Friday 17 September 2010

Gongs and Gowns: Honouring Royal Women PART TWO

[Click HERE to read PART ONE of Gongs & Gowns: Honouring Royal Women]

Royal Family Orders and the Imperial Order of the Crown of India notwithstanding, Orders are primarily the preserve of males—royal, aristocratic and common. There are some exceptions to this rule. To varying degrees, the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the Royal Victorian Order, the Royal Victorian Chain and the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem all have established traditions of royal female membership.

Founded by King Edward III in 1348, the Order of the Garter is undoubtedly the most famous and distinguished British Order. Popularly regarded for most of its existence as an exclusively male institution, the Order can nevertheless claim a degree of female involvement as far back as the Middle Ages: over sixty women were involved with the Order from the date of its foundation until 1488. Yet it is important not to over-state this involvement. Admitted by custom, there was no statutory basis for female membership. Early Ladies of the Garter, if they can be so called, may have been issued with Garter robes, however they were not companions and did not receive stalls in Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor. (Note 1) The true status of these early women remains unclear and debate continues as to whether it is correct to refer to them as members of the Order, some authorities choosing instead to refer to them as “Ladies of the Society of the Garter” or “Ladies of the Fraternity and Brotherhood of Saint George”. The first “Ladies” of the Garter were members of King Edward III’s immediate family: his consort, Queen Philippa, and his daughters. One of the last medieval “Ladies” was King Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who died in 1509. Excluding queens regnant, it would be almost four hundred years before the Order would welcome another female. (Note 2)

The next lady of the Garter was Queen Alexandra, consort of Edward VII. Alexandra was appointed to the Order of the Garter in 1901, the year of her husband’s accession. Although there was no statutory provision for the inclusion of women, King Edward VII insisted that his Queen receive a stall in Saint George’s Chapel. Despite an initial concern, voiced by Garter King of Arms (Sir Albert Woods), the King asserted his right to appoint his consort to the Order and grant her a stall.(Note 3) A special statute was issued and this significant appointment was recorded in the Register of the Order:

"The Secretary of State for the Home Department signified to the Chancellor of this Most Noble Order that His Majesty the King, as Sovereign of the Order, had been graciously pleased to command that a Special Statute be issued for conferring upon Her Majesty the Queen the title and dignity of a Lady of this Most Noble Order and fully authorising Her Majesty to wear the Insignia thereof. The Sovereign's Pleasure was duly announced in the London Gazette of Tuesday 12 February, 1901." (Note 4)

Upon acceding to the throne George V and George VI both chose to follow King Edward’s example, both appointing their consorts to the Order. (Note 5) King George VI appointed two other females to the Order: Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands in 1944 (again following the passage of a special statute) and Princess Elizabeth (now HM The Queen) in 1948. Princess Elizabeth’s appointment coincided with that of the Duke of Edinburgh—husband and wife were admitted at a special ceremony commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Order’s foundation.

During her reign, Queen Elizabeth II has appointed three other Queens to the Order: HRH Princess Juliana of the Netherlands (who was Queen at the time of her appointment) and HM The Queen of the Netherlands were appointed in 1958 and 1989 respectively whilst HM The Queen of Denmark was appointed in 1979. Foreign Queens appointed to the Order are styled “Extra Ladies of the Garter” whilst female members of the British Royal family are styled either “Ladies of the Garter” or, following a recent special statute, “Extra Ladies Companion”. (Note 6) The two most recent royal females to be honoured with the Garter are HRH the Princess Royal (1994) and HRH Princess Alexandra, The Hon. Lady Ogilvy (2003). (Note 7) Royal appointments are extra-numerary and as such have no bearing on the established number of twenty-four companions.

The Royal Victorian Order also boasts a significant female membership. Founded by Queen Victoria on 21 April 1896, the Royal Victorian Order was created to honour significant personal service to the Sovereign. Although the award of the Order was initially restricted to the Queen’s relations and senior members of the Royal Household, the Order was gradually expanded to reward those who had performed an important personal service to the monarchy in general.(Note 8) As currently constituted, the Order comprises five classes: knight/dame grand cross, knight/dame commander, commander, lieutenant and member.

Women were excluded from the Royal Victorian Order for the first forty years of its existence. The Sovereign responsible for the admission of women was King Edward VIII however in his short time on the throne he was only able to appoint one female: his mother, Queen Mary.(Note 9) Appointed a dame grand cross, Queen Mary would live to see many more female appointees.

King George VI rapidly expanded the role of women in the Order. The new king appointed his consort a dame grand cross and installed her as the Order’s first Grand Master. George VI also bestowed the Royal Victorian Order upon HM Queen Maud of Norway; HRH The Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll; HRH The Princess Beatrice; HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester; HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone and also upon his sister, HRH The Princess Royal (Princess Mary). These royals were all invested as dames grand cross.

To date HM The Queen has bestowed the Royal Victorian Order upon HH Princess Marie Louise; HRH The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon; HRH Princess Alexandra, the Hon. Lady Ogilvy; HRH The Princess Royal; HRH The Duchess of Kent; HRH The Duchess of Gloucester, HRH The Countess of Wessex and HRH The Duchesss of Cornwall.(Note 10) These appointments were also to the rank of dame grand cross.

