The Most Noble Order of the Garter is ranked the highest British honour across both civil and military awards.
The Order of the Garter, an English order of Knighthood, was founded by King Edward III in 1348. But what is it and what does it signify?
The true origins may never be known as the earliest records were sadly destroyed in a fire. Historians are therefore uncertain of the origin of the motto, the original purpose of the order and the meaning and significance of the emblem.
One story that circulated, is that whilst Edward was dancing at court with a female, her blue garter fell to the floor. As the bystanders cruelly mocked the King’s dancing partner, he picked up the garter and fastened it to his own leg. He then admonished the heckling courtiers saying, “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” This became the motto of the Order. Which in English means shame to him who thinks evil of it or evil to him who evil thinks. Whether this incident is true or not is another matter, but it is a popular story of the orders beginnings.
The King completed the inauguration of the Order with a feast and a joust. The lady friend forever immortalised remains a mystery, but gossip suggests the King’s cousin Joan the ‘Fair Maid of Kent’ but other historians have offered the Countess of Salisbury and Queen Philippa of Hainault.
There is only one rank and that is Knight Companion. Because it is the most distinguished and exclusive orders of knighthood many illustrious names have been included in the membership. Henry VIII was responsible for beheading 6 members for dishonour out of the 36 who met this grisly fate. In 1945, Winston Churchill refused the honour saying, “One can hardly accept the Order of the Garter after the people have given me the Order of the Boot.” He relented in 1953 and was inducted.
Little has changed since medieval times, with the Monarch and Prince of Wales each having 12 companions. The Order today consists of the Queen, her consort, the Prince of Wales and 24 Knights Companion (excluding the ladies of the garter and other royal sons). The Sovereign and Prince of Wales will always be members of the Order. Selection is purely at the discretion of the British Monarch. Recipients are entitled to be addressed as ‘Sir’ and add KG after their names.
St George’s chapel at Windsor is the home of the Order. Each Knight has a dedicated stall and placed in it are his helmet, banner and a stall plate bearing his arms. Banners and helmets are removed after death, but the stall plates remain. The oldest dates to around 1390.
As a result, St Georges Chapel is recognised globally as Europe’s finest collection of heraldic design. The Insignia of the Order includes the garter with motto, the star with St George’s cross and a collar representing St George and the dragon.