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Order of Leopold (Belgium)

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Status  Currently constituted
Order of Leopold (Belgium)
Type  Order of Merit with five degrees
Day  Awarded on 8 April (Birthday of King Albert I) and 15 November (King's Feast), and for obliging cases on 21 July (Belgian national holiday).
Eligibility  Eligible for persons above the age of 42
Awarded for  Belgian nationals or some distinguished foreign persons who made very important contributions to the Belgian state or society

The Order of Leopold (Leopoldsorde in Dutch, Ordre de Léopold in French) is one of the three current Belgian national honorary orders of knighthood. It is the highest order of Belgium and is named in honour of King Leopold I. It consists of a military, a maritime and a civilian division. The maritime division is only awarded to personnel of the merchant navy, and the military division to military personnel. The decoration was established on 11 July 1832 and is awarded for extreme bravery in combat or for meritorious service of immense benefit to the Belgian nation. The Order of Leopold is awarded by royal decree.



When Belgium became independent of the Netherlands, there was a urgent need to create a national honour system that could serve as a diplomatic gift. The first King of the Belgians, Leopold I of Belgium, created this soon after with his first government - a new Belgian Order. Two years after the independence, the young King officially founded the dynastic Order of Leopold. The king approved the colour and grades both civil and military, and the official motto L’Union fait la Force/Eendracht maakt Macht.

In the early 19th century, the court sent the Grand Cordon as a diplomatic gift. The founder gave his French family grand Cordons as wedding gifts. People who fought in the Belgian revolution became members in great numbers. In 1838 the King lost his right to create members, this was from then on the responsibility of the foreign office. At the end of his reign the major political elite were members of the order.

King Leopold II gifted major Belgian artists, generals and clergy into the order. His successors continued to bestow the Order; between the thousands of recipients are some famous people like Porfirio Díaz, Pope Leo XIII, Mohamed Ennaceur, Eugène Scribe, Alfred Belpaire, Victor Horta, Joseph Geefs, Gustave Van de Woestijne, Emile Claus, Fernand Khnopff, Joseph Jongen, Eugène Ysaÿe, Alfred Bastien, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Thomas Vinçotte, Mgr. Rafael Merry del Val, Brand Whitlock, Charles Lindbergh, George S. Patton, Bernard Montgomery, Dwight Eisenhower, Wesley Clark, Charles de Gaulle, Mstislav Rostropovich, Count Jacques Rogge, Prince Fulco Ruffo di Calabria and Prince Emmanuel de Merode. At the end of World War I, the Order became internationally recognised for its famous members.

The order was bestowed as a personal marriage gift by the King Leopold II to Prince Karl Anton of Hohenzollern and Ernst Gunther, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein. In 1878 the King named several diplomatic dignitaries Grand cordon in honour of his silver wedding celebration, among them Mgr Vannutelli.

In 1919 King Albert granted all Lieutenant-Generals of the Belgian Army the Grand Cordon in Brussels. The King bestowed the Major Generals with the Grand Cordon, amongst the recipients some important generals like Alphonse Jacques de Dixmude, knight Antonin de Selliers de Moranville and Baron Édouard Michel du Faing d'Aigremont. One of the rare Ladies in the order was Countess Renée de Merode.

The Order can be bestowed post-mortem; for example, Emile Verhaeren received the Grand Cordon after his death. People can lose the order, for example what happened during World War I with Alfred Wotquenne.

After the Second World War, the Order of Leopold was bestowed on the several officers of foreign militaries who had helped to liberate Belgium from the occupation of German forces. Most illustrious was the grand Cordons with Palms given by the King to Sir Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945. The medal was also granted to Karel Bossart in 1962, and Josip Broz Tito in 1970.

Today membership can only be granted by decree of His Majesty King Philippe of Belgium and is reserved to the very most important Belgian nationals and to some distinguished foreign persons who contributed in one way to the Belgian military, the Belgian civil society or the Belgian State. Annually, there are two major days when the King normally grants membership, on April 8 (King Albert I's birthday) and on November 15 (Day of the Belgian Dynasty).

During state visits, the Order of Leopold is the most important diplomatic gift of the state. In 2015 some protest was noted when King Philippe offered the Grand Cordon to President Erdogan of Turkey during his state visit in Belgium.


