What’s Up with the Garter?

Now that the new heir to the throne of England has arrived and been named George, we will probably hear more about the Order of the Garter.  Why?  The Order has been dedicated to the patron saint of England, St. George, since its founding in 1348. Next to becoming a Peer or receiving the Victoria Cross or the George Cross, the Order of the Garter is the highest honor anyone can achieve in England.  Deciding where to bestow it is one of the very few personal and absolute privileges still left to the King or Queen. It’s a very exclusive club, including only the King or Queen, the current Prince of Wales, and a maximum of 24 handpicked members, who are called Companions.  New members are always announced on April 23, St. George’s Day in England.

Arms of the Most Noble Order of the Garter; image from Wikipedia

Arms of the Most Noble Order of the Garter; image from Wikipedia

I don’t quite understand why the date is so definite, when the origins of the Order are lost in the mists of time.  The most entertaining legend is that a high-ranking lady was dancing at court when her garter fell off–a mildly erotic event which provoked knowing smirks from bystanders.  Supposedly King Edward III picked it up and gallantly said, “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” (“Shamed be the person who thinks evil of it.”) This event took place (if it took place) in France, in the port of Calais, which the English at the time controlled. I have to assume that the King subsequently decided the words would be a good motto for his own particular in-crowd, his trusted friends and advisors who would never snicker at the King.

Another legend, not as much fun, claims that King Richard I, fighting in the Crusades, decided to have his knights wear garters somehow related to St. George the Martyr into battle.  They won. And yet another explanation is that the words actually refer to the ever-problematic claims of the English King to the French throne. Very likely all these explanations are somehow related.

Garter Day occurs in May, at Windsor Castle. The lucky members and inductees wear elaborate outfits, meticulously preserved and recreated from medieval times.  They wear actual garters, of course.

A story about the 2013 Garter Ceremony appears at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2343223/Beaming-Queen-flanked-Charles-William-Order-Garter-today-Duke-Edinburgh-recovers-home.html, along with photos of the occasion.

I read recently that Prince Charles actually has a footman apply toothpaste to his toothbrush every morning.  Some time ago, I read that Prince Philip thinks nothing of having the bathroom repainted in his favorite color each time he visits one of the castles. I also read that Princess Diana insisted on nothing but pure linen sheets, carefully pressed, for her bed.  And the sheets had to be changed even if she only took a short nap. I have no real way of knowing whether these stories are true or not. But reports like these make anti-Royalists call for an end to the monarchy.  I personally hope that the new generation of royals is able to shed the more ridiculous aspects of royal privilege.  I’d like to continue seeing the elegance of truly historic traditions like the Order of the Garter.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles.

 

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