Belfast Telegraph

Queen's highest honour for Mary Peters

Olympian is appointed to Order of the Garter

Mary Peters waving to the crowds
Mary Peters waving to the crowds
The Queen
Household Cavalry guards march before the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle
Sophie, Countess of Wessex, Queen Letizia of Spain, the Duchess of Cornwall, Queen Maxima of the Netherlands and the Duchess of Cambridge
Lady Mary's Garter shield
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

It was a meeting of royalty and sporting royalty.

Northern Ireland golden girl Mary Peters has become the first sportsperson to receive the oldest and highest honour of chivalry in the honours system after being installed as a member of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

Lady Mary officially became a Lady Companion of the Order at a private investiture by the Queen at Windsor Castle.

The former Olympic champion and charity fundraiser, who turns 80 next month, said she was deeply honoured at joining the small group of people outside the aristocracy to be invited onto the distinguished list of names, which dates back centuries.

"I'm astonished and astounded at this honour being bestowed upon me," she said.

"Her Majesty makes these personal honours and that she's chosen me, a commoner of no aristocratic background, to be a Lady of the Garter (LG) is just out of this world."

Since winning pentathlon gold at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Lancashire-born Mary has been honoured with an MBE in 1973, a CBE in 1990, became a Dame Commander (DBE) in 2000 and Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) four years ago.

In 2017 she was made a Dame of the Order of Saint John (DstJ) and learned of her 'LG' in February this year.

Her installation on 'Garter Day' took place alongside that of the 7th Marquess of Salisbury, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, who became a Knight Companion.

On Garter Day, held at Windsor Castle each June, the investiture ceremony is held in the morning, prior to the Garter Day procession where the Queen and Knights parade in velvet robes and plumed hats, a tradition of nearly 700 years.

Lady Mary said it felt "mind-boggling" to be going for a rehearsal last Friday with the King of Spain, King of the Netherlands and Lord Salisbury, but added the honour was "a privilege for Northern Ireland".

She told how she "took a list of the elements" that she wanted included when she was invited to attend the College of Arms. "They were quite surprised," she revealed.

"They said 'usually we have to interview people to see what their interests are', so for me to have a list was quite unusual.

"Then when we had talked about all the elements that I'd like included, they asked me what my motto would be.

"I went to Portadown College, whose motto is 'Fortiter et Humaniter' (meaning with courage and courtesy) so I rang the school and asked permission to use that and they were very happy."

On her Garter shield the background of the coat of arms is divided into blue and red, echoing the Union flag.

Five interlaced gold rings are in the centre, a reference to her Olympic past, and they are within a circlet of 10 oak trees in white with gold acorns.

A Springer Spaniel is on the left hand side with a collar of red and white roses, referring to her grandparents coming from Lancashire and Yorkshire. On the right side is a Liver bird as a reference to Liverpool, with a collar of flax flowers referring to Northern Ireland. It holds a torch.

The badge comprises the Dome of Belfast City Hall and has a Ulysses Butterfly sitting on top of it, referring to her brother, a world authority on butterflies.

Lady Mary explained: "The Liver bird on the right represents my birth in Liverpool.

"And the dog on the left represents the fact that we always had Springer Spaniels at home and my brother and his wife bred Springers in Australia and they won Best of Show on many occasions with their dogs."

The 10 oak trees have special significance, Lady Mary added: "My father emigrated to Australia and outside the nursing home where my stepmother was living was a big oak tree and as he passed it he always said that was his little bit of England; but I live in Derriaghy and that means oakwood.

"And when I retired from being Lord Lieutenant of Belfast they asked me what I would like as a gift for having served Her Majesty and I said I don't need a gift, the gift was doing the job, and they planted 10 oak trees at the Mary Peters Track, so I feel that the oak tree was very prominent for those three reasons.

"And of course the Olympic rings are within. The torch is to represent my charity the Mary Peters Trust, the Olympic flame, but also the flame is the burn of Lisburn. I have the freedom of Lisburn.

"I also have the freedom of Belfast so below is the dome of the City Hall plus the butterfly which represents my brother.

"But also the red and white roses round the dog's neck represent my grandparents, one side was from Yorkshire and the other Lancashire, and on the neck of the Liver bird is the flax flower representing Ulster."

Eilish Rutherford, chairman of the Mary Peters Trust, said: "We are very proud and excited that Mary and the wonderful work and contribution she has made to sport and Northern Ireland since winning her gold medal in 1972 has been recognised in this way.

"We will be sharing in the joy of this amazing event and what a privilege that is."

Lady Mary's brother John, his daughter Vanessa and her husband Grant travelled from Australia to be with her in London as she received the honour.

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