Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

The Highest Order in the Land

The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle

In accordance with tradition, knights are appointed to the Order of the Thistle on the feast of Scotland’s patron saint, the Apostle Andrew, but they are not formally installed until the following summer when the Queen is in residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. And so this past July, the ‘Thistle Service’ took place at St. Giles’, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and two new knights were inducted into Scotland’s highest honour and most exalted order of chivalry.

The knights, dames, and officers, dressed in their flowing velvet mantles of green along with their hats and collars, gather across Parliament Square in the Library of the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet (Scotland’s professional body of solicitors), part of the Parliament House complex that long ago housed the kingdom’s legislature, and is now home to her courts. In Parliament Square itself, the Royal Company of Archers (the Queen’s Body Guard for Scotland) forms a guard of honour and is accompanied by the band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

When the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrive, the Chancellor of the Thistle and the Dean of the Thistle accompany them to the Signet Library to join the other knights. They then process to St. Giles’ where the Thistle Service takes place. A short reception usually follows back in the Signet Library before the members of the Order retire to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and enjoy a proper luncheon as guests of the Sovereign.

The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle has a long and varied history, though precisely how long is a matter of some dispute. The oldest tradition is that Achaius King of Scots was engaging the Saxon king Aethelstan in battle at Aethelstaneford when the Cross of Saint Andrew appeared in the sky in A.D. 786. After achieving a victory, Achaius founded the Order of the Thistle under the patronage of the saint. Another story posits Achaius as founding the order in 809 in commemoration of an alliance with the Emperor Charlemagne, while another battle-related story has Robert the Bruce re-instituting the order after Bannockburn. James III (1451–1458) certainly adopted the thistle as his personal emblem and may have established the order. Perhaps more likely is that James V, who was a member of the Order of Golden Fleece and France’s Order of St. Michael, created it since Scotland had no order of chivalry along the lines of other kingdoms of the day.

What is certain is that James VII on May 29, 1687 issued letters patent “reviving and restoring the Order of the Thistle to its full glory, lustre and magnificency”. (King James, you will recall, was the man after whom New York is named). The King of Scotland was the Sovereign of the Order, and twelve knights were to be appointed, later expanded to sixteen. Queens were originally excluded unless it was a queen regnant, but George VI made his queen a member in 1937, and in 1987 Elizabeth II allowed women to become regular members of the Order of the Thistle (doing the same for England’s Order of the Garter at the same time). Outside the sixteen-member limit are a small number of extra knights from the ranks of the Royal Family.

Aside from the Sovereign and the knights, there are a number of officers appointed. The Dean of the Thistle is given the style of “The Very Reverend” and from 1886 until 1969 the Dean of the Chapel Royal was given this role, now wisely separate. The Chancellor is usually appointed from among the knights and tends to be one of the more senior members. The Gentleman Usher of the Green Rod is the order’s usher and the office is usually granted to a retired military man with a long record of service. Lord Lyon King of Arms, Scotland’s senior herald, is the King of Arms of the Order of the Thistle. There is also a Secretary of the Order, although Lord Lyon is almost always appointed to this office as well.

When the Order of the Thistle was created (or re-created) in 1687, the King directed that the Abbey Church at Holyrood be converted into a chapel for the order. The classical design of the chapel’s fittings (above) reflected the vogue of the day, but fit poorly with the gothic design of the former Benedictine abbey. James VII was deposed by the Whig coup a year later, however, and rioters sacked the church and destroyed its interior.

In 1911, a new Thistle Chapel (above) was inaugurated at St. Giles’ to the design of the noted Scots architect Robert Lorimer (father to the sculptor Hew and brother to the painter John Henry Lorimer). Each knight has a stall in the chapel, but the armorial banners are hung in the body of the cathedral itself rather than in the chapel. In each stall is a metal plate depicting the arms and name of the knight who occupied the particular stall from the construction of the chapel onwards. (Just outside the chapel are inscribed all the names of the members of the Order up to 1911). The current members vary widely in their origins. The knight with the highest seniority is Andrew Douglas Alexander Thomas Bruce, 11th Earl of Elgin and 15th Earl of Kincardine and a Scottish nobleman of long lineage. The most recent knight appointed is Narendra Babubhai Patel, Baron Patel who, since he was born in Tanganyika to Indian parents, is both the first African Scot and the first Asian Scot to be raised to the Order of the Thistle.


