Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Order of the Thistle

Today being St Andrew's feast day seems an appropriate one on which to post something about the Most Noble and Most Ancient Order of the Thistle, founded in its present form in 1687.

There is a detailed and well referenced article here about the Order.

To that I would add the following reflections.

The ascription of the foundation of the Order to King James III (1460-88) appears to derive in particular from the presence in the inventory of his treasure made after his death at the battle of Sauchieburn in 1488 of a collar whose description matches that of the present Order. The design of links bearing the Thistle and sprigs of rue, said to be the floral emblem of the Picts looks to my eye like a typical late medieval punning rebus - Thistle and rue/Thistle Andrew.


St Andrew with King James III and the future King James IV.
From the Trinity Panels by Hugo van der Goes
Royal Collection on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland
Photo from Englishmonarchs.orm

I discussed these points with a Scottish academic at the last Fifteenth Century Conference to be held in Oxford. She had done her doctoral thesis on chivalric culture in late medieval Scotland, and was clear in her own mind that James III had not founded an Order such as the Thistle. Nonetheless he does seem to have at least produced the design of the collar, and indeed to have promoted the Thistle as a national emblem. Like his son King James IV and his grandson King James V he seems to have been keen to demonstrate the courtly and artistic claims of the Scottish monarchy.

King James V's claim to be the founder of the Order arises partly from the fact that he is depicted in contemporary as well as later paintings wearing a collar of Thistles - perhaps his grandfathers'.

Anonymous, probably contemporary, portrait of King James V
Photo from Wikipedia

It is at least likely that the KIng established an Order in about 1540, but that his death in 1542 caused it to founder during the minority of his daughter Queen Mary I. One reason for him founding his own chivalric order was that, courted by the great powers of the day he had received the Garter from King Henry VIII, the Golden Fleece from the Emperor Charles V and the St Michael from King Francis I, and wanted to show himself their equal in courtly display.
The restored carvings showing the arms of England, Scotland, Spain and France encircled by their chivalric Orders over the entrance to the Palace at Linlithgow, built by King James V circa 1540
Photo from Scottishramparts.com

Thereafter the Order appears to have disappeared, and indeed in other Protestant countries such as Denmark and Sweden late medieval chivalric orders went into abeyance until later centuries revived them.

When King James VII established the Order in 1687 I think I am correct in saying that I have seen it stated that he designated purple mantles for the knights, and that the choice of green dates from the further revival under Queen Anne in 1703 - no conferments having been made since her father's flight in 1688. In 1687-8 King James had athe St Andrew Jewel made- a cameo with the saltire and thstle surrounded by twelve diamonds. This was one of the jewels he took with him into exile, and they were bequeathed to King George III in 1807 by Cardinal York (the de jure King Henry IX and I). On December 8th 1830 King William IV orded that they be displayed with the Honours of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle.

King James VII also renovated the nave of
Holyrood Abbey as a Chapel Royal, but this was sacked and the royal tombs desecrated in 1688 by the Edinburgh mob, and in 1768 the vault of the nave collapsed, leaving the ruin one sees today. The restoration of these remains of the abbey church has been proposed several times since the 18th century - in 1835 by the architect James Gillespie Graham as a meeting place for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and, in 1906, as a chapel for the Knights of the Thistle, but both proposals were rejected. In the case of the latter plan I think it rather a missed opportunity, although Sir Robert Lorimer did produce instead in 1911 the beautiful chapel of the Order at St Giles Cathedral.


The Queen and Prince Philip with the Officers of the Order of the Thistle outside St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh

Photo from shug17uk on Flickr

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