The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle

The story of the Order of the Thistle, or the Order of St. Andrew, combines the history of Scotland with Scottish and Christian mythology. On June 16, 1687, a London newspaper published a decree issued on May 29 by King James II of England (also King James VII of Scotland) regarding the founding, or rather the revival, of the Order of the Thistle “to its full glory, lustre and magnificency”. Supposedly, this order had originally been founded as early as the year 809, by Achaius, King of the Scots, to commemorate his alliance with Emperor Charlemagne.

We can often encounter similar claims when dealing with medieval or early modern orders of knighthood: it was a routine tradition to attribute their “original” founding to an ancient era – often to a time when the culture of chivalry had not yet even come into existence – with the aim of presenting the organisation as something ancient and therefore prestigious. This reasoning was also behind the name of the “The Most Ancient Order of the Thistle”. The insignia of the order was a medallion depicting Saint Andrew holding the cross on which he was crucified, and a collar with links shaped like the thistle. These were two important symbols of Scotland.

Badge of the Order of the Thistle (18th century) from the collection of the Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood

Andrew the Apostle – Patron Saint of Scotland

St. Andrew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Both he and his brother Saint Peter were fishermen by trade. According to various legends, after Jesus’s resurrection, Saint Andrew preached Christianity in Scythia, and other lands around the Black Sea – nowadays Ukraine and Russia, Romania, Georgia, and also Cyprus. His travels for spreading the holy word are told to have reached even lands as far north as the future territories of Novgorod.

Crucifixion of Saint Andrew, by Juan Correa de Vivar (1540–1545).

According to Christian tradition, Andrew was martyred in the city of Patras in Greece around 70 AD – crucified on a cross called Crux Decussata (X-shaped cross, or “saltire”), now commonly known as “Saint Andrew’s Cross”. It is also featured on the flag of Scotland. The pagan governor of Achaea ordered the arrest and crucifixion of Saint Andrew after having seen the effect his sermons had on people. The apostle is told to have suffered two days on the cross, still preaching the Gospel.

There are two different legends explaining how Saint Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland. According to one story, Emperor Constantine I gave the order to transfer his relics from Patras to Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, in the middle of the 4th century. The Bishop of Patras, Saint Regulus, who was the keeper of the remains, then had a dream in which an angel told him to instead take the relics “to the ends of the earth” for protection. In 347, when sailing westward with the holy treasures, he was shipwrecked on the coast of Fife, Scotland. There, Regulus erected a shrine for the relics, and the Christian settlement of Saint Andrews is told to have grown around it. According to another legend, it was Saint Wilfried, the Bishop of Hexham, who brought along some relics of Saint Andrew from his travels to Rome.

Achaius, the legendary King of Scotland, later transferred the relics to Saint Andrews with the aim to increase the prestige of the local diocese. The town of Saint Andrews, which is now mainly a pilgrimage site for golfers, was a place of attraction for Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages, and used to be the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland. Although the two legends about the relics of Saint Andrew differ a lot, one thing is undisputable – the settlement called Saint Andrews was from the early days of the Middle Ages a centre for a Christian cult.

Yet another legend speaks of a battle fought in 832, between the joint army of Scotts and Picts headed by King Oengus II, and the Anglo-Saxons under the command of King Æthelstan of East Anglia. On the night before the battle, Oengus prayed to God, asking for victory, and swore that if he won, Saint Andrew would be venerated as the patron saint of Scotland. The following morning, clouds in the blue sky over the battlefield miraculously formed in the shape of the letter ‘X’ – or Saint Andrew’s cross. Picts and Scotts were encouraged greatly by this and defeated the overwhelming army of the Anglo-Saxons. Hence, Andrew became the patron of Scotland.

Historically, Saint Andrew is known to have been declared the patron of Scotland in the early 14th century, after Robert Bruce achieved victory over the English forces in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The earliest historical appearance of Saint Andrew and his cross as a national emblem precedes this event, however, as they can be seen on several official seals used in late 13th century. The first known use of Saint Andrew’s Cross flag as a Scottish symbol is recorded in 1503. After King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne in 1603, a new flag – the so-called Union Jack – was designed to represent this dynastic union between England (represented on the flag in the form of the Cross of Saint George) and Scotland (represented by the the Cross of Saint Andrew).

