The Order of the Thistle
The Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle is one of the oldest orders in the United Kingdom; its conference is in the personal gift of the sovereign and not under advice from her government; and has a very exclusive and limited membership. Earlier this month a new knight was added: Prince William, Earl of Strathearn. Already a Knight of the Garter (England’s highest order of chivalry), William wore the star ensigns of both at this year’s Trooping of the Colour; and will be formally installed at a ceremony at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh on the 5th of July. It is a symbolic act that further strengthens the monarchy in Scotland; and that relationship going forward.
Like many ‘ancient’ Scottish traditions, the origins of the order are actually relatively new; albeit not modern. It is a function of monarchy to be seen to be regal and full of pomp and circumstance – part of the pageantry that makes the institution so appealing. This was not lost on kings going back into the mists of time, but many of the outfits, ceremony, customs and ritual surrounding the British Crown can be traced back only a couple of hundred years in many instances; and some are 20th century in their design – but, meant to hearken back to an age when kings ruled as well as reigned.
The Order of the Thistle in it current guise (which may be its only ever incarnation) was established by King James VII (James II of England) on the 29th of May 1687. As an absentee monarch who actually enjoyed a fair amount of support in Scotland he, like now, was keen to foster a close relationship with his northern subjects; and he turned to two of the most important ministers of state to come up with a innovative idea that combined regal authority, ceremony, exclusivity and importance. Two brothers, John Drummond, Earl of Melfort and Secretary of State for Scotland and James Drummond, Earl of Perth and Lord Chancellor then went about ‘resurrecting’ the Order. In truth they essentially invented it.
Legend has it that a Scottish/Pictish king granted the order to the great emperor Charlemagne in 809; which may have some plausibility to it as he was known to have used Scottish mercenaries in his bodyguard and in the van of his armies. But, if it ever happened it was probably some token or gift exchanged between two rulers. Historians also point to James III (1451 – 1488), who is said to have made a presentation to King Francis I of France of an “Order of the Burr or Thissil’. Again, probably a personal inter-sovereign gift; but there may have been such an order. If late medieval and renaissance knightly orders did exist in Scotland, they may have sprung up sporadically, lasted for a few years and then disappeared again. Certainly nothing substantial or lasting; and certainly nothing akin to the modern order developed.
The Drummond’s order looked also to be short-lived as James VII was deposed from the throne of England in 1688 and then Scotland in 1689 and his successors William and Mary did not maintain it. However, in 1703 Queen Anne, the last Stewart monarch resurrected it and it remains pretty much in the same format and ceremonial as it was then. However, in 1987 the present Queen allowed for the membership of women as Ladies of the Thistle. As our parliamentary customs and practices developed to be more constitutional throughout the 18th and 19th centuries with real power shifting from the monarch to Prime Minister, virtually all honours gifted by the sovereign are done so on the advice of the Government. George VI (the queen’s father), felt that the Orders of the Garter and Thistle were being overused as devices for patronage, and in agreement with his Prime Minister, knighthood in both these orders became the personal gift of the monarch with no government interference – it is this which makes being a Knight of the Thistle so unique.
Equally unique are the small number that can be knights at any given time: There are only ever sixteen ordinary knights, a handful of officials and a few ‘extra’ knights, who are mainly members of the Royal Family. Members of the Order are addressed as Sir (or Lady) and can use the letters KT (or LT) after their names. It outranks all other orders with the exception of the Garter.
The Chapel of the Knights is in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh and the order meet on an annual basis and to confirm new members (such as Prince William). Whenever they so meet they are fully kitted out in their ceremonial robes, which are a beautiful deep green, with white trim; they wear the star and other emblematic accessories and a feathered cap. It can look somewhat anachronistic, but it serves to bind the functions of the state at a deeply symbolic level; and the ordinary members are chosen for their lifetime commitment to serving their country and for working toward the welfare of the people of Scotland.
The motto of the order is: Nemo me Impune Lacessit, which means ‘no-one provokes me with impunity’ or who dares meddle with me. It is considerd the motto of Scotland and of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
Chivalry is an unpopular word in a world that is too reliant on popularism; ceremony and duty underrated in an age of consumer commercialism and sycophantic celebrity. But, our institutions and such quirky roles are the glue that binds the fabric of our multi-patched nation; and it is a good thing to see the Earl of Strathearn maintaining that link and function.