There is much confusion (and unseemly argument) about the nature of chivalric orders.
Many of the original and most famous Orders of Chivalry arose in response to the Crusades. They were bands of warriors, priests, warrior monks, militia and knights formed together under common ideals, religious beliefs or for a common purpose. Some were formed to protect pilgrims en route to the Holy Land, either by accompanying them as guards or providing fortified safe havens along the way. The original Knights Templar was a warrior order, actively in the thick of the fighting during the Crusades. Others, such as the Brothers Hospitalers of Saint John of Jerusalem, established hospitals to care for the sick and wounded.
Some of these Orders continued well after the Crusades and the end of their original purpose. A few continued their militaristic traditions, like the Teutonic Knights, and are recorded in history as a force to be enlisted and sometimes feared by ruling Princes and Kings who retained their services to put down rebellions or rivals. In Spain and Portugal knightly orders were involved in fighting the Moorish occupation. Others like the Knights Templar evolved into sophisticated societies in their own right, with vast landholdings, their own army and navy, incredible wealth, and offering their many services to ruling monarchs.
Most of the controversy that surrounds Chivalric or Knightly Orders centres around their lineage, each claiming to be rooted in antiquity. In reality, virtually all of the "oldest" orders are in fact revivals of previous orders, or were founded in the 19th and even 20th centuries. For example, the British Order of St. John of Jerusalem was granted its charter in 1888 by Queen Victoria. The Knights of Malta were driven from Malta by Napoleon in the late 1700s only to splinter and reconstitute themselves in the 19th century. The Order of St. Lazarus was abolished on July 31, 1791 by a decree of the National Assembly signed by the King of France, and was only revived in the early 20th century. The Knights Templar (SMOTJ) was founded in 1804 by a French doctor named Fabré-Palaprat and has no connection to the original Templar Order.
When speaking of the granting of knighthoods, in the Commonwealth one automatically thinks of those granted by the British Crown in the annual "Honours List". In fact, the disposition of most of those knighthoods and honours are almost exclusively decided by members of the sitting Government and not the reigning monarch. The Queen only has authority to grant a few Orders of Knighthood without any reference to government ministers - The Order of the Garter, The Order of the Thistle and The Royal Victorian Order. Certain British awards, known as the Orders of Knighthood, entitle the recipient to use the title "Sir", including The Most Noble Order of the Garter, The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick (now extinct), The Most Honourable Order of the Bath, The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. The Order of St Michael and St George has as its Grand Master the Duke of Kent.
For many hundreds of years the Catholic Church has also reserved for itself the power to confer knighthoods and grant orders. There are a number of such Papal awards granted by the Holy See. These include The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, the Order of Pius IX, and the Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great.
There also exists a number of "House Orders", being awards granted by other noble houses and families of Europe, Russia and elsewhere. Prior to the First World War there were a considerable number of such awards - especially in the numerous independent German states - many of which included a knighthood or other title of honour. Many such orders were on the personal prerogative of the head of the noble house who, depending on the Order, was either acting in his capacity of head of state (making it a state award) or as dynastic Grand Master of an Order that existed in parallel to his governmental powers.
Many of the House Orders waxed and waned according to the fortunes of the noble houses associated with them. Some orders linked to specific geographic and political entities - like the pre-1871 German principalities and duchies - were extinguished with the demise of some European noble houses through war, conquest, amalgamation or intermarriage. However, even without a state to command, some noble houses or their descendants have revived or continued their orders as a historical personal privilege, usually limiting awards to members of their own families. The recognition of these awards has been narrowly decided on the basis of whether the former ruling family abdicated or was expelled from power by an external power.
In the world of chivalry, there is considerable discussion given to the issue of whether an order has a recognized fons honorum. A "fount of honor" is usually defined as a sovereign ruler who possesses the authority to grant honours - specifically knighthoods or titles. This has led many modern orders to seek out members of formerly noble houses - no matter how distant in time or geography - to act as "patron" or Grand Master to lend legitimacy to their order. Many orders strain to find "noble" patronage, seeking out the sometimes questionable decendants of long-disappeared micro-states in Europe, the Byzantine Empire or elsewhere. Having secured some noble who has neither throne nor country, they then look down on all others as illegitimate or engage in the politics of reciprocal recognition of each other as the only "true" orders of knighthood.
Uniquely, the founding members of The Order of Saint Joachim chose not to create an order of knighthood that derived its legitimacy from the fiat or sponsorship of a sovereign fons, but rather from the nobility of the ideals it sought to promote and its own Charter. It was a radical idea at the time, the more so since it declared the Grandmastership should be an elected position, and not one that is inherited by a sovereign or noble sponsor. At the time of its founding in 1755, the idea of a democratic order of chivalry - one that governed itself through an elected Grand Chapter as "Chapterial" - was indeed radical. It also meant that a lack of a Grand Master did not end the Order, as it was governed by a Grand Chapter, of which the Grand Master was the elected head. There were a number of periods in the history of the Order of Saint Joachim that it continued without a Grand Master. The earliest example was our first Grand Master, HSH Prince Christian Franz von Sachsen-Coburg-Saalfeld who was elected in 1756 and resigned in 1773. The next Grand Master - Franz Xaver, Graf von Montfort - wasn't elected until 1780, leaving a gap of 7 years. The Order's records are clear that new Knights were admitted during these seven years, showing that the Order continued to function in the absence of a Grand Master. There were several other "regencies" during the Order's history between the election of Grand Masters or where a Grand Master was unable to function. According to the Order's history published in 1948, this was the case in Europe in the lead up to World War II when German and Italian members of the Order resisted Fascism and by necessity had to publicly keep a low profile.
