The Order of St Michael and St George: 1818 to 2018 (part one)

The Order of St Michael and St George reaches its 200th anniversary this year. Here's the story of its first century.GCMG collar

The new year Gazette of 2018 (Gazette issue 62150) contained the last in the regular series of bi-annual appointments to the Order of St Michael and St George to be published before the order reaches its 200th anniversary.

This article describes what happened during this order’s first century, while the second hundred years is examined in part two.

Mediterranean base

The order now recognises a wide range of activities connected with the UK’s interests around the globe, but it began during the Regency, with the narrow objective of catering for Malta and the Ionian Islands, which had recently come under British influence.

By the start of the Regency in 1811, the ribands of many orders were distributed along broad national lines, with the Garter for English noblemen, and the Thistle and St Patrick for their Scottish and Irish peers. As yet, no orders were dedicated to bolstering British interests in places such as North America, the East and West Indies, or the Pacific, but despite this, the government was persuaded to create an honour for the Mediterranean.

The document instituting the Order of St Michael and St George was not reported in The Gazette, nor was there any notice of the kind that accompanied other Regency innovations, including the extension of army gold medals and the reform of the Order of the Bath. The Gazette did, however, notice the career of Henry Bathurst, who was the political force behind the Mediterranean venture.

Henry Bathurst

Bathurst (pictured) had been secretary of state for war and the colonies since 1812, and appeared in several Gazettes, not least as the recipient of Wellington’s despatch reporting his victory at Waterloo (Gazette issue 17028), and as the minister who announced that St Helena would be Napoleon’s future residence (Gazette issue 17055). Bathurst had also witnessed an expansion in the use of ribands across Europe in the wake of the conflict with France, and knew about the insignia the Regent received from his allies in Russia and elsewhere.

Bathurst countersigned the letters patent creating the Order of St Michael and St George on 27 April 1818, as well as the statutes which were issued on the Regent’s birthday in August of that year. His actions reflected two aspects of the political settlement with France arising out of the treaties that were signed at Paris in May 1814 and November 1815, which provided that Malta should belong ‘in full right and Sovereignty to His Britannic Majesty’ (Gazette issue 16906) and the seven islands of ‘Corfu, Cephalonia, Zante, Maura, Ithaca, Cerigo and Paxo …. Shall form a single, free and independent State, under the denomination of the United States of the Ionian Islands’ to be placed ‘under the immediate and exclusive protection of His Majesty’ (Gazette issue 17108).

Malta was a long-established base of the knights of St John, but the island had been seized by the French on their way to conquer Egypt. The Gazette reported ‘the surrender of the fortress of La Valette… after sustaining a blockade of two years,’ (Gazette issue 15300) and quoted the articles of capitulation that were signed in 1800 by the officers commanding the allied troops and naval squadron, Major-General Henry Pigot and Captain George Martin, who would later join Bathurst’s order.

The Ionian Islands were part of the Republic of Venice until the late 1790s, when they were formed into the Septinsular Republic under the joint control of Russia and Turkey. They were later threatened by France, and The Gazette reported the work of Brigadier-General John Oswald – another future member of the order – who explained that ‘the French garrison in the islands of Zante, Cephalonia, Ithaca, and Cerigo have, after a very faint resistance, surrendered to His Majesty’s Arms, the people liberated from the oppression of the French, and the government of the Sept’ Insular Republic declared to be restored’ (Gazette issue 16321).

Bathurst handled Malta’s affairs from London, with local control being exercised by Sir Thomas Maitland as governor. The Paris treaty provided for the Ionian Islands to be administered by a lord high commissioner, a role that Maitland united with his Maltese job. The treaty also allowed for an Ionian constitution, and The Gazette recorded how three senators presented the Regent with the charter their assembly had agreed (Gazette issue 17267). Plans for creating an order were in draft by the time the Ionian deputation arrived in London in the summer of 1817, although Bathurst did not complete the formal process until the following year, when the three senators received their insignia during the first chapter of the order, which was held in the Palace of Corfu in November 1818.

