History of the Polish Orders of Chivalry

By Michael Subritzky-Kusza Ct, GCStS.

  • THE ORDER OF THE WHITE EAGLE (Order Orla Bielego)
  • THE ORDER OF SAINT STANISLAUS (Order Swietego Stanislawa)
  • THE ORDER OF MILITARY VIRTUE (Order Virtuti Militari)
  • THE ORDER OF POLONIA RESTITUTA (Order Odrodzenia Polski)

Throughout the recorded history of the Polish nation, which at times has been bathed in blood and sorrow, the Roman Catholic religion has provided a fundamental element of cohesion centered upon a deep belief in Nationhood, Fatherland and God.

Intrinsically linked with Poland’s one thousand years of history is a millennium of Roman Catholicism from which the Polish people have united and drawn enormous strength during the very darkest hours of the nation’s history.

In the year of Our Lord 966, the first Polish King, Mieszko I, embraced Christianity, forsaking the Pagan Gods of his ancestors and placing the protection of his kingdom under the shield of the Holy Roman Empire. Mieszko I is regarded as the first official King of Poland, and the founder of the dynastic Piast kings.

Under the power and unity of the Piast kings the nation of Poland expanded. The arms of the Piast family was a silver eagle borne upon a red shield. The Piast dynasty ruled Poland from 966 until the death in the latter part of the fourteenth century of King Casimir III “The Great”. His death in 1370 brought to an end the direct line of the ancient Piast kings.

In 1386, the Polish Princess Hedwig, a relative of Casimir III, gained the throne of Poland through a series of concessions to the Polish nobility – included in which was an arranged marriage with the Pagan Lithuanian Prince Jagiello. Prior to the marriage Jagiello was baptized and took the christian name of Ladisllaus II. The arms of the family Jagiello were an armoured knight in natural colours seated on a rearing horse with shield grasped and sword raised, the field being blue.

From this union was founded the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The quartered arms of the Piast/Jagiello family became the coat of arms of this Commonwealth. Later elected kings (after the extinction of the Jagiallion Dynasty in 1572) continued to carry these quartered arms with their own arms “borne in pretence” upon the shield as an escutchen.

The Polish system of nobility was based on the principles of equality amongst an exclusive caste of peers, who had earned their spurs in blood and bravery. The ancient Polish code of chivalry forbade the bearing of titles, and the formulation of chivalric orders was looked upon with disdain; they were both regarded as a means of creating a division amongst a group of equals. The nobility at times in the nations history, did raise “Dragonet Brotherhoods” which were quasi military orders mobilized to deal with the specific threat of Prussian paganism on its northern borders. These early dragonet societies included the Brotherhood of the Dragon, the Knights of Dobrzyn and the Knights of Christ. These Orders existed in the twelth century in northern Poland only until the arrival of the Teutonic Knights after the fall of the Holy Land. The Polish military brotherhoods then faded into history.

The Sovereign and Military Order of Saint John of Jerusalem made its entry into Poland in the year 1170. The knights of this Order established themselves in Poznan. This Order later established commanderies at Krakow, Zagost, Caden, Costere, Lesnic, Szulec and Stwolowitz. The Order was established in Poland at the request of the Pope but was never regarded as a successful endeavour. By 1775 only the commanderies at Poznan and Stwolowitz remained and they in turn were later absorbed into the Russian Grand Priory after the partitions of Poland in 1795.

The nobility of Poland resisted vehemently the introduction of chivalric orders until the very twilight of the Commonwealth. Those noblemen who did possess orders were of foreign creation and as a general rule were either the Order of the Golden Fleece (Austrian) or the Order of the Holy Ghost (French). The earliest attempts by the Monarchy of Poland at establishing chivalric orders occurred in 1325 when King Wladislaw V instituted the Order of the White Eagle. The attitude of the nobility to this encroachment upon their ancient code of chivalry was one of absolute distate. The Order itself was invested spasmodically from time to time, then fell into abeyance.

The previously mentioned Order of the Holy Ghost was for a short period regarded as a Polish order. It was established by King Henry III on 31st December 1578, to commemorate his ascension to the throne of France and also being proclaimed the King of Poland. This Order fell into abeyance in France in 1791.

Also in the sixteenth century, Jerzy Ossilinski, the Great Chancellor of the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth, established the Order of the Immaculate Conception. This Order was also looked upon with disdain by the Polish nobility who shortly after passed several resolutions in the Diet (Parliment of Nobles) restricting honours associated with this award. As a result the Order of the Immaculate Conception was bestowed upon foreigners or senior members of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1672, George Wilhelm, the last of the Piasts, founded the Piastowian Order of the Golden Hart. It was established in Silesia and is regarded as a Hunting Order which was bestowed upon his immediate circle of friends during his lifetime.

