A Thistly Issue

I have written before about the intricacies of the Order of the Garter. Although it technically has only one grade (in contrast to the Bath which has three, or the British Empire which has five), there are many finely differentiated categories of membership. It is traditionally said that the order is limited to twenty-four knights companion at a time, but of course the reigning monarch himself is always the sovereign of the order (and all others), so really it was twenty-five. Then the Princes of Wales had automatic membership, so it was twenty-six. On top of that, George III in 1786 created the separate status of “royal knight”, so that his unusually large brood of sons could be installed without crowding out everybody else. In 1813 a further category of “stranger knight” was instituted so as to allow the appointment of supernumerary foreign members.

The position of female members is even more complicated. From the time of Richard II it was common to appoint ladies of the order, though even after many years I am still unsure as to their exact status and function. The last such lady appointed was Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, in 1488. After that the installation of women to the order was discontinued completely, and for the next four hundred years the only women to wear the Garter robes were the queens regnant. After Victoria’s passing her son Edward VII, her grandson George V and her great-grandson George VI each installed their consorts as royal ladies by special statute. The Princess Elizabeth was also made a royal lady in 1947 and the stranger category came to include foreign female monarchs. From 1987 the statues were altered to allow non-royal women to be Ladies Companion of the order on the same basis as the non-royal men, the first example being the Duchess of Norfolk in 1990.

Wikipedia’s list of members for the order took pains to colour-code and differentiate between the different categories of membership. Curiously, while the modern ladies from Queen Alexandra onwards were all included, the medieval ladies were omitted. Long ago there had been a separate smaller page listing them, but it had been deleted on the recommendation to merge with the larger list. For unknown reasons that merger was never actually carried out, so that the medieval ladies were simply forgotten.

Yesterday, with the aid of one other editor, I worked to correct that problem. The sixty-four Garter ladies of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are now included in the table with their own colour code and numbering. For completeness, I have also added entries for those monarchs who were not already members of the order prior to accession.

Having finished that task, I then wondered if the page for the Order of the Thistle – Scotland’s Garter equivalent – would need a similar refurbishment. The list page I found was of a very different table design to that used for the Garter, or indeed the other chivalric orders, bearing sharp black borders around cells and being organised by century instead of by monarch. It took just over a day to completely convert the content to the more usual format. On the one hand, the Thistle has fewer categories than the Garter – sixteen knights brethren and supernumerary extra knights. On the other, the list did not differentiate one type of member from the other in the way that the Garter’s did, so in many cases guesswork was required and it is likely that the whole numbering system will need to be redone at some point to account for any I’ve missed.

While going through this, I received a notice that I had been granted access to the Wikipedia Library. This was intriguing, for it was an innocuous, easy-to-miss announcement of what turned out to be quite an important perk of being an editor. According to a video I found from last summer, the library has actually been around for about a decade, but until recently there was no systematic effort to advertise it, and so the vast majority of eligible members (including me) had no clue it existed. Having only discovered the resource today I cannot yet report on how useful it will be, but it looks promising so far.

It’s not all good news – for a long time I have been vexed by the positioning of “Sir” and “Dame” in the infoboxes of such subjects as are entitled to them. I prefer them to be in the name field, rather than among the honorific prefixes. Previously this appeared to be the consensus among the editors who frequented the articles of knighted politicians and civil servants, though not necessarily those of actors and musicians, with only a small number of persistent miscreants persisting otherwise. A fortnight ago this was discussed and my contribution was sought. It appeared that my stance was going to win out, but when the matter went to vote my supporters were rarely to be seen. We’re doomed to ugly box-headers for the forseable future, one supposes.

Cold Starting the Carr

Throughout the past two years I have been a regular viewer of Jimmy Carr’s YouTube channel. He has uploaded many full-length videos of his old standup specials, as well as dozens of shorter compilation videos. He even did a quiz to entertain those trapped in lockdown, although this content has subsequently faded from prominence, condensed into a few large weekly compilations.

Late last year, he announced that after getting by for so long by endlessly rehashing old material, he was finally releasing a new show, albeit not on YouTube. His Dark Material premiered on Christmas Day.

There are two segments which focus on the events of the past two years, but these are relatively brief and the majority of the material is interchangeable with what one comes to expect from all his other concerts – I even caught a few classic lines being reused.