Bathurst’s order provided for the sovereign at its head, with a royal deputy or representative known as the grand master, and with 44 members, consisting of eight knights grand cross (GCMG), 12 knights commander (KCMG) and 24 companions (CMG). Thomas Maitland became the first grand master, and was joined by a few British members, as well as local supporters of the recent constitutional settlement, including Ionian senators and Maltese lords lieutenant.

Appointments were not gazetted until the 1860s, although there were rare exceptions, as happened in 1820, after an Ionian deputation presented an address to the Regent on his accession to the throne and he invested Senator Zavo as a KCMG (Gazette issue 17618).


The insignia worn by the senators and other members contained references to the history of their order and islands. The collar worn by the grand crosses showed the winged lion of St Mark, which recalled the Ionian link with the Venetian Republic, while the seven arrows held by the lion represented the islands that formed the Septinsular Republic, and the white Maltese cross was a familiar emblem of the knights of St John.

The badge of the order was worn from a riband of blue with a central red stripe. It had seven arms – in memory of Corfu, Cephalonia, Zante and the other four islands – with a crown above. The central section showed St George for England on one side, with the Archangel St Michael trampling on Satan on the other, in an allusion to Napoleon being crushed by the allied powers. Both saints were surrounded by the motto auspicium melioris aevi, which is usually rendered as ‘token of a better age’, and perhaps reflected Bathurst’s hope for the future of his Mediterranean enterprise when he signed the founding patent in 1818.

The stars of the grand cross and knight commander grades combined the archangel motif with a red cross of St George. There was no difference in the insignia issued to naval and military personnel, in contrast to the contemporary approach in the Bath and Guelphic Order, which used different designs for their civil and military members.

Most candidates for the order came from the Ionian Islands, with the remainder being drawn from the smaller Maltese population. There were few British recipients at this stage, although the GCMG was often given to the person holding the offices of lord high commissioner and governor. Sir Thomas Maitland’s legacy was divided into three after his death in 1824, as Frederick Adam became commissioner to the Ionian Islands; the Marquess of Hastings took over as governor of Malta (but did not add the GCMG to the many honours he already held); and the King’s brother, Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, became the second grand master.

The British members during the order’s first half-century included several grand crosses from 1837, which were conferred – decades after the events – on some of the senior officers who served in the blockade of Valletta, including Henry Pigot and George Martin, who were mentioned earlier, and others engaged in the capture of Zante, Cephalonia and Santa Maura.

Victorian reform

The geographical reach of British ribands was extended beyond the Mediterranean in the 1840s, as the few grand crosses of the Order of the Bath (GCB) that had been granted to ambassadors and colonial governors since the Regency were supplemented at the knight commander (KCB) and companion (CB) level. The first of the lower level Baths were gazetted in 1848 and included envoys to Brazil, Spain and the USA, and the governors of Bombay, British Guiana and New Zealand (Gazette issue 20850).

Shortly after the extension of the Bath, Bathurst’s order was increased to 65 members, and the Queen’s cousin Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, succeeded his father as the third grand master. London’s relationship with the Ionian Islands was also examined, and William Gladstone (the future prime minister, who declined the GCMG) became lord high commissioner and enquired into the matter. Within a decade, the protectorate was ended and the islands passed to Greece in 1864, which meant that the role of the order was limited to Malta. The last appointments under the Mediterranean system were announced in April 1868 and included the GCMG for the governor of Malta, Sir Patrick Grant, and for the crown advocate, Adrian Dingli.

