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What Is the Order of the Garter?

I love writing about British royal history and traditions. The Order of the Garter is an unmatched honour given by the monarch of the day.

Charles, Prince of Wales and William, Duke of Cambridge bearing the Order of the Garter robes at the procession at Windsor.

Charles, Prince of Wales and William, Duke of Cambridge bearing the Order of the Garter robes at the procession at Windsor.

Who Created the Most Noble Order of the Garter?

The Most Noble Order of the Garter is the oldest and most senior order of chivalry in Britain and the world. It was founded by King Edward III in or around 1348 because he revered the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and wanted a similar way to recognise the public and private service of his subjects.

Historians question exactly when the order was established because there’s evidence of appointees to the order dated 1344 but some historians think it was created as late as 1351. 1348 was the first year that specific robes were worn according to written records.

One theory about the order’s establishment and its motto relates to an incident in which King Edward III was dancing and his female partner’s blue garter fell to the floor. He picked it up and placed it around his own leg using the phrase “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” In English this means “Shame on him who thinks this evil.”

The phrase has been synonymous with the order since its creation and the use of French could have been intended to popularise Edward III’s claim to France’s throne in the 14th century.

St. George's Chapel, Windsor Is the Order's Spiritual Home

The patron saint of the Order of the Garter is St. George, England’s patron saint, and St. George’s Chapel at Windsor is the order’s spiritual home. Appointments to the order are announced on St. George’s Day, the 23rd April.

Each knight has an enamelled stall-plate and their banner of arms on display in St. George’s Chapel in addition to a helmet, crest and sword. Whenever a knight of the order dies their insignia is returned to the monarch. The stall plate remains in the chapel and the oldest plates date from the late 14th century.

The ceiling of St. George's Chapel, Windsor and the banners of the Order of the Garter's members.

The ceiling of St. George's Chapel, Windsor and the banners of the Order of the Garter's members.

Only Twenty Four Members Plus Royalty

The order has a limited number of members: The reigning monarch, the Prince of Wales and twenty four members who are referred to as Knight or Lady Companions. Originally, the monarch had twelve companions and the Prince of Wales had another twelve.

Twelve harks back to Jesus' apostles. The knights are addressed as Sir and use the post-nominal letters K.G. and the ladies place L.G. after their names and may already be dames. William, Duke of Cambridge was the order's 1000th inducted knight.

All appointments today are at the discretion of the monarch, people cannot schmooze the Queen or purchase this noble ancient honour. The numbers have never swelled on the whim of the reigning monarch.

The king or queen of the day holds the right to appoint Supernumerary Knights and Ladies. These are additional members of British and international royalty who are not part of the original group of twenty four.

The monarch has the power to degrade a member and remove them if circumstances dictate that this would be appropriate to protect the honour of the order. During World War One, rulers Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Franz Joseph of Austria suffered this fate.

The annual procession of the Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Garter.

The annual procession of the Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Garter.

The Order of the Garter's Procession, Military Knights and Officers

Current members of the order include former Prime Minister Sir John Major, the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Boyce and the Marquess of Salisbury. With the limited number of holders of the order, the death of another member is the normal way that a vacancy occurs

At the time of writing, there are five vacancies. Presumably, appointments have been delayed by Covid and the tragic death of Prince Philip in April 2021.

Each year on the Monday of Royal Ascot, an exceptional equestrian event held each June close to Windsor, the order's members visit Windsor Castle where the newly appointed participate in a ceremony in which they take the oath and accept the insignia of the order.

Luncheon is then served in the magnificent Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle before a procession of royal members, knights, ladies, military knights and officers takes place from the castle to St. George’s Chapel.

There were once twenty-six priests of the order and the same number of “poor knights” who from the 1830s—William IV's reign—were renamed the “military knights.” These men had served in the military and had fallen on hard times so were asked by the monarch to pray for the order's members. Their food, clothes and lodgings at Windsor were provided free of charge.

There are six officers including the Chancellor of the Order, since 2012, James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn. The Principal Garter King of Arms, David Vine White has held this position since the 1st July 2021. His predecessor Sir Thomas Woodcock served from April 2010 until his retirement.

The mantle and cap of a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter.

The mantle and cap of a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter.

The Insignia and Robes of the Order

The original insignia was a garter and a badge that showed St. George and the Dragon. In the sixteenth century, a collar was added and in the 1600s a ribbon and star were created. Intriguingly, tradition dictated that until the latter half of the twentieth century the undergarments worn on ceremonial occasions were in the Tudor style.

The impressive dark blue mantle lined with taffeta was once made from wool but velvet has been used since the 1500s. The right shoulder bears a red hood but this is rarely, if ever, worn. The accompanying black hat is of Tudor design and is velvet with white ostrich and black heron feathers.

The military knights had red mantles and they did not show the garter. In modern times they wear military dress instead. The officers have pink robes.

The collar of the Order of the Garter is solid gold and features alternating knots and enamelled roses surrounded by the garter. A “George” or the representation of St. George is worn from the collar.

A dark blue buckled garter may be worn on the left leg by males and on the left arm by females.

The insignia of the Order of the Garter: The collar, star, badge and garter.

The insignia of the Order of the Garter: The collar, star, badge and garter.

Charles I Added a Star

The star of the order was introduced by King Charles I and it is worn on the left side of the chest. It depicts an enamelled shield of St. George’s Cross encircled by the garter and the garter is surrounded by an eight pointed silver badge of alternating short and longer length rays.

As the Garter is the premier honour in Great Britain this star would be worn above any others that the wearer might possess, for example the Order of the Thistle. However, it’s good form to surrender lesser chivalric honours when a recipient of the Order of the Garter so it’s unlikely that this occurs today. No one would wish to make the faux pas.

It may be an honour invented in the medieval era with a peculiar costume and ancient rituals but the Order of the Garter still holds onto its prestige and majesty.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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