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History and chivalry combine in the Order of the Garter

By Aurelien Guichard from London, United Kingdom (changes by Rabanus Flavus) - File:St. Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle (1).jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Most Noble Order of the Garter is considered to be one of the most prestigious chivalric orders in the world.

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: “Honi 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 his daughter in law, Joan, called the Fair Maid of Kent; Katharine Grandison, Countess of Salisbury; or his wife, 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 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 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. In 2022, the Duchess of Cornwall will be installed as the newest Royal Lady of the Garter.

European monarchs are sometimes given the Order of the Garter as Stranger Knights and Ladies, and these currently include Queen Margrethe of Denmark, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, King Juan Carlos of Spain, King Felipe of Spain, Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands 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.

About author

Jess is the Senior Royal Reporter and Editorial Assistant at Royal Central. Her interest in royalty started in her teenage years, coinciding with The Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002 and grew from there. She specializes in the British Royal Family (with emphasis on the Cambridges) and the Danish Royal Family, and has provided royal commentary for media outlets in Canada, the United States, the UK and Australia.