Monarchies collect a whole host of traditions through the centuries, and the United Kingdom is no exception. The Most Noble Order of the Garter is an ancient order of chivalry that dates back to 1348. The Order of the Garter is the United Kingdom’s most senior order of knighthood, which is only outranked by the Victoria and George Crosses in prestige and importance. For a long time, the Order’s origins were shrouded in myth and legend.
The Order of the Garter’s Legendary Origins
There are various legends of the Order of the Garter’s origins. The first legend tells the story of the Countess of Salisbury and her missing garter. It was said that during an important court ball in Calais, the countess’s garter slipped from her leg. Rather than help her, the nearby courtiers simply snickered.
King Edward III , outraged at the courtiers’ uncouth behavior, is said to have scooped up the garter and exclaimed, “Honi soit qui mal y pense!” (‘Shame on him who thinks ill of it!’). This became the phrase of the order.
The Ceremony of the Garter, depicting the famous late Middle Ages scene at Eltham Palace in which the fallen garter of Joan of Kent is picked up by King Edward III. Oil painting by Albert Chevallier Taylor, 1901 ( Public Domain )
While this is a nice story, the first written version dates back to the 1460s, nearly a century after the order was established. The story’s purpose appears to be a retrospective explanation as to why the Order’s symbol was a piece of women’s clothing, a garter. The real explanation for the garter symbology is actually much simpler.
At the time of the Order of the Garter’s founding, garters were predominantly a male piece of clothing. As such, it wouldn’t have been a particularly strange piece of clothing for a knight to wear. It was only later, when the garment fell out of fashion with men, that the confusion began.
Another legend gives the Order of the Garter ties to the Crusades. This story claims that during the crusades of the 12th century AD, King Richard I was inspired by Saint George the Martyr to tie garters around the legs of his knights, who went on to win the battle. It is supposedly this story of King Richard I and his knights that inspired King Edward III to establish his Order of the Garter.
The insignia of the Order of the Garter includes the garter with the motto emblazoned on it, the star with St. George’s cross, and a collar with a badge representing St. George and the dragon. (Sodacan / CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Actual Origins of the Most Noble Order of the Garter
While both of these stories are nice, neither is particularly accurate. King Edward III created the Order of the Garter around 1348. He chose to dedicate the order to the Virgin Mary and Saint George. It seems likely that the king’s decision to establish the order was both a political move, and an attempt to appease upper-class nobility.
King Edward III was in a good mood after his forces defeated France’s much bigger army at the Battle of Crecy in August, 1346. Historically, nothing made an English monarch happier than giving the French a beating, and Edward hoped to further emphasize his nation’s combat superiority over the French by founding an elite order of knights.
During this period, England was also experiencing a relative glut of knights. Since the rank of a knight had become much more commonplace, the upper nobility wanted a way to separate themselves from the common knights. The Order of the Garter was to be a kind of private members’ club for only the ‘best’ knights.
King Edward III created the Order of the Garter as an exclusive knights’ club. In addition to the prestige, members also received the insignia of the order ( Public Domain )
These more elite brotherhoods of knights also held an important tactical purpose. They brought all the best knights and fighters with a wealth of military knowledge into one place. In times of war, the Order of the Garter was a vital resource for the army’s command structure.
Finally, the secular, highly exclusive chivalric orders were a good way to keep the most powerful knights in the king’s pocket. Placing these knights into his order was a great way to ensure their loyalty, and keep them from joining orders where they would swear allegiance to the church rather than the king, such as the Knights Templar .
The Order of the Garter was England’s first chivalric order, but others had already been formed in Europe. It is likely King Edward III drew his inspiration from those. The Order of the Sash had been created by Alfonso XI of Castile and Leon during the 1330s, as had France’s Order of Saint Catherine.
Not content to merely copy the French, Edward’s Order of the Garter elevated the amount of pomp and ceremony, creating something new and more spectacular. The Order of the Garter started a new tradition that was copied by other orders that followed, such as the Order of the Golden Fleece , founded by Philip Good, Duke of Burgundy.