The Order of Leopold is issued in five classes:

  • Grand Cordon ('Grand Cordon/Grootlint'), who wears the badge on a collar (chain) or on a sash on the right shoulder, plus the star on the left side of the chest;
  • Grand Officer ('Grand Officier/Grootofficier'), who wears a badge on a necklace, plus a star on the left side of the chest (created on 31 December 1838);
  • Commander ('Commandeur'), who wears the badge on a necklace;
  • Officer ('Officier'), who wears the badge on a ribbon with rosette on the left side of the chest;
  • Knight ('Chevalier/Ridder'), who wears the badge on a ribbon on the left side of the chest.
  • All five classes come in three divisions (civil, military, maritime). No membership can be granted to a person before the age of 42, except in the military division.

    Only the Belgian king is entitled to chair the order and to be named Grand Master ('Grand Maître/Grootmeester').

    The Grand Cordon title is reserved in general for other monarchs, heirs, foreign heads of state, generals, ministers of state and Prime Ministers. The Belgian Court has granted the Grand Cordon to all of its family members often considered a personal marriage gift of the king. The Court has sent grand cordons to other dignitaries like ambassadors, cardinals, important artists and in exeption high functionarii, like count Jacques Rogge in 2013. As of the class of commander the decision must be approved by the Council of Ministers.


    The collar of the Order is in gold, with nine crowns, nine face-to-face monograms "LR" (for "Leopoldus Rex" for King Leopold I), and eighteen lions.

    The badge of the Order is a white-enameled Maltese Cross, in silver for the Knight class and in gold for the higher classes, with a green-enameled wreath of laurel and oak leaves between the arms of the cross. The obverse central disc features a lion on a black enamel background; the reverse central disc has the face-to-face monogram "LR" (for King Leopold I); both discs are surrounded by a red enamel ring with the motto "Unity Is Strength" in French (L'union fait la force) and in Dutch (Eendracht maakt macht). The cross is topped by a crown, which might have crossed swords (military division) or anchors (maritime division) underneath it. The civil division has neither swords nor anchors.

    The plaque of the Order is an eight-pointed faceted silver star for the Grand Cordon class, and a silver faceted Maltese Cross with straight rays between the arms for the Grand Officer class. The central disc has a lion on a black enamel background, surrounded by a red enamel ring with the motto as on the badge. Golden crossed swords or anchors might be added behind the medallion, depending on division.

    The ribbon of the Order is usually plain purple. However, if the Order is awarded in special circumstances, the ribbon of the Officer and Knight classes show the following variations:

  • Crossed swords are added to the ribbon when awarded in wartime (if the Order was awarded during the Second World War or during the Korean War, a small bar is added to the ribbon mentioning the name of the war);
  • The ribbon has a vertical gold border on both sides when awarded for a special act of valour at war;
  • The ribbon has a central vertical gold stripe when awarded for an exceptionally meritorious act in wartime;
  • A silver star is added to the ribbon when awarded for meritorious acts of charity;
  • A gold star is added to the ribbon when the recipient has been mentioned in dispatches at the national level;
  • Silver or gold palms are added to the ribbon when awarded in wartime to military personnel.
  • Stars and borders or stripes can be awarded together, but these deviations are currently only rarely awarded. The colour of the ribbon has varied during the nineteenth century from red to purple.

    The ribbon bar of the order, which is worn on the semi-formal dress uniform is:

    Since 1921, insignias of the Order not awarded in wartime have to be purchased by the recipient.

    Current Award Conditions of Belgian National Orders

    National Orders are awarded by royal decree at fixed dates: 8 April (Birthday of King Albert I), 15 November (King's Feast), and in some cases on 21 July (Belgian national holiday) to reward meritorious services to the Kingdom of Belgium based on the career path and age of the recipient. A number of different regulations rule the award of National Order for the various ministries. In addition, the National Orders may be awarded by the King for especially meritorious deeds. The royal decrees are published in the Belgian Official Journal (Moniteur Belge).

    The Minister responsible for Foreign Affaires, currently the Federal Public Service (SPF/FOD) Foreign Affairs, administers the national orders and has a role of advisor in cases not fitting within a regulation.

    For the award of National Orders for persons to which no regulation apply or has been adopted, the number of awards is limited every year by decision of the Council of Ministers (contingent).

