The Order of the White Eagle

One of the most valuable exhibits of our museum is the diamond badge of the Order of the White Eagle of the Kingdom of Poland.

For a long time the badge was thought to have belonged to Stanislav August Poniatowski, the last king of Poland. However, research conducted by Liudmila Gavrilova, head of the numismatics department of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, led to a remarkable discovery. According to documents from the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts, the badge was awarded in 1712 to Russian Emperor Peter the Great by the founder of the order – Augustus the Strong, Peter’s ally in the Great Northern War.

The Order of the White Eagle (Polish: Order Orła Białego) is the highest decoration of Poland, awarded for both civil and military services. It was instituted on 1 November 1705. 

King Augustus II limited the number of knights to 72, but since he was keen to maintain its exclusivity, he only conferred the Order 40 times before his death in 1733. Most members belonged to the local Roman Catholic nobility. The son and successor of the monarch, King Augustus III, however, awarded the Order more than 300 times. For the coronation of the following sovereign, Stanisław II August Poniatowski – the last king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – an impressive collar of the Grand Master was crafted. Membership of the Order also swelled, as Stanisław II invested 550 people with the White Eagle.

 The position of Poland-Lithuania declined over the course of the 18th century, and it was eventually annexed by neighbouring great powers – Russia, Prussia and Austria – in the three partitions of the country. After the Third Partition of Poland, in 1795, the Order of the White Eagle was abolished. However, as a result of the following Napoleonic Wars, it was restored already in 1807, first as a decoration of the Duchy of Warsaw (a French client state) and later as a decoration of the Kingdom of Poland, which formed a part of the Russian Empire. In 1831, the troops of Tsar Nicolas I put down an extensive Polish uprising and in addition to stripping Poland of its previous autonomy, Nicolas turned the Order of the White Eagle into an imperial order, pertaining to Russia.

 The White Eagle remained a Russian imperial order until the revolution of 1917. Meanwhile, Poland regained its independence during the First World War and in 1921 the Order of the White Eagle was declared its premier honour. The president of the Republic of Poland was made its Grand Master. In the 1920s and 1930s the Order of the White Eagle was awarded to 24 Polish citizens and 87 foreigners. While maintaining the single class status of the Order, its new statutes permitted the conferral of the collar of the White Eagle upon foreign heads of state.

 Following the Second World War, Poland fell under the influence of the Soviet Union and after the creation of the People’s Republic of Poland in 1948 the Order of the White Eagle was no longer awarded in Poland. However, it was never officially abolished by communist authorities. Since the order was vested in Polish presidency, the President-in-Exile, residing in London, continued to confer it (the People’s Republic of Poland had no office of President, and thus the communist regime did not contest this right). After the collapse of Soviet power in Eastern Europe, the Order was once again reinstated in Poland, on 26 October 1992.