Above is a portrait of George III’s fifth son Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and, from 1837 until his death fourteen years later, King of Hanover: he was also Earl of Armagh in the Irish peerage. The picture is of interest because it shows the Duke in the robes of a Knight Companion of the Order of St Patrick to which he was appointed in August 1821.
Dormant without being extinct, the Illustrious Order of St Patrick was established in February 1783 by George III ‘to distinguish the virtue, loyalty and fidelity of his subjects in Ireland.’ Note that its creation came the year after Grattan and his supporters had secured greater autonomy for the Irish parliament; the new chivalric order was intended to ensure firmer ties, at least among members of the peerage, to the British crown. Modelled on the very much older Order of the Garter, initially it consisted of the ruling Sovereign, a Grand Master (always the current Lord Lieutenant) and fifteen Knights Companions (this number later increased). In addition the Archbishop of Armagh served as Prelate of the Order, the Archbishop of Dublin as Chancellor, the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin as Registrar and other posts included a Secretary, Genealogist, Usher and King of Arms. Naturally St Patrick was patron of the order, its motto being ‘Quis separabit?’ Latin for ‘Who will separate us?’ (an allusion to St Paul’s enquiry in his Letter to the Romans, ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’).
As can be seen above, the first Knights were invested on 11th March 1783 in a ceremony held in the great ballroom of Dublin Castle, renamed St Patrick’s Hall and forever after known as such. The Order’s statutes restricted membership to men who were both knights and gentlemen, the latter being defined as having three generations of ‘noblesse’, that is ancestors bearing coats of arms on both their father’s and mother’s side. In fact only Irish Peers, and the occasional foreign princes, were ever created Knights of St Patrick.
Among the Knights Founders were George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward Augustus, later Duke of Kent and father of the future Queen Victoria: in his absence he was represented by Robert Deane, first Baron Muskerry. The only other absentee was Henry Loftus, Earl of Ely, then taking the waters in Bath in what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to improve his health (he would be dead within two months); he was represented by John Joshua, second Baron Carysfort. The other new Knights were all present, including the second Duke of Leinster, the 12th Earl of Clanrickarde, the 6th Earl of Westmeath, the fifth Earl of Inchiquin, the second Earl of Shannon, the second Earl of Mornington (father of the future Duke of Wellington) and the great Earl of Charlemont. Only one peer declined to join the new order, Randal MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim because he was already a Knight Companion of the Order of the Bath, and it was not permitted to hold both knighthoods: his place was taken by Arthur Gore, second Earl of Arran.
Formal ceremonies to mark the foundation of the Order took place on 17th March 1783. The day began with a ceremony in St Patrick’s Cathedral to which the Knights, after gathering at Dublin Castle, had all processed in their robes. The cathedral’s old choir was now designated the Chapel of the Order, in which each knight was required to affix his arms to his stall and to display his family banner above. Investiture of new Knights continued to take place in the cathedral choir until the official disestablishment of the Church of Ireland by Gladstone’s Liberal government in January 1871.
Following a service at St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Knights returned to Dublin Castle where the Lord Lieutenant, George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, Earl Temple held a banquet in St Patrick’s Hall. The first picture shows this occasion with Lord Temple at the centre and the other Knights in all their finery, including cloaks and plumed tricornes, disposed on either side of him. Lady Temple is shown seated on the extreme left although in fact she was in the gallery behind her husband. This commemorative picture was created by a Sussex-born artist called John Keyse Sherwin who began his working life as a wood-cutter but subsequently acquired fame for his prints. However he hungered to become known as a painter, and so laboured on large canvases such as one some fifty feet long representing the Installation of the Knights of St Patrick. It was not a success, with one observer deriding the result as ‘a wretched daub.’ Still, this work, which became a popular engraving, helps to give us some idea of the occasion.
The second painting, by the Waterford-born artist Michael Angelo Hayes, depicts the March 1868 investiture as a Knight of St Patrick of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). The ceremony took place after St Patrick’s Cathedral had been extensively restored earlier in the decade thanks to the beneficence of brewer Benjamin Lee Guinness. It was one of the last occasions when such a ceremony involving the Order took place at this location.
Although the Order’s original statutes were quite strict, they gradually became more relaxed. For example, when George IV visited in Ireland in 1821 the event was marked by the investiture of an additional six Knights of St Patrick (its membership was eventually increased to twenty-two). One of those appointed by the king was the first Roman Catholic to be so honoured, Arthur Plunkett, 8th Earl of Fingall. His family had always remained loyal to the old faith, and Lord Fingall was a leading supporter of Catholic Emancipation. This was not a position meeting with the King’s approval (nor that of his younger brother the aforementioned Duke of Cumberland who was vehemently opposed to the repeal of the old Penal Laws). Nevertheless in August 1821 Lord Fingall became a Knight of St Patrick. Strangely the most articulate opposition to his investiture came from Lord Byron, by then living in Italy (he would die less than three years later while trying to help Greece achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire). Hearing of the king’s visit to Ireland, and of the enthusiastic manner in which he was received, the poet wrote The Irish Avatar in which he castigated this country’s natives for their servile behaviour before the monarch. Specifically he wrote, ‘Will thy yard of blue riband, poor Fingal, recall/The fetters from millions of Catholic limbs?/Or, has it not bound thee the fastest of all/The slaves, who now hail their betrayer with hymns?’
As already mentioned, once Gladstone’s government saw through legislation for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and thus ended its link with the state, the connection between the Knights of St Patrick and St Patrick’s Cathedral was also broken, the latter no longer serving as a venue for the former’s investiture ceremonies (these were subsequently moved to St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle). It was decided that the heraldic banners of all knights at the time of the change would be left hanging over their respective choir stalls, along with their helmets and swords. And as can be seen above, so they remain to the present day, a reminder of a minor but fascinating detail of Irish history.
As for the Illustrious Order of St Patrick the last peer to be appointed to its ranks was James Hamilton, third Duke of Abercorn in June 1922. Three members of the British royal family followed: Edward, Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor) in 1927; Henry, Duke of Gloucester in 1934 and George, Duke of York (later George VI) in 1936. Although there have been no new Knights since then and there are no living ones since the death of the Duke of Gloucester in 1974, the order was never abolished and in theory could be revived. It seems an unlikely prospect, but then so once did a State Visit by the President of Ireland to Britain, and that takes place next month…
Happy St Patrick’s Day to all readers and followers of The Irish Aesthete.