Elizabeth II

The Earl of Elgin and Kincardine
The Earl of Airlie
The Viscount of Arbuthnott
The Earl of Crawford & Balcarres
Lady Marion Fraser
The Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden
The Lord Mackay of Clashfern
The Lord Wilson of Tillyorn
The Lord Sutherland of Houndwood
Sir Eric Anderson
The Lord Steel of Aikwood
The Lord Robertson of Port Ellen
The Lord Cullen of Whitekirk
Sir Garth Morrison
The Lord Hope of Craighead
The Lord Patel of Dunkeld
Knights Companion

The Duke of Edinburgh
The Duke of Rothesay
The Princess Royal
Extra Knights

Gilleasbuig Iain Macmillan

The Earl of Airlie

Rear Admiral Christopher Hope Layman
Gentleman Usher of the Green Rod

David Sellar
King of Arms & Secretary

This post was published on Tuesday, September 7th, 2010 7:11 pm. It has been categorised under Edinburgh Monarchy Scotland and been tagged under , .
S. Petersen
10 Sep 2010 1:39 pm

Nice reading, thanks. Good review in TWS as well. You must be a deal older than I originally surmised (in your 20’s). Perhaps late 30’s, early 40’s?

L Gaylord Clark
10 Sep 2010 3:38 pm

My understanding is that no Catholic has been made a knight of the Thistle during the reign of the present Sovereign. The Earl of Elgin is a Freemason. Is Lord Patel even a Christian?
Why is this Catholic site so interested in these Protestant fripperies? I’d much rather be told something about the Austrian Order of the Golden Fleece, the Bavarian Order of St George (the most rigidly aristocratic of all surviving orders of chivalry), or the (Spanish) Order of Constantinian St George.

Benedict Ambrose
14 Sep 2010 6:56 pm

Whilst I naturally have some sympathy with Mr Clark’s snort of Catholick hauteur, with a (re-)founder as glorious as James VII it is difficult altogether to despise Mr Cusack’s interst in this noble order. The fine piccies help, of course.

But in the interests of full disclosure I admit that the James Smith connection sways my judgement.

I never can believe that the engraving reproduced here of King James’s Thistle chapel quite does justice to the quality and arrangement of the knights’ stalls, which at any rate only ever encumbered the westernmost arcades of this Catholic Chapel Royal. Smith, the Catholic architect of this regal scheme, knew what he was about. The tragedy rather is that the mob so soon put to ruin so noble an accomplishment.

Evidence of what we are now missing can be seen mere yards away in the Canongate Kirk which James VII felt obliged to have Smith build for the protestant “regufees” evicted at the abbey’s restoration to Catholic worship. A presbyterian building designed with so clever and elegant an eye to restoration of the faith in Scotland there never was.

But then I would say that.

Benedict Ambrose
14 Sep 2010 7:31 pm

P.S. Lord Wilson of Tillyorn was charm itself when he paid a viceregal visit to a certain Smith house of my acquaintance this summer, lion rampant all aflutter. The royal/religious association on that occasion may have been less felicitous than in the James VII/James Smith case but…

Duncan McAra
11 Oct 2010 6:57 pm

I am profoundly dismayed to learn earlier this year from the Secretary of the Thistle that the Oath was changed in 2006 and no longer starts: ‘I shall fortify and defend the Christian religion, and Christ’s most holy Evangel, to the utmost of my power.’ In this matter, Her Majesty has been ill advised. Central to the Code of Chivalry is belief in the Church and its defence. Scotland’s premier Order of chivalry is in danger of its historic identity becoming diluted and secularised.
If Knights and Ladies of the Thistle are no longer required to uphold and defend the Christian religion, what is the purpose of their continuing attendance at Installation Services in July and at the Festival of Saint Andrew in the Thistle Chapel (with its Holy Table and carved Christian iconography) within St Giles’ Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh?
Similarly, what, since 2006, is the role of the Dean of the Thistle?
It is to be hoped that profession of the One True Faith will be reinstated in the Oath of Fealty.
The Thistle Chapel is not simply an Aladdin’s cave of Arts & Crafts skilled workmanship, the preserve of the art historian, but a living chapel, an inspiring and sacred place of Christian worship, the significance of which should be respected and upheld.

Duncan McAra
11 Jul 2012 4:56 pm

I expressed dismay in the Letters columns of The Scotsman (29 Nov. 2010) and The Times (15 June 2011) that since 2006 the Oath of the Order of the Thistle had expunged the Christian religion, God, fellow companions of the Order and the existence of evil, notably treason.The revised Oath made a mockery of the Thistle as an Order of Chivalry by transmuting it into a secular Order of Merit.
The Dean of the Thistle is therefore to be heartily congratulated for reinstating at the Installation of HRH The Prince William, Earl of Strathearn, as a Royal Knight of the Thistle on 5 July 2012 in the Thistle Chapel, within St Giles’ Cathedral, the vows “I shall fortify and defend the Christian religion, and God’s most holy Evangel, to the utmost of my power” and “So defend me God”, thus reaffirming the Christian vocation of knighthood.
Duncan McAra

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