Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101.
Tonight, we’re going to continue with what has become a three-part series. I originally had no intention of making the previous episode, this episode, and the next episode the individual parts of a series, but once I began research for this installment I realized it was a logical way to go, and I’ll explain why.
Most British chivalric orders cover the entire kingdom; however, there are three that each pertain to a different constituent country only. Last time, we talked about the The Most Noble Order of the Garter, which covers England; tonight, we will be discussing The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s premier order of chivalry, which is second only to the Order of the Garter. Next time, we’ll talk about…well, you’ll have to wait for that one. Best we get on with tonight’s topic.
There are several legends that claim to explain the origins of the Order of the Thistle. I’ll make it clear when we begin discussing distinctly English or British monarchs. One story claims that Achaius, King of the Scots, instituted the order in 787 after winning a battle with the Saxon King Aethelstan of East Anglia. Apparently, Achaius saw the cross of St. Andrew (which, as we know from an earlier episode, is a white cross in the shape of an X on a blue background) in the sky during the battle, and so afterwards dedicated the Order of the Thistle to the saint after the battle. However, this story is a bit hard to believe, as Achaius was long dead by the time Aethelstan was king. The official explanation given by the British government is as follows, and can be found at royalinsight.gov.uk:
“The date of the foundation of the Order is not known, although legend has it that it was founded in 809 when King Achaius made an alliance with the Emperor Charlemagne.” This has a bit more credibility, as traditionally Charlemagne did employ some Scottish bodyguards. The government goes on to say that
“It is possible that the Order may have been founded by James III (1488-1513), who was responsible for changes in Royal symbolism in Scotland, including the adoption of the thistle as the Royal plant badge.” I should also add that James minted coins depicting the thistle, so this lends a bit more credibility to his part of the story.
James V conferred membership to “the Order of the Burr or Thissil” to Francis I of France, allegedly because he was embarrassed that he had no honor to bestow on foreign monarchs. Thus, the legend says that he instituted the Order as we know it today.
The story with the most evidence giving it credibility is that the Order was revived by James VII of Scotland, who was also James II of England. Although he is the key player in this version of the Order’s history, the letters patent that he issued in 1687 point to the Order being founded earlier, as his letters state the intent of “reviving and restoring the Order of the Thistle to its full glory, luster, and magnificency.” Thus, one can’t help but think the Order had already been around for a while when James issued his proclamation. James conferred membership in the Order to Scottish peers who supported his political and religious objectives. One of the rules of the Order established by James said that the Order was “to continue to consist of the Sovereign and twelve Knights-Brethren in allusion to the Blessed Saviour and His Twelve Apostles.” However, James appointed only 8 Knights of the Thistle.
James was deposed in 1688 as part of the Glorious Revolution, and his successors William and Mary appointed no further members of the Order. However, the Order was again revived in 1703 by Queen Anne. Its maximum number of members was increased to 16 in 1827 by King George IV; however, women (aside from reigning queens) were still barred from admission. A special order by George VI in 1937 allowed his wife, Elizabeth, to become a Lady of the Thistle. Women were officially allowed to be admitted to the Order by a 1987 statute of Elizabeth II (on a side note, it was this statute that also allowed women to become Ladies of the Garter). It is possible for there to be more than 16 members of the Order; these are admitted as Extra Knights and are created by special statutes. Members of the royal family and foreign monarchs are admitted in this manner; Prince Albert was the first Extra Knight. King Olav V of Norway was the first foreigner admitted to the Order in over 200 years in 1962. Since 1946, the Order of the Thistle has been the personal gift of the reigning monarch, the same as the Order of the Garter; for quite a long time before that, the sovereign chose members on the advice of the government. It is possible for members of the Order of the Thistle to be given membership in the Order of the Garter; historically, many of those bestowed with this honor have resigned from their knighthood in the Order of the Thistle and remained only in the higher order. While it is possible for Knights and Ladies to have their membership revoked, this has happened only once, to John Erskine, 6th Earl of Mar, who participated in the Jacobite rising and was removed in 1715.
