© Guy Stair Sainty

The oldest French Royal Order, Saint Michael was later displaced as the highest honor accorded by the Kings of France following the foundation of the Order of the Holy Spirit. Its creation in 1469 almost coincided with the elimination of the remaining threat to the French Crown from the vassal princes or from England (at least until the Wars of Religion a century later) and may be seen as a significant element in the process of centralizing the authority of the French Monarchy, as well as a further step in the gradual erosion of the power of the nobility. A nobility which is dependent on the Crown for its privileges and prerogatives was less likely to be a threat than the feudal princes who had been responsible for one and a half centuries of conflict. Thus the foundation of the Order of Saint Michael by Louis XI represents the beginning of a new era in the relationship between Crown and subject.

Louis's predecessors had preferred to identify their supporters by the distribution of livery badges and uniforms, a pattern that had been imitated by the over-mighty subject princes, the Dukes of Orléans, Berry, Brittany and Burgundy. [1] The enormous prestige which the Dukes of Burgundy had attained with their Order of the Golden Fleece cannot have escaped the notice of the king, and indeed it seems very likely that the new royal Order was intended to counterbalance the Burgundian institution. Charles the Rash of Burgundy had been perceived as a major threat, although within less than a decade Charles would be dead and his French territories recovered for the crown. [2]


(from a 15th century Armorial, facsimile edition 1890)

The Order's foundation was proclaimed at a tournament given in honor of the king's younger brother, the Duke of Berry, whom he was hoping to detach from the Burgundian camp, on 1 August 1469. [3] The statutes provided that the knights should meet annually, on the feast of its patron the Archangel Michael (29 September), at the chapel of the monastery of Saint Michael off the Normandy coast. However, not only were no Chapter-Generals held during Louis' reign but the chapel was never used as the seat of the Order, probably because of the difficulty of gathering the knights at such a remote place (in 1496 the chapel of Saint Michael du Palais in Paris became the seat).

Like the other royal Collar Orders, Saint Michael had a limited number of knights (originally thirty-one, then thirty-six including the King, of whom fifteen were nominated in the course of the first year), but was less "collegiate", as the Sovereign had greater power over nominations. Louis himself did go through the motions of requesting the assent of the other knights before making appointments (called "elections") but it does not seem that anyone ever questioned his nominations or those of his immediate successors. Unlike the other Orders the Sovereign undertook certain explicit responsibilities towards the companions, particularly to give them "competent and reasonable pensions ... to prefer them before all others in honors, offices and charges and to increase, augment, and remunerate them duly and liberally according to their merits and services". [4] In 1476 an administrative officer was appointed, the Prévost Maistre de Ceremonies but insufficient funds were provided for any activities to be planned. In 1496, the second Sovereign of the Order, Charles VIII, applied to the Pope to implement the statute establishing a college of priests at the new chapel (twelve canons, twelve chaplains or vicars, six choristers, three clerks, four ushers and five musicians), at which Assemblies or Chapter-Generals could be held and this received Papal approval in a Bull of the following year. Unfortunately the lack of funds meant that this project came to nothing and, following Charles' death in 1498, it was abandoned. The first Assembly was not actually held until the reign of the fourth Sovereign, Henry II, in 1548, and in 1555 the Order's seat was transferred to Vincennes, for the convenience of the court. Henry did not attempt to adhere to the limitation on the number of members and, during his twelve year reign, he appointed between ninety-three and one hundred and one companions. [5]

The first knights of Saint Michael were representatives of some of the most ancient and powerful noble houses, although their selection was more probably due to the position of twelve of them as captains of the royal compaignons d'ordonnance. [6] Apart from the king's brother, the Duke of Berry and his cousins the Duke of Anjou (titular king of Naples) and Duke of Bourbon, other knights appointed by Louis XI included members of the Luxembourg, Laval (2), la Trémouille, Chabannes (2), and Crussol families. Later nominations by Louis XI included three Rohans, the king's cousin the Duke of Orléans (future Louis XII), four Bourbon Princes of the blood, the Count of Dunois (of the bastard Orléans line), Charles de Melun, Charles of Artois (Count of Eu), and the kings of Denmark and Scotland. Two nominees refused the Collar, one out of hostility (the Duke of Brittany), the other because he had the Golden Fleece and would theoretically have been in breach of those statutes (the Duke of Guelders). Charles VIII had increased the number of foreign members by giving the Collar to two members of the House of Stuart (Alexander, Duke of Albany, and Beraud Stuart d'Aubigny, both then in the French royal service), and to the Duke of Savoy, while he also began what came to be common practice, by giving the order to a foreign ambassador (Luca Spinola, representative of the Venetian republic).

The increasingly wide distribution of the Order, the number of persons admitted of relatively low estate and the failure of the Sovereign to hold regular assemblies, undoubtedly made it a less prestigious honor when compared to the Golden Fleece and the Garter. Although the formal limit on members was increased to fifty in 1565, this number was vastly exceeded and by the accession of Henri III in 1574 there may have been as many as seven hundred living knights of Saint Michael, ranging from foreign monarchs down to bourgeois of modest origins. [7] Henri III recognized the urgent need to reform the Order and by founding the Order of the Holy Spirit in 1578 established a two-tier system of reward: the new Order would be given to foreign and to French princes, to great nobles and very distinguished servants of the Crown, while Saint Michael would be used to recognize service to the crown by lesser nobles and bourgeois. The number of members was extended formally to a limit of one hundred, plus the one hundred knights of the Holy Spirit who would all receive the Saint Michael at the time of nomination. [8] This remained the maximum number until 1830.

