Wednesday 15 September 2010

Gongs and Gowns: Honouring Royal Women PART ONE

Female involvement in the honours system is a relatively modern occurrence and those Orders with which women have been associated remain few and select. In terms of female exclusivity the most significant honour to be borne by royal women is not any single Order but a group known as the Royal Family Orders. These enamelled, jewel-encrusted miniature portraits are within the personal gift of the Sovereign and, although the least known of the various honours, are ironically amongst the most familiar, as the insignia are frequently seen upon the shoulders of senior female royals.

Although portraits of the Sovereign had been worn by ladies and gentlemen of the court in earlier times, the tradition of presenting a Family Order exclusively to women was not established until the reign of King George IV. Given the King’s great love of fashion, regalia and kingship it is perhaps fitting that the Royal Family Orders date from his reign. Lacking a formal name or specific date of creation, the term “Order” is applied very loosely to this late-Georgian honour, especially as George IV bestowed his portraits quite casually, regarding them more as personal gifts than decorations. The most famous recipient of George IV’s “Order” was his niece, the future Queen Victoria. During her own reign, the far more sober and formal Victoria, desiring a more structured honour, established the four class Order of Victoria and Albert. The Order was instituted on 10 February 1862, the 23rd anniversary of her marriage to the recently deceased Prince Consort. Recipients of the Order were restricted to Princesses of the Blood Royal and certain other worthy females.(Note 1) Suspended from a white silk bow pinned to the left shoulder, the badge of the Order consisted of a cameo of the Queen’s head overlaying that of the Prince Consort; the Sovereign’s badge reversed this order.

Kings Edward VII, George V and George VI followed the example of the Queen-Empress by establishing their own Family Orders however Edward VIII failed to institute one, most likely due to the short span of his reign and his preoccupation with more pressing matters. The Sovereign’s portrait of Edward VII’s Family Order was suspended from a blue ribbon bordered white and red. The portrait of each subsequent Sovereign was suspended from a silk bow, the colour changing with each reign: the silk bow of George V’s Family Order was pale blue and that of George VI pink. (Note 2)

Queen Elizabeth II continued the tradition of her predecessors and instituted her own Family Order in 1952. The diamond-studded portrait of The Queen depicts the Sovereign wearing the riband and star of the Order of the Garter. A diamond-encrusted Tudor crown surmounts the portrait whilst the reverse displays the royal cipher and Saint Edward’s Crown. The Sovereign’s portrait is suspended from a silk bow of chartreuse yellow.

A Royal Family Order does not bestow any precedence, style or title; nevertheless, the honour is highly regarded and membership of the female ranks of the royal family does not guarantee receipt. This is especially true of Queen Elizabeth II’s Family Order. Amongst modern royals HRH Princess Michael of Kent has yet to be honoured with the Queen’s Family Order. Similarly, although the late Diana, Princess of Wales received the Order in the year of her marriage (1981), Sarah, Duchess of York was never honoured.

The record for the receipt of Royal Family Orders is held jointly by HM Queen Mary and HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone. Queen Mary received the Family Orders of her grandmother-in-law (Victoria - 1893); father-in-law (Edward VII - 1902); husband (George V - 1911); son (George VI - 1937) and granddaughter (Elizabeth II - 1952). Queen Mary received this last Order shortly before her death and thus never wore it in public. Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone received the same Royal Family Orders that Queen Mary received and, at the time of her death (1981), was the sole surviving member of the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert.

Aside from Royal Family Orders, the only other British honour reserved exclusively for females is the Imperial Order of the Crown of India. Queen Victoria founded this Order on 1st January 1878, the anniversary of the creation of her Imperial title. The Order was restricted to female members of the royal family and Indian princely families as well as the families of British officials such as the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, the Governors of Bengal, Madras or Bombay, and the Principal Secretary of State for India. Suspended from a bow of pale blue silk bordered white, the badge bears the cipher of the Queen-Empress in diamonds, pearls and turquoises, all within a pearl border surmounted by the Imperial Crown. As with the Royal Family Orders, the Imperial Order of the Crown of India does not bestow a title on the recipient; however members are granted the post-nominals “CI”.

The Imperial Order of the Crown of India had an active life-span of only seventy years. In 1947, as Indian independence drew near, King George VI appointed his two daughters to the Order. With the formal cessation of India from the Imperial Family no further appointments were made; however existing members were permitted to continue using the insignia and post-nominals.(Note 3) Given the great period of time that has passed since the final appointments were made it is not surprising that there are very few surviving members. The death in 1985 of the Maharani of Travancore reduced the number of survivors to a mere four: HM The Queen; HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother; HRH The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. Today HM The Queen is the sole surviving member.

To Be Continued in Part Two


Note 1: Foreign recipients of the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert include: Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Queen Elizabeth of the Hellenes, Empress Alexandra of Russia, Queen Maud of Norway, Queen Marie of Romania, and Queen Marie of Hanover.

Note 2: The creation of Family Orders does not appear to have been the sole preserve of the Sovereign. Evidence suggests that Queen Alexandra, consort of Edward VII, either established her own Family Order or had one established for her by King Edward VII. Given Edward VII’s great love of decorations this was perhaps appropriate. Although detailed information is scarce, the Queen's daughters seem to have received it around 1901/02. The insignia of the “Order” consisted of a small circular miniature of King Edward and Queen Alexandra suspended from a ribbon bow of red, bordered with white stripes towards the edge. Little is known about this decoration but its appearance bears similarities with the badges awarded to the Mistress of the Robes; although, unlike the ‘Order’, the latter seems to include a crown above the portrait.

Note 3: The last appointee was Lady Clydesmuir in 1948.

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