Ferdinand IV and III (later I) of the Two Sicilies had inherited the throne as a child and, as the first king to be born and educated in the kingdom for several centuries, was to become extraordinary popular with the common people, among whom he was known as the King of the Lazzaroni and also, because of his unusually large nose, as il Re Nasone. Renowned for his somewhat coarse manners, he was indolent, tolerant and easy-going, all characteristics calculated to endear him to the populace even if they sometimes alienated the nobility and foreign visitors. Forced to retreat to Sicily during the short-lived Parthenopean Republic, the King found that with the increasing involvement of foreign powers in the affairs of his kingdom, the Order of Saint Januarius was not a suitable reward for some of those who served his Crown with distinction. Immediately following his return to Naples he decided to establish the Royal Order of Saint Ferdinand and of Merit, by decree of 1 April 1800, in memory of his ancestor Ferdinand the Great, King of Castile. Its purpose was laid out in the first paragraph of the founding decree: to recompense those who have and who will have rendered extraordinary and important services and given great and extraordinary proofs of loyalty and attachment to our royal person and to the monarchy .
The statutes did not impose any religious restriction on membership and one of the first to receive the grand cross was the British Admiral, Horatio Nelson (to whom the King also gave the Dukedom of Bronte), who as a Protestant was ineligible for the Order of Saint Januarius. Another early recipient was the Prime Minister, Sir John Acton, who was already a knight of Saint Januarius (see his diploma, image). Knights were granted the Order as novices and once they had been formally received by the Sovereign as Grand Master became professed . The statutes provided for an elaborate formal uniform in white and gold with gold hat decorated with a white cockade and three tall, coloured feathers, which, once the knight was received or professed , was augmented by a dark blue mantle, collar, gold belt and sword. The Order was given initially in two classes, grand cross and commander; the class of knight (of the small cross) being added on 25 July 1810. The number of grand crosses was limited to twenty-four (including members of the royal family), these were more rarely awarded than Saint Januarius but ranked lower than the more ancient Order, all of whose members were entitled to the collar. With the occupation of Naples in 1806, the Order was suspended but it continued to be conferred by the King in Sicily and during the exile served as the principal award for the most loyal Sicilian nobles.
With his country at war the first recipients were predominately drawn from national and allied military commanders. As a military award, the commanding general who succeeded in a total victory could demand the grand cross; commanders who had taken a city or fortress could demand the commander s cross. Grand crosses had the right to the title of Eccellenza and the privilege of remaining covered in the presence of the King, with the precedence of Ciambellani di servizio. All members had to swear allegiance to the Grand Master, always the King, at their investiture and had to be loyal to the Church. The professed knights, who had to prove nobility, had the right to a grander and more ornate uniform than the novice knights. The Order had four officers in addition to the Grand Master, the Grand Chancellor, the Grand Master of Ceremonies, the Grand Treasurer and Secretary, who were distinguished by wearing the commander s cross on a narrow ribbon with the breast star in silver.
The badge of the Order, the same design for all classes but different sizes, was identical to the breast star but ensigned by a crown. It was composed of a circular enamelled centre with the image of the robed and crowned King Ferdinand standing in a grassy field, with the motto FIDEI ET MERITO below and surrounded by six rays, alternating with six fleur de lis; on the reverse is the inscription FERD. IV INSTITUIT 1800. The ribbon from which the cross was suspended (on the breast for knights, round the neck for commanders and over the right shoulder for grand crosses), was dark blue with a crimson border. The grand crosses were also entitled to wear the gold collar of the Order, composed of alternating towers, fleurs de lis, a crown and sceptre device and the letter F , both these last mounted on crossed flags. A gold and silver medal of the Order was added on 25 July 1810. The Order was given the new Church of S. Francesco di Paola in Naples by decree of 9 May 1819.
Although a decree of dubious legality of the King of Sardinia dated 7 September 1860, declared that this Order had been abolished, both King Francis II and the Count of Caserta continued to award it, the latter doing so for the last time in 1912. The Count of Caserta only made three awards to Italian citizens, creating two grand crosses and one commander, but gave it frequently to members of both the Two Sicilies and other royal families. The Grand Magistery has never been abandoned and each successive Head of the Royal House has maintained the prerogative of making awards of Saint Ferdinand and of Merit.