The Establishment of the Order of the Garter
- April 23rd1348 (1344) -
What do the following people have in common – Edward, the Black Prince, Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, The Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Robert Walpole, Sir Edmund Hilary, Lady Soames and Mervyn King, the ex Governor of the Bank of England? On the face of it very little. However they have all been members of the most prestigious order of chivalry in England – the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Prince Edward, known as the Black Prince due to the colour of his armour, was one of the founder members along with the earls of Warwick, Derby and Salisbury amongst others. Initially just for the nobility this order has since been awarded to people who have either held public office, contributed in a particular way to the country or served the sovereign personally. The number of members is limited to just 25, including the Prince of Wales, plus Royal Knights and Stranger Knights, who are usually foreign Royals such as the Queen of Sweden. After the death of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, in 1509, members were only male, except for reigning queens. In 1901 Edward VII made Queen Alexandria a member and in 1990 Queen Elizabeth II started to include women with the first being Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk.
The reasons for starting the order are rather unclear and many of the original records have been destroyed by fire. I will put forward three possibilities here.
Firstly, the best known story, is that whilst at a ball, possibly in Calais, the Countess of Salisbury was dancing when her garter slipped down around her foot. Whilst the courtiers giggled Edward III chivalrously came across, picked it up and either put it on his own leg or back on hers, the story is not clear. He then commented, “Shame be to him who thinks ill/evil of it” or in French, “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense”. This has remained as the motto of the order to this day and can be seen written around the garter in the badge that is worn. Some comment that this was French propaganda to make the most glorious of English institutions appear to have rather frivolous origins.
The second possibility is that Edward III was trying to revive the idea of the round table, the legend of King Arthur and the idea of chivalry and gallantry. He was using the garter in the same way that Richard I was said to have used it during the 3rdCrusade when he tied garters around the legs of the soldiers to bestow status on them. This strap possibly attached pieces of armour and may well have been practical as well as symbolic.
The third and possibly most convincing argument is that the new order came during the early years of the Hundred Years War when Edward III was trying to conquer France and claim the throne. Due his mother, Isabella of France, Edward claimed that he was the rightful King of France. The inauguration of the Order took place just after the battle of Crécy and possibly Edward was rewarding and thanking some of those who fought for him in this landmark battle. It is interesting to note that the colours of the garter, blue embroidered with gold are the colours on the French arms. The motto could also be directed at those who doubted his claims.
Whatever the real reason it is now the highest honour that a sovereign can bestow on any British citizen. With the arrival of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle in 1687, Scots are now sworn into this order with the Garter open to those in England and Wales. The Order of St. Patrick, created in 1783 at the bequest of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, is now dormant. From the eighteenth century to 1946 appointments were made on the advice of Government but since then the sovereign chooses new members personally. Members display their banner and crest above their enamelled stall plate in the Chapel of St. George. They are also given the insignia of a garter badge of St. George and the Dragon. In the sixteenth century a collar was added and in the next century a star and broad riband completed the decorations. The collar is made of 30 troy ounces with 26 red enamelled red roses interspersed with 26 gold knots with a pendant. On a member’s death the banner is returned to the family, the crest goes back to the College of Arms but the stall plate remains in the chapel. The Queen, on Winston Churchill’s death, allowed the family to retain the insignia and it can be seen at his former home, Chartwell, in Kent. A rare honour.
Every year in June all the members are required to meet up at Windsor Castle where they take luncheon in the Waterloo Chamber and then process down to the chapel in their blue velvet capes, with a broad blue sash over the left shoulder and black velvet hats with a white plume.
The increasingly egalitarian nature of the award, some would argue, shows how far British society has come over the last 650 years. Others would suggest that the honours system is a throwback to a former period in our history and has no relevance in today’s United Kingdom. Whatever side you take the award of the Garter remains the highest honour that the Sovereign can bestow and with its membership being limited to just 24, as well as the Prince of Wales, it remains one of, if not the most, exclusive club in existence anywhere in the world.