Fragment of a seal used by Stephen, the Prior of St Andrew, in 1381.

The shrine at Saint Andrew also acquired national importance in the Middle Ages. King David I, who ruled in the first half of the 12th century, actively promoted the idea of converting the burgh of Saint Andrews into the centre of the Archbishopric of Scotland. An enormous cathedral built there from 1160 to 1318 was supposed to exceed the dimensions of the cathedrals in Canterbury and York, which tried to establish their own ecclesiastical control over Scotland. In 1559, during the Scottish Reformation, the shrine of Saint Andrews was destroyed along with the relics. Only after 320 years, other relics of the saint were brought to Scotland from Italy, and they are now presented to visitors in Saint Andrews and Edinburgh.

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, view from the top of St Rule’s Tower.

The Thistle – a Symbol of Scotland

Simultaneously with the expanding veneration of St Andrew in Scotland, the thistle was also adopted as a national emblem. Thistle (Lat. Carduus) is the common name of a group of flowering plants that can be found in Europe, Asia and northern Africa. The Scotch thistle is widespread on the British Isles. It can be found on roadsides and in other strange places since it prefers chalky and sandy soils and bright sunlight. There are various stories about how the prickly plant became the symbol of Scotland.

The oldest association of Scottish history with the thistle comes from a legend about VIII century events. According to it, the Danes who were invading Scotland attempted to approach the Scots unnoticed at night by walking barefoot. Suddenly, they happened upon thistles that were growing in their path, accidentally stepped on them, and yelled out in pain, waking the Scots, who then easily defeated them. Another similar legend tells about King Haakon IV of Norway who tried to conquer Scotland in 1263, landing with his army near Largs. In order to ambush sleeping Scots in the middle of the night the Norwegians are also told to have taken off their shoes to silence their steps, only to hurt themselves on thistles and give away their approach.

A thistle with a Scottish castle on the background.

There is another legend about the Danes attacking a Scottish castle, which also describes the invaders taking off their shoes, this time jumping into the moat to reach the castle by swimming. But the moat was dry and full of thistles, again leading to the Scots coming out on top. The impressive Latin motto of the Order of the Thistle: “Nemo me impune lacessit” (No one provokes me with impunity) also presents the plant as a tool of retribution.

No matter how true the unlikely legends are – there is no historical evidence of such anecdotal events, although the mentioned invasions did take place – the thistle has been a national emblem since the XIII century, from the days of King Alexander III. During the reign of James III of Scotland (1451–1488) this symbol, placed onto an escutcheon, was used in royal heraldry. It was also featured on the silver coins minted in 1470.  It was also King James III who is credited with originally establishing the Order of the Thistle – for example, he is shown wearing a thistle collar and badge on a royal portrait. We know very little of these early attempts to found an order of chivalry, but it is recorded that in 1535, King James V (1512–1542) bestowed the insignia of the ‘Order of the Burr or Thissil’ upon Francis I the King of France (1494–1547).

Insignia and Robes of the Order of the Thistle

The Order of the Thistle is nowadays the second most senior order of chivalry in the United Kingdom, outranked only by the Order of the Garter. Its riband is a dark green sash worn across the body, from the left shoulder to the right hip. Its main badge is of enamelled gold, and features Saint Andrew who is wearing a green gown and purple coat, and holding a white saltire. A halo of golden rays of a glory crown the apostle’s head. It is a badge-appendant – worn suspended from the collar.

Special diamond insignia of the Order of the Thistle that belonged to King George IV and to Queen Victoria.

On the right hip, at the end of the riband, the order’s oval medallion is worn. It depicts Saint Andrew in the same manner as the badge-appendant, and the apostle is surrounded by the order’s motto: Nemo me impune lacessit.The star of the order takes the form of a silver Saint Andrew’s saltire, with clusters of rays between its arms. In its centre is a green ring bearing the motto of the order in gold majuscule; within it a thistle on a gold field is depicted. The star is worn pinned to the breast on the left. Since the Order of the Thistle is the second-ranking order of chivalry in the United Kingdom, its members wear the star above all other orders’ insignia, except for the Order of the Garter. Up to four orders’ stars may be worn at the same time. The collar is donned only on special occasions. It is made of gold and is comprised of 18 links in the shape of thistles, altering with 18 links in the shape of rue sprigs – 36 pieces altogether.

