01 January 2014

The Order of the Elephant

The sash of the Order of the Elephant, worn by Princess Marie of Denmark [1]
Later this evening, the Danish royal family will attend one of the first important chivalric events of the year: the first of the New Year's Courts, an event that highlights the Order of the Elephant. In its honor, let's have a look at this Danish order of chivalry, shall we?

The Order of the Elephant is one of the two chivalric orders in Denmark. It's the higher of the two orders, and is generally given only to royals or to heads of state (the lower order is the Order of the Dannebrog, which primarily consists of Danish citizens who have been recognized for their contributions to the nation). The reigning monarch, Margrethe II, is the sovereign of both of the orders, and her younger son, Prince Joachim, holds the position of Chancellor of the Orders [2].

Badge of the Order of
the Elephant [3]
While the Order of the Elephant existed as far back as the fifteenth century, the current incarnation of the order was officially instituted in 1693. The badge of the order is a white elephant with a tower on its back; this is a form of the "elephant and castle" imagery that represented strength in Europe from medieval times [4]. The insignia of the order consists of the elephant badge, made of enameled gold, which can be worn suspended from either a light blue sash or a gold collar (which also features alternating elephants and towers/castles). An eighteenth-century encyclopedia of heraldry, A Complete Body of Heraldry, describes the collar as made "of gold, composed of elephants and towers alternately, enamelled proper; to the front of the collar is pendent an elephant, on his back a castle, also a man, all enamelled proper; on the side of the elephant a cross of Danebrog in diamonds" [5]. The collar is only worn on three days each year: during the New Year's Court (January 1), on the monarch's birthday (April 16), and on the birthday of King Valdemar II (June 28), who is known as "Valdemar the Victorious." The insignia also includes an eight-pointed silver star. Women and men wear identical insignia, except that men's sashes are wider than women's sashes. With one exception -- President Eisenhower [6] -- the insignia of each member is returned after his or her death. There are only about a hundred of the elephant badges in existence, and you can tell when each badge was crafted because the left side of each elephant bears the monograph of the monarch who was on the throne when it was made.

King Christian IX of Denmark wears
the collar and badge of the Order of
the Elephant [8]
Royals from around the world, as well as current and former heads of state, make up the membership of the order. (On rare occasions, Danish commoners are also invested as knights, including physicist Niels Bohr and shipping magnate Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller.) The reigning monarchs of the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden, Japan, Norway, Thailand, Spain, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg are all knights of the order [7]. The newest member of the order is the current president of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, who became a knight in April 2013. The order is often bestowed on heads of state when they make state visits to Denmark. Members of the Danish royal family frequently are invested as members of the order to coincide with major milestones. Crown Prince Frederik and Prince Joachim were made knights on the day their mother, Margrethe II, became queen in 1972; a generation earlier, Margrethe and her sisters, Benedikte and Anne-Marie, joined the order on the day their father became king. Spouses of royals, like Prince Henrik, Crown Princess Mary, and Princess Marie, are generally given knighthoods on or near their wedding days.

Tomorrow, we'll see Queen Margrethe, Crown Princess Mary, and Princess Marie pair their collars with glittering tiaras and glamorous gowns at the New Year's Court. The men of the family, Prince Henrik, Crown Prince Frederik, and Prince Joachim, wear the gilded collar with traditional dress military uniforms. Here's a selection of photos from last year's New Year's Court -- we'll likely see an equally sparkling display from this evening's event!

1. Cropped version of photograph available at Wikimedia Commons; source here.

2. See the official site of the Danish monarchy here.
3. Image available at Wikimedia Commons; source here.
4. Those who have visited London will recognize "Elephant and Castle" as the name of an area of Southwark (and as the name of more than one pub!). The name comes from a similar elephant-and-castle badge that was used by a guild once located in the area.
5. The book, published in 1780, is available on Google Books.
6. President Eisenhower's insignia is on public display at his Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.
7. Read a full list of the current knights of the order here.
8. Image in the public domain; source here.