No new orders based on the Mediterranean precedent were created for places such as Australia and Canada, and instead, the deficiency in the supply of colonial ribands was addressed by a scheme involving Bathurst’s order that was proposed in the House of Commons in 1865. The measure was promoted by one of Bathurst’s successors, the Duke of Buckingham, who wrote to colonial governors in December 1868:

‘The Queen has had occasion to observe that the constant progress of the British Empire in population, wealth, and enterprise, and the increased opportunities thus happily afforded to her subjects of rendering effective services to their Sovereign and their country, have in some respects outgrown Her Majesty’s means of recognising those services in a fitting manner.… For this purpose Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to sanction such a modification of the statutes of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, originally instituted by King George III in connexion with His Majesty’s Mediterranean possessions, and now presided over by a Prince of the Blood Royal, together with such an enlargement of its numbers as will render it available as a reward of distinguished merit or service in any part of Her Majesty’s colonial possessions .…The Queen is confident that this measure will be received by her subjects as an evidence of the importance which Her Majesty attaches to her colonial dominions as integral parts of the British Empire, of her constant interest in their progress, and of her desire that services of which they are the scene or the occasion may not pass without adequate and appropriate recognition.’ (The Times, 22 April 1869, page 5)

The statutes of December 1868 increased the membership to almost 200, and appointments were routinely gazetted for the first time. The earliest awards were announced by the Colonial Office in 1869 and set the pattern for the future, with the grand cross for the governor-general of Canada; the KCMG for the governors of the Bahamas, British Guiana, Ceylon, Nova Scotia and Tasmania; and the CMG for the attorney-general of Barbados, the colonial secretary of Mauritius, the secretary for native affairs in Natal and the chief minister of New South Wales (Gazette issue 23512). A few names were added to enhance the standing of the reformed order, with the GCMG being conferred on three colonial secretaries: Lord Derby, who passed the act abolishing slavery in the West Indies, and Lords Grey and Russell, who gave self-government to Australia and British North America.

The order was used throughout the empire, with the exception of India, where other honours were used. Places were regularly allocated to candidates from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and in time, to officials working in a wide range of other countries. The colonial extension was followed by provision for the admission of extra and honorary members in 1877 (Gazette issue 24464), while services connected with foreign affairs were added two years later.

The first extra GCMG was the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), while the initial Foreign Office grand crosses were Lord Lyons and Lord Odo Russell, the ambassadors to France and Germany (Gazette issue 24726). The Foreign Office followed Colonial Office policy, with the CMG being awarded to junior officials, rising to the grand cross for senior embassies such as Paris and Berlin, where the GCMG operated in parallel with the civil GCB for a few senior ambassadors, until that practice lapsed in the 1940s.

The events and issues that were marked by the order between the late 1860s and the beginning of World War 1 include the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, the work of the commissions considering subjects as varied as the Ottoman province of Eastern Roumelia, the North American fisheries and the Venezuelan boundary, as well as telegraphic communication within the empire. Some of the major imperial developments were also noticed, including awards linked to the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, and the union of South Africa in 1910 (when the GCMG was granted to the first governor-general, Herbert Gladstone, the son of Prime Minister William Gladstone). There was also a short run of KCMGs for the lord mayor of London, reflecting the significant role played by the imperial capital at that time.

Pre-war awards

Two examples illustrate the progress of members from the overseas departments before the start of war in Europe. William MacGregor was made a CMG while chief medical officer in Fiji, and promoted to KCMG as administrator of British New Guinea, ending with the grand cross in 1907 as governor of Newfoundland. His Foreign Office colleague, Ernest Satow, became a CMG as Japanese secretary to the legation at Tokyo, a KCMG while envoy at Tangier, and a grand cross in 1902 as minister to China.

A few Australians progressed through the order, including Henry Ayers, who gave his name to Ayers Rock (Uluru). He emigrated from England and held various positions in the South Australian administration, which brought him the CMG as chief secretary in 1870, promotion to KCMG during one of his several terms as first minister, and the grand cross in 1894 as one of Australia’s elder statesmen.

