The Order of the Elephant

The badge of the Danish Order of the Elephant.

by Brooke Chilvers

After a two-year battle with Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) over flight cancellations during the Covid era, we finally found ourselves in Copenhagen for a bright and cold long summer weekend. 

We planned our stay to be able to walk everywhere, except for a few friendly taxis to Tivoli Gardens and the airport.  I’d studied the city’s monuments, palaces and crown jewels, but never totally unmixed the long, but logical, string of King Frederiks and Christians. The city’s smaller museums—the Glyptoteket, and Hirschsprung and David Collections—are testimonies to both great wealth and erudition.  Everything, of course, was quite expensive, so I’d carefully researched traditional Danish smørrebrød restaurants (Aamanns, Fru Nimb) and charming settings, such as Orangeriet across the park from the Rosenborg Castle.

At Rosenborg, and at Amalienborg and Christiansborg Palaces, I learned for the first time of the Royal Danish Order of the Elephant, Denmark’s oldest and most distinguished royal order of chivalry, the other being the Order of Dannebrog. Its insignia, including its beloved enameled elephant bearing a watchtower, is familiar and important in Denmark, where young HM King Frederik X and HM Queen Mary ascended the throne in January, 2024.  Court photographer S. Evald’s official gala portrait, which hangs in Danish institutions, vessels, embassies, and consulates around the world, shows the couple proudly wearing their Order of the Elephant collar, badge, and breast star.

S. Evald’s official gala portrait of HM King Frederik X and HM Queen Mary.

With roots dating back to the 15th century, the rarely awarded Order of the Elephant was traditionally accorded to members of the Danish royal family.  In fact, they are born Knights of the Order, receiving their insignia on a significant occasion or birthday. The monarch is Sovereign, or Master, of the Order.  

The Order’s elephant, bearing the cipher of the bestowing Danish monarch on its belly, has also been awarded to visiting reigning monarchs, from Europe and Russia to Brazil, Thailand, and Japan. Other recipients include Sir Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Distinguished Danes include atomic physicist Niels Bohr and shipping magnate Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller.

When, by royal ordinance in 1958, Frederik IX admitted women to the Order, Queen Elizabeth was retroactively awarded her insignia on the same date, November 16, 1947, as her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, with her coat of arms added to the Chapel of the Royal Orders of Knighthood at Frederiksborg Palace. 

The elephant badge of King Christian IV (1577–1648).

The Order’s precursor is considered to have begun in 1457, when Denmark’s first King Christian founded the Catholic brotherhood, the Fellowship of the Mother of God, which was sanctioned by Pope Sixtus IV during the king’s 1474 visit to Rome.  Limited to 50 members of the aristocracy, its purpose was to honor “The Trinity, Christ’s Passion, and the Virgin Mary.”  Christian built its chapel in Roskilde Cathedral in Odense to hold masses for the royal house and all members of the Order.


The symbolism behind the white enameled watchtower-bearing elephant is that elephants since antiquity symbolize intelligence, purity, and loyalty, which are also attributes of the Virgin Mary, who is compared to an ivory tower (Turris Eburnea), for holding her stand at the foot of the Cross.

The earliest visual clue to the original elephant collar is said to be carved into King John’s 1513 burial monument at Roskilde.  The chain holds pairs of elephants facing each other, each with a watchtower mounted on its back.

The order was abolished during the Reformation through the reigns of Kings Frederik I and Christian III.  But, in 1580, King Frederik II introduced a badge with a right-sided profile of an elephant, symbolizing a Lutheran God as a mighty fortress.  His gold badge is the oldest known in existence.

King Frederik II’s (1534–1588) badge is the oldest known in existence.

Only in 1693, after Christian V reduced the Order to a single class of thirty noble knights, himself, and his sons, did the insignia attain the appearance we know now, with its five large, table-cut diamonds laid to form a cross. 

The Order’s insignia is worn on the monarch’s birthday, as well as on June 28, the supposed birthday of King Valdemar II (1170–1241), at jubilees and coronations, and on New Year’s Day.

Elephant collar depicted on King John’s burial monument.

Between 1580 and 2020, some 580 individuals were inducted into the Order, with 75 badges currently in use or held in the chancery. The total number of elephant badges in existence is estimated at around one hundred, including that of Napoleon Bonaparte, which was captured at the Battle of Waterloo, only to end up in the State Historical Museum in Moscow, first via the Prussians, then East Germany (GDR).

One of the few insignia not to be returned at death, as required, is President Eisenhower’s.  His collar, sash, and star remain on display in the presidential library in Kansas, where it has nothing to do with Republicans.

With no reproductions of the elephant badge as a jewelry souvenir available, Brooke Chilvers had to content herself with the museum shops glittery elephant Christmas decoration.