What are orders of knighthood and where did they come from?

Modern orders are associations of individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to a particular country. Their history goes back to the Middle Ages. 

The head of an order is known as the Grand Master and is usually the King, Queen or president of the country. By conferring honours, a country shows what people and what deeds it is proud of. Former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers (1939-2018) once called the honours system ‘the heart and soul of the nation’.

Origins in the Middle Ages

The first orders in western Europe were founded during the medieval crusades. Groups of pious knights responded to a call from the Pope to free the holy city of Jerusalem from Islamic rule. Later they came to be called crusaders, a name that derives from the Latin word for the Christian cross they wore as a symbol. They supported pilgrims visiting the Holy Land and helped to defend Jerusalem once it had been recaptured.

Services to a country

Later, European monarchs founded orders of their own, as a way of binding powerful nobles (and their lands) to the monarchy. Around 1750 a new kind of order came into being, based not on status or noble birth but on the service rendered by an individual to a monarch or a country. This was the origin of the modern orders of merit. There are three such orders in the Netherlands: the Military Order of William, the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands and the Order of Orange-Nassau.