The main vestment of the order is a green mantle worn over a suit or military uniform. The mantle is lined with white taffeta and tied with green and gold tassels. A star of the order is sewn to the left shoulder. Members also wear a hat made of black velvet and plumed with white feathers, with a black egret or heron’s top in the middle.

Members of the British Royal Family wearing the robes and insignia of the Order of the Thistle.

The order has two main feast days: May 29th – the day of the order’s founding in 1687, and November 30 – Saint Andrew’s Day. Knights and Ladies of the order are granted the use the post-nominal letters «KT» – Knight of Thistle, and «LT» – Lady of Thistle.

Revival of the Order of the Thistle

King James II of England, who was also King James VII of Scotland, “revived” the Order of the Thistle on May 29, 1687, with the aim to recognise those who supported him politically and shared his Catholic faith. The order was clearly Scottish: according to its statutes, the ceremonial mantles were to be decorated with 250 golden thistles. The members of the order were to be the Sovereign, and Twelve Knights-Brethren, united “in the name of the Savoir and His Twelve Apostles”.

On June 6, 1687, the  king appointed the first Knights of the Order, they were:

  • James Drummond, 4th Earl of Perth (1648–1716) – Lord Chancellor of Scotland
  • George Gordon, 1st Duke of Gordon (1649–1716)
  • John Murray, 1st Marquees of Atholl (1631–1703) – the Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland
  • James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton (1658– 1712)
  • Kenneth Mackenzie, 4th Earl of Seaforth (1658–1712)
  • John Drummond, 1st Earl of Melfort (1661–1701) – Secretary of State of Scotland
  • George Douglas, 1st Earl of Dumbarton (1650–1715)
  • Alexander Stuart, 5th Earl of Moray (1634–1701)

The ceremony for appointing four of the knights took place in the Chapel of St George in Windsor (the main church of the Order of the Garter), while the rest were admitted to the order in Edinburgh. Abbey Church at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh (the principal residence of the King of Scots) was appointed the official chapel of the Order of the Thistle. According to the statutes, there were five Officers of the Order: the Dean, the Chancellor, the Gentleman Usher of the Green Rod, and the Lord Lyon King of Arms, and the Secretary of the Order. King James, however, managed to appoint only the Secretary of the Order – this was Andrew Forrester (d. 1705).

The monarch also failed to contribute much to the further development of the Order of the Thistle. Upon his accession to the throne at the age of 52, he had no male descendants – all his five sons had died early. The British Protestant opposition cherished the hope that after the death of the Catholic king, the throne would be inherited by one of his daughters – Princess Mary, wife of Prince William III of Orange, or Anne, wife of Prince George of Denmark, who were both of Anglican faith.

King James II of England and James VII of Scotland

After James, the Prince of Wales, was born on June 10, 1688, however, all chances for a quiet settlement of the religious and political conflict quickly evaporated, and prospects of Catholicism returning to the status of the dominant faith became quite real. On June 30, 1688 (or July 10 according to the Gregorian calendar) a group of prominent Englishmen later called the “Immortal Seven”, headed by John Churchill, invited William III, Prince of Orange and husband of the Princess Mary, to come to England with his army and claim the throne in order to protect the Protestant faith.

The Glorious Revolution

On November 5, 1688, Prince William of Orange landed on the British coast. A number of Protestants – Princess Anne among them – joined him. Despite having more troops under his command, King James took no measures to repel the invasion. On November 11, the king attempted to flee to France, throwing the Great Seal of England into the River Thames along the way, as no lawful Parliament could be summoned without it. He was captured in Kent, however, and imprisoned under the watch of the Dutch guard.

William of Orange and his Dutch troops landing in England. 18th century engraving.

Hence, Princess Mary and her husband William assumed rule in England and Scotland. Nevertheless, when the deposed king James II/VII died in 1701, France, Spain, the Pope, and the dukes of Parma and Modena officially recognised his son, the 13-year-old Prince of Wales as King James III of England and Ireland, and James VIII of Scotland, even though the English Parliament declared him a renegade.

The pretender James lands in Scotland. 18th century engraving.