Polish orders of chivalry finally became accepted as part of the Polish nobility status as late as the eighteenth century, and this turn of events only became acceptable after the ascension to the Polish throne of the Electors of Saxony, resulting in an influx of western European ideals, attitudes and customs; a number of which were to the detriment of the clan and caste system of the old nobility. It was now the time of the domination of Poland by the wealthy magnate families.


(Order Orla Bielego)

This Order was founded on 1 November 1705, by King August II. Having been invested by Czar Peter the Great of Russia with the Order of Saint Andrew, the Polish King re-established the Order of the White Eagle and hence conferred the honour as a reciprocal act.

The Order of the White Eagle came in a single class and was awarded for exceptional merit to the Polish Commonwealth. The badge of the Order was hand- made and each decoration was heavily encrusted with jewels. It consisted of an eight-pointed Polish cross (formy) made of gold (showing at the rim), with a thin white border and red enamel body. Each of the eight points of the cross carried a diamond and between the arms of the cross was appear rays also jewel encrusted. Superimposed over the cross was a crowned Polish eagle with wings outstretched and head facing to the right.

This decoration was normally worn suspended from a sky blue moire scarf, hung diagonally from the right sholder. Knights of this Order also wore a great collar or chain on ceremonial occasions over a mantle bearing the Order’s motto: “Pro Fide Rege et Lege” (For Faith, King and Law).

During the reign of August II (1697-1732) the Order was bestowed not as a meritorious award but as an act of grace and favour by the king. Holders of this Order, during the time of August II, had to purchase numerous copies of the star of the Order as it was required to be worn on all outer garments, including the recipient’s dressing gown. When travelling by coach a recipient was required to travel in a carriage drawn by six horses and be attended by an armed escort.

Foreigners could receive this Order and one such notable recipient was the Duke of Wellington.

After the partitions of Poland the Order was absorbed into the Imperial Russian honours system and awarded to various Poles up until the Polish insurrection of 1831. From 1831 until the end of World War I the Order was bestowed by various Czars as a lesser award for senior Russian officers.

On 4 February 1921, the Polish Republic once again restored the Order to its former lustre as the highest Order of the Republic. The star of the Order was altered slightly and bore upon it the new motto: “Za Ojczyzne i Narod (For Fatherland and Nation.

From the time the Order was restored until the communist subjugation of 1945, the Order was bestowed only thirty times. During the dark days of communist suppression this Order was once again held in abeyance in favour of the communist decoration “Order Budowniczych Polski Ludowej”, (The Order of the Constructors of the Polish Peoples Republic).

Note: In 1939 a Government (In Exile) was established in London where it remained until the fall of communism in 1990. In 1954 this organisation split into “two” governments (In Exile), and this situation remained until the 20 December 1990 when “both” governments (In Exile) ceded their authority to the democratically elected government of President Lech Walesa.

Both of these Polish Governments (In Exile) awarded this decoration.


(Order Swietego Stanislawa)

On the 7 May 1765, King Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatowski founded the Order of the Knights of Saint Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr. The Order was raised to do honour to his patron saint and to give conspicuous recognition to knights who served the monarch. It was awarded in three classes. (The Russians later added a fourth class in 1815).

The original design of the badge was a red enamelled eight-pointed Polish cross superimposed on a white Polish eagle with a plaque in the centre depicting Saint Stanislaus in full bishop’s regalia. The design was later altered to a red, eight-pointed Polish cross with white eagles between the arms of the cross and the image of Saint Stanislaus depicted in a circular plaque in the centre of the cross. The ribbon for the Order was red with a white border.

The number of knights in the Order of Saint Stanislaus was limited to a hundred; this figure, however did not include the king or members of the Order of the White Eagle who were admitted into the Order automatically.

All Poles and Lithuanians admitted into this Order had to prove nobility through a minimum of four generations via both paternal and maternal lines.

The ceremony of investiture into this Order was distinctly western, requiring the individual to genuflect (kneel on his right knee) before the king, being dubbed with a sword, and thence kiss the monarch’s hand.

Originally it was worn as follows:

Class I was worn as a scarf draped from the right sholder in the same fashion as the Order of the White Eagle. Class II was worn as a neckbadge, and Class III members of the Order wore the decoration on a suspension ribbon on the left breast – chevalier fashion.

The motto of the Order was: “Praemiando Incitat” (be inspired by reward).

