It should not be confused with the Congregation of the Holy Ghost or with the religious Order of the Holy Ghost. It was the senior chivalric order of France by precedence, although not by age, since the Order of Saint Michael was established more than a century earlier.
Although officially abolished by the government authorities of the French Republic (along with the French monarchy) following the French Revolution, its activities carried on. It is still recognised by the International Commission on Orders of Chivalry.
Prior to the creation of the Order of the Holy Spirit in 1578 by King Henri III, the senior order of chivalry in France had been the Order of Saint Michael. This order was originally created in 1469 to rival the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece, and to help ensure that leading French nobles remained loyal to the Crown. Its membership was initially restricted to a small number of powerful princes and nobles, but this increased dramatically due to the pressures of the Wars of Religion.
At the beginning of the reign of Henry III, the Order of Saint Michael had several hundred living members, ranging from kings to bourgeois. Recognising that the order had been significantly devalued, Henry III founded the Order of the Holy Spirit on December 31, 1578, thereby creating a two-tier system: the new order would be reserved for princes and powerful nobles, whilst the Order of Saint Michael would be for less eminent servants of the Crown. The new order was dedicated to the Holy Spirit to commemorate the fact that Henry III was elected as King of Poland (1573) and inherited the throne of France (1574) on two Pentecosts.
During the French Revolution, the Order of the Holy Spirit was officially abolished by the French government, along with all other chivalric orders of the Ancien Régime, although the exiled Louis XVIII continued to acknowledge it. Following the Bourbon Restoration, the order was officially revived, only to be abolished again by the Orleanist Louis-Philippe following the July Revolution in 1830. Despite the abolition of the order, both the Orléanist and Legitimist pretenders to the French throne have continued to nominate members of the order, long after the abolition of the French monarchy itself.