During the following War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), the pretender James – supported by his cousin, Louis XIV of France – strove to take the throne in Britain, which his father had lost. In 1708, a fleet of 32 French battleships left the Harbor of Dunkirk for Scotland, with James and his troops aboard, but failed to make landfall and had to retreat. James later joined French army, but in accordance to the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), France was obliged to support the British Protestant dynasty, and therefore had to expel the pretender to the throne.

After King George I ascended to the throne in 1714, an insurrection erupted in Scotland: 10–15 000 Jacobites (supporters of James or Jacob) under the command of the Earl of Mar invaded to England but were defeated near Preston. At the same time, the pretender James travelled to Scotland almost alone, and, on January 27, 1716, was crowned in Scone as James VIII, but he very soon had to escape to the continent. The path to France proved closed to him, however – the regent Phillippe II of Orléans, who headed the French Government after the death of Louis XIV, regarded supporting the pretender a burden.

Revival of the Order of the Thistle by Queen Anne of Great Britain

Anne (1665–1714) was the Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1702, to 1707. In fact, she was the first monarch of a united Great Britain, and the last member of Stuart House on the British throne. Anne was the second daughter of King James II/VII, and his first wife, Anne Hyde, the daughter of Lord Chancellor Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon – a zealous supporter of Anglicanism. Like her older sister Mary, Anne never accepted Catholicism and was married to the Protestant Prince George of Denmark. After the Glorious Revolution, according to the Bill of Rights, Anne was to succeed her sister Mary and her husband William of Orange on the throne should they have no children.

Mary (who died in 1694) and William indeed produced no offspring, but Anne herself was also an unlucky mother – as a result of 18 pregnancies in her marriage with George of Denmark she delivered only five alive children, and four of them died early. The only surviving child passed away at the age of eleven, in 1700. This resulted in a British political crisis since the Protestant branch of the House of Stuart came to an end with Anne, and her Catholic father or brother could hence claim the throne. Under those circumstances, the Act of Settlement was passed in 1701, according to which Catholics were deprived of the right of succession.

In 1702, King William III, who had assumed rule after his wife’s passing, also died, and Anne ascended to the thrones of England and Scotland. Her reign was characterised by the weakening of the monarch’s role, and the increasing power of government ministers. The reasons behind this development were the poor health and weak personality of the Queen, and a general trend towards the restriction of royal power after the Glorious Revolution. At that time, Britain was struggling in the War of the Spanish Succession against France, and measures were taken to curb the independence of Scotland.

Queen Anne of Great Britain. A portrait by John Closterman, ca 1702.

As a reaction, the Scottish estates threatened to reject the future King of England as the ruler of Scotland, and decided that after Queen Anne’s death, the Scots could elect their own monarch. Moreover, the renewal of the “old alliance” between France and Scotland was a looming threat for England, and French support for the Catholic pretender James who was popular among Scots, was increasingly dangerous. This led to the “Acts of Union” which allowed England and Scotland to be “united into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain”. On May 1, 1707 England and Scotland ended their existence as separate states.

A copy of the Act of Union, illustrated with a portrait of Queen Anne and various symbols of both Scotland and England.

On December 31, 1703, Queen Anne approved the Statutes of the Order of the Thistle, comprising 17 clauses. In contrast to the statues issued by King James II in 1687, these new rules described the insignia of both member and officers of the order in detail. The main difference from the previous constitution of the order was the rule concerning membership: only Protestants could be accepted. In addition, only Knights Bachelor, i.e. men who had been granted knighthood by Queen Anne, could be appointed to the order. From 1704–1713, the monarch bestowed membership upon 12 new knights. Meanwhile, Anne’s younger brother, James, the “Old Pretender” – son of King James II – continued to accept Catholics who were loyal to the Stuarts into the Order of the Thistle.

In accordance with the statutes of 1703, issued by Queen Anne, the Knights-Brethren had to wear the order’s collar on designated days, in particular on November 30th – Saint Andrew’s Day. Regarding other “collar days”, the Queen “shall think it over”, as the statutes read. Remarkably, on “collar days” the Queen had to wear the Saint Andrew’s badge hanging from the sash of the Order of the Garter – not as Queen of Scotland, but of Great Britain as a whole.

