Pearls from the Pend No. 17
A Chivalric Chamber
Each year at Epiphany, during the Feast of the Three Kings, medieval knights laid their hands on a roasted peacock encased in its full plumage – a heraldic symbol of resurrection and immortality – and re-affirmed their obligation to chivalry.
If there is no aspiration to accept something higher than daily existence, life stagnates. A first-time visitor entering St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, or the Thistle Chapel within St Giles’ Cathedral may well be entranced by the sight of heraldic symbols appropriate to a particular Order of chivalry. In the same way, visitors to St John’s House, the Chancery of the Priory of Scotland of the Order of St John, on entering the Chapter Room step from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary to be greeted by monochrome intricately carved furniture offset by a colourful effusion of a frieze of 10 Priors’ shields and 64 heraldic stall plates of Knights and one of a Dame of Justice displayed in columns of three.
Our Director of Ceremonies, Confrère James Bingham KStJ, is to be congratulated on the time spent not only extending and meticulously sequencing the shields and stall plates and ensuring that the display was brought up to date through the skilful work of the current Priory Limner, Confrère Mark Dennis OStJ, with lettering by Kevin Greig, but also producing Stall Plates of the Knights and Dames of the Priory of Scotland of the Order of St John, published (nd, but 2020, £9.95) by St John Scotland, copies of which can be ordered online here.
This attractive, informative trade paperback includes an Introduction by the current Prior, Major General Mark Strudwick CBE KStJ, a Foreword by Lord Lyon King of Arms, Dr Joseph Morrow CBE KStJ, and a Preface, Acknowledgements and extensive Glossary by the author. The bulk of the book comprises biographical and heraldic entries for each Knight and Dame with their stall plates on facing pages. For students of heraldry the book is a delight to dip into again and again.
As Lord Lyon remarked: ‘It is sometimes said that Scots heraldry is the garden of our history. The Chapter Room now displays the vibrancy of colours and symbols in that garden of Scots history.’
The purpose of a stall plate has changed over the centuries. Upon the installation of a Knight of the Garter, for example, his sword, helm and crest were to be placed above his stall; the stall plate was affixed after his death, as a memorial. This detail was echoed by Confrères Charles Burnett KStJ & Henry Tilling KStJ in Order of St John in Scotland (1997, p. 43): ‘Stall plates of deceased Knights are grouped together adjacent to the Chancellor’s and Preceptor’s Chairs. Other stalls carry plates of armigerous members of Chapter.’ Since 2017 the position has been reviewed and revised allowing all armigerous Knights and Dames to have their stall plates displayed.
In the Thistle Chapel the artist Phoebe Traquair used translucent champlevé enamel to give stall plates their sparkling sheen. In the Chapter Room of St John’s House Priory Limners Charles Burnett, Romilly Squire, Clare McCrory, and Mark Dennis, as well as the heraldic artist, Yvonne Holton, have executed stall plates with consummate skill on grained oak. Over twenty Knights had their stall plates painted privately and the artists are ‘not known’. It is to be hoped that further investigation can identify the heraldic artists involved.
There is not the space here to discuss all the heraldic achievements on display, but the holders of certain stall plates are of particular interest through historical associations. Sir William Johnstone Thomson was appointed almost three decades before the erection of the Priory of Scotland as a KStJ (1919) under the then Grand Priory of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in England. Colonel Sir Colin William MacRae of Feoirlinn KStJ (1926), Captain William David Cargill Thompson KStJ (1946) and Major John Forrest-Hamilton KStJ (1947) were office holders on the Committee of Scottish Affairs appointed in 1945 to petition the Grand Prior for the erection of a Priory of Scotland.
All of these Knights were taking up the baton held earlier by John Horne Stevenson, Unicorn Pursuivant, later Marchmont Herald, who in the early 1900s and, later, in 1923 petitioned Grand Priory for the erection of a Priory of Scotland. And while admiring the stall plate of James Watt KStJ (1961) it is good to be reminded of his generosity in purchasing St John’s House 50 years ago and gifting it to the Priory of Scotland for use as its Chancery.
A previous Prior of Scotland, the 16th Viscount of Arbuthnott, as a Knight of the Thistle and as a Bailiff Grand Cross of St John, has the distinction of two stall plates. And His Lordship’s crest? A peacock's head Proper.