The Légion d'Honneur is currently the oldest existing order in France, since those of the Ancien Régime disappeared definitively in 1830 and no other imperial order survived events of 1815. As a result of this situation, the Légion is often seen not only as Napoleonic but also strongly linked to the orders which were abolished, such as the Ordre du Saint-Esprit (reserved for the nobility), the Ordre de Saint-Louis (a military decoration), and the secondary orders of the ancien régime, namely the Ordre de Saint-Michel and the Ordre de Saint-Lazare.
However, unlike those older orders, the Légion was never meant to be a mediaevalising chivalric order, restricted to certain social classes. Originally there was no costume, chapter or insignia – indeed Napoléon writing to his brother Louis on 7 January, 1807, described the chivalric orders as 'ridiculous', closing with the words 'The Légion d'Honneur has never been seen as an Order of Chivalry'.
The 29 articles of the bill creating the order support this contention:
– article 1: the 'Legion of Honour' is created as the enactment of article 87 of the constitution regarding rewards for military and civilian excellence,
– article 2: the Legion is composed of a Grand Conseil and fifteen cohorts,
– article 3: national property, to the value of 200.000 Francs in 'rentes', is assigned to each cohort,
– articles 4 to 7: regulations concerning the running of the cohorts,
– article 8: each legionaire is required to swear an oath: “to dedicate himself to the service of the Republic, to the preserve its territory and to keep it entire, to defend the government and laws of the Republic, to look after the properties entrusted to him, and do everything in his power for the maintenance liberty and equality”,
– the other articles, particularly 'Titre II', were dedicated to the creation of hospices and retreat home for the cohorts and conditions of access to the Legion.
The cohort members who sat on the the cohort council were required to meet twice a year at the seat of the cohort, and every legionaire was to come to the general assembly once a year. As a result of the generous 'rentes', each legionaire could live well, and on retirement, legionaires had access to the Légion d'Honneur retirement homes and hospices.
There was however a strong political edge to the order. An important role for the institution was the creation of an elite with a single pro-regime political point of view, what one might call a 'party'. As Roederer said to the Corps Législatif during the discussions concerning the Légion d'Honneur (15 Floréal, An X), 'This is a political institution which places intermediaries in society, through whom the acts of the regime are transmitted with fidelity and goodwill to public opinion, and through whom public opinion can reach the regime'.
However, the Legion soon changed from a federation of new men serving a new state, grouped around their young leader, without insignia, without distinction within the state but acting within the political and economic life of the country, to become very similar to the chivalric orders of other states. There are perhaps two reasons for this:
– 1 the financial inefficiency of the cohorts. Pragmatic Bonaparte passed three decrees, two in An XIII (11 Pluviôse, 15 Ventôse) reducing cohort property value to 100.000 Francs and allowing the free removal of cohort property, and one in 1809 (28 February) abolishing the administration of the cohorts and transferring property to the Caisse d'amortissement.
– 2 the empire was firmly settled on its foundations, and for Napoleon a 'party' could become useless, possibly even inconvenient.
So the Legion became like the chivalric orders of the ancien regime, with costume, insignia, dignities, and a hereditary nobility based on the order.
The order still today conserves this chivalric spirit, whilst nevertheless keeping to its egalitarian ideals and its meritocratic principles.