His earlier shows primarily used a static multi-camera format, with occasional panning to keep up with him as he walks about the stage or to focus on a heckling audience member. His later output features much greater use of swooping shots from behind while he’s standing still, as well as over the audience. This can be a little surreal at times, giving the impression that one is watching a film (perhaps a biopic) rather than a live event. It also, unfortunately, highlights the increasing sagginess of Carr’s face.

A consequence of watching so many compilations of much older material is that one develops a mental cache of a celebrity’s face, hair, voice and mannerisms that averages out as being a few years into the past, which then makes it a shock to see how they’ve changed when new material finally arrives. The problem is exacerbated if the “new” material is actually delayed for a long time. I have discussed this before in relation to ‘Cats Does Countdown: Throughout 2020 and into 2021 the programming still consisted wholly of holdovers from 2019, and it was quite jarring when post-COVID footage (only four episodes so far) finally arrived showing Sean Lock‘s deathly pallor, Katherine Ryan’s increased girth and, of course, Carr’s hair transplant (which he got after the Lockdown quiz and laughs at in this special).

Later in the special Carr pondered the passing of the ages in a different way – by lecturing to the younger members of the audience about how social interaction, telephony and taxi rides used to work in the 1990s. Here I must digress into a rant about a common trend I have witnessed among comedians and other social commentators – premature declarations of obsolescence. As someone born in the cusp of generations Y and Z (sometimes called a “Zillennial”), I will say for the record that well into the noughties I was playing and recording cassettes and VHS tapes (many of which I still have). I also operated fax machines a few times and stored some school projects on diskettes. Even restricting to the past five years I have regularly sent and received paper letters (both typed and handwritten), paid for things in cash, driven a car with hand-wound rear windows and made calls on public payphones. On at least two occasions I have ridden on trains pulled by steam locomotives. The notion pushed by so many talking heads that all of these things are entirely alien to anyone born after about 1995 has never quite rung true to me.

Guts for Garters

For the last few Decembers I have eagerly awaited the release of the new year honours list. Normally they arrive a few days before the actual new year, but this time around they came with barely an hour to spare.

There were, as to be expected, a great many awards given on ministerial advice for those involved in fighting COVID, but at the very top were three new appointments made at Her Majesty’s personal discretion to the Order of the Garter: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, her daughter-in-law; Valerie, Baroness Amos, former Lord President of Her Privy Council; and Tony Blair, her former Prime Minister.

While sons (and in modern times also daughters) of the reigning monarch are appointed to the order routinely it is rare for royals by marriage. The only examples in the past two hundred years are of those married to the sovereigns themselves – Albert two months in advance of his wedding, Alexandra, Mary and Elizabeth shortly after their husbands’ accessions. Camilla and the late Prince Philip are the only consorts to receive the garter while their spouses were not yet on the throne. I wonder if she shall use the same stall that he did?

Amos is a former leader of the House of Lords (like Lord Salisbury, and indeed others of that title before him). She also served a brief term as High Commissioner to Australia and an even briefer one as International Development Secretary.

Tony Blair appointed Amos to most of those offices. It used to be the norm for former Prime Ministers to join the order, up to and including John Major in 2005 it became rare to see party politicians appointed. It was long assumed that Blair had declined any honours if indeed he was ever offered them, whether that was due to his personal distaste for them (he portrayed himself as a moderniser rather than a traditionalist, and was often observed to behave more like a US President than a British minister), or potential public backlash over controversies stemming from his premiership. What has persuaded him to accept the award now, fifteen years on, is not yet known.

These are the first appointments to the order since 2019. There were no Garter Day ceremonies in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic. This year is set to be Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, so one presumes that the Firm will be keen to make up for lost time.

Today’s news will have interesting ramifications heraldry-wise: Camilla has of course been openly armigerous since 2005, and Sodacan has already updated his graphic of her arms to include the Garter circlet. Amos has been a peeress all my life, and typically appears early on in the pages of Burke’s and Debrett’s, but has never been shown with any armorial design. She may therefore receive a brand new grant in the coming months. Blair is especially confusing, though he is joining an English order of chivalry, he may be Scottish for heraldic purposes and so it would be Lyon not Garter arranging his grant.

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