History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 September 2007

Order of the Garter

The most prestigious of all of Great Britain’s select societies the Order of The Garter was created by King Edward III in 1348, as the “highest order of British knighthood.”

English subjects who are entitled to wear the blue sash have given meritorious public service (the Duke of Wellington), contributions to the nation (Sir Edmund Hilary) or as a reward for personal service to the monarch.

The origin of the Order is not clear. The most popular version is, of course, the most romantic one and the only one I had ever heard before I began my research. During the dancing at a Ball, the king’s alleged mistress the Countess of Salisbury lost her garter. When people began snickering at the minor mishap the king picked up the garter and annoucned “Evil to him who evil thinks.” He decided than that he would make the garter “so glorious that everyone would wish to wear it.”

As charming as that story is there is a more practical explanation for the Order’s invention. In the period after the Crusades there were any number of fraternities of men who shared common interest and experiences. Edward III may have developed the Order of the Garter as a group that would support him in his belief that he was a rightful claimant to the throne of France.

There are two bits of evidence that support this idea. There were no French knights at the inauguration of the Order and the colors of the garter – blue embroidered with gold – are the colors of the French Royal Arms.

In fact couldn’t both stories be true? Edward was looking for a way to organize a group to support him in his efforts to claim the French throne. When his mistress lost her garter and he called out “Shame on anyone who thinks ill of this.” Later someone who had missed the “trivial event” but heard his words, commented, ”Oh I thought you were talking about your claim to the throne of France” and – tada – the two ideas came together. BE ADVISED THAT I MADE THIS PART UP . It’s why I write fiction.

At about this time Edward declared St George as the patron saint of the country and, along with a blue garter worn just below the knee, a badge depicting St. George slaying the dragon became the official symbol of membership. In the 16th century a collar was added and in the 17th century the familiar blue sash and silver star badge featuring the red cross of St. George. Velvet blue robes complete the costume worn at the annual meeting and at coronations.

The list of members from 1348 to the present includes 998 names plus a long list of Ladies of the Garter which until 1901 were listed separately. Most of the family names and titles would be familiar to anyone who has read the history of Great Britain. One of many interesting bits of history on the list – when the current Queen was invested in 1947 it was as Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh. I wonder whey she was not the Princess of Wales?

Numerous foreign nobles have been named to the order over the years. The distinction of membership helped cement foreign treaties and alliances. Foreign monarchs are known as "Stranger Knights" and their numbers are in addition to the normal quota of 24 knights (plus royals) in the order.

Do you think that the Order of the Garter is an outdated symbol of royal perogative or an useful way to recognize support and contribution? Is there anything comparable in the United States?

12 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Mary,

I'd actually heard, that Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, wife of the Black Prince was the one who dropped her garter! Great post! I love reading about these things.

EKM

7:58 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Also, female heirs to the throne for some reason have never been invested with the title Princess of Wales. Only the male heirs to the throne. Queen Victoria was never Princess of Wales, nor was either Mary or Anne (probably because James II was still hoping for a son.)

8:01 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Over the years, I've idly pondered about what "honi soit qui mal y pense" might mean, Mary. Thanks.

And I've also idly wondered if there might be a kind of playfulness about naming such a high order after a bit of underwear.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes, Elizabeth, the story of the Fair Maid of Kent(married to Edward, the Black Prince) was mentioned as one of the possibilities but the Countess is the who is most often referred to.
It makes sense that a female heir would only be a presumptive heir and therefore not Princess of Wales. Even if her father, the king was in his 70's, the queen could die, he could remarry and have a son and then that son would precede his older sister. So I get that, but I have always heard Princess Charlotte who died in childbirth in 1817, referred to as the Princess of Wales. A seeming conflict.

Happy to help, Pam -- two translations are given -- "Evil to him who evil thinks" and "Let no one think ill (evil) of it." -- both could apply to a garter as well as a king's wish for another country to call his own.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've heard that too, and I'm wondering if it's because she was the daughter of the Prince of Wales, the way that Prince William is Prince William of Wales, and Prince Harry is Prince Harry of Wales.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

"A high order named after underwear." Tee-hee.

They must have snickered about that behind closed doors. ;-)

Thanks for an interesting post, Mary.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

not exactly relevant, but another tee-hee -- I've always wondered about the title or whatever it was that Camilla Parker-Bowles ex-husband had. I believe it was Lord of the Silver Stick, which always provoked much merriment at my house.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pam, it made me laugh too -- and I checked it out. Lord of the Silver Stick is a (now)ceremonial body guard of the monarch -- dating back to Tudor times. The Lord of the Silver Stick is second too the Lord of the Gold Stick -- currently Princess Anne. Not sure who is Lord of the Silver Stick these days but I am sure it is not Parker-Bowles.

12:39 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

What a great story! I love the little tidbits I learn here! Okay, now the order of the silver stick made me spew Milo's Iced Tea all over my monitor. Too funny. Of course, I think it would be far better to be the Lord of the Silver Stick than just a plain old stick, which is an apt description of Prince Charles. I don't think we have anything comparable in this country. Maybe it is a royalty thing.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Delighted that the Hoydens can make you laugh and learn! Hope your computer survived the laughing.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I've just read a bio on Princess Charlotte and her mother Princess Caroline [of Brunswick]. Charlotte was not referred to as Princess of Wales -- since her mother held that title -- and Charlote died in childbirth in November, 1817 while her father was still Regent. She was just called Princess Charlotte.

This is a wonderful post -- the Order of the Garter, and the stories about its possible genesis, really encapsulate the entire notion of chivalry and everything it carries with it.

4:15 AM  
Blogger Georgie Lee said...

Great post. I love a little humor with my history.

8:46 AM  

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