Most Papal Knights in Great Britain today are members of the Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great. This Order has an interesting history. In the early 19th Century, the whole of Europe was in turmoil after the catastrophic events of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasions. Traditional forms of government, the legacy of the feudal system of the Middle Ages, had become outmoded and everywhere reform was demanded by a vociferous multitude. The Pope was still the temporal ruler of the Papal States in northeast and central Italy. He maintained his own army, but when revolutionary elements set up a provisional government in his territory in 1830, Austrian troops had to be called in to restore the situation.
On 1st December of that year, Pope Pius died. He was succeeded by a Camaldolese monk, Bartolomeo Capellari, who took the title Pope Gregory XVI. The name is significant because it was Pope Gregory I, Saint Gregory the Great (incidentally the Apostle of England) who founded the temporal power of the papacy, the “Patrimonia Perti”, and one of the new Pope’s chief considerations, inevitable in view of the position he inherited, was to preserve that power for himself and his successors.
One of his first concerns, therefore, was to reward the Italians and Austrians who had restored his political authority. In 1931, only seven months after his election, he founded the Papal Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great. This was an order or merit to be bestowed on “…gentlemen of proven loyalty to the Holy See who, by reason of their nobility of birth and the renown of their deeds or the degree of their munificence, are deemed worthy to be honoured by a public expression of esteem on the part of the Holy See”. The insignia of the Order was to be an eight-pointed cross bearing a representation of Saint Gregory on the obverse and on the reverse the motto “Pro Deo et Principe”, suspended from a red and gold ribbon. There were to be three classes of Knights who were reminded, at the end of the inaugural brief, that they must progressively maintain by continued meritorious deeds, the reputation and trust they had already inspired, and prove themselves worthy of the honour that had been conferred on them, by unswerving fidelity to God and to the Sovereign Pontiff.
Pope Pius was installed on the 4 August 1903. He was Giuseppe Melchior Sarto, the first Pope since the Middle Ages to spring from peasant stock. He was a man of saintly life and abundant energy and set himself the task of reforming many aspects of Catholic life. In 1905 he introduced the practice of frequent, even daily, Holy Communion for lay people. In the same year he published the Apostolic letter “Multum ad excitandos” and he reformed all the Pontifical Orders of Knighthood, appointed the Cardinal Secretary of State of the Vatican City State as Grand Chancellor of all Pontifical Orders and established a Chancery which issued rules concerning the uniforms of the various Orders. Until 1905, only the Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great had the Cardinal Secretary of State as Grand Chancellor.
The Order of Saint Gregory the Great was divided into Civil and Military Divisions. A uniform was prescribed with a dark green tailcoat and trousers, both trimmed with silver embroidery, a cocked hat and dress sword and worn with white gloves. A member may be a Knight Grand Cross, a Knight Commander with or without a star, or a Knight. The uniform is slightly more embroidered for higher ranks.