The new statutes also described the garments of the Knights and Officers very precisely – even including rules for the colour of their socks. To distinguish the Officers from the Knight, the former were to wear a mantle not made of velvet, but of green satin lined with white stripes. On the left shoulder of an Officer’s mantle – as on those of Knights – was an embroidered star of the order.

The statutes of 1703 also mention its official chapel very briefly – simply stating that the Abbey Church at the Palace of Holyroodhouse should be converted into the Chapel of the Order after its restoration.

Robes of the order with an embroidered star, 18th century.

Later Reforms in the Order

After Anne’s death in 1714, the throne of Britain was occupied by King George I (1660–1727), a member of a new ruling dynasty – the House of Hanover. The new monarch, who was also the Elector of Hanover, inherited the claim to the British crown as the closest Protestant relative of the Stuarts through his mother Sophia (1630–1714), the granddaughter of King James I of England and James VI of Scotland, according to the ‘Act of Settlement’ passed in 1701.

Chain of the Order of the Thistle from the 1820s. Scottish National Museums.

Two appendices to the order statutes of 1703 were passed in 1717 and 1720 which regulated the financial workings of the order as follows: each knight had to pay a fee of 27 pounds 6 shillings and 6 pence — this money allowed for the annual allowance of the three officers of the order to be paid.

Prince Augustus Frederick (1773–1843), Duke of Sussex wearing the robes of a Knight of the Order of the Thistle

The amendments made to the statutes in 1720 set their wages as follows: the Secretary was paid 100 pounds, the Lyon King of Arms, and the Usher 70 pounds each. Additionally, an annuity was also issued to other officers: six Heralds received 30 pounds, six Pursuivants 18 pounds and six State Trumpeters 9 pounds. In 1761, for the first time after 1687, King George III appointed a Dean of the Order – John Jardine (1716–1766), and the next amendment made to the statutes in 1763 established an annual wage for that position – 50 pounds.

In 1827, King George IV increased the order’s membership to 16 knights. Additionally, “Extra Knights” – foreign monarchs and members of their houses – were also admitted to the order. The first Extra Knight was Prince William Henry, the younger son of the King George III. The first foreigner was only admitted to the order in 1962 by special directive – it was King Olaf V of Norway (1903–1991).

In the XVIII and XIX centuries, many knights who were admitted to the Order of the Garter resigned from the Order of the Thistle. The first member to do so was John Campbell, Duke of Argyll, in 1710, the last one Thomas, Earl of Zetland, in 1872. Knights and Ladies of the Thistle could also be deprived of their knighthoods, but the only individual to have suffered such a fate was John Erskine, 6th Earl of Mar who lost both the knighthood and his earldom after participating in the Jacobite uprising of 1715.

Since 1911 the Chapel of the Order has been in is St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburg. As inside the Order of the Garter’s St George Chapel in Windsor, there are seats in St Giles’ Cathedral for all Knights and Ladies with their Coats of Arms. Every year, on St Andrew’s Day, a solemn service is held there, honouring the order, and celebrating the admission of its new members.

The Order of the Thistle Today

The Sovereign of the order historically enjoyed the privilege to choose all Knights and Ladies, but already from the early XVIII century, each such decision had to be made taking the advice from the Government into account. However, since King George VI (1895–1952) believed that the Order of the Garter and the Order of the Thistle had been used merely for the purposes of political patronage, and not as an award for true merit, in 1946, upon the joint consent by Clement Attlee, Prime Minister, and Winston Churchill, Leader of the Opposition, the bestowal of the membership of the Order of the Thistle was again transformed into a personal gift from the Sovereign of the Order.

The Thistle Chapel in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh. There are seats for each Knight and Lady of the Thistle, bearing their coats of arms.

Women (other than Queen Regnant) were initially excluded from the order, but Queen Elizabeth II allowed their regular admission in 1987. Mrs Marion Fraser (1932–2016) became the first Lady of the Order in 1996. She was a music teacher, and the Director of St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, later the director of the Scottish Opera. At the moment, in addition to the 16 Knights and Ladies, there are three Extra Knights and one Extra Lady: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (consort of Queen Elizabeth II), admitted in 1952; Charles, Prince of Wales (son of Queen Elizabeth II), admitted in 1997; Princess Anne (daughter of Queen Elizabeth II), admitted in 2000, and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, admitted in 2012.