The Knights of St. Patrick

On the day of Ireland’s patron saint, we look at the highest order of chivalry associated with that country, and consider the careers of some of the Members of Parliament who sat in the Reformed Commons and who were created Knights of St. Patrick between 1845 and 1899.

The insignia of the Knight of St. Patrick

The insignia of a Knight of the Order of St. Patrick

The Most Illustrious Order of St. Patrick was founded in 1783 and was used to reward Irish peers who supported the government of the day. It served as the national order of Ireland as the Garter did for England and the Thistle for Scotland. The original royal warrant specified that there were to be no more than fifteen knights of the order at any one time, although by 1833 the number had been increased to twenty-two.

Twenty-two former Members of Parliament who sat in the period between 1832 and 1868 were created knights of the order, and all but five of them sat for Irish seats. Some, like Richard Southwell Bourke, 6th Earl of Mayo, contributed significantly to political life, sitting in the Commons from 1847 to 1868, and serving the Conservatives as Irish Chief Secretary in 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8, and as Viceroy of India from 1868 until he was assassinated in 1872. Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue sat in the Commons from 1847 to 1874, and was Irish Chief Secretary for the Liberals in 1865-6 and 1868-71. He was created 1st Baron Carlingford in 1874 and sat in the Cabinet during the 1880s.

Other knights had less distinguished political careers but were nonetheless active parliamentarians. Luke White, who became 2nd Baron Annaly in 1873, was the Irish whip for the Liberals before his failure to secure a parliamentary seat ended his Commons career. William Drogo Montagu, 7th Duke of Manchester, had served as a private secretary to Benjamin Disraeli during his time as MP for Bewdley, 1848-52, and Huntingdonshire, 1852-5.

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse

Some recipients of the honour were better known for their contributions to pursuits other than politics. William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, who as Lord Oxmantown sat for King’s County, 1821-35, was a pioneering astronomer and built what was for many years the world’s largest and most advanced telescope at his home, Birr Castle.

While some recipients of the honour may not have distinguished themselves in the Commons, they subsequently wielded significant political influence in their locality by virtue of their huge estates, and their service as Lords Lieutenant of their counties; George Vane-Tempest, 5th Marquess of Londonderry, George Chichester, 3rd Marquess of Donegall, James Molyneux Caulfeild, 3rd Earl of Charlemont, and Charles Bingham, 4th Earl of Lucan, each fall into this category. Frederick Stewart, 4th Marquess of Londonderry, and Valentine Browne, 4th Earl of Kenmare, received the honour at least partly in recognition of their service to the royal household, while others were rewarded for their efforts in the House of Lords, either as Irish representative peers, or by virtue of United Kingdom peerages.

Only four of the men considered here began life as commoners. Robert Carew, who sat for his native county Wexford, 1812-30 and 1831-4, and as its Lord Lieutenant, 1831-56, proved an invaluable Irish adviser to the Whig ministry at the time of the reform bills, and was created 1st Baron Carew in 1834. (His son, the 2nd Baron, also sat for the seat and received the honour in 1872). Thomas O’Hagan, the only Catholic among the twenty-two members considered here, sat briefly for Tralee in 1863-5, before rising to become Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1868-74 and 1880-1. He was elevated to the peerage as 1st Baron O’Hagan in 1870, and made a Knight of St. Patrick in 1882.

One of the men awarded the honour in this period did not serve as a Member of Parliament, but played an important role in the government of the British empire. Frederick Hamilton Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava enjoyed a distinguished career as an administrator and diplomat and was given the honour in 1864. He subsequently served as Governor-General of Canada from 1872-8, and as Viceroy of India from 1884-8.

In all one hundred and forty-five men became Knights of St. Patrick, and their regular creation lasted until the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The order went into abeyance after the creation of the last knight in 1936, and effectively lapsed with the death of the last surviving recipient in 1974. The draft biographies of some of the MPs discussed in this article are now available on the History of Parliament 1832-1868 website. For details of how to access this site, see here.

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