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Most Honourable Order of the Bath

The concept of the Order of the Bath is believed to be late medieval in origin. It comes from the ritual washing, a symbol of spiritual purification, which formed part of an initiates preparations for the conferment of knighthood. This honour was not given until the candidates had completed various rituals designed to purify the soul such as fasting, vigils and prayer, and cleansing themselves by bathing.

The earliest mention in an official document of the ceremony of bathing at the creation of a knight, was that of 15-year-old Geoffrey, count of Anjou, in 1128. It is recorded that 'after the customary religious ceremonies, Geoffrey immersed his body in a bath and was afterwards habited by the attendants in crimson robes, while a sword was girded about his body and golden spurs placed upon his heels'. After this date there are several other mentions for the Order. A 1306 document refers to Edward II 'meditating an expedition against the Scots and being desirous of increasing his retinue, conferred 'Knighthood of the Bath on three hundred youths at Westminster'. At Henry V's coronation in 1413 'fifty gallant young gentlemen, candidates for Knighthood of the Bath, according to custom went into the baths prepared severally for them'. By the end of the fifteenth century, many of the ceremonial rituals were beginning to disappear, although 'Knights of the Bath' were still made at coronations - the court goldsmith made 75 badges for Charles II's ascent to the throne.

The Order was revived in 1715 by George I, who did so as to provide an additional source of political rewards for the first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. The recreated order originally consisted of the Sovereign, a Great Master and 36 Knights Companion. In 1815, the Prince Regent (later George IV) created two divisions within the Order, military and civil, formally abolished the rituals of bathing and fasting, and also expanded it to consist (in total) of the Sovereign (currently Queen Elizabeth II), the Great Master (currently The Prince of Wales) and three classes of members. The statutes instituted by George I provide for 120 Knights and Dames Grand Cross (GCB), 295 Knights and Dames Commander (KCB and DCB) and 1,455 Companions (CB) along with six officers, a Dean, the Bath King of Arms, Secretary, Registrar, Genealogist, Gentleman Usher of the Scarlet Rod, and the Deputy Secretary.

The Order is principally awarded to serving officers of the Armed Forces, as well as to a small number of civil servants, primarily from the Foreign Office. In 1971 women were admitted to the Order for the first time. The Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, is the Orders Chapel but due to the limited number of stalls available within it (there are only 34) only the most senior Knights Grand Cross can be accommodated. As a result, when a stall becomes vacant through the death of its current holder, it is then offered to the next most senior Grand Cross on a allotment basis between the Military and Civil Divisions.

The Orders regalia differs between the military and civil branches. The Star of the military knights and Dames Grand Cross is silver superimposed with an 8 pointed Maltese cross. In the centre are the three imperial crowns within a band of red enamel inscribed with the motto of the Order - Ich Dien (I serve). The Star of the civil knights Grand Cross is similar, but does not have the Maltese cross. The motto is also different - 'Tria juncto in uno' ('Three joined in one'), first used in James I's reign. The motto was historically thought to refer either to the Union of England, Scotland and France, or to the Union of England, Scotland and Ireland, or to the Holy Trinity.

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