The Legend and Future of the Order of the Thistle

3 March 2014 - 05:15am
Edited by Martin - Spotted an Error?

Guest Posts on Royal Central

As Scotland considers its future as part of the United Kingdom, with a referendum on Scottish independence to be held in September 2014, a remarkable photographic portrait of the Queen as Queen of Scots and Chief of The Chiefs by Justin Calder, has been released.

Dressed in the mantle and insignia of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Her Majesty was photographed on her Balmoral Estate as the head of the highest Scottish Order of Chivalry whose origins, whilst steeped in myth and legend, are nevertheless resonant of the role the Order has played in the history of the United Kingdom.

The Queen is Sovereign of the Order, and appointments, which are in her personal gift, are made on 30 November, St Andrew’s Day. The Thistle Installation Service is usually held in the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle within St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, every other year. Her Majesty entertains all the Members of the Order to lunch at the Palace of Holyroodhouse following the Service.

The green velvet mantle of the Order is lined with white taffeta, and the hat is of black velvet with a plume of white feathers.  St Andrew, the patron saint of the Order, is represented on the badge worn from the gold collar of thistles and rue, and on the sash badge set on a broad green ribbon across the left shoulder.

494px-Insignia_of_Knight_of_the_Thistle public domain The breast star of the Order consists of a silver saltire cross with pointed rays between each of the arms of the cross. In the centre of the star is a gold medallion with an enamelled thistle surrounded by a green border bearing the Order’s motto Nemo me impune lacessit, ‘No one harms me with impunity’.

Members of the Order rank as a Knight or Lady and use the post-nominals KT or LT. They are also entitled to non-hereditary supporters, figures placed on either side of their shield of arms and generally depicted holding it up, which may be animal or human, real or imaginary.

There is much debate among historians as to the date the Order was established. Whilst the foundations of the Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III in 1348 is uncontroversial, the foundation of the Order of the Thistle is the subject of historical debate and enmeshed in the Scots’ history of independence, epitomised by the Order’s motto, nemo me impune lacessit – no-one provokes me with impunity. (The motto is also used by the British Army’s Royal Regiment of Scotland, known as ‘The Royal Scots’.)

According to Scottish legend, King Achaius, (748-814) the Pictish King of Scots, established the order in 809 at the time he made an alliance with the Emperor Charlemagne. Although the Great Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse holds a collection of portraits of real and legendary Scottish Kings by Jacob de Wet II commissioned by Charles II, there is no historical basis for the establishment of the Order in the ninth century.

It is possible that the Order may have been founded by James III of Scotland  (1451-1488), who was responsible for changes in Royal symbolism in Scotland, including the adoption of the thistle as the Royal plant badge. From his time, the Scottish Arms were surrounded by a collar of thistles which may account for two portraits in the Royal Collection in which the sitters wear ‘the Collar of the Thistle': a half-length portrait of James V of Scotland (1512-42) and a Portrait of a Woman from 1610. The Royal Collection also contains an etching by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) of the Medal of the Order of the Thistle.

It is also said that James V bestowed the insignia of the ‘Order of the Burr or Thissil’ on Francis I of France in 1535.


James VII when Duke of York by Peter Lely

James VII when Duke of York by Peter Lely

Around the time of the Reformation, the Order was discontinued until its revival by James VII of Scotland (James II of England) who established the Order by issue of Letters Patent in 1687 to reward Scottish peers who supported his political and religious aims of unification and religious tolerance.

The Royal Collection includes The Statutes of the Order of the Thistle with a list of Knights of the Thistle from the revival of the Order in 1687 to the nineteenth century, edited by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas.

James VII converted the Abbey Church of Holyrood into a Roman Catholic Chapel Royal which he intended to be the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle, but it was destroyed in the revolution of 1688 which also forced James to flee. Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, revived the Order of the Thistle in 1703 and it continued to be awarded by the Hanoverian kings to the Scottish nobility.

The present home of the Order is a chapel built in 15th century Gothic style, added to Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral in 1910, which serves as the spiritual home of Scotland’s ‘ancient order of chivalry’. It is here that the knights invested to the Order swear an oath to, ‘fortify and defend the Christian religion, and Christ’s most holy evangel, to the utmost of my power… be loyal and true to my Sovereign Lady, the Queen, and the members of this order …maintain the honour and dignity of the most ancient and most noble order of the thistle to my best power if God let… never bear treason about in my heart against our Sovereign Lady, the Queen, but shall discover the same to her.’

A statute of 1827 provided that the Order would consist of sixteen Knights Brethren and, in 1987, a further statute provided that the Order include ladies. In 1996 Lady Marion Fraser was appointed a Lady of the Thistle.

The guide to the chapel of the Order of the Thistle states, ‘Its highlights include 100 “bosses” carved into its ceiling, each of the knights’ seats with their own unique carvings, the chapel’s angels playing traditional Scottish instruments like the bagpipes and the fiddle, and the stained glass window bearing the ancient motto of Scotland, “nemo me impune lacessit” – “no-one provokes me with impunity”.

At present there are seventeen knights of the Order of the Thistle: Prince William, known as the Earl of Strathearn in Scotland, having joined the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal and the twelve Scottish knights upon his investiture on 5 July 2012.

The Order has a significant connection to earlier Scottish monarchs as the Sword of State, (part of the Honours or Crown Jewels of Scotland consisting of the crown, sword of state and sceptre which are on public display in the Crown Room at Edinburgh Castle), was used in the ceremonial connected with the Order of the Thistle until the Order’s 300th anniversary in 1987. At investitures the Queen is known to use a sword owned and worn by her father, George VI in his duties as Colonel of the Scots Guards from 1932-37, which may now be the sword used in place of the Scottish Sword of State.

In the United Kingdom today, the Order of the Thistle is the highest order in Scotland, ‘and is presented to Scottish men and women who have held public office or who have contributed in a particular way to national life.’

Her Majesty’s portrait as Queen of Scotland is a reminder of the Queen’s role as sovereign of the Order of the Thistle but also of the Royal Family’s symbolic and personal links to Scotland. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased the Balmoral Estate in Deeside, they established a royal presence in Scotland based on preference, not duty, which has continued.

Any change of status for Scotland would retain the Crown, with the monarch as Head of State which would leave Scotland in the same position as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but without the need for a governor-general. The Order of the Thistle would be unaffected as the honour is within The Queen’s personal gift, and she would be at liberty to continue to create new Scottish members of the Order as she sees fit.

Photo credits: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

  • Mark McCabe

    This is a brilliant article. Although there is no orb in the Scottish Crown Jewels (the Honours of Scotland). :)
    Mark McCabe

    • Royal Central

      Thanks very much – amended.

Subscribe via Email

To receive the latest Royal Central posts straight to your email inbox, enter your email address below and press subscribe.