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Collar of the Order of the Thistle

James VII and II established the Order of the Thistle to reward those loyal to him.
This is a particularly interesting piece in terms of its history and the way that it has been executed. It’s what we would term a collar, and it’s a collar for the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle. Unfortunately for us, it is not marked so we don’t know for definite who made this piece, but we do suspect that it was made by the Scottish goldsmith John Campbell of London. Campbell moved to London from Angus in 1692 whereby he continued to work as a goldsmith, but he also established a bank and he was known as a goldsmith-banker. And that bank still exists today and it’s called Coutt’s.
In 1707 and 1708, Campbell was given a very prestigious commission from Queen Anne to create 10 thistle collars for the Order of the Thistle. Of the 10 that were made, 3 are known to survive, and this is one of those 3. The collar itself is made from gold but it has been decorated with very fine enamel work. And what you actually have here is a collar that is 34 alternating links of thistle heads and rue, as in the plant rue. And the rue itself has been fashioned in the form of a cross. Now the enamel work is very, very detailed.
And what you actually have on certain pieces is that you have the stalks being shown at the base of the thistle and at the base of the rue. In a way they didn’t really need to do that but they have. So they’ve really gone that extra length to give it this huge amount of detail. And also on the back of the collar as well you have the thistle enamelled with this beautiful orange enamel. Now the back of a collar is never going to be seen by anybody. It’s unnecessary to spend that money to decorate the back of it but they have done that. So it’s just about emphasising that nothing was spared in the making of this.
Money wasn’t an object. And that really goes to highlight the importance of the wearer, the status of the wearer, and also how prestigious this order was. In addition to that, you also have this very fine detail that– on the inside of the collar you have these links which are circular. On the outside you have oval links. And what that means is actually when you have that collar on, it sits perfectly on the wearer, so there’s been a lot of attention to details in terms of the way that it will sit on the wearer, but also the way that it looks.
The collar and the pendant are actually two separate pieces. This one was made over 100 years later but it’s still worn on the collar. And from the 19th century onwards there is a connection point here so the pendant would be hung from this. But although this is of a later date– this was made in 1825 to 1826 has a date letter for K and that’s because the London goldsmith’s year run from May to May. And it was made by London goldsmith called John James Edington. And so although he made this much later, what is interesting is that he’s still conforming to what was originally stipulated in the order statutes. And the statutes are essentially the rule book for the Order.
And from very early on it said that the St. Andrew had to wear a green gown, a purple surcoat, and have a white cross. And so over 100 years later, they’re still designing them with that style. So the collar and the St. Andrew together form part of the insignia of the Order of the Thistle. And that was created– well the order was created by James VII of Scotland, II of England. He said at the time he was reviving the Order, although there is really no evidence to see that that’s the case. So essentially he did create it. And from its initial founding, it was used to foster and reward loyalty.
James was a Catholic monarch and he was set on establishing toleration for those of the Catholic faith. And with that in mind he created his letter of indulgence. And the letter of indulgence was a move towards broader religious freedom within the country. But he needed that passed by Parliament– the Scottish Parliament– and so he needed the elite, powerful Scottish noblemen to help pass that. And interestingly, it is those men who were loyal to James backed the letter of indulgence, that are the first knights of this Order– men including the brothers John and James Drummond who were– James was the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, and John was the Secretary of State for Scotland.
James VII’s son and daughter, James VIII and Queen Anne, both continued to use the Order to reward loyalty. And interestingly today this Order has survived and is the premier order of Scotland.
What is it?
This beautiful gold collar and a pendant depicting St Andrew – the patron saint of Scotland – together form part of the insignia of the Order of the Thistle, the greatest Order of Chivalry in Scotland.
What does it represent?
James VII and II established the Order with a statutory foundation under new rules in 1687 – to reward Scottish peers who supported his political and religious aims.
The Order continues today and you can find out more here.
Who owned or acquired this?
Those men who were loyal to James, who backed his Declaration of Indulgence were the first Knights of this Order, including the brothers John and James Drummond, who were Lord Chancellor of Scotland and the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Is it the only one? Where is it now?
This is one of only three in existence and it is in the collections of National Museums Scotland.
After watching the above video, in which Curator Lyndsay McGill describes the detailed workmanship on these two pieces, consider the following questions:
  • What do you think about the craftsmanship on these objects?
  • What does it tell us about the status conferred on those who were awarded the Order of the Thistle?
  • What do you think of James’s motives for conferring this honour?
  • Are there any parallels you can think of in twenty-first century politics?
We invite you to leave a comment.
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