On New Year’s Day, members of the Danish royal family gather in Copenhagen for the first levee of the year, and inevitably, someone emails me this question: what’s the necklace that the royals are wearing with the elephant pendant? The answer is this: it’s a collar, not a necklace, and it forms part of the insignia of one of the grandest orders of chivalry in the world, the Order of the Elephant.
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, Queen Margrethe II, is the sovereign of both of the orders, and her younger son, Prince Joachim, holds the position of Chancellor of the Orders.
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. (The symbols were especially popular in England, where you’ll find the name “Elephant and Castle” used for pubs and for an area in south London.)
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 Dannebrog in diamonds.”
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 June 28, the birthday of King Valdemar II (1170-1241), who is known as “Valdemar the Victorious.” There are also some special exceptions, including the recent Golden Jubilee celebrations for Queen Margrethe II in September 2022. At all other times, the elephant badge is worn suspended from the sash.
The insignia of the order also includes an eight-pointed silver star. Women and men wear identical insignia, except that men’s sashes are wider than women’s sashes. The sashes are worn across the left shoulder, with the badge placed on the right hip. With one exception—President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose sash and star are on display at his presidential library in Kansas—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. Queen Margrethe II wears the special elephant badge and collar made for King Christian V of Denmark (1646-1699), the same one worn by her father, King Frederik IX.
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.
Many royal consorts and heirs have also been honored with membership in the order. The newest member of the order is Princess Ingrid Alexandra, the future Queen of Norway, who received the honor as an eighteenth-birthday gift in January 2022. 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 Danish royals, like Prince Henrik, Crown Princess Mary, and Princess Marie, are generally made members of the order on or near their wedding days.
Later tonight, you should see six members of the Danish royal family wearing the collar, badge, and star of the Order of the Elephant: Queen Margrethe II, Crown Prince Frederik, Crown Princess Mary, Prince Joachim, Princess Marie, and Princess Benedikte. And now you know: it’s not just a necklace!
Content note: I’m planning to cover the tiaras worn at this evening’s New Year levee on Tuesday, January 3. Stay tuned!