19 February 2014

The Imperial Order of the Crown of India

Badge of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India [1]
If you look at portraits of British royal women from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, you'll often see them wearing an unfamiliar badge amid the royal family orders pinned to their left shoulders. These badges, which were worn suspended from light blue ribbons, belonged to an order of chivalry that was once widely bestowed but has since become all but extinct: the Imperial Order of the Crown of India.

Queen Victoria, ca. 1882 [2]
The order was begun to celebrate the elevation of Queen Victoria to her newest title, Empress of India, in 1876. From the start, this was an order of chivalry that was awarded exclusively to women -- no men were ever admitted to its ranks (although four served as its sovereign). The badge of the order, which was set with diamonds, turquoises, and pearls, included three intertwined initials: VRI, which stood for Victoria Regina Imperatrix (in English, that's Victoria Queen-Empress). You can see the initials in the illustration of the badge above; you can also see Queen Victoria wearing the insignia of the order (partially obscured under another ribbon on her left shoulder) in the portrait at left.

When Queen Victoria instituted the order on January 1, 1878, the rules of the order were established in the London Gazette [3]. The role of the sovereign of the order was assigned to the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom (Victoria and her heirs, both male and female). She also ensured that the monarch could both invest and remove members of the order as he or she saw fit. Women who could be invested as companions of the order needed to belong to one of three categories. British princesses (who had reached the age of eighteen) were eligible. So were the wives and female relatives of Indian princes (and Indian princesses in their own right, too). The third group recognized the wives and female relatives of high-ranking British colonial officials -- specifically, the spouses and relatives of the Viceroy (or the Governor-General), the Governor of Madras, the Governor of Bombay, and the Secretary of State of India. 

Thirty-six women were listed as companions of the order when it was originally established. The list of companions was also published in the London Gazette, and it included women who fit into all three of the designated categories. Ten British princesses were among the original members of the order, including all five of her daughters (plus Princess Louise's mother-in-law, the Duchess of Argyll), two of her daughters-in-law (the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Edinburgh), and her Cambridge aunt and cousins (including the Duchess of Teck, mother of the future Queen Mary).

Nawab Shahjihan Begum
of Bhopal, ca. 1872 [4]
Eight royal Indian women were also among the original membership of the order. Maharani Bamba, something of a real-life Cinderella, was the wife of the last Maharaja of Lahore. Nawab Shahjihan Begum was the ruler of Bhopal in her own right; her elderly grandmother, Nawab Kudsia Begum, was also made a companion. Maharani Vani Vilasa Sannidhana Kempananja Ammani Avaru was the wife of one Maharaja of Mysore and the mother (and regent) of another. Maharini Jamnabai Sahib Gaekwad, the widow of the Maharaja of Baroda, was also the adopted mother of a subsequent Baroda ruler. Sahebzadi Dialwar unisa Begum Saheba was the grandmother of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Vijaya Mohenu Mukta Boyi was the daughter of the last Raja of Tanjore, and some recognized her as her father's successor. Maharani Swarnamoyee of Cossimbazar was renowned for her charity work.

Seventeen additional women, all related to the past and present colonial officials in India, were also recognized as original companions of the order. The Dowager Countess of Elgin, Lady Mayo, Lady Susan Bourke, Lady Jane Baring, Lady Lytton, Lady Lawrence, and Lady Strachey were all wives, widows, or daughters of Viceroys and Governors-General of India. Lady Mary Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, Lady Hobart, Lady Napier, and Lady Denison were all wives or daughters of Governors of Madras. Lady Frere and Lady Temple were wives of Governors of Bombay. Viscountess Halifax's husband was in charge of the British East India Company. Lady Salisbury, Lady Ripon, and Lady Northcote were wives of Secretaries of State and (Under-Secretaries of State) of India.

Over the next seventy years, many more British princesses, Indian royals, and relatives of colonial officials were added to the order's ranks. In 1947, when British colonial control of India ended, the order was essentially suspended; as you can imagine, there's been no need to add new companions to an imperial order of chivalry based in a country that has since gained its independence.

Today, there is exactly one living person who was invested as a member of the order during its tenure: Queen Elizabeth II, who was made a companion on June 12, 1947. Her sister, Princess Margaret, was made a companion of the order on the same day, even though she was only sixteen. (You can see Margaret wearing the insignia of the order in this portrait; it is placed on her left shoulder, above her family orders.) Both of the princesses were appointed to the order during the celebrations of the official birthday of their father, King George VI [5]. India gained independence from Britain two months later, on August 15, 1947.

1. Cropped version of an image available via Wikimedia Commons; source here.
2. Photograph available via Wikimedia Commons; source here.
3. The relevant pages from the London Gazette are available here.
4. Cropped version of photograph available via Wikimedia Commons; source here.
5. See the London Gazette announcement here.