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.

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