The final pre-war triple was Horatio Kitchener, one of Britain’s most decorated soldiers, whose first honour was the CMG he received in 1886 while a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Engineers as ‘Her Majesty’s Commissioner for the Delimitation of the Territories of the Sultan of Zanzibar’ (Gazette issue 25614). Kitchener was promoted to KCMG while sirdar of the Egyptian Army (Gazette issue 26484), and gained the grand cross in 1901 for services commanding the forces in South Africa (Gazette issue 27306).

Military awards

Kitchener’s grand cross contrasted with the small naval and military presence that existed in the membership before the 1868 reforms opened the order to wider use. Colonel Garnet Wolseley – later Field Marshal the Viscount Wolseley – was an early army recipient, appointed a KCMG in 1870 for military service in Canada.

The order soon assumed a junior role to the Bath in connection with the operations in Egypt and the Sudan in the 1880s, and more significant numbers were admitted for service during the war against the Boers, when the grants included a KCMG for John French, who led the British Expeditionary Force at the start of the European war. Another Boer award was the CMG for Lieutenant Colonel Seymour Bathurst, the grandson of the colonial secretary who signed the order’s founding patent in 1818.

World War 1

The most significant development in the order’s first century arose out of World War 1. The impact was dramatic, with more than 3,000 companions nominated between 1915 and 1920, compared with an average of around 40 a year before the war.

A statute of 1 January 1915 authorised appointments for those who rendered meritorious services in connection with military operations, provided their names were published in The Gazette as having been mentioned in despatches. Limits were placed on the minimum rank for admission to each grade, with the GCMG being set at major-general, the KCMG at colonel, and the CMG at major. The first of many wartime lists was issued on 18 February 1915 (Gazette issue 29102), and headed with a KCMG for Major-General Julian Byng (who was promoted to grand cross when he became governor-general of Canada).

Awards mainly referred to services rendered during the struggle in France and Flanders, but also marked work at Gallipoli and Jutland, and in other theatres in Europe, as well as the Middle East. The air forces joined the scheme from 1918, and the war provision remained in place until July 1920, by which point a few members had earned the Victoria Cross (VC). One companion who did so was Lieutenant Colonel William Clark-Kennedy of the Canadian Corps, whose great-grandfather had captured a French ensign at Waterloo. Clark-Kennedy became a CMG in 1917 and received the VC for bravery in leading his battalion of the Quebec Regiment during attacks in northern France (Gazette issue 31067). 

The wartime influx included several officers who earned the highest military distinction of the grand cross of the Bath. The naval companions who secured the GCB include Roger Keyes, who returned to active service in 1940 as director of Combined Operations, and Roger Backhouse, who became first sea lord. Among the army CMGs who became field marshals and grand crosses were John Dill, who served as chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Archibald Wavell, who commanded in the Middle East and India before becoming viceroy of India. The air force companions who gained the GCB included two officers who held important commands during the Battle of Britain in 1940 – Cyril Newall was chief of the Air Staff, and Hugh Dowding headed Fighter Command.

The GCMG was strictly controlled, and fewer than 30 naval and military awards were made in connection with the war. General Edmund Allenby was noticed for his work in Egypt, and the Earl of Cavan, George Milne and William Marshall were nominated for services in Italy, the Balkans and Mesopotamia. Some of the principal allies were also rewarded with an honorary GCMG, as in the case of the French marshals Lyautey and Pétain.

The order did not routinely mark naval or military services after 1920, and instead that role was filled by the military division of the Order of the British Empire, which was established in 1918. The legacy of the war remained with the order for many years, as the last surviving GCMG was General Sir Hubert Gough, who died in 1963, and the last of the wartime KCMGs was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Oliver, who died in 1967.

About the author

Russell Malloch is a member of the Orders and Medals Research Society and an authority on British honours.

Image: GCMG Collar (detail), © Russell Malloch

See also

The Order of St Michael and St George: 1818 to 2018 (part two)