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The Order of the Thistle: A Symbol of Positive Anglo-Scottish Relations from the Medieval to the Modern Period

Written by Sophia Aiello. Anglo-Scottish relations have been tense at the best of times, but how can a royally gifted honour help this relationship? And how has the history of the Order of the Thistle run parallel to Scottish history?

The Order of the Thistle has been Scotland’s highest order of Chivalry since the late seventeenth century. It is made up of sixteen members – initially limited to twelve – who are Scottish, or of Scottish descent and have contributed in a significant way to Scottish National life. Membership of the order is one of the country’s highest honours, as it is given as a personal gift by the sovereign – the leader of the order, who chooses two further royal members. The Order has always played an interesting role in political relations between England and Scotland, due to their turbulent relationship both before and after the 1707 Act of Union. Despite this, the Order of the Thistle has been seen as a symbol of positive Anglo-Scottish relations. It has been a used as a means for the English monarch to pay respects to Scotland and those who work in its national interest. The survival of the Order shows that although the relationship between Scotland and England has historically been strained, there has always been a certain level of respect between to two nations.  

The foundation date of the Order has not been established by historians; however, it has been argued that its roots were in the Middle Ages. Scottish legend has it that the Order was founded in 809 CE, when King Achaius made an alliance with the Emperor Charlemagne. Charlemagne was known to employ Scottish bodyguards. This employment was a gift, given out of respect, just as membership to the Order is in the twenty-first century. However, there is no conclusive historic proof of this. Reference to the Order of the Thistle does not appear in Scottish history again until the fifteenth century when James II, King of Scots first used the thistle insignia and bestowed the “Order of the Burr or Thissil” on King Francis I of France. Although there is more historic proof of this event this ‘Order’ bears little relation to the modern Order of the Thistle. If there was indeed an Order at this time it would appear to be sporadic. 

The present-day Order was largely revived by James VII of Scotland (King James II of England). He established the Order under new rules in 1687 to reward Scottish peers who supported the King’s political and religious aims. James established the Order to help engage with and maintain his close relationship with the Scots. He asked two of his ministers of state to establish something that would portray both the importance of the people receiving the Order whilst also carrying the air of exclusivity and royal support. Thus, the Order of the Thistle as it is known today was formed – inclusive of the green ceremonial robes. However, James’s deposition made it seem unlikely that the order would survive. He was deposed in 1688 which meant he was only able to appoint eight out of the twelve knights. Moreover, the chapel of the Order, Holyrood Abbey, was ransacked by the Edinburgh mob in response to King James’ Roman Catholic allegiance. Therefore, not even a year after its creation it seemed as if The Order of the Thistle, and the olive branch it provided towards positive Anglo-Scottish relations would not survive.  

This seemed even more likely with the rule of joint monarchs, William and Mary. Unlike James they were not very interested in Anglo-Scottish relations, instead their primary concern was English government. They were constantly having to prove the legitimacy of their position as reigning monarchs, following James’s deposition. They were also heavily concerned with the Catholic cause, which was very unpopular in Scotland. Due to this, they made few attempts to improve relations with Scotland. They made no further appointments to the Order and subsequently it fell into disuse.  

However, Queen Anne revived The Order of the Thistle on 31 December 1703, appointing twelve Knights before her death in 1714. This revived Order has continued to this day. Unlike William and Mary, Anne worked hard to improve relations with Scotland. It was within her reign that the 1707 Act of Succession was passed and because of this trying to improve relations between the two countries was of key importance to her and her reign. The Order seemed under threat again following Anne’s reign however it owed its survival to King George I, King George II and King George III who used it to reward those Scottish nobles who supported the Hanoverian and Protestant cause. Therefore, in its infancy the Order was a tool for the monarch. It was used when they wanted to win favour or thank people for support in Scotland. Therefore, its early survival was more because of needs of the monarch rather than respecting Scottish interests.  

The most significant changes made to the Order were made during George IV’s reign. He was genuinely invested in Scottish relations after his visit to Scotland in 1822 when he decided he wanted to revive royal interest in the Order. George IV increased the Order from twelve to sixteen members. Originally, James wanted twelve knights to replicate Jesus’s twelve apostles. However, George IV wanted to increase membership to bring it more into line with the Order of the Garter and therefore more in line with the English honour system. George VI made a second change by conferring the Order of the Thistle for merit rather than for political patronage and argued that the sovereign should make their choices of appointment based on Government advice. However, by 1946 with the agreement of Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister and Winston Churchill, the Leader of the Opposition, the Order was returned to the personal gift of the sovereign.  

In 1987, Queen Elizabeth II sanctioned the admission of women to the Order of the Thistle on a regular basis, as prior to this they had largely been exempt. Following George VI’s reforms, the Order’s purpose was to reward Scotland rather than being used as a political tool by English monarchs. Moreover, the Order became much more inclusive following the reforms. Now there are many women in the Order. For example, Lady Marion Fraser who was appointed in 1996 – music teacher and ex-Director of St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh.  

Therefore, the Order shows improvement on two accounts. With increasing diversity, it more accurately depicts the Scottish population within the chivalry, something which was very uncommon until reforms to the order of the Thistle were made. Additionally, it shows that while Scots may still want independence, the relations or at least respect between the two countries have in some areas improved.  

Written by Sophia Aiello  

Bibliography 

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopedia. “The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.” Encyclopedia Britannica. September 16, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Most-Ancient-and-Most-Noble-Order-of-the-Thistle. 

Galloway, P. The Order of The Thistle. London: Spink & Son Ltd, 2009. 

Levin, S. “The Origins of the Order of The Thistle.” Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthhood. November 30, 2018. https://tallinnmuseum.com/2018/11/30/the-origins-of-the-order-of-the-thistle/.  

Reid, D. “The Order of the Thistle.” Culloden Battlefield. August 25, 2017. https://cullodenbattlefield.wordpress.com/2017/08/25/the-order-of-the-thistle/.  

Strtak, J. The order of the Thistle and the reintroduction of Catholicism in late seventeeth-century Scotland. Edinburgh: The Edinburgh University Press, 2017.  

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