during the crusades, still exist. However, these knights and dames no longer wage literal war, but crusade instead for faith and charity. They prefer to go about their work unnoticed, which shrouds them in a veil of secrecy. For his PhD at the University of Groningen, Tom de Witt Hamer studied orders of chivalry in the present-day Netherlands (1965-2015). By changing their goals, these organizations are still able to present themselves as socially relevant, De Witt Hamer concludes. The aristocratic orders of chivalry also play an important role in preserving the nobility as a group in the Netherlands.

Research as ‘insider’

De Witt Hamer studied orders of chivalry and their networks, their position in society, their respective positions, their good works and their strategies for continued existence. He analyzed the data of 2289 members, and his contacts meant he could also conduct research as an insider. His familiarity with the world of orders of chivalry enabled him to see the meaning behind certain activities, rituals and conventions. This led to a unique understanding of these orders. In ‘Geloven verplicht’ De Witt Hamer describes not only the traditional orders of chivalry, but new ones too: corporations of men and women who, in the spirit of the old orders of chivalry, direct their efforts to faith and charity. These new orders emerged from the middle of the 20th century onwards. To join, one no longer needed to be a member of the aristocracy. In the Netherlands, these new orders are called ridderlijke orden to distinguish them from the ridderorden, the national orders of chivalry.

German Order Chain
German Order Chain

‘Secret’ societies

Much historical research has been conducted into orders of chivalry around the world, but little research has been conducted into the position and functioning of these orders and their members. This is precisely what De Witt Hamer looked at. He focuses on questions such as Why did new orders of chivalry emerge in the Netherlands from the 1950s onwards? What is their position in modern society? Why are they still relevant? Which conscious or unconscious strategies do they adopt to respond to an advanced process of social change? Their covert nature means that orders of chivalry are not always visible to the outside world. They are likely to act like secret societies, so if they do seek the limelight, this causes a surprised response that such elite and archaic institutions still exist. The question of whether they are still able to position themselves as an elite and whether they can distinguish themselves from others as ‘upper class’ is a theme running through the thesis.

Honourable and hidden intentions

The question of why new orders of chivalry were founded from the 1950s onwards is not an easy one to anwer. The reasons were varied: to promote chivalrous spirit among people, an aversion to materialism, to do charitable work, to promote Christian beliefs, to work towards unity in Europe and to bring together different peoples. Some orders had very honourable intentions that harked back to old chivalric ideals. Based on a Christian tradition, these focused on maintaining the Christian faith and helping one’s fellow man. Other orders clearly had a hidden agenda. They made use of the exclusive status of existing orders of chivalry and, with an outward show of uniforms and insignia, presented themselves front stage as chivalric societies. Backstage their aims were much less noble, and were driven by financial gain and their founders’ thirst for status.

Socially relevant

In the last 50 years, the orders have changed in two areas: religion and their works. By regularly adapting both, they are still able to attract members and participate in civil society. Their networks and the important contribution made by aristocratic orders to the continued existence of the nobility as a collective in the Netherlands, means that as organizations they are relevant to modern society.

More information

Tom de Witt Hamer

PhD ceremony and thesis

Last modified:16 April 2020 4.11 p.m.
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