04 May 2019

A New Honor for Kate: The Royal Victorian Order

The Countess of Wessex wears the Royal Victorian Order at the royal wedding in Sweden, June 2013 (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The Duchess of Cambridge received quite the anniversary present this week, joining an elite club of British royals. Today, we're shining the spotlight on all of the British royal ladies who have been honored as Dames Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order.

The insignia of the Royal Victorian Order (Nicholas Jackson/Wikimedia Commons)

The Royal Victorian Order (RVO) was created in 1896, a year before Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The order recognizes personal service to the monarch, and appointments are made directly by the sovereign. There are several classes of the order, the highest being Knight/Dame Grand Cross. The insignia of the order include a distinctive red, white, and blue sash/ribbon, a badge featuring Queen Victoria's royal cypher set on a Maltese cross, and an eight-pointed star with a smaller version of the badge set in its center.

Queen Mary and the Duke of Windsor, ca. 1940s (INTERCONTINENTALE/AFP/Getty Images)

Initially, the order was only bestowed on men, including numerous British royal princes and dukes. Forty years after the order's creation, however, King Edward VIII changed the order's statutes to allow women (both royal and otherwise) to be honored as well. On June 23, 1936, he appointed the first woman in the order's history, bestowing the rank of Dame Grand Cross on his mother, Queen Mary. The appointment was made as a part of his one and only birthday honors list.

Detail from Queen Elizabeth's coronation portrait, painted by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly (Wikimedia Commons)

The next monarch, King George VI, followed his elder brother's example, conferring the honor of Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order on numerous royal and aristocratic women. In his first New Year's Honours List (which released a month late, in February 1937, because of the abdication), he appointed his wife, Queen Elizabeth, as a Dame Grand Cross of the order. He simultaneously appointed her to be the order's Grand Master, a post she held until her death in 2002.

Family group photo from the 1937 Coronation (Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

In his Coronation Honours List, released on May 11, 1937, King George made several more royal women Dames Grand Cross of the order. The four ladies honored were his aunt, Queen Maud of Norway; his sister, Princess Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood; and two of his great-aunts, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll and Princess Beatrice. (He also appointed his mother-in-law, the Countess of Strathmore, as a Dame Grand Cross of the order.) At the same time, he gave the order a home, designating the Savoy Chapel in London as its official chapel.

The Earl and Countess of Athlone and Princess Margaret attending the inauguration of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, September 1948 (Nationaal Archief/Wikimedia Commons)

In the New Year's Honours List of 1948, Bertie added three more royal ladies to the roster. Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester; Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent; and Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone were all made Dames Grand Cross of the RVO. The Guardian noted that the appointments were made "in connection with Princess Elizabeth's wedding," which had taken place the previous November. Alice Athlone was able to wear her new RVO insignia a few months later, when she and her husband accompanied Princess Margaret to the inauguration of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in September 1948.

Family members look on during the 1953 Coronation (INTERCONTINENTALE/AFP/Getty Images)

In her Coronation Honours List, released on June 1, 1953, Queen Elizabeth II added two more royal ladies to the order. She appointed her sister, Princess Margaret, and her cousin, Princess Marie Louise (formerly of Schleswig-Holstein) as Dames Grand Cross of the RVO.  Both women can be spotted wearing their new insignia in photos from the coronation. (Margaret's in the front row beside the Queen Mother, while Marie Louise is standing behind Princess Andrew of Greece, who wore her habit for the occasion.)

Princess Alexandra and Princess Margaret during the Dutch state visit, April 1972 (PA Images/Alamy)

On Christmas Day in 1960, the Queen bestowed the rank of Dame Grand Cross of the RVO on her cousin, Princess Alexandra of Kent. (Alexandra's elder brother, the Duke of Kent, was also honored as a Knight Grand Cross on the same day.) The Guardian wrote that the Queen "presented Princess Alexandra with her insignia at Sandringham over the Christmas holidays. The Princess, who celebrated her twenty-fourth birthday on Christmas Day, was a member of the Royal house party there." Above, you'll spot Alexandra (standing behind Princess Margaret) wearing the RVO sash during the Dutch state visit twelve years later.

Princess Anne attends a state banquet during the West German state visit, July 1986 (Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy)

The next royal lady to become a Dame Grand Cross was the Queen's only daughter, Princess Anne. She received the honor on August 15, 1974; just as it was for Princess Alexandra, the order was Anne's twenty-fourth birthday present. The press noted, however, that the gift also had extra significance, as it was presented partly in recognition of the bravery that Anne had displayed in March 1974, when a man attempted to kidnap her near Buckingham Palace. In 2007, Anne became the Grand Master of the order, a position she still holds today.

The Duke and Duchess of Kent attend a dinner at the Portuguese Embassy in London, November 1978 (Ron Bell/PA Images/Alamy)

Three years later, during the Silver Jubilee celebrations, the Queen appointed the Duchess of Kent to be a Dame Grand Cross of the RVO. She wears the distinctive sash of the order above for a dinner during the 1978 state visit from the President of Portugal.

The Duchess of Gloucester attends a banquet at the Guildhall during the Mexican state visit, March 2009 (Tim Whitby/Getty Images)

The Duchess of Gloucester's work for the royal family was recognized by the Queen on June 23, 1989, when she appointed her a Dame Grand Cross of the RVO. Birgitte often wears the insignia of the order when she represents the family at events like Guildhall banquets.

The Countess of Wessex attends the royal wedding in Sweden, June 2015 (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

On January 20, 2010, the Queen added her daughter-in-law, the Countess of Wessex, to the ranks of the order, making her a Dame Grand Cross. The appointment was a gift to mark Sophie's forty-fifth birthday.

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall attend a state banquet during the Dutch state visit, October 2018 (Peter Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Two years later, the Queen also bestowed the rank of Dame Grand Cross of the RVO on her other daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cornwall. The appointment, made on April 9, 2012, coincided with Charles and Camilla's seventh wedding anniversary.

The Duchess of Cambridge attends a state banquet during the Dutch state visit, October 2018 (JOHN STILLWELL/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, another royal wedding anniversary prompted the Queen to appoint a new Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. This time, the honor went to the Duchess of Cambridge, who received the appointment on her eighth wedding anniversary. She's the first of her generation of royal women to receive this particular recognition, and she'll now wear the sash, badge, and star of the order when she attends gala events like state banquets and diplomatic receptions.