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What is the Order of the Elephant?

Prince Christian has debuted his first national order, having been made a Knight of the Order of the Elephant the morning of his 18th birthday.

The Order of the Elephant is Denmark’s highest chivalric order and is bestowed entirely at the Sovereign’s discretion. Typically, it is awarded to royalty and foreign heads of state. In the cases of members of the Danish and Norwegian Royal Families, it is a gift bestowed on their 18th birthdays.

The Order of the Elephant can be traced back to the late 1400s and 1500s but received its orders and statutes in 1693 by King Christian V. Since his re-establishment, there are no more than 30 Knights at a time, and the insignia and regalia have been established as “tower-bearing elephant made of gold covered with white enamel and ornamented with diamonds, the order collar with links shaped as towers and elephants, a light blue sash and a breast star,” according to the Danish Royal House.

The origins date back to the reign of King Christian I, with a religious confraternity called the Fellowship of the Mother of God and its collar links made of elephants. In the reign of Frederick II in the late 1500s, he awarded a badge from the Fellowship that featured an elephant in profile, though the Fellowship had all but died out with the Renaissance.

In 1693, King Christian V revived the Order of the Elephant into its present form.

The Order of the Elephant has its own festival days, of which New Year’s Day is one. The Danish Royal Family wear special regalia to the levee hosted on New Year’s Day, “worn on a golden chain consisting of alternating links shaped like elephants and towers instead of on a blue sash” on a collar that spans both shoulders, instead of the regular shoulder-to-hip display.

The other festival days are 16 April, Queen Margrethe’s birthday, and 28 June, the birthday of Valdemar the Victorious.

From its creation until 1958, only men could be made Knights of the Order of the Elephant, though Queen Margrethe and her younger sisters, Queen Anne-Marie and Princess Benedikte, were all created Knights on the day of their father’s accession on 20 April 1947.

When the Knight dies, their insignia is returned to the Order and reissued when a new Knight is installed. Typically, the Danish Royal Family does not publicly announce who receives which late Knight’s regalia, but members of the Royal Family usually inherit regalia.

In Prince Christian’s case, the Danish Royal House announced that Queen Margrethe had given her grandson the elephant that once belonged to her late husband, Prince Henrik.

To update the elephant for her grandson, Queen Margrethe had a coat of paint applied and updated the monogram on the elephant from her father’s cypher to hers. The elephant always bears the monogram of the Sovereign of the Order at the time it is awarded, meaning Prince Henrik received his prior to 1972.

Knights of the Order of the Elephant also have their personal coat-of-arms painted and hung at the Knights’ Chapel for the Orders of the Elephant and Dannebrog at Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød.

About author

Jess Ilse is the Assistant Editor at Royal Central. She specialises in the British, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Royal Families and has been following royalty since Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Jess has provided commentary for media outlets in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Jess works in communications and her debut novel THE MAJESTIC SISTERS will publish in Fall 2024.