Edward III was his father’s son and the early years of his reign, at least, were informed by the disastrous end of his father’s. Edward III was at pains to show that he was a different kind of king in the hope of hanging on to his crown… and his life.
Although far from a coward, Edward II didn’t seem to enjoy fighting as much as his son and he certainly possessed none of Edward III’s military genius. Edward II had little in common with his barons, and his wife and her lover found it fairly easy to depose him and then murder him. Edward III wished to escape a similar fate.
The creation of the Order of the Knights of the Garter was an important step in the process of creating a new kind of kingship for England. Edward had been considering ways in which to bind his knights to one another and to him for some time. He had originally considered something similar to the Round Table. Arthurian legends were popular at the time and it wouldn’t hurt the king to be considered a second Arthur.
In the end he decided to create a chivalric order that included an element of the spiritual.
After the surprising military successes of 1346 (victories against the French at Crécy and the Scots at Neville’s Cross) the king was in a position to his ideas into effect and the Order was created on St George’s Day 1349 (probably).
There are only ever 24 Knights of the Garter, plus the monarch and the Prince of Wales. These days they tend to be rather elderly – 4 are in their 90s and the youngest is 64. When the first Knights of the Garter were created they were much younger, mostly in their 20s. The Black Prince was 18 and the king himself was one of the oldest at 36.
The first knights included men who had fought beside the king and the Prince in France, such as the earl of Lancaster (the king’s most trusted general), the earl of Warwick, the Captal de Buch (a trusted Gascon lord) and the Prince’s friends Sir John Chandos and Sir James Audley, as well as Thomas Holland, first husband of Joan of Kent who later married the Prince.
The Knights would meet on St George’s day, usually at Windsor and their meeting would often be accompanied by a tournament. The tournament provided a spectacular entertainment for those in attendance, but it also had a more serious purpose. The Order of the Garter was an order of chivalry and the tournament allowed its members to demonstrate their chivalry by feats of arms.
Orders of knighthood were being formed in other European countries at the time, as the modern methods of warfare were beginning to make their rôle in it less important. Soldiers were being paid rather than providing their services as a feudal duty and had little personal loyalty to those who paid them.
The Garter Knights have a motto ‘Hony soi qui mal y pense’, which probably refers to Edward III’s claim to the French throne. Since one of the objects of the Order was to bind the members to him so that they would support him in foreign wars, this makes sense. It means ‘Shamed be he who thinks evil of it’.
No one knows why the garter was chosen as the emblem, although there are lots of theories, some of them rather salacious. It probably symbolized something relating, again, to the king’s claim to the French throne.
Windsor was important to Edward III as it was his birthplace. It was also his favorite residence outside London, although Woodstock, where three of his children were born, including the Black Prince, was another place where he liked to stay. It was in Windsor that he chose to institute the Order and where he built their spiritual home, which reflected the increasing attribution of English military success to St George and the cross of St George was used to represent the king as much as his own royal standard.
One of the more surprising things about the institution of the Order is that it happened while England was in the grip of the Black Death. It’s easy to imagine that everything just stopped for the time during which Europe was expecting the world to end, but things did continue, although there were some comments from contemporary chroniclers that this might not be the best time for what many considered frivolity. Since he lost one of his much-loved daughters to the Black Death, Edward III was as aware as anyone else of the impact the plague was having on the country.
The kind of kingship he created certainly worked for him. Unlike his predecessor and his successor, he died a natural death and was king for 50 years.