Post-classical history

St. Maurice, Order of

Originally an association of hermits, founded in 1434, refounded as a military-religious order in 1572 and assigned the property of the Order of St. Lazarus in Italy, forming the Order of SS Maurice and Lazarus.

Strictly speaking, the original order of St. Maurice was not a religious order. According to book 7 of the Commentaries of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (later pope as Pius II), when Amadeus VIII, duke of Savoy, retired to a hermitage in the woods near Lake Geneva, he was accompanied by six elderly nobles, all experienced knights. As they had changed their profession from war to religion, the group called themselves Knights of St. Maurice (Lat. Sancti Mauritii Milites), after the commander of the Theban Legion. According to tradition, during the Roman Empire the members of the legion had been martyred nearby for their Christian faith.

These hermits did not follow a religious rule or wear a formal religious habit, and their “order” was not formally acknowledged by the church authorities. They were an informal association, more of a religious confraternity than a religious order. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini recorded no more of this group, which presumably broke up after Amadeus VIII became pope as Felix V in 1439.

In 1572 Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy set up his own Order of St. Maurice, deliberately named to echo his illustrious ancestor’s order, with himself as its grand master. In the same year Pope Gregory XIII gave the new order the Italian commanderies of the Order of St. Lazarus. The new foundation was a military-religious order with the function of defending Christendom: it had to maintain two galleys to attack the Turkish and North African pirates that harassed Christian shipping around the Italian coast. Unlike the Order of St. Stephen of Tuscany, the Order of SS Maurice and Lazarus never achieved international notice for its naval activity and soon became effectively no more than a royal order of chivalry.

In 1868 King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy reformed the order to be an order of merit, and the “Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus” was bestowed as a mark of honor: for example, Guglielmo Marconi (d. 1937), the inventor of wireless telegraphy, was created a commander of the order. After Italy became a republic in 1946, the order was suppressed within Italy and its properties confiscated. The order still exists today outside Italy as a charitable order, with the current duke of Savoy as its grand master.

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