Few people have done more to document The Order of Saint Joachim than Sir Levett Hanson. Indeed, as our Order’s Vice Chancellor at the beginning of the 19th century, Hanson travelled to the courts of Europe, maintained the Order’s records and correspondence, wrote its history and was personally responsible for bestowing the Cross of a Knight Grand Commander on the hero of the age, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
Levett Hanson was born in 1754 in Yorkshire. He was educated at Bury St. Edmunds and North Walsham in Norfolk, where he met fellow student Horatio Nelson who became a lifelong friend. He continued his studies at Wyclife and Trinity College Cambridge, which he left for Emmanuel College following an unspecified “brawl”.
Hanson left for a tour of Europe in 1776. From that day forward, he lived and worked in the courts of Europe, returning to England for only four brief stays until his death in 1814.
In 1780 Hanson became the Councillor to the Prince of Limbourg, the Duke of Holstein, at Ghent. He was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Duke’s Order of St. Philip, from which he derived his title “Sir”. His “diploma” recording his knighthood and entitlement to the title “Sir” was duly registered with the English College of Arms, an extract of which can be seen below, taken from the 1828 book by Francis Townsend, FSA, the “Calendar of Knights; Containing Lists of Knights Bachelors, British Knights of Foreign Orders, Also Knights of the Garter, Thistle, Bath, St. Patrick and the Guelphic and Ionian Orders“, listing all knighthoods and orders of knighthood recorded in the English College of Arms’ records. Townsend served as the English College of Arms’ Windsor Herald. Hanson, a serious student of knightly orders, would have been careful to make sure any honours of dignities bestowed upon him were carefully recorded with the proper authorities.
In 1787 Hanson stayed at the court of the Duke of Parma, and in 1791 he became Chamberlain to the Duke of Modena and held the rank of Brigadier General. By 1794 Hanson had already “incurred the suspicion of the Austrian government” and was compelled to leave Modena.
Hanson’s official biography does not mention why or how he “incurred the suspicion of the Austrian government”. In an article titled: Levett Hanson of Normanton (1754-1814): Un agente segreto fra logge massoniche e club giacobini, (AA.VV., “Formazione e controllo dell’opinione pubblica a Modena nel ‘700“, a cura di A. Biondi, Modena 1986, pp. 165-276. Trans: “Levett Hanson of Normanton: A Secret Agent of the Masonic Lodges and Jacobean Clubs“), author Giuseppe Orlandi writes that Hanson incurred the wrath of the now anti-Masonic Austrian empire for his work as a “secret agent” of the Masonic Lodges and radical so-called Jacobean Clubs. He is alleged to have used his positions at court and his frequent travels to help organize Masonic and radical Jacobean opposition to the Austrian government in Italy.
Hanson was clearly an active Freemason, and almost certainly used his contacts and travels as opportunities to visit other masons and their lodges – not to mention the noble families who frequented them. Considering his relationships with many of the noble families of Europe, it would appear to be completely out of character for him to have any interest in radical Jacobean causes. Quite the contrary, his friend Admiral Nelson firmly put down an Italian radical and Jacobean rebellion in 1794.
Regardless, the persecution of rebels and the suspicion of Freemasons by Austria’s secret police in the late 1700s did not require much proof of actual wrongdoing, and Hanson was compelled to leave Modena. On arriving in Innsbruck that year he was arrested and kept in confinement for 11 months. He was tried in Vienna and released, taking refuge in Germany. He settled at Erlangen as an honoured friend of the ruling Saxe-Hildburghausen family, who awarded him the family Order of the Duke.
In 1800 he became acquainted with The Order of Saint Joachim and was created its Vice Chancellor, a position he took up with great energy and enthusiasm that would occupy him until his death fourteen years later. Along with the Grand Chancellor Hans Karl, Baron von Ecker und Eckhoffen, Hanson maintained the running and continuation of The Order when our Grand Master had been taken prisoner by Napoleon during his invasion and occupation of the German States. Given the wars and changing boundaries of Europe during this time, the Order’s “Grand Chapter” largely moved with him as he sought friendly courts and refuge.
During this same period in Erlangen, Hanson conceived writing a book that detailed all the knightly orders of Europe. He wrote to all the sovereigns and noble houses of Europe, requesting details of their orders of knighthood. In 1802 he finally published An Accurate Historical Account of all the Orders of Knighthood at present existing in Europe. It was printed in two volumes in Hamburg and published in 1802 in London. Befitting such a subject, the books were extravagantly printed on thick paper and quarterbound in leather with gold stamped spines. Interestingly, he does not identify himself by name as the author anywhere in the book or dedication – the author is simply listed on the frontispiece as “An Officer of the Chancery of the Equestrian-Secular and Chapteral Order of Saint Joachim”. Although printed in a small run, the book became quite popular and is referred to by several other writers on chivalry from the same period. The book was dedicated to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who had just received at Hanson’s initiative the Cross of a Knight Grand Commander of our Order.
Three rare copies of Sir Levett Hanson’s two volume work:
“An Accurate Historical Account of all the Orders
of Knighthood at present existing in Europe”
and an original copy of the 1787 Constitution and Rules or “Abrege” of the Order
(private collection of the Grand Master)
Naturally, as our Vice Chancellor, Hanson begins with a lengthy chapter in his book, “Of the Equestrian Secular and Chapterial Order of Saint Joachim”, which is a wonderful source of firsthand information regarding the history, membership and rituals of our Order. Even writing in 1802 Hanson has already seen that The Order of Saint Joachim was unique among orders of Knighthood. Hanson begins his chapter by highlighting the modernity of our Order:
It now becomes our Duty to speak of one, founded in 1755, in a manner similar to those above mentioned; [i.e. those of St John and the Teutonic Order etc.] but for purposes more suited to the modes of living and Spirit of the present age.
Around 1800, when Hanson was writing, The Order of Saint Joachim was an “Order for today” – suitable for the best in his contemporary world. He was speaking as someone who had experienced in his own time the upheavals caused by the French and other European Revolutions, the Enlightenment and the decay of the feudal system. As much as he loved living at court and the friendship of the nobility, Hanson saw the future belonged to all men (and women, since The Order of Saint Joachim at that time already admitted ladies).
Hanson saw that the ancient chivalric orders that only accepted aristocrats as members would ultimately have to give way to recognizing merit over the circumstances of birth. While nobles and aristocrats played an important part in our own Order, The Order of Saint Joachim could already also accept those who by their own efforts had ennobled themselves through charitable works and public service. This, and a historic lack of a fons honorum, caused other orders to sometimes look askance at The Order of Saint Joachim, but the passage of time has proven Hanson’s words to be true.
In 1807 Hanson moved to Stockholm, and finally in 1811 to Copenhagen, where he died in 1814.