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The Order of the Garter
Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense

It was the warrior-classes of the 11th and 12th centuries who first developed the medieval notion of knighthood and chivalry. The Crusades in the Middle East had released these men from the constraints of feudalism, and they expressed their new-found identity by the creation of military and religious orders of chivalry. The earliest orders were fraternities of like-minded men, drawn from a particular social class and bound together in a common purpose. Although still modelled on humanitarian and egalitarian principles, the later orders were fundamentally elitist. Loyal service to the monarch could bring the supreme reward of membership to such organisations and pre-eminent amongst them was, and still is, the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

Of the origin of the Most Noble Order we know little. According to its historian, Elias Ashmole, it commemorated an occasion when King Edward III of England had "given forth his own garter as the signal for a battle," which Ashmole takes to be Crécy. A better-known theory associated the foundation of the Garter with a trivial mishap at a Court function, when the Fair Maid of Kent dropped a garter which the King, to cover her embarrassment, picked up and bound on his own leg, remarking, "Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense" - "Shame to him who thinks ill of it." This fable appears to have originated in France and was, perhaps, invented to bring discredit on the Order. There is a natural unwillingness to believe that the World's foremost Order of Chivalry had so frivolous a beginning, and we may more readily accept Froissart's account, who tells us:

"The King of England took pleasure to new re-edify the Castle of Windsor, the which was begun by King Arthur, and there first began the Table Round, whereby sprang the fame of so many noble knights throughout all the World. Then King Edward determined to make an Order and a Brotherhood ….. to be called Knights of the Blue Garter, and a feast to be kept yearly on St. George's Day."

So the Order may have been intended as a revival of the mythical Round Table. King Edward and his court certainly revelled in the ethos of the Arthurian tales. Pageants, including jousting tournaments, became known as 'Round Tables' and knights even met around circular tables like that still to be seen at Winchester. The informal creation of such an order of knights, after the great tournament at Windsor in 1344, appears to have led to the formal instigation of the Order a few years later. The exact date is controversial, as records are not extant, but St. George's Day 1348 seems likely. The members consisted of twenty-four knights, the monarch and the Prince of Wales. The two latter are always included; whilst women have been eligible since early times. St. George has always been the society's patron and their home is the Collegiate Chapel Royal of St. George in Windsor Castle, Their heraldic stall plates, dating back to 1390, and colourful banners are still displayed there today.

The symbolism of the garter itself still remains obscure. A record of the Order, compiled in Henry VIII's reign, relates that Richard I, during his crusade, gave garters to certain knights as tokens of honour, and it was supposed that Edward III followed this example. But the legend appears to have no good foundation. Ashmole regarded the circular garter as an emblem of "unity and society." It was certainly a very suitable stylised heraldic device and, worn below the knee, was a prominent identifier on mounted knights.

While Edward III may outwardly have professed the Order of the Garter to be a revival of the Round Table, it is probable that privately its formation was a move to gain support for his dubious claim to the French throne. The motto of the Order is a denunciation of those who think ill of some specific project, and not a mere pious invocation of evil upon evil-thinkers in general. "Shame be to him who thinks ill of it" was probably directed against anyone who should oppose the King's design on the French Crown. And it is significant that the colours of the garter - blue embroidered with gold - are those of the French Royal Arms. Furthermore, no French knights attended the feast of inauguration. All things considered, it seems highly likely that the Order originally represented the assembly of chivalry to aid King Edward of England to become King Edward of France.


    © Nash Ford Publishing 2001. All Rights Reserved.