The Order of the Thistle is Scotland’s great order of chivalry, and membership is considered to be one of the country’s highest honours. The Order is traditionally given to
Scots or people of Scots ancestry, who have given distinguished service. Appointments are entirely in the personal gift of the Sovereign.
The Order of the Thistle has roots in the Middle Ages, but the present-day order was largely created in 1687 by King James VII of Scotland (King James II of England). The nave of Holyrood Abbey was adapted as its chapel, but in 1688 the Abbey was ransacked by the Edinburgh mob, furious at King James’ Roman Catholic allegiance. After that, the Knights of the Thistle had no chapel of their own for over 200 years.
The Thistle Chapel was designed by Robert Lorimer and finished in 1911. It contains stalls for the 16 knights, the Sovereign’s stall and two Royal stalls. The chapel contains a wealth of detail, both religious and heraldic, and much of it peculiarly Scottish, including angels playing bagpipes.
Entered through a low-vaulted vestibule or ante-chapel at the east end of the Preston aisle, the chapel is a rectangle of three bays, with a polygonal eastern apse and a stone vault encrusted with a rich pattern of ribs and carved bosses. The effect is greatly enhanced by heraldic and figurative stained glass in the windows.
Along the sides of the chapel are the knights’ stalls, which are capped by lavishly carved canopies with the helms and crests of the knights rising above. The richest effect of all, however, is reserved for the Sovereign’s stall at the west end of the chapel.