Royalty became highly decorated with emblems from all the chivalric orders. 1905 photo of Alfonso XIII of Spain (left) with his cousin-in-law, the future King George V (right) during his State Visit to the United Kingdom. Alfonso is wearing the uniform of a general of the British Army, the Royal Victorian Chain, the sash and star of the Garter, the cross of the Order of Charles III, the neck badge of the Golden Fleece, and the badge of the four Spanish military orders. George, then Prince of Wales, is wearing the neck badge of the Golden Fleece, the sash and grand cross grade of the Order of Charles III, the Royal Victorian Chain, and the stars of the Garter and the Order of St Michael and St George. ( Public Domain )
Much of the Order’s original mystique comes from the fact it was incredibly exclusive. The Order of the Garter’s first two members were the king himself, Edward III, and thanks to royal nepotism, his son, Edward the Black Prince . Edward then chose twenty four high-ranking knights who had distinguished themselves at the Battle of Crecy and made them Companions of the Order of the Garter.
Alongside these 24 knights, 26 priests and 26 ‘poor knights’ were brought into the Order’s fold. These lesser members represented the chivalric ideals of charity and religion. This seems ironic, since the order was partly founded to combat the church’s influence. It was the job of these lower-ranking members to pray for the souls of the higher-ranking members, and in return, they received free room and board at Windsor Castle .
Entrance to the Garter House in Windsor Castle (Leo Reynolds / CC BY NC SA 3.0 )
Ultimately, the Order of the Garter was created to help back up King Edward III’s claim to the French throne. The motto of the Order reflected this claim. It meant shame on anyone who thought ill of the King of England’s claim to France’s throne.
An illuminated manuscript miniature, circa 1430-40, of Edward III of England (1327-1377). The king is wearing a blue mantle, decorated with the Order of the Garter, over his plate armor. From the 1430 Bruges Garter Book made by William Bruges (1375–1450), first Garter King of Arms. ( Public Domain )
The origins of the garter as a symbol are less clear. It may have been derived from the straps used to fasten a knight’s armor. It may also be because it has overtones of a closely knit band of knights who all supported Edward’s claim to the throne.
The motto may also have been inspired by the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . In this poem, a girdle (similar to a garter) played an important role. No one is sure who wrote the poem, but the two main candidates are John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster, and Enguerrand de Coucy. John was an early member of the order, while de Coucy married Edward’s daughter, Isabella, and became a member after the wedding.
Not only does the poem feature a garment close in imagery to a garter, but in it, Gawain exclaims “ corsed worth cowarddyse and couetyse boþe” (“cursed be both cowardice and coveting”). This has been interpreted as a rough equivalent and perhaps inspiration for the Order’s motto.
The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in the late 14th century, may have inspired the motto of the Order of the Garter ( Public Domain )
The Order of the Garter exists to this day. Members of the Order are chosen by the current sovereign of the United Kingdom. Membership is still as exclusive as it has always been. Currently, the Order may only be composed of the sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and twenty four living members or companions.
Banners in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, of members of the Order of the Garter (Josep Renalias / CC BY SA 3.0 )
The role of the Order of the Garter has changed. It is no longer a military organization; instead, members of the order are chosen in recognition of their national contribution, public service, or personal service to the monarchy. Membership today is varied and features a mixture of former politicians, military and business figures, and even former Olympic athletes.
Left: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip walking in the Order the Garter Day Procession, Windsor Castle, England, 2014. Prince Philip, then 93-years-old, was the longest-serving Knight of the Order of the Garter. (Alex-David Baldi CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Right: The Princess Royal, the Earl of Wessex, the Duke of York and the then-Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) in procession to St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle for the annual service of the Order of the Garter, 2006 (Phillip Allfrey / CC BY SA 2.5 )
The Order of the Garter’s origins may not be as romantic as Edward and his supporters would have had us believe, and it may no longer be a group of battle-hardened knights, but the Most Noble Order of the Garter is as prestigious as ever. To be considered for membership in the Order of the Garter is one of the greatest honors a monarch of the United Kingdom can hand down. It is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, with a rich history dating back hundreds of years.
Top Image: Knight giving an oath of allegiance. Source: Andrey Kiselev
By Robbie Mitchell