Despite the similarity in name, the Royal Victorian Chain is distinct from the Royal Victorian Order and should be regarded as a separate and unique honour. The Royal Victorian Chain is awarded very rarely and is entirely within the personal gift of the Sovereign. Awarded to members of the Royal family, foreign heads of state and exceptional senior servants of the Crown, the Chain carries no title, precedence or post-nominal. By virtue of its personal nature and exclusivity, it is amongst the most prestigious of Royal honours.

King Edward VII established the Royal Victorian Chain in August 1902 however women were not admitted until the year of the coronation of King George VI (1937). Men wear the chain around the neck whilst women wear the chain suspended from a bow — the colours of which are based upon the ribbon of the Royal Victorian Order. Following the deaths of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and HRH The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, the sole surviving member of the royal family to hold the Chain is HM The Queen.

To read PART THREE of Gongs & Gowns: Honouring Royal Women, CLICK HERE. 


Note 1: Although not companions, these women appear to have worn the Garter on their left arm. Evidence of this can also be found on certain tombstones.

Note 2: Noteworthy medieval ladies of the Garter include the consorts of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV and Henry VII. Although the last ‘appointment’ was made in 1488, it has been claimed by some that Edward VI granted the Garter to Laura Cacio Terricina, a Neapolitan poetess. One final unsuccessful attempt to involve women was made in 1638, with a proposal to grant robes to the wives of Garter knights. This was perhaps an attempt to revive a medieval tradition whereby widows of Garter Knights were permitted to wear the robes of the Order on Saint George’s feast days.

Note 3: The basis for this authority rested on the revised Statutes of Henry VIII: “To the Sovereign … that appertain … the interpretation, reformation and disposition of all causes concerning and touching anything of obscurity or doubt, contained in the Statutes of the Most Noble Order.” Grace Holmes, The Order of the Garter, (Windsor, 1984), p. 19.

Note 4: Ibid.

Note 5: Queen Mary was appointed to the Order of the Garter in June 1910 and the then Queen Elizabeth was appointed to the Order in December 1936.

Note 6: Until recently companions were exclusively male—and therefore styled “Knights Companion”. This changed on 1 October 1987 with the passage of a special statute whereby the Sovereign declared that being “desirous of evincing in a fitting manner Our abiding sense of the virtues and worth of Ladies of eminence known to Us by making such of them as We are pleased to choose and select to be Companions of Our said Most Noble Order do ordain and declare that henceforth the Companions of Our said Most Noble Order shall be those of Our Subjects both Knights and Ladies as We or Our Successors are pleased to declare to be Knights Companions or Ladies Companions of Our said Most Noble Order and that in case of a Lady she shall be admitted into the Companionship of Our said Order by the style and title of Lady Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter being accorded in such respect the designation of ‘Lady’ before her Christian or first name.” The first person to be appointed a “Lady Companion” was the late Lavinia Mary, Duchess of Norfolk (widow of the 16th Duke of Norfolk, KG). A former Lord Lieutenant, she stood in for The Queen at every coronation rehearsal save for the last. She was appointed to the Order of the Garter in 1990. The only other non-royals to have been appointed are Baroness Thatcher in 1995 (the year in which Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk died) and, in 2005, Lady Soames, the daughter of Sir Winston Churchill, himself a Garter knight. Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Soames are the Order’s only non-royal father and daughter appointments.

Note 7: The 2003 appointment of HRH Princess Alexandra, the Hon. Lady Ogilvy seemingly saw the first, and so far only, instance of the use for a UK royal of the style (Extra) “Lady Companion”. HRH The Princess Royal, the only other female royal to be appointed to the Order after the passage of the 1987 special statute (1994), is styled a “Lady of the Garter” in the traditional manner. 

Note 8: A lesser honour, the Royal Victorian Medal, is also awarded to those who have performed services to the Crown. Generally awarded to servants of the Royal Household, the medal has three grades: silver-gilt, silver, and bronze.

Note 9: The statutes were revised on 28 May 1936.

Note 10: HRH The Princess Royal received the GCVO shortly after the unsuccessful kidnapping attempt made against her in the Mall.


Anonymous said...

Great to see you are posting on this blog again. Thoroughly enjoyable to read.

One question: in the photo of Edward and Sophie, why is Sophie not wearing her GCVO star? Is it considered acceptable to wear the broad riband without the star with a dress like that, with such a relatively low neckline? If the insignia choice is between a Royal Family Order and a GCVO star, should the RFO badge take priority? I can't imagine her doing so if she held the Garter or Thistle. Where does the RFO fit in to the order of wear? said...

Thank you for your comment.

The Countess of Wessex should be wearing the GCVO star. It is highly unusual to see the broad riband worn without the star. The decision not to wear the star was probably based upon considerations of fashion. The RFO could have been worn upon the shoulder rather than the breast, thus making it easier to wear the star.

The RFOs do not carry any precedence and do not have an official position in the order of wear.

Crux Australis said...

On the question of the RFO, was Diana, Princess of Wales ever seen wearing her RFO after separation or divorce from the Prince of Wales? I wonder whether such an intimate family honour would be appropriate to continue to wear in such circumstances.

I note that whereas the Countess of Wessex was made GCVO after ten years of marriage, the Princess of Wales was not - let alone the Garter. said...

From memory, I cannot recall ever seeing her wear the RFO following their separation.