After the partitions of Poland this Order was also taken over by Imperial Russia, and a second white stripe added to the border. Later in history with the the abdication and subsequent assassination of Czar Nicholas II, the Order fell into abeyance. It was not revived by the newly independent Polish State, established in 1918, but was instead superceded by the ‘Polonia Restituta’ (The Order of Poland Restored).

On the 9 June 1979, the Polish Government (In Exile) of President Sokolnicki re-established the Order of Saint Stanislaus to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Stanislaus of Szczepanow, placing it third in order of precedence after the Order of the White Eagle and the Order of Military Virtue, and before the Order of Polonia Restitutia.It was re-established in five classes and was used to a very great extent as a distinctive reward for those who had served against the might of communism. A considerable number of very well known members of the western world; and senior military officers were awarded this decoration, which had been re-established in five classes. The design of the badge was virtually the same as the early Polish version except that the centrepiece featured a corona civica encircling an upraised crusaders sword, between the monogram SS – signifing victory over totalitarism.

In 1990, following the defeat of communism in Poland, the Polish Government (In Exile) of President Sokolnicki presented a copy of an Act of Cessation which was accepted on behalf of Poland by Professor Dr. Mieczyslaw Tyczka, Chairman of the Constitutional Tribunal. The Order of Saint Stanislaus by this time in history had become a powerful lobby group in the fight against communism and as well had established a network of trustworthy contacts throughout Eastern Europe which would no doubt serve as a means of distributing aid to those most in need.

On the 15 September 1990, the Polish Government (In Exile) of President Sokolnicki drew up a constitution separating the Order of Saint Stanislaus from the “patrimony of the Polish Government (In Exile)”, which was signed by Sokolnicki and all members of his government. The Order was then given an independent character as a charitable order of chivalry, and is now established worldwide.


(Order Virtuti Militari)

This Order was originally founded in 1792 by King Stanislaus II August Poniatowski as a reward for extreme valour and was first awarded after the Battle of Lilince fought against Russia.

The original design of the actual decoration was simplistic, consisting of an oval medallion, but was soon after amended to an instantly recognizable Polish cross.

The Order came in five classes and consisted of an eight-pointed gold-rimmed black enamelled Polish cross with the name of the Order displayed on the arms of the cross. In the centre of the cross is a wreathed medallion in gold with a white Polish eagle; crowned and with wings outstretched. In 1793, for political reasons the king himself abolished the Order, but it was almost immediately reinstated by the Diet. In 1815, the Order was absorbed into the Imperial Russian system and was later abolished after the Polish uprisings of the 1830’s.

The Order of Military Virtue was revived by the Polish Republic in 1919, not as an order of chivalry but as the nation’s highest gallantry award bestowed “for extreme courage on the field of battle”. The motto of the Order is : “Honor I Ojczyzna” (Honour and Country). During WWI the towns of Lwow and Verdun were each awarded the Order of Military Virtue in Class V.

After the communist take over of 1945 the only difference made to this decoration was the removal of the crown above the eagle. The ribbon for the Order of Military Virtue is royal blue with a black stripe towards each edge. It is perhaps the most striking of all Polish decorations.

During the Exile period this decoration was awarded by both Polish Governments (In Exile).


(Order Odrodzenia Polski)

The Order of Polonia Restituta (Poland Restored) was established on the 4 February 1921, not as a chivalric order but as an award for outstanding service in the field of Art, Science, Literature, Improvement of Industry, Agriculture, Commerce; and for Acts of Civil Bravery.

The design of the badge is an eight-pointed Polish cross in white enamel with a central red medallion displaying a crowned White Eagle, and a royal blue circlet running around the outside with the Latin inscription POLONIA RESTITUTA . All finishing is in yellow gold. On the reverse of the decoration is the year: 1918.

The ribbon of the order is red with a narrow white stripe towards each edge.

During the exile period this decoration was awarded by both Polish Governments (In Exile).

Since 1990 Poland has instituted a new decoration known as The Order of Merit of the Polish Republic. This decoration is a five armed cross, not unlike the French Legion of Honour and currently awarded along similar criteria. the decoration is awarded in five classes (as for the Polonia Restituta) and the ribbon for this decoration is dark blue.

For any further information please feel free to contact the writer at:[email protected]

In closing may I state that I am well aware of the attitude of the current Polish Government towards the various Presidents and Governments (In Exile), during Poland’s most recent period of turmoil. As one who has been involved with Polish history over the last 50 years at a personal level, and knowing personally the majority of the individuals involved, let me say that when in time the history books are written and the facts and truth fully confirmed, history is sure to treat the memory of President Zaleski and President Sokolnicki very kindly indeed.

Copyright © 1997 Michael Subritzky- Kusza Ct. All Rights Reserved.