Unlike the other great royal Collar Orders, Saint Michael was the only one to be named after the Saint to whom it was dedicated, in this case the Archangel Michael. [9] Furthermore, the badge of the Order was an image of Saint Michael, standing on a rock (to represent Mont-Saint Michel), in combat with the serpent. It was suspended from a gold Collar made of cockles (the traditional badge of pilgrims to the holy places) tied to one another with a double knot; the statutes provided that in certain circumstances the badge could be hung from a simple chain and it was later provided that it could be suspended from a black riband. As with the Golden Fleece, the king had the title of Chef et Souverain (Chief and Sovereign), a dignity which was effectively united to the French Crown.

The Order of Saint Michel did not immediately take on the character it was to be given in the eighteenth century, by which time it became an award for bankers, artists, doctors and others who had distinguished themselves in the royal service outside the military sphere. While Henri IV admitted several non-nobles, [10] he also gave it to some foreign grandees whom he did not perhaps consider eminent enough for the Holy Spirit - such as Adam, Count of Schwarzenberg (in 1609) and the more exotic sovereign Duke of Moldavia (date unknown). However, from the reign of Louis XIII no more peers of France were given the Order (with one exception, [11] and except by virtue of having received the Holy Spirit) and from the foundation of the Order of Saint Louis in 1693 it ceased to be awarded for military service. Louis XIV did permit the maximum number of members to exceed one hundred on occasion but his great-grand son and successor, Louis XV, kept carefully to the limit, while admitting a far higher proportion of non-nobles or newly ennobled gentlemen than any previous Sovereign. The last nominations made by Louis XVI were in 1790, Saint Michael being abolished in that year, along with the Orders of the Holy Spirit and Our Lady of Mont Carmel (although Saint Louis continued to be awarded for military distinction by Louis XVI until 1792, and after the execution of the king by the regency acting in the name of Louis XVII).

Louis XVIII, as titular king, made some eleven awards of the Order in 1797 and one in 1798, but did not give the Order again until after the second restoration when, in 1816, he nominated thirteen new knights (of whom eight were doctors or surgeons). The last nominations made under the ancient Monarchy were in 1828 and neither Charles X, not his successors the titular kings Louis XIX nor Henry V made any nominations of the Order. The government of Louis-Philippe purported to abolish all the royal Orders, except that of the Legion of Honour, and subsequent representatives of the legitimist line only ever made nominations to Saint Michael and the Holy Spirit, leaving the Orders of Saint Louis, [12] Military Merit, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Lazarus to remain dormant. The Order of Saint Michael was not awarded for more than one century after Charles X's last nominations, when it was given by Jaime, Duke of Anjou and Madrid (representative of the Carlist line and, as such, the senior male descendant of Louis XIV and legitimist claimant to the French Crown) to Jean, Count d'Andigné (2 August 1929) and his son, Amedée, Count d'Andigné (25 August 1930).. The Order was not awarded again until the late 1960's when Jaime (Jacques II), Duke of Anjou and Segovia, nominated six new knights (his secretary, M. Patrick Esclafer de la Rode, Count Pierre de la Forest Divonne, M. Massimo Sciolette, M. Teodoro Constanti Zarifi, M. Charles-Otto Ziesniss, and one knight whose identity has been withheld). The Orléanist claimants to the French Crown have not awarded the Order of Saint Michael although the Duke of Orléans did make one award of the Order of Saint Louis (to General Athanase de Charette [13]) in the first decade of this century.

The badge of the Order is an oval medallion in gold bearing the image of the Archangel Michael standing on a rock, holding a lance with which he stabbing the serpent. It is suspended from a gold Collar of cockle shells or, more commonly, from a black riband worn over the right shoulder to the left hip.


[1]See Doulton, op.cit., p.427.

[2]See Doulton, op.cit., p. 431.

[3] Much of the early history is adapted from Doulton's masterly study, op.cit., pp.431-447.

[4] See Doulton, op.cit., p.440.

[5] The lower figure is based on the names listed by the Comte de Colleville and Francois Saint-Christo in Les Ordres du Roi, Paris, 1925; the higher figure is given by Doulton, op.cit., p.435.

[6] See Doulton, op.cit., p.444.

[7] Based on a study of the nominations listed by Colleville, op.cit.

[8] See under the Order of the Holy Spirit. The badge of this Order has on the reverse that of Saint Michael and while members of the latter were generally styled Chevaliers de l'Ordre du Roi, the knights of the Holy Spirit were called Chevaliers des Ordres du roi.

[9] The King stated in the prologue to the statutes that he had founded the Order to the glory of God, in reverence of the Blessed Virgin "...and to the honour and reverence of Saint Michael the first knight, who in God's quarrel battled against the ancient Enemy of the human race, and cast him out of heaven...". See Doulton, op.cit., p.440.

[10] Such as Louis Vixer, in 1590, and Anthony Charles (an Englishman), in 1594.

[11] The Duke of Roquelaure, who was nominated in 1667.

[12] It has been claimed by some writers the Henry V, the Count of Chambord, gave the Order of Saint Louis to his nephew, the Count of Bardi, to recognise his distinguished service during the second Carlist wars.

[13] Who was the descendant through a bastardy of Charles, Duke of Berry, second son of Charles X). For a study of the awards of the Orders of the Holy Spirit and Saint Michael after 1830, see Baron Herve Pinoteau, "Les Ordres du Roi" Depuis 1830, Instituto Salazar y Castro, Madrid, 1973; and Ronald E. Prosser The Royal Prerogative, The Raventhorn Press, Iowa City, 1981.