Nonetheless, The Order of Saint Joachim occasionally is criticized for not having been founded or maintained by a sovereign fons, however, the lack of a fons did not prevent the English College of Arms and other European states from repeatedly recognizing the Order of Saint Joachim as a true order of knighthood. Writing from the English College of Arms where he served as Windsor Herald, Francis Townsend, Esq., FSA, published in 1828 the "Calendar of Knights; Containing Lists of Knights Bachelors, British Knights of Foreign Orders, Also Knights of the Garter, Thistle, Bath, St. Patrick and the Guelphic and Ionian Orders", listing all knighthoods and orders of knighthood recorded in the English College of Arms' records. Townsend addressed the question of The Order of Saint Joachim and its lack of a fons very succinctly in 1828:
Townsend's full book can be found here reproduced as a PDF (3.8 MB).
Writing in 1843, G.L. De Rochement and J. Bischoff (Ridderorden: Amsterdam, p. 27) again stated that The Order of Saint Joachim "does not owe its origins to any crowned head, even so it is recognized both on the European mainland and in Great Britain as an Order of knighthood."
And so, the lack of a fons honorum, while curious and enough to be noted by numerous contemporary writers and authorities on chivalry, did not keep The Order of Saint Joachim from being recognized as an Order of Knighthood.
Townsend was not the first person to consider and confirm The Order of Saint Joachim's legitimacy as an Order of Knighthood. The Order of Saint Joachim underwent meticulous scrutiny previously by the English College of Arms in 1802 on the occasion of Admiral Horatio Nelson being awarded the Cross of a Knight Grand Commander of The Order of Saint Joachim. The English College of Arms concluded in its report that The Order of Saint Joachim was indeed a valid and properly constituted Order of Knighthood, and as such Nelson was permitted to accept and wear the honour by the Warrant of King George III.
The Order of Saint Joachim had already been recognized as a legitimate order of knighthood in 1790 by His Apostolic Majesty Leopold II, King of Hungary and Bohemia (later Holy Roman Emperor). On the 27th of April, 1791 King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia issued a similar Royal Grant recognizing the legitimacy of The Order of Saint Joachim and permitting the wearing of the insignia of The Order of Saint Joachim on his officers' military uniforms. After the restoration of the French monarchy following the defeat of Napoleon, King Louis XVIII recognized the Order of Saint Joachim and authorized the wear of its insignia, not as a decoration of former Marshal and King of Naples Joachim Murat, but as a "German" decoration.
The Order of Saint Joachim has nonetheless been associated with several sovereign rulers. Several early Grand Masters were the ruling Counts of Leiningen. They were succeeded by Ernst I, Duke von Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha (1784 – 1844) who continued to award the Order of Saint Joachim in the first half of the 19th century. His son, Duke Ernst II (1818 – 1893) also listed our Order's post-nominals among his honours. Tsar Ferdinand I (Ferdinand Maximilian Karl Leopold Maria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha: 1861 – 1948), was also associated closely with The Order of Saint Joachim. The King of Bulgaria is shown in the accompanying illustration from a popular 1888 card along with the Saint Joachim cross. The continued award and recognition of The Order of Saint Joachim by various members of the Saxe-Cobourgs clearly shows that it did not disappear in the early 1800s as some authors subsequently asserted.
Doubt about The Order of Saint Joachim's recognition as an accepted order of knighthood appears to come largely from a single source. In an 1834 book, A Review of the Chandos Peerage Case 1803, author George F. Beltz argued strenulously against English genealogist and writer Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges' (1762-1837) claim to the hereditary title of Baron Chandos of Sudeley. In seeking the title Brydges went to war with the College of Arms and they went to war with him. He was ultimately denied that title amidst rancorous accusations, but was finally made an English baronet in 1814. Brydges' claim to the title of Baron Chandos of Sudeley was questionable and Beltz, as Lancaster King of Arms, used every opportunity to discredit his campaign to have it recognized, including ultimately writing the book in 1834 after Brydges' death when his descendants continued to make trouble. Brydges also happened to be a member of The Order of Saint Joachim, and in his enthusiasm to smear Brydges, Beltz also took aim at The Order of Saint Joachim. Even though his own English College of Arms had already deemed The Order of Saint Joachim a legitimate Order in 1802 (and subsequently re-approved its acceptance by other Britons), Beltz chose to sidestep that fact. Instead he maligned the Order in an appendix to his work on the Chandos Peerage Case through innuendo unsupported by evidence. Beltz, in justifying denying Brydges the title of Baron Chandos, felt it necessary in the process to also tarnish all other of Brydges’ accomplishments and honours, including his knighthood from The Order of Saint Joachim. Even though there is a preponderance of contemporary literature confirming The Order of Saint Joachim's status as a true order of Knighthood, this one book from 1832 with an ulterior motive is the one that is often cited and repeated to challenge The Order's legitimacy, even recently by the modern College of Arms, which had to grudgingly issue a partial retraction when challenged with the historical facts contained in their own files.
In the United Kingdom the recognition of all foreign knighthoods was finally discontinued by Act of Parliament in March, 1813. Those who had received their knighthoods from recognized foreign sources prior to that date were permitted to retain them and use the honourific prefix "Sir" for the rest of their lives. That is how in Britain and its possessions knights of the Order of Saint Joachim were permitted to retain the title "Sir" and the post-nominals of the Order after that date. The last surviving pre-1813 grant of an Order of Saint Joachim knighthood to an Englishman appears to be to Brigadier General Sir Charles Imhoff KJ, who died in 1853. Our knights - listed as "Sir" and with their post-nominals "K.J."- continue to appear well into the 1800s in various authorities, such as Debretts and guides to the House of Parliament.
Below are examples of period sources recognizing knighthoods granted by The Order of Saint Joachim in the United Kingdom: