A Brief History
On April 23, 1348, King Edward III of England proclaimed The Order of the Garter on the feast day of St. George, the Patron Saint of England. Originally called The Most Noble Order of the Garter, it was conceived as the highest award for chivalry in the age of knights. Today, the Order still exists, but ranks behind the Victoria Cross and the George Cross in the hierarchy of British medals.
As you may expect, the Order of the Garter comes from an incident concerning a woman’s garter, a mini-belt that holds up one’s stockings. Legend has it that King Edward III picked up a garter belonging to the Countess of Salisbury (Joan of Kent) when it fell to the floor during a ball being held in Calais, France.
Legend has it that other attendees snickered at the poor woman, but Edward gallantly returned the garter to the Countess saying, “Honi soit qui mal y pense!” (“Shame on him who thinks ill of it!”). This apocryphal utterance has become the motto of the Order of the Garter. This event occurred around the time that Edward was trying to claim the crown of France as his own.
An alternate version of the origin of the garter as a symbol of chivalry concerns King Richard I who supposedly had his men wear a garter around their leg in battle during the Crusades (12th Century) at the behest of Saint George the Martyr. (St. George was a Roman soldier of Greek heritage that refused to deny his Christian faith and was put to death around 303 AD. And yes, he is the guy that supposedly slew the dragon.)
The award was given to men that had distinguished themselves in a chivalrous fashion, but only men that had already been knighted. The Order is now limited to the King, the Prince of Wales, and 24 other members, although a certain number of supernumerary members (“Royal Knights and Ladies of the Garter”) are allowed, with membership in the Royal Family a requirement. Monarchs from other countries are sometimes admitted to the Order, including Japanese Emperor Akihito, the only non-European monarch who is currently a member, and likely the only non-Christian. Only the reigning Monarch can admit members to the Order. Members are assigned “precedence” in the Royal line.
Just in case a member of the Order of the Garter should bring dishonor on the Order, the Monarch may “degrade” that member, effectively expelling that person from the company of members. This act was used in the past to oust members such as Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany for waging war on Britain, or on British subjects deemed to have committed a high crime such as treason.
Women have been admitted in an auxiliary type fashion from the outset, called Ladies of the Garter. King Henry VII admitted his mother, Margaret, but then suspended the practice of admitting women in 1488, which lasted until Queen Alexandra was admitted in 1901 by her husband, King Edward VII. Until 1987, women had not been made “companions,” which for them meant something less than full membership.
As with all things British Royalty, certain fancy uniforms, insignia and pieces of bling are associated with the Order of the Garter, making a rather spectacular display when members are all dressed up in the proper regalia. Each member has his own banner and the Coat of Arms of a member can reflect membership in the Order.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think about exclusive clubs such as the Order of the Garter? Are such things relevant today, or merely a sexist reminder of an ignorant past? Does the connection to a highly questionable person such as St. George diminish the honor of membership? Please share your thoughts on these subjects in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Begent and Chesshyre. The Most Noble Order of the Garter: 650 Years. Spink & Son, 1999.
Trigg, Stephanie. Shame and Honor: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Nicholas Jackson of the Symbol of the Order of the Garter embroidered onto the left shoulder of the blue velvet mantle of a Knight, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube: