The Order of the Garter: Britain’s Most Prestigious Order

The Order of the Garter, the oldest and most esteemed Order of Chivalry in Britain, holds a special place in the country’s rich history. Every year, a grand procession and service take place within the magnificent grounds of Windsor Castle, commemorating this illustrious order.

A Royal Legacy: The Most Noble Order of the Garter

Founded by Edward III of England in 1348, the Most Noble Order of the Garter stands as the highest order of knighthood within the British honours system. It holds precedence second only to the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. Dedicated to the image and arms of Saint George, the patron saint of England, the Order of the Garter symbolizes valour, chivalry, and loyalty.

Membership within the order is exclusively at the sovereign’s discretion and is typically granted in recognition of national or personal contributions to the monarchy, public service, or personal service to the sovereign. The order’s membership is limited to the sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and no more than 24 living members, known as Companions. Additionally, the order includes supernumerary knights and ladies, such as members of the British royal family and foreign monarchs.

Honour and Tradition: The Order’s Emblem and Motto

The emblem of the Order of the Garter is a garter with the motto “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (Anglo-Norman for ‘Shame on him who thinks evil of it’) inscribed in gold lettering. Members of the order proudly wear this garter on ceremonial occasions, symbolizing their commitment to honour, integrity, and noble ideals.

Unveiling the Historical Origins

King Edward III established the Order of the Garter during his claim to the French throne. While it is traditionally believed that the order was founded in 1348, some sources indicate that it was actually instituted on 23 April 1344. The order’s origins may have been influenced by the Spanish Order of the Band, established around 1330.

The Founding Knights: Honoured Pioneers

At its inception, the Order of the Garter comprised King Edward III and 25 Founder Knights. These distinguished individuals, listed in order of their stall number in St George’s Chapel, included notable figures such as King Edward III himself, the Black Prince, and Henry of Grosmont, the 4th Earl of Lancaster. The Bruges Garter Book, a masterpiece of the 15th century, depicts each founder knight in individual portraits, a testament to their remarkable legacy.

The Order of the Garter: Britain's Most Prestigious Order
Image: British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Legends and Myths: Stories Surrounding the Order’s Origins

The Order of the Garter has inspired various legends throughout history. One popular tale recounts the story of the “Countess of Salisbury” whose garter slipped from her leg during a court ball at Calais. Rather than ridiculing her, King Edward III gallantly picked up the garter and declared, “Honi soit qui mal y pense!”—the motto that would forever symbolize the order’s noble ideals. While this story emerged in the 1460s, it offered a retrospective explanation for the adoption of the garter as the order’s symbol.

Another legend connects the order’s establishment to King Richard I, who, during the 12th century Crusades, is said to have tied garters around the legs of his knights. Inspired by St George the Martyr, he attributed their subsequent victory to this act. However, the true purpose of the Order of the Garter was to support Edward III’s claim to the French throne. The use of the garter as its emblem may have derived from the straps used to fasten armor, evoking a sense of unity and loyalty among its members.

Ladies of the Garter: A Legacy of Prestige

From its early days, the Order of the Garter included women appointed as “Ladies of the Garter,” although they were not made companions. This practice was discontinued by King Henry VII in 1488, making Margaret Beaufort, his mother, the last Lady of the Garter before Queen Alexandra.

Subsequently, the title of Lady of the Garter was bestowed upon Queen Alexandra by her husband, King Edward VII. Queen Mary, consort of King George V, and Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI, were also granted this honour. Throughout the 20th century, women remained associated with the order, except for foreign female monarchs, who were appointed as Ladies Companion of the Garter.

In 1987, a new statute introduced the installation of “Ladies Companion of the Garter,” granting them official membership in the order. In 2022, Baroness Amos achieved a significant milestone as the first Black “knight or lady companion” since the order’s foundation.

An Exclusive Membership: Companions and Supernumerary Members

Membership within the Order of the Garter is highly exclusive, with only the monarch, the Prince of Wales, and a limited number of Companions—no more than 24 living members—permitted. The monarch possesses the sole authority to grant membership, and being a Companion of the Garter is a significant honour.

Additionally, the order includes supernumerary members who do not count towards the limit of 24 companions. These members consist of “Royal Knights and Ladies of the Garter,” who belong to the royal family, and “Stranger Knights and Ladies of the Garter,” comprising foreign monarchs. The inclusion of foreign heads of state within the order dates back to the installation of Emperor Alexander I of Russia in 1813.

Preserving Tradition: The Officers of the Order

The Order of the Garter has six esteemed officers who uphold its principles and ensure its smooth functioning. These officers include the Prelate, the Chancellor, the Register, the Garter Principal King of Arms, the Usher, and the Secretary.

The Prelate, a position held by a senior bishopric of the Church of England, oversees the spiritual aspects of the order. The Chancellor, historically the Bishop of Salisbury, advises on matters pertaining to the order’s governance. The Register, held by the Dean of Windsor, manages the administrative affairs. The Garter Principal King of Arms, the senior officer of the College of Arms, attends to the heraldic aspects of the order, while the Usher of the Black Rod serves as the order’s ceremonial officer. The Secretary, appointed from the College of Arms, assists the Garter Principal King of Arms in the order’s ceremonial duties.

Military Knights of Windsor: Honouring Service and Sacrifice

Originally known as “poor knights,” the Military Knights of Windsor were appointed at the founding of the Order of the Garter. These individuals were military veterans who, in exchange for lodging within Windsor Castle, offered daily prayers for the Knights Companion. King Charles II increased their number to 18 in 1660, and they were later renamed the Military Knights of Windsor by Queen Victoria in the 19th century.

The Military Knights of Windsor, though not official members of the order, actively participate in its processions and chapel services. Clad in the traditional military uniform, they epitomize duty and devotion to the order’s principles.

A Legacy of Precedence and Privileges

Members of the Order of the Garter enjoy a distinguished position in the order of precedence, surpassing all other individuals of knightly rank, including baronets. They are granted specific privileges, including the use of the post-nominal letters “KG” for Knights Companion and “LG” for Ladies Companion.

In their heraldic achievements, members may encircle their escutcheons with the Garter, an honour reserved for a select few. Heraldic supporters, a privilege rarely granted to private individuals, are also bestowed upon Knights and Ladies Companion of the Garter.

Honouring Tradition and Noble Ideals

The Order of the Garter: Britain's Most Prestigious Order
Image: Sodacan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Order of the Garter remains an embodiment of British history, tradition, and honour. As the oldest and most prestigious Order of Chivalry in the country, it continues to inspire and uphold the noble ideals of valour, loyalty, and service to the crown. With its exclusive membership, rich heritage, and deep-rooted traditions, the Order of the Garter proudly stands as a symbol of distinction and excellence within the British honours system.

*Feature Image: Sodacan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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