It is quite fascinating to see a Knight or Lady of the Thistle in full regalia. A green mantle lined with white taffeta and tied with green and gold tassels is worn over suits or uniforms, with the star of the Order on the left shoulder of the mantle. A black velvet hat plumed with white feathers is also worn, along with a collar made of gold and showing thistles and sprigs of rue over the mantle. A piece known as the St. Andrew is suspended from the collar, and it is a gold-enameled image of St. Andrew holding an X-shaped cross with golden rays emanating from his head. Usually, however, members of the Order wear simpler regalia consisting of a dark green riband, or sash, running from the left shoulder to the right hip. On the sash and over the left breast is pinned the star of the order, consisting of a silver St. Andrew’s saltire, or X-shaped cross as we have previously spoken of, with clusters of rays between the arms. In the middle is a green circle bearing the motto of the Order, “Nemo me impune lacessit”, or “No one harms me with impunity”. Within the circle itself is a thistle on a gold field. As I said before, this elaborate and beautiful star is worn over the left breast, and worn above the stars of any other order the Knight or Lady may belong to (except, of course, the Order of the Garter, as it ranks higher), with a maximum of four stars being worn on the riband at once. The badge of the Order is worn on the riband at the right hip. Upon the death of Knight or Lady of the Thistle, the regalia is returned to the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, and the badge and star are returned personally to the Sovereign by the closest relative of the deceased.
James II originally planned for the Chapel of the Order to be at the Palace of Holyroodhouse; however, the chapel was destroyed by a rioting mob while James was in the process of being booted from the throne. The Order did not have an official chapel until 1911, when one was created for it at St. Giles Cathedral (or High Kirk) in Edinburgh. Each Knight or Lady is given a stall in the Chapel.
Knights of the Order of the Thistle affix Sir before their names and Ladies of the Order affix Lady before theirs. Like the Order of the Garter, wives of Knights may attach Lady to their names, but husbands of Ladies of the Order are given no prefix. They may attach KT or LT to the end of their names in a list of official titles, and these letters appear before all other titles except for baronet (Bt) or baronetess (Btss), Victoria Cross (VC), George Cross (GC), or Knight or Lady of the Garter (KG or LG).
There are currently 15 members of the Order of the Thistle, leaving one vacancy. Aside from these 15 members, there is of course Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay, and Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal.
That wraps up our look at The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle. We’ve got one more order yet to cover, and we’ll look at that next week.
I’d like to mention an upcoming event in the life of British History 101 so it doesn’t catch anyone off-guard. Sometime in the next few weeks, I will be trying an out an ad campaign for this podcast to see if a longer campaign would be a possibility for the show. I assure you that aside from the presence of the ads themselves (and they are few), the show will not change at all. Nothing will be taken away from British History 101 and I promise it will be just as entertaining, informative, and enjoyable as always.
I hope you’ve enjoyed tonight’s show as much as I have. Thanks to Mr. John Hawksley for providing the wonderful theme music for our show. I encourage you to check out more of his work at http://www.hawksley.net/mp3, H-A-W-K-S-L-E-Y, where you can find a wealth of great music performed by a great artist. I’d also like to thank Magnatune this evening. As you know from previous episodes, Magnatune is an independent online record label that allows its artists to retain full rights to their works. However, I’d like to add from personal experience and correspondence that Magnatune is a really interesting company and they’re wonderful people. They’ve been an enormous help to me and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with them. Please visit Magnatune.com for a great selection of artists that would love to have your business.
As always, a transcript of this and past episodes of this podcast is available at BritishHistory101.com. Send questions, comments, rants, and raves to BritishHistory101@gmail.com. Our music tonight is “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” by O Fickle Fortune, available at Magnatune. As always, thanks for listening, and tune in next week for the conclusion of our three-part series on the orders of chivalry.
The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle
27 June 2007 by Michael
Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101.