Fake equestrian orders – what drives men to playact?

There was a splendid item from Rome Reports news agency recently. It was issued from the Vatican (where else could such an item possibly come from?) and was entitled, “Watch out for fake Equestrian Orders”. What on earth was this about; rogues riding about on horseback pretending to be part of the Vatican cavalry? It seems Equestrian Orders have nothing to do with horses today, although centuries ago there was an element of chivalry attached to them. They are part of the Holy See’s own honours list and include such distinctions as being a member of the Supreme Order of Christ, the Order of the Golden Spur (I like that title), the Pian Order, the Order of Saint Gregory the Great and the Order of Pope Sylvester.

There are two other recognised Orders: these are the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, whose Grand Master is Fra Mathew Festing, and the Equestrian Order of the Holy See Sepulchre of Jerusalem, led by the Grand master, Cardinal O’Brien. Apparently the Vatican has decided to publish a list of the Equestrian Orders it recognises, because “unfortunately, many people who claim to be part of these religious Orders” are in fact no such thing. Fancy that. The Holy See has declared that it doesn’t recognise any of the documents, insignias, membership or even diplomas issued by pretend Orders which claim legitimacy under its aegis. Ever discreet, it doesn’t mention any names of these made-up Orders masquerading as the real thing, which is a pity. Perhaps the imposters are the same people who believe in The Da Vinci Code and the search for the Holy Grail; plots and pomp have gone to their heads and they live in a fantasy world of chivalry and regalia.

Alongside the news item was a photograph of two Ruritanian-type gentlemen wearing sashes, medals and white bow ties, looking like extras in a comic opera. This may sound a sexist remark – but I bet you don’t get women pretending to be members of fake Equestrian Orders. Men love uniforms and dressing up; they take themselves more seriously than women do. The Order of the Golden Spur doesn’t mention women members at all, though since 1994 women have been appointed Dames in the same class as men in the Order of St Gregory the Great.

The Order of the Golden Spur is “conferred upon those who have rendered distinguished service in propagating the Catholic faith or who have contributed to the glory of the Church either by feat of arms, by writings or by other illustrious acts.” That includes all the staff at the Herald then; it would certainly raise the tone of the Herald office if a few sashes, medals and spurs could be casually displayed, alongside some gold braid and gilt buttons. Mind you, the Order has had its disreputable moments: Casanova was elected a member in the 18th century (he was described as an “adventurer”) and for some inexplicable reason, so was the late Shah of Iran in the 20th. Just now it seems that the Grand Duke of Luxembourg is its only living knight. I vote that the staff in Lamb’s Passage should keep him company.