The Most Honourable Order of the Bath was established as a military order by Letters Patent of George I on 18th May 1725, when the Dean of Westminster was made Dean of the Order in perpetuity and King Henry VII's Chapel designated as the Chapel of the Order.
However, the Order was a revival of an older custom going back to medieval times when part of the ceremony of knighthood included a ritual bath symbolic of spiritual purification and a vigil the night before receiving the honour. There is an account of this ceremony in the reign of Henry IV in 1399 and it was kept up until the time of Charles II, after which it fell into disuse.
The Order was enlarged in 1815 and three classes of knights were formed: Knights Grand Cross, Knights Commander and Companions. A small number of distinguished civilians were also admitted at this time and in 1847 a civil division of Knights Commander and Companions was added.
As a result of the increased numbers after 1812, due in part to the Napoleonic wars, no installations took place in the chapel until 1913 when George V revived the service and the erection of stall-plates, banners and crests was begun again. The older stall plates were moved down under the seats on the upper rows at this time. Forty six new Knights were installed at the 1913 service.
The banner (size 6 feet by 6 feet), crest and mantling of each GCB (Knight Grand Cross) hang above their stall until their death when they are returned to their family, but a copper stall-plate enamelled with their coat of arms remains as a permanent record. A green laurel wreath is hung above the seat for a short while after the death. As there are only 34 stalls available knights may wait many years before a stall becomes vacant (for example Lord Mountbatten had to wait 17 years).
Ladies were admitted to the Order in 1971 and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester was the first Dame Grand Cross. HRH The Prince of Wales is the current Great Master of the Order and he and the Sovereign occupy stalls at the west end of the chapel at an installation.
Overseas heads of state and other distinguished foreigners may be made Honorary members of the Order. Installation services usually take place every four years. The Bath book is displayed in a showcase in the chapel.
From the reign of James I a special badge with three crowns was appropriated to the Knights of the Bath and is probably an allusion to the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, as is the motto Tria Juncta in Uno (three joined in one).
Famous holders of the Order have included Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Earl Haig, Lord Kitchener, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, Lord Dowding, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley Norris.
Colour images of most of the modern stall plates can be purchased from the Abbey Library.
For information on individual knights enquiries should be addressed to:
Genealogist of the Order at the Central Chancery for the Orders of Knighthood
St James's Palace
"The Order of the Bath" by Peter Galloway, 2006
"The History of the Order of the Bath" by James Risk, 1972
"The Most Honourable Order of the Bath" by Jocelyn Perkins, 1920
"The Knights of England" [to 1904] by W.A. Shaw, 1906 & facsimile 1971
At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.