    The classes of the National Orders are integrated in a combined hierarchy defined by law, whereby within one class the Order of Leopold is senior to the Order of the Crown, which is senior to the Order of Leopold II. Except in some specific cases, one cannot be awarded a National Order at a level below the highest that the recipient has already received (e.g. a commissioned officer who become a Commander of the Order of Leopold II because of meritorious personal service to the King before he became a Knight of the Order of Leopold may not be awarded the latter decoration or that of Officer of the Order of Leopold).

    Persons who are the subject of criminal proceedings will usually not be awarded a National Order until they are declared not guilty.

    Award of the Order of Leopold in the Military Division

    The Order of Leopold in the Military Division (with crossed swords under the crown) is awarded to military personnel on the basis of their length of service, with the years of initial training counting for half and the first twelve years of service as member of the flying personnel counting double:

  • Grand Officer: Awarded to a Lieutenant-General after holding that rank for about 2 years, for exceptional services to the Armed Forces;
  • Commander: Awarded after 35 years of meritorious service to a general officer;
  • Officer: Awarded after 28 years of meritorious service to a field officer;
  • Knight: Awarded after 20 years of meritorious service to a commissioned officer with minimum rank of Captain, and after 40 years of meritorious service for a non-commissioned officer.
  • For awards to military personnel, there is no minimum age requirement. The Order of Leopold is also sometimes awarded to military personnel not meeting the above requirements when they have performed especially meritorious services to the King.

    Award of the Order of Leopold in the Maritime Division

    The Order in the Maritime Division (with crossed anchors under the crown) is only awarded to members of the merchant navy, as members of the Belgian Navy are awarded the Order in the Military Division. The Order of Leopold is currently almost never awarded in the Maritime Division.

    Award Conditions for Long Civilian Service

    The Knight's Cross of the Order of Leopold may be awarded to workers in the private sector or contractual employees of the public sector after fifty-five years of professional activity.

    The Knight's Cross of the Order of Leopold is also awarded to the members of the national and provincial committees for the promotion of labour who have reached the age of 42 after a tenure of 20 years (national committee) or 30 years (provincial committee).

    The Association of the Order of Leopold

    Founded in 1932 on the occasion of the centenary of the creation of the Order of Leopold as "Société d’entraide des membres de l’Ordre de Léopold" / "Vereniging tot onderlinge hulp aan de leden van de Leopoldsorde" (Mutual aid society for the members of the Order of Leopold), the Association of the Order of Leopold (Vereniging van de Leopoldsorde in Dutch, Société de l'Ordre de Léopold in French) is a non-profit association that has as main objectives the maintenance of the prestige emanating from the nation’s highest distinction and the material and moral assistance between the members, decorated with the Order, who voluntarily join the Association. The Association is headquartered in Brussels, and its members include many famous people such as federal ministers, members of parliament and senior general officers.

    Equivalent Orders

    Even though orders from different States are not always easy to compare, the Order of Leopold is roughly equivalent to the following orders from other States.

  • The Decoration of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria, which is the highest Austrian decoration.
  • The National Order of the Leopard, highest order of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • The Danish Order of Dannebrog, the Order of the Elephant being only awarded to Heads of State.
  • The French Légion d'Honneur, which is the highest French order and has similar classes and award conditions.
  • The Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, which is the highest and only federal order of Germany.
  • The British Order of the Bath, which is the highest British order awarded to more than a very limited number of people, with two differences: the lowest class of the Order of the Bath (Companion) would be equivalent to the class of Commander of the Order of Leopold (the lower classes of the Order of Leopold therefore having no British equivalent), and the Order of Leopold does not confer knighthood.
  • The Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, which is the highest Italian order and has similar classes.
  • The Luxembourg Order of the Gold Lion of the House of Nassau, which is the highest Luxembourgian order and has similar classes but is only rarely awarded, and the Luxembourg Order of Adolphe of Nassau.
  • The Dutch Military William Order, which is the highest Dutch order but rarely awarded, could be considered the equivalent of the Military Division of the Order of Leopold awarded for bravery. The Order of the Netherlands Lion would be equivalent of the Order of Leopold in other cases.
  • The Norwegian Order of St. Olav, which is currently the highest Norwegian order and has similar classes.
  • The Swedish Order of the Sword, which is the highest Swedish order awarded more widely than to Heads of State and has similar classes, the Royal Order of the Seraphim being only awarded to Heads of State.
  • References

    Order of Leopold (Belgium) Wikipedia