The Most Noble Order of the Garter is considered to be the most prestigious chivalric order in Great Britain, so let’s take a look at the history behind it.
Founded in 1348 by King Edward III, who was “so inspired by the tales of King Arthur and the chivalry of the Knights of the Round Table”, the Order of the Garter was a group of honourable knights.
A legend persists that Edward III was dancing with a woman when her garter fell to the floor. As courtiers around him laughed, the King picked up the garter and replaced it, uttering the Order’s motto: “Honit soit qui mal y pense” – “Shame on him who thinks this evil”.
The woman’s identity has never been confirmed, but the three accepted possibilities are Joan, Fair Maid of Kent, his daughter-in-law; Katharine Grandison, Countess of Salisbury; or his wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault.
In modern times, members of the Order are chosen for their public service instead of their aristocratic background, and at any given time there can only be 24 knights (in addition to the Sovereign). The Sovereign and the Prince of Wales are always members of the Order of the Garter.
As of 28 August, 2017, there are two vacancies in the Order that have not been filled. As Saint George is the patron saint of the Order, any new appointments are announced on St. George’s Day, 23 April.
The Prince of Wales acts as an ex-officio member, while the Dukes of Edinburgh, Kent, Gloucester, York and Cambridge, as well as the Earl of Wessex, the Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra are supernumerary Royal Knights or Ladies of the Garter.
European monarchs are sometimes given the Order of the Garter as Stranger Knights and Ladies, and currently include Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg, Queen Margrethe of Denmark, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, King Juan Carlos of Spain, King Felipe of Spain, Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands, Emperor Akihito of Japan, and King Harald of Norway.
There are five officers in the Order: the Prelate (always the Bishop of Winchester), Chancellor, Registrar (the Dean of Windsor since Charles I’s reign), Garter King of Arms, and Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.
Members of the Order are always referred to as Knights or Ladies, and add “KG” or “LG” to their post-nominals. The Order of the Garter precedes all orders and merits except those of the Victoria Cross and George Cross.
Over time, some members of the Order have been degraded and their heralds removed from St. George’s Chapel (during the Second World War, extra knights Emperor Hirohito and King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy were degraded, although the Emperor’s was later restored during a State Visit in the 1970s). Henry VIII had several of his knights beheaded, and Winston Churchill declined a spot in 1945 after his government had been voted out of office, saying that he couldn’t accept the Order of the Garter if the people had given him the “Order of the Boot.”
Each member is given a stall at St. George’s Chapel, where they display their banner, helmet and stall plate with their arms. After their deaths, the banners and helmets are taken down but their stall plate remains.
Each year, Garter Day is celebrated in June in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle – the Order’s Mother Church. The Queen begins Garter Day by formally investing any new members in the Throne Room at Windsor Castle, then hosts a lunch for all members. Afterwards, all members proceed by foot to St. George’s Chapel for a service, known as the Garter Day procession, robed in velvet robes, insignia and plumed hats.