Today is Garter Day, the day each year when a special service is held at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor for the members of the highest-ranking order of British chivalry, the Order of the Garter. Later today, the Garter knights and ladies will process from Windsor Castle to St. George’s in all of their finery, participating in pomp and pageantry that has roots that date back all the way to the fourteenth century.
C.W. Cope’s 1844 painting of the investiture of the Black Prince as a Garter Knight
Edward III founded the order in 1348. As with most medieval traditions, there’s a grand legend surrounding the order’s creation, which, though it’s likely not true, is suitably romantic. At a ball in Calais — back in the days when English kings were still claiming France, natch — Edward was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury, when one of her garters slipped down her leg and fell on the floor. Supposedly Edward picked it up and put it on his own leg, as one does, and then wagged his fingers at snickering courtiers, declaring “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” That phrase — which roughly means “shame on him who thinks evil of it,” with “it” being “putting on your future daughter-in-law’s garter,” I suppose — became the motto of the new chivalric order.
Really, the establishment of the order probably had much more to do with an attempt to cement power and position by linking the current reign to a nostalgic past of Arthurian legend. Edward’s initial roster of knights numbered twenty-four: twelve knights companion for the king, and twelve for the Prince of Wales. Even today, the number of knights and ladies of the order is limited to twenty-four. However, that number does not include the monarch, the Prince of Wales, “supernumerary” knights and ladies (generally members of the British royal family) , and “extra” knights and ladies (generally foreign monarchs and royals) .
Former Prime Minister John Major attends the Garter Day service in 2013
The Queen herself gets to appoint new members to this chivalric order. That wasn’t always the case; from the eighteenth century until 1946, Garter knights were appointed on the advice of the government (the same way that people are made members of the Order of the British Empire today). But this chivalric order is now the gift of the monarch, just as it was centuries ago. The current roster includes lots of former politicians, plus others including high-ranking military officers, lords lieutenant, ambassadors, and aristocrats. In 1987, women were allowed to become full ladies companion of the order, though none are currently members (following the recent death of Lady Soames). Two spots are currently vacant.
When those two spots are filled, the new knights or ladies will get a pretty awesome set of vestments and insignia to wear. Each member gets a velvet mantle and a velvet hat with a plume of white feathers. The riband (or sash) of the order is bright blue — the official name of that particular shade of blue is “kingfisher blue,” apparently. And because this the Order of the Garter, after all, each knight/lady gets an actual velvet garter. A lady wears hers around her upper left arm, while a knight straps his around his left calf.
Winston Churchill wearing his Garter insignia (including the actual garter) in 1955
And then there’s the jewel-encrusted insignia. The patron saint of the order is the famous dragonslayer, St. George (who is also the patron saint of England). Each knight/lady receives two enameled figures of St. George on horseback in the midst of slaying the dragon. The smaller one (the “Lesser George”) is a badge that is worn suspended from the riband, and the larger one (the “Greater George”) is worn suspended from the golden collar. Each member also receives an eight-pointed star.
Tomorrow, we’ll be treated to photos of the Garter knights and ladies processing down the hill from Windsor Castle to St. George’s Chapel for the service, and then riding back up the hill in carriages on their way back to the castle itself. Inside the castle, there are numerous references to the order, including a great hall that features the coats of arms of each member lining the walls and ceiling. And, if you’re in England and want to see the Garter procession in person, be sure to apply for a ticket for next year’s Garter Day festivities, as the public is allowed inside the castle walls for a glimpse of the knights and ladies in all their medieval finery!
NOTES, PHOTO CREDITS, AND LINKS
1. The British royals who are currently knights/ladies of the Garter are Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Prince William, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward, the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent, and Princess Alexandra.
2. The current list of extra (or “stranger”) knights/ladies is as follows: Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Emperor Akihito of Japan, King Harald V of Norway, Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg, and Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands.