The Order of the Garter is a British chivalry founded by King Edward III in 1348. It is considered the highest order of chivalry in the United Kingdom and one of the world's oldest orders of chivalry.
In the grand tapestry of British history, few institutions are as steeped in tradition and mystique as the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Founded by King Edward III of England in 1348, this chivalric order holds the distinction of being the oldest and most prestigious in the British honours system.
Its origins, however, are shrouded in legend and myth, creating an intriguing narrative that transcends time. In this article, we embark on a journey to explore the history, significance, and legends surrounding the Order of the Garter. A Noble Heritage The Most Noble Order of the Garter, commonly referred to as the Order of the Garter, finds its roots in the 14th century, a period marked by political intrigue, territorial disputes, and the grandeur of chivalry. King Edward III, during his claim to the French throne, established this order to celebrate the spirit of knighthood and loyalty. The year 1348 is usually associated with the formal proclamation of the Order, although historical records suggest that its foundation might date back to 1344.
The Founders of the Order At its inception, the Order of the Garter comprised King Edward III and 25 Founder Knights. These knights were not just ordinary men; they were distinguished individuals, recognized for their unwavering loyalty and valour. Some of the notable Founder Knights included Edward, the Black Prince, and Henry of Grosmont, 4th Earl of Lancaster. Each of these knights held a special place in the history of the order, and their legacy endures to this day.
The Meaning Behind the Garter One of the enduring mysteries of the Order of the Garter is the symbolism of the garter itself. The order's emblem features a garter circlet adorned with the motto "Honi soit qui mal y pense", which translates to "Shame on him who thinks evil of it". This phrase has become synonymous with the order and is a testament to its principles of honour and nobility.
Legends and Lore Legends have long swirled around the Order of the Garter, adding an air of mystique to its history. One popular legend tells of a "Countess of Salisbury" whose garter slipped from her leg during a court ball, leading to an exclamation by the king, "Honi soit qui mal y pense!". While this story is well-known, its origins are dubious, as the earliest written version dates from the 1460s, long after the order's establishment. Interestingly, garters were predominantly male attire during the order's founding, making this legend even more enigmatic.
Another legend connects the order's origin to King Richard I, who, inspired by St. George the Martyr during the Crusades, tied garters around his knights' legs, leading to victory in battle. King Edward III later harkened back to this event when founding the Order of the Garter. The motto, "Honi soit qui mal y pense", was originally tied to Edward's claim to the French throne, signifying the order's role in advancing his cause.
The Connection to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Surprisingly, there's a literary connection between the Order of the Garter and the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the late 14th century. The poem's motto, "hony soyt qui mal pence", bears a striking resemblance to the Garter's motto, further fueling the intrigue surrounding the order's origins. This connection has led to speculation about the poem's authorship and its potential ties to John of Gaunt and Enguerrand de Coucy, two prominent figures connected to the Order of the Garter.
Ladies of the Garter While the Order of the Garter was traditionally a male institution, women also played a role as "Ladies of the Garter". These appointments were initially made for women closely connected to the order but were discontinued in 1488. Queen Alexandra was the last Lady of the Garter before Queen Elizabeth II reinstated the position in 1987 as "Ladies Companion of the Garter". In 2022, Valerie Baroness Amos, made history as the first black lady companion member of the Order since its inception.
Composition and Membership The Order of the Garter is an exclusive fraternity. Membership is limited to the Sovereign, the Prince of Wales, no more than 24 Companions, and various supernumerary members. The Sovereign retains sole discretion over appointments to the order. Male members hold the title "Knights Companion", while female members are known as "Ladies Companion". The statutes governing appointments have evolved over the centuries, reflecting the changing dynamics of the British monarchy.
Supernumerary Members Supernumerary members, including "Royal Knights and Ladies of the Garter" and "Stranger Knights and Ladies of the Garter", hold a special place within the order. Royal Knights and Ladies, introduced by King George III, ensured that the order remained open to non-royal individuals. Stranger Knights and Ladies, admitted in 1813, extended the order's reach to foreign monarchs. These memberships, once governed by specific statutes, have become a part of the order's tradition.
Degradation of Members The Sovereign reserves the authority to "degrade" members who have taken up arms against the Crown. In the past, this process involved a formal ceremony where the member's insignia and banner were publicly removed and discarded. While degradation was more common in earlier centuries, it still played a role in significant historical events, such as during World War I when monarchs and princes from enemy nations were removed from the order.
The Officers of the Order The Order of the Garter has a hierarchy of officers, each with specific roles and responsibilities. These officers include the Prelate, Chancellor, Register, Garter Principal King of Arms, Usher, and Secretary. These positions have evolved over time, reflecting the changing needs of the order and the British monarchy.
Military Knights of Windsor The Military Knights of Windsor, initially known as "poor knights", have been a part of the Order of the Garter since its founding. These knights were originally impoverished veterans who prayed daily for the Knights Companion. Over time, their role has evolved, and today they are military pensioners who participate in order processions and chapel services. While not considered full members, they play an integral role in the order's ceremonies.
Robes and Insignia The robes and insignia worn by members of the Order of the Garter are a testament to its rich history and tradition. Members wear mantles, collars, stars, ribands, and badges, each carrying specific symbolic meanings. These garments and accessories are worn during ceremonial occasions and serve to distinguish members of the order.
The Chapel of St. George St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle serves as the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter. It is here that special services and investiture ceremonies take place, bringing together knights, ladies, and officers of the order. The chapel's history is intertwined with that of the order, making it a place of great significance and reverence.
Investiture and Installation The investiture and installation of new Knights and Ladies of the Garter is a grand and solemn ceremony that takes place annually at Windsor Castle. This event brings together all members of the order and is attended by members of the royal family and other dignitaries. During the ceremony, new members kneel before the Sovereign and receive their insignia, including the Garter itself.
The Order's Impact on British History The Most Noble Order of the Garter has left an indelible mark on British history. Throughout the centuries, it has been a symbol of chivalry, honour, and loyalty. It has brought together monarchs, nobles, and influential individuals, fostering a sense of unity and camaraderie. The order's traditions and ceremonies continue to play a vital role in the British monarchy, linking the past with the present.
Conclusion The Most Noble Order of the Garter is a living testament to the enduring power of tradition and symbolism. Its history is a tapestry woven with threads of chivalry, legend, and prestige. As it continues to evolve in the modern era, the order remains a symbol of honour and nobility, embodying the values and ideals cherished by generations of knights and ladies. In an ever-changing world, the Order of the Garter stands as a timeless institution, a beacon of history and tradition in the heart of the British monarchy.