It’s not often that something that happened in the fourteenth century causes controversy in the twenty-first, but that’s exactly what happened this year when the New Year’s Honours List was announced. A word of explanation for those not in the UK. There are two Honours Lists every year, one announced in January and one in June, on the Queen’s official birthday. Another word of explanation. The Queen, like me, was born in April. Her official birthday celebrates the date of her coronation.
The Honours Lists name people who have been awarded honours, that is they become things such as a Companion of Honour, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an Officer of the British Empire, a Member of the Order of the British Empire and so on. As you can tell from the word ‘empire’, the honours originated some time ago. Recipients are nominated by the government, but many are nominated by members of the public. They’re usually awarded in recognition of the recipients’ services to a specific area. This year one of the awards went to the Chief Medical Officer for England for services to public health. Others were for services to cycling and sailing, for services to drama, for services to the food supply chain, for services to glaciology and climate change research and for services to literature. I hope you’re starting to get the picture.
It is not with these honours that this year’s controversy arises, however, but with the Queen’s decision to admit ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Order of the Garter. A petition was immediately set up to ask the government to rescind the award, showing that the signatories hadn’t done much research. The government can do nothing about it, since the award is entirely within the Queen’s gift.
The Order of the Garter is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. It only ever has twenty-four members plus the monarch and the Prince of Wales, if there is one. At the moment it doesn’t even have twenty-four members. Now we’re ready for the history.
The order was instituted by Edward III in 1348 (possibly 1349) after the Black Death arrived in England. Edward was good at uniting those who served him and fought beside him, and the Order of the Garter was very successful in this regard. He had a keen interest in King Arthur and a previous attempt to create an order of chivalry had focused on the Round Table. The Round Table pictured above was not King Arthur’s, but was created at the behest of Edward III’s grandfather, Edward I, probably to be used for feasting during a tournament in Winchester held to celebrate the conquest of Wales.
The founding members of the order were chosen, according to what you believe, either because of their acts on the battlefield or because they were originally the members of two tournament teams, one made up of members of the king’s household and his friends and the other made up of members of the household of the Prince of Wales and his friends. I suspect that it was a mixture of both. Either way, rank wasn’t important at first. One of the founding members was the Prince of Wales’s standard-bearer at the battle of Crécy, who probably saved his life there. Another founding member was Henry Grosmont, second cousin to the king, whose preparation to go and fight in southwest France we learned about here. Not all of them were English, either. Jean de Grailly was a Gascon, Eustace d’Ambrecicourt was a Picard and Henry Eam was Dutch.
Although the original members were knights, the requirements of the order were mainly religious. If they were in Windsor, they had to hear Mass in the Garter Chapel and they were to celebrate the feast of St George together. Sometimes this celebration included a tournament.
A great deal of trust arose between these men that was lacking among the leaders of most of the armies they faced. Many of them were friends and they spent a lot of time together. This enabled them to make decisions when on campaign in the knowledge that they would be supported by one another, and was probably one of the reasons why English armies were so successful in the first few years of the Hundred Years War.
Then, as now, a new member could only be admitted after the death of an existing member, something that happened to three of the original members within a year or so, probably due to the Black Death.
The order was founded at Windsor Castle, birthplace of Edward III. Legend had it that the castle had been built by King Arthur, although this legend is unlikely to predate 1348.
A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris
The Black Prince by Michael Jones
Edward III by W. Mark Ormrod
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.