The institution of knighthood stems from the holy orders that the Catholic Church established in the Middle Ages. The word order' (from the Latin ordo) then meant a closed circle, the members of which were bound by certain obligations and swore to observe a set of rules. During the crusades, the rules governing monastic orders were extended to the soldiers who, once in the Holy Land, established various religious-military orders to ensure the safety of pilgrims and the sick and to further the battle for Christianity. Some of the most renowned medieval orders of knighthood were the Templars (1118->), the Hospitallers (1113->) and the Order of Teutonic Knights (1198->).


The institution of knighthood was transformed when the French bourgeoisie began to reward members of the Third Estate, first for distinguished service on the field of battle and later for civilian achievements. Thus a new category of orders was created: orders of merit. The first of them, the French Legion of Honour, was established in 1802 and got its system of rank in 1805. The Legion of Honour is a mixed order, that is, it admits members for both military and civil achievements. Orders exclusively for military achievement were soon founded alongside the mixed orders of merit. The Finnish Order of the Cross of Liberty, established in 1918, is one such order. There are also entirely civilian orders of merit, for instance those for distinction in the arts and sciences, orders conferred by royal courts and orders for women. Orders of merit are no longer the exclusive right of the nobility or elite, and new classes of rank have been introduced: knight grand cross, commander and knight. Modern orders of merit tend to have five classes: grand cross; grand officer or commander, first class; commander, officer or knight, first class; and knight or chevalier.


There are three official orders in Finland: the Order of the Cross of Liberty, the Order of the White Rose of Finland and the Order of the Lion of Finland. The President of Finland is the Grand Master of all three orders. The orders are administered by boards consisting of a chancellor, a vice-chancellor and at least four members. The orders of the White Rose of Finland and the Lion of Finland have a joint board.

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