On November 28, 1561, the last master of the Livonian Order, Gotthard Kettler, signed a truce with Polish King Sigismund II Augustus, thus bringing the existence of the Livonian order to an end on March 5, 1562. A new state – the Duchy of Courland and Zemgale – was established. The court of the duke became the most important socio-political centre in the land, and it was there that the main officials and institutions of governance and power were concentrated. The Duchy of Courland existed from 1561 until 1795.
Friedrich Kazimir, son of the great Duke Jacob Kettler, died in 1698, and his son and heir, Friedrich Wilhelm, was only five years old. An uncle, Ferdinand, took over as regent. The widow of the duke, Elizabeth Sofia, fled Courland to save herself from the ravages of the Great Northern War, finding refuge with her brother, Prussian King Friedrich I, who took the throne in 1701.
Swedish and Russian forces marched hither and yon across the duchy, and its fate was largely settled in October 1709 in Eastern Prussia, where a wedding was arranged. The groom was Friedrich Wilhelm, who had now reached the age of 17. The bride was Anna, daughter of Tsar Peter the Great’s half-brother Ivan. Thus the Duchy of Courland came under the sway of the Russian Empire. The duke was sent to Germany to be educated as a knight. He was declared to be of age by the council of the duchy in 1709.
Duke Friedrich Wilhelm returned to the duchy on May 13, 1710. In Liepāja, he immediately announced the establishment of a new order – the Order of Recognition (l’Ordre de la Reconnaissance). The order was established in accordance with the mores of the age, and its motto was “Pour les honnêtes gens” (“For People of Decency”).
People who have studied the history of the order have said that the order should really be known as the Order of Gratitude, because the statutes of the order stated that “it has been established in thanks to God Almighty for the recovery of Courland after the Great Northern War” (“et in memoriam recuperatae Curlandiae”). The war had devastated Courland, and the duke, while still a child, had been forced into exile with his mother, Duchess Elizabeth Sofia. They first found refuge in Prussia, but when the duchess remarried, they moved to Bayreuth. The duke was thankful for “overcoming the disaster that one has experienced during the long period of absence from one’s own land.”
Historians also recall that before the Order of Recognition was established, Elizabeth Sofia had established an order in memory of her late husband. It had the motto “Fidele, constat et sincere” (“Trustworthy, Constant and Open”). The order was established in 1698, and the duchess awarded it to her closest confidants. That is all that is known about it.
The idea of establishing the Order of Recognition occurred to Friedrich Wilhelm in Prussia, where he witnessed the establishment and presentation of the Order of the Black Eagle in 1701. The order was presented to him, and it may be that Friedrich hoped to use it to establish a nucleus of aristocrats who would be loyal to him. Given the situation at that time, that would have been of substantial political importance. The Order of the Black Eagle was presented for outstanding civilian and military accomplishments, and recipients received a title of nobility which they could pass on to their heirs.
There was only one class to the Order of Recognition. It was carried around the neck on a light red ribbon with silver edges. The ribbon was the width of a man’s thumb. When a recipient of the order died, all other holders of the order covered the ribbon in black for the next four weeks. Those who had the order had to wear it at all public appearances. If they did not, it could be taken away. After a recipient died, the order had to be returned to the Chapter of Orders.
The order itself was a Maltese cross with white enamel and gilded balls at all eight corners. The cross hung from a gold ring which appeared to be a snake. On the front of the order, in a central medallion, was the enamelled seal of the Duchy of Courland in natural colours, with the aforementioned text “Pour les honnêtes gens” at the end of the cross. On the reverse of the order, there was a central medallion bearing the initials F.W.
No more than 24 people were allowed to carry the Order of Recognition at any one time. This restriction did not apply to rulers, to whom the order could be awarded without limitations, to the chancellor of the order, to two advisors to the Chapter of Orders, the four senior advisors of Courland, and the two advisors to the land of Piltene, all of whom received the order upon taking on their position. The duke could choose no more than one-half of the recipients of the order from among foreigners, while the other half had to be men of Courland. The chancellor and advisors were appointed by the duke. The chancellor was appointed for life, while the advisors served at the pleasure of the duke. The first advisor of the duke had to be a nobleman from Courland. The chancellor received an annual wage of 500 talers, while the advisors were paid 200 talers a year apiece. The chancellor and advisors handled all organisational aspects of the order, but it was the duke and the duke alone who took decisions as to who should be awarded the order.
Men who received the Order of Recognition were obliged to live godly lives and to behave themselves. If someone acted poorly and brought shame upon the order, the Chapter of the Order could vote to have the order taken away. The order was received from the hand of the duke, and the recipient had to promise to honour his ruler and to live in peace and harmony with other holders of the order. If a recipient of the order was suddenly visited by disaster or if he was captured at war, the other recipients of the order were obliged to come to his assistance and to take care of him. On the anniversary of the establishment of the order, recipients were expected to engage in good deeds such as presenting alms to the poor. The Chapter of the Order met on the anniversary each year. The duke had intended to establish a special hall for the recipients of the order, with each recipient paying 25 talers to maintain the room and another 12 talers to reward the secretary of the order for recording their names in the documentation. Each recipient of the order had to have his portrait painted within six months’ time and to submit it, along with his seal, to decorate the hall. There were plans for pension funds for the brethren of the order, but the duke ran out of time. He died on January 21, 1711, while returning from Petersburg, where he had celebrated his wedding to Anna Ivanovna for two whole months.
During his brief rule, the duke managed to distribute only 18 orders, and once he died, the order essentially died, as well. In 1937, there was information to suggest that one of the orders was kept by a museum in the town of Jelgava, but today there is no hint as to whether any example of the Order of Recognition of the Duchy of Courland and Zemgale has survived.
The new ruler of the duchy was the dead duke’s uncle, Ferdinand. He spent most of his time in Danzig and awarded no new orders. In fact, he instructed recipients of the order to give it back, but no one did.
The Cross of Recognition was re-established in Latvia in 1938, and it resembles its predecessor only in part. The secretary to President Kārlis Ulmanis, Jānis Grandaus, wrote that “this is not a precise restoration of the old order. It is a reformed version of the old order, because there have been other contemporary changes.”
Unlike the Order of Recognition, the Cross of Recognition had five classes and three medals of honour, as well as a separate first level for the medal. In place of the initials F.W., the cross now bore the Great Seal of State.
Thought was given on harmonising the Cross of Recognition with the Order of Three Stars, which has a wreath of oak leaves above the cross, and the Order of Viesturs, which has the Great Seal above the cross. It was decided that the Cross of Recognition would have eight interwoven rings to represent the eight dukes of Courland who ensured that the duchy flourished. The 1938 Cross of Recognition was designed by the sculptor Gustavs Šķilters.
The law on orders and medals of honour was amended on February 26, 1940 to say that the Cross of Recognition would have three levels of medals of honour and a separate first level. The Cross of Recognition was awarded for outstanding love of the Fatherland and for achievements on behalf of the state, the people of Latvia, and Latvian culture.
The Cross of Recognition, First Class was awarded to 21 people, Second Class to 21 people, Third Class to 110 people, Fourth Class to 341 people, and Fifth Class to 1,314 people. The medals of honour were awarded to 730 people at the first level, 764 at the second level, 354 at the 3rd level, and 303 at the special first level.