Heather's Monthly Articles
It's an Honour
January 2013

Well, once again New Year's Day came and went, taking with it my hopes for a mention in the Queen's Honours List. Not that I've done anything to deserve it, but with well over two thousand people being honoured every year in Her Majesty's New Year's and Birthday Honours Lists, and with the tradition going back some 700 years, I figure surely it's got to be my turn soon.

If I was to receive a "gong," as it's so affectionately nicknamed, I wonder which it would be? The "Order of the Thistle" sounds a bit prickly, whereas the "Order of the Garter" has a certain coquettish ring to it. Its full designation is "The Most Noble Order of the Garter" and it is the oldest and most prestigious order of chivalry in the United Kingdom. Men who receive it become Knights and women Dames. It was established on April 23rd in 1348 by King Edward III and is awarded for services to England and Wales. Only 24 members are allowed to join the exclusive group at any one time.

The twenty-five members of the Royal Order of the Garter.

"The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle," created in 1687 by the King of Scotland, James VII, who was also known as James II, King of England and Ireland, carries with it the same distinctions; Knight and Dame and is the highest honor in Scotland. It's only in the last 25 years, though, that women have become eligible for the "Thistle," while ladies have been associated with the "Garter" since the Middle Ages.

Prince William in his Order
of the Garter robes.

Women did, however, take a back seat in 1509 after the death of Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was the mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII, when the Garter was, so to speak, suspended. Then in 1901 Edward VII bestowed the Honour upon his wife, Queen Alexandra. One can only speculate as to what marital spat disrupted the 500-year hiatus. Edward's reputation as a ladies' man was legendary. It has been said that he conducted at least fifty-five extramarital liaisons. The most notable of which were with actresses Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt; others included the mother of Winston Churchill, Lady Randolph Churchill, and Alice Keppel, the great-grandmother of Prince Charles's wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.

So while the Brits and the Welsh have the Garter and the Scots the Thistle, the Irish have good old St. Paddy, namely "The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick." Created in 1783 by George III, this Order, although technically still in existence, has been redundant since 1921 when most of Ireland became independent. The last surviving knight of St. Patrick was Queen Elizabeth II's uncle, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who died in 1974.

Sir John Major wearing his
robes as a Knight Companion
of the Order of the Garter,
in procession to St George's
Chapel, Windsor Castle for
the annual service of
the Order of the Garter.

The fourth-most senior of the British Orders of Chivalry is that of "The Most Honourable Order of the Bath," which takes its name from the symbolic bathing in medieval times which took place when preparing a candidate for knighthood. During the bathing process, the knight-to-be was instructed in his knightly duties by more senior knights, before being "put to bed to dry." He would then be clothed in a special robe and led with music to the chapel where he would spend the night in vigil. At dawn he would make confession, then attend Mass, and finally retire to bed to sleep until it was time to be brought before the King who would strike him on the neck (with either a hand or a sword), thus making him a knight. While the symbolic "dubbing" is still carried out to this day, nowadays candidates presumably tend to their own ablutions in the privacy of their homes. At least, one would hope.

Kwame Kwei-Armah* after his
investiture as officer of the Most
Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Placing ninth in the Top Ten current Orders of Chivalry listings is the one with which most are familiar: The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Established in 1917 by King George V, this Order mainly honors plebs and celebs, i.e., the common folk and celebrities. It's composed of five classes; the Knight or Dame Grand Cross, the Knight or Dame Commander, the Commander, the Officer and the Member, respectively known as the GBE, the KBE, the DBE, the CBE, the OBE, and the MBE.

Road sweeper Anthony Cleland (BEM).

In tenth and final position is the British Empire Medal. With over 100,000 living members of this order worldwide, the BEM is sometimes called the "working class" gong. Former Prime Minister John Major retired this Order in 1993, as part of his drive to build a "classless society." It must have been obvious to Major that his class reforms had a long way to go when in 2005 he became Sir John, having being awarded the crème de la crème of Honours, the Order of the Garter. Current Prime Minister David Cameron revived the BEM for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee last year. 293 people were given the award, including Anthony Cleland, a 62nd Street cleaner from Lambeth, South London.

Now where did I put that sweeping brush?!

*Congratulations to Baltimore's CENTERSTAGE Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah who was named an Officer in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, in the Queen's